Restaurant Reviews

Killer Fish

One of the cool elements of the Paul Draper design in Lombardi Mare, besides the ice blues, the etched glass, and the swordfish heads jutting out of the wall above the semi-open kitchen, is the goldfish bowls strung up above the bar. Only they really need to give those fish some exercise, or maybe some oxygen, because while three of them weren't exactly floating on the top, they were lying still on their sides at the bottom of the bowl, a position that seems awfully difficult for effective gill functioning.

And leaving dead goldfish on display above the bar is a terrible thing to do to Tom Fleming's menu, which is riddled with dead fish, too. Still, they looked much better than the ones in the bowl.

Everything starts out with a bang at Lombardi Mare, from the dead fish to the dead tomatoes to the dead shellfish. The daily oyster selection (this time it was Pearl Bay and Blue Points) was clean and slightly briny--not as robust as some, but delicious nonetheless. The dipping sauces were spectacular, especially the cocktail sauce, but we weren't provided with those little forks. So we had to resort to nibbling the oysters with our salad forks, or slurping them like beachcombers.

So maybe the mozzarella di bufala had a bit of an oyster edge to it on account of the fork smears. But jeez. How hard is it to make a simple mozzarella-tomato salad great? Apparently very. Virtually every example I've sampled seemed like it was put together by a klutz, with clumsy, thick mozzarella disks, an overbearing application of balsamic vinegar, or mealy tomatoes. Lombardi Mare's version is just about the best I can remember eating--which means great (there might be a couple of versions in my past that disappeared under a wine cork or two). The red and yellow tomato slices were juicy and rich (a rarity); the buffalo mozzarella was soft, almost runny (a good indicator of freshness). It was dribbled with just the right application of pesto, basil leaves, and infused olive oil that looked like rusty water. It was all carefully orchestrated on the plate. And this stuff doesn't even swim with the sharks.

Neither does risotto. But both versions sampled, mushroom (risotto con funghi porcini) and one cluttered with scraps of wild game flesh including a fantastic oven-roasted quail crown (risotto di mare), were deliciously creamy, separate (no pastiness), well-balanced, and void of overbearing applications of cheese.

As you would expect, there are no flubs with the fish either. The sautéed North Atlantic fluke (similar to flounder) with portobello mushroom polenta and thyme vermouth sauce, was light and fragrant with delicately sweet fish flesh ripe with nutty overtones. The polenta was an unexpected and shrewd match for the fish because it was rich (for polenta), yet it didn't overshadow the fish. It simply added new dimension.

The pasta special, a simple, flawless spread of orechiette pasta plugged with lobster, scallop, and shrimp, in a port wine rosemary sauce, was light and savory with sweet, meaty succulence.

There's a little brashness on the dessert menu with a claim that Lombardi Mare's crème brûlée is the best. It certainly isn't (the best I remember was served at La Mirabelle), but it's damn close. The crust was warm, and the custard was cool and rich and smooth--just as it is supposed to be.

Service was good, though it was a little rushed at the table and sluggish between stops. We waited a long time for drink orders, and one of us got slugged in the elbow (the kind of hit that makes your funny bone twitch) with a metal ice-water pitcher to the apparent obliviousness of the server.

But that's OK. Lombardi Mare has always been a very good restaurant. With the recent insertion of former Riviera chef Tom Fleming into the kitchen, it's hard to say how high it can fly. But judging by his performance right out of the chute, I'd say they'll need oxygen some time soon. They might want to get some now, though. Those goldfish could sure use it.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz