Forget regulating salt and fat in our diets. What this city needs is a bill codifying restaurant portions. With appetizers and entres giving way to nebulously organized lists of shareable plates, ordering wisely has become a serious dining-out challenge.
On my visits to Faustina, the follow-up to Scott Conant’s downtown comeback, Scarpetta, the portion sizes were all over the map—smaller than entres, larger than tapas, built for three, built for one—and neither the price, the waitstaff, nor the dish’s place on the menu helped much. Though Conant changed the menu format just as this review went to press—he rearranged the voluminous options into a slightly more traditional configuration—the dishes themselves remain largely unchanged.
The restaurant, which replaced short-lived celebrity-chef flameout Table 8, serves food that’s often delicious in a bland, informal dining room—a muted gray-and-blond nook better suited to the Time Warner food court than the top of the Bowery.
The menu is a disjointed mix of standard weary-traveler fare and extravagant auteur cuisine. Faustina offers an opening salvo—a leaning tower of spongy grilled bread with compulsively toppable truffled fontina fonduta and a barely poached duck egg—that’s so rich, heavy and generous I regretted the seven more dishes I ordered before I even reached the last bite.
This is a serious Italian restaurant with a sumptuous burger (with melted Taleggio and caramelized onions), awful fried chicken (with an oversalted cardboard crust) and a big middling steak (a $37 on-the-bone sirloin with a bitter grilled char).
With the exception of the burger and steak, just about every dish on the menu was originally designed to be shared. That led to some oddball combinations—a table festooned at the same time, for instance, with hearty steamed clams (in a gorgeous garlicky broth) and elegant platters of crudo (raw tuna belly beautifully drizzled with sea urchin and cucumber-vinegar dressing; remarkably sweet chilled lobster nuggets topped with shallots, capers and oven-shrunken tomatoes).
Though these individual dishes are terrifically executed, the side-by-side clash of hot and cold, refined and rustic, benefited none of them. Now that the menu is slightly more straightforward, with starters and mains in their rightful place, it might be easier to construct a more successful feast.
The small, spiffy selection of pastas—fresh cannelloni filled with creamy burrata; toothsome risotto enriched with eggs, preserved truffles and sea urchin—are up to Conant’s generally impeccable standards. Other dishes are quite rich: The so-called small plate of chicken is a half bird, and the unctuous oxtail comes with fat bone-marrow nickels and buttery pedestals of Roman-style gnocchi.Be glad they aren’t served simultaneously anymore, as they were for me.
While the menu remains sprawling—and the food as much a mixed bag—there’s certainly promise in Conant’s willingness to so quickly chart a new course.
Drink this: The Italian-inspired cocktails include the Ne’roni ($12), a refreshing red-wine-and-Campari aperitivo that’s like a Negroni-and-sangria hybrid.
Eat this: Ciabatta with duck egg and fonduta, clams in guazzetto, lobster susci, burrata cannelloni, date pudding
Sit here: The tall stools at the bar and along one wall of the restaurant are too casual (and uncomfortable) for Conant’s most opulent fare. Opt instead for a cozier table near the glass wall beyond the long crudo counter.
Conversation piece: Faustina is named for the wife of Roman Emperor Antoninus, who died in the 2nd century A.D. The Roman forum still includes a monument dedicated to her—the only one devoted to a woman.
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