February 12, 2008

Treat your sweetie on the cheap: Share!

Here’s a cheeky way to treat your sweetie to a Valentine’s Day dinner (or other romantic occasion) at a fancy restaurant, enjoying an expansive meal while keeping the price under control: Share dinner.I’m talking serious sharing here, the kind you would only want to undertake in the company of someone close enough that you don’t object to taking food from the same plate. This approach need not be cheap or sleazy, and any good restaurateur will gladly accommodate you in your plan. We tried it the other night at Primo, one of my favorite restaurants. Primo, run by Louisville restaurant pioneer “Bim” Deitrich, offers an easy mix of modern, flashy yet sophisticated style set into a 19th-century building. Chef Michael Crouch is doing a very serious job with Italian regional cuisine in a menu that changes every week. Primo flexibly permits comfortable low-budget dining with a wood-oven pizza and a glass of wine; or you can take the high road with authentic Italian regional main courses in the upscale range. Last week’s bill of fare included nine mains that ranged in price from $18 (for linguine con cozze with fresh mussels and shallots in a curry cream broth) to $28 (for filetto di manzo con funghi, grilled Angus filet with wild mushrooms and a Chianti demiglace). A regular seafood selection is Branzino ($28), pan-seared Mediterranean sea bass with a thyme-and-lemon beurre blanc; a special this week, my choice for dinner, Ippoglosso di Ligure ($26), is basil-infused halibut on a fire-roasted tomato coulis.A let-it-all-hang-out dinner at Primo with appetizers, soups, salads, main courses and desserts for two can easily take you north of $200, especially with wine, tax and tip. But my bride and I managed a filling meal for half that toll by sharing plates, and nobody even looked at us funny for doing it. Frankly, we were discreet: A salad and a soup came out for the first course. We each ate half, then switched plates. A similar procedure served the next round as we devoured a dinner-plate-size appetizer pizza and a remarkable fish dish, putting the plates in the center of the table and using them as serving platters. One dessert with two forks, and a modest but tasty bottle of crisp white Italian wine, and we were out of there just pleasantly full and not all that much lighter in the wallet.Course by course, here’s how it went down.After a basket of excellent Blue Dog baguette with olive oil for dipping, we shared an appetizer — a pizza, of course — specifically, the Genoa ($11), a variation inspired by the flavors of Liguria, the Italian Riviera. It was a very thin, plate-size pie fired to extreme crispness (perhaps just a tad overly so, although I wasn’t complaining), topped with a schmear of basil pesto and plenty of crumbled gorgonzola, sweet balsamic vinegar and, sprinkled on top after the pizza came out of the oven, fresh baby micro-greens.The soup, a special of the day, was artichoke with broccoli rabe cream ($7), a wide bowl of subtly flavored, creamy soup loaded with bits of artichoke and almost pureed green broccoli rabe, not hot-and-spicy but just piquant enough to wake up your taste buds. The salad was excellent, too, Italian-style Insalata Mista ($7, “mixed salad”), micro-greens topped with julienne roasted red bell peppers, house-made herbed focaccia croutons and shredded Gorgonzola with a luscious vinaigrette.The aforementioned halibut, Ippoglosso di Ligure, also influenced by the cuisines of the Liguria region around Genoa, was a beauty. A snow-white block of mild sea bass that had been poached in olive oil flavored with the stems left over from the basil used to make pesto, perched atop sauteed spinach and an intriguing little pile of marble-sized crunchies that proved to be tender balls of potato fried golden-brown. I called them “patate bambini,” my fractured Italian for, well, “tater tots,” but they deserved no such abuse ... Chef Crouch, wandering the room later, said they’re cut from whole potatoes with a “Paris scoop,” a fancy French melon-baller, and cooked seven times before service, a procedure that requires 2½ hours. This was all plated on a bright-red, fresh and textured tomato puree — akin to a marinara but fresh, not long-simmered — with a distinct back note of cayenne. It was as pretty as a picture but too tasty just to look at it; take a bite of fish, a potato round, a bit of spinach and a little tomato coulis in a single bite and witness a flavor explosion in your mouth. The wine list is all-Italian, too, and well chosen, with lots of upscale but affordable wines listed by location from tip to toe of the Italian “boot,” plus a neat option, “eight for $20,” eight regional Italian wines that sell for — you got it — $20 each. We went with one of the $20 wines, a crisp young Vermentino from Sardinia with an intriguing hint of conifer that reminded me of juniper berries. It went beautifully with both the fish and the pizza.A shared dessert, molten chocolate torte ($7) with Dumante creme angliase, was also as pretty as it looked. A small sphere of cake-like chocolate with a moist center perched on a shallow pool of creme anglaise delicately flavored with Dumante Verdenoche Italian pistachio liqueur and artfully surrounded by seven perfect raspberries and seven tiny leaves of fresh mint.Espresso would have been perfect, but the machine was broken (I hate it when that happens); nevertheless, excellent regular coffee ($2), strong and clean, made a more than adequate substitute.Service was intelligent (and particularly wine-savvy) and careful throughout, flawed only slightly by a little too much attentiveness at times. I appreciate careful service, but I don’t really need to have every plate whisked away the instant I finish it, and I actually prefer to make my own decisions about when to refill my wine glass, thank you very much. Still, there were no slip-ups, and it’s hard to complain too much about attentiveness that seems based on assuring an excellent experience.Primo, as noted, isn’t cheap. Even though we shared, our selection of courses built the tab up to $87 and change, with a $20 tip pushing the final toll well past the century mark. It was well worth it.Did I mention Primo is having a special Valentine’s dinner tomorrow ($45), and an amazing Tuscan food and wine dinner ($55) on Feb. 21? They’re also doing something new in the bar on week nights called “Revive at $5,” wherein they have music and all sorts of goodies — endless appetizers and lots of specialty drinks — priced at $5 cheap. It’s a great way to unwind after a bruising day at the office. Primo445 E. Market St.583-1808Robin Garr’s rating: 95 pointsNIBBLESSushi in the CityLouisville’s top sushi chefs are sharpening their knives for a “roll off,” a fundraising competition in which one chef will reign supreme, at Sushi in the City, set for Tuesday, March 4, from 5:30-9 p.m. at The Henry Clay, Third and Chestnut streets. Participants will taste and vote for their favorites to select the Best Sushi in the City for 2008. There’ll also be desserts, a silent auction and entertainment. Admission is $60 a person, with a $10 discount for members of young professionals’ organizations. Proceeds will benefit Louisville’s Project Women, a nonprofit agency that provides housing and educational assistance to help homeless single mothers and their families break the cycle of poverty. For information, visit the Project Women website, www.projectwomen.org. Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com