Two Italian chain restaurants are upping their game in a big way.
Both Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Olive Garden have recently introduced some bold new tastes to their menus.
Carrabba’s revealed their seasonal menu at an “invitation only” tasting Tuesday night, an event that I, in the company of my foodie friend, caterer Sandy Edelman, attended. What an evening of gustatory pleasure!
First and foremost, I applaud Carrabba’s culinary audacity to serve entrees pared down to tapas-sized portions. Although some dishes fared better than others, overall the feast was exquisite.
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The first plate was Arancini. Although a few of my tablemates swooned, Edelman and I found the not-small chunks of Italian fennel sausage overwhelming. For me, this is likely because I remember my first bite of one of these golden fried rice and cheese balls with greater fondness than my first kiss.
Although meat is a traditional ingredient, I prefer the simplicity of just rice and cheese, especially when paired with a marinara as superb as theirs. Still, the crisp, not greasy bite and the perfect gooey ooze will make you foreswear fried cheese in any other form.
Next was Parmesan Crusted Chicken. Now, like my delightful and most eloquent table mate, 11-year-old Presley Clifton, I am a fan of Food Network’s “Chopped,” and have oft heard the judges chide contestants over ingredients that were to be front and center being lost in the dish. The coating was delicious, but I could not find the salty tang of the cheese.
I did, however, appreciate the bold pairing of a Romescoesque sauce with the dish.
On to the Potato Crusted Haddock. This dish was much maligned at our table; I even offered that it was like having a bit of fish with a mouthful of french fries.
Edelman shared our disappointment with proprietor Craig Payne, who explained that of all of the dishes this was the least successful in a tapas portion. As an entrée, it is two filets of delicate white fish accented with a flavorful mustard cream sauce (totally lost in the smaller serving) with a crispy, light potato coating for texture. Not only do I take his word for it, I would gladly order it.
As I would the “Forever Braised” Beef Brasato – pot roast for the Park Avenue crowd. The melt-in-your-mouth, slow-braised short ribs nestled in creamy risotto reminded Edelman of Sunday dinners at her grandparents’. Her eyes rolled back in her head with pleasure at the first bite.
“I would definitely order that,” she said.
Another favorite was the Grilled Tuscan Skewer: wood-grilled sirloin, red onion and tomato in a Chianti wine sauce. Although the simplest of the evening’s offerings, nothing pleases the palate like quality ingredients prepared perfectly.
The Champagne Shrimp and Scallop Linguine delighted diner Diane Berry, who hails from Massachusetts and knows a thing or two about seafood. The linguine was cooked well, the sauce was rich but not cloying, the bite of the red pepper was refreshing and the mushrooms added a subtle earthiness.
Then came the Lobster Mac & Cheese and again Berry was enraptured. Another dish with a delightful play of flavors – buttery lobster, smoky Pancetta with the creamy bite of four cheeses in Cavatappi topped with toasted breadcrumbs. Berry’s sister in law, Janice Cooley, exhorted us to sop up the sauce with bread.
Believe it or not, we still found room to enjoy dessert: Sogno di Cioccolata “Chocolate Dream.” Chocolate upon chocolate topped with whipped cream topped with more chocolate, in keeping with the evening, especially when accompanied by a sip of red wine, it was transcendent.
Additions at Olive Garden
If you have not supped at Olive Garden of late, I would encourage you to check out their small plate “Tastes of Italy” offerings.
I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch of Roasted Asparagus in a balsamic drizzle, Tuscan White Bean Hummus – the flavors you expect with a twist – a bruschetta-esque topping and the Grilled Chicken Spiedini skewers which were flavorful and moist, even sans the proffered sauces, red wine or creamy Alfredo.
My friend, Cookie Sprouse, who was my date and admittedly a bit of a “Meg Ryan” orderer, heartily concurred.