Re-visit: Dinner at A Voce (Madison)
It had been nearly 4-years since my last meal at A Voce and, to be quite honest, I was a bit apprehensive about returning. While I don't recall it being bad, per se, I do remember walking away from my experience wondering what all of the food blogger and media hype was about...
Alex and I were supposed to dine at Alison Eighteen but, due to a scheduling glitch, her assistant made us reservations at A Voce, instead. "Fine," I responded, via email. "No biggie. A Voce works. C u @ 6pm!"
As stunning as the interior dining room may be, Alex and I chose to dine al-fresco. After all, it was the first warm, clear night that we'd had all week! A Voce is blessed with an outdoor patio that's large enough to house both lounge seating and dining space. We snagged a table right at the perimeter's edge, overlooking a bustling post-work 26th Street. To Alex's back stood a metal "trough" where ginormous bottles of rose wine chilled on ice.
Since we had not seen one another since her wedding reception last summer, Alex and I toasted to our reunion with...you guessed it...margaritas! A Voce makes their version with black pepper-infused tequila, lime juice, and an Aperol-like orange liquor. Briskly shaken, then poured in to a salt-rimmed glass over ice, this just may be my favorite non-Mexican-restaurant margarita!
One thing I do remember about my prior meal at A Voce was this incredibly delicious ricotta cheese + toasted bread appetizer. And luckily for me, it was still on the menu! "I vote for the ricotta as one of our appetizers," I said. "Now, it's your turn to choose one!" ...And what did Alex choose? The damn octopus! "Ah man, really? I hate octopus." Before I even had the chance to let out a gaping sigh or dramatically roll my eyes, Chef de Cucina, Hillary Sterling (who, it turns out, was standing right behind me) approached our table. "Hi, so I hear you don't like octopus..." After we introduced ourselves, she asked me, a) if I've ever even tried octopus, b) how I've had octopus prepared in the past, and c) why I hate it. "Of course I've tried octopus. It tastes like a giant rubber band. What's not to hate?" She chuckled a bit, and then asked me if I was up for a challenge. "A challenge? Ya, OK. Fine," I said, in my most confident-sounding voice. "Challenge accepted!" And with that, Chef excused herself and disappeared...
*Note: Alex and I split every dish.
A shallow "well" is dug in to the center of fluffy cow's milk ricotta cheese. The area is then filled with olive oil and sprinkled with fresh mint, thyme, and red chili flakes. Buttery, toasted, garlic-smeared country bread serves as an accompaniment.
This dish is proof positive that there really is heaven on earth.
"Terrina di Polpo"
Served atop a shallow puddle of olive oil was a row of thinly-sliced octopus, finished with cerignola olives (a Puglian green olive) and citrus ribbons.
Oh geez, there it was. The dreaded octopus challenge. "Here goes nothing," I proclaimed, with octopus-speared fork nearing my mouth. After that first squeamish bite, I couldn't help but laugh. "This is actually really, really good!" Alex gave me a 'see, I told you so' face, before helping herself to the octopus.
I never did get a chance to tell Chef Hillary, to her face, that she "won" the challenge, but I made sure that our server passed on the message. :)
A mound of tangled, hand-rolled pasta noodles were tossed with meaty hen of the woods mushrooms and crowed with salty bacon crumbles.
This pasta tasted very similar to carbonara. I loved it! The noodles were dense and boiled to a precise al-dente. The mushrooms added bulk, texture, and an earthy flavor, while the smoky bacon crumbles provided a subtle crunch.
Skin-on, rosemary and lemon-marinated chicken (breast and thigh) was placed atop a shallow broth, swimming with fragrant salmoriglio and nibs of broccoli rabe.
Being the push over easy-breezy gal that I am, I didn't outwardly flinch when Alex told the waiter to "surprise us" with either the chicken or the steak entree. Look, I figured that if the dude put in an order for chicken, then I wouldn't eat as much (...since I'm not a big fan of the bird). And, being that it's almost bikini season and all, that could be a good thing...
Just as my luck would have it, Alex and I were presented with the chicken. I think "damn it" may have slipped out of my mouth, but I can't be too sure. I reluctantly served myself a chunk of the breast meat and a spoonful of the broth. After my first bite, it hit me: Twice in one night I've been blown away by an ingredient that, not minutes before, I claimed to dislike. First octopus, now chicken. What was going on here?
Because the chicken was prepared skin-on, the meat was incredibly moist and retained every bit of its flavor. The "broth moat," surrounding the bird acted as a gravy. This entree was so delicious that...are you ready for this...I would actually order it on my own! Without a gun to my head!
A bowl of polenta was finished with olive oil, freshly-ground black pepper, and a dollop of ricotta cheese.
While I typically love polenta, I found this version to be lukewarm and undercooked. Fail.
"Bomboloni alla Toscana"
Plump, house-made doughnut holes were filled with vanilla-bean pastry cream and served alongside a bowl of molten dark chocolate (dipping sauce).
This crowd pleaser would have been much tastier had it been accompanied by a fruit dipping sauce instead of dark chocolate. But, aside from that, these lil' morsels were fabulous!
"Lime Basil Sorbetti"
This perfectly round scoop of lime-basil sorbet erupted with a refreshing flavor that exuded both sweet and sour notes, simultaneously.
...Just don't let the word "basil" hinder you; the flavor is so incredibly subtle, that you'll scratch your head and wonder what that mysterious je nais sais quoi ingredient could be. You won't believe it's basil!
Aside from the polenta, I enjoyed a perfect al-fresco dinner at A Voce. Not only will I return for the ricotta appetizer and the pasta...but I'll be making my way back for the chicken, as well.