I’m not cool enough to lead the life I do.

I step into a coffee shop and in no time they pop the question: “So, do you live around here?” No, I don’t. I actually took the train for forty-five minutes (two transfers!) to get here because I love your single-origin espresso. Not cool.

After I down my macchiato in shame, I go to work for a restaurant group that exudes unmistakable machismo and a devil-may-care attitude toward customers and non-customers alike. Meanwhile I keep an Excel spreadsheet of my earnings there. A friggin’ spreadsheet! So not cool.

I’m also embarrassed that there is not a single outfit in my wardrobe that lets me blend in at Roberta’s, currently my favorite restaurant in New York. My girlfriend, meanwhile, can only wear her one plaid shirt so many times. I think they are beginning to catch on.

She and I went the first time because I’d heard rumors of a great brunch. We’ve since gone back again and again because the rumors were true.

Navigating past the pizza oven as you step in the door, there’s no indication of exceptional fried chicken, no promise of unforgettable pancakes. But that crackly-crusted bird glistens next to a fluffy biscuit and Bibb lettuce with a tangy buttermilk dressing. Those pancakes change with the weather — sliced pears sneak their way into the batter one month while macerated strawberries or plums might climb on top the next — but their texture wavers not. There’s always an ultra-thin outside layer browned until almost crisp, an interior so light and airy that you clear the plate before your stomach knows any better.

The wood-fired pizza here is charred, bubbly, and pliable, catapulting Roberta’s to salutatorian of the Neapolitan-style class in NY, just a half-step behind Kesté in my grade book. Toppings come in playful combinations with clever names like Millennium Falco and Greens, Eggs, and Hams, though sticking to the basic and beautiful margherita tends to be the most rewarding choice.

Now if you disregard everything I just told you, you’ll see that the tasting menu at Roberta’s is where you really want to be. Carlo Mirarchi is the man you’re after. He’s the chef in charge of the non-pizza, non-brunch stuff. And he was in charge of what we ate one night not long ago.

To start, there were small tastes of the sea: oysters with Calabrian chilies, fried shrimp heads with meyer lemon granita, raw glass shrimp with blood orange and poppy seeds. He brought us slowly ashore with sea urchin and stracciatella, caviar and pistachio. That tasted even better than it sounds, a simultaneous exercise in excess and restraint.

Charred strips of cuttlefish disguised as noodles wore a hearty pork trotter ragu, and linguine luxuriated in creamy Hokkaido uni. I had tried Carlo’s sea urchin pasta before, but relished this reminder that his is the best I’ve encountered anywhere. Finally trofie with duck heart and liver primed us for a progression of protein the likes of which I could not have imagined.

First was lamb breast, with a thin, crispy exterior that shattered when I cut it, and a gloriously fatty interior that melted like custard in my mouth. Then squab was roasted and presented — feet and all — with mascarpone, chestnut and kumquat. A beautiful côte de boeuf, aged over 50 days, had all the mineral funkiness one can ever ask for in a steak.

Then Carlo came over with a wild Normandy duck. Heads turned. People freaked out. He had roasted it whole, and presented it to us that way in all its lacquered splendor. As we plowed quite contentedly through a serving of breast meat, he brought us the legs. They had a toffee sauce. In the future I’d like all the duck legs I eat to come with toffee sauce.

Carlo asked me if we wanted to gnaw on the carcass, and you and I both know how I answered that. Let’s just say my lifetime duck fat quota has now been met. Things got pretty ugly.

In a way, I felt like we were stealing. My restaurant sells comparably dry-aged steaks for the same price we each paid for this entire tasting menu at Roberta’s. And where else in New York would we have been able to find such well-prepared game birds on the menu at all? Any one of these treats alone would’ve made an exceptional centerpiece to a great meal. Eaten in succession, there was something almost evil about what was happening — this was truly Lucullan feasting.

Now my only fear is that I’ve misrepresented Carlo’s cuisine. His is not a heavy hand, and there is a graceful balance at work here. Vegetables (many are which are grown in the garden adjacent to the restaurant) are treated with as much care as the meat; condiment and pasta are given equal love. A simple, sauteed treviso dish, the savory intermezzo between pasta and meat courses, was actually one of my favorites of the meal. It was topped with bottarga and an egg yolk-and-white balsamic vinegar emulsion. Who knew radicchio could sing like that?

I did no justice to the pasta, expertly cooked and dressed, and leagues better than what you’ll find at even the most lauded places in Manhattan that charge $10-15 more for a plate of it. I failed to mention the cheese course, the dessert, or the pizza Carlo graciously supplemented at my gluttonous request (a thick-crusted “Working Man’s Slice” to start, and a “Cheesus Christ” pie to prolong that cheese course).

I neglected to elaborate on the equilibrium he achieved in every dish — a touch of acid here, or a dash of sweetness there, to temper the richness of the protein parade. And worst of all, I’m not even sure how to explain the warm feeling of welcome that permeated the entire evening. I can only say that Carlo, in addition to being a wildly talented chef, is a humble, gracious, and hospitable host.

But honestly I kind of wanted to keep all this to myself anyway. The existence of this tasting menu isn’t exactly widely advertised at the moment, but I’m going back for it again tomorrow night. The problem is, it’s way too good for me to keep quiet about. And keeping this particular secret just wouldn’t be cool.

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14 Responses to Roberta’s

  1. Roberta’s is my favorite restaurant within reach. So far, I rank it with Manresa for eating enjoyment. Carlo is way cool. I’m going tonight….with you, Nick and Dilley. Yahoo!

  2. Daniel says:

    Hey O,

    Nice to see you up and running.. looks like a wonderful experience.


  3. Mike says:

    The tasting menu review was great. May I ask how you found out about it? The restaurant receptionist didn’t even know about it and had to ask the chef. Thanks!

  4. Jill says:

    I saw your blog in today’s Chow newsletter. All of that food sure sounds exciting! Toffee sauce on duck?! I’ve never had duck but I love toffee. 🙂

  5. aaron says:

    My story got mentioned in the CHOW Digest today — cool!

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