410 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10024
Myna and I were having one of our "let's pretend to be cultured" nights. She grabbed one of those clutch-thingy mini-purses with glitter on it, I tossed on a tie and a stain-free shirt, and we ventured northward for a concerto at the Manhattan School of Music. A bit of Mozart later, it was time for dinner. Of course, what do cultured people do for dinner after a night of classical music? Tasting menus, naturally. We had recently learned that Tolani has one and, being that we were on the Upper West Side anyway amiably moseying southward, we decided that it would be our dinner destination.
Little did we know that I would be vehemently not recommending our dinner spot. Skip to the end to see why.
Tolani is basically a wine bar/small plates restaurant with an eclectic, hard to pin down menu - let's call it "international" (like its patrons were that evening) - and a great ambience It's a lively place for lively people. The music is loud but not oppressive. The crowd is heavy but not standing room only. Everyone is having a good time, even the staff. We arrived ahead of our reservation, so we plunked down and ordered cocktails at the bar where, by some stroke of bizarre coincidence, two of Myna's friends were hanging out. When they say that New York is just a small town with a population of ten million people in it, they ain't kidding.
Soon enough though, our table was ready. We waved so long to the girls and proceeded downstairs to Tolani's darker subterranean dining room for feeding to begin. As I said, we ordered the chef's tasting menu with wine pairings, so Myna and I each got the same items. That said, since they're all on the regular menu, you, dear readers, can go a la carte should you wish to. And strategically, you should do this. But why?
First things first, the food was all fantastic. Absolutely amazing, without exception. Second things second, there wasn't enough of it. Not because we're gluttonous pigs, which we are, but because it reflected neither the cost and nor volume of liquor associated with it.
Our meal started with a delicious, melt in your mouth Fish Taco; roast grouper, lime, a chipotle slaw, radish, avocado and a tomatillo salsa in a soft shell that was paired with a prosecco. Three bites later, it was gone and a Roasted Beet Salad with a goat cheese mousse, candied walnuts, and a sherry vinaigrette arrived in its place, joined by a South African chenin blanc. I don't much care about beets, but this was a different beast. It was, likewise, amazing but too small by far. Before you can look across the table and proclaim "hey this is good!", there's nothing left on the plate.
A California chardonnay and a plate of Salmon Tartare with ginger, yuzo, and avocado were delivered. It was like eating a salmon cloud. It was light and fresh and sweet and perfect and disappeared almost before the waiter had left the room. By the time that this third course was gone, the still unfinished glasses at the table were starting to take up more space than there was room for. I kicked my liver into a higher gear and emptied what I had just as an Italian red and a fantastic Ricotta Gnudi in a mushroom stroganoff sauce with mustard grain and parmesan arrived. Gnudi is a cheese gnocchi and this was incredible. But look there. There's like, maybe three gnocchis. Just smelling it caused it to shrink on the plate. They could have given us a bowl of fifty of these and it wouldn't have been enough. Three is just being mean.
By the time that the final dinner plate was being presented, Lamb (and pork) Meatball and Marinara Sauce under shaved parmesan, Myna was pouring her wine, a pinotage, into my glass. "There isn't enough food for me to drink this much. I'll throw up." As with everything else, the meatball, under its blanket of sweet, savory marinara was simply fantastic. But lonely. Finally, a Pumpkin Cheesecake came for dessert paired with Amarula, a cream liqueur akin to Bailey's mixed with Amaretto (I picked up a bottle of it just the other day). Our server proclaimed "it's fermented elephant milk! I always wait until the customers have a sip before I tell them, in case they get squeamish!" and we had a good chuckle thinking how adventurous we were. Well, whether he was bullshitting us by accident or by design, Amarula is not, in fact, elephant milk, but the fermented fruit of the elephant tree, a type of South African plant. Anyway, the cheesecake was very good, much like everything else that evening, but was the most forgettable thing we tried.
So, my thoughts? The food was delicious, the atmosphere was great, and the wait staff was friendly. That said I will never return.
See, it's like this. The tasting menu (without the wine pairing) costs $60 but it is made up of things that you can get a la carte. If you add up the cost of our meal: the taco ($3) and the meatball ($3) and the tuna ($9) and the beet salad ($10) and the gnudi ($6), you get a cheesecake that therefore has to cost $29, which it obviously cannot. I can't find the price of the dessert online, so let's pretend that it cost $5 because that fits in line with the menu. So Tolani charges $60 for a $36 a la carte dinner. (!!!)
However, there is an alternative solution to this discrepancy. Fear not dear readers, Tolani still comes out shitty. See, Myna and I bought the tasting menu through Living Social or Groupon or one of those sites. The deal gave us two tasting menus for the price of one. Well, I'm looking at that cheesecake and thinking that maybe it's a cute way of giving only half a cheesecake. Maybe Tolani, rather than honor it's agreement to provide a two-for-one tasting, instead decided to provide two half tastings.
The math tells me that either Tolani overcharges through the nose every single person that picks the tasting menu, or they simply underserve everyone that came for the deal that they agreed to.
If you come away with one lesson from this review, it's that I DO NOT recommend Tolani. Delicious food served with a hearty "thanks, suckers!" to it's customers.