Champagne Shopping Binge

"The champagne shopping binge/ is over/ The check is about to arrive/ and nobody knows how much it will be/ I know I don't give a shit not now" -From "FROM A DISCARDED IMAGE" by Franz Wright

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Starry Nights

I originally had reservations for Falai on the second night it opened. But E didn't want to do Italian, so we went somewhere else and I added it to the "want to try eventually" list. Thus when L and M said that they had a group reservation at some new Italian place on the LES this Saturday, and did I want in, I assumed that they were talking about Falai and jumped at the chance.

In the meantime, Bruni had come out with his review, a surprising 2 stars. I like Bruni's writing style. And I admire the fact that he seems to be branching into neighborhoods and cuisines not traditionally covered in the Gray Lady's somewhat staid food writing. (There is, after all, much more to the NY culinary scene than just French on the Upper East Side.) But two stars? Does this little Italian place in the increasingly-gentrified-but-still-somewhat-gritty LES really deserve the same rating as places like Aureole or Eleven Madison Park?

Probably not, although I don't think it's striving to. This small, pretty restaurant seems to want to serve a more modest purpose - serving good, slightly ambitious dishes in a stylish, yet neighborhood space. Does it succeed? Well, judging from dinner on Saturday, I'd have to say almost, but not quite.

The space is gorgeous - a long, narrow room that is done almost entirely in white. Lacy designs in the tiles on the walls and crystals sparkling above the bar keep this from looking too antiseptic. Most high-end Italians in the city fall into a routine of ochres and mustards, colors designed to reflect well with red wine. It's refreshing to see a restaurant do something different and succeed. "Nice," sighed L. "I almost feel like we should be eating Greek." A lovely back garden offers an opportunity for outdoor dining.

There are limitations to the design, chief among them the lack of space. I arrived earlier than the rest of my party, and would happily have had a glass of prosecco while waiting. However, there's no real bar area (there are bar seats, but they were all taken by diners, and there wasn't any place to stand) and I couldn't seem to locate a bartender. (The restaurant does not have a liquor license, so it seems they don't really have a bartender, but couldn't they find somebody to pour me some wine?) We ended up waiting 15-20 minutes for our table once the rest of the party arrived. Normally this would be more than fair, as we were late for our reservation and it was a Saturday night, but there is simply no place for a party of seven to stand without being constantly jostled by servers, runners, and busboys. Before arriving, we had been warned that they would have to seat the seven of us at a six top. We actually had plenty of room at the table, but couldn't they have found a seventh chair that was the same height as the other six, so poor L wouldn't have felt like she stumbled into Alice in Wonderland?

The food was very good, although for the most part neither outstanding nor memorable. I started with a special of the evening - fried squash blossoms stuffed with cheese. Fine, if not particularly exciting, and I did think the serving of one blossom was a bit chintzy. The octopus, which I did not try, was supposedly very good, and the chickpea soup with rock shrimp was again good-but-not-great. The pork entree was absolutely delicious, as was the lamb special, although the ricotta and spinach gnudi were too bland. The breads were again fine, but not spectacular - the famed focaccia was delicious when served hot, but that's the only way I'd recommend it. We expected a lot from the desserts, as Falai was once the pastry chef at Le Cirque, but again found them to be in the good-but-not-great category. The panna cotta was very good, the profiteroles less so.

All of this would have been fine, had the restaurant had a little more heart. Now, I know the story behind the place - the young chef whose father passed away before he was born, the years spent working for other people in bigger, more corporate kitchens, the dream to open a place of his own - and I was willing to buy into the dream. I wanted to like this place - wanted to fall in love with the realization of young-chef-makes-good. It's part of the reason I love places like Mercadito - yes, I realize that the ceviches are too sweet, but one look at Patricio's boundless enthusiasm and genuine love for his food and his customers and all is forgiven.

I didn't get that with Falai. Service was adequate, and friendly enough, but no more. The wine list is small but looks interesting, had we found anyone to explain it to us. Our waitress clearly had no clue about anything on the list. She offered to send over the wine guy, who finally appeared 15 minutes later. I was interested in the Tocai, which he said was good, but when the rest of the table wanted to drink red, he failed to direct me to any similar white options available by the glass (the Tocai wasn't). He recommended a red, which was fine, but did not give us any details beyond that. What's the point of stocking unusual wines from Lombardia or Emilio-Romagna if you don't want to tell your customers about them? It was worse with the dessert wines - our waitress again had no idea, and the wine guy, when he was finally found, had no desire to discuss the options, beyond telling us what he was out of and perfunctorily recommending one, although we were clearly interested. And then we waited another 15 minutes to receive those drinks.

Would I return to Falai? Definitely not with a group, the place just isn't designed for one. (Stanton Social is my choice for group dining in the LES...) The space is beautiful, our food was good, and other than unreasonable waits for our drinks, there was nothing technically wrong with the service. If someone really wanted to try it again, I would not be adverse. But New York has unlimited dining options, and I have neither unlimited funds nor time, and so, for now, I'll follow my heart to places that seem to have more of one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Pie-Eyed

For all of its faults, New Haven was a wonderful place to eat. Certain food and drinks will always take me back to college - the cups at Mory's, the chicken cheesesteak at Rainbow, sushi and sake bombs at Samurai. But for me, more than anything, my culinary memory of Yale and those I loved there is represented by BAR pizza.

And not just any pizza. Mashed potatoes on a white pie. Unconventional, yes, but BAR makes their pizza in the New Haven thin-crust, brick oven style, and the combination of the crispy bread, spicy garlic, gooey cheese, and creamy potatoes was pure guilty magic. H and I would get a booth and order a bottle - or two - of wine and a large pie, reasoning that we could always take home any leftovers. Then we would spend the evening drinking, eating, and talking about lives and loves and dreams and fears and the best soy latte that you've ever had.

There were never any leftovers.

So this Sunday, when I called H frantic, needing dinner and friend, it seemed fitting that we went out for pizza. It was the eighth anniversary of my mom's death and what would have been her fifty-third birthday. H had a tough weekend with Z, and we needed to go back to that time in college, before jobs and distance and the tumultuousness of adult relationships, and a white pie seemed the best way to do it.

We went around the corner to Totonno's. No mashed potatoes, but the night was lovely and they have outside tables. The pizza was good - couldn't hold a candle to BAR or any of the New Haven greats, but by far the best in the neighborhood. Instead of wine, we opted for a pitcher of white sangria. It tasted remarkably like Boone's Farm, completing the college experience. All we needed was a tailgate.

So we spent the night chatting, enjoying the summer breeze until all of the other patrons had left and the staff began to put away the tables. We discussed H's relationship with Z, and how she is afraid that her behavior may be sabotaging the relationship. I revealed that I am becoming uncomfortably aware that I tend to fall for pathological liars who complete the novel I have written in my head, rather than actually living my life with real people with real faults. It was painful, and it was lovely, and it allowed me to go to bed that evening and have a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

It wasn't in any way a fine dining experience. The atmosphere of Second Ave left much to be desired, and in no way was it trendy, or stylish, or cutting edge. But sometimes, culinista or no, none of these things matter. Sometimes, all you need is a pie, a friend, and some old memories.

Sometimes, that's how the best new memories are made.

(To H, who knows that, no matter what happens, I will always be there with a double stuffed oreo.)