Variety may be the spice of life, but it's safe to say that I took that proverb a step too far last week.
It all started innocently enough, with a couple of friendly invitations - one to accompany my friend Jenn to Philly for a research project, followed by dinner at one of the city's finest dining establishments; and the other from my pal Kristin, my intrepid archaeologist friend, who longed to relive her days in Uzbekistan with dinner at an Uzbek restaurant in Rego Park, Queens.
I scheduled the expeditions two nights in a row, back-to-back. And, let's just say that these dining experiences most certainly consituted a lovely ying to the other's unfortunate yang.
First up was Vetri, a near legendary restaurant among my friends, as I often reference it as one of my all time favorite establishments. The dining room is intimate and rustic - holding only a total of 10 precious tables. The service is sublime - warm, friendly and informed, while unassuming and inobtrusive - and astonishing feat considering the close quarters.
But, it's really the remarkable gifts of Vetri's owner and chef, Mark Vetri, that make this restaurant a remarkable epicurean experience. His food is all at once rustic and homey, paying homage to classic Italian cuisine, while at the same time playfully bold in terms of marrying textures and flavors.
Case in point, Jenn's dish of Cauliflower Flan, creamy and lush, spiked with earthy white truffle. Cut into the quivering warm pudding and out oozed a gorgeous sunny yellow egg yolk, taking the dish's richness up an extra, unwarranted, yet gleefully opulent, notch.
I started with a Honey-Wheat Crespelle Stuffed With Radicchio, surrounded by an intense puddle of Gorgonzola Cream. Not exactly your "typical" Italian fare. (Olive Garden eat your heart out - with unlimited salad and breadsticks, of course!) And, then I followed it up with a knockout entree of housemade dumplings stuffed with Rabbit and Prunes, bathed in brown butter, topped with crispy slivers of pancetta.
We followed up dinner with a bowl of Raspberry Lambic Ice Cream floating in a warming Zabaglione sauce that melted the two into one luxurious, soupy confection.
We stepped out of the restaurant floating on air, still glowing from our foodie indulgences. We were able to avoid the cold, crisp night, by dashing into our rented car, which, miraculously, we were able to park right in front of the restaurant. Inside, safe and warm, we both sighed low moans of contentment.
The next evening was definitely...different. I seriously missed the rental car, as Kristin and I meandered from the subway stop down 63rd Drive through bitter cold and icy snow to Cheburechnaya in Rego Park. Supposedly the "new kid on the block" in terms of Uzbek restaurants, I was surprised to see that it was simply a lareg barebones space with several humble tables and chairs. But, then again, according to Kristin, Uzbek cookery was fairly humble. Why should the surroundings differ?
I decided to be brave. I let Kristin order. And, boy, did she order: Chebureki, a large, deep-fried turnover of sorts, stuffed with greasy ground lamb, chopped onions and cilantro; Manty, thick-skinned, steamed dumplings filled with more greasy lamb and onions; and a bowl of Lagman, a hearty, flavorful vegetable soup studded with soft pieces of stewed lamb and fat, long noodles. In regard to the "main course," Kristin insisted that we order both a heaping plate of pickled vegetables and a side dish of refreshing carrot salad, called Morkovcha, in order to offset the house specialty kebabs. Unfortunately, they weren't enough to do the trick. The oily Lulya Kebab of ground lamb played host to a wretched chunk of lamb fat. The Chicken Kebab was bizarrely greasy as well. And, the (truly daring) order of Lamb Testicle Kebab offered nothing more than tasteless, fatty blobs.
We tossed the rib-sticking, grease-fest back with some overly sweet fermented brown bread soda called Kvass. Now, I've had Kvass before and enjoyed it. But, the stuff that this restaurant served, tasted more like chocolate soda than the distinctive, malty, bubbly stuff I'd enjoyed over the summer in Brighton Beach.
No bliss here - just blech.
All in all, I felt like Vetri had played "Beauty" to Cheburechnaya's "Beast." Of course, the spell on the Beast was eventually broken and he turned into a handsome prince.
I have no such hopes for Cheburechnaya.