October 5, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

A Voce Goes Shopping Mall 

A must: Perfect poached egg on feisty escarole with bread crumbs. Photo: Steven Richter

        The Road Food Warrior and I are in shock.  We’ve walked the boutique gauntlet on Time Warner’s third floor to the new seedling, A Voce Columbus and we’re feeling like Dorothy in Oz. It doesn’t look one bit like Café Gray and the two of us miss the candy box Viennoiserie of Gray’s mauve glove leather-wrapped bar. And I’m wondering how my friend, designer David Rockwell, felt, hired to rip out the stage set he dreamed up for Kunz and tilt the room so the kitchen no longer blocks the view. (“It’s better that it was me,” he confides.)

       Not that our town’s loudest mouths necessarily liked Rockwell’s glove box. I got a voyeuristic charge watching Gray Kunz hurdling and huffing as the kitchen drama played out in front of the windows. But a noisy crowd ranted that the stainless steel innards hid the best view of the park in the city.

Milanese sheen and the controversial view recaptured by Rockwell. Photo: Steven Richter

        So now the bar is open and more Las Vegas than Vienna. (Rockwell says he was going for Milanese. I confess I’ve not been to Milan lately.) You tumble in and there you are. A discreet slit in a bare wall looks into the kitchen, lots of steam, molto action. And from back here, where we slide into place on A Voce’s signature leather swivel chairs, easy and comfortable, the window view is all ours.  We are eye-level with Christopher Columbus in marble atop a 70 foot granite column, but it’s too dark to see the trees.

A kitchen built for action and less-than-total exposure. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now on double duty here and at Madison Avenue, chef Missy Robbins stakes her claim to this turf with a bold prelude: fat slices of focaccia slicked with oil and a small saucer of heavenly ricotta: green olive oil-glossed, with black pepper and fiery orange veins of crushed pepperoncini.  I can’t get enough of that cheese. Once I slow down to consider that the cakey loaf is unworthy of its sublime smear, I’m eating the ricotta with a spoon.

Crab and leeks in sea urchin butter dress up hand-cut spaghetti. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s our second visit this week, but it was love at first bite with that cheese. We’d sat at a tiny two table on a jumping Friday night and loved most of what we ate: properly firm spaghetti alla chitarra with crab, leeks and sea urchin butter; chili-touched spaghetti tossed with octopus and breadcrumbs, and marvelous chicken cooked under a brick with the tang of lemon and wilted Tuscan greens.  Granted I might have liked more uni funk in that pasta, and I wasn’t moved by a few grilled calamari with thin tongues of zucchini and Calabrian chili vinaigrette (a looker but not a taste thrill). 

Has anyone seen the leftover chicken I forgot in the checkroom? Photo: Steven Richter

         As for the  moist and flavorful chicken with gigante beans nesting on superfluous potato thins – I was so full by the time it arrived (the kitchen can be slowish) – I merely tasted and asked to take the rest home. The waiter brought me a coat check for my carryout (nice touch).  Not realizing till I walked into my kitchen at home, I’d left without it. 

        "I want to go back and get it,” I moan.

        “Not me,” says Steven, reading my mind.

       “If I had a car and driver, I’d send him to get my chicken.”  Next morning at breakfast, I’m still mourning the loss.

 Grilling the lemon gives a lively tart edge to the giant pork chop. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now we’re back with a food world friend who’s equally put off by the lumpen focaccia and equally smitten with the ricotta. Marvelous escarole salad with its burst of poached egg and warm pancetta vinaigrette has her exulting. Bottarga salts the silkiness of ricotta gnocchi with small zucchini rounds and squash blossoms. And grilled lemon gives remarkable flavor to a hulking pork chop, carefully cooked and feathered with arugula.

       It’s far too early to judge the kitchen. Chef Robbins stops by, bringing irresistible curls of sticky dolce di carnevale pastry as a sweet farewell to let us know she realizes “we’ve still got a lot of work here.”  She’s right. Orecchiette with roasted pork jowl, soffrito and arugula would be more impressive if the pasta were not so tough.  An excess of late summer heirloom tomato sauce on stracci (pasta rags) is neither sweet enough nor tart enough. Roasted stone fruit is not quite roasted.

Calamari with zucchini is more thrilling to contemplate than to eat. Photo: Steven Richter

        Still, I’m getting a sense of her signature. I only tasted her food once at A Voce downtown where she waded cheerfully into the task of winning over Andrew Carmellini fans in shock over his abrupt walkout. A performance that won her a star in the 2010 Michelin. Five years at Chicago’s top-rated Spaggia and youthful knocking around Italy’s kitchens has fired her passion for simplicity and product.  But I feel something gets lost in too much thought and gentrification. As tonight, in exquisitely slivered sardine filets (a sardine and a half) on caponata with dried tomato powder and orange dust, and razor clams layered with Sardinian cous cous with too subtle a hint of Calabrian chili paste.

Missy Robbins does double duty at both A Voces after formative years at Spaggia. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s not fair, I suppose, to compare A Voce to Locanda Verde, Andrew Carmellini’s new digs. He has hits and misses too. But a major league team of partners with slavish followers and Tribeca cool have drawn hordes. A Voce prices are higher too - antipasti $11 to $16, pastas $17 to $25, entrees $22 to $38 - although dedicated budgeteers can order $6 verdure or that $10 escarole, share a pasta and divide that gargantuan pork chop or the elusive chicken.

       There is nothing cool about the third floor of the Time Warner Building, so all depends on Missy Robbins and the power of the A Voce team’s rolodex.  I’ll give her time to whip her troops into sync but maybe what she also needs is to kick it up a little herself.

Time Warner Center. 10 Columbus Circle 3rd floor. 212 823 2523
Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11am to 3 pm Dinner Sunday to Wednesday 5 pm to 10 pm; Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to 11:30 pm.