Tessa, Welcome to the Upper West Side. We’ve been waiting a long time for a restaurant like you to open its doors in the not-so-trendy West 70’s. Every time a buzz worthy, neighborhood type spot opens up in the city, it’s never in my neck of the woods. I’m always taking a long ride on the F train to the Lower East Side, venturing on the L train into the heart of Brooklyn, or staying on the speedy 2 train down to the West Village. No more! I finally have a trendy spot to call my own.
Cedric Tovar, the chef of the extremely popular West Village restaurant, Rosemary’s, brings a touch of Italian flare to his “mostly Mediterranean” restaurant. Tessa open its’ doors on April 3rd, already receiving much publicity and favorable buzz in its infancy. And rightfully so. This is exactly the type of restaurant the Upper West Side has been begging for.
Walk underneath the eye sore of a scaffolding in front of the entrance, and into an impeccably decorated restaurant. The decor is meant to be trendy, and borderline sexy with metal gates lining the ceilings and bar area to create a really grunge, yet sophisticated feel. The metal plays off well with the distressed brick walls, wooden tables, elaborate floral arrangements and intimate candle lighting. Young, good-looking wait staff hustle around the restaurant, making you feel warm and welcome from the moment you step inside.
For an extremely cool-looking, trendy restaurant, Tessa seems to attract a much older crowd. Besides the two middle school aged girls dining with their father, I, a twenty-four year old, was the youngest by far. Mind you, I was dining at a much earlier hour (7pm, thanks, Mom) and on a Tuesday night. But even when we exited the restaurant around 830-9, the median age was still significantly older. Part of me attributes the crowd to the fact that Upper West Sider’s haven’t had a place to get this excited about in years.
There’s a reason for the hype. The professional staff act as if they’ve been working here for years, with an “amazing” knowledge of the menu. The menu offers a variety of playful dishes, including a section dedicated to the chef’s incredible homemade pastas and risottos.
We started off the meal with a trio of dips, served with homemade lavash crackers.
The lemon ricotta in the middle, which had a texture similar to a thick greek yogurt was my favorite. Tangy and creamy, it was easy to pile high on top of the crunchy lavash crackers. The crackers themselves were light, sometimes too light, ranging in different thickness with some breaking at the weight of the dips, while others held firm. The hummus was unlike the types you buy in the grocery store, much creamier with a subtle taste of sesame paste throughout. The smoked eggplant happened to be my least favorite of the bunch, which is surprising considering my love for the vegetable. It lacked any real depth of flavor with only a slight smokiness masking the true beauty of the eggplant.
We had requested the dishes come out slowly, yet our next two dishes arrived while we still spread the dips on the lavash. No clean plates provided. This is probably a small kink with the start of a restaurant, trying to figure out an efficient time to fire the dishes in the kitchen.
Pushing our salad to the side, we turned our attention to the braised pork belly appetizer.
Lack of seasoning really did a disservice to the pork belly, which is usually rendered down to a beautiful piece of pork that hardly ever requires a knife. I found this piece of meat to be a little bit tough, lacking that seductive nature I find so appealing about the cut of meat. It’s a shame because all of the other elements were delightful, especially the garlic pork jus which I sipped with my spoon. The roasted tomatoes gave a little sweet, smoke and the crunchy potatoes and melt-in-your mouth turnips brought additional layers of depth and texture to the plate. With a bit more precision and better execution of the pork belly, this could be a really special dish, but for now, the execution really ruined a great piece of meat.
The natural color of the cauliflower pops in this gorgeously presented salad. The three varieties of cauliflower are roasted, giving them a slight char before they are cooled and tossed in a light coriander dressing. A medley of ingredients each contribute to dish, adding acidity, crunch and sweetness. A small dollop of yogurt sits underneath the salad, adding a cooling effect. It’s a beautiful looking and prepared salad, and really highlights an underused ingredient.
Finally, we rounded out the meal with a pasta dish, ordering the Cavatelli with Rabbit Ragu. The pasta dishes are offered in half and full portions, to allow for more tasting and variety. We opted for the full portion, since we opted to exclusively order appetizers/small plates for the rest of the meal.
By far the best dish of the evening, to the point where a completely different waitress came over to see if we were enjoying her favorite dish on the menu. Do not be turned off by the utilization of Rabbit. It’s a lean protein, which is cooked down with a pancetta, mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion) and a touch of tomato paste to create a silky, creamy sauce. The pasta itself is that ideal al dente, only achieved with really fresh, homemade pasta. We found ourselves licking the plate clean, wishing we had a side of bread to soak up the ridiculously flavorful sauce once all of the cavatelli had been devoured. Order this, and do not fear the rabbit.
To conclude the meal, a trio of desserts arrives at the table along with the check, showcases the skills of the kitchen for next time. It’s a really lovely touch.
Tessa is a welcome addition to the Upper West Side. There are a few kinks that need to be worked out like with any new restaurant in terms of meal pacing and pure execution of dishes. And while most of the dishes are reasonably priced, they can add up very quickly. It’s not the type of place for a casual weekday meal on a whim, but it’s also not only a spot for a special occasion. It serves as that perfect spot when you’re thinking “gosh, I really want a great meal.” Look no further my fellow Upper West Siders, we finally have our trendy spot.
Tessa – 349 Amsterdam Avenue – New York, NY
Location: Upper West Side, NY
Perfect For: Date Night, Impressing Foodies, Dining Solo
Reservations: Available via OpenTable
Favorite Dishes: Rabbit Cavatelli, Cauliflower Salad, Trio of Dips