Last week the blossoms bloomed, and it was time for rosé. To many, spring sproinging means a return to the outdoors, flirty clothes and baseball. To me, it means it's time to drink rosé, in restaurants or on my front porch or wherever. I headed to Eno, the Midtown wine bar and restaurant, to claim my spring bounty.
I was saddened to discover that Eno only had one rosé on its by-the-glass list, from Mendocino; fruity and fine in its own way, but not the heady collision of cotton candy and stony minerals I had been hoping for. No matter; I moved on to one of the whites, and my spring fling with rosé continued elsewhere, later in the evening.
Eno has long promoted itself first and foremost as a wine lover's haven, and it's true that the long list is far better than many and that Eno hosts some of the most geeky and ambitious wine dinners in the city. Its wine program is successfully ambitious, sometimes too ambitious for its servers who tend to stumble and run for the sommelier once your questions extend past the glass pours. But I don't mind – I like talking to the sommelier. What I don't understand is why the restaurant doesn't give itself more credit for what I consider its greatest strength: the food.
Eno, which will turn eight years old this November, has always had a strong handle on the simple goodness of Mediterranean cooking. The whole roasted fish with olives and fennel has been a staple on the menu for years, and is still savory and satisfying. In recent months, Eno has endured a bit of a revolving door in the kitchen, hiring Jose Rego as chef in October after his stint at Sotto Sotto, only to replace him in early February with Dusty Cooper. Cooper has a varied career including pastry training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, a stint as an international corporate chef and some time in the kitchens of San Francisco and Los Angeles. I ate at Eno before Rego took over, while he was there and after Cooper assumed her place at the helm. The food has gone from being reliably good but lacking in imagination to more inspired but with occasional execution issues to where it stands today, which is consistently impressive.
The tone of the menu was set a long time ago, by owner Doug Strickland, who acted as the executive chef when the restaurant opened. Strickland graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and his vision for the menu, of northern Italian and Mediterranean food with clean flavors, is still Eno's driving force. But Cooper has taken that vision and built on it, adding some wonderful dishes to the menu.
A hulking wild boar shank, braised in fig and espresso and served over polenta, fell off the bone in tender hunks. The espresso tempered the fig's sweetness, the boar was lovely and piggy, and life, as it existed on my plate and in my mouth, was good.
A special of corvina (gray trout) was delicately crusted in horseradish and served over asparagus tips and occhio beans – that's Italian for black-eyed peas, although their al dente flavor is nutty and quite different than the stewed Southern version. This was one of the best fish dishes I've had in months. The fish had a flavor that sat right on the edge of fishy and mild, the horseradish lent just a touch of brightness, and the rustic accompaniments were perfectly seasoned and executed. Cooper has a delicate hand with bold flavors, and it's a combination that works.
This bold delicacy is evident on the dessert menu as well, with light cheesecakes and a fantastic bread pudding with Mayan chocolate.
Eno's white tablecloths and hushed dining rooms give off a very grown-up air. The feel is mature without being too stuffy, and there's none of that Atlanta flash we all know and love. Dinner here is pricey. There's a small-plates menu served at the bar that allows guests to make a less-taxing financial commitment, and because the full menu is also offered at the bar and service tends to be more relaxed, I prefer to eat there.
Eno has long promised to be the classic Midtown fine-dining haven, where food and wine are taken seriously and attitude and flat-screen televisions are absent. With the arrival of Ms. Cooper, I think it's getting closer to that promise.
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