Were The Good Wife to lose Julianna Margulies, it would be all over. But when a restaurant loses its chef, it’s a little more complicated. Some restaurants have owners who are such splendidly able control freaks that they ensure continuity of taste in the kitchen, even when the chef leaves. Take, for example, Pastis, where owner Georges Gurnon has survived chef changes and kept the brand rock steady. You eat terrine of foie gras and butter-roasted lobster with frites at Pastis and it always tastes great, regardless of who’s in the kitchen.
But some kitchens are more vulnerable to change.When Malena (which was born in spring 2010) lost their chef Doug Neigel to Mercatto early this fall, they replaced him with Matthew Sullivan. Chef Sullivan trained at Stratford Chef School, did stages at The Fat Duck in London, Gramercy Tavern in New York City, and landed at Terroni in Toronto. At Malena his mandate is “Ionian farmhouse,” just a smidgen different from Chef Neigel’s mandate, which was Ionian Sea.
But the two chefs have different ways. Chef Sullivan’s recently debuted fall menu is all new, save for the squid-ink pasta with lobster (which was spaghetti and is now tortelloni). Dinner starts superbly well with house-made focaccia that’s soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside, zinged with bay leaf, black pepper and sea salt. But the grilled octopus is a bummer: While it is overcooked and tough, its chickpeas, conversely, are undercooked and tough and its pancetta brodo is dark brown and somewhat acrid. Beef cheeks have great flavour but are also tough. Burrata arancini was perhaps our error: We saw the word burrata and pictured fresh mozzarella stuffed with heavy cream, failing to understand that the burrata was mixed with the rice in the deep-fried rice balls that are arancini. Which were just fine, with robust cherry-tomato sauce.
Big strong spice comes with perfectly cooked fat clams studded with spicy minced pork, topped with a fabulously crunchy deep-fried bread stick. Grilled Monforte haloumi is delicate, utterly unlike its Greek namesake, which I often find overcooked and hard. This haloumi of impeccable pedigree and careful cooking is topped with a small sauté of cured smelts and wildflower honey. This is Chef Sullivan’s best dish – a triumph of deep savour partnered with light sweetness atop a creamy base.
From there, it’s not exactly downhill, but slightly disappointing. Chef Sullivan has big ambitions: He has taken the trouble to source the best ingredients and build complex dishes with them. But there’s too much salt and oil in his cooking.
Grilled pork chop and confit pork belly are a pig lover’s dream: Pink, pretty, juicy chop and crispy crunchy pork belly atop a fat slice of impeccable bacon. On the side is cauliflower that has been cut into the tiniest possible florets, tossed in a significant amount of oil and salt, and roasted in a hot oven till it caramelizes. Bucatini with little-neck clams are firm pasta with tender squid and cute little deep-fried eggplant cubes in deep-brown sauce that is slightly salty.
The perfectly grilled whole Mediterranean sea bass comes with a Sicilian caponata of barely cooked yellow and green cherry tomatoes (a clever idea) with more of those cute little deep-fried eggplant cubes and slices of piquant green olives. Gnocchi are good but not gossamer. Chef’s one holdover from the previous menu is charming although unexciting: He fashions cool-looking black tortelloni from squid-ink pasta and stuffs them with creamed lobster, with a classic lobster cream sauce.
I’m just not feeling it. Take the sides: At first bite, the crispy broccoli is crazy good, the kind of side you’d come back for. But as it cools slightly you figure out that you’re eating deep-fried broccoli florets, whose surface area is large enough to absorb a lot of oil. And it’s salty. Equally concerning are the caramelized Brussels sprouts. They too are fabulously browned. Thin slices of lightly vinegar-marinated garlic add to the fun. But here too there is a surfeit of oil and salt.
I do not like olive oil in the cream topping on my chocolate panna cotta. It feels like colliding worlds. Malena’s desserts, pre chef change, were wild extravaganzas anchored by strong technical skills. They need the anchor. Lemon-pistachio layer cake is lemon cream overpowering pistachio puree. Cookies sandwiched with brown-butter cream and spiced pumpkin are clever but the cream needs more brown butter and the spiced pumpkin is too intense. Cinnamon zeppole are impeccable fresh doughnut holes, but so what.
The service is less sharp and attentive than it was a year ago. The room is still gorgeous and modish, thanks to dim lighting, copper and other pots and majolica plates on the walls, the classic rock played fairly loud, the elaborate frames on the big mirrors, the trendy people who continue to flock here. But I miss the Malena of yesteryear. It was simpler food, less oily, less salty, less layered and with fewer elements on the plates. Sometimes excess of ambition is its own worst enemy.