Saturday, April 11, 2009

Simply Disappointing: D'Amato's

I had always seen D’Amato’s in Royal Oak as I would walk by to hit one of the other bars (often that bar would be Goodnite Gracie, connected to the restaurant and sharing the same owners). I had written it off as yet another chotchy Royal Oak restaurant, packed with people every evening with an über-trendy atmosphere and matching over-priced, over-hyped, overly generic menu to match. The appeal seemed all commercial with no substance (sadly, as has become the fate of so much of Royal Oak). Until I ate there for the first time.

On my first-ever visit to D’Amato’s, I opted for the Napolatana pasta, spaghetti tossed with crushed tomatoes, roasted garlic, fresh basil, and parmigiano reggiano. The rather basic garlic-and-olive-oil approach to pasta just so happens to also be one of my favorites—sometimes simple just works best, and when accented with flavors such as fresh ground pepper, parmesan, or a variety of other small touches, this deceptively demure dish can actually be a mouthful of flavor. One bite of the Napolatana pasta at D’Amato’s and I was wowed. Not since a place called The Big Tomato in Windsor (long since closed) served their garlic-and-olive oil linguine with red pepper flakes had I experienced this humble dish with such excitement. For months afterwards I would tell people that D’Amato’s was actually “surprisingly good” (with an equal amount of surprise in my own voice as I would tell them), based solely on the strength of this one dish. I finally decided to fully test my theory and see if the trend holds for the rest of the menu.

It doesn’t.

While I must give D’Amato’s credit for certainly trying, everything about the rest of their menu is overdone. They attempt to mix flavors to create interesting and creative contrasts, utilizing strong sauces to complement strong meats, ensuring that all the sauces used have a very prominent flavor.

And boy do they. The Zucchini Lemon Risotto tasted like a mouthful of Pledge. The Pork Shoulder Ravioli had a vinegar reduction sauce which was so strong it made my lips pucker and my mouth sting.

To start you will receive a bread basket with thick and slightly dry chunks of garlic-scented bread. I say “garlic-scented” because the garlic flavor is not very strong and it otherwise tastes like a hearty white bread. You’ll also get olive oil for dipping, and if you’re really lucky a plate of grated parmesan cheese to mix with the oil (I was one for two here). You’ll have a friendly waiter who will be willing to offer you recommendations from the menu or wine list, and is consistently polite even when you do express your distaste for a particular dish, such as when my dining partner honestly answered “I don’t really like it” when asked about his Lemon Risotto. Proper etiquette was upheld and a replacement dish was offered though refused.

We started with two appetizers (smart diner’s tip: sign up for their mailing list and receive a coupon for a free appetizer with purchase of any entrée) from the fairly standard starters menu—Italian no-brainers such as Calamari and Bruschetta abound. We opted for the Lamb Chops with mint pesto and balsamic glaze and the Pork Shoulder Ravioli with Michigan cherry balsamic sauce, arugula, pistachios, and Manchego cheese. The Lamb Chops were fine, though a little tough. The mint pesto was a nice touch, and the balsamic wasn’t overpowering…unlike in the Ravioli, which had a balsamic reduction so strong that it drowned the other flavors of the dish and more or less killed my palate. The meat otherwise wasn’t very juicy, as braised pulled pork should be, and even the stinging balsamic sauce couldn’t conceal that.

For the pastas, we sampled the Zucchini Lemon Risotto made with dry vermouth, toasted pine nuts, and oregano which, as I mentioned already, was so overpoweringly LEMON that all I could think about while eating it was how badly I needed to dust. We also tried the Papparadelle, with porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, asparagus, white truffle oil, and mascarpone cheese. The Papparadelle tasted good enough but looked like a child’s sick pile after a particularly jerky roller coaster and a heavy lunch. The smell was heavenly, though: the perfume of white truffles was fragrant and lovely. The prosciutto was julienned, which seemed odd, and was a bit thicker and a bit tougher than how it is typically served. Not bad…not particularly good, either. The noodles themselves do not appear to be fresh, and while D’Amato’s prides itself on its use of fresh local ingredients from farmer’s markets and fish flown in daily, there is no mention of pasta being made in-house. Fresh homemade pasta cooked perfectly al dente has a certain texture and flavor that sets it apart (see: Angelina Italian Bistro in Detroit); this was not that. And yes, while the Napolatana is outstanding, it seems to be the stand-alone standout.

