Friday night my sister and daughter and I headed over to Hyde Park to find the Asti Trattoria in the middle of the dinner rush. It's not a big place, but we were surprised to find the dining room filled to capacity on this cold and rainy night. The hostess didn’t expect a table to open up for at least an hour, but she offered us the option of sitting at the cook's counter, a diner-like bar that puts you face-to-face with the chef action. Sure, we would have preferred a cozy corner table, but beggars can’t be choosers and we were hungry.
Sitting on backless swivel stools, bumping elbows with strangers, seems less than desirable, but according to a Restaurant USA article by Beth Panitz, some customers are clamoring to sit in the back of the house at special "kitchen tables" or "chef's tables" that provide a front-row view of the kitchen's action. Minneapolis-based Buca di Beppo is among those operations setting a place for customers in the kitchen. The casual restaurant chain has established a kitchen table in all but one of its 51 units nationwide.
Seating patrons in the middle of the action offers benefits to restaurant operators in the form of bigger sales volume. Our proximity to Asti‘s creative hub offered a multi-sensory feast that added to our overall dining experience and increased the odds of our coming back in the future. I’m still drooling over the Lamb Shank 'Ossobuco' that caught my eye on its way off the line. Had I not been sitting so close to the kitchen, I might have overlooked a powerful incentive to come back and sample another dish.
A study on the Impact of Restaurant Table Characteristics on Meal Duration and Spending by Cornell’s Sheryl Kimes and Stephani Robson, shows that customers seated at less-desirable tables do not stay as long as those seated at better tables but spend just as much money, resulting in higher spending-per-minute averages. Quick turnover on a busy night is a restaurateur’s dream. The matrix-like efficiency with which we were served sent a clear message that we were here strictly to eat, not to dilly dally.
And eat, we did…Seared Sea Scallops on velvety Mandilli Pasta with truffle butter; a dense billet of Spinach Lasagna Bolognese; and a Saffron Seafood Risotto in spicy tomato sauce. All dishes were beautifully presented and served piping hot since they didn‘t have far to travel.
The lasagna was prepared the way I like it, no red sauce, all white and green and garlicky. The risotto was a risky choice because I find most risotto dishes disappointing. It probably stems from my love of paella. When I see saffron and risotto on a menu, I expect something with more bite. The scallop dish was elegant in its simplicity. Delicate snips of lemon and scallion added a light balance to weighty scallops and buttery pasta.
Our fast-track seating assignment didn’t prevent us from sampling three of the desserts, the Tiramisu, Affugato with Warm Beignets, and the hands down favorite, Bittersweet Chocolate Cannoli, bursting at the crispy seams with billowy chocolate mousse magnificence.
It’s clear that I'll need to post a sequel to this review. It’s my duty to you, imaginary readers, to deliver a thorough, detailed report on Asti’s Lamb Shank 'Ossobuco'. I should probably test the Chocolate Cannolis a few more times, too. Maybe on a weekly basis. It's for the greater good.