A Good Chef Is Hard to Find
My job as a restaurant critic is great fun, but there's a sad irony. I never become a regular customer. Budget and time limitations conspire: after a second or third visit I rarely have the opportunity to go back to a place I've written about. The job has the novelty of a one-night stand but none of the pleasures of commitment. I miss what most food lovers relish: to pick a favorite restaurant and develop a relationship; to get to know menu and staff through changes of fortune and season.
When the much heralded Forté di Asprinio finally opened in West Palm Beach last March, I made a conscious decision to behave like a regular. Managing partner Stephen Asprinio's New Italian menu and concept was so quirky and intriguing — in another life, it's the kind of place I'd be eating at twice a month. I was determined to do my part to keep Asprinio busy. He was fresh off Top Chef, a 26-year-old dandy with a penchant for European-cut suits and big, fluorescent ties. Plus, he was all ours: a Wellington boy who'd spurned New York and Vegas for a corner spot on Clematis Street, by any standards a very risky locale for a first venture in the restaurant biz. By his second month in business, he ruled the street.
It seems I picked a good place to be a regular. The restaurant guide Gayot recently named Forté one of America's Top Ten Best New Restaurants. I've had dinner at Forté in large groups of friends and with extended family; I've sat at the bar and downed cocktails and bar nibbles; I've been there when the place was so packed I could barely score a distant patio table and there on nights when I was the lone customer. I've partied late and supped early, watched the menu change through spring, summer, and fall. I can't say I've raved over every single dish that chef Mark Liberman has sent out, but I have never, ever been bored — and never, ever have I felt like I hadn't gotten my dime's worth. Asprinio made a decision early on to try to appeal to people his own age — to keep things lighthearted, hip, and moderately priced, to serve a big list of interesting wines by the glass without sacrificing high standards, and he's kept it up through a long, lonely summer and a depressed autumn. Somehow, he has managed to hold on to his vision, and in so doing he's won my admiration and loyalty.
Forté is a house of many menus. A three-course pre-theater/value deal works if you're in a hurry or on a budget (ricotta/eggplant "terrina," buccatini alla carbonara, panna cotta, for example, $30); there's a leisurely five- or seven-course tasting menu ($70 or $95). You can order snacks at the bar: a dish of warm cerignola olives with Marcona almonds and lemon zest; popcorn with espellette chili pepper and chestnut honey (both $5); or littleneck clams with saffron tomato brodo and fat, toasted fingers of rustic bread ($10). Asprinio has designed the charcuterie and antipasti for sharing and snacking: Magret duck prosciutto with pumpkin and parmesan ($10), hand-cut beef tartare with black truffle vinaigrette, capers, and hen's egg ($16). The evolving cocktail list is brilliant, pairing unusual brands of liquor (Plymouth, Maker's Mark, Don Julio) with homemade mixers like ginger beer, freshly squeezed juices, and muddled herbs. They have the best array of non-alcoholic cocktails I've ever seen. Even the bar's super-clear ice is nice.
Enough, you'd think, to keep a regular customer busy, but the menus change seasonally too, and the progression has been fascinating to watch. Asprinio and Liberman try to source from local farms, so you can count on particularly lovely composed salads. In the spring we saw pomegranates, strawberries, and tangerines tossed among Swank Farms' beautiful, delicate little mixed greens and baby sprouts; summer brought fresh melons, sweet corn, eggplant, stone fruit, and summer truffles; and now with autumn things have turned rich, deep, and umber-colored: pumpkin, crab apples, beets, carrots, celery root, quince, hazelnuts. The heirloom pumpkin soup featured on both the tasting and value menu is a particularly graceful example of seasonality: the mellowest puréed pumpkin soup poured over three or four cubes of roasted pumpkin and a homemade marshmallow flavored with a bit of maple syrup, and topped with a whole vanilla bean. The marshmallow dissolves in waves of sweet cream when the soup is poured over it, warming and aromatic, satisfying to body and intellect.
The menu at Forté is as intelligent as I've seen: You can practically hear the gears turning as the whole beautiful machine is set in motion. You'll encounter precious ingredients (white anchovies, faro, pickled ramps, guanciale) and chic preparations (pineapple cooked "sous vide," pumpkin agrodolce, black truffle espuma, almond salmoriglio), but the compositions rarely feel forced. They may send you home to Google for definitions, but the Forté team never loses sight of the Italian foodways that ground them. The way "Italian" is played out here is much closer to the bone than any red sauce and pasta. The Italy that once subsisted on fresh seasonal vegetables, that preserved its fruits as mostarda, its milk as parmigiana, and measured out its 100-year-old balsamic vinegars by the dropperful — that Italy's disappearing into the vacuum of the fast, the processed, and the instant, right along with the rest of the world. In such a vacuum, a menu like Forté's looks practically reactionary.
There isn't space here to detail all the food I've eaten beneath the pink lighting and diaphanous curtains at Forté. I've never had a perfect meal from start to finish — inevitably there's the elderflower gimlet missing the nasturtium advertised on the menu, or a bit of rabbit that's been cooked until it dissolves, or a glass of spoiled wine, or a slightly tough bite of meat. But given the highs — an ultra-condensed spoonful of heirloom tomato soup as an amuse bouche, for example — I'm always willing to forgive an occasional gaffe. Because it was a slow night on our most recent visit the chef agreed to serve the five-course tasting menu to just me while my partner ordered from the regular menu — usually the whole table has to order the tasting together. My date was wowed by her appetizer of artisanal spaghetti with lamb meatballs, amatriciana — a spicy pancetta-based tomato sauce — and hot chilies ($16, the entrée portion is $21). The lamb was silky, the pasta dense and textured, the tomato sauce deep and piquant. She followed this extravagant app with an "osso bucco" veal burger ($18), an extra thick sandwich of chopped veal topped with salsa verde, melted fontina cheese, a slice of heirloom tomato and crisp, shoestring "potate fritti" served in a cone. She probably out-ate my five courses with those two generous plates.
The last tasting I sampled was at Mario Batali's Esca in Manhattan. It left me feeling gypped and unfulfilled, primarily because the courses were too similar. Once you fork over your big bucks, a tasting menu ought to delight you with a progression of flavors. There should be unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — even a bit of humor or whimsy. Asprinio and Liberman's autumn tasting menu is just such an animal, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, in harmony with the season and locale. It begins with that pumpkin soup, followed by butter-poached lobster alongside roasted cauliflower with capers and currants, a silky transition that picked up on the previous soup's vanilla in the cauliflower-vanilla scented foam. There was another effortless transition to the gorgeous sweet onion crespelle, an Italian version of a crepe that combined carmelized onions with red cabbage and gorgonzola, another savory autumnal showstopper. The celery root served with the roasted cap of a beef rib eye that followed, dressed with black truffle vinaigrette, carried this decadent, earthy theme to its conclusion. For dessert: a long slab of chocolate-hazelnut torta with dulce de leche ice cream. But even this heavenly sweet paled next to an incomparable fig and ricotta tart with a dollop of Chianti gelato.
I'd ordered wine pairings with my five-course tasting (an extra $45 and pretty reasonable for five pours), and I was sipping Greek moscato in an empty restaurant on Wednesday night. Forté generally fills up on weekends, but no restaurant can survive too many nights as slow as this one without eventually compromising quality. We need to use it or lose it — if we don't make him a success here, Asprinio is going to take his gaudy ties and his big talent to Vegas or L.A. This election season, let's vote with our feet and keep the current Governor of Clematis Street in place.
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