At Village Belle, where painted owls peer down from cream-colored lamp shades and banquettes are upholstered in “Twin Peaks” red, the servers want more than tips. They also want praise. In writing. They deliver checks in Moleskine notebooks, tucking diners’ damage reports between pages blooming with hand-penned raves. “The atmosphere was wonderful, the wine was terrific, and the food was to die for!” and so forth. It’s kind of like reading the carefully monitored comments on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page: Every one’s an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
It’s nice to see such goodwill for Lou and Joey Campanaro, whose new Mediterranean restaurant in Queen Village is a sort of homecoming. The brothers grew up a few blocks away, bussing tables in Bella Vista before greener pastures beckoned. (Joey continues to run Little Owl and Market Table in New York, but Lou, who previously cooked at Olive in Cherry Hill, is now ensconced here.)
But my meals here — especially one ending in a cheesecake with the texture of a mealy apple, topped with candied orange peels tougher than jerky — left me puzzling over the praise. Which author liked his sweet potatoes half-cooked, as in the bland, beet-heavy hash flanking over-seared scallops? Who enjoyed his slice of burrata sacrificed over one-note tomato risotto, the heat melting its luscious center into sad nothingness?
Some things sounded promising, like an $8 manhattan with house-made bitters. But you better like yours watery, stuffed to the rim with melting ice. And I hope I was the only one whose crabcakes were plated burned-side-down, as though someone in the kitchen were betting my eyes would deceive my tongue.
I wanted to like this place, with its century-old mahogany bar and its suavely mellow dining-room vibe (at least when they’re not cheesing it up with late-’80s Rolling Stones and Ace of Base). But even the well-executed dishes — a lemony salad studded with poached shrimp, squid and scallop coins; silken ricotta crespelle in a bright, sweet marinara; crispy duck-leg confit with an unexpected combination of mandarin orange sections and celery root puree; decent lamb chops with fresh figs — were scarcely to die for. And my first-time favorite, sausage ravioli zippy with lemon and tangy with robiola, was an oily and literally bitter disappointment upon revisit, its brown-butter sauce burnt halfway to black.
So, time to ink my own comment in the register: “Room for improvement.”