Note: Centro Vinoteca closed in March 2013. The following review was written under chef Leah Cohen, who left the restaurant in September 2009.
Centro Vinoteca is one of those restaurants that raises immediate suspicion, with its achingly long 18-month gestation and a game of musical chefs before it served its first meal in the summer of 2007. Frank Bruni’s middling one-star review did nothing to pique my curiosity.
Last fall, founding chef Anne Burrell—she of the blonde spikey hair, perhaps best known as Mario Batali’s sidekick on Iron Chef—left the restaurant. Apparently all of her TV gigs were interfering with more important matters—like, you know, cooking. No successor was announced, but the owners quietly passed the baton to sous chef Leah Cohen (left), whom they knew — although we did not — was about to appear as a “cheftestant” on Season 5 of Bravo’s Top Chef.
Cohen has had an eventful season on the show. As of this writing, she has made it to the final five, out of an original cast of seventeen. She is not a bad chef, but she will probably be remembered for getting caught on camera playing tonsil hockey with a fellow cheftestant. Most observers expect her to be sent home well before the finale, as she has barely scraped by in the last several challenges.
Of course, the episodes we watch now were taped months ago. As of today, Cohen is chef de cuisine at Centro Vinoteca, and the restaurant’s website doesn’t fail to remind you. I don’t know how many people visit the restaurant to see her—as if you could actually “see” anything—but they are milking it for all it’s worth.
We paid a visit on Saturday evening. Okay, I’ll admit it: I wanted to see what Cohen’s food was like, apart from the contrived and time constrained challenges imposed on TV. Whether due to Cohen’s minor celebrity turn or other reasons, the restaurant was as crowded as any we have been in lately. It is a noisy, cramped space, and not especially pleasant. (An upstairs dining room appears to be a bit more civilized.)
For a casual Italian joint, prices here are a tad on the high side, with antipasti $10–16, primi $14–18, and secondi $22–36. The menu appears to be changing regularly. Many of the items mentioned in the Bruni review have been replaced.
Both pastas were very strong: a kabocha squash ravioli with walnuts ($14; above left) and a squid ink tagliatelle with baby squid, shrimp and cockles ($18; above right). But both pastas got cold too quickly, as the plates had not been pre-warmed.
Sausage-Stuffed Baby Chicken ($22; above left) suffered from a lack of balance between its two main ingredients. There was about a millimeter of chicken wrapped around far too much of the sausage. It was tender and nicely complemented by a bed of creamy polenta and mushrooms, but the sausage was too powerful a presence.
Ribeye Steak ($36; above right) is a bail-out dish in many restaurants. It was beautifully done here, but my girlfriend said that the potato prosciutto fontina cake underneath it was inedible.
If Centro Vinoteca offered a more quieter atmosphere, I might consider returning to try more of the pastas. They weren’t good enough to compensate for the loud, cramped atmosphere and the uneven entrées.
Centro Vinoteca (74 Seventh Avenue S. at Bleecker/Barrow Streets, West Village)