An Auspicious Dinner at Nardino Ristorante

I am usually not one to predict the future. When it comes to prognostication, I am far too conservative and neurotic to articulate publicly my thoughts on upcoming fads, fashions, movements, etc. Seriously, identifying the Big Cupcake as a 2012 food trend was really going out on a limb for me.

But one of my New Year's resolutions was to take more risks, and so now I going to issue one more prediction. There are great things in store for Chef Edgar Ciliberto. And readers, there are, in turn, great things in store for you when you visit his restaurant, Nardino.

Nardino actually has two locations (Houston and Madrid), but I suggest visiting the former to save yourself some money and jet-lag. The local venue may not be within walking distance of the Prado, but its dark wood and red interior with arched cream and black chairs is an art piece in and of itself.

In many ways, Nardino is modeled after the traditional Tuscan ristorante, with a strong emphasis on Northern Italian cuisine. However, the bold interior design combined with ethereal presentation suggests a sort of otherworldly quality. One feels transported, but not necessarily to the "real" Europe; rather, to an elegant, postmodern vision of The Continent. Which is just fine with me, because I don't need to be reminded about the euro debt crisis during dinner.

Painstaking, artful construction is unsurprisingly the name of the game when it comes to the food. I started with an appetizer of beef carpaccio, inordinately thin slices of beef dressed with an aromatic garlic sauce and dusted with flecks of parmigiano reggiano.

The small Caesar that followed made me think twice about writing off this classic as pedestrian. Mixed tableside, the Nardino Caesar is fishier than your standard version, and I definitely don't mean that in the pejorative. The dressing is heavily infused with anchovies as well as eggs, but several squeezes of fresh lime juice balance these richer flavors with lighter citrus notes.

We had ordered the Tagliatelle Alla Ruota for our primi course, and even though I knew its sauce, too, was prepared tableside, I was still confused when our server carted a giant cheese wheel next to our table (obviously, I need to work on my Italian).

Although I've had such larger-than-life cheeses at deli counters and specialty shops, I had always been under the impression they were mostly for display or decoration. At Nardino, such wheels are made into mixing vessels for pasta, e.g., the homemade tagaliatelle. After dumping a whole heedful of al dente noodles into the gutted cheese, our server stirred in some more cream, pepper, and other seasonings.

In an earlier post on edible food implements, I wrote about how one of the many joys of soup in a bread bowl was the co-mingling of dough with soup that occurs as one spoons the sides of the "bowl." A similar effect was produced by vigorously churning the pasta and sauce against the walls of wheel, for when I received my plate I noted curds and larger bits of cheese clung stubbornly to the tagliatelle. The taste, needless to say, was stupendous.

After that course I wanted to jump inside that cheese, or at least procure one of my own to replicate the dish at home. If you are similarly inclined after reading this post, be forewarned that such wheels are expensive. Probably cheaper just to eat at Nardino.

"Pace yourself," is usually my mantra for long-distance running and multi-course dining. Unfortunately, that evening, I allowed gluttony to get the best of me, scarfing down all of my primi and leaving just a little room for my secondi. Pity the fool (me), because the involtini di pollo, a tender scallopini stuffed with duxelles, dusted with black truffles, resting in a striking marsala sauce with parmesan mashed potatoes, was a lovely counterbalance to the more straight-forward tagliatelle.

Funny how drinking a good wine (Nardino's suggested pairings are excellent) can actually make some room in a seemingly full stomach. Despite my not-so-demure protestations of impending belly explosion, I was still able to enjoy some tiramisu, named for the chef's "nonna."

While many chefs will bat their eyes and credit their loving grandmother's recipe when they serve you desserts, and sometimes after a few bites you wonder if Grandma was A) a world-class pastry chef way ahead of her time and/or B) trying to poison her grandchildren, that wasn't the case here. This tiramisu was a pleasantly simple layering of cream and ladyfingers, and thankfully devoid of any bells and whistles.

When I look into my gastronomic crystal ball, I see success for Nardino and particularly Chef Ciliberto. His warm demeanor, creativity, and culinary precision suggest a potential for industry dominance. And while I would not stake the life of my first-born on these claims, I am certain that more dinners at Nardino are on my horizon.

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Joanna O'Leary