Entries in Scott Conant (8)


Review Recap: Faustina

This week, Sam Sifton awarded one star to Faustina, even though he liked the food very much:

The restaurant offers what may be the city’s best pork chop, a shoebox-size Berkshire behemoth currently recommended for two or more diners; it might serve four, and happily. You can find a wealth of interesting raw-bar small bites and bread-dippers, delicate salads and ridiculously hearty, delicious pastas.

On hand is a wine list that affords a chance to drink well at reasonable prices, up and down Italy. This being a hotel restaurant, you can have lunch, even breakfast — some oatmeal, perhaps, or a protein shake.

But no matter the meal, you will eat it uncomfortably, in a tough concrete dining room that juts off a large bar crowded with tall tables, in what is unmistakably an institutional setting, down to the space on the check where you can sign the bill to your room.

Sifton also dings the place for a “small plates” format that is being phased out, although Recette, which has that format, received two stars.

We subscribe to the view, best articulated by our friend Sneakeater, that the Times doesn’t review food, it reviews restaurants. Service and ambiance count. The whole package counts. But this is perhaps the severest “ambiance penalty” we can recall—in terms of stars—for a restaurant whose food he clearly liked.

We also, quite frankly, see very little difference between the “institutional setting” at Faustina and that at Colicchio & Sons, where Sifton inexplicably awarded three stars.

Eater had predicted one star, and wins $2, while we lose $1, on our hypothetical bets.

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $7.00   $19.00
Gain/Loss +2.00   –1.00
Total $9.00   $18.00
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 9–10

Life-to-date, New York Journal is 80–36 (69.0%).


Review Preview: Faustina

“This guy is hard to nail down.” Thus sayeth Eater.com in today’s edition of Sift Happens. Six months into Sam Sifton’s tenure as New York Times restaurant critic, nobody can figure the guy out.

Tomorrow, Sifton reviews Scott Conant’s Faustina, which was built on the husks of the failed Table 8. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows: Goose Egg: 15–1; One Star: 2–1; Two Stars: 3–1; Three Stars: 15–1; Four Stars: 500–1.

We liked Faustina, giving it two stars, but that means nothing to Sifty, whose ratings have been all over the map. Early critics have been down on Faustina, but with Conant fine-tuning the menu, those earlier reviews might not be relevant.

A one-star review won’t surprise us, but with Conant giving Sifton the white-glove treatment, we’ll lay our bets on two stars.



Note: Faustina closed in December 2010. The hotel changed hands, and the new owners wanted to install a new restaurant. Multiple operators have run the space since then. As of January 2014, it is Narcissa, a restaurant from Dovetail owner/chef John Fraser.


Most restaurants open around the husks of old ones, as it’s a lot cheaper to renovate a space that already has a commercial kitchen. The transformation that turned the failed Table 8 into Scott Conant’s Faustina was unusually speedy—taking only about a month. Perhaps that’s because its home, in the Cooper Square Hotel, couldn’t do without a restaurant for very long.

Conant has had the midas touch for years, from L’Impero to Alto (now run by Michael White), to Scarpetta. We found the latter wildly over-rated (three stars from Bruni), but perhaps it is more consistent now; we have never had the urge to re-visit.

I assumed that Faustina would be a lazy restaurant. Nothing against Conant, but it was obviously thrown together quickly. To our surprise, Faustina is actually very good, and certainly much more enjoyable than our first visit to Scarpetta.

The menu is evolving. The original concept made us shudder: “small plates”. Neither of the early reviewers, Steve Cuozzo nor Alan Richman, was happy about that. There’s now a section of the menu offering piatti grande, which I’m assuming is new, as no review mentioned it. Richman complained of a menu with nine sections. There are now seven, which is a step in the right direction.

Those menu categories—at least this week—are Bread & Olives ($4–6), Cheese & Salume ($6), Raw Bar ($12–23; selection $68), Piatti ($9–19), Pasta & Risotto ($14–21), Piatti Grande ($31–42), and Sides ($9). Nothing like mixing-and-matching English and Italian.

