On Sunday we celebrated our first anniversary at a restaurant we've been wanting to try for quite sometime, Mario Batali's Carnevino in the Palazzo. Before I go into anything else, I must say the steak we had outranked any other in our history of eating steaks, and if you love steaks, I beg you to try it at least once in your lifetime (more about that later). Now we can start from the beginning. I've eaten at Carnevino a couple of times in the lounge area where I've ordered from the less expensive bar menu, and have been thoroughly impressed (they have a better fancy burger than Bradley Ogden, if you ask me). If you want to try their food without paying for the whole experience (meaning, you get a view of the casino from the bar and no tablecloths or amuse bouche) then I would suggest coming here. In the dining room, however, the understated decor is reminiscent of a simple yet sophisticated Italian country villa, and the general aura is relaxed and welcoming. I mostly appreciated the quality and beauty of the chairs, an essential component most restaurateurs overlook in favor of more 'show-stopping' elements, such as a dramatic ceiling or unusual pieces of art on the walls. At Carnevino the primary interests are comfort and food, and I'll take that over a fancy chandelier any day.
Every person on the waitstaff was friendly and knowledgeable and the managers were gracious and accommodating. Because it was our anniversary we each received a complimentary glass of Bastianich's own Brut upon arrival (normally $14 a pop), but more notably, because we are locals, we received 15 % off our entire bill. I believe Batali is the only chef thus far to offer such a discount on a regular basis, and he should be commended for it. After our free champagne, we started shelling out the cash. Ian started with a fancy bottle of Friska beer for $14 that was so incredible and smooth I found it hard to believe it was Italian (let's face it, Italians aren't known for their beer making abilities). Perhaps the Italians can't get motivated enough to brew beer unless they can charge a fortune for it, but in any case, Ian and I agreed it was worth every penny. The second bottle was, too. I had a glass of rose from Bastianch's and Batali's own vineyard for a measly $10 (the least expensive on the menu), and it was quite good, though I preferred the Brut. With my entree I had a glass of a full bodied red called "Aragone" from Tuscany at the recommendation of the manager, who was gracious enough (yet again) to charge me the same price as the rose, rather than the $22 listed, just because he wanted me to have it and I didn't want to spend that much. How refreshingly Italian! The wine was the perfect match for our perfect steak, which I hope you are getting excited to read about.
For an appetizer we ordered the pappardelle with 'porcini trifolati,' or cooked porcini mushrooms($22). Porcini mushrooms are my favorite mushroom. They are generally large and have a sponge-like underside rather than gills, giving them a kind of chewy yet slippery texture. Their flavor is fantastic, though they are still more similar in taste to an ordinary mushroom than everyone's favorite fungus, the truffle. When I saw porcini I got incredibly excited because the only place I have seen fresh porcini mushrooms in the states is at the Ferry Building farmer's market in San Francisco. While living in Italy they could be found everywhere in the Fall, even at road stands, and I frequently ordered this exact dish whenever I could. Needless to say I was truly disappointed when the dish came out full of shitakes and other varieties of mushrooms, with nothing like the porcinis I know and love. The waiter had said a woman farmer picks mushrooms just for the restaurant (of course I had checked to make sure they were offering the real deal before I ordered), which may be true, but if so she's picking the wrong kinds for this dish as it appears on the menu. If the menu had just said 'pappardelle with mushrooms' I would have been completely satisfied, as the pasta was beautifully home-made and tossed in a light yet buttery sauce. Sadly, this misrepresentation showed up more than once on the menu. Our spinach side was supposed to have cherry peppers to give a kick, yet didn't, and our 'spring peas with pancetta' turned out to be snow peas. I only wanted the latter because it is difficult to find fresh peas and time consuming to shuck them, so I thought it would be worth the $9. The snowpeas were at least cooked well, and I won't say these sides were terribly overpriced since it is a fine dining restaurant, but they could have used a little work and more accurate wording.
Now, let's move onto the steak, the showstopper of the meal. By this point you know that I try to be frugal when dining, but as a self-proclaimed foodie I am also willing to pay big money for something novel and ridiculously good. That something today was the 240 day dry-aged steak that cost $100 an inch, which is a more than you pay per inch for a David Yurman bracelet, and even some Cartier bracelets. Being somewhat frugal, we ordered the minimum of one inch in the form of a ribeye. This was definitely enough to share with all the rest of the food, but we don't eat that much at one sitting so a regular grown man would probably want his own. Dry-aging of beef is basically the controlled rotting of the exterior of the meat in a cold environment that results in the formation of a skin, or pellicle, that is then removed prior to cooking. It is an expensive process and therefore results in better, but less frugal, cuts of meat. Most well-marbled high grade meat is dry-aged for some amount of time as it dramatically enhances and concentrates the flavor, but this time can range from a few weeks to about the 240 days given the riserva steak here (we were told the slaughter date for our beef was circa early August, 2009). A second manager prepared it for us tableside by skillfully slicing it on a wooden board and drizzling it with the chef's recommendation of a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. We ordered the horseradish black pepper zabaglione as an accompanying sauce, but despite its ethereal qualities, it was utterly unnecessary and almost felt like a sin to use on this particular piece of meat. The inherent flavors of the steak were not powerful enough to stand up to it, and only by eating the steak alone could you truly appreciate the process and time required to create such a masterpiece. The waitstaff described the flavor as earthy, but for me it was as if the aroma you get when you first walk into a fabulous cheese store (such as Murray's in the West Village) found its way into the meat and then ultimately into your mouth in a subtle yet obvious way. Combine that with the intensely flavored juices of the best quality steak you can buy and the result is unlike anything you've had before. As I continued to analyze the complexity of flavors twinkling in my mouth I looked over at Ian and saw teardrops welling in his eyes. When he noticed I was looking at him he said, "I'll cry over meat, I don't give a f*#!." I was hoping he was tearing up over how happy he felt to be married to me, but no, it was the steak he was feeling such a fondness for. I really wasn't hurt at all because I felt the same, and in all fairness, you can't have a steak like that everyday for the rest of your life. A moment of silence in gratitude was well-deserved, and we haven't stopped thinking about it since.
Some other tidbits to mention about the meal came before it even started. The cheese puffs, which were similar to a gourgere, came as an amuse. They were salty and crisp on the outside but light and soft on the inside, and we agreed they were better than the gourgeres served around the corner at Cut (or at least those we received on our last visit there). The bread was accompanied by high quality room temperature butter (we feel this shows the chef cares about your spreading pleasure) as well as whipped lard fom cured pork belly. This was truly unique and though the whipping action resulted in a fibrous appearace, the mouth feel was smooth. We loved it and I for one was pleased to find out that it is lower in saturated fat than butter. I'm still not quite sure how that's possible but that's what the waiter claimed. I'll take it with a grain of salt, so to speak, due to the discrepencies over menu descriptions I mentioned earlier.
As far as Strip restaurants go, I would be more inclined to come back here rather than try some of the other celebrity chef restaurants I haven't yet been to. Usually you don't get what you pay for, but I felt the prices charged here were deserved. To boot, the service and ambiance were top notch without being stuffy. If you are looking for a special occassion place, Carnevino is now on my list of top ten Strip resturants.
Tonight's Food Ratings:
240 day dry-aged steak: 10 (a Frugal Foodie first!)
Restaurant Rating: 9.5
Would we go back? IF WE FOUND $100 ON THE GROUND WE'D BE BACK THERE TONIGHT ORDERING THAT STEAK.
P.S. Batali comes from a long line of meat men, so even though Carnevino is relatively new, the chef's knowledge and experience working with steak is not. I have a picture with Mario Batali on my bio page taken a couple of years ago in New York, in case you haven't yet seen the man behind the magical meat.
Sliced 240 day dry-aged steak
Butter and Lard
"Spring Peas," AKA snow peas, apparently