Monday, February 7, 2011

Incontro Lacks the Midas Touch

Incontro, Franklin’s acclaimed upscale/casual restaurant and lounge, had plenty of hype to live up to prior to my arrival. Glowing testimonials from family and friends alike heightened both my anticipation level and taste buds, and I was cautiously excited about sampling its regionally inspired Italian cuisine.

Incontro’s ambience can be best described as uniquely modern, only because the venue itself resides in the newly restored Brookdale Mill, which was originally constructed in 1883. An expansive 14,000 square foot space is set on two floors, the second of which boasts an intimate lounge area – plush leather seats included – encompassing a sleek, elongated bar that leads into a large billiards area. The scene here shouts trendy/casual: it’s a place where people want to be seen but let their hair down all at once. A more formal setting awaits downstairs in the main dining room (or as Incontro’s owners fancily label it, the meeting room), which features a display kitchen in which diners can view their food being prepared.

For starters, the crispy calamari were well executed and drizzled with lemon aioli, pine nuts, kalamata olives, and hot peppers. A tad less aioli and a small infusion of peppers would have better balanced the otherwise finely prepared dish to an even higher standard. Pistachio encrusted boar (resembling two large pieces of KFC but oh, so much more appealing) came with a trio of sweet and spicy dipping sauces and was a standout dish. The meat was moist and tender, whereas many versions come out gamey and tough. The dish evoked a couple of “Mmm, this is delicious,” moments from our dining companions. So far, so good.

Entrees, however, surprisingly fared far worse. My maple glazed pork ($24) came highly recommended by our server, but I found the meat to be woefully overcooked, dry, and oversalted, almost eliminating any semblance of maple flavor on the palate. A shame, given that the accompanying crispy green beans and heavenly light sweet potato mashed were winning sides. Our friends’ steaks (one filet mignon Oscar and a sirloin strip) were cooked to my liking of medium rare. The only problem was that both had requested theirs cooked medium. Clearly, Incontro’s kitchen staff that evening was not well educated on the importance of Meat Preparation 101.

Dessert offered up a small reprieve. A generous slice of carrot cake was moist, not too dense, and possesses a pleasant, not overpoweringly sweet cream cheese frosting. My molten chocolate cake was decadent and gooey enough, although not any more memorable than countless versions I’d previously consumed. The biggest disappointment of the dessert was the fig gelato, which had more hints of coffee flavor to it than fig. The faint traces of fig I was able to detect were located in a small, isolated area of the gelato jammed with figs.

Service was good but far from exceptional. Water glasses were routinely filled and plates hastily removed by competent and polite busboys, while our server was affable enough. But our waitress faltered on a key recommendation (the aforementioned pork dish) and it was one of the busboys, not the server, who responded to a dairy inquiry on the calamari only after it was served tableside.
On its website, Incontro’s owners, Bridge Restaurant Group, claims that its prices are reasonable enough to attract repeat business. With cocktails averaging $11, wines from $9-15, most appetizers exceeding $12 and entrees ranging from $25-50, that statement is certainly up for debate, particularly given its suburban setting (although complimentary valet parking does help a bit). For these prices, Paul’s Palate expects a feast for a king. On my restaurant royalty scale, however, Incontro’s fare is just that: fair, food fit not for a king, but more for a prince, perhaps even a pauper. Despite its glamorous setting, it is Incontro’s failures in the kitchen that prevent the restaurant’s glitter from translating into gourmet gold.

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