A USDA Prime New York steak is a safe choice. Scott ordered it medium, and so it arrived, but it continued cooking on the plate to well-done. (It would be better ordered rare, given the pedigreed meat.) The topping of minced green olives and lemon-garlic butter was piquant, and alongside were those luscious asparagus spears, sweet chunky carrots, and pesto mashed potatoes prettily striated in waves but tasting dry and starchy. "Monkfish alla [sic again] Niçoise" is another decent bet if you like this fish. Monkfish is a stalwart of the bouillabaisse bowl and is often called "poor man's lobster" -- more for texture than taste. "The flavor is a little muddy," Provvi said, cautiously sampling it for the first time. Indeed, it's an ugly-faced bottom feeder that used to be considered a trash fish (which is why the fishwives of Marseilles threw it into their stew). Dussini serves it with a pleasant, salty sauce of capers, Kalamata olives, white wine, and fresh tomatoes, sparked by the anise flavor of Pernod. Alongside are a bit of ratatouille and a couple of hollowed-out boiled red potatoes filled with crème fraîche and snipped chives. The tepid spuds, undercooked, tasted as if they'd spent a night in the fridge.
A step further down the food chain are "scallops alla Parma," sautéed jumbo scallops of a clean but bland flavor and rubbery texture, wrapped with prosciutto and dressed in a light tomato sauce with capers, lemon, and fresh herbs, with another asparagus garnish. They're served on a buttered bed of rice-shaped, saffron-seasoned orzo pasta that was slightly overcooked.
"Paella Español" is one of the restaurant's signature dishes. Dussini's rendition includes shrimp, mussels, linguiça, and dry chicken breast chunks, plus green peas and diced carrots. In one major respect, it's neither paella nor español: The kitchen takes the easy way out by replacing rice with that easy-to-cook, mushy orzo, a poor idea because slick, round pasta grains don't absorb oil or seasonings. (Catalans do make a pasta paella, but they use fideo -- thin, rough-grained noodles that do drink up juices.) At the bottom of the pan, instead of a pleasing rice crust, we encountered an oil slick. Worse, the oil tasted cheap. The portion is large enough for at least two. We four didn't even make a dent.
"Duck con crosta di nolce" -- a half roast duck crusted with pulverized walnuts -- has sugar in the crust, the cause of its undoing. When our fowl was reheated under the broiler, the sugar burned, over-caramelizing into sweet black tar. The meat was dry and shreddy. It came with another repeat of the orzo, and with a vibrant pear chutney, the sole appetizing substance on the plate.
This wasn't our worst entrée -- two other dishes vied for that distinction. A saltimbocca offered overcooked, chewy slices of veal and tough prosciutto in a Marsala sauce with a medicinal overdose of fresh sage -- a "whoof!" sort of taste. Couched in an open pastry shell atop a bed of grated Mizithra cheese were a handful of small oval gnocchi with a weight and flavor closer to miniature potato knishes than to anything Italian.
The veal's rival in culinary iniquity was another house signature dish, "lobster macaroni and cheese." The menu trumpets, "Over 1/2 pound of lobster with a sharp white cheddar cheese sauce, flavored with truffle oil." "I was expecting a crust on top," murmured Provvi, disappointed at the sauce's gluey consistency. "Where's the lobster?" asked Mike (who loves Terra's rendition of this dish), when we retasted it to see if it was really as bad as we thought. None of us could perceive a trace of crustacean. My partner compared the flavor to off-brand instant mac'n'cheese, and I found the truffle oil not only a wrong note but stale-tasting. And the sauce was salted beyond reason.
The wine list, however, is a joy to explore, dipping into France, Spain, and Italy, as well as California. Among the many affordable choices, we enjoyed a Moulin Au Vent Beaujolais that's beautifully suited to light Mediterranean cooking, and a sturdy, mellow Alsatian Pinot Blanc with the power to go one on one with the richest seafood. The liberal corkage policy -- the first two bottles free -- is of interest if your home cellar needs thinning, particularly in light of the excellent (if super-rich) cheese plate here. It included a sweet Gorgonzola, a Cambazola, a triple creme, and an English blue, all served at cool room temperature and mature enough to become a bit runny as they warmed. These came with wonderful caramelized fennel, crackers, and house-made toasted walnut sweet-bread.
The desserts include a sampler plate, with all the choices also available as solos. The best is a Scharffen Berger chocolate mousse, light and elegant with a deep, dark-chocolate flavor. Panna cotta is of medium lightness and quite sweet for this normally restrained dessert. The crème brulée is standard, as is the raspberry sorbet. The tiramisù (which means "pick me up") was much like the bland rendition we tasted last week at the Palm, too short on coffee to pick anybody up and lacking any perceptible liqueur for the final spark.
The service at Dussini goes beyond considerate toward anxious hovering: Seconds after delivering each course, a server returns to ask, "Is your [dish name] all right?" -- as if you'd tell her the truth!
This isn't a bad restaurant, but it serves some bad dishes, along with a handful of highly satisfactory ones. The "star-rating" for everything we tasted averaged out to a two, but on second thought -- with three entrées out of eight earning one star or less -- it's too risky to call the restaurant "good." Not only does the cooking need fine-tuning, but some ingredients need upgrading (particularly the seafood and the oils) if Dussini is to overcome its feed-all-comers Old Spaghetti aura. The prices are nearly three times as high (the average entrée runs $22, compared to $8), so the food needs to be at least twice as good.