It's probably been well established on this blog that Wifey and I are big fans of Simpatica Dining Hall, despite the fact it's a communal dining experience which is not really our thing at all. We had an excellent dinner with a burger as the main course back in 2009, had a great brunch there in 2010, and enjoyed the fruits of Simpatica's labor last summer at the Forest Park benefit we attended.
Each time the food has been at minimum solid and at times spectacular, so this year for Christmas Eve we wanted to do something a little special and chose Simpatica as our dining choice. The meal featured an entree of smoked prime rib and cost $45 per person before tip and drinks.
The first course was a French onion soup with a gruyere crouton (more a chunk of toast than a crouton).
One of the best I've ever had, if not THE best. The broth was thick and rich, and each mouthful of cheesy bread was simply perfect. As you can tell, not the prettiest dish ever, but I'll give it a pass because of the taste. Also, super damn hot. I think I burned my tongue. That's hard to get around when you pull a soup out of the oven like that, but I would think it could have been held back just a few more minutes to let the soup cool. I'm not patient enough - plus I was really hungry at this point - to wait when the food is put in front of me. Save me from myself!
Next up was the salad course - arugula and pear with parsnip crisps and creamy champagne vinaigrette.
It was...fine. Nothing special. The pieces were decent all on their own but didn't seem to make much sense together. And neither of us are big fans of bitter greens. Moving on.
The main course was the smoked prime rib - pecan-smoked Piedmontese prime rib with Marchand de Vin, plus Yukon potato gratin and creamed kale.
The above picture was Wifey's plate, and the one below was mine.
Um, I know prime rib is usually a tad pink, but each of these seemed just a tad bloody to me. Also, look at the flesh of each piece - hers is way fattier, and not in a good way. Much of that was gristle. One would think our dishes were cut in line, but the two pieces of meat don't match up at all.
Plus, OhMyGod those are the biggest chunks of meat I've ever seen on a plate! While it helps add value for the money, it was unnecessary. We took about 2/3 of it home. When the servers brought out these plates jaws were dropping all over the room at the sheer size of the chunk of meat. It reminded me of an episode of Top Chef this current season when a contestant, tasked with creating a dish based on her childhood, served a gigantic ribeye that filled the entire plate because that's how meals were like where she grew up in Wisconsin. Holy hell the size was unnecessary. Give me half the meat and take $5 off each meal price. Wow.
The flavor was actually really good. The smokiness came through very nicely and, the pieces not still bleeding, were really good. The creamed kale was fine, nothing special. The potatoes were overdone and dry, moreso in Wifey's serving than mine, which makes me think they weren't cooked equally.
I will say the prime rib we took home was very good - after it was pan fried to add sear on all sides and then cut into strips. We were able to get five more meals out the leftovers.
The last dish was dessert, an apple tart with salted caramel ice cream.
I would not order this ever again. The apples were dry and overcooked, the crust had no moisture to provide any balance to the overcooked apples, and the ice cream was, well, salty. We both love salted caramels, but now this is two different servings of salted caramel ice cream (the other was at Molly Moon's in Seattle) where the salt factor was ridiculous. Salted caramels taste 95% of caramel - unless they are covered in chocolate as well, then it's a balance - with just a hint of salt. A couple flakes. This was salt ice cream with the flavor of caramel; the proportions are way out of wack. I'd love to see the recipe and how much salt is actually called for - then reduce it to a quarter of the amount. And add more caramel flavoring. We've made caramel ice cream at home - a standard vanilla frozen custard recipe mixed with Alma's caramel sauce - and the flavors are so much more pleasing to the tongue.
In the end we both left a little disappointed. One dish was fantastic (the soup), one was good but had drawbacks (the prime rib), one was just there (the salad), and one really left a bad taste (the dessert). Considering the final bill was three digits (added one glass of the suggested red wine - a 2007 Triennes Vin de Pays from France - to pair with the beef), it seems a little ridiculous, doesn't it? (By the way, if you go to Simpatica for dinner, allow 3-3.5 hours for the entire meal. I thought maybe two, but everyone is served a course at once, meaning you have to wait for everyone to finish the previous one. We typically eat our meals and chat a little bit, so it's not up to our speed. Not good or bad, just something to know before going.)
I'm not really sure what to make of this. Is Simpatica losing their touch? Or were all the inconsistencies and failures in this meal an aberration, perhaps the product of the holidays? Who knows. What I do know is that for the price I expect to see good execution and good flavors in all aspects of the dishes and that didn't happen. If I can get a good meal for half the price or less, even with multiple dishes and dessert, at any number of places around the city - plus not have to share my table with strangers I really have no interest in interacting with - I am much more likely to do that.
A successful meal will make you want to return, especially given a restaurant's reputation and pricing. When you are in the upper tier of both, as Simpatica is, you never want to give a customer a reason to question whether or not you are getting a good value and experience.
Sadly, after some very good meals in the past, I'm left questioning if a return to Simpatica is worth my money and time.