So we were surprised when the ten-vegetable minestrone ($3.75 a cup) lacked the layered complexity usually evident in Italian soups with far fewer ingredients. Despite the excess of vegetables, this blend was bland. But the portobello soup ($3.75 a cup) more than made up for the minestrone's failings: it was extravagantly flavorful--astonishingly so, since it was seemingly made from but one vegetable. If the stock did contain the usual onions, carrots and so forth, the portobello was so powerful that we couldn't tell.
But my favorite dish at Strings, the one that delivered the most flavor and impact, would still have to be the tenderloin of beef ($21) and its side of French fries. "Oh, no," moaned Noel when I told him this later during a phone interview. "Don't tell me we're going to be known for our fries."
Sorry, Noel, but I can't keep this to myself: The fries were out of this world. Interestingly, they started out looking slightly terrible, hardened and crunchy, kind of like the overdone strays you eat at McDonald's after you've devoured all the soft, greasy ones. But after one bite, I realized these spuds were exquisite: thin, with a crisp outer shell that held a narrow strand of spongy, steamy potato flesh. (They were so addictive that, because I wanted to save room for dessert, I had the remains of my huge portion boxed to go and then finished them for breakfast the next day.) Adding to what was already potato perfection was a stream of mushroom-musky cognac sauce that slowly oozed its way over from the hefty filet. The meat was exquisite, too, and cooked to a textbook medium-rare: I've never had a better slice of tenderloin from any of the "big" steakhouses. The beef comes from one of the standard local suppliers, Noel says modestly, but Strings ages it in a walk-in cooler for a minimum of twelve days--and therein lies the secret.
Compared to the superlative steak and fries, any other entree would have been a letdown. But the veal, spinach and ricotta cannelone ($14.50) had its own flaws. The red and white sauces on top of the pasta were adequate, but the ingredients inside the pasta tube were so smooshy that the veal was lost entirely and the spinach almost as tough to find. This was Italian food for the toothless, and it lacked any real bite.
Ah, but good to the very last bite was pastry chef Jaime Lugo's peanut-butter mousse ($5.75), a smooth, luscious concoction that arrived in a chocolate tulip--sort of an upper-class Reese's peanut-butter cup. And the warm chocolate bread pudding ($5), while light on the chocolate, featured a condensed square of silky bread soaked with a caramel sauce spiked with bourbon and sided by a melting ball of vanilla-bean ice cream--which probably would have been firmer had the desserts arrived within a decade of our ordering them.
While we'd waited for them, I'd taken a trip to the ladies' room; when I came around the corner, I surprised our waiter at the end of the hallway, obviously doing something he shouldn't have been, because he jumped about nine feet when he saw me. "We've gone through some staff changes," Noel said when I mentioned this later. "For a while we'd had some people who'd been here for ten years, and they were starting to act like they should just be able to sit around, so we've brought in some new people. I thought they were up to speed, but apparently they're not, and we have to work on that."
More evidence of this was provided at brunch, a meal so busy that even as the waitstaffers rushed around, you could see dishes piling up. (The problem with an exposition kitchen is that you sometimes watch your food languishing there.) To Strings's credit, no heat lamps overcook the food while it awaits a server--but then, when no waiter appears, the food gets cold. That's what happened to our chive-scrambled eggs ($9.75) with smoked salmon, which arrived so not-warm that the eggs had started to form an unappetizing crust on the outside. And that was too bad, because inside was a delectable combination of arugula, tomatoes, fresh basil and rich salmon. (I've also sampled the house-cured salmon, which has a wonderful, softly spicy bite.) And the angel-hair pasta ($8.50) with prosciutto, mushrooms and a poached egg had cooled so much by the time we got it that the pasta was gummy and the hollandaise was coagulating into cement.