This was the first time that I walked into a restaurant thinking I knew exactly what I was in for, and turned out to be completely wrong. Faustina, Scott Conant's newest venture in the Cooper Square hotel, is a bit of a contradiction in my opinion, and I'm not sure whether I applaud it or criticize it. It didn't strike me as inheritently Italian like Scarpetta did, nor was it as good, but what would be the point of having two restaurants that are exactly the same? I get it, I do. But I didn't really get some of the food here.
The design of Faustina is very modern and chic, but some parts of it feel cold. I personally thought the front bar area was a lot more inviting than the actual dining room, where the lighting was very bright and sucked the "mood" right out of the room. Still, I'm hardly one to judge a place based on appearance alone, so I will move on to the food. The wine list was extensive, albeit a bit pricey. We chose a really nice 2007 Barbera (for $56 it better be nice), and it came promptly with a basket of bread and some of that delicious mascarpone butter I had at Scarpetta. The service here was impeccable, I will say that. It seemed as though everyone who was working that night came to our table to make sure we were happy. Give me wine and bread any day, and I'm happy. Actually, give me stromboli…
The menu at Faustina is designed for sharing; two or three small plates are recommended per person. I have mixed feelings about menus like this, because I find that it can be more expensive and confusing (con), but you can also try a lot of different things (pro), so make sure you're with someone who is decisive and has an open mind. Fortunately, Ange, my old college buddy and date for the evening, is Italian and suggested we get the stromboli bread appetizer as one of our starters. Bread baked with ham and cheese? Done and done. Is it bad that I think I enjoyed this dish the most out of everything we ordered?? The Italian bread was warm and buttery, which made the smoked mozzarella all melty and wonderful accompanied by prosciutto, mushrooms, and fresh basil leaves. If you are trying to watch carbs, do not even sit near this bread, because I guarantee it is THAT hard to resist. Not to mention it would be utterly insulting to resist it in the first place.
For our main dishes, we chose the black truffle risotto, the diver scallops over farro and morel mushrooms with sunchoke puree, short ribs of beef over spaetzle, lardo-wrapped prawns over rosemary lentils, and of course, a Scott Conant must – a side of creamy polenta. Mmm so creamy…but I digress. So you're probably thinking what I was thinking: "other than polenta and risotto, what business does spaetzle have on an Italian menu?" Or, you just don't know what spaetzle is and you don't care. Well, it's a type pf egg noodle/pasta typically from German, Swiss, Hungarian or Austrian cuisine. I happen to love it, but it's not something I would expect to see here, thus raising the question again, cheers or jeers? Well, let's taste first. The short ribs were very tender and fell apart when I merely poked it with my fork, so it was actually hard to get a "piece", but the spaetzle underneath was very good; mixed with chopped peas and carrots, it almost reminded me of a kids dish because of the diminutive, bite-size veggies and pasta.
The black truffle risotto was probably my second favorite to the stromboli. I've decided that anything with cream and cheese, Mr. Conant does well. The microplaned black truffles on top of the creamy rice, egg and cheese mixture added a nice depth to an otherwise one-note dish. One note isn't always bad though – like the creamy polenta; very one note, but very delicious. You just have to trust me and try it.
So this part was kind of funny. Remember the lardo-wrapped prawns over rosemary lentils? Well, someone neglected to mention that the prawns are served over lentils WITH THEIR HEADS ON. No big deal to some, in fact, some people swear the best part of the shrimp is in it's head, but I refuse to believe this, and whatever the reason may be, it just freaks me the F out. I saw the waiter bringing it over and I'm muttering under my breath "oh no, oh no…" So the waiter proudly presents the dish with the bright pink prawns and their beaty black eyes staring up at me. Before he even rests it on the table, I kindly ask him to have the chef chop those heads off. OFF WITH THEIR HEADS, I SAY! I apologized profusely, but I'm sorry, I can't deal with shrimp heads. When the shrimp came back, decapitated, I thought it was decent, but maybe not worth all the trouble of chopping off their heads. The shrimps themselves tasted good, but the lentils were better, and honestly I didn't see the connection between the shrimp and the lentils. It just felt like too much thought went into some of these dishes and came out unnecessarily complex. I felt the same about the diver scallops: slightly underwhelmed. They were fine, but something about all the different flavors, there was just too much going on there. The scallops, the morels, the farro, the sunchoke puree…oh boy. Too many strong flavors in one dish that didn't compliment each other. I just wasn't thrilled with it.
What's a good way to thrill me? Or at least try to? Give me something with chocolate. Duh. When it came time for dessert, we were both pretty full, but I needed my chocolate fix, so we went with the Chocolate Carmellina – a chocolate mousse cake served with mocha ice cream. I'm not sure if the dessert was meant for sharing either, but it was kind of small. It was very rich, don't get me wrong, so if you just like a taste of something sweet after dinner, then this is perfect for you, but I would have preferred a little more substance and a little less circus. You should have seen it: a chocolate hoop-thing (only way I can describe it) around the dollop of mocha ice cream, and a single hazelnut encased in a sugar icicle. Umm yea. And here's the annoying part: the cake was sooo good and chocolatey. Why not take away the "wow-factor" and just give me some more cake??
If I had to choose between Scott Conant's two NYC spots, Scarpetta would win hands down in my book. The service was spotless at both places, but the food is so much better and unpretentious at Scarpetta. I could definitely see myself stopping at Faustina for a drink and some stromboli at the front cafe/bar, but I don't know if it was my kind of Italian meal.