April 7 (Bloomberg) -- Faustina, a two-month old venture in Manhattan’s Cooper Square Hotel, is packed. People crowd Scott Conant’s restaurants for many reasons, all of which elude me.
At Scarpetta, they swoon over his tomato and basil spaghetti, which is overcooked, overpriced ($24) and oversauced. A similar dish, spiked with sea urchin at Faustina, had little of the promised pomodoro or crustacean on an early visit.
They rave about his famous polenta. At Faustina, as elsewhere, it’s still a crime against corn, clogged with so much Parmesan that it no longer tastes like polenta.
He’s an expert at crudo? At Faustina, Conant overpowers tuna cubes with mealy avocado. And there was something off about my shrimp.
They were slicked with chili oil. A brilliant touch: The gentle heat would keep the shellfish’s sugar in check. Except each delicate bite was ruined by a coarse, inedible chili flake. I looked up and saw Conant in sports jacket and jeans, typing away on his PDA. It was a fitting image for a jet-setting restaurateur, with a Scarpetta in Miami and another slated for Las Vegas.
Pedigreed chefs like Thomas Keller can get away with leaving the kitchen to expand their empires. Conant isn’t quite ready. To be fair, his food here has improved. That same urchin pasta dish was firmer on a later visit, with an expert balance of fruit and fish blended into a creamy sauce. Just try to appreciate it amid the cacophony of thumping music and crowd roar.
The noise evokes the boisterous bar room at Scarpetta in the Meatpacking District. Surely, the backers of the $115 million Cooper Square Hotel could afford to chip in a little carpeting for soundproofing?
Should a restaurant be held accountable not just for its own poorly designed environment, but for patrons who act like fools? Cue the diner shaking his booty behind me, and the screamer in the Polo shirt and backwards gimme cap. You decide.
No, this ain’t a typical Italian restaurant, a fact that’s evident in the French fries and fried chicken on the cafe menu. Cynics might deem it a kowtow to hotel guests. I call it an honest effort by Conant to expand the horizons of traditional cuisine. After all, if American joints can serve pastas, why can’t osterias serve burgers? Call it Bowery Italian.
Conant just needs to make a better case for these dishes. Taleggio gives a pleasant stink to the dense, dry aged, overcooked burger patty. Salsa verde adds a nice Italian tang to underseasoned fried shrimp. Mushrooms in chicken sauce add finger-sticking goop to forgettable, over-breaded fried chicken.
The cold, corporate room (see also: A Voce) feels like it could be replicated across the country or turned into a lounge in the after-hours. Nothing about it says “Italian” or “New York.” The tables are bachelor-pad black, the chairs boardroom gray. Ever hear the term “chef’s whites?” In his kitchen, Conant wears black.
The veal t-bone, a juicy, charred, textural marvel at Danny Meyer’s Mailalino, is a bland bore here. Halibut for two lacks the seasoning to bring out its muted complements of tomato and lobster. Slow roasted escolar does a fine impression of canned tuna.
The ideal meal here is a flight of small plates. Maybe a few crudo; smoked steelhead roe over cool snapper or scallops brightened with orange. Order offal: crispy, stock-glazed sweetbreads are like a seasonal, local version of KFC’s popcorn chicken; they nestle over buttery fiddlehead ferns. The Colonel would be proud.
Cleanse the palate with a bit of brine; sweet sea urchin soup with shrimp and clams -- it may be the new Manhattan chowder one day. Finish with sticky date pudding or honeyed panna cotta.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Most small plates under $20; most mains under $30.
Sound level? 75-84 decibels.
Date place? No.
Inside tip? I don’t mind paying for good bread; the gooey glutinous Stromboli are $5 here. Only problem is they’re free at Scarpetta.
Special feature? Noodles in a bowl of suckling pig that pleasantly reeks of swine perfume.
Will I be back? Nah.
Faustina is at 25 Cooper Square, New York. Information: +1-212-475-3400 or http://faustinanyc.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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