By Laura Shunk
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Almost a decade ago, I spotted chef Scott Conant in the newly opened Italian Wine Merchants on Union Square. At 29, and still somewhat wet behind the ears despite stints in what seemed like half the Italian kitchens in town, Conant was eagerly trying to persuade wine store partners and hugely successful restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to visit City Eatery, his first gig as an executive chef. Whether they indulged him or not I never found out, but 10 years later, Scott Conant has become the new Mario Batali.
While the gloomy and expensive-for-the-neighborhood City Eatery soon disappeared, Conant introduced dishes there that were to become staples at his wildly successful L'Impero and Scarpetta, including sumptuous roasted goat and polenta with truffled mushrooms. Now the chef finds himself at a crossroads in his career, and he's clearly chosen a Batalian path, which means helming a restaurant empire of global proportions—and maybe losing his soul in the process. Having opened a Scarpetta in Miami, he currently has projects debuting in Toronto and Las Vegas, just as his East Village restaurant Faustina teeters into existence, like a newborn colt on unsteady legs.
The restaurant is located in the Cooper Square Hotel, a graceless glass box that's part of a campaign to make the historic district look like Dallas, Texas. The restaurant is heralded by a dark and elegant bar with raised tables. At the end of the bar, the restaurant takes an ungainly jog to the right, and opens up into twin parallel spaces, like the opposing lanes of a freeway. On one side is a raw bar; on the other a plainish dining room. Though practically new, the space has already housed Govind Armstrong's lackluster Table 8 (panned last year by Sarah DiGregorio). Will the fate of Faustina be any different?
The restaurant's name references the wife of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who bore him 13 children and, by rumor, poisoned several of his rivals. This being a hotel dining room as well as an ambitious restaurant, the menu is lengthy, trying simultaneously to satisfy both Conant fans and clueless hotel guests who've wandered downstairs in search of a piece of toast. There's the usual list of charcuterie and cheeses—allowing the place to function as a wine bar—in addition to raw-bar items dispensed by a sushi chef. At lunch, there's fried chicken and a hamburger ($19). ("This tastes just like the burger at Minetta Tavern," said my friend Amanda, noting the burger's derivative quality, but also its deliciousness.) The core of the menu, though, is a playful and innovative take on Italian cuisine, in a way that reminds me of Batali's best days at Babbo, and Conant's more recent work at Scarpetta, proving that the chef is trying to retain at least part of his well-deserved reputation in this project.
A pair of head-on prawns ($16) begin the cooking process girdled in lardo, but the fat deliciously melts into the lentils underneath. In a similarly exuberant manner, a plate of mushroom ravioli ($16) presents misshapen pasta envelopes—grotesquely twisted as if the chef had a bone to pick with the dough—deposited in beige foam that resolves into a buttery, porcini-laced broth. Shredded into thin strips, trippa ($10) may have been inspired by a Florentine recipe, but the expected tomato sauce has been replaced with creamy white beans and huge amounts of grated Parmesan.
Less successful is a parti-colored beet salad ($11), with the root vegetable shrouded in greens, along with boxcars of taleggio. ("Isn't that the wrong kind of cheese for this thing?" a fellow diner wondered aloud.) A further starter features octopus and potatoes, a pairing I've seen one too many times lately. Both recipes find Conant running on autopilot, cloning commonplaces of the modern bistro menu. More innovative apps are found among the raw-bar selections, including a sashimi of kanpachi on a bed of puréed porcini, decorated with crunchy fingernails of garlic. But the most satisfying starter of all is a classic Conant reworking of a southern Italian standard: tomatoey "clams in brodo" ($12), fragrant with garlic and topped with a thick slice of grilled toast dripping olive oil.
You'll never go wrong with Conant's excellent pastas, and there are two besides the ravioli worth mentioning. Beef short ribs on a bed of spaetzle reminds us that the chef spent time cooking in Germany, while strozzapreti and suckling pig ($17) features delicate and salty swatches of pork, with a few pieces of crisp skin mixed in at the last minute, showing admirable attention to detail. As befits a restaurant named after a poisoner, the translation of these toothsome pasta tendrils won't surprise you: "priest stranglers."