When the sommelier brought our wine to the table-a Dolcetto from the all-Italian list-he’d already opened it. The cork was secured around the neck of the bottle with a piece of twine.
“Aha!” said my companion. “That’s an old trick from Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence.” He looked up at the sommelier. “When some rich businessman who knows nothing about wine orders a really expensive bottle at that restaurant, instead of opening it in front of him, they take it into the back, decant it and fill it up with cheap stuff.”
The sommelier looked astonished. “Hey!” he said. “I used to work there!”
So, it turned out, did our Colombian waiter and the chef/owner, Iacopo Falai, who was once Enoteca Pinchiorri’s pastry chef. Now it was my friend’s turn to be surprised.
I’ve no idea whether his wine-switching story is true (at Falai, our bottle of Dolcetto certainly hadn’t been replaced with a cheap Romanian Chianti), but my companion was fascinated to discover that a team from the famous Florentine restaurant with three stars in the Guide Michelin would wind up on the Lower East Side-out with the cheese knishes, in with the chocolate profiteroles.
Falai is housed in a former gift shop on Clinton Street’s restaurant row, where the name of the previous owner, S. Klein, is still emblazoned on the tiled floor of the entrance. The long, narrow 40-seat dining room, designed by Uli Wagner, is entirely white, with terrazzo floors, a pressed-tin ceiling and a lace motif silk-screened on the shiny, white walls. Pieces of clear-cut glass hang in a jagged line above the bar, reflecting the glow of the candles on tables set with white bentwood chairs and lacy white mats. A Hirschfeld portrait of Leonard Bernstein decorates the bathroom and, in the back of the dining room, a plate-glass window gives on to a 25-seat patio garden, also painted white. The whiteness gives the place a surreal feeling. It’s a cross between a turn-of-the-century café and a sleek, bustling, modern Italian trattoria, and it’s convivial and fun.
As we sat at a table near the front door, people came pouring through; many were turned away because they hadn’t reserved a table. Before he opened his own place, Mr. Falai was executive chef at Bread Tribeca, where he attracted a fashionable, international audience. It has followed him here. The women, dressed in expensive, careless-looking but exquisitely crafted clothes and carrying their de rigueur doll’s-sized Louis Vuitton handbags, are complimented by the restaurant’s white background and soft lighting. A restaurant isn’t only about food.
Just as well, since the cooking here is hit-and-miss. Some dishes suffer from a lack of seasoning, others from odd ingredients that don’t really add much. Does a perfectly good pork filet with fennel seeds and mashed potatoes really need a sprinkling of cocoa nibs? On the other hand, manzo-a deconstructed beefsteak, cut like shish kebob without the skewers and served in a Brunello di Montalcino sauce with raisins-was terrific. (It’s a combination that probably dates from Renaissance times.)
Mr. Falai makes everything in-house, starting with the wonderful little round focaccia and zucchini bread that you’re brought when you sit down. He produces a flawless version of such classics such as pappardelle, soft, wide, flat noodles, tossed in a ragu made with wild boar and peas, and farfalle, served with tender baby squid in a rich, spicy tomato sauce. It’s hard to believe that the same kitchen can send out such awful gnudi-spinach and ricotta cheese gnocchi-tasting of uncooked flour. I was intrigued by the idea of pici, strands of a thick spaghetti served with white bean purée and “crispy” musetto (pork cheeks). But the pork cheeks were soggy, so the sauce was a mush.
The chef knows how to fry a fish, however. Red mullet was beautifully crisp, served on a purée of fava beans flavored with rosemary and garnished with morels stuffed with cheese (though the morels would’ve been better without the obfuscating cheese). White polenta topped with chicken liver, dried dates and chanterelles sounded interesting but was disappointingly bland, as was the farro salad with artichokes, pecorino and cumin. But I loved the branzino, which had a crust of mashed black olives, and the juicy roasted langoustines with zucchini.
After he left Enoteca Pinchiorri, Mr. Falai was pastry chef at Le Cirque, so it’s not surprising that the desserts here are excellent. The passion-fruit soufflé was perfect. Chocolate mousse looked like half a billiard ball on the plate, shiny and black. “One of the most oddly elegant things I’ve ever seen,” said my companion. An airy panna cotta was made with almond foam and cacao butter and decorated with thin slivers of “petrified” strawberries. The profiteroles were exquisite: a dainty row of five, the size of gumballs, in a delicate puff pastry filled with a marsala mousse, and coated with a sheen of Valrhona bitter chocolate. I’d come back here just for these.
Despite the ups and downs of the food, Falai is a delightful restaurant, with a friendly staff and cheerful atmosphere. Order the right dishes and you may even get a three-star meal. There are 10 sweet wines by the glass to choose from to go with the wonderful desserts, so you’ll leave happy.