On first arrival, the effect is a little magical. You enter from St. Louis Place's unassuming lobby, around a corner and down a hallway, past restrooms and an ATM, into a space that seems to have been transported whole from a city far hipper than our own.
Before you is the dining room, elegant in its simplicity: hardwood floor; walls and banquettes a cool, clean white; a spindly light fixture like the sketch of a chandelier. I suppose the design, taken by itself, is banal Trendy Upscale Restaurant 101. But at Dolce' it provides necessary balance.
To your right is the bar, a sleek semicircle with a countertop that emits an eerie bluish light. Displayed on the wall behind the bar, reflecting the blue light in rippling, watery patterns, sit frosted-glass vodka bottles. This looks something like a shrine. And with good reason. Above you is the mezzanine level, a lounge, with sofas and armchairs and VIP tables behind metallic scrims. After 10 p.m. Dolce' becomes a hotspot, and those who score a VIP table pay up to $185 six times retail cost for one of those frosted-glass vodka bottles.
All things considered, this might not be the sort of place where you'd expect to encounter decent osso buco, but that's precisely what I found on my first visit to Dolce'. The braised veal shank just fell away from the bone and had a rich, slightly sweet, flavor.
Dolce' opened in October of last year, with a menu devised by co-executive chefs Jeff Thomas and Darrin Conarroe. That menu is nearly as difficult to explain as the apostrophe at the end of Dolce'. It's Italian, essentially, though not in the conventional sense. You can have osso buco, carpaccio and calamari, but you'll find only one pasta dish on the dinner menu, linguini pescatore, amid interlopers like oyster "shooters" with chipotle aïoli and pork ribs in a roasted hoisin sauce. The Italian dishes have a specific regional focus (and an uncommon, potentially fascinating, one at that: Sicilian), but this manifests itself mainly in meats coated with seasoned bread crumbs.
It's also an expensive menu. Starters cost between $8 and $12, and entrées range from $17 to $32, with six of the nine main courses topping $20. (Salads and desserts, however, cost a modest $5 and $6 each, respectively.) At such prices, you'd expect more finesse and attention to detail than I saw at Dolce'.
Consider the osso buco. Traditionally this is served with gremolata, a blend of garlic, parsley, lemon or orange peel and sometimes anchovy that gives the incredibly savory dish a welcome bite. At Dolce' osso buco is served in a thick veal jus. I don't object to this on principle. A jus can be extraordinary. When I visited Franco not long ago, I had a lamb shank in its own jus that was so delicious it was practically a revelation: This is how lamb should taste.
Dolce's veal jus was blunt rather than assertive, its flavor not the essence of veal but generically savory. It did complement the osso buco in the most basic sense as you might figure, veal doesn't clash with veal. But so much had been ladled over the plate that it drowned out any nuance in the dish: the sweetness of the veal's browned surface and the more subtle savory notes of the aromatics in which the meat had been braised. In the end, what elevated the osso buco was the quality of the veal itself.
Likewise, an entrée featuring a filet of beef served in a bland Gorgonzola sauce over roasted-garlic mashed potatoes featured a good piece of meat. Though the steak didn't show much char, it was tender, with a pleasantly woody flavor. On the other hand, the finest piece of chicken in the world couldn't have saved a roasted chicken entrée. White and dark meat alike had been rendered a dull, unappealing color and tasted something like canned chicken stock that has been spiked with burnt herbs. That, or wet cardboard.
Several dishes place seasoned bread crumbs front and center: veal cutlets, a pork chop and halibut among the entrées; lobster "chunks" and shrimp among the appetizers. It's tough for me to get hot and bothered over seasoned bread crumbs, but the halibut my friend ordered was a beautiful piece of fish once you cut through the breading. This had been broiled black, pretty much obliterating the delicate flavor of the fish and whatever seasonings infused the bread crumbs. The filet was served atop a pool of lemon oil, which didn't add much to what was already an acrid dish.
The lobster chunks coated with bread crumbs were sautéed, not grilled, and had been removed from the flame in time. Here the crisp bread-crumb coating had a sharp, cheesy flavor that didn't jibe too well with the succulent lobster, though a roasted garlic-lemon butter sauce helped smooth things over.
At any rate, that poor lobster certainly fared better than the one that gave its life for a cup of thin, foul lobster bisque. Other appetizers included the hoisin-roasted pork ribs, which were quite tasty slow roasted and then grilled to order, resulting in tender meat and a crisp skin. Two medium-size crab cakes were sweetly tasty, if a little mayonnaise-heavy. They were served with basil aïoli and tomato concassé, which didn't do much for the crab cakes (except maybe nudge them closer to Italian cuisine).
Carpaccio was properly paper-thin and a brilliant red. It came heaped with mesclun greens, dusted with capers and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and drizzled with white truffle oil and mustard. If that sounds like overkill, it was; there was too much going on here. (I have no idea when greens became a carpaccio standard.) But the carpaccio on its own was so richly flavored that I didn't mind.
Fittingly, given its name, Dolce' shone brightest at dessert. Sicilian cheesecake was much lighter than traditional "New York" cheesecake our waiter described the texture as "fluffy," and I can't think of a better term and had the mildly sweet flavor of ricotta cheese. Bread pudding with apples and raisins was excellent, the soft, hot bread all but melting into a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Only vanilla crème brûlée proved a flop, its surface torched a few seconds too long so that the burnt sugar imparted an unpleasantly bitter note.
At 10 p.m. Dolce' begins its transition from restaurant to nightclub, culminating in the removal of the dinner tables. (The restaurant doesn't accept reservations past 8 p.m., although during one of my visits late walk-ins were seated.) Of course, you could decide to linger at the bar or move upstairs to the lounge. The eye candy's worth the time investment, a parade of designer outfits and haircuts that look like a million bucks at least until the lights go up. Dolce' "Asian Ribs"$9
Have a suggestion for a restaurant the Riverfront Times should review? E-mail email@example.com.