Downtown retail may be on life support, but Downtown dining remains robust. The reason is clear: Office workers may be able to postpone purchases until they get to a mall, but lunch hour waits for no man.
However, the same factors that have hurt retail -- in particular, the lack of a residential base -- have fostered an oddly bifurcated Downtown dining scene: On one end, various modern permutations of the old lunch counter -- from fast food to delis to ethnic takeout -- and on the other, tony, expense-account restaurants, with little in between. In Angelique's decade of working Downtown, she always wished for more choices for a sit-down lunch with friends or a casual bite after work.
One tried-and-true favorite resided in Oxford Center, that sleek '80s hybrid of office tower and upscale shopping mall. Asiago was a simple, white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in the late-'80s mode: It offered better quality and more authenticity than the old spaghetti-and-meatballs regime, but was neither pretentious nor too pricey for lunch and catching up. Since Asiago has closed, its successor, Paradiso Ristorante, has picked up more or less where the former venue left off.
The décor has been somewhat updated, but still includes the small bar near the entrance, the deep dining room beyond, and large windows opening onto the building's atrium, giving the space an open, airy feel even though it is entirely enclosed. Nestled in the bureaucratic corner of Downtown, far from the lights and nightlife of the Cultural District, Paradiso was quiet for a weeknight dinner.
The menu contains mostly of familiar Italian fare, but a few distinctive dishes, such as charmaine pasta with shrimp, tomatoes, peppers and arugula, set Paradiso apart from every other Italian game in town. We started with an intriguing appetizer of "crab cigars." The menu describes a crab filling within a pan-fried pasta wrap, but what arrived on our plate more resembled a cross between an egg roll and a bisque. The crab filling was flavored with lemon, cream, garlic and, above all, black pepper, and topped with a zesty orange remoulade. Angelique appreciated the citrus and pepper as foils for one another, while Jason wished for greater complexity of flavor. We agreed that the wrappers were disappointingly reminiscent of Chinese food.
Further disappointment came in soup bowls. Italian wedding soup was chock-full of meaty meatballs and tender shredded chicken, but the pasta and greens were cooked nearly to mushy oblivion. The soup of the day, featuring sausage and spinach, sounded promising but delivered bland flavors and a greasy mouthfeel.
Manicotti with meatballs, credited specially to Chef Heather, showed that the kitchen could take an ordinary Italian-American recipe and produce ... an ordinary Italian-American dish. While the large manicotti were filled with nicely cheesy ricotta, and the house "long sauce" had a slightly chunky texture and bright tomato flavor, the meatballs were heavy and bland. A good meatball can do far more to elevate unremarkable pasta than the reverse, and this dish was a good example.
The most egregiously flawed dish was Jason's filet Oscar, a mignon served with crabmeat. The crab was refrigerator-cold, which made it conflict with, rather than contrast, the steak. But the real problem was the woefully under-done filet; Jason ordered medium-rare, but the interior was raw. With a scarcely charred surface, it might have seemed rushed to the table, but even the better-cooked edges were cool.
On the other hand, another of Chef Heather's specialties, spinach crab Paradiso, was absolutely superb. Spinach pasta, cooked to al dente perfection, was tossed with sweet, succulent lump crab, braised baby spinach and Italian cheeses in a cream sauce that could have been heavy and overly rich had it not been served with such restraint; there was just enough to cling to and flavor the noodles, no more. This was, quite simply, the best pasta dish Angelique has had in some time.
It's hard to know what to make of a meal as mixed as ours was. Our respective entrees represented the extremes of our dining experience, while the rest of our food ranged from fair to mediocre. Paradiso is filling a vital niche in the Downtown dining scene, and if it can avoid outright failures like Jason's steak, it may yet merit longevity. If more of the menu rises to the level of Angelique's pasta, Paradiso will be truly worthy of its name. Time will tell.