Spuntino: Will this restaurant turn into a true dining destination, or remain the grill next door?
Yasmin Lozada-Hissom’s orange olive-oil cake is a fine finish to a meal at Spuntino.
It wasn't all that surprising when Spuntino closed for a quick renovation in May. After all, owners/spouses Yasmin Lozada-Hissom and John Broening had been working for more than a year — she as pastry chef, he as executive chef — in a space that was launched by other people as a different kind of restaurant. How different? When Spuntino first opened in January 2011, then-owner Simone Parisi described the fare as "computer food" — hence the name spuntino, which is Italian for "snacks." And last winter, Broening had handed over the reins at Duo (where Lozada-Hissom remains pastry chef ) when Olivea, the acclaimed restaurant that he and Lozada-Hissom co-owned with Duo's owners, closed. (I still miss those crispy chickpeas.) By all appearances, this was a man who was homing in on the restaurant that he and Lozada-Hissom owned outright after years working in other people's kitchens — in Denver, San Francisco, Paris and New York — and I couldn't wait to see what he would do with the renovated Spuntino. It sounded like it would be a true dining destination.
See also: A closer look at Spuntino
So the real surprise came shortly after the installation of new wallpaper, reclaimed wood paneling and a bar had brought the decor at Spuntino in line with Broening's finely crafted seasonal cooking — when he announced his departure for Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar. "It was just something I have the experience and passion for," Broening said when I asked why he'd leave a gig that most cooks dream of — i.e., being the chef at his own place — to work for someone else, albeit someone he'd worked with before, at the legendary Brasserie Rouge.
After that surprise announcement, I couldn't help wondering what Broening's replacement would do with the renovated Spuntino.
Nicholas Ames, the new executive chef, has been with Broening and Lozada-Hissom since they took over Spuntino. His transition was aided by the fact that Broening still owns the restaurant with his wife and collaborates on the menu, which changes twice a season and will shift to autumn later this month. But while the food coming out of the kitchen tastes like Broening might still be wearing the whites, the restaurant itself lacks a certain je ne sais quoi — which could be Broening himself. Or at least a sense of what this restaurant should be now that he is committed elsewhere.
This lack is not due to execution, which is as finely tuned as ever. Steak is well seasoned and cooked to the right temperature. Pasta is al dente. Fish is crusted yet moist. Salads don't drip with dressing and are generously split when couples opt to share. And yet after all the plates are cleared and you're walking back to your car, what will stick with you about your evening at this charming neighborhood spot is more a pleasant buzz of good food and conversation than the memory of any particular dish.
One night, that buzz began with duck-liver mousse that spread as easily as Greek yogurt, with figs poached in red wine and fennel seeds to temper the richness. Housemade cavatelli with sausage and greens were as chewy as those furled strips of dough should be. And a steak-sized portion of cured pork belly was golden on the edges, with long ribbons of delectable, flan-like fat. Another time we enjoyed battered, ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms and bruschetta topped with artichoke purée lightened with mascarpone. Seared chicken thighs with corn, fava beans, chorizo and cannellini followed, along with marinated flank steak with a parsley-heavy chimi-verde sauce. It sounds like the stuff of memories — but our meal lacked that extra charisma that turns a good friend into something more.
Could this be because flavor profiles, while harmonious, tend to play it safe, without the unexpected spice that could create that spark? Is it because medium-priced Italian cuisine is more familiar than the Spanish-French-Italian blend Broening pulled off at Olivea, and thus easier to take for granted? Or is it because the menu doesn't feel quite as fresh as it should, with grapefruit, a winter fruit, layered in a Napoleon-style small plate of seared baby octopus, and far fewer instances of corn, tomatoes and peaches than you'd expect this time of year?
The dishes that did pop were desserts, which Lozada-Hissom, who's earned four James Beard nominations, continues to churn out. Her signature chocolate sea-salt caramel tart was exemplary; just as good was the warm orange olive-oil cake, which reminded me of a copper-colored accent wall, shimmery in daylight (cake with citrusy sauce) but earthier at night (with pistachio gelato on the other side of the plate). And silky gelato remains a big draw — look for brown-butter and roasted-banana flavors on the new fall menu — though it's no longer a visible focal point, since the gelato case was replaced by the bar.
Lunchtime sandwiches also stand out, especially the flank steak with mozzarella and the thinly sliced porchetta with arugula, fontina and spicy aioli on brioche. (Porchetta is available at dinner as salumi.) At this price point, though, it would be nice for sandwiches to come with a side.
After so much change in such a short period of time, Spuntino is already changing again. A new hood, installed after my visits, should remedy the greasiness that hung heavy over the banquette opposite the kitchen. And after the drawn-out process of securing a full liquor license despite the restaurant's proximity to a school, the bar program, helmed by Jason Randall, with an Italian-heavy wine list and seasonal cocktails, is finally expected to roll out this week. Hours will expand sometime soon, too, with the addition of Tuesday and Wednesday dinner.
Will those changes be enough to change a charming neighborhood spot into a dining destination? Or will Spuntino simply settle for being the reliable grill next door?
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