Buzz is a word that makes a restaurateur happy. The buzz level often determines how many tables are full and, if it lasts long enough, can help build a foundation for long-term success. Restaurateurs would rather have people talking about their place than not. The more a restaurant is discussed, the better the chance people will walk in and give the chef a chance to strut his stuff.
New Yorkers are talking about Campagna, Mark Strausman's new restaurant in the Gramercy Park area of New York City. Formerly the home of Luxe, a short-lived outpost of continental cuisine, Strausman has subtly changed the decor to echo the Italian countryside. A slight patina of age darkens wood accents on the walls and the waist-high paneling, and a creamy-tan color scheme provides a look and feeling that Americans associate with Tuscany. Bristling at a New York Times reviewer's suggestion that he isn't running an Italian restaurant, Strausman says, "I am cooking Italian food in America. She just didn't understand."
What is understandable is that after only six months, this restaurant is already hitting some highs in the kitchen. The antipasti table is composed of a gorgeous array of appetizers, each of which could be a meal in itself. The dishes change frequently; on a recent occasion, two gems included marinated button mushrooms, which had caramelized, earthy flavors, and braised fennel. Another appetizer was a bruschetta with chicken-liver pâté and white beans. Standards are also available on the appetizer list; fried calamari were noteworthy because of their combination with fried parsley.
The pastas are made fresh daily. Among the top dishes are a spinach and ricotta ravioli, a light combination of the slightly bitter vegetable smoothed out by the cheese, and the tagliolini with fresh basil and tomatoes. Lasagna alla Nonna, or grandma's lasagna, bows to tradition; it is a classic recipe with layers of ricotta cheese, tomatoes and meat. "It's a meal," says the waiter. A recent risotto special was mushroom with green peas and lima beans, an unlikely marriage of starchy beans with the pungent flavors of wild mushrooms.
Entrées change daily. Some recent offerings included breast of Guinea hen with sweet onions in an aged balsamic sauce, herb-grilled squab, osso buco, and rabbit cooked in red wine and herbs served over polenta. There are always excellent fish dishes on the menu including caccuicco, a spicy seafood stew, a couscous prepared with steamed fish and, frequently, a roast salmon served with braised fennel.
The wine list focuses on Italian wines with a strong representation of American wines, too. Whites include a fine Sauvignon Blanc "Borro della Sala Castello della Sala" from Antinori, $26, and a 1992 Jermann Chardonnay, $72. American whites include Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay, $36, and a 1991 Long Chardonnay Napa Valley, $60.
Red wines were headed by Angelo Gaja's Barolo Sperss, 1989, $130; 1990 Tignanello, $70; and a 1991 Sassicaia, $110. American reds include a 1987 Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard, $160; a 1982 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon Napa Valley, $68; and a 1985 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, $80.
Unlike many restaurants today, Strausman also keeps a well-stocked humidor in the restaurant. Cigar smoking is normally restricted to the bar area, but late at night, he permits cigar smoking at the tables in the smoking area. The humidor contains Macanudos, Partagas, Temple Hall and Ramon Allones. "Cigars are in the mainstream now," says Strausman, who is proud of his cigars. In short, this is a prototype for cigar-friendly restaurants of the future. A good humidor. A place to smoke. And a chef who understands the relationship between good food and a fine smoke.
-- Gordon Mott
24 East 21st Street
New York, New York 10010
Dinner: $55 per person with wine
Lunch: $29 per person with wine