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The woman on my right is performing Meg
Ryan’s orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally."
Across the room, a man is staring at his plate with such reverence that I wonder if he’s seen the face of God in his ravioli.
Such sights appear nightly at Amelia’s Ristorante, an eight-table eatery in Bay Ridge where chef Ken Deiner works the kitchen and the dining room with equal zeal.
Deiner (pronounced DI-ner) aspires for more than a superb meal: his goal is to produce an event at each table. To do this, he thinks big: huge goblets of wine are filled three quarters full from a carefully selected, mostly Italian list; garlic makes a heady presence; and the dishes of simply plated food can easily feed two. Deiner isn’t afraid of salt; and he’s fond of butter and cream, so many of his dishes are luxuriously rich.
"There are no shortcuts here," he says
Creamy, nutty mozzarella is made in-house each morning; he bakes most of the excellent focaccia. (The rest he purchases from Bensonhurst’s Royal Crown bakery.) And his long simmering lobster stock makes each grain of pearl couscous - served with the red snapper - taste so seductively of the sea.
Three months ago, Deiner, a self-confessed control freak who owned Capriccio restaurants in New Jersey and Staten Island, and served as the executive chef at New York Prime in Boca Raton, Fla., gutted Bay Ridge’s Tarantella restaurant, keeping only the big crystal chandelier and floor tiles. He added a simple wooden bar, wallpapered the room, and covered the tables with linen clothes. It’s an attractive space, softly lit and comfortably retro.
Truthfully, you’ll hardly notice the decor once the food is settled on the table.
Amelia’s (named for Deiner’s grandmother, a great cook who owned a restaurant with his grandfather) is not a traditional Italian-American restaurant. There are no dishes served alla Parmesan; no pizza; no vodka sauce; and no Sunday-style ragu on the menu. You will find linguine with Manila clam sauce; stunning lobster ravioli; and a memorable veal "saltimbocca" (veal medallions with prosciutto, mozzarella and fresh sage).
When I return, I’ll order the diver sea scallops served over warm herb polenta. The seafood is seared crisp on the outside, winey and soft inside. The polenta is flecked with fresh basil, rosemary and parsley and made rich with a bit of Parmesan and plenty of cream.
Tender Prince Edward Island mussels were crowded into a deep bowl and awash in a succulent, white wine broth accented with saffron. No one at my table could resist dipping slices of the warm bread into the briny stock.
Thickly sliced, under-ripe tomatoes marred that mozzarella. Without the fruit, the cheese with fresh basil leaves and splash of aged balsamic is unbeatable.
There are two salads on the menu that make terrific starters - or an intermezzo - for the meal. The first is a crisp Caesar, something that isn’t easy to find anymore. Leaves of romaine are tossed in a slightly creamy dressing, delicately flavored with anchovy and laced with excellent Parmesan. The other is baby spinach, roasted red pepper slices, a few orange segments, and tiny balls of silky goat cheese that add a nutty, velvety note to the sprightly mix.
The salads would make an appropriate intro to the lobster ravioli. This is not the gummy one-note version found elsewhere. Deiner produces the pasta himself. It’s lace-thin, encasing nothing but sweet chunks of the tender flesh. The sherry-laced sauce - a blend of lobster stock sweetened with roasted shallots, heavy cream and mascarpone, an Italian cream cheese - is rich, rich, rich, yet the sauce doesn’t mask the filling’s flavor. If you want to indulge yourself with something luxurious, this is your dish.
A lighter, yet no less seductive, entree is the red snapper, a special that appears on the menu often. Deiner tops the fish with crushed pistachios, then slow roasts it with shallots until the flesh is moist and sweet. He serves the filet over the bed of lobster-enhanced couscous, brightened with pieces of the pink crustacean, then boosts the works with a vibrant chardonnay sauce.
Just as suave is the veal "saltimbocca." Sage lends an herbaceous note to the pan-sauteed, milky slices of young veal, crowned with thin slices of mozzarella and porcini mushrooms. Deiner finishes the dish with a bit of winey veal stock made rosy with a handful of ripe tomatoes.
And then there’s that steak that triggered moaning and sighing from the woman nearby. Ordered medium rare, the 14-ounce New York strip was everything a prime aged steak should be: crusty on the outside, earthy and juicy within. It’s partnered with a delectable Madeira pan sauce, chunky mashed potatoes and garlicky broccoli rabe - though unfortunately seasoned with too much salt.
When my carnivorous cravings are undeniable, I’m heading to Amelia’s for this dish.
Desserts are as good as the entrees and just as grand. There’s a warm apple crisp that’s tart and sweet with a whisper of cinnamon. The crisp has a delicate bottom crust and a chewy crumb topping that crackles when touched with a fork. Vanilla ice cream is the pastry’s logical partner, and it does what it should do: melts around the dish, making each mouthful irresistibly creamy, warm and cold.
Slices of ripe strawberries, as sweet as any you’ll find in the heat of summer, fill a huge martini glass and are covered with a loose "zabaglione" (custard made of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine).
Deiner’s former restaurants were both 100-plus seaters. That experience enables him to be a maestro in Amelia’s kitchen and amiable host in the dining room, where he relishes the enthusiasm of his guests.
The steak-eating woman’s performance didn’t go unnoticed.
Amelia Ristorante (8305 Third Ave. between 83rd and 84th streets in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $13.95-$37.95. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 680-4650.
©2005 Community Newspaper Group
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