An Enthusiastic Chef and an Enterprising Menu at Mezzanotte

When I was invited to attend a press dinner featuring new dishes developed by Alberto Baffoni, Mezzanotte's new chef, I was excited (a tasting menu of Italian food, who wouldn't be?), but had a few reservations. I had never visited Mezzanotte and therefore would be unable to comment accurately on whether the new chef was actually an improvement.

Any lingering hesitation faded when I was e-mailed Baffoni's new menu, an impressive collection of elegant dishes such as lobster ravioli in a saffron cream sauce. I didn't care if some superchef combination of Mario Batali, Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme used to be at the helm of Mezzanotte; Baffoni was in charge now and what he pledged, at least, to bring to the table showed great promise.

Going into any restaurant dinner, even one catering to the media, with great expectations is dangerous. On the drive out to Cypress, I tried to temper my excitement by reminding myself that Baffoni probably hadn't worked out all the kinks yet and that the tasting menu probably wouldn't be as ambitious as the regular menu.

This hunch was readily disproved when I saw Baffoni had planned a trifecta of trifectas, that is to say, three antipasti, primi and secondi, for a total of nine separate dishes plus dessert. Yes, of course, the point of a tasting is to sample as many things as possible; however, there's a fine line between a careful arrangement of small bites and an overwhelming smorgasbord.

To whet our palate even before the antipasti, we enjoyed a "cocktail" of beets and goat cheese, appropriately served in a martini glass. The mildly sweet beet juice cleansed the palate, while the dairy primed my taste buds for the richer courses to follow.

Our first set of antipasti consisted of calamari in spiedino, portobello perigourdine and vitello tonnato. The lightly breaded, skewered squid were a refreshing change from the standard heavily battered versions, while the thinly sliced veal took on a unique piquant taste thanks to lemon pulp and a briney tuna aioli. Both showcased innovative flavors and textures, but ultimately played second (and third) fiddle to the portobello mushrooms flash-fried with cheese and dressed in truffle sauce. My initial reaction: "Mmm, autumn," I said to my dining companion, who, fortunately, knows I can be more articulate if I try.

What I meant, ahem, was that the portobello perigourdine made me think of burning woodchips, warm sweaters and steaming beverages served in well-worn mugs. The mushrooms had a warm, smoky flavor that was only enhanced by the rich cheese and buttery bread crumbs. Fine, so this dish wasn't the perfect complement to high temperatures, but in a dining room accented with chocolate brown and maroon and cooled by a strong air-conditioner, it worked just fine.

Although I was initially disappointed our primi trio did not include the lobster ravioli, I was more than satisfied with the selections, especially the gnocchi di patata al funghi and strozzapreti emiliana. My own bias toward gnocchi (my favorite pasta, which I've nicknamed "heaven's pillows") probably predisposed me to like the former dish, but I like to think the earthy sauce and fleshy, moist texture compelled me to finish every last one of these terrific carbohydrate torpedoes. Later, a guest seated across from me commented that "maybe it's a mushroom thing for me tonight, but I'm really liking the gnocchi." Ah, sweet validation.

After the sumptuous gnocchi, the strozzapreti emiliana, shoelace-style pasta laced with peppers, spinach and pork, was a friendly kick in the palate. So often, primi are languorous in temperament; the strozzapreti reminded me pasta can be spicy, active, playful.

Of the secondi trifecta, it was impossible to pick a standout as the ossobuco alla milanese, anatra al forno and costoletta di agnello al pistacchio all held their own. Provided it's cooked properly, ossobuco is hard not to savor; Mezzanotte's ossobuco milanese was fragrant with rosemary and rested on a cushion of polenta. The costoletta di agnello al pistachio, a tender lamb chop with a nutty exterior, demanded to be stripped to the bone. Thanks to a robust glass of cacciagrande cortigliano, I threw decorum into the wind and gnawed away. Finally, the anatra al forno (sliced duck breast with raisins) was appropriately fatty and provided a dark, gamey contrast to the preceding meats. If our bread basket hadn't been long emptied, I might have made my own mini duck slider.

Misses during the meal were few; the risotto al frutti di mare lacked depth and felt redundant after two bites, and the calamari, while strong in flavor, might have been served hotter and crispier. But those minor disappointments only highlighted the strengths of Baffoni's many other successes. As we rounded out the meal with a delicate basil sorbet, I didn't even care that my sophisticated summation was only "Tastes like a frozen garden." After a very, very good meal, one should be a bit incoherent. So when I shook the hands of owners Gerry and Adriana (an adorable, cosmopolitan husband-and-wife team -- but that's another story) and Chef Baffoni, I just channeled Arnold and said, "I'll be back."

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Joanna O'Leary