H igh-profile hotels have been showplaces for ambitious cooking ever since Auguste Escoffier and César Ritz made their famous pact back in the 1890s. But as a new wave of restaurateurs (April Bloomfield, Danny Meyer, and David Chang, to name just a few) are discovering, there are Faustian aspects to this age-old bargain. Yes, you get plenty of free exposure for your new project, along with a semi-prominent location and address. If you’re lucky, you also get a hefty cut in rent (no small lure these days) and a sizable, built-in clientele who are looking for a convenient, respectable place to eat. On the other hand, you may find yourself orchestrating hundreds of room-service breakfasts every morning, the way Bloomfield and her staff at the Breslin do in the Ace Hotel. Your built-in clientele may be slightly stodgier than the riotous crowds who fill the hopping little bandbox restaurants downtown (hello, Mr. Chang), and the room you’re stuck with may be awkwardly laid out in all sorts of clumsy, unforeseen ways (see the Breslin, again, or L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons).
Scott Conant is the latest chef to try his luck in the Cooper Square Hotel, a glassy, billowing structure that looms like a transplant from the Abu Dhabi skyline over the gentrified ex-tenements along the Bowery. His new venture, Faustina, replaces Govind Armstrong’s Table 8, which closed early this year after a barrage of generally savage reviews. Many critics (including this one) noted the tortured, broom-closet qualities of the room, which sits in a squat little space behind the hotel’s ground-floor lobby. The new tenants have tried to brighten things up a little with strategically placed mirrors and some new silver trim. Sound panels have been affixed to the ceiling in a half-successful attempt to muffle the din, and you can now dine at a series of counter tables that have been set up in the bar. The main dining room still feels cramped depending on where you sit, and diners still need a Sherpa to locate the hotel’s stygian, subterranean restrooms, but these changes have given the awkward space a slightly more balanced, open feel.
As followers of the celebrity-chef circuit know, Conant is a frequent TV presence (Top Chef, Chopped) and one of the original godfathers of elevated, New Age Italian cooking in New York. Faustina has clearly been designed, more or less on the fly, as a casual, East Village alternative to his excellent flagship restaurant Scarpetta, which opened a couple of years back in the meatpacking district and now has a branch in Miami Beach. You will find Conant’s version of fried chicken on the menu (set in a leaden stew of porcini and chopped potatoes), Conant’s first-ever hamburger (served with melted Taleggio), and a classic, fresh-baked stromboli wreathed, like fresh-baked croissants, in a linen napkin. To promote mingling and chatting (and the sale of profitable cocktails), he’s also contrived a blizzard of small-plate items, including salumi and salads (try the puntarelle salad with a light anchovy dressing), and familiar raw-fish preparations from the crudo bar, several of which appear to have been pillaged directly from Scarpetta.
In the end, you may find yourself wishing the talented chef had pulled more from his old menu. The dishes at Scarpetta have a tight, composed rhythm to them, but too much of the food here feels like it’s been whipped together in a hurry and slapped on the plate. The crudo offerings include sweet ribbons of lobster “susci” (a variation of the excellent truffle-and-olive-oil-topped tuna susci at Scarpetta), slivers of funky scallop drowned in excessive amounts of citrus, and a strangely inert mélange of greens and poached sardines that prompted one fish lover at my table to declare, “This is a sardine without a soul.” The pastas (there are only five of them on the menu) suffer from a similar lack of punch. The baked cannelloni is not so bad as far as baked cannelloni goes (it’s crackling hot and stuffed with burrata), but the little tangle of eggy, overcooked tajarin noodles didn’t blend with its delicate topping of sea urchin, and the octopus ragù tasted more like chopped-up pieces of octopus (tossed with al dente spaghetti) than a coherent sauce.
In accordance with the fashions of the previous decade, the entrées at Faustina are a confused grab bag of small “piatti” and larger “piatti grandi,” and from a chef known for his light touch, many of them are composed with a weirdly heavy hand. “This food is dark and brooding,” said one of my slightly mortified Food Aristocrat friends, as she picked at a trio of overcooked pork ribs muffled in a gooey lacquer glaze. “That’s not Scott’s style.” There’s pork belly, too (well cooked but in a heavy brown sauce folded with potatoes and mustard), beef short ribs (again, well cooked but in another overly dense reduction), and a little row of soft semolina dumplings stacked with braised oxtail and nodules of bone marrow. But the best of these meaty preparations is probably the Berkshire-pork chop (cut in generous, fatty slices, with a sweet glaze), and if you crave something lighter, try the clams “in brodo,” which are piled into a salty, soupy broth, or the slow-roasted escolar, which combines the meatiness of swordfish with the smoothness of a much lighter fish.
Faustina is a better restaurant than its doomed predecessor. The waitstaff negotiate the room’s problematic layout (and the confused menu) with solicitous good cheer. The Italian-centric wine list is moderately priced and professionally chosen. And there are some palatable cocktails (if you like your negronis sweet, try the sugary “Ne’Roni,” made with Plymouth gin). A little of Conant’s signature lightness also returns when the desserts arrive. “This feels like the Renaissance after the Dark Ages,” my neighbor said as he tasted a parfait layered with different tinges of light and dark chocolate and capped with a delicate coffee gelée. We enjoyed the pear semifreddo, too, and a stylish version of date pudding. But these dishes come too late to imbue the meal with any special alchemy or sense of occasion. And they don’t dampen the feeling, at Faustina, that instead of dining in the latest restaurant of one of the city’s celebrity chefs, you’re just having dinner in another hotel.