I opted not to sample very much from the entrée menu as Atlantic Salmon and Chicken Marsala are simply not wow-worthy dishes (once again, D’Amato’s falls back on generic Italian standards that are pleasing to inexperienced palates), though the Filet Mignon served with fingerling potatoes, asparagus, prosciutto, leeks, trumpet royale mushrooms and a sherry cream sauce does sound tasty. A different dining partner tried the Lemon Chicken (again with that lemon), sautéed chicken breast made with artichokes, capers, lemon white wine sauce, spaghetti, and sautéed broccoli. It looked, smelled, and tasted exactly as I expected it to—a little too lemony; otherwise mild and kind of boring.

However. You should know by now I’m a sucker for a good cheese plate. I couldn’t completely write this place off without first sampling their selection of artisanal cheeses, which were Sage Derby, Maytag Bleu, and Fontinella served with a variety of crackers and fruit. The bleu cheese was sharp and creamy (and heart-a-tastic!), the Fontinella mild and soft, the Derby tangy and interesting. Bonus points for not being the standard cheddar-and-brie fare, though not enough to save the place.

Like so many other mediocre trendy restaurants, D’Amato’s certainly does have its one or two really good dishes. The question then becomes who might really have the patience to sift through the otherwise disappointing menu on repeat visits just to find those one or two stand-outs if they did not stumble upon them the first time as I did? Because I can assure you, had the Papparadelle been my first meal there, I would have simply written D’Amato’s off as just another generic Italian eatery in overly-trend-driven Royal Oak.

The saving grace just might be Goodnite Gracie, the jazz and martini bar attached to the restaurant and under the same ownership. This has always been known as a great place to see live music and imbibe in an artful, imaginative martini. This place is always crowded, which is as much a testament to its popularity as it is to the Royal Oakiphiles’ compulsion to crowd everything. Yes, much like the restaurant, it is the Royal Oak crowd one is forced to deal with here at Gracie’s. Best to steer clear Thursday through Saturday. But they do mix a damn good martini, many of which are also available at D’Amato’s. My Espresso Martini was exactly what I hoped it would be, like a straight shot of iced espresso with alcohol in it.

The wine list is kind of a diamond-in-the-rough sort of deal—mostly garbage, with some truly outstanding choices in between. From the “By the Glass” list I opted first for the Finca La Pinta Cristobal 1492 Malbec; completely uninteresting (what Malbecs used to be before they started to gain strength as a stand-alone grape and the reason why these stand-alone Malbecs were not taken seriously by connoisseurs for some time). Next I decided to try the Villa Puccini Sangiovese, a grape that rarely does wrong, and it was…fine. Just fine. Not very complex or heady, but fine. For the most part, this is a Santa Margherita crowd and thus a Santa Margherita menu; however, there is the occasional bright spot on the menu: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc for only $36.00 is one of them. The Spy Valley Riesling is another good buy, and the Terra Andina Carmenere from Chile is twenty-eight-dollars’ worth of South America’s mind-blowing best (what’s even better is that you can get it at Cost Plus Wine Shoppe in Eastern Market for only $8.00). And I know I’ve told you before about the Emilio Moro Tempranillo…a little pricier at $48.00, but still worth every penny. And ohdeargod they also have Col Solare, and ohdeargod you should try it. Again, expensive; again, worth every penny. There’s even some Lebanese wine listed, which could potentially be interesting. It is no small wonder then that D’Amato’s is quite a popular spot for wine tastings and wine dinners; for the wine lover there is just enough here to keep it exciting, and the prices are quite reasonable and cater to a lower budget (but not necessarily a lower quality).

Over, D’Amato’s is a simple place with simple food. The food isn’t really good, but it isn’t really bad either. The savvy (and patient!) diner can get lucky. The crowd can be a bit…much, but that is not so much the restaurant’s fault as the curse of its location. However, with its dumbed-down version of nouveau Italian, the restaurant certainly caters to the crowd—so it’s a wash. Service is solid from the host stand to the bartender to the busboy, and the wines are definitely worth a look. My recommendation is to take a loved one or a fellow foodie for a bottle of wine and a cheese plate either before or after your real meal elsewhere. Or hit Gracie’s for a digestif and some jazz or techno. Or order the Napolatana pasta for a meal (which is a real value at only $11.00). After that, you’re on your own. I warned you.

D'Amato's is located at 222 S. Sherman Dr. in Royal Oak. Dinner is served Mon.-Wed. 5:00PM-10:00PM, Thurs.-Sat. 5:00PM-11:00PM, and Sunday brunch is 11:00AM-3:00PM. For event and menu information, visit their website: