It’s an occupational hazard among dining critics in this restaurant-obsessed town to be barraged with complaints, suggestions, and plaintive tips about places you may have dimly heard of, never gotten to, or simply overlooked. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about a small Italian restaurant on Clinton Street called Falai, which opened last February. Falai seems to have developed a following among uptown connoisseurs who favor fashionable new places downtown, and among fashionable Italians who like to dine in places that remind them of their fashionable restaurants back home. The recommendation of this latter group piqued the interest of my wife, which is how we found ourselves sitting at one of Falai’s little tables, admiring the clean, tidy whiteness of the décor. There were all sorts of esoteric and potentially delicious pastas on the menu (cocoa-flavored pappardelle, squid-ink garganelli tossed with lobster). A group of Italians sat next to us, wreathed in Armani scarves. My wife glanced at them, then at me. “I can’t believe you missed this place,” she said.
My wife’s taste in restaurants has been well documented, of course. She favors smaller establishments, places where the food is refined but not overly precious, and where you can have a conversation without having to shout. She likes modest prices and uncluttered menus, and rooms designed not with a grand, theatrical theme in mind but from a singular, settled point of view. Many of the places she likes tend to be run by a single proprietor, so it’s no surprise that Falai is the brainchild of Iacopo Falai, who worked for several years as a pastry chef at Le Cirque 2000. His restaurant occupies a narrow storefront space that used to house a neighborhood card shop. The storefront remains intact, but Falai has put a dining table in one window and his wine rack in the other. Inside, a single row of tables runs along one side of the room, and a white marble bar along the other. Small glittering crystals hang over the bar, and the walls are decorated with big floral designs delicately painted in shades of white and gray. In the Clinton Street tradition, the kitchen is tiny and open, and it includes a bread oven, which means the room is often infused with the smell of freshly baked bread.
Tiny open kitchens tend to produce tiny, limited menus, but not here. The first dish we tried was a special, four eggshells filled with scrambled eggs, chives, and cream, each topped with a spoonful of caviar. After that came a small terrine filled with a chewy flan made with buffalo ricotta, and a little brick of white polenta smothered in braised chicken livers, chanterelle mushrooms, and dates. My plate of baby octopus was too chewy even for such a relentlessly chewy dish, and a fancy rendering of grilled radicchio (from Treviso, with balsamic vinegar and Fontina cheese) tasted, well, like grilled radicchio. But an elegant little appetizer called sfogliata turned out to be a nice seasonal mixture of butternut squash and porcini mushrooms interspersed with Parmesan crisps and dripped with a taleggio-cheese foam. This being truffle season in fancy Italian restaurants all around town, there were several truffle dishes. The best was the eggy house fettuccini, tossed simply with butter and piled (for $45 a plate) with shavings of white truffle from Alba.
If you think the appearance of $45 plates of fettuccini with white truffles is a sign that Clinton Street’s beatnik culinary revolution is over, you might be correct. Still, the people at Falai have taken some pains to incorporate themselves into what remains of the old neighborhood. Falai recently opened a bakery on Clinton and Rivington, and various items in the restaurant (plastic place mats) come from local bodegas.
There’s nothing downtown about the pastas, however, which include very good ravioli stuffed with braised short rib (a special), and tortelli wrapped around a mash of pork sausage and potatoes, which you’re supposed to consume while sipping apple consommé from a glass teacup. The squid-ink garganelli and cocoa pappardelle (with a venison ragù) are both fine, but if you order one pasta dish, my wife suggests the spinach-and-ricotta gnudi, which are served in a pool of brown butter. I would suggest the risotto, which is not gooey or sodden but creamy and lightly crunchy, and folded with Parmesan cheese and sweet balsamic vinegar.
Often after a barrage of rich pastas like these, the entrées can have a deadening effect. But at Falai, the food has a kind of self-conscious lightness to it, which, in this time of post-holiday of fasting and abstinence, appeals even to avowed fatsos like me. Among seafood dishes, you can choose from effete little portions of arctic char (a very non-Italian fish served with very Italian braised lentils and a delicious mix of leeks, black olives, and cream) and a good, fresh fillet of branzino, crusted with bread crumbs and sunflower seeds and balanced over a mound of braised cabbage mixed with raisins and pancetta. Codfish comes in a sweet tomato-based stew with shucked clams and a sprinkling of crunchy fried capers, and the duck breast (served with pears and a broccoli-rabe purée), glazed with honey, has a sweet, almost tunalike tenderness to it. Even the excellent lamb chops (at $25, the most expensive dish at Falai not involving white truffles) are obscured in a tasteful little casserole of baby vegetables.
My wife nibbled her way happily through her meal at Falai, chatting with our dining companion and admiring the outdoor garden space where tables are set up in the spring and summer. At a table nearby, the fashionable Italians squinted at each other through their square, black-rimmed spectacles, and when someone there was presented with a birthday cake, their eyes all lit up. My wife reacted in a similar way when the first of Iacopo Falai’s desserts arrived. It was a well-cooked, cloudy-topped passion-fruit soufflé, and it was followed by a small, spongy baba cake poured with dark rum, and a row of cherry-size profiteroles drizzled with chocolate sauce and delicately flecked with bits of citrus. The former Le Cirque pastry chef also produces a very good tart made from polenta, with a green-tomato compote on the side, and a soupy, creamy version of panna cotta sprinkled with decorative slices of dried strawberries. As I spooned it up, my wife observed that the strawberries looked like rose petals. “Honey,” I replied, without hesitation, “I believe you’re right.”
Address: 68 Clinton St. ,nr. Rivington St.; 212-253-1960
Hours: Dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday; 6 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $13; pastas, $14 to $19; entrées, $17 to $25.
Ideal Meal: Polenta bianca with chicken livers, ricotta gnudi, honey-glazed duck, passion-fruit soufflé.
Scratchpad: This is a classic one-star neighborhood restaurant in size and, arguably, even in price. But Clinton Street is a culinary destination these days, and the polished cooking and atmosphere bump a dinner at Falai up to two stars.