This post makes me feel guilty for writing, but I feel like we need to discuss declining restaurants, and why work ethic and a passion for feeding people wonderful food - feeding their very souls - is so important, especially in a family-owned business.
On Wednesday night, I had the misfortune of eating at Nirchi's on the Avenue in Endicott with a large group of colleagues. We had just finished a day of grueling plannings meetings, and needed a good meal, strong libations, and some laughs to properly recover. Now, back when Nirchi's first opened their fine-dining location on Endicott's Washington Avenue in 2001, I was a big fan. The calamari was a standout, with one of the lightest, airiest breadings I'd ever tasted, and they were one of the only local joints doing risotto, which was white hot in the early aughts.
A decade and change has taken its toll. Once a place for special occasion meals (Shawn and I had a very romantic Valentine's Day dinner there once) and work dinners, Nirchi's has failed to invest back in itself. The dining room, always dark, is now dated and somewhat shabby, and much-loved menu items like seafood risotto and angels on horseback are no longer available. I can see Robert Irvine, from Food Network's Restaurant Impossible, tearing this place to shreds with glee, harping on the burgundy lace curtain panels and lack of seasoning in the dishes.
I ordered the fettucine carbonara Wednesday night, on the recommendation of the waitress. I had been waffling between that and the chicken marsala, but she said the carbonara was very popular, so I heeded her advice. I didn't expect it to be authentic carbonara, which is pancetta and copious amounts of black pepper, sometimes graced with onions or peas, first mixed with the al dente pasta, and then doused in beaten eggs and pecorino romano cheese. The heat from the pasta "cooks" the eggs gently, forming a sauce without scrambling them, and the black pepper represents coal, which is where the name carbonara comes from. Most restaurants forgo the delicate egg tempering process and cheat the dish with cream, which allows for more consistent results. But Nirchi's version was so off the mark, I barely finished half of my portion. They're using proscuitto instead of pancetta, which doesn't allow for the rendering process to infuse the whole dish with the cured pork flavor, and pre-made alfredo sauce, which was far too runny. In addition, the cook either rinsed the pasta before mixing it with the sauce, or didn't allow the pasta and sauce to cook together for a minute or two before plating, because the sauce slid right off the pasta with no adherence whatsoever. This is the first rule of Italian cookery, and something you can pick up in 30 minutes of watching Rachael Ray or any other pedestrian chef on the Food Network.
|It was not, as the menu states, "unforgettable." I shall forget it as soon as this post is published.|
You can even see in the photo how separate the sauce and pasta are. Moreover, the calamari our table ordered was greasy, with none of the etheral crunch this dish used to carry. Even the spinach and artichoke dip was an abomination, and the sure example of laziness in the kitchen. The canned artichoke chunks were left whole instead of being chopped up in order to meld with the spinach and sauce, which in this case was broken, leaving huge puddles of grease in the dish. Ugh. My UK colleagues ordered seafood dishes, as they are so often wont to do, and I pitied them, as the crabcakes smelled so foul and looked so bland, I would have sent them back.
I don't know if the issue at Nirchi's is that at some point they lost their chef and let a less experienced line cook simply take over the recipes without any oversight, or if the ambivalance about fine cuisine in the Southern Tier has engendered malaise in some of our older establishments. It's the same question I have about Fireside, up in Black River, or Donoli's in Apalachin. Clearly, these places were once vibrant, thriving restaurants, and they're now serving crap to disenfranchised fools who don't care enough about what they put in their bodies to demand better quality.
So there you have it, folks. My simple rant is that I cannot abide by a chef who permits insipid, low quality, lazy, poorly prepared, under-seasoned food to be sent out from his or her kitchen. Food is not difficult, you guys. Salt and pepper are not exotic ingredients. Carbonara is a ten minute dish, and one I can whip up in my kitchen and be ready to serve to guests in no time. I make a better spinach artichoke dip when I'm hungover, and my job is not cooking. If you believe, like I do, that professional cooking is a calling, then you won't condone laziness out of your local restaurants. Nirchi's needs a new dining room, and a new chef, stat. They have a huge company right up the street with business travelers galore asking where to eat - in this market, you just can't afford to be falling behind.
Next Wednesday, on a yummier note, stop on by for a fun taste of bar food in Syracuse! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!