My very favorite course of the evening was a simple morel risotto served with a few half-sprigs of fresh, grassy spring asparagus. It had a certain nutty, straightforward, ingredients-first quality that stood out. A rare duck breast with rhubarb and blood orange followed, then Brindamour, a Corsican sheep's-milk cheese served here young, firm, and pale as ice cream, drizzled with honey. A pleasure.

For dessert that night I tried both the warm chocolate truffle cake and the toffee-date pudding with Armagnac sauce ($8), which was sort of an updated, lighter plum pudding--a nice spicy thing. The molten-center chocolate cake didn't do much for me, for I wanted less of the taste of sugar and more the taste of chocolate.

The thing I took away from that meal, unfortunately, was the sense that even knowing it would show up in print, the kitchen simply couldn't send out anything sublime, transporting, or breathtaking. All I got was high competence, not marvels. Of course, the only reason I expected so much was because D'Amico is king, and the food was costing nearly $100 a head without drinks. For good or for ill, once you get to those heights, expectations start to ratchet up exponentially.

For my third visit I busted out a wig, spent an hour coming up with different makeup, arrived in a different car with new escorts, and got for my troubles the worst meal yet. Appetizers were the best effort: A large slab of rare, seared foie gras ($16) arrived on a bed of wee poached rhubarb stems in a tart sauce that perfectly cut the rich duck liver. The lobster salad ($18) was again everything I remembered, but the lovefest crashed into a wall with the awful piedina ($9.50). I actually remember this signature D'Amico dish from years ago, then a tender cloud of dark-bubbled, wafer-thin, griddle-seared bread drizzled with potent honey and served with a few perfect slices of prosciutto and a few buttons of gorgonzola. Now the bread is fried and arrives looking like a cream-cheese wonton. It's served next to a melted lagoon of salty gorgonzola, beside some good prosciutto garnished with the barest drizzle of honey. Combine it all and your eyes nearly cross from the overwhelming salt and oil. Once this dish was like a slow succession of chimes, each note distinct. Now it's like cymbals falling off a bench.

The polenta-mascarpone ravioli ($11.50) were served in a butter sauce, and were so rich they quickly became sickening. They were topped with fresh-shelled peas that were mealy and tasted old. Agnolotti (a ravioli-like pasta, $12.50) had a subtle lamb filling, but there was such a lot of fresh marjoram in the charred tomato sauce that it tasted soapy. A beef filet ($32) tasted red-winey but otherwise undeveloped, though the bed of barley it came on, topped with smoked shallots, was quite good.

After that, I'm not sure whether the tuna or the chicken was worse: It was sort of a fight to the death. Tuna ($28) was an ahi steak cooked until there was just a stripe of pink through the middle, served on a bed of sliced olives and baby artichokes that had somehow gotten on to tasting like button mushrooms. The plate was sauced with squirts of red bell pepper pesto, but I couldn't say why. (I had an oil-marinated tuna in a style like this at Lupa in New York a few months ago. It was delicious, but all the flavors were applied directly to the tuna, not scattered here and there dry on the plate in this odd fashion.) Sautéed chicken ($23.50) was overcooked and dry. It arrived in a plate sauced with a bitter, salty brown liquid described as roast chicken jus. The jus had islands of wrinkled, overcooked asparagus in it, and the bird was perched on a bland and unctuously buttery purée of sunchokes. The worst thing, though--the worst thing was that someone had clipped off the wing on this chicken breast halfway down, and the stump of bone had gotten charred black, and it just looked like someone had stubbed out a cigarette in the middle of my $23.50 chicken quarter.

Desserts were good, but not spectacular. My favorite was probably the roasted pear ($8), a pretty brown thing made with sweetened balsamic vinegar. It was light and fine, and the mascarpone sorbet with it was pure-tasting and bright. Twice I tried the vanilla custard with passion-fruit sauce, caramelized bananas, and semolina beignets, and I thought it never came together. Once the beignets were giant, lumpen, and tasted of old oil. The next time the bananas weren't caramelized, and buried the delicate tablespoon-sized custards. I felt very "Is that all there is?" about the $15 platter of chocolate pastries, designed to serve two to four. The first time, I thought the various items were nearly indistinguishable, basically offering the same flavors and ingredients in different shapes. The second time there were two good new additions: powerful little Sambuca truffles and a very nice little gianduja (hazelnut and chocolate) crème brûlée.

Which brings us, as always at D'Amico Cucina, inexorably to the check, where a grim calculation of value begins. For most meals at D'Amico Cucina I ended up paying around $70 per person for food alone, and every single time I wished I had dined somewhere else. Anywhere meritocracy tops aristocracy.

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