Friday, March 27, 2009

Tasty Bruchetta, Damn the Season! A Review of Cafe BellaLuca!

So I love good Bruschetta. I hate the pretentious way people say it - Bru-sketta- but putting up with snarky waiters and the 'Sam-u-el' crowds who can't get enough of Mediterranean-style Italian cuisine (as opposed to those hole in the wall mom-and-pop places that make the most delicious heavy pastas) is worth it if for no other reason than the simple deliciousness of toasted bread and tomatoes at peak freshness.

Now lots of places mess this up. Heavy, bursting-ripe tomatoes need nothing but a tiny bit of high-quality olive oil, a few bits of garlic and really fresh bread to make this perfect dish. As is often the case in life though, it seems restaurants can't control themselves, and add all sorts of additional spices, and, god forbid, even cheese. Its not that I don't like these things together in other forms, mind you. Rather, in the case of Bruschetta, they usually detract from the complex, weighty, and delicious flavor of perfectly ripe tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I am in the desert. And its March. So when I ordered the Bruchetta at Cafe BellaLuca in Truth or Consequences, I shouldn't have expected the 'perfect' celebration of the tomato I so love. What drove me to order something so obviously out of season? Perhaps the hot spring water I soaked in for an hour before dinner got to me.

When a plate of toasted bread heaping with not-so-ripe looking tomatoes and a bunch of other stuff, to include olive oil, balsamic, mozzerellla, basil, lettuce, and at least 2-3 other things was presented, I shouldn't have been surprised. I was decidedly unhopeful for my dinner, but given that I didn't want Mexican or Dairy Queen and am in the middle of nowhere, I was happy to find somewhere that even made a go at Italian food.

The amazing thing? It was DELICIOUS. Its all about the vinegar. It was just pungent enough to compensate for the lack of taste inherent in tomatoes out of season, and they were cautious enough with its application not to overpower the good-quality cheese. I was taken aback. I am going to return home, reexamine all of my fresh tomato-based dishes that I normally file away until June, and see what may be salvageable with the application of some fine vinegar (although I too have a tendency to overdo a good thing, and ruin it when it comes to vinegar; I think I would drink the stuff directly out of the bottle were no one looking).

I was suddenly very optimistic for the whole meal! Unfortunately, nothing else lived up to this early creative and well-executed dish. I got the lasagna, which I think used canned or frozen spinach. Now if there is a single ingredient for which there is no equivalent non-fresh version, it's spinach. You can taste the bitterness of frozen/canned immediately, and it completely overpowers a dish. Add large pieces of obviously canned tomatoes (or maybe just the bruchetta's more tasteless cousins), and it was not good. Even more painful was the $14 price tag for a small dish. For a small meatless pasta dish, made with primarily non-fresh ingredients, this was outrageous. There were a variety of other pastas, pizza, and a few steak/seafood options. Maybe I just choose poorly, but given the quality control on what I did get, I am not hopeful.

I hope dessert would redeem, and perhaps the lasagna was a one-off bad choice, but alas, the cannoli, for which I was initially excited as it was not covered in pistachios like most, was dry and tasteless. Now I like a cannoli that is a little sour on the inside with a sweet crunchy shell, or a shell that is flaky and strong-tasting with a sweet creamy filling, but these were the unfortunate combination of a sour filling with a bland dry shell. I didn't even finish them. Me. I didn't finish my dessert. Unheard of. Add the fact the expresso machine was broken, and the second two-thirds of this meal were profoundly disappointing. I should have tried the Gelato. Other deserts were your typical Olive Garden variety, although I imagine at least homemade- Tiramisu, Creme Brulee, molten chocolate cake. I was reluctant to go for them as the presence of all three made it seem a bit too chain-Italian generic. If only one were on the menu, and a few other more unique options, I would have felt more confident.

Now perhaps I am being judgy, given where BellaLuca is located. I am only here a night, but I get the distinct sense that Truth or Consequences is not brimming with culinary masterpieces. Given the choices, it seems like a pretty good option. The interior is warm, open, and inviting, , the initially overly cheesy aggressive approach of the waiter, once it was clear I just wanted to read in by the window and not make lame jokes the service was polite, effective and excellent. It took a long time to get my food, but I was there early, so it could have just been that the pan of lasagna wasn't ready yet. Fresh beats quick, and it wasn't too long (about 20 min).

Worth going, if you are in T or C, but mostly beacuse there are few other options. Even the attempt to have something nice and interesting is commendable here- I hope the chef keeps trying, and works on every dish count. For now, just order two plates of Bruchetta, and get some ice cream at Dairy Queen!

Cafe Bellaluca on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Unfortunetly your taste is not as in tune to know that Bella Luca does not use canned or frozen anything.
Everything is fresh as fresh as they can get for the season. I think they do extreemly well for what they have to work with sometimes but Sysco, you won't find in their restaurant or any like company.
We have eaten their many times and the food has been excellent.

Joyce said...

I am glad you have had better experiences. However, as it was in the middle of winter, the spinach was clearly not fresh. It is not a knock on the restaurant directly, in that there are not many places that can get high-quality out-of-season produce. Its not possible outside of 4-climate zone areas (of which there are none in the US). But dishes that feature out-of-season veggies are a poor choice for anywhere, especially one with the aspirations that Bella Luca seems to have. There are delicious in-season options out there, and I was saddened to see them overlooked on the menu.

I am curious how you KNOW that they did not use any kind of non-fresh spinach during a period a year ago- are you an owner or a chef there? Otherwise, this is a somewhat bold claim, and relatively unsubstantiated.

If it was indeed fresh, it was hands down the most bitter, overcooked, metallic tasting spinach I have ever encountered that did NOT come from a can or freezer, and is even more evidence that restaurants should avoid choosing dishes that feature out of season veggies.

Glad to hear you have had better experiences, and I imagine that out there, in the middle of nowhere, its a great option. The focus of my post, and what I was most impressed with, was the excellent usage of other ingredients to make up for what was lacking in the produce. There is potential there, and I hope they develop it in the future!