Some scars run deep. My first job after graduation was at the United Nations, where British and French supervisors reveled in offering Americans less congeniality than Harry Potter finds at home. Eating at the cafeteria was never an option; I was ostracized. And with a miserly 45 minutes for lunch, plus an office with more checkpoints than any fortress Tom Clancy could devise, I was as likely to run out and meet a friend in midtown as to get wishes granted by the great and powerful Oz. That left Tudor City. Though I've always admired the hermetic complex for turning its back on the U.N., it offered up only La Bibliothèque, where, blessedly, I was treated like an orphan in a storm. Nevertheless, upon escaping my job, and after La Bibliothèque closed, I wouldn't go near the neighborhood. Why pick at a wound?
Okay, let the healing begin. The residents of Tudor City should pass a resolution to lock their park, Gramercy-style, before the owners of L'Impero commandeer it to satisfy the demand for seating at their quietly ambitious and winning new outpost. Reflecting its tucked-in surroundings, L'Impero offers no views of either the U.N. or anything else. Instead, designer Vicente Wolf has created a hideaway infused with warmth. The room is swathed in pleated, off-white linen, with large framed mirrors, deep teal walls, and nuzzle-friendly illumination that offers a nifty solution to the horrific Halloweeny uplighting you get from a votive on the table: Steel rods suspend the candle over one's place-setting by nearly a foot.
This overhead glow makes it that much easier to appreciate Scott Conant's crisp, often sparkling, remarkably reverent Italian cuisine. As in the speeches I used to edit at the U.N., words can say so little. Nor do appearances always tell the whole story. Neither description nor plating of Conant's homemade spaghetti with tomato and basil give any indication of its startling, fresh simplicity; meltingly sweet tomatoes, a snap of basil in the back of your throat, a whiff of garlic, all clinging to perfectly al dente strands. All of Conant's pastas induce this immediately engaging effect. Nutty sweetbreads, bitter greens, gently brash shallots, and velvety chanterelles suffuse farfalle in well-oiled repertory. Mezzaluna ravioli hosts the piquant gaminess of braised rabbit, unhistrionically set against roasted parsnips, a quick blast of mint, and tomato. Could a universal tasting of braised duck–and–foie gras agnolotti promote world peace? Doubtful, maybe. But guests at our table fell into gentle harmony after just one bite.
Conant's soups, however, are not seductive enough. They lack the inviting perfume of his fricassee of mushrooms with truffle reduction. The brine of capers lingers too long after a taste of stewed octopus in sherry vinegar. And a seafood triumvirate of bluefin tuna, prawn in parsley purée, and scallop carpaccio with bottarga is too stingily portioned to fully enjoy. Yet lobster is glorified by rosemary and chickpeas, quail is enraptured by a foie gras reduction, and diver scallops gleam in a sunchoke-and-apple purée.
Roasted free-range chicken is so golden and appealing they should serve the whole damned bird. Seared branzino gets you with the rosemaried scent of French lentils. But the capretto is destined to be L'Impero's signature dish. Slow-roasting the baby goat until it's just shy of falling off the bone, Conant extracts a delicious sausagelike tartness from the tender meat, in concert with flash-sautéed artichoke. If the notion of Tuscan goat sends you scurrying for pizza, there is fennel-crusted lamb in a lush swamp of stewed eggplant, and unnaturally juicy juniper-and-pepperoncino-studded salmon slow-roasted in Manila-clam broth.
There aren't enough desserts. When a chef deftly offers sesame cannoli, vanilla-risotto zeppole, and quince crostata as such easy pleasures, you know he is teasing -- no, taunting -- you to return because there's so much more up his talented sleeve. Scott Conant has restored Tudor City to my urban map. But it's as far east as I'll go. Some things you can't forget. Like the way my bosses used to tell me the U.N. tour sounded better in French.