At the bar, there’s a different menu, mostly a subset of the dining room menu with a few extra items. I compared the two: for the dishes on both, the prices are the same. A La Freida burger (what else?) was introduced this week. Given the popularity of bar dining, they might as well have one menu.

As always at such places, one is unsure of how much to order, and doubtful of whether the server’s advice can be trusted. We ordered—all to share—a small plate, a pasta, and a large plate, and it was still more food than we could eat.

We liked the hefty Lardo-Wrapped Prawns with rosemary lentils ($16; above left), even if we couldn’t taste much lardo. Spaghetti with octopus ragu ($15; above right) justified Conant’s well deserved reputation as a pasta champion.

Oddly, both of these were served at once, after which we were advised that our entrée—er, large plate—would take 25 minutes. Apparently it had not occurred to them that the two appetizers—er, small plates—ought to be served as separate courses.

When they said “large plate,” they weren’t kidding. The Glazed Berkshire Pork Chop ($31; above left) was the largest pork entrée we’d ever seen. The photo doesn’t do it justice. With one more side dish, three people could have shared it. From the descriptions, all of the piatti grande seem to be like that—very large portions that a sane solo diner couldn’t order.

The server presented the double-chop table-side, then whisked it away to be cut into sections. We’re not sure how Italian it is, but it might be the best pork entrée in New York, blowing the Little Owl’s to smithereens. A side of herbed fries ($9; above right) was a greasy mess; the evening’s only disappointment.

The décor, as Richman noted, could be a hotel anywhere. We never visited Table 8, but we understand it is little changed. The trip to the rest room, as many reviewers have noted, is a trek so long you’ll be tempted to leave breadcrumbs to show you the path back home. That’s often the case with hotel restaurants.

Servers wear ties and work with brisk efficiency. A sommelier comes to your table unbidden, though the wine list is neither as long nor as varied as it ought to be. Like everything else at Faustina, that could change.

In sum, Faustina is promising indeed. We don’t know when we’ll get around to returning. Unlike Scarpetta, we’d very much like to.

Faustina (25 Cooper Square (Bowery between 5th & 6th Streets), East Village)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *
Overall: **

Faustina at the Cooper Square Hotel on Urbanspoon


The Payoff: Scarpetta

This week, Frank Bruni reviews Scott Conant’s greatest hits, finding their current home at Scarpetta worth a three very generous stars:

“Spaghetti, tomato and basil.” That’s all it says. That’s pretty much what it is. But however Mr. Conant is choosing and cooking the Roma tomatoes with which he sauces his house-made spaghetti, he’s getting a roundness of flavor and nuance of sweetness that amount to pure Mediterranean bliss…

More than that, it underscored the wisdom of his work at Scarpetta: he’s getting back to the tomato. I mean that not literally but figuratively, in the sense that Mr. Conant, whose cooking took a precious turn when he opened the restaurant Alto in 2005, is mining a more straightforward, soulful vein.

Here’s a reminder: The Bruni didn’t like Alto, finding it “haute and cold.” He awarded just two stars, which was an insult to a restaurant clearly designed for three. After Conant left, Bruni re-reviewed Alto and gave it the three stars it had deserved in the first place. Critics love to be vindicated. At Scarpetta, Conant has abandoned his excellent work at Alto, so Bruni says, “I told you so.”

Ironically, I am fairly certain that the owners of Scarpetta weren’t gunning for three stars. They’ll happily take them, but I’m sure a two-star verdict wouldn’t have carried anything like the disappointment it did at Alto. Scarpetta is a decent enough place, but it is well below any of the other Italian places that have won three stars from Bruni.

Give full credit to Eater, who correctly forecasted that Bruni’s Italian grading curve would be on full display this week. Eater wins $4 on a hypothetical one-dollar bet, while we lose $1.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $97.50   $121.67
Gain/Loss +4.00   –1.00
Total $101.50   $120.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 46–21   48–19

Rolling the Dice: Scarpetta

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Scott Conant’s comeback at the Meatpacking-adjacent Scarpetta. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows:

Zero Stars: 12-1
One Star: 5-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 4-1 √√
Four Stars:

The Skinny: We’re reasonably confident that Scarpetta was designed as a two-star concept. The prices, the vibe, the service, all say two stars.

