Tarry at Mai Tardi in the Design District
"Coming soon," reads the website of Mai Tardi, which two months ago took over the former Brosia space in the Design District. The only other homepage info is a motto: "A place where time is not of the essence." That explains the coming soon pretty well, as does the translation of the restaurant name to mean "never late" — all in keeping with the idea of Mai Tardi being the sort of place where patrons tarry for a while.
It is one of the loveliest spots to do so, thanks to the Graspa Group (Spris, Tiramesu, Van Dyke, Lincoln Road's Segafredo) inheriting Brosia's one great attribute: the 4,000-square-foot Oak Plaza piazza, with some 90 seats sprawled at the foot of lofty, patterned mosaic tile walls and loftier 150-year-old white oak trees. The interior seats about two dozen and is defined by a 25-foot mirror on one wall and a newly installed pizza oven and pizza bar. Still, Mai Tardi is an outdoor restaurant. The only downside to the ambiance is the maddening Miami restaurant soundtrack of thumping club beats. As a diner, you probably won't get up and dance, but the turbulent tunes might inspire your digestive tract to do the jitterbug.
Mai Tardi takes a cue or two from Joey's in Wynwood, meaning a casual menu of brick-oven pizzas, homemade pastas, and a few rustic Italian meat, poultry, and fish entrées. Prices are even friendlier than those at Tardi's modest Design District competitors: Starters run $5 to $12, pizzas $9 to $15, pastas $13 to $16, and main courses $16 to $24. A "Beat the Clock" special runs daily from 5 to 7 p.m., a deal initiated at Graspa's now-lapsed Le Bon, where if diners showed up at, say, 5 o'clock, they'd get a big batch of steamed mussels for $5; arrive at 6:20 p.m. and it would be $6.20. No mussels this time, but Mai Tardi's choices include two pastas and three pizzas (normally $9 to $11.50 apiece).
The compendium of starters ("Italian tapas") is fairly concise but covers a wide swath of varied comestibles and tastes: grappa-cured salmon, venison stew, deep-fried artichokes, sesame-crusted scallops, and shrimp piri piri, to name a few. The piri piri lacked the nitty-gritty habañero heat that defines an authentic Mozambican version, but the six juicy crustaceans possessed a certain garlic-ginger splendor (and a slight spice bite).
Ceci e farro soup is a meal in itself. The hefty portion of hearty organic emmer wheat, dotted with garbanzo beans, will fill a belly faster than a bowl of hot oatmeal. Sadly, the so-called rosemary essence cited on the menu was simply a garnishing sprig of the herb. Another appetizer brought fat fingers of fried pizza dough plated with generously arrayed slices of smoky speck ham from Trentino and a creamy truffled fonduta dip. Something about the soft, chewy, almost zeppole-textured dough didn't click with the other components; substitute crunchy bread sticks and this is a winner. So is arancini di riso, six Sicilian-style rice balls featuring crystalline-crisp breadcrumbs coating Carnaroli grains and porcini mushrooms made creamy with tomato paste and fontina cheese. Then again, this is an ideal spot for sharing a platter of imported charcuterie (choice of five for $16).
Apparently the era when Italian restaurants served Italian food and pizzerias served pizza has passed. Now that the mozzarella curtain has been torn down, it is de rigueur for any establishment feigning Mediterranean flair to boast brick-oven pies. Mai Tardi's entry into the sweepstakes brings a choice of some 15 toppings plus three types of seafood pies and six sauceless white-cheese variations. Crusts are thin, crisply pliable, and aptly charred underneath, and the tomato sauce is mild. Tardi's pizza rates with the rest of the best in town.
Puffy pizza breads (focaccia) are likewise proffered, as are a few calzone and a half-dozen "pizza sandwiches," whose pie dough is rolled into flat, pita-like rounds and blistered in the wood-burning oven. The one filled with skirt steak, mozzarella cheese, and sweetly caramelized onions would make an ideal lunch paired with a $5 house salad — or, better, with a sprightly collusion of local arugula, Italian bresaola, Parmesan shavings, and light lemon dressing.
Pasta dishes are another of the restaurant's strong suits. Muscular ribbons of jade-green pappardelle noodles lend a potent spinach taste to tender morsels of shredded oxtail in a subdued red-sauce ragù; nod yes to the waiter when he asks if you'd like finishing touches of cracked black pepper and spoons of salty Parmesan. Farro linguine comes tangled with Portobello mushrooms, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, and aged ricotta cheese. Ravioli are plumped with venison and smothered in amarena-Gorgonzola sauce. Potato gnocchi — topped with Bolognese sauce on the regular menu but better with a soupy, basil-dominant pesto as part of "Beat the Clock" — melt in the mouth.
Entrées encompass steak, chicken, lamb, salmon, and local grouper. The last gratified in basic fashion with a crown of sautéed onions and fried leeks, a pool of thin Cabernet sauce, and soft if charmless mashed potatoes. It needed another component to lend a salty spark — like, say, crisp pancetta, which the menu promised but did not deliver. Don't you hate it when they leave out the most enticing accompaniment?
An entrée of two double lamb chops was moist and, with golden nuggets of oil-roasted potatoes, made a magnanimous plate of food for $24 — yet with its flabby, colorless exterior, the meat might as well have been poached in water rather than pan-roasted. A ramekin of fig-and-port-wine sauce arrived tardily to the table but heightened the final mouthfuls. Mai Tardi's staff is well intentioned and fairly well informed, but there are lapses when the place gets busy (which happens quite often).
The waiter, who assured us that each sweet is made on premises, enunciated an abbreviated dessert menu. Tiramisu, panna cotta, and ricotta cheesecake are generally on hand, as is Nutella-filled pizza crust. We had tried that dough in enough guises already, so we went instead with Nutella/chocolate chip cheesecake, a dense, creamy New York-style slice only improved by the addition of chocolate-hazelnut paste.
A well-valued, easily navigated wine list with strong Italian accent offers deals you can't refuse. Bottles are categorized according to price, starting at $20 and rising by $5 increments to $40 (plus there's a handful of more serious wines, from $60 to $220 for Joseph Phelps Insignia). Grapes by the glass start as low as $6 for, say, a workable Umbrian Sangiovese or Sardinian Vermentino. The beer selection spans seven countries — eight if you count Brooklyn separately from the United States. A full bar concocts $10 cocktails and pours apropos spirits such as limoncello, black sambuca, and Candolini grappas. Linger as long as you'd like over any of these elixirs. At the relaxed and affordable Mai Tardi, time is not of the essence.
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