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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 01/18/2008

Restaurant Week: Clearly the Word Is Out

By Erin

For Friday lunch, I decided to book a table at Spezie. The restaurant has touted a full menu offering and I was intrigued to see how it could handle feeding such a large menu to the converging masses: those who would naturally pack a central lunch spot during Restaurant Week and those wanting to try a restaurant immediately following a favorable review from Tom Sietsema.

As I'd expected, there was not an empty seat to be seen in the bar or dining room. Alarm bells always sound in my head when I see a restaurant bursting at its seams, but my table was ready and waiting, so I took a seat and hoped for the best. Though the servers were clearly frazzled, they were gracious, if a bit delayed. Offerings of pepper came well after food had been served, and it took a good five minutes before a neighboring diner was able to flag a server to have her problem entree sent back. Service was also occasionally confused. Runners brought out a second round of appetizers in place of entrees and sorbets instead of gelati.

I described several types of Restaurant Week menus in my post about Morrison-Clark, but there is also Spezie's formula, which is to create a whole new menu. The menu was quite lengthy -- there were around a dozen options each for appetizers and entrees -- but it was not the same as its standard lunch menu. Rather, it seemed to me that the restaurant was able to accommodate the length of the menu by offerings things that are easy to prepare in advance and in large volumes. Appetizer choices included lots of salads, like warm seafood salad, calamari and arugula, radicchio salad with pear and hazelnuts and then items like grilled polenta with sausage and a roasted pepper bagna cauda. All these choices would come to mind as working well for a banquet where everyone needs to be served simultaneously. The turnaround time sure backed my theory. I nearly made a sport out of timing how long it took for appetizers to appear at the table after ordering: the standard was around three minutes. When my neighbor's rejected entree was removed, a replacement pasta was whisked out in under a minute. I kid you not. Unless it's Easy Mac, pasta takes longer than 45 seconds to prepare and serve.

Spezie's regular lunch menu includes entrees around $20, which would make the promotion of an entree plus an appetizer and dessert into a fabulous deal, but the entrees listed on the promotional menu were not nearly as enticing. Diners could choose between pastas like bucatini fatti in casa alla matriciana and ricotta gnocchi in tomato sauce -- $15-$16 regularly -- or meats like pork tenderloin, a roasted half-chicken and platters of mixed grilled meats. I praise restaurants for offering a large selection, but I can't help but feel that there must be a more appetizing choice than a mosaic of what I interpreted as rejected proteins.

There were about five dessert choices, including tiramisu, panna cotta, a pumpkin streudel and a clementine chocolate mousse cake. They were fine, but when the tiramisu and mousse cake had the exact same presentation -- served on a plate decorated with powdered sugar, drizzled chocolate and berries -- it only reinforced the banquet feeling. It didn't help to end the meal on a sweet note.

All in all, this was a good chance to check out a restaurant's performance under real pressure. Let's leave it at that.

--Erin

By Erin  | January 18, 2008; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Restaurants  
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