Simplicity Taken Seriously: Soho Star Vaut le Voyage For years, the grimy paint store on Spring Street across from the Sixth Avenue subway station has been a Soho fixture. But now, instead of cans of paint and dropcloths, you’re greeted at the door by a line of eager young women asking you how you are. The checkout counter on the ground floor has become a bar, and the old freight elevator has been replaced by a glass one that smoothly whisks guests to dining rooms on the second and third floors.
Fiamma Osteria, designed by Jeffrey Beers, is the latest venture of Stephen Hanson and B.R. Guest Restaurants, who have taken over all four floors of the building. Mr. Hanson also owns Isabella’s, Ruby Foo’s, Blue Water Grill and the recently opened Blue Fin, a bustling mega-seafood restaurant in Times Square.
Fiamma(Italianfor “flame”) is very different; it’s not big and brash, but low-key and more grown-up. The décor is sleek and modern: Low-lit, wood-paneled dining rooms done up in warm tones of red and brown are hung with mirrors and small paintings, and the tables are set with white linen cloths and candles. Even though it has a staff dressed by Nicole Miller and Michael Stars, Brazilian music on the sound system and banquettes upholstered in black leather (with pale green velveteen along the back), Fiamma doesn’t feel like a Soho restaurant at all. It’s like one of those Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy that tourists drive miles to get to for that one blow-out meal of the trip. Were it written up in the Guide Michelin, Fiamma would probably be described as ” vaut le voyage .”
“The hallmark of Italian cooking is simplicity,” says executive chef Michael White. “It’s all about ingredients.” Mr. White is from Spiaggia in Chicago. Before that, he worked at Ristorante San Domenico in Imola, Italy (a restaurant to which Fiamma bears more than a passing resemblance). If you want to get an idea of exactly what Mr. White means when he speaks of simplicity, order the house-made garganelli. Each quill of pasta-which might be described by an advertising salesman as “individually hand-crafted” (rolled, in fact, one by one over a skewer with a reed comb)-is tossed in a creamy truffle butter with peas and strips of prosciutto. It’s a classic dish that’s elevated to another plane. Taste this and you’ll understand why Fiamma needs three pasta cooks for just seven pasta dishes on the menu, which also include stracci, a wide-ribbon spinach pasta with braised rabbit Bolognese, and raviolini with braised veal shank.
The respect Mr. White has for his ingredients is evident throughout his cooking. Each component of a dish stands out; nothing is superfluous. Sautéed sea scallops served over a bed of fried baby artichokes and earthy black trumpet mushrooms come with a delicate mache salad which is tossed with a brown butter balsamic vinaigrette with truffle oil. The tuna carpaccio is an exercise in subtlety: A plate is covered with paper-thin slices of fish topped with fried capers, black olives and citrus oil. Shaved bottarga (gray mullet fish roe) adds a briny touch to the dish, which Mr. White tops off with a touch of lemon juice and peel and a couple strips of fennel.
If you ordered red mullet in Italy, it would come whole with the head on. Soho eaters are more skittish, so here you get two filets, served over fingerling potatoes warmed in olive oil, with oven-dried grape tomatoes and bitter arugula in a ring of salsa verde. The Muscovy duck breast is good, too. The richness of the meat is complemented by mostarda (spicy mustard fruits), saba (wine must), toasted hazelnuts, a balsamic vinaigrette and a jaunty apple chip stuffed with Taleggio cheese. The only dish that lacked sparkle-and I tasted it on two occasions-was the seared halibut, which was a tad dry. It came with white asparagus, braised red chard, caramelized salsify and a leek vinaigrette.
The meat is full of big, powerful flavors. A veal chop is cooked with a paste made of sage, garlic, sea salt, lemon peel and rosemary (I’m going to try this one on grilled meat at home) and comes with sweet-and-sour cipolline onions and a bundle of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. Juicy, rare roast squab with a crisp skin arrives with a perky little custard made from the liver and seasoned with nutmeg.
To go with the food is a 400-bottle list of mostly Italian wines. There are many unusual boutique selections at reasonable prices and good choices by the glass. At the waiter’s recommendation, we tried the Red Angel from Venezia Giulia (“Excellent-eucalyptus in the nose,” pronounced the wine buff at our table).
The desserts-by Elizabeth Katz, the former pastry sous chef at Daniel-are gorgeous: They’re made from Italian ingredients and are playful, original and sensual. The chocolate torta-made with crunchy layers of hazelnut and gianduja chocolate feuilletine-is decorated with a long coil of spun sugar and looks like some electrical contraption from Edison’s day. It comes with chocolate sauce and a gianduja gelato rolled in the feuilletine. The banana chocolate tortino, adorned with an undulating tuile that looks like a sculpture by Richard Serra, is a revelation, made with a chocolate streusel layered with caramel rum sabayon, topped with caramelized banana slices and served with chocolate sorbet. But the most thrilling dessert of all is the crocchette: beignets made with fresh ricotta bound with crushed amaretti instead of flour. These puffs, which fill your throat like a custard, come with four dipping sauces that change daily, such as blood orange, raspberry, chocolate and espresso cream.
At the end of our dinner, the women were presented with small boxes of chocolates to take home.
The men at our table looked put out. “What about us?”
“The women are supposed to share,” said the waiter, looking at me.