There’s a thing people sometimes say about Hollywood: For a collection of people that talented to make so many movies that mediocre, the system has to be designed to frustrate talented people.
Keep that in mind as you read this.
Locanda, at 557 Valencia St. between 16th and 17th, is an elegant upscale restaurant setting with a long bar suitable for blah blah blah. I gotta be honest, I spent more than two hours in Lacanda and barely noticed the décor. It was crowded, it was way too noisy – some sound dampeners on the ceiling would be really helpful. It was “nice” in that dark hued way that restaurants can be that makes no particular impression, and the staff was so eager to serve that they almost tripped over themselves in an endearing manner.
Locanda has enough space dedicated to its bar that it technically qualifies as a “bar” as well as a restaurant, but the vibe is all wrong for that: It’s the kind of bar that you sit at only because there are no tables available. Still, I’d been hearing wonderful things about their cocktails, and they do have cocktail flights on their menu, along with a “dealer’s choice” drink (in their case, delightfully called “La Bella Confusione” — the beautiful confusion). This shows a level of confidence in a high-end cocktail bar that is worth testing. So I thought I’d check it out even after I’d walked in and thought “oh no, it’s table or nothing here.”
Fortunately “Alice” had gotten reservations for later that night. She’s smart. We sat at the table, ordered drinks and snacks and shared an entree, and talked about how broken everyone in this world is. She broke up with a girlfriend not long ago, someone she really liked, because the girlfriend had cancer, and after a while Alice just couldn’t handle it. “It’s the ultimate ‘it’s really not you, it’s me. All that death and stress, I just froze up. That’s not her fault, she didn’t do anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean I could handle it, either,” she said.
Am I supposed to condemn her for that? Make a statement about the importance of staying around for people? I dunno.
“I cut my grandmother off for the last three years of her life, because she was just making me and herself miserable,” I said instead. We’ve all got something. We’re all just trying to figure things out. I don’t know where mercy should begin and end.
It’s dangerous to try to sum up a bar or restaurant with a single metaphor, but here’s what you really want to know about Locanda: It has fried castelvetrano olives, pitted and stuffed with fontina and thyme, on its appetizer menu. Alice and I both love castelvetrano olives — they’re a go-to olive, the kind you use to convince people who don’t like olives that they’re just eating the wrong olives — so we had to try them. They came, tasted like poppers, and were perfectly good bar snacks, but simply eating the original olives, the raw ingredients, would have been so much better. Why, we asked ourselves, would such obviously talented people go through all the trouble of doing that to these olives?
That’s Locanda. They’re really, really, good at the things they do well, but half the time you wonder if they are paying any attention to what they’re doing at all.
The veal ragu was to die for, but why were the artichokes served with lemon, mint, and nepitella described on the menu as “Jewish style?” They were delicious, but we couldn’t possibly have been the first people to ask “um, what’s so Jewish about this?” I mean, that has to have come up already.
The correct answer is: “Because the recipe originated in Rome’s Jewish ghetto.” Thanks, Google. And yet, on this night, all we got was a shrug from the staff. You know … they’re Jewish style. Huh.
Then there were the cocktails. Alice ordered a La Bella Confusione, and received a drink with whiskey and amaro and other ingredients we couldn’t place, which was not exceptional but was definitely tasty. I ordered a flight of Old Fashioneds, and three half-glasses were brought over to me: One made with rye and demerara, one with bourbon and maple, one with scotch and honey.
The first one, made with rye, was breathtakingly perfect. Alice and I gasped with pleasure at the simple blend. The other two though, were oddly off. Not bad exactly, but off. We couldn’t figure it out until Alice made the breakthrough: All the honey in the scotch and honey drink was at the bottom of the glass, and none of the grapefruit garnish had been mixed in. I took a knife and stirred each of the drinks thoroughly, and suddenly – voila – they were delicious.
They just … just … hadn’t been mixed properly. That’s … all.
And I don’t really know what to do with that, to be honest. Locanda makes a truly excellent Old Fashioned – in a variety of ways – when it bothers to finish making it. Are they just too busy? Was their primary bartender out sick?
My final cocktail of the night, the “Arrivederci,” (rum, Cappelletti, pineapple gum, lime, grapefruit) was quite pleasant, though overbalanced towards the pineapple gum, while Alice ordered a non-alcoholic house-made ginger soda — which was so intensely gingery that she had to water it down. “That’s not ginger soda, that’s ginger juice,” she said.
Locanda does very much very well, but there are so many moments when we looked at each other and asked, “what were they thinking?”
I like bars and restaurants that keep you on your toes — but I want them to do it on purpose. It’s not really a compliment to say that a bar is really quite good when it pays attention.