New Italian Eatery, Take Twenty
There is no such thing as authentic Italian cuisine, at least not in Italy. That's because until about 150 years ago, there was no such thing as Italy. Before political union there were a couple of dozen independent regions, and in terms of food culture, that proud individuality still exists in many ways: more than 200 types of pasta, 500 varieties of cheese, 1000 styles of wine.
There also is no such thing as authentic Mediterranean cuisine, at least not on the shores of the nations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisian couscous and Moroccan are quite different. Drive half an hour from Menton in France over the border to Ventimiglia in Italy, and everything about the pasta -- from flavor to firmness -- changes. Would it be too outrageous to suggest that Mediterranean cuisine is in fact the invention of American chefs who don't want to make up their minds? Nah.
So when one reads that a new restaurant specializes in "Italian Mediterranean cuisine," it's a pretty safe bet that the food is not going to be authentic. What's open to question is whether the food is going to be tasty.
At six-month-old Blumarine, offshoot of a fifteen-year-old Montreal eatery that occupies the space formerly filled by live-music venue Rose's, a first visit began promisingly. The bread, rosemary focaccia, was crusty and drizzled with melted butter. Our table in the nonsmoking area was comfortable. Servers were very friendly. Things started to deteriorate almost immediately, though, when a fellow at the next nonsmoking table took out a pack of cigarettes, and our friendly server suggested we might move. My countersuggestion -- that it would be more appropriate for the smokers to move from the nonsmoking area -- was met with a flustered server-smoker conference, followed by server assurances that no smoking would happen ... followed by the smoker lighting up. At which point all servers disappeared, so I had to request that the smoker extinguish. Which he did, while proceeding to glare at me for the next half-hour; upon leaving he accused me of "rudeness." Naturally the jerk's shameless disregard of restaurant rules was not the servers' fault. Their failure to deal with it, however, was. It was a most unpleasant beginning to a meal that was not unpleasant but also was not very interesting.
While most antipasto plates in U.S. Italian restaurants, as well as in restaurants in northern and central Italy, tend to be protein-heavy affairs focusing on cold cuts and marinated mixed-seafood salads, southern Italian antipasto buffets emphasize vegetables -- and so did the signature Antipasto Blumarine. While Washington Avenue diners don't help themselves as Sicilian diners do, one can view the vegetables in the left-hand side of the fish counter at the restaurant's rear. Regrettably, though, the preparations looked better than they tasted. Except for a spoonful of sun-dried tomatoes in oil, the nine small samplings on the platter were blandness personified, spiced by little other than parsley and tasting totally unsalted. True, the latter may have benefited our table's collective blood-pressure readings, but it did not benefit the vegetables' taste. And while the lack was partly repairable (Blumarine isn't one of those annoying restaurants that doesn't provide tabletop shakers), such manual salting is, let's face it, vastly inferior to seasoning by a skilled pro during the cooking process.
Another starter, "pasta fagioli," turned out to be about as accurate a version of pasta e fagioli as the dish's misspelling. Specialty of the northeastern (i.e., Adriatic, not Mediterranean) Veneto region, this soup of pasta plus borlotti, cranberry, or, in a pinch, white beans, is supposed to be quite substantial; virtually all recipes call for at least half of the beans to be mashed or puréed to thicken the stock. At Blumarine the soup base was a thin, mildly tomato-y broth -- not at all unpleasant if one was in the mood for a consommelike delicacy, just not pasta e fagioli. More problematic was the pasta, which was mushy. Admittedly this is a very common problem with pasta e fagioli, since the temperature at which this dish is supposed to be served -- warm, not hot -- means the pasta must be ever so slightly underdone to turn out properly al dente after the cooling-down period. Still, no matter how easy it is to overcook the noodles in this dish, at eight bucks a bowl, I expect a professional chef to finesse the tricky timing better than I could at home.
While Blumarine does have meat entrées (mainly veal), we chose to concentrate on the restaurant's specialty, seafood. This proved to be a relatively expensive choice, since no seafood entrée, including pastas with fresh-fish sauces, ran less than $21.50; and most were pricier for a respectable but by no means abundant serving. These prices may well have to do with high import costs (the eatery carries some pretty exotic fish selections), but they also go a long way toward explaining why, on our first weekend-night visit, Blumarine was almost deserted while another Italian restaurant several doors down, whose pasta prices are more in the $12 to $14 range, was packed.
That said, the fish on display, with the sole exception of some cloudy-eyed stripers, all appeared impeccably fresh; in fact the Portuguese sardines were so perky it would've been easy to believe they had been flown in on business class from Lisbon. Unfortunately we didn't notice the sardines till after we'd ordered on our second visit (they were unavailable on our first go-round), so we opted for mahi-mahi, which our waiter said had just arrived off the boat 40 minutes before. It was indeed fresh, though slightly overcooked -- and more than slightly overwhelmed by its "Blumarine sauce," a puttanescalike blend of garlic, capers, onion, peppers, olives, and tomato sauce that would have better complemented a denser fish, like swordfish. The fish was accompanied by roasted rosemary-flecked potatoes, which one of my party loved. I would have preferred a crunchy nonstarch vegetable as well.
Deep-fried seafood had a heavier batter coating and much less variety than the best fritto mistos I've had in Italy but, except for two fried-to-desiccation shrimp, was well-cooked and near greaseless. Two of the dish's three fish pieces (both skate, I think), however, contained a lot of bones, not something one expects or wants to encounter in breaded fish fillets. Additionally the platter consisted mostly of squid and came with no vegetables save for a few leaves of nondressed wilted mesclun, making the $22.50 tag seem stiff.
Linguine pescatore, the "house suggestion" pasta, came with a choice of white-wine or light tomato sauce. We went for the latter, hoping for something like a barely cooked, barely spiced but bursting-with-fresh-tomato-flavor sauce. The "light" sauce actually was a rather pasty, heavy affair that was, somehow, concentrated yet nearly flavorless. (Where was that Blumarine sauce when we needed it?) But three of the four seafood garnishes -- mussels, tender squid rings, and small pristine clams -- were fresh and nicely cooked; shrimp once again were overdone.
Linguine alla Barese was a true puzzle. Its white-wine sauce, according to the menu, contained garlic, anchovies, and rapini -- ingredients whose tastes are not exactly easy to conceal. But the sauce tasted only of the bitter and overcooked broccoli rabe.
A lemon tartufo (soft ice cream) dessert, rolled in fine crunchy crumbs of amaretto cookie, had too much sugar and not enough citrus for my taste but should please those with real sweet teeth.
The bottom line is that Blumarine does have very fresh fish -- and that's not bad. For the price, though, the preparation should be better. Most great food in Italy does rely on fresh ingredients simply prepared, but not all simply prepared food is great. Some simply is boring.
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