Friday, June 30, 2006

Great Expectations New York City Entry #104 Falai

My night's quest for the perfect Italian restaurant continues. Halfway through a recent dinner at Falai, I thought that the contest might have reached its finale, but, alas, not quite yet. Paradise requires astonishing entrees, not only bravura performances in the preliminaries.

Falai is a small, vest-pocket restaurant, owned and operated by Iacopo (YA-capo) Falai on the Lower East Side's rendition of restaurant row along Clinton Street, near Rivington. The restaurant is compact although not precisely jammed, and is nicely decorated in shades of white, gray, and brown. The space feels more open than it has any right to be architecturally, although the noise level from neighborly yolps is challenging. Falai's service is cordial, the staff comely, and the atmosphere a cross between Downtown and Milan. The space does not feel luxe, so much as energized, and on a Thursday evening the small restaurant was packed and somewhat humid. Falai has become a destination. (It is a destination with a nearby bakery - Panetteria at 79 Clinton. If my roll with flavorful black kale was typical, the bakery is a destination, too).

Our meals began with confidence and brilliance. Chef Falai presented one of the most startling amuses around. We were served a small cup filled with white: a danger of judging a cook by his cover. Here was apple mousse, mascarpone cheese, bits of red onion, and black caviar. It was splendid. The apple and mascarpone transformed what might otherwise have been a tired caviar cliche into magic. Fruit and caviar are no longer an unheard of pair.

My antipasto matched the amuse in style and zing: Polenta Bianca with Chicken Liver, Dried Dates and Chanterelles. What insight into the possibilities of food! Let no man fear chicken livers. The dates and chanterelles added a rich and startling fruitiness to the crisp polenta and pillowy liver. A companion's Polipo (Octopus) with Cannellini Bean Puree, Candied Celery, Olive Oil, and Fried Sage was evocative as well.


As pasta I selected Foiade: short strips of pasta, wild mushrooms with beef jus, and baby spinach (with a few fig slivers). Here was another admirable dish that was less startling in its flavor combination - although the strips of fig added surprise - but no less sturdy for that. The al dente pasta had the rich, buttery flour that one expects in such a creation, and the mushrooms - a theme of Chef Falai's cuisine - were a dusky plus.


But then we reached the Carne course, that moment in the evening when chefs from Batali on down seem to lose their map. My Manzo - Short Ribs with Chanterelles, Parsnips, and Scallion Brulee - was unfortunately dry. I admired the bravery of a scallion brulee, which, if it was not a true brulee, made a nice pudding. Yet, the ribs lacked a distinct flavor. This was not entirely a failed dish, yet not an ethereal one, and a fair distance from what had appeared previously. There seemed no flair in technique to balance the heavy solidity of the beef. The consensus of my dinner partners was that their courses - pesce and carne - added no "extra" to the ordinary.


Dolci are classed as "Classici" and "Non Classici." Celery Cake with Strawberry and Rhubarb with Milk Gelato was among the latter. The dish was strongly reminiscent of Strawberry Shortcake; any celery taste had been muted. This was not a dessert that showed the same spark of the antipasti, although it was conventionally sweet and fruity.


Does Falai's early courses reveal the true vision of a grandly small restaurant or whether the final courses better depicted an establishment that belongs in the solid middle of the tangle of Italian joints on this tempestuous Isle.

Falai Cucina Italiana
68 Clinton Street (near Rivington)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

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