Nick is not as thrilled by this new opening in Brooklyn as by its sister establishment.
Any second restaurant opened by the combination of an exciting chef and a highly respected restaurateur is bound to create a wave of publicity.
The second restaurant is invariably the hardest of them all to manage. It is the only time that the company will double in size overnight and it is also means that the chef and the restaurateur have to give up some of the fun things that drove them to open in the first place to balance running two places and yet maintain a modicum of a private life. After all, even the most talented chefs can only be in one place at any one time.
But in the case of Missy Robbins and Sean Feeney, expectations have been even higher over the opening of Misi in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, the most vibrant of New York City’s suburbs.
This is entirely due to their pedigree. Robbins and Feeney’s initial success came with Lilia, which doubles as a caffe and a terrific Italian restaurant that specialises in pasta, seafood and great cocktails, and has excited anyone who has been lucky enough to secure a table there since it opened in a former auto body shop in 2015.
Misi continues the process of the gentrification of Brooklyn and has opened in a corner site in the former Domino Sugar Refinery complex. It occupies a great space and has undergone a dramatic, and clever, makeover.
The interior is completely white, down to the white formica table tops, and the building blocks that make up the walls. The lighting is exciting although slightly dismal over the crucial reception area, making life tough for those trying to handle the queues while looking at a dark screen. There is also a very clever use of counter space that allows customers to sit opposite one another and talk. There are large windows that would make this an exciting space if it were to open during the day.
So far, so very impressive. But in that case, why did we leave disappointed? Is it because as Europeans we have an image of what an Italian restaurant should be, an image that Misi does not satisfy? Is it because, much as I like pasta, I cannot get too excited by a menu that lists only 10 vegetable antipasti, then 10 pasta dishes as the only main course (other than a 400-gram porterhouse steak, a special of the night) followed by six different ice creams?
There is no doubt that Italian food in New York, in fact across the US, is very different from Italian food in Europe and very, very different from that in Italy.
Across the US, Italian food is heftier; served in bigger portions; and generally more robust as well as being more conspicuous. On the L train out to Brooklyn I stood next to a woman carrying a large takeaway pizza box, about a foot and a half square, that for most of the journey she had to hold vertically!
This menu is an obviously brighter and more appealing version of the Italian food served in so many restaurants across the US, but it is in many ways disappointing to the same extent – particularly for anyone who has enjoyed Missy Robbins’ cooking at Lilia.
We were sat at a corner table next to a table of seven, three men and four women, whom we kept eyeing enviously. The reason for this was that they were just finishing their first round of drinks and were nibbling at the olives that had been at the bottom of their glasses. We were hungry but there was nothing on the table or even on the menu that we could order to whet our appetite.
Nor were we offered any bread, although the juices on all the antipasti dishes called for some to wipe up the best part, the liquid that lies underneath. When I asked for some bread, I was immediately served two slices of just barbecued bread that was excellent but was not quite what I had in mind. And for this item, I was charged an extra $8!
Sharing plates are the rule, though this was not spelt out on the menu. We began with a dish of wilted radicchio, an ingredient once so common on menus, over which was shaved dry ricotta, then drizzled with balsamic vinegar and, somewhere apparently, bone marrow. Our other starter was a whole roasted aubergine, topped with Calabrian chilli, lemon and olive oil. In this dish, both the Calabrian chilli and the lemon were too pronounced – hence my request for some bread.
Lemon flavour overpowered both our pasta dishes, sadly, too. The occhi, small round pasta parcels shown in the collection of pasta dishes photographed above by Evan Sung, who also took the picture of the interior above right, were filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and described as topped with bottarga and lemon – but there was all too scant evidence of the bottarga, the delicious dried red mullet roe. When we brought this to the attention of our waiter, he handled it in completely the wrong fashion. Instead of agreeing with us, and perhaps even bringing a piece of bottarga to the table and shaving some more on to the dish – how much would that have cost and how effective would such a gesture have been? – he defensively assured us that this inexpensive ingredient was there. The kitchen was in the right!
The description of my dish of linguine with anchovy, garlic, parsley and colatura (the fish sauce made from anchovies) missed out a basic ingredient, the prevalence of breadcrumbs, but highlighted one of the challenges of serving a bowl of pasta – the speed with which the pasta can lose its heat. This was the case with both the linguine and with the occhi, served in such portions to satisfy American palates and to justify a price tag of $20–26 plus sales tax and service.
Our bottle of Le Trame 2015 from Podere Le Boncie ($95) revived our spirits although these were somewhat deflated by dessert, or should I say ice cream. From a choice of six ice-cream flavours – fior de latte, chocolate, espresso, toasted almond, olive oil and mint stracciatella – we chose olive oil, remembering the decadently creamy Capezzano olive-oil ice cream made at our son’s Quality Chop House restaurant. But this example lacked the creaminess, saltiness and the intensity of the flavour of olive oil.
My bill for two came to $232 including sales tax and service. That is £180 at today’s exchange rate. Almost half of that was for the bottle of wine, I have to admit, but that does not represent particularly good value for what we ate.
Misi, I hope, will prosper. But a radical overhaul of its menu may be in order to see it through the coming cold winter months.
Misi 329 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel +1 (347) 566 3262