A few weeks ago, Jason and I received a generous invitation from restaurant owner Mike Celic, welcoming us for a meal at his newly opened Oro in Long Island City. We set it up for last night, a Saturday, at 6:00. I’ll admit, the idea of “Seasonal Italian Cuisine” did not excite me very much – I am from Staten Island, after all. However, I was instantly and consistently impressed throughout the meal, and I owe Mike an apology for my initial doubts… My hope is that this review inspires more people to give this place a try, because it is most definitely worthy.
After accepting Mike’s invitation, I read through Oro’s press release, and began to feel the sparkle of hope. That sparkle became full blown excitement when Jason and I arrived and read the menus through in detail.
The space itself is big… pictured here is (some of) the larger of the two dining rooms. Oro is equipped with tons of space to host private events, and is beginning some weekly specials like $1 oysters, happy hours, and bottomless mimosa/bellini brunches… yummmm.
Jason and I thought it was really interesting that Oro’s chef, Scott Andriani, put out an entirely different restaurant week menu. (Side note: sorry it’s a little tough to make out some of the menus; I’m still working solely with an iPhone 6 plus camera). Instead of putting only scaled down versions of the restaurant’s best sellers, owner Mike explained that they took restaurant week as an opportunity to try out some new stuff and prepare for a new menu release in just a few weeks. Way smarter and funner, I think, than the way restaurants usually do it.
We started with cocktails, of course. Mine is the Balsam Berry on the left and Jason did the Louisville Blackberry on the right. The Balsam Berry was great, strong strawberry flavor and the balsamic vinegar balanced everything perfectly without overpowering the flavor of the gin or the strawberry. I actually couldn’t taste the balsamic at all, which is just the way it should be. Jason’s was gorgeous, but don’t be fooled. Though it may be a beautiful reddish pink, it was fiercely bourbony (they use Michters in this cocktail), strong, and delicious. Manly men (or women) should not be deterred by the “berry” component.
Our waitress, Theresa, brought out some fresh warm bread and let us peruse the menu, while also offering some really helpful advice; we pretty much took all of her suggestions. Theresa did an excellent job throughout the meal of being attentive, helpful, interested in our feedback, and not at all pushy – it was a perfect experience largely because of her. In addition, Mike stopped by throughout the meal, eagerly looking for opinions and explaining the restaurant’s concept. Oro opened in August 2016 and takes pride in putting some exciting spins on traditional (aka boring) dishes. With Long Island City seeing some huge residential and commercial development projects, he’s confident that the area is going to quickly become a hot spot, and given the caliber of the food here, I really hope he’s right. Oro has a front row seat to the changing demographic, with beautiful glass floor to ceiling windows along the length of the long space making it bright during the day, and romantic at night.
On to the food…
First, we tried the beef carpaccio, and after the first tiny taste of “powdered olive oil,” I knew we were in for a glorious meal. I had a flashback to the first time I ate Dippin Dots as a child… that “WTF” moment. Just the same way that those tiny frozen dots contained all the flavor of mint chocolate chip or cookies n cream… these tiny crumbles housed a powerful punch of olive oil, something I’ve grown to love almost as much as ice cream. I thought to myself, “Is this only really good because it’s so weird?” And then I tasted the carpaccio all together, as it’s meant to be… a little beef, cheese, arugula, and olive oil all together, and it was an awesome symphony of flavors.
Next was the cornmeal crusted calamari. To me, fried calamari earns an automatic eye roll… how boring can it get… right? Wrong. The calamari itself was superbly tender, then meaty with the cornmeal crust, and somehow not too heavy or even remotely greasy. The marinara sauce was a great classic, and the aioli was perfect too. It takes a lot for a fried calamari to impress me, but this one did it. #bestcalamariever
Next, we did a shaved fennel salad. This was more for Jason, a big fan of fennel. I figured I’d just try a taste for the sake of having a vegetable, but instead found myself devouring my half. This fennel was mild, not the overwhelming licorice flavor I dread. The salad was an interesting and delicate balance of bright citrus (orange), brine (kalamata olives and pickled onions), and crispiness.
The chef is in the process of replacing corn creme brûlée (on the menu) with a new sweet potato creme brûlée. Mike was really excited about this dish, so I needed to try it. It definitely is sweet, so be prepared for that. I heard the man sitting next to us say it was “too sweet” for his taste (he later caught me staring at their food and spying on their meal – quite awkward). But OMG it was so good. It actually did have that crunchy brûléed shell on top, combined with a decadent sweet potato custard and marshmallow magic… this could really be a dessert, but I was also completely content eating it alongside my meal; try it either way.
The pork tenderloin was a dish I was disappointed with. Not because it was necessarily bad, but compared to the others it was a notch below. The fig and port wine sauce was outrageous and the outside of the pork had a ton of great flavor. But the pork itself was dry. I found it funny… last week on Top Chef, Brooke was eliminated for a sous vide pork tenderloin that lost its beautiful juiciness and I think that may be exactly what happened here, too. If Chef Andriani can find an alternate way of cooking this pork, it will become a winning dish.
The squid ink linguini. After trying this I became so upset that my stomach could not transform into a bottomless pit with enough space to try every single pasta here. The tomato sauce was subtly spicy and had that beautiful strong ocean flavor from the perfectly cooked mussels, clams, shrimp, and calamari. The pasta itself (while not linguini) was gloriously al dente and flavorful. I waited until no one was looking and licked the bowl.
For desserts, we allowed Mike to send out whatever he wanted, which included strawberry panna cotta and chocolate torte from the restaurant week menu, and the nutella bread pudding from the regular dessert menu. Dessert is an area that I think Oro can make some improvements. Let me start by saying that none were bad. They just paled in comparison to the outrageous meal we had just finished. The strawberry panna cotta was more of a firm custard. I think the presentation of it in the wine glass made it difficult to get consistent bites. There was a really delicious graham cracker crumble and ginger jam on top, and a super flavorful kiwi sorbet, but it was hard to get the right amount of each component with each bite because of the vessel. The chocolate torte was more of a dry chocolate cake to me; it could use some warmth and more fudginess. The nutella bread pudding was tasty, but the house made marshmallow fluff melted into more of a super sugary icing than the “fluffy” light marshmallow I wanted to balance the heavy slice of bread. I also only got nutella in one bite… I’m not sure if that was the slice I got or if the nutella was only in the center, but I would have liked more of that chocolately hazelnut goodness throughout the dish.
Overall, Oro earned a enviable four star Baconboozer rating. The service was excellent. The beef carpaccio, fennel, calamari, creme brûlée, and squid ink linguini were outstanding. The pork, and dessert could use some minor tweaks to make them completely perfect, but they were by no means bad. And the cocktails really surprised us… great quality spirits with some interesting flavor combinations. I think Oro’s biggest challenge is going to be filling up and turning tables in such a big space, but theres no reason people shouldn’t be lining up for a meal here. Happy hours, dollar oysters, and brunches should really get the buzz going. And perhaps some live light music for weekend nights would drive some business too? Overall, Mike and Chef Andriani are doing a great job, and I think are on the way to success. Jason and I will be back soon to try some more pastas and check in on how things are going!