Iacopo Falai's food is beautiful. Take my word for it. Unfortunately, that is all that I can offer visually, because the lighting was such in this small, funkily elegant Lower East Side restaurant that I did not even bother to take photos.
I arrived at Falai early for a 6:30PM Sunday dinner reservation, coming inside from a heavy rain. At that time, there were only a few other people present. I began to wonder if this was going to be another place that would feel the recession's wrath. I sat down to peruse the menu and wait for the rest of the party to arrive.
Slowly, the restaurant started to fill as did my table. We opted for the "Menu Tradizionale" for $50pp, one of several tasting menus available in addition to an ala carte menu. I also ordered a bottle of 2004 Fuedo Montoni Nero D'Avola. The wine list is small, but interesting and reasonably priced.
Dinner started beautifully with Polenta Bianca with chicken liver, dried dates and wild mushroom "vellutata." Artfully arranged the flavors did not so much as blend together into one coherent whole, as they contrasted and supported each other harmoniously with each element retaining its distinctive personality. The chicken liver, a relatively modest ingredient, shone through as the star singing above the melody played by the polenta and the bass line of the mushrooms.
Gnudi are popular on a number of NYC menus at the moment, if my recent excursion is accurate.I did not try them elsewhere, but the gnudi with ricotta cheese, baby spinach, brown butter, crema di latte and sage here were divine. If other renditions around the city are only half as good as these, I can understand their popularity. Unlike the polenta, this dish was more an example of individual ingredients being subservient to the dish as a whole.
Buckwheat ravioli stuffed with braised cabbage and fontina cheese and served with chickpea and red onion salad and speck consomme was assertively flavored and wonderful for a cold, wet evening.
Pan roasted lamb loin with fregola, chanterelle mushrooms, tomato compote, goat milk and cumin bread crumbs, though all over the place in terms of ingredients, was simply beautiful to look at and to eat. The lamb was perfectly cooked and seasoned and melted in my mouth. This proved to be one of the most delicious lamb dishes I've had in recent memory, only to be eclipsed a couple