Charlottesville started having a restaurant week this time last year. The first one was in July 2009, the second January 2010, and this week is the third. We’ve never taken advantage of it, but I was determined we would do so this time. For one thing, it’s a great opportunity to try new restaurants because they all feature a $26/person prix fixe menu, so you get three courses for $26. For another, it’s for a good cause – $1 from every meal is donated to a local charity. Plus we like to eat and we like to try new restaurants, so it just makes sense! We made two reservations at restaurants we had never been to before, and last night was our first reservation, at Ristorante Al Dente (their Restaurant Week menu can be found here).
When we walked in, the hostess was walking out to seat some other guests on the patio and discreetly and pleasantly told us she’d be right with us. Fine and dandy. We were about 10 minutes early, and it gave us a few minutes to look around. The decor is nice – sort of quaint and antique-y. The chairs around the tables don’t match, the ceiling and walls seem to have an antiqued finish, the silverware and salt cellars on the tables are clearly older – a definite shabby chic kind of look in a nice, cozy way. Fresh flowers on the tables, which is always a plus. The weird things we noticed – uber-modern bar stools in the midst of this quaint setting, and the husband noticed that the bar was not very well stocked, but I’m guessing the serve mostly wine and little liquor anyway. (Note: I combined image files below to simplify this post; click on any image to see a larger version of it.)
The hostess seated us maybe 3 minutes later, and we looked at the wine list and chose a bottle of their house sangiovese. And then we waited to tell someone what wine we wanted. We looked at the menus and discussed which dishes we would order so that we wouldn’t duplicate one another and could both try twice as many things. And we still waited for someone to visit our table. After 10 minutes, a waiter finally came over and rather hurriedly took both our wine and food orders at the same time. He brought the wine promptly, and we were pleasantly surprised at how good it was for one of the cheapest bottles of wine on the menu ($27 in the restaurant, so probably around $12-15 if you found it in a shop). After just a little while longer, a young lady brought out a complimentary starter of their house bruschetta, which was okay, but not awesome. The bread was soggy and the olive oil used too heavily (probably contributing to the soggy bread). But it was free, so hey, whatever.
Almost immediately after the bruschetta came out, our antipasti were delivered, and on the heels of that came bread and olive oil for dipping. It was too fast – the timing was awful. We had gotten halfway through the bruschetta and suddenly two more plates plus bread plus olive oil were on the table. David ordered the mushroom polenta in tomato and gorgonzola sauce for his antipasti, and I had the eggplant wrapped around cheeses in a tomato basil sauce. They were both served on unfortunate plates – they looked unappetizing just because of the color of the plates – and they were swimming in sauce. Mine was lukewarm. David’s was slimy. They were both just weird, and not in a good way. When it comes to food, weird in a good way is called interesting; weird in a bad way is just weird. And a note on the bread – it was okay, not terrible, not outstanding, but the olive oil was subpar. I felt like I was dipping my bread in cooking oil. Olive oil for bread dipping should be much better quality than that.
Our plates were cleared immediately after we took our last bites, almost too soon – I almost felt rushed to eat so they could clear my plate. I don’t know what the hurry was, though; we then waited another noticeable length of time before getting our pasta course. David chose the mushroom crepes and I chose the sweet potato and chive gnocchi. This course was by far our favorite. The flavors were good – interesting, not weird. We both liked both dishes quite a bit.
No hasty plate clearing this time – actually, a perfect timing on that for a change. And then we waited some more for the meat course, not a terribly long time but long enough to get bored with looking at one another. When it came, it looked lovely. David chose the ossobucco and I had the chicken. They were both average. The chicken was better when I ate the actual slivers of orange rind with the meat (the first few bites I had were sans orange). David said the veal was a little dry.
After we finished with our entrees and our plates were cleared, we were ready to go. David pulled out his wallet and took his credit card out. We waited, and the waiter came back with dessert menus, flung them at us and left before we could say, “No thanks, just the check please.” David was NOT happy, especially since he was pretty sure the waiter had noticed his credit card already out. We waited again, an interminable period of time during which we both tried to catch his eye and/or flag him down, and I’m pretty sure he was purposely not looking our way. When he finally came back, he was pretty quick about bringing the check and processing our payment at least.
Other points: David had a good view of the 15 or so tables on the patio from his seat. He said that he never saw a single smiling face, that most people seemed to spend the meal looking around for a waiter, so it wasn’t just us (I counted about 4 waiters working a total of maybe 25 tables – busy, but not so slammed that the service was forgiveable). I also noted that all of their Restaurant Week offerings are also on their regular menu, which is a disappointment. Most chefs put forth an effort to come up with at least a few special dishes for the occasion to show off their skill. So. Food was okay but not stellar, except the gnocchi and crepes which were quite good. Service was pretty much abysmal. I would not pay that much for their food again, certainly not with that level of service. I’m afraid, Al Dente, that we were underwhelmed. We will probably not be back.