I've never quite understood large group dinners. You don't sit near the people you actually want to talk to, someone (or everyone) forgets to bring cash, the food is often cold/unremarkable, and the whole who-owes-what business at the end is without a doubt one of the more nightmarish ordeals of the human experience—just this side of actually having to organize such a dinner. That really is the pits.
I clam up even dialing for take-out, so when Rebecca Schoenkopf suggested "getting everyone together" for "food and wine," "something pasta-ish" "no more than $30 per person," "in Long Beach," I was naturally silent. I may have even pretended to look for something under my desk. "Caf Piccolo!" Steve Lowery suggested, which I liked because it's near where I live on Broadway and Redondo Avenue in Long Beach. I seconded. "Great! You can make the reservations, Ellen!" Took me only about half an hour to rehearse what I would have to say on the phone: "Sorry for the short notice, but I've got a party of anywhere from 15 to 18 people. Would you be able to accommodate us Thursday night?" This was Wednesday, by the way.
Caf Piccolo, it turned out, already had a party of eight and 10 coming in. No one answered at Cha Cha's. Pasta al Dente? Maybe. I'd come back to that. Domenico's? No—we'd have to sit at two tables. Chris Ziegler suggested Sir Winston's on the Queen Mary. Too fancy. We needed somewhere that could fit us comfortably, would have vegetarian dishes and (I hoped) be close to where I live. I'm selfish. And then it hit me: Utopia, an intimate restaurant on the corner of First and Linden, smack in the center of the East Village.
"Fifteen to 18 people?" asked the alarmingly kind voice of Danielle, who picked up when I called. "And you'd be coming in tomorrow night? Let me check." She was precisely the kind of overly polite person put on this earth to help a useless, phone-phobic girl like me. Twenty-four hours later, we stepped inside the dimly lit restaurant, where a man sat playing piano standards and some locals mingled at the wine bar. To the right was a long table, gorgeously set for 18. We were closer to 12.
"No problem," said Danielle with a smile, as she listed the specials: a pumpkin ravioli dish, and lamp chops with some sort of reduction I didn't catch—I was still picturing the raviolis. Pumpkin? Really? We started off with a bottle of Vizcaya cabernet and some bruschetta ("Probably the best I've ever had," said Tom Child. "You'd think bruschetta would be the same everywhere, but this is incredible—garlicky, with ripe, juicy tomatoes and just a touch of cheese for garnish.") and also the Mediterranean plate—a light and savory mix of Kalamata olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, fresh basil, walnuts and pita bread.
For the main course, Dave Wielenga ordered the Himalaya Treat—lamb chops with mint sauce—just for the name. The four chops were rather dainty, thin bones that had little flags of tender, deftly seasoned meat at their ends. Rebecca normally doesn't order anything she can't cook at home, but went with the salmon because it came with Brazilian raspberry samba sauce. Its sweetness complemented the fish perfectly, and she has yet to figure out how to make it—probably so she can order it again. Down a few seats, our interns Kevin Ferguson and Miles Clements ordered the chicken Florentine with tomato barley soup ("By far the best soup I've ever had in my life," said the 20-year-old) and pollo crema over bombay curry ("A good choice—its chunks of chicken and slices of mushroom are all buried under a faintly sweet sun-dried tomato sauce"), respectively.
That covers the half of the table where I was sitting (and, for once, with people I was thrilled to talk to). At the other end, Theo Douglas wasn't too impressed with his risotto side dish ("Overcooked and near-mushy, with only the barest hint of saffron") but pleased with his lamb chops ("Broiled to perfection but not overdone—quite a trick with a piece of meat smaller than a flip-phone.") Tom, too, was underwhelmed by his potato side dish ("Mashed more coarsely than I expected") but, as was the general consensus of everyone that night, found the vegetables exquisite (steamed just so, with a fair amount of crunchiness left in them). As for his herb-encrusted pork medallion, well, it didn't stay very long on his plate that I could see. Then again, we were at opposite ends.
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Me? I take everything ultra spicy, and the penne arabiata did not disappoint: the spicy tomato wine sauce necessitated that each bite of the plate's mix of Kalamata olives, onions, capers and tomatoes be chased with a gulp of wine, which left plenty of food to take home after. It was the perfect way to get through a group dinner—less food, more wine; less chewing, more laughter.
For dessert, I ordered another glass of wine. Everyone else, however, ordered nearly everything on the menu, from the crme brle ("It's served in a fucking bucket!" said Kevin) to a delicious toffee chocolate mousse—a new twist on a time-tested staple.
Still, the best part of the night was, by far, paying the bill. Not only did nearly everyone bring cash (with the exception of the interns—kids these days) but the total was a mere $325.29, or roughly $30 per person. It was all very, you might say, utopian.
UTOPIA RESTAURANT, 445 E. FIRST ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 432-6888; WWW.UTOPIARESTAURANT.NET. OPEN MON.-FRI., NOON-9:30 P.M.; SAT., 5-10 P.M.; SUN., 5-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $50-$75, FOOD ONLY. BEER, WINE.