Twitter is an excellent source for restaurant news. When I read chef Mike Stollenwerk, who worked magic with sea creatures at Little Fish in Queen Village a number of years ago, was at the helm at Branzino, I could not wait to visit the restaurant.
Branzino, a BYOB Italian restaurant, opened nearly 10 years ago. I enjoyed my dinner, but suspected Stollenwerk might tweak the menu.
The bi-level establishment has yellow-green walls, a crystal chandelier, pale yellow linen and lovely china from England. Our server opened the Muscadet we brought as Edward and I settled in to peruse the menu. Warm bread and a dish of olive oil with slightly salty black olives kept me happy as I decided on dinner.
We began with a generous order of freshly grilled asparagus ($6), beautifully slicked with the right touch of olive oil and fresh herbs.
Beet salads have become so ubiquitous that I usually pass on them, but Stollenwerk’s version ($9) was an inspired choice. A large mound of immaculately fresh, spicy watercress was topped with tiny cubes of roasted cool beets, a scattering of marcona almonds and small shavings of hard goat cheese. All it required was a few twists of the pepper mill. The flavors and textures in this properly dressed salad set my taste buds up beautifully for the next course.
Risotto can be tricky. The rice is the star while other ingredients play supporting roles. The wild mushroom risotto ($14) was about the finest I’ve had in any restaurant. Each grain of arborio rice was properly coated and cooked. It was blended with a heady mix of woodsy mushrooms and stock that added a creamy texture. Our server grated a bit of Parmesan on top of the risotto, I stirred it a bit and the rice spread, as it must, in the heated bowl.
Orecchiette with chicken ragu ($14) also was outstanding. The little ear pasta was cooked al dente and topped with a mix of tender chicken, fresh herbs and bits of chopped fresh tomato. As Marcella Hazan always says, “a ragu must cling to the pasta.” Stollenwerk’s version surely did.
I prefer a whole fish baked or grilled on the bone. Bones add flavor to any fish and a simple classic preparation always pleases me. Stollenwerk’s keen sense of how to properly prepare it was more than evident in the whole branzino ($32).
A waiter carefully skinned and boned the whole fish with the skill of a surgeon at our table. He placed the fillets on a hot plate and napped them in a warm white wine butter sauce laced with tiny capers and bits of chopped fresh Italian parsley. Stollenwerk placed a handful of fresh grilled asparagus on the plate as a perfect tasty foil for the fish.
Edward’s salmon ($27) consisted of a six-ounce center-cut fillet, covered in spices and grilled to perfection. It was slightly translucent inside, imparting a natural juicy flavor that we both enjoyed. Stollenwerk set the entrée on a bed of cool potato salad prepared with tiny fingerling potatoes. It was tossed with a bit of olive oil and fresh herbs. We did not need to reach for the salt and pepper. Stollenwerk knows how to season each dish as it leaves his kitchen.
Don’t miss the vanilla panna cotta ($8), which arrived in a small glass Mason-type jar. The creamy pudding-like confection was scented with real vanilla and topped with fresh seasonal juicy berries.
An individual chocolate hazelnut cake ($8.50) was akin to the chocolate lava cake. It arrived warm and was obviously baked with top-quality chocolate and topped with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream.
Service was on the mark. It was unobtrusive, professional and caring. Our plates were cleared with ease, fresh silverware was given because the waitstaff watch the tables.
Branzino is the perfect restaurant for me to make a return visit, especially on a sultry summer night when facing the stove is much too much. I want to enjoy Stollenwerk’s crudo of the day and the whole organic roast chicken.
Four tips of the toque to Branzino.
261 S. 17th St.
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