Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Cucina & Co.

MetLife Building, Grand Central Station, NYC

Review by ThePlazaQueen, Susu, MaceVindaloo, Rosie, SteakGrrl, Diana, Wraith6, Runt, Farklempt

Food allergies are a serious thing, and lately restaurants have taken to revealing their frying oil content (was it made from nut oils, for instance) and other ingredients in an effort to not feed customers stuff they shouldn't be eating. Not in the "sinful, caloric" sense, just in terms of allergies and being apble to breath after imbibing in a meal. So when a foodery is asked if there were mussels in the bouillabaise broth, the best thing for the restaurant to do is admit they don't know (if they don't, or if they buy the bases from purveyors) and to recommend we not order the item. Or if we want to order dessert, but it looks like all the tartes have nuts in them, they send out the chef to answer which ones are safe for those with nut allergies. (By the way, nut allergies never go away, seafood allergies tend to develop with age, and peanuts are not nuts, though you can have allergies to those, too.)

We were here at Cucina for their great "dinners for two" -- you get a viand, potatoes (usually fries), salad, cooked vegetable, and a tarte as dessert -- large enough for two or three people to share! The choices are roasted salmon, roasted chicken, pan-seared and roasted beef, or 2 x 1¼ lb. lobsters! At $24.95, there offerings are a huge bargain, and if the food is excellent, then it's even better.

Alas! The aforementioned seafood allergy meant that if we are going to eat as a group, we could not order the lobster. But wouldn't it be a great idea for out-of-town guests with a hankering for this normally expensive crustacean?? (In fact, I was recently in a supermarket in the mid-Atlantic, and they were selling lobsters for $12 PER POUND!! At that price, the restaurant would be losing money offering 2.5 lbs of lobster in their dinner for two ... assume they know what they are doing and go for the lobster anyway!)

We got one of everything else, along with some à la carte items; we were apprehensive about buying meals at bargain basement prices, but you know what? The meals were superb! We ate everything, sharing and passing platters back and forth in what is nowadays called "family style dining." We wondered at the price, and realized that this restaurant is within the bowels of an office building in a business district. Most of their business would be in lunches and carry-out breakfasts. In fact, the place is packed at lunch, and the noise level jumps to the 100s of decibels range. There is a bakery in front of the restaurant, where they sell the wondrous bread and baked treats, and take-out items from a steam table, as well as wrapped sandwiches and such. Dinner is run at a lower price to attract the few customers en route to a late communter train. Because of it's location, you wouldn't stumble across it unless you happen to be coming out of the back of Grand Central Station and toward the Helmsley Building onto 45th Street or Park Avenue.

Usually, high-end restaurants are more expensive at dinner and priced a bit lower at lunch. But this is a quality place with a cafeteria feel, with a big lunch market. So why not reverse it for the right reasons?

The decor is fresh and clean -- they are going to "Tuscan village" or "provincial French," we think. There are a dusky orange walls, white tiles painted with grape arbor motifs. The bathroom is decorated in the same manner, and is suprisingly roomy. The sink is mounted on what looks like a big kitchen table, rather than the standard cheap vanities in cramped facilities you'd expect to see in a place where you might spend $12.50 per person for dinner.

The servers are cheerful and helpful. Many are recent immigrants, and speak with accents that Americans find cute or sexy. Ours was from Poland, and she wasn't pushy or neglecting in the least. We made sure to tip her what we thought she should get tipped for a large party at regular prices, rather then running a percentage of the small check we received. She's the one who suggested the chef come out to talk to us about what was in the desserts, so we could avoid allergic reactions. He was helpful and polite, too. What a departure from what one is led to expect in the Big Apple!

The people with allergies were given big bowls of fresh berries, dolloped with whipped cream. The rest of us opted for the fruit tartes mounted on almond cream. That night they had pear, peach, and strawberry rhubarb. They were great, and we can't believe they are included in the "dinner for two" price! We did pay extra for the berries, but seriously, who is going to whine about extra desserts? They will pack your leftovers for you, anyway.

A word on their dinner rolls -- excellent! Even the fussy eaters who won't eat any "weird" food happily ate through several of the generous rolls, apiece! They are french bread, and clipped on top when proofed to form a signature "quiff" that poked upward from the round roll, a smidgen charred on the pointy end. The kids among us were delighted with the "Pikachu bread" -- the Pokémon character with the yellow ears tipped with black ... But there is only one quiff per roll, so we termed it "half-a-Pikachu" roll -- or in very bad Japanese: Pikachu no-hambun maki which made it sound like sushi. This didn't seem to bother the young 'uns, nor the fact that they were gobbling up their half-Pikachus.

There is a Cucina & Co. in Macy's department store and one in Rockefeller Center, apparently. We haven't tried those, but knowing they are there is reassuring -- no reason to worry about finding decent food anywhere in midtown, at a great price with very good service. The brand is owned by Restaurant Associates, who can hire chefs like Reinhard Heller to design menus and recipes, then train chefs at each location to follow and produce. Also, taking into consideration seasonal availability of key ingredients, combined with what's available all the time so re-training on those aspects is not required, means a lower tab on the customer end.

Gee, ain't New York a swell place!

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