Al Dente Ristorante - Chef Mirko Embellishes the Perfect Steak
Restaurant Review by Ken Stewart, The Guam Food Guy
"La Festa del manzo L'Angus originale e garantito" is the Italian for what roughly translates into "Certified Angus Beef Promotion", and yes, this review is about a super-fabulous steak experience at Guam's premier Italian restaurant, Al Dente. Before I go any further, I have to warn you that this promotion ends October 31, so if you want to experience a steak above steaks, you'll have to beat the deadline! And, even if you come afterwards, you'll certainly find a full menu of delectable Italian dishes waiting to satisfy your gustatory cravings.
My last review of Al Dente was in June 2004, which was shortly after the arrival of Al Dente's Chef de Cuisine, Mirko Agostini, who originally hails from Milan. Chef Mirko's had been waiting for my return and circumstances created the right opportunity for us to visit during this special Certified Angus Beef Promotion. C.A.B. is a premier grade of beef, known for its marbling, texture, succulence, taste, and leanness. Though it's served at other reputable establishments on island, I contend that Chef Mirko's special seasonings that are grilled onto this tender meat (I had the 17 oz. T-Bone) gave it a unique, irresistible flavor that I fell in love with after the first bite - it was literally "love at first bite"! But I get ahead of myself here. Let's go to an earlier phase of the meal.
The special menu for the Certified Angus Beef Promotion offers six selections, starting with a Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio with Kalamata olives, Parmesan Reggiano, baby spinach, and extra virgin olive oil ($18). The second listing caught our attention - it was a "Ravioli al brasato de manzo in brodo ristretto al pomodoro affumicato" which translated means Braised Beef Ravioli in Smoked Tomato Consomme ($18), which we ordered. An item on the promotion menu we passed on was the Villa Antinori Chianti Risotto with braised beef, radicchio, Montasio cheese and fresh thyme ($21).
Our two main courses were center-stage for good reasons - they would prove to have compelling presentations and sensational tastes. The first was the Pan-Fried Beef Tenderloin wrapped in Pancetta served with grilled lobster, asparagus, soft polenta, and sun dried tomato sauce ($45). The second was a prime cut 17 oz. Rib Eye or T-Bone Steak with peppercorn cream sauce, roasted bell pepper coulis, and tomato-anchovy salsa, served with sauteed mushroom ragout, rosemary roasted potatoes and garlic spinach ($55). Don't get "sticker shock" from these prices - there's nothing ordinary about this meat! Besides, you deserve indulging in a steak fantasy at least once in your life, right?
Before we started the promotion course we ordered two soups from the regular menu, "Zippo di granchio, granuturco e pancetta affumicata" aka Corn & Crab Chowder $10 and "Crema ai funghi di bosco con olio al tartufo bianco" aka Wild Mushroom Soup with White Truffle Oil $9.50. Our server, Nida, took our wine order (two glasses of Orvietto Classico) which was a light, slightly dry crisp wine that blossomed on our palates after we swapped our regular ice waters with Panna. We were our own worst enemies by devouring (honestly, we couldn't help ourselves!) the hot pizza bread slices with that savory aioli dip. Had we limited ourselves to two pieces, we'd have been OK - I must have had five!
Both soups were equally impressive, the sweet corn kernels in one crunching with bits of crab meat and pancetta while the other was a wild mushroom blend in a savory broth enhanced by the seductive infusion of truffle oil. Nothing tame here! The chowder was as thick as I've had anywhere, yet it was as fresh as though every ingredient were still alive. These soups are perfect introductions to Chef Mirko's considerable talents.
Nida brought the Braised Beef Ravioli in the Smoked Tomato Consomme. The six ravioli looked like little pillows floating in a semi-clear broth with sliced tomatoes garnished by a parsley sprig. "Just one bite...that's all it took...just one bite!" The ravioli's flour dumpling shell was so fresh and palatable that even the finely-minced beef filling couldn't boast bragging rights. Mirko, you can make me ravioli anytime, capiche? As we ate, the filling further dissolved into the broth giving it a rich beef flavor.
It was beef time and we switched wines, opting for glasses of Santa Cristina Sangiovese from Tuscany. This noble, full-bodied, red wine had an intense bouquet of matured fruits, and I knew it would make a suitable companion for our steaks. The T-Bone arrived first, followed by the oblong platter holding the three dipping sauces. I think my heart rate went up at the sight of this magnificent meat. I noted the sauteed spinach with garlic and mushrooms, and the potatoes in one section of the plate. Then they brought my date's steak and lobster plate to the table...this certainly made a statement! The lobster was plated so as to appear as though it were climbing upwards out of the center of the plate, with broil marks scoring its redolent shell. Asparagus spears jutted upwards too, seeming to cross-brace this carbonized crustacean.
I cut a piece of my steak and thought this was it - terrific - literally an ad for perfection. I took two more bites from the strip loin portion and the Italian seasonings...possibly basil or rosemary came through. Adding to the enjoyment was the visual appearance with the grill marks "made for TV" perfect. (I'd ordered it medium and could have eaten it medium rare). This steak didn't need any sauces, it was fine as it was, but then again, Chef Mirko had put great effort into preparing a tantalizing trio of sauces - Al Pepe or peppercorn cream, Ai peperoni rossi arrosto or roasted peppers, and Alla pizzaiola or marinara. I tried the peppercorn and...ooh la la, c'est magnifique! (I lapse into French when excited about food!) The sauce of heavy cream, butter, and pungent peppercorns was excellent. The roasted bell pepper had a wonderful Southwestern, chipotle-esque tang to it, reminding me of something Bobby Flay would make. I'll be darned if it didn't give that steak another taste dimension. The third sauce brought things back to Italy with an anchovy-flavored marinara that made it a triple-ovation accompaniment.
I was so absorbed in my steak that I hardly ventured into Lynn's plate, but when she offered me a bit of sweet lobster it was superior. Her tenderloin didn't have the seasoning mine did, so it tasted almost bland by comparison, though it was certainly more tender. Lynn sampled the 3 sauces and preferred the tomato-anchovy salsa, using that to finish her meal.
Our dinner didn't end there since Chef Mirko wanted us to try a selection of their desserts. One platter had the Double Baked Chocolate Souffle, Macadamia Nut Ice Cream, and a Mousse ($8). The other platter had a Ricotta Tart with Wild Berries Compote ($8), a Fresh Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with a Brandy Caramel Sauce ($8), and the Profiteroles filled with Grand Marnier Custard topped by Hot Chocolate Sauce ($8). The hot fudgey souffle melted the ice cream and blended into an ecstasy of flavors - Lynn likened it to a hot fudge sundae. The ricotta tart was another gem, with a crisp cookie consistency mixed with a soft cheese portion with a berry covering. The Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta was a traditional favorite, classically-prepared. These desserts and more are on the menu. The Assagio dei dessert della casa is called the Al Dente Selection of desserts to share for $13.50, which is the same price for the cheese plate selection, that has dried fruits and crispy focaccia.
If you've never been to Al Dente, you need to go for lunch where you will be treated to the island's largest antipasto buffet. Lunch has a choice of four entrees that can be ordered separately or with the antipasto buffet. Lunch is served from 11:30am-2:30pm Monday thru Friday, and dinner hours are from 6-10pm daily. Though considered fine dining, Al Dente is more business casual than formal, with an ambiance super-charged by the culinary vision and enthusiastic leadership of Chef Mirko. Your Al Dente adventure starts when you open your menu.