Nancy Verdolini’s Small-Plates Special
The 41-year-old part-time lawyer and mother of two grew up in Philadelphia glued to The French Chef and The Galloping Gourmet, then proceeded to cook her way through Jacques Pépin’s La Technique and Julia Child’s entire oeuvre. Steeped in the French classics, she started reﬁning her own style by throwing elaborate dinner parties at Yale—or as elaborate as they could be on an undergrad budget. Fresh pasta became a specialty and remains one to this day, as do individual fruit tarts. During a summer stint waitressing at Isabella’s, Verdolini met the pre–Mesa Grill Bobby Flay, whose paper-thin pasta inspired her to lug a brand-new pasta machine back to New Haven. Verdolini’s style can be categorized as ingredient-driven: She scours the city (and the farmers’ markets) for the best and freshest ingredients and cooks seasonally and visually, with most meals unfolding as a succession of small plates. Her menu teems with fall flavors, from the carrots and chanterelles in the gnocchi to the peppers, both spicy and sweet, in the salmon. Grilled quail, with its festive garnish of beets, pomegranate, and greens, is a harbinger of the holidays, and the warm apple sandwiches make a fitting seasonal ﬁnale.
The Menu (click for recipes)
Baked-potato gnocchi with wild-mushroom ragout and carrot purée in a carrot broth
Appetizer: The colors in the gnocchi dish are beautiful; it represents what great ingredients can do. It’s also a great combination for vegetarians. Gnocchi become gummy if overworked, but these melt beautifully. A little Parmesan would have given them a little zing.
Fish Course: A sophisticated and simple combination—that’s hard to achieve. The honey and smoky ancho-chili cure is exotic and unexpected. The salmon is totally cooked through but at the same time soft. It needs a little drizzle of olive oil over the top to keep it from looking dry, and a few drops of lemon and a sprinkle of sea salt would help boost the flavor and cut the fat. I’d like it a bit more spicy—a pinch of cayenne in the pepper coulis would be a good thing.
Entrée: The quail is perfectly cooked with a nice char on top. The polenta does not have much flavor; it doesn’t bring much to the dish, especially with gnocchi to start—it was too much of a repeat on texture. Because of the pomegranate glaze, there is a certain sweetness in the dish. I would have marinated the beets separately, giving them a punch of vinegar to break up the earthiness.
Dessert: The apple is a little plain—too much like apple sauce. It could have a more floral flavor—maybe some grated orange zest should have been added. But the sugar cookies are delicious and bring the apple to life. The crème anglaise is superb, too, rich in the flavor of eggs and cream, with plenty of vanilla. It takes me back to my childhood at the farm, when I used to take the cream off the top of the milk.