On rare occasions, Bruni has awarded a third star that the restaurant itself probably never planned on, with Dovetail being the most recent example. But that doesn’t happen often. It’s hard enough to get three stars when you’re trying to. An unintended third star is a blessing granted to very few.

Working in Scarpetta’s favor is the two-star kiss that Bruni blew at Bar Milano just four weeks ago. In a way, it’s an insult to the obviously superior Scarpetta to be saddled with the same two stars. With Italian restaurants and Bruni, it never hurts to figure on a star more than the restaurant deserves.

But we know the Italian restaurants Bruni really liked—Babbo, Felidia, Del Posto, A Voce (under Carmellini) and Alto the second time around. We are hard pressed to put Scarpetta in that league. Our 1½-star review may have under-rated it, but we’ve seldom been that far away from Bruni’s assessment.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award a very enthusiastic two stars to Scarpetta.



[Kreiger via Eater]

Note: Scott Conant is no longer affiliated with the New York branch of Scarpetta, though he continues to “run” (I use the term loosely) the Scarpettas in other cities.


At the new Italian restaurant Scarpetta, we have another telling of the usual story these days: a former three-star chef in one or two-star surroundings.

Here, the former big-time chef is Scott Conant, who had five stars to his name between L’Impero (three, per Asimov) and Alto (the deuce, per Bruni). He left the two restaurants in 2007, consulted a while, and is now back in Manhattan at Scarpetta, on the edge of the Meatpacking District.

scarpetta_outside.jpgThe former Gin Lane space looks like a quiet country home on the outside, despite the Meatpacking madness just steps away. Indoors, there’s a large bar space for the bridge-and-tunnel set.

The dining room is decorated in a modern rustic chic, with mirrors fastened to the walls with leather saddle belts, and matching saddle leather placemats. A retractable roof could be delightful in the spring and autumn, but it was closed on a hot Saturday evening in June, so that the dining room could be air conditioned.

The exposed hard surfaces make Scarpetta a noisy restaurant when it is full—and full is how you’ll most likely find it, thanks to the sterling reputation that Conant brings with him. He’s serving the same seasonal modern Italian cuisine that brought him accolades at L’Impero.

Scarpetta, which means “little shoe,” has potential if the kitchen can work out some inconsistencies. Our first and second courses came out quickly, but we waited an eternity for the third, and we observed similar waits at other tables. When they finally came out, our entrées were somewhat disappointing.

Prices are in line with other restaurants in “former three-star chef” club, with appetizers from $11–17, pastas $22–25, and entrées $25–37. The server told us that appetizer-sized pasta portions were quickly dropped after opening, when they found the kitchen couldn’t keep up. That was apparently a wise move, since the kitchen still isn’t keeping up.

We fashioned a three-course meal by ordering an appetizer to share, followed by a pasta to share, followed by two entrées. The kitchen plated each of the first two courses as separate “half-orders” without being prompted.

scarpetta01a.jpg scarpetta01b.jpg

The bread service could quickly become addictive. Four kinds of homemade bread came with soft butter, an eggplant spread, and a pool of olive oil. Raw Yellowtail ($16) in sea salt and ginger oil had a bright taste, and there was a nice ring of fat around the fish, although the salt crust wasn’t spread as evenly as it should be.

scarpetta02a.jpg scarpetta02b.jpg

The second course, Agnolotti dal Plin ($24), was impeccable. Pasta pillows were filled with mixed meat and fonduta, with mushrooms and parmigiano.

scarpetta03a.jpg scarpetta03b.jpg

Neither entrée quite lived up to expectations. A Boneless Braised Veal Shank ($31) had been allowed to cook too long, and was slightly dry—still edible, but not as well executed as it should be. We loved the bone marrow & gremolata garnish, which was applied at tableside. Pacific Orata ($26) needed to have a crisper skin. I should note that both dishes had great potential. Neither was bad, and both could very well be winners in the long run.

