By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
These are informal times, and our restaurants reflect it. Chandeliered dining rooms with tuxedoed waiters carving duck l'orange at a gueridon are gone — and with them a certain sense of elegance and sophistication. On the plus side: Heavy, overwrought Continental cuisine disappeared along with the pomp, as did a pompous elitism that could turn even the best meal into an uncomfortable one. The Villa by Barton G. harks back to those more formal days, but with acknowledgments to the present: The staff is cheery and pleasant (except the snooty person who takes reservations); the Continental cuisine is contemporary and clean. Heck, liquid oxygen even figures into some menu items. Throwback or not, this is Barton G. we're talking about.
The Villa is located in Casa Casuarina, better known to most as the Versace mansion. It's all stunningly gorgeous — the opulent lobby; the dramatically lit, thousand-mosaic-tile pool (an outdoor dining terrace overlooks it); and the main dining room, with walls made entirely of small pebbles arranged into a series of mesmerizing mosaics. Tables are draped in silky royal-blue cloth, 30 chairs are upholstered in the same material, and show plates are Versace-designed Rosenthal china. Waiters don't wear tuxedoes, but they do don jackets and ties. It's all quite romantic.
The menu arrives in a wax-sealed envelope, which upon opening made me feel like an awards presenter about to discern the winner. Classical music, and then opera, soothingly played in the background; later at night, rock music was anachronistically piped through the speaker — at low volume but still noticeable enough to muffle the mood.
The wine list is an awkward affair. A podium about four feet tall gets wheeled tableside, with a hefty book lying on top like a Bible. This necessitates the diner turning his or her chair away from the table and lifting an arm above shoulder height to turn the pages — then you have to look up, not down, to read it. You might want to spare yourself discomfort and have sommelier Hakan Balkuvvar help you choose from the 100-plus labels. Balkuvvar is a pro, as are Villa's waiters, who work in tandem to ensure that guests' requests are promptly taken care of. The staff's attitude bespeaks an awareness of being there to serve and even pamper.
We visited the Villa to have dinner for two: a five-course journey from soup to nuts — or amuse-bouche to petits fours, as the case may be. The bouche arrived first: a petite tasting of tuna tartare teenily diced with mint and cucumber, a cube of chile-soy gelatin leaning alongside — clean, stimulating flavors.
Executive chef Justin Albertson's menu, presented after the amuse plates were cleared, is a concise and appealing compilation of two soups, two salads, three appetizers, and eight entrées; chilled seafood combos and luxe caviars are verbally recited as nightly specials. Chef Albertson impressed the heck out of us in a number of ways; unfortunately, we were among the last to enjoy the fruits of his tenure here.
A gentleman holding a basket of breads came by swiftly after we placed our orders: Diners choose between a plain mini-baguette, one with truffle and sea salt or one topped with Gouda cheese. All come straight from the oven — hot, fresh, and accompanied by softened butter.
Wild mushroom soup starts with a knob of sumptuously braised oxtail in the bottom of a white bowl. The server then pours in an earthy, crimini-flecked wild-mushroom broth. White asparagus soup followed the same presentation procedure — al dente snippets of the namesake vegetable and micro sprouts bathed in a silky white asparagus purée of thin but well-bodied consistency.
Villa salad, which we shared, is an innovative take on the classic caesar: full-length leaves of romaine hearts and baby red ultra romaine adorned with grilled and quartered artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, tender white anchovies, Parmesan shavings , and "frozen caesar dressing" — nitro-ized white crumbles that melt into tastes of anchovy, garlic, and Parmesan.
We bypassed a foie gras torchon with caramelized hazelnuts, cherries, and spiced bread in favor of the other two starters: seared ahi tuna and beef carpaccio, each strikingly presented upon stunning plateware. Four purplish slices of the tuna were arranged on a velvety red pepper purée (the peppers juiced, thickened, frozen, and placed on the plate like a rectangle of red carpet) dotted with rings of dried black olives and red onions, hard-boiled quail egg whites, a small dice of haricot verts, and a quenelle of vibrant fennel sorbet. It's a showstopper.
The carpaccio brought four bright red circles of top round of beef bolstered with caper berries, planks of Parmesan, micro sprouts, drizzles of olive oil and peppercorn aioli, and an egg yolk that had been cured with sugar and salt. This, too, was uniquely rewarding.
Modest portions and a light touch left us with plenty of appetite for main courses. We didn't choose the Maine lobster tail with lobster-stuffed tortellini, or the dry-aged New York strip steak with truffled pommes purée, or whole Dover sole filleted tableside. I was curious about the "Red Foot" chicken, but our waiter couldn't really impart much about it. I found out later it is a French-bred, free-range chicken from North Carolina.