The multilevel dining room at Picasso is pretty as a picture, with sky-blue ceilings, rustic woodwork, and a fieldstone fireplace. Reproductions of its famous namesake's works hang from the walls of this East Side restaurant, while Spanish guitar music fills the air. White tablecloths and pale green napkins top roomy, well-spaced tables, and blue votives start to flicker when the sun goes down.
The overall effect is tranquil, relaxed, and thoroughly civilized, especially compared to the more bustling Mallorca, its downtown counterpart. But while Picasso's ambiance is more serene, many other aspects of the dining experience will be familiar to Mallorca fans. There is, for instance, the doting service, the homestyle side dishes, and the large menu filled with Spanish-style foods, ranging from rustic chorizo sausage and garlic soup to ephemeral preparations of seafood in light, translucent sauces. Yet in some ways, Picasso also improves upon its predecessor. For example, while fish and seafood are the house specialties at both restaurants, Picasso's menu balances them with an equally long listing of steaks, chops, and veal dishes. And while the menus at both spots are augmented by hordes of daily specials, Picasso puts those specials into writing, so diners have a fighting chance of sorting through their options.
Not that the eager, omnipresent servers are likely to let their guests linger for long. In fact, we were mobbed by formally garbed waiters within moments of being seated for lunch one weekday and had to shoo away the captain three times before we were ready to place an order. The same held true for our sortie through the big international wine list. Rather than give us time to ponder the possibilities, our waiter was quickly at our side with several well-intentioned suggestions. I hasten to add that this turned out to be a happy intervention: When we eventually settled on a couple of Californian wines instead of the Spanish whites he had recommended, he brought us a sampling of his favorites anyway, so we could try them for future reference.
Still, if the early stages of our meal felt as though they took place inside a whirlwind of attention, the pace moderated with the arrival of our entrées, and by the time we ordered desserts and coffee, and were treated to complementary sips of sweet almond liqueur, we felt as relaxed and well-cared for as any diner in the city.
The upscale atmosphere and attentive service surely aren't lost on Picasso's clientele, a group that includes plenty of well-dressed seniors who, presumably, aren't looking for culinary fireworks. Possibly that's why the kitchen, headed by chef José Valado, has developed such a light touch with much of its output. The taste of cool gazpacho, a bright liquid salad of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, is more lively than spicy. Thick, hot sopa de ajo (garlic soup), with a barely poached egg bobbing in its center, is mellow and nutty, but not at all aggressive. And slices of first-rate broiled chorizo, sprinkled with black olive rings, are zesty but never fiery, and have a meaty, mouth-filling taste that makes them as addictive as bacon.
If possible, fish and seafood dishes are even more gently handled and lightly seasoned. For instance, a sheer champagne sauce added just the right amount of laid-back luster to a luncheon special of milky-white tilapia filets scattered with delicate shrimp, their tail shells thoughtfully removed, and luscious scallops. More of those impeccable shrimp arrived in a dinner appetizer, now napped in a gauzy, parsley-flecked green sauce. Understated? Yes, indeed. But the sauce's simplicity was the perfect way to highlight the shrimp's delicious essence.
Lobster, in all its various forms, is also popular at Picasso. We tried it first in a luncheon salad, where sweet, tender lobster tidbits were tossed with plentiful goodies like Belgian endive, radicchio, capers, corn, and hard-boiled egg. The dish was substantial, refreshing, and good-tasting, although for the price ($13.95), we expected more lobster. However, a dinner entrée of twin broiled lobster tails, "stuffed" with an airy blend of shrimp, scallops, and bread crumbs, was generously sized, and again the seafood was beyond reproach.
Unfortunately, none of this prepared us for the indignities visited upon our steak. For one night's dinner, we had considered the menu's rib-eyes, porterhouses, and sirloins before settling on a broiled New York strip steak. But what we received -- a plate-sized, heavily grained, and notably chewy slice of beef, less than a half-inch thick and cooked to an indeterminate doneness -- was more like a flank steak than a strip and not at all what we expected. With the addition of the accompanying mushroom sauce and the vigorous application of salt, the steak was at least edible. But before too long, it hardly seemed worth the effort.
While most of the kitchen's works are refreshingly simple and appropriately understated, the familiar, standard-issue side dishes border on boring. Our entrées came with the usual chilly, preplated salads topped with sweet-tart French dressing, as well as with pass-around platters of saffron rice (at its best when helping to sop up that lovely champagne sauce); unsalted, homemade potato chips; and a mildly seasoned mix of fresh vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and significantly overdone peapods. Room-temperature ciabatta rolls filled the breadbasket, accompanied by piped florets of sweet butter. Understand, none of this was bad. But -- and this holds true for Picasso's counterpart as well -- in a restaurant where many dinner-entrée prices hover in the mid-$20s, a little more imagination would seem to be in order.
On the other hand, dessert options displayed a surprising amount of panache. Beyond the liqueur-infused dessert coffees, served in elegant snifters with frothy heads of whipped cream, alternatives included items like rum cake, tiramisu, sorbet, and tortufo. A generous serving of homemade rice pudding was lovely, with firm grains of rice bound together by a thick, rich cream, whispering of cinnamon and citrus. And a basic, well-executed flan became downright memorable with the addition of a dollop of caramel-like dulce de leche. But the biggest surprise was a busy-looking Italian pastry layered with custards, miniature cream puffs, and broad chocolate curls -- one of those confections that almost always looks better than it tastes. But this time, the imported sweet turned out to be a star -- fresh tasting, light-textured, and not a bit sugary -- and it disappeared promptly, despite what had originally seemed like a dauntingly large portion.
Unlike its namesake, there is nothing shocking, challenging, or revolutionary about Picasso, and in the end, most tabletop adventurers will find this a tame dining destination. But for those trying days when life seems too complicated, surprises are unwelcome, and a little pampering would go a long way, Picasso is a pleasant port in the storm.
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