The wine list emphasizes Italy and France, and there are plenty of bottles at reasonable prices. A 2000 Portulano was only $53.

For a restaurant as crowded as this, the serving staff did an excellent job of staying on top of things. This bodes well for Scarpetta, assuming that the kitchen can work out of its early growing pains. There is some very good food here, though no one should have the illusion that the quality or consistency matches the palmiest days at L’Impero.

Scarpetta (355 W. 14th Street, east of Ninth Avenue, Meatpacking District)

Food: ½
Overall: ½



limpero_outside.jpg limpero_inside.jpg

Note: L’Impero closed on June 29, 2008, re-opening in mid-July as Convivio.

L’Impero is the Italian restaurant that put chef Scott Conant on the map, when in 2002 Eric Asimov awarded three stars—a remarkable accomplishment for a non-Italian chef. Three years later, Conant and his partners created Alto, which was supposed to be the next step up. Asimov liked it, but Frank Bruni, the man in charge of the stars these days, did not. He gave Alto a disappointing two stars in 2005, finding it “haute and bothered.”

Conant and the two restaurants parted company in 2007, with Michael White (formerly of Fiamma) taking over. This gave Bruni the chance to correct his mistake, and Alto was finally given the three stars it deserved in the first place. But the laws of Newtonian Mechanics as applied to restaurants dictate that every star given must be taken away, so L’Impero was simultaneously demoted to two stars.

tudorsign1.jpgTo be sure, L’Impero needs to work harder for our affections. It’s located in a small elevated enclave called Tudor City on the far east side, a block west of the United Nations. It’s not convenient to mass transit, and if you’re walking (as I was) you could very well miss it. When Tudor City was built in the 1920s, there were slaughterhouses on the land the U.N. now occupies, which is why the three-square-block area is so isolated. Today, it seems like a city within a city.

The décor gives the impression that it’s about twenty years too old. Bruni found it “lugubrious,” while my sense was that I’d missed a party that was hip and cool a long, long time ago. The pleated curtains along the wall could use a spring cleaning; the light blue chairs are comfortable, but decidedly un-stylish.

The staff at L’Impero provide generally fine service, but they could use some polish. When a runner dropped off the amuse-bouche, his description was almost incomprehensible (except that it was a sweetbread something-or-other). We were twice asked for our wine order, even though we didn’t yet have menus in our hands, and didn’t know what we’d be eating. After I chose a wine, the server instantly replied, “Oh, we’re out of that.” However, the wine steward suggested a substitute at around the same price, and then decanted it.

The dinner menu is available à la carte, or $64 for four courses. Judging by the portion sizes we saw, you’d better have a big appetite if you order the prix fixe.  If ordered separately, all menu categories are quite reasonable for the quality and quantity given: antipasti are $14–17, pastas $23–27, entrées $29-42 (most in the low $30s). In contrast, the four-course prix fixe at Alto is $79, and the top prices there are all proportionately higher.

limpero01a.jpg limpero01b.jpg
Amuse-bouche (left); Polenta with house-made pork sausage (right)

We started with a grilled sweatbread, which was more substantial than one normally gets in an amuse-bouche. Creamy soft polenta ($15) topped with a house-made pork sausage ragu and pecorino cheese was rather unmemorable. But substitute orecchiette for polenta, and you’ve got the pasta dish my girlfriend ordered ($24), which was the hit of the evening.

limpero02a.jpg limpero02b.jpg
Loin and sausage of lamb (left); Dry aged beef (right)

Both of the entrées we chose were unadventurous, but impeccably prepared. I had the loin and sausage of lamb ($34). My girlfriend had the dry-aged beef ($42), which was that rare example of beef outside a steakhouse that is actually worth ordering.

Despite the slightly inconvenient location, L’Impero appeared to be doing well. The restaurant was full on a Friday night, with a good mix of young people and Upper East Side elders. Just about everything we had was prepared to a high level, but the pasta stole the show.

