Ago No Spago
Ago is no Spago, though it does serve thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas, and as the trendy California eatery relied in its heyday on the buzz of the Hollywood now crowd, so too does Ago draw social minglers from the current SoBe scene.
Ago is also no Nobu, but shares the same tony address (or shall we say same Ian address, as in Schrager), each located a dumpling's throw from the other in the gracefully redesigned Shore Club Hotel. Like its successful sushi neighbor, the newer Ago is spiffed up in smart fashion. Then again, we hardly saw the inside dining room on our first visit, having been whisked to an outdoor table, along with just about everyone else, without any questioning as to our preference. It was a muggy evening, too, which made the mass exile that much more puzzling. Perhaps Ago prefers its clients in non-air-conditioned condition because only one of its appetizers is served hot; the other starters on the one-page menu are chilled salads, carpaccios, bresaola, smoked salmon, and a special of tuna tartare.
On a second visit when the evening was cooler, we were again escorted outdoors, this time the manager asking if that was all right with us. It was -- on a pretty night, it's a lovely, breezy place to dine. Also, we had been sitting at the indoor bar for some time, the hostess having told us upon arriving that it would take about ten minutes to get a table ready. I took a peek outside -- there were 200 empty seats perfectly ready to be sat in. You don't suppose they sent us to the bar just to sell some pricey drinks, do you?
Ago is not even Casa Tua, though its offerings of fresh, clean, straightforwardly presented Italian/Mediterranean cuisine are similar in style to the dishes served at that nearby restaurant. Where fare at the latter is simply sublime, at Ago it's simply simple, the difference found both in delicacy of execution and quality of ingredients. Neither is any big deal at Ago, but judging from the prices they think they are. Soups and starters start in double figures; main courses begin at $28 (grilled salmon or herb-marinated chicken) and quickly accelerate into the $35 range.
It's true Ago's menu is more sophisticated than that of neighborhood Italian eateries, and the pastas are superior to spaghetti and meatball-type fare. Yet the house salads, carpaccios, pizzas, fried calamari, and even many of the meat and fish dishes are not so different than what can be found at these more moderately priced ventures. There were no white-truffle shavings, no drizzles of fennel honey, no interesting specialty vegetables. The only items more captivating than balsamic vinaigrette or rosemary potatoes were fresh artichoke hearts, porcini mushrooms, and a starter of burrata cheese, which is the juiciest and milkiest of mozzarellas.
The sole hot appetizer was "fritto misto," a heap of crisply fried calamari with two small shrimp, two anchovies, and a nest of squash and carrot threads. A more diverse variety of shellfish, or the inclusion of a jumbo prawn, or freshly herbed breading, or side of sauce more scintillating than marinara, would have distinguished this dish from renditions found in red-sauce joints.
Those at our table deemed the thin, nicely charred crust of a margherita pizza too soft, and questioned the lack of basil. How one likes their pizza is highly subjective, but I prefer mild tomato sauce and a chewy cheesiness, which this pie possessed. On the other hand, I look for some bite to my pasta, which handmade ravioli did not possess. The thin, formless pillows of herbed, minced veal sat in the white bowl like miniature misshapen laundry bags ready for pickup. Luckily a plethora of porcinis and potent porcini glaze atop the pasta delivered same-day service on rich, earthy flavors. Freshly shaved Parmigiano, rather than spoonfuls of pre-grated, would have been welcome.
"Think globally, buy locally" is evidently not the mantra here, the three menu seafoods being grilled salmon with caper pesto, seared yellowfin tuna over artichoke ragout, and branzino with a Mediterranean medley of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and black olives.
We managed to hook a local fish via a nightly special of wood-oven grilled snapper and grilled fennel. The fish wasn't so much grilled as incinerated, the fennel likewise boasting little but blackened taste. Wood-charred flavor is rather one-dimensional, and hardly enlivened by a trio of roasted cherry tomatoes. Assuming the snapper is normally prepared correctly, it could still use a light sauce of some kind, or another vegetable or starch to marry the flavors.
Bistecca alla Florentina, a 22-ounce black Angus T-bone cooked in the wood-burning oven, arrived rare rather than medium-rare, and underseasoned. The steak was flavorful after a twist of the tabletop salt grinder, but the sirloin side was surprisingly tough -- this was, after all, a $44 piece of meat. As with many of the entrées, a side of softly roasted rosemary potatoes was the sole accompaniment.
Service the first time around was a comedy of errors that ranged from unfamiliarity with the menu, to bringing someone else's plate of food to our table, to neglecting to hand us a wine list, to not offering coffee until after we finished dessert. Though the regular menu lists ice creams, sorbets, and an assorted cheese plate, our waiter's verbal dessert presentation omitted these items (on a second trip we found out the "ice creams and sorbets" were, respectively, vanilla and lemon).
He did manage to describe the dozen or so mostly cakes and pies on display atop a table indoors. We picked out a chocolate tart garnished with banana slices, and asked whether there were bananas underneath the chocolate. He assured us there were. There were not, and the dark chocolate pudding stimulated for just a few bites, then descended into a dull, dulcet monotony.
Service was better the next trip, which is when I finally got to peruse the wine list. Like Ago, it was impressive to look at and way overpriced.
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