Ullswater's Italian comfort food misses the mark
On paper, Ullswater should work. The restaurant is shoe-horned into a comfortable corner of Locust Point (the former home of the late, lamented Soigné); prices are reasonable, with most entrées falling below the $20 mark; and despite its English name (a lake in Britain's Lake District, and the subject of a favored painting owned by chef-owner Nick Batey, whose last culinary endeavor was the late, lamented Bicycle), Ullswater's menu is full-blown Italian, filled with traditional, Little Italy-style choices like lasagna, spaghetti, and a slew of "alla" dishes (marsala, saltimbocca, parmigiana). Italian food has become so popular and so synonymous with "comfort food" that it's hard to remember the days when a dish of spaghetti and meatballs was considered ethnic fare, and for this reason alone, Ullswater should be a shoo-in. Yet despite all this, the restaurant fails to live up to its promise as a neighborhood go-to joint, mostly due to underwhelming execution of those classic Italian favorites.
The first clues that something might be amiss at the restaurant are the awning and billboard-style sign at Ullswater's entrance that suggest fast food take-out rather than fine dining and contrast sharply with the warmly lit bar, and the downstairs dining room's white tablecloths, quality glassware and flatware, and understated avocado-colored walls.
The second clue is "butter-oil," poured on to bread plates and sprinkled with grated cheese and red pepper flakes by the server. Combining butter and olive oil for sautéing is a common kitchen practice for sure, but mixing the two to serve as a dipping condiment for bread feels downright odd, and the result is a pool of oily liquid that detracts from the flavor of each element.
I'm a little stumped as to why the kitchen thought this was a good idea, but my guess is that they want to give a twist to the standard dishes that pepper the menu, in the same way they offer to add shrimp or chicken to the normally shrimp- or chicken-less fettuccine carbonara or serve mozzarella in phyllo dough for the restaurant's version of mozzarella sticks.
Unfortunately, neither these nor other preparations make for extraordinary eating. The mozzarella sticks ($7) wrapped in phyllo sound inviting, like an Italian version of the Greek tiropita, where cheese oozes from the flaky, brown pastry. In Ullswater's version, however, the phyllo remains pale and without crispness, and the mozzarella chewy rather than melty. Overwhelmed by basil, the whole dish tastes unbalanced. It's the same story with the green bean salad ($7), where the green beans needed another minute or two of blanching to reach the crisp but not undercooked stage, and it felt like the kitchen used every garnish in the pantry--roasted onions, pine nuts, pancetta, goat cheese, tomatoes, a sweetish dressing--to make the salad lively when a little more restraint might have made the individual elements shine.
Most disappointing, however, were the entrées which were executed with little flair. Spaghetti Bolognese ($11, plus an additional $3 for meatballs) lacked the richness (and spice) of a good Bolognese, and the meatballs were simply heavy and dry. Flavor was missing, too, from a slightly greasy fettuccine carbonara ($12, plus an additional $3.50 for chicken) which finds onions, peas, and pine nuts added to the classic preparation of pancetta, garlic, cheese, and eggs, and where the inclusion of a sliced grilled chicken breast yielded neither interest nor flavor. The worst offender, however, was veal marsala ($18), pan-fried medallions of veal saved from drowning in a one-note, cornstarch-thickened sauce by a soggy mass of spaghetti reminiscent of food court lo mein.
Ullswater makes its own desserts including bread pudding and a ricotta cheesecake, and both the chocolate chip and the pistachio cannolis ($5 for the pair) were straightforward renderings of the dessert and the best part of the meal. My hope is that the kitchen can tweak the rest of its dishes to find that balance between reliably classic and refreshingly distinctive.