L’Impero (45 Tudor City Place at 42nd Street, Tudor City)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: **
Overall: **½



Note: Alto closed in March 2011, along with its sister restaurant Convivio on the same day, due to unspecified “business circumstances.”


Alto is the newer of a duo of Italian restaurants by chef-wunderkind Scott Conant. Eric Asimov awarded three stars to L’Impero in December 2002, while Frank Bruni gave Alto a two-star kiss-off in July 2005. For a restaurant helmed by so well regarded a chef, it was a significant slapdown. Bruni seemed almost vengeful in that review, calling Alto “haute and bothered,” but it never really made sense. A celebration for my friend’s birthday provided the excuse to see for ourselves whether Bruni was right.

Alto is named for the Alto Adige a region of northern Italy. It’s a companion to L’Impero, which features the food of southern Italy. But Conant plays with flavors and ingredients, and aside from an emphasis on pasta dishes, one is not really conscious of a focus on Italy. We ordered the seven-course tasting menu ($115) with wine pairings ($75). The server said that the kitchen would substitute freely, but we took the menu as printed. After a delicious amuse-bouche of smoked trout, we had:

Branzino Tartare (avocado, gremolata and preserved lemon vinaigrette)
Poached Black Sea Bass (caponata panzanella and lemon thyme broth)
Veal and Fontina Angolotti (organic baby carrots, baby mushrooms, and parmigiano emulsion)
Risotto with Frogs Legs (summer squash and black truffles)
Roast Suckling Pig (smoked corn, chanterelles and black pepper agrodolce)
Braised Beef Short Ribs (vegetable and farro risotto)
Warm Chocolate Ganache (milk chocolate gelato, roasted peanot froth)

We found the pacing and variety of the dishes, the combination of ingredients, and the quality of the presentation, all impeccable. The first four dishes were unanimous hits. The branzino tartare was meltingly delicious. The crunchy caponata was a perfect contrast to the soft black sea bass. We noted that the risotto ran rings around the one we had at Del Posto (for which Mario Batali charges $50). I found my suckling pig a bit tough, but my friend said that her portion was wonderfully tender. Short ribs, I suppose, were a rote inclusion not quite as exciting as the other items. The staff were alerted in advance that it was my friend’s birthday, and her dessert came with “Happy Birthday” written on the plate in chocolate calligraphy.

Conant has made some changes since Frank Bruni’s two-star review. Some dishes that skewed towards German-Austrian cuisine have been dropped. There is no longer a bottle of olive oil on every table. The menu, formerly prix fixe-only at dinner ($75 for four courses), is now available à la carte. It was a Saturday night, and the restaurant was not full — I suspect they are starting to get desperate. The décor, which Bruni hated, appears to be unchanged. For us, it was elegant, refined, serene—delightful.

We found the service attentive and impressive. Many dishes were delivered with half-moon covers, and the food uncovered with that voila! moment that is so seldom seen these days in restaurants. I was mildly irritated when we ordered champagne, but the sommelier could not explain what it was. (“It just came in and I’m not too familiar with it, but I’ll be happy to help you with any of your other wine selections.”) At $15 per glass, she should know.

There was an addictive selection of homemade breads, but oddly enough they came with no butter, and the bread server’s accent was so thick that we couldn’t quite understand all of the five choices. A couple of the other dishes were dropped off by barely-comprehensible servers. Am I asking too much when I suggest that at a restaurant of Alto’s calibre, a reasonable command of English should be required of those entrusted with describing the food?

These minor complaints aside, Alto did a lovely job on a special occasion. We would gladly go back.

Update: The day before our visit, Eater put Alto on deathwatch, with an over/under of January, noting that “Conant’s investors can’t be very happy with the thin dinner crowds. There’s even a rumor circulating that the venue is up for sale, which, no, does not bode well at all.” I hope it survives, but I must admit the same thought crossed my mind when I saw the number of empty tables on a Saturday night.

Update 2: Since our visit, Scott Conant has departed, and Michael White is now the chef. For an early look, see Randall Lane’s review in Time Out New York.

Alto (520 Madison Avenue, entrance on 53rd Street, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***