After working his way through a few of Fabio Trabocchi’s ornate compositions on the new menu at Fiamma, the high-end showpiece of Steve Hanson’s vast and profitable restaurant empire, one of the voluble gastronomes at my table put down his fork and knife and made the following grave declaration. “I consider this to be a French restaurant,” he said. A few years ago, that might have been high praise, even for an Italian joint like Fiamma. Not anymore. As Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay have learned, New York has become a fickle place for out-of-town, Eurocentric chefs peddling really expensive meals. In this era of artisanal purity, the appetite for showy auteur cooking has declined, especially among younger, well-heeled diners. A good farm-raised pork chop is the new haute dish of choice (replacing filet mignon), and no one wants to wear jackets to dinner the way their parents did. French is a watchword for the busy, the excessive, the needlessly baroque.
For the city’s grizzled, increasingly nostalgic band of restaurant critics, however, the arrival of a credentialed European chef in town is still a moment of some occasion. And while Trabocchi is no Gordon Ramsay, his credentials are pretty good. He is the winner of a James Beard award and has run acclaimed restaurants in Italy, London, and Washington, D.C. He has published a glossy cookbook and is fond of giving his intricately flavored dishes portentously simple titles like “Il Risotto” (“The Risotto”) and “Il Foie Gras” (“The Foie Gras”). He has a personal philosophy of cooking, which he expounds on the restaurant’s Website. Trabocchi was hired by Hanson in July, and to celebrate the arrival of the new chef, and further refresh the five-year-old restaurant, Hanson brought in the designer Jeffrey Beers, who proceeded to install newly upholstered banquettes and cover a wall in rare Venetian eel skin.
Trabocchi is from the Marches region, in central Italy, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from his menu. He’s an internationalist, whose credo seems to be “Why use one ingredient when seven or eight will do?” Pieces of raw tuna (“Il Crudo” on the menu) aren’t dressed with oil or a few curls of citrus; they’re presented on a plate of glass, topped with raw oysters and either red mullet or sardines. The excellent “Il Carpaccio” involves carpaccio, but not presented in the usual way. It’s a Kobe-beef dish, served both as a tartare and wrapped in little turrets around strips of marinated tofu, among other esoteric items. The satisfyingly opulent “Pasta con le Sarde” is made with a whole laundry list of things besides sardines (sea urchin, for one), and the ultrarich Hudson Valley foie gras comes with bits of artichoke and a scattering of pistachios from Sicily.
When Trabocchi’s complicated recipes are good, they’re very good. When they fail, they tend to fail in a fussy, overcomplicated way. My portion of skate (“La Razza”) was muffled in little octopus tentacles and an unctuous slick of red-wine sauce, and the suckling pig was layered with such a baffling array of ingredients (artichokes, fennel pollen, and dill) that it had no porky taste at all. On the other hand, Trabocchi’s veal entrée is an intense, almost Chinese-style agglomeration of textures and flavors (veal cheeks and rib eye all mixed with trumpet mushrooms, buttery mashed potatoes, and toasted hazelnuts from Alba), and if you enjoy baby goat, “Il Capretto” is an excellent aristocratic interpretation of that tricky peasant dish. The desserts attempt to be equally flamboyant, but the best of them, curiously, is the simplest. It’s the round, insanely rich brown-butter cake, crowned with apple butter and a scoop of melting ricotta gelato.
Another auteur chef has also recently set up shop in Soho, although whether Sam Mason’s new establishment, Tailor, is a high-toned bar, an esoteric dessert joint, or a full-fledged restaurant is an open question. Mason, who made his reputation as the resident dessert genius at Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, is the latest cutting-edge pastry chef (Will Goldfarb of the recently deceased Room 4 Dessert and Pichet Ong at P*Ong are among the others) to strike out on his own in the big city. But the concept Mason has chosen appears to be a jumble of confusions. There’s a murky, cavelike lounge area downstairs, where rock ballads play mournfully over the stereo. When you sit down upstairs for a meal, you’re given a choice among eight “salty” dishes and five “sweet” ones. There are eleven entertaining and imaginatively crafted specialty cocktails available also, although at the end of the evening it’s not clear whether any combination of these carefully composed, beguilingly articulated options adds up to a real meal.
The answer, in the end, is that they do not, and that Tailor, when it works at all, works best as a high-toned bar. My favorite of the drinks was the Bazooka (made with vodka and what the menu describes as a “bubble-gum cordial”), and my wife considered something called a Crumble (brown-butter rum and cloves) to be an ethereal, wintertime form of ambrosia. Our dinner had less of an impact, however. I can’t remember in what actual order we enjoyed the shreds of chorizo-cured kampachi (weirdly good), or the miso-butterscotch-flavored pork belly (very good), or the fluffy mounds of peekytoe crab served on clouds of basil and pine-nut purée (good). Ditto the caramel-panna-cotta dessert spread with crunchy grains of coffee, the deconstructed Manchego cheesecake, and the mélange of soft chocolate enlivened with squiggles of mole and sesame ice cream. I do remember, however, that there was never enough food on my plate.