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Monday, May 23, 2011

Peachy Picks The Leopard at des Artistes

The Leopard has earned his spots with Peachy!
And he has turned the once-French spot into a bastion of Italian excellence.
Peachy even wore Italian shoes there-Amo Le Scarpe Italiane!
The absolute hottest spot on the Upper West Side, the Leopard is so inviting it enticed eastsider Peachy to the other side of the park...and she could not be more pleased.  Rich in both ingredients and history, The Leopard is a clearcut winner that has more than just buzz and the name of a movie.
We first mentioned it in Tasty Tidbits:
The Leopard has pedigree (since 1917), panache, perfect cuisine, and now points with Peachy as it has graduated to Peachy's Picks.
First of all, The Leopard has an extremely talented and dedicated Executive Chef, Vito Gnazzo.  You cannot have a smashing restaurant without a winner of a chef.  Not only does he come from the place where fabulous mozzarella comes from, Salerno, but also he has concocted one of the most exciting new menus we've ever seen.  Vito is personable as well and that is not a quality that we find in all chefs.  Very engaged with his clients, Vito is not only found in the kitchen but also is found amongst those enjoying the fruits of his labor, and quite happily too.  Vito came from Il Gattopardo, another one of Gianfranco's winners we hear...we will put it on our list!
This is restaurant review #65 and Peachy Deegan still fits into dresses she wore in high school...because she eats wonderful salads to begin with, like this cute little number from The Leopard.  The mixed seasonal organic green salad with extra virgin olive oil and Muscat vinegar started the night off right, and with it, Peachy sipped a Taurasi 2003 Perillo.  The wine list is totally commendable.  Peachy later sipped a Ferrari Spumante Rose which sparkled not only in the glass but also on her lips.
Along with the salad, Peachy tried the octopus which was totally divine.  Peachy Deegan also really loved the silverware (Sambonet) and you should be aware that this is a closely-seated crowd.  We totally lucked out and had delightful tables on both sides of us.  We hope they are now subscribing!
Homemade spachetti "chitarra" with cherry tomato sauce and basil was something that sounds simple but tasted extraordinary.  On the right it was joined by ravioli filled with braised artichoke and burrata in light tomato marjoram sauce which was a lovely combination, totally worth writing home about!  
And if you thought Peachy Deegan liked Vicenzo, the General Manager, before, she really loved him when he brought out the Branzino!  Peachy noticed she was not the only critic there that night ordering this dish....
It was absolutely just as beautiful as the nine restored murals on the wall.  The Broiled Mediterranean Branzino is served over endive, asparagus, french beans and frisee salad and every bite of the fresh vegetables equated with the supreme delight of the perfectly broiled fish with exquisite texture, outstanding flavor, and reigning superiority over many other Branzinos Peachy has had.  And, it was perfectly deboned of course.  In addition to the superlative cuisine which the word delicious does not do justice, The Leopard has an owner, Gianfranco, who truly cares about pleasing the clients and engaging them as well.  Every person we met from the girl at the coat check to Vito to Vicenzo and Giulio to Gianfranco exuded sincere warmth, care and commitment to excellence which gives us every confidence that we are not going to be the only ones raving about The Leopard, though we might be among the first.
 Zabaione with fresh berries was the exclamation point of the night for Peachy, while she sipped on Moscato Ca Dei Mandorli 2007.  But don't just listen to only Peachy-our esteemed panelist adds:

Lovers of Café des Artistes, rejoice!  Covering fragrant vegetable salads to succulent octopus, grilled, and tossed with potato, the appetizers lend themselves to a tasting of several plates.  Gracious Vincenzo, the general manager, will come and suggest wine possibilities to accompany your choice, but the waiters also love what they do, and are happy to assist you in selecting a suitable grape from their well- stocked cave.
To begin, I tried the fennel and orange salad, served with Nocellara olives.  The blood orange sections came as a total surprise, and a mouthwatering balance to the thinly sliced fennel.  For this course, I had a crisp white Falanghina, 2009, from Campania, in the Benvento region.  The olive oil used at The Leopard is also from Campania, so the wine marries well with the flavors in the salad.  Next, the octopus was wonderful with the Falanghina, and was melt-in-your-mouth simple, yet exotic.  The chef explained that indeed, octopus is not by any means close to the ubiquitous calamari found in most Italian restaurants in Manhattan.  To us, it’s still a distant cousin, but the preparation of this dish brings to the palate the lyrical island of Sicilia,  in one bite.
At the bottom of each page of the leather-bound menu, is quoted: “something amazing is cooking”.  Every restaurant in New York would like to think the same, and yet, the atmosphere is so much a part of the meal.  The warm and friendly approach taken by the owner,  Gianfranco, the generous explanations of the chef, and the gentle treatment by the wait-staff all lend to the ambiance.  Des Artistes is THE place near Lincoln Center where the mighty and the famous can stop in for a bite before the opera (Jimmy  Levine has already been in).  Or a plate of pasta after.  We can’t wait to tell Roberto Alagna about it, although word has surely spread like wildfire already throughout the music world.  The lowly spaghetti is served in a “chitarra” sauce made with cherry tomatoes and basil. What a delight, after the fennel.  The staff brings a remarkable sized chunk of Locatelli to the table and grates it at your whim.  Although some of the pasta used in the kitchen of The Leopard (named after the book and film of the same name), Gragnano, the brand famous in Italian circles, the pasta we sampled was fresh, and oh, so wonderful. 
I chose the sea bream “dorada”, oven roasted, with lemon and olive oil.  The fish comes deboned, fragrant with the rosemary and lemon slices still imbedded within, the skin crisped from the ovens.  The wine proved elusive, to find the correct balance.  At the recommendation of the wait staff, I tried an Italian Chardonnay, but found the fruity note at the end not in keeping with what we wanted for our fish dish.  They would let you taste until you found happiness in a glass, but I was very happy indeed with the second offering: a Pecorino, from Abruzzi.  From Marrioniero, Amiero, the white wine gave me the smooth finish that the bream mandated.
The friendly air in The Leopard lends itself to conversation, and tables next to us were happy to share foodie thoughts about anything and everything.  Although the acoustics may not  favor a hushed romantic interlude, if you’re seated in the front of house,  conviviality reigns among the lush frescos , fully restored to their beauty.
Dessert: not wanting to go sweet,  I chose the fruit/cheese ending to a meal that sang.   Actually, with reactions from the tables next to us, dessert was visually satisfying:  one diner gleefully called his Baba “Challah au rhum”, and his wife sighed into her artisanal ice cream with “this is all I need.”  Isn’t it a marvel to see and hear so much happiness in one room in Manhattan, the hard-bitten food capital of the world? The excellent cheese selection served: from a Spicy gorgonzola to a brilliant fiore sardo, the flavors were intimate, and beautifully paired with a Montepulciano, again from Abruzzi.  A dry red, with a light nose, and a direct point of view.  It was a good finish.

Peachy Picks The Leopard at des Artistes!
The Leopard is Highly Recommended by Whom You Know
Paola, Gianfranco's wife, does the flowers at The Leopard!  Lovely, Paola!

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