Not so long ago, dinner at the bar was a kind of in-house secret among the restaurant-obsessed. You didn’t need a reservation when you ate at the bar, and the meal was often more streamlined and intimate than at a regular table. Sometimes you met other quirky, like-minded characters at the bar who told tall tales about their Runyonesque lives and gave you menu tips. If you didn’t feel like talking to anyone, you had a frosty martini for company or an inky glass of Bordeaux, and instead of communing with chatty guests or intrusive waiters you communed directly with your food. Of course, bar dining isn’t anyone’s secret anymore. Danny Meyer was the first serious restaurateur in the city to popularize the habit in lofty gourmet circles, and more recently, chefs like Joël Robuchon and David Chang have taken the classic Japanese-bar-restaurant model and turned it into a full-blown international fad.
And now, like all fashions, this one has begun, inevitably, to spin out of control. Just in the last few months we’ve seen a proliferation of new tapas bars (Boqueria Soho), new ramen bars (Ippudo), even restaurant bars in Brooklyn fitted with old tractor seats (the General Greene). The newest trendy addition to the overcrowded genre is L’Artusi, which opened late last year off the corner of Bleecker Street in the West Village. L’Artusi is the sister restaurant of Dell’anima, a diminutive, bar-centric establishment run by two talented graduates of the Bastianich-Batali empire named Gabe Thompson and Joe Campanele. Both restaurants share Thompson’s inviting small-plates Italian menu and the same neo-Regency décor. But at the new restaurant, there are 30 seats at the long, polished white marble bar instead of six. There is an upstairs dining room (decorated, like the downstairs, with dark walls and white trim), which, on the evenings I dropped in, was being rented out for raucous private events. There are many more dining tables at L’Artusi than at the original restaurant (and therefore many more harried waiters), along with a raw bar, a “cheese counter,” and an amped-up sound system, which seems to grow louder and more intrusive as the evening progresses.
A bigger room doesn’t always translate into a bad dinner, especially in this town. But the bar-friendly tasting-plates menu at Dell’anima was designed to be enjoyed in intimate surroundings, over a glass or two of wine. At L’Artusi (the name comes from a famous Italian cookbook author), the formula hasn’t been adapted so much as expanded upon in a somewhat random, helter-skelter way. There are more small pasta plates and more quasi entrées (under the headings “Carne” and “Pesce”) available at this new, more crowded establishment, but the kitchen feels overstretched and the sense of intimacy that made Dell’anima feel special is gone.
The first salvo of grub to hit our table included one or two decent salads (try the grapefruit tossed with fennel and honey) and a predictable blizzard of seafood crudi, like fresh, even melting escolar seviche (drizzled with olive oil and citrus), and little mounds of scallops speckled with lemon zest and sea salt. But most of the crudi (gummy tuna, refrigerated slices of salmon) seemed to have been prepped hours before, which meant the fish stuck to the plate. So did the beef carpaccio, and a bland vitello dish, both of which looked less like slices of beef and veal, respectively, than thin layers of mashed lunch meat, spread from a tube.
Gabe Thompson trained at Del Posto, among other places, and he has a growing reputation among noodle maniacs as one of the city’s young pasta savants. Being an acolyte of Mario Batali, he also has a manic fondness for variety—and for boatloads of cream, butter, oil, and salt, which he applies with a heavy hand. My butter-soaked ricotta gnudi was a respectable iteration of this now overly fashionable dish. I also liked the tagliatelle, which was mixed with egg yolk, in the carbonara style, and lots of speck. But Thompson’s interpretation of spaghetti and meatballs tasted like it had recently emerged from a salt lick, and my helping of strangely limp penne, which was advertised as containing tripe, among other things, didn’t seem to have any tripe at all. If you want a heavy though nicely balanced dish of noodles, I suggest the garganelli, muddled with a creamy rabbit ragù, or the pizzoccheri, freshly rolled buckwheat pasta piled with shreds of Brussels sprouts and layers of melted Fontina cheese.
After these uneven though generally palatable pastas, however, dinner at L’Artusi grinds slowly off a cliff. The hunk of skate I ordered was overwhelmed with fatty chunks of pork, the cold octopus was cut in meager, cat-foodlike shreds, and an inviting-sounding combination of tuna and frizzled artichokes cost $24 and turned out to be yet another indifferent premade crudo, cut in matchbook- size squares. Among the “Carne,” the best things, according to my increasingly surly tablemates, were the grilled quail, scattered with a cool, refreshingly sweet chopped-onion salad, and the grilled sweetbreads, which the kitchen garnishes with little segments of blood orange and a dusting of shishito pepper. The worst dishes, it was unanimously agreed, were the gray, malodorous Wagyu-beef tongue, piled uneasily with bits of cabbage on a kind of rye crostata, and the wild boar and polenta, which was obscured in a viscous sauce and so thoroughly overcooked it could have been ostrich, or rhino, or wild kangaroo.
Of course, even the most grisly hank of kangaroo can be enlivened by a decent glass of wine, and there’s plenty of that at L’Artusi. Campanele’s list of properly biodynamic, mostly Italian varietal wines is wide-ranging and semi-reasonably priced. In fact, the whole L’Artusi experience works better if you pretend you’re at a glorified wine bar instead of a restaurant, albeit a wine bar that’s less intimate than other wine bars, more crowded, and, on frenetic weekend evenings, incredibly loud. The desserts include a chalky, semi-successful Italian version of baba au rhum, a pleasingly dense olive-oil cake, and a nice wedge of crostata tart made with cranberries. The cranberry tart is scattered with pecans and topped with a spoonful of vanilla gelato, and if you’re in the mood for coffee, or an after-dinner sip of grappa liqueur, I guarantee it will taste better at the bar.