Monday, April 17, 2006

Not Much Innovation at the Laboratorio

1110 21st Street NW
Washington DC 20036
Chef Roberto Donna
One seating at 7:30pm based on Chef's schedule


Tried: April 2006

Osteria Del Galileo on Urbanspoon

Laboratorio del Galileo is an enlarged variation of the chef's table found in many restaurants, where diners can have a specialized tasting menu, order from the main menu and receive additional specialty items, and/or just watch the chef and the kitchen staff at work preparing the food for the restaurant. At Laboratorio, there are about eight tables in a small dining room set up in the back of the restaurant, facing a small kitchen that is separate from Galileo's main kitchen, with a giant mirror mounted at an angle over the plating station so that everyone in the room can observe the chef at work (actually all you can really see is the chef plating). Despite the cookie-cutter setting, the Laboratorio experience is not cheap: $110-$125 per person and the optional wine pairing is $70-$75 per person. (A note about water: the restaurant does not offer regular tap water as an option. I resented being charged $4 per bottle for water, especially when I am not given a choice.) On the upside, there are twelve courses presented, and the portions are quite ample. No one will ever leave the Laboratorio hungry.

Just making a reservation to dine at the Laboratorio is labor intensive. One must confirm with the restaurant in advance that Chef Donna is available on a given date to host a Laboratorio dinner. Once the availability of the chef and the openings on a particular night have been established, verified, and confirmed, diners must complete a detailed written form to be submitted in advance by fax or email, listing every single food allergy, dislike, and preference for every member of the dining party.

Upon being seated in the Laboratorio, each table received a large paper cone filled with deep-fried twisted breadsticks. They were hot, crisp, and salty with a hint of sweetness, and tasted like long savory donuts. This and the Bomboloni, Italian donut holes which were served as the last dessert course, were my favorites of the evening. In addition to the breadsticks, the server brought over a large basket containing different types of freshly baked bread. Sadly most of its contents, especially the focaccia, were overly salty.

The first course was a deep-fried soft shell crab served with an eggplant puree, pan-fried pancetta, and a sauce of lemon juice and olive oil spiced with some crushed red pepper. Although the flavors came together nicely, I found the crab to be too greasy and heavy. Fortunately the prosecco paired with the crab brightened up the dish. The second course was a step up in richness-- roasted foie gras with peaches and duck jus. The peaches were a nice complementary flavor but there was not enough to add the necessary acidity to the dish. I was also disapppointed to find that the foie gras had been overcooked such that the inside had become spongy. Fortunately the wine pairing was a crisp white wine from Trentino that lent a refreshing touch.

The next course was a lobster tail with crispy pancetta and deep-fried shallots, served in a pea puree with chopped chives and celery microgreens. The pancetta and shallots added to the luxury of the ingredient but the lobster was slightly overcooked and chewy. Though I generally like lemon with lobster, I found the lemon juice used to keep the pea puree bright green too strong for the soup. I also wished that the pea puree were either cold or hot, as the lukewarm temperature was disquieting. However, the Chardonnay from Piedmont paired with this course married well with the richness of the lobster and pancetta.

The next two courses were both pasta dishes-- ravioli filled with mortadella in a pistachio sauce and taglierini with pesto and crab-- followed by a creamy risotto with asparagus. The Italian expertise of the kitchen clearly shined with the perfectly cooked pastas and risotto, exactly elastic and chewy without being too al dente crunchy or becoming gummy or mushy. The sauces of each of these dishes were also dead on. The problem was that in succession, in a tasting menu, none of them stood out and they all blended together in a sea of overwhelming richness. I also found it somewhat odd that the chef could not identify the microgreens in his risotto (Chef Donna later sheepishly admitted that it was an "Asian blend" that he bought pre-mixed).

The last two savory courses consisted of a fish course followed by a meat course. The slowly cooked black cod was served with sauteed dandelion greens and a dressing of cherry tomatoes and capers. I appreciated the acidity of the tomatoes and capers but thought that the combination would have gone better with a halibut or some other less fatty fish. The last course, lamb tenderloin with porcini mushrooms, was solidly executed. The lamb jus was flavorful and soothing, and the earthy mushrooms matched well with the medium rare lamb and the 1999 Barbaresco paired with the dish.

The palate cleanser, an apricot thyme sorbet, did not arrive until after the cheese course. On the other hand, the generous scoop of rich sorbet tasted more like ice cream than a sorbet. The desserts included fried prunes filled with ricotta served with a scoop of honey ice cream and a platter of Bomboloni. As full as I was, I finished every last one of the Bomboloni, which were hot, crispy, fluffy, and sugary in exactly the right way.

The name "Laboratorio" suggests experimentation and new concepts being developed. While the fare was hearty and filling, nothing stood out as different, inventive, or even particularly memorable. Although Donna (assisted extensively by sous chef Claudio Sandri) executed the various courses with experienced efficiency, the meal never quite got away from an assembly-line feel. Nonetheless, it appears that Donna will come out on top in his rematch against Morimoto, adding to his wall of fame. Galileo is publicizing the rematch to be aired in May and inviting guests to come watch the episode at the bar in the restaurant. Indeed, the entire restaurant seems to be dedicated to Chef Roberto Donna's career on camera, starting with the foyer in front of the main restaurant, which is plastered with so many photographs and tributes to Donna that it looks like a shrine.

After the servers collected the signed credit card receipts from the room, the guests were sent off with pre-autographed copies of the menu and a pageant queen like wave from Donna as he left the Laboratorio.

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