Almost Perfect 

Armani's food, service and setting mostly live up to expectations.

Perfection is rare. Just look at the first ever U.S. Michelin Guide ratings that hit the New York restaurant scene a few months ago. Only four places received the coveted three stars, with a meager four more receiving two, as accorded by the meticulous graders of the most vaunted dining guide in the world. Those folks grind through meal after meal seeking that ideal dining experience where ambience, service, and, oh my yes, sublime food create delicious harmony. You bet that's rare, even in New York.

For most of us -- and for most meals -- we don't expect perfection, just a good experience. Still, there are those special occasions, those special settings, or those stellar prices when we reasonably assume our expectations will be shattered by culinary virtuosity and luxurious atmosphere. When we leave the restaurant feeling that profound sense of well-being that comes from spending an obscene amount of money on an experience that was thoroughly worth it. For many years, Armani's has been one of the few Bay area restaurants recommended for this sort of thing. Well ... it's close.

On the 14th floor of Tampa's Grand Hyatt, with windows in sight of every table, the view is spectacular. Armani's is one place where you should go for an early reservation. Sit down just before sunset and watch the orange glow splash across the bay, the lights of Clearwater rising with the darkness. The décor is pleasant enough, but is tainted by that amorphously generic hotel feel, where the restaurant blends into the inoffensive interior of the rest of the building.

That hotel atmosphere also infects the otherwise flawless service. Working in teams of three, the staff is exceptionally knowledgeable and impeccably efficient, but there are things they do by rote that make it apparent they are forced to regularly serve unsophisticated diners staying at the hotel. There's a lot of explanation. Think of it as super-fancy dining with some training wheels.

The food is almost as good as the setting, which makes flaws all the more glaring.

Take the hefty veal chop ($33.50), two inches thick, crusted in garlic and topped with fried leeks. Cut into it and the interior glistens with moisture, each bite a beefy valentine of pink and cream hues, the texture as soft and delicate as the color.

Veal is a specialty at Armani's and it's easy to see why. Just be sure to deftly dodge the dull, pasty gnocchi piled around and under the chop. And save the sautéed rappini for another dish -- it's topped with shaved raw horseradish that is much too powerful for the veal. Neither of the sides should be sharing the plate with this spectacular meat.

Nor should a bird's nest of shredded phyllo dough cradle a translucent stewed pear ($9). Stuffed with sweet cheese and lovingly braised in red wine, the flesh of the pear gives easily under a knife, each bite redolent of mulling spices. The phyllo base, stale and flavorless, should never have made it onto the plate, especially as a foundation for such a stunning piece of fruit.

Some dishes don't even get the benefit of an exceptional anchor. Deep green asparagus soup ($7.95) is overpowered by a shocking blast of black pepper, incongruous and bitter oregano, and the funky touch of half-melted feta. It isn't unpleasant, but neither is it good. In any case, it doesn't taste like asparagus.

It's not that Armani's chef, Patrick Rene Schaefer, and his kitchen lack the skills. A thick filet of sea bass ($31.50) -- seared and seasoned with ground porcini -- is perched atop a simple ragout of tomatoes, potatoes, and onions stained black by balsamic vinegar, the fish gleaming like a full moon in the night sky. Each bite explodes with the dark, earthy sweetness and subdued acidity of the reduced vinegar, lending emphasis to the mild fish.

The familiar fritto misto ($13.95) is given a bit of new life with a few fried oysters and snapper hunks added to the usual calamari, as well as a spicy sauce punched up with ginger.

Easily overlooked, sausage ravioli ($11.95) is nestled atop a luscious Bolognese sauce that is the single best expression of classic Italian cuisine at Armani's. The antipasto bar is astounding and, at $13.95 per person, by far the best deal in the place. Just go up and pick out as many of the dozens of little items you want -- from sausage to marinated veggies to cheeses.

The problem is, I want everything to be that good. Armani's is damn expensive. Portions are sized so a four-course meal won't leave you stuffed, and with that many dishes it's extremely difficult to escape for less than $100 per person -- and then only if you are stingy with the wine.

And it's hard to be stingy with the wine. Armani's has a special list of wines by the glass, a roll call of the biggest celebrity names in the industry, the type of blockbuster reds and whites that annually garner the big ratings and limited allocations. Twenty-five bucks for a 3-ounce glass of Sassicaia or Grange Hermitage? Yeah, it's actually worth it.

Especially if you pair either of those wines with a filet of wild boar stuffed with earthy mushrooms ($31.50). Deep red fruit and soft tannins blend with the gamey meat and juniper sauce to create an experience that is well worth the $60. Or try the scallop appetizer ($12.95) -- yes, one scallop -- and a glass of Kistler Chardonnay ($25). The divine, translucent shellfish is just barely touched by heat, leaving only pure sweet and briny flavor that marries perfectly with the slightly oaked wine, a side of apple celeriac puree highlighting the ripe apple fruit of the chardonnay.

Then again, it's hard to pair wine with already seasoned tuna turned positively salty by a crust of melted asiago ($31.50), which illustrates the core problem with Armani's. Well, maybe it's just my problem, since the food, service and ambience are all largely excellent. But to justify this much money, I want a little more perfection.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at brian.ries@weeklyplanet.com. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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