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Nantucket Restaurant Week, Spring 2012

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Nantucket Restaurant Week is an opportunity to work out kitchen and service bugs with "soft openings" and for residents and visitors to try new places and visit favorites at a reduced price.

When it started a few years ago, most restaurants had special menus; prices are higher now, but most restaurants seem to be charging a fixed price -- this year $45 -- for any three courses on their regular menu. Staff get to practice what they will be cooking all summer, and we get to eat from the regular offerings at a 20% discount, maybe a bit more if you choose wisely. Most restaurants add a surcharge for some dishes, like foie gras.

We visited three this year. One was an old friend, two were new to us, one of them actually new last year. This visits were separated by quiet nights at home so my digestion could recover.

Tuesday, June 5, The Galley Beach
The Galley is Nantucket's only beach front restaurant, so the newly added "Beach" in the name is redundant, but it is a charming place with lovely views, especially at sunset. We -- my wife and I -- joined our neighbors P and J for dinner at 7. It was overcast, but we caught occasional sunset gleams as we enjoyed dinner.

We were greeted pleasantly and professionally by a man and a woman at the door and given a very nice table. The room is a kind of marquee or tent, so it is nice to be back from the outer edge, and the views are still excellent. The fixed price menu was $45, plus wine, tax,and tip, of course. J started with a roasted beet salad, while we others all had Weygu beef tongue, a new item on the menu. We were bad reviewers to choose the same thing, but curiosity got the best of us. It was not your deli's beef tongue but rather four little slices with a bit of salad, a tuile, and half a hard boiled quail egg, in a pool of light sauce. The meat was melting, more like foie gras than anything else, crisped on the outside.

This was followed by roasted halibut for my wife [S] and P, sauteed flounder for me, and buffalo short ribs for J. It is flounder season in Nantucket right now, and the flounder was as good as any I have ever eaten, crisp on the outside and melting inside, and J, who is not a fan of fat, was extremely pleased with his lean buffalo meat, pronouncing the short ribs the best he had ever had. S and P both had halibut with asian spices and vegetables. S and I swapped halfway through. I thought my flounder was better than her halibut, but her vegetables were better than mine, a mix of baby vegetables, partly because I did not detect any hint of the promised duck fat in the fingerling potato which was part of the melange. We shared a delicious bottle of Madison Pinot Noir among us, and the waiter made it last through two courses for four people, an example of the excellent service at this restaurant. The waiters and waitresses are all professionals who spend the winter in Florida or the Caribbean and work here in the summer.

We finished with four different desserts. I had their signature brownie with ice cream, S had a chocolate mousse in a martini glass, P had a lemon tart, which he liked a lot and which Sandy will have next time. J had an apple pastry. All were more than satisfied, both with dessert and our time in the gracious restaurant. Four meals and a bottle of wine were $270 before tip. A lovely evening, even if the wine list was astronomical, a theme that will be repeated in this article.

Thursday, June 7, Straight Wharf
We have managed to have a house in Nantucket for twenty years without ever eating at Straight Wharf, where Chef Marian of Victory Garden once held up the kitchen. We changed that with a 7 PM reservation. We were greeted by a group of very cute girls in very short miniskirts, and my heart sank because it is often a fatal sign that leg in the lobby is being substituted for care in the kitchen, but that wasn't the case here at all.

We were quickly shown to a great table overlooking the harbor and got serious with the $45 menu. We again shirked our duty as reviewers and had the same starter, their version of Oysters Rockefeller. This turned out to be a deconstructed version of OR, with fried oysters atop a bed of creamed spinach with bacon, all topped with a dollop of aioli. The oysters were brilliant, absolutely delicious. The spinach and bacon were wonderful, but the cream sauce was too salty, and the aioli, while lemony, lacked garlic. Any garlic. Still, yummy. Worth a $5 suppleme t? I am not sure.

For mains, S got grilled swordfish with artichokes in a saffron tomato broth. She liked it, but I make the best broiled swordfish in the United States, so I gave it a miss in favor of chicken cooked a la crepaud, which means I think "like a toad" but really is chicken cooked under a brick. It came perfectly cooked with sauteed escarole, more bacon (both delicious), some excellent red onion jam, and a nice portion of somewhat underdone cippolini. I couldn't resist a side order of crispy fingerling potatoes with a red pepper aioli. This was a handsome dish of perfectly crisped potatoes, looking like patatas bravas, but the sauce was disappointingly lacking in garlic. Again, I never heard of an aioli where you can't taste the garlic.

My wife finished with a chocolate chevre torte, which she liked a great deal, while I had a superb olive oil cake with saffron ice cream, just a really eye-opening dish. Surprised and blown away. I would go back for it alone.

Service was good. Our waiter was very professional but was too informally dressed for the prices. For something north of $200 for two people, you ought to get a white shirt and black pants, even if not a bow tie :-) In Massachusetts now you can take an unfinished bottle of wine with you(ours was a NZ sauvignon) and one of the pretty young ladies had ours ready in a bag before we left. A nice evening in a good setting with good but underseasoned food.

Note: on the way to the restaurant, we met friends going to another place for dinner. They told us they had wanted to go to Straight Wharf but were told there were no tables until 9. There were tables for two available the entire time we were there. This is a little off-putting. What's the story?

Sunday, June 9 Ventuno
We went to Ventuno because it is owned by the same people who own Straight Wharf, and we wanted to see how much they are alike, though one is coastal seafood and the other is Italian coastal seafood. Again, a $45 menu of three courses.

Ventuno is in the building occupied by Twenty One Federal for so many years, and the gracious rooms remain. We had a nice greeting and were immediatelu seated in a middle room in a surprisingly crowded restaurant. There are lots of internal windows, which make what are really very tiny rooms seem more spacious than they are. The walls are antique wood paneling, so it does get a bit noisy, and we sometimes found it hard to hear the staff unless they leaned forward. We knew we weren't just getting decrepit because it wasn't a problem at the other restaurants!

I started with local scungilli (conch) in a tomato broth with maybe some saffron in there and bright bits of citrus. Gently spicy and delicious. Sandy had bigoli or one of those other larger pastas with duck, a generous portion and as good as the same dish she had in Verona a couple of months ago.

They didn't have the rabbit which was on their advance menu -- sadly -- but I had a very nice fish stew, with a cripy piece of fish on shellfish, diced vegetables, and some Israeli couscous, It had a delicious brroth and not underseasoned. Sandy had local fluke (a very delicate flounder cousin also now in season) which I got to finish for her, happily.

Now the problem and how they handled it. Ventuno has a nice wine list with actual bottles of wine under $80. We ordered one, but it did not come. It did not come, and our first courses did. Our wonderful bus person, an adorable girl from Puerto Rico, I believe, noticed our sad faces and intervened, quickly bringing the waitress and eventually the sommelier. Well, they had run out of our wine, but nobody got around to telling us or even noticing until too late. The sommelier offered other appropriate choices, but it didn't seem like a really good idea to start a bottle of wine for two as the main courses arrived, so we demurred. She very nicely and appropriately under the circumstances, comped us on a glass each of the wine she recommended, handling something well that started out badly and could have ended worse.

My wife can't resist a panna cotta, and she finished with a small but intense version. I ordered polenta cake with olive oil ice cream -- yes, olive oil ice cream, and it was absolutely terrific. Unusual, surprisingly delicate flavors and textures all coming together nicely. A happy end to a flavorful meal.

Throughout the meal, a man in a dark suit, presumably an owner, was circulating among the tables speaking with customers. When he came to our table, I skipped the wine problem because theyhad already solved it but complimented them on the initiative of the bus girl and on the flavorful food. I also told him about the lack of flavor at their sister restaurant, which he seemed to absorb.

Would we go back? Yes, definitely. The problems we had -- no bunny on the menu and no wine -- are exactly the kinds of things Restaurant Week is designed to show up and weed out. We walked happily home, holding hands in the gathering twilight, and neither of us has had the nerve to get on a scale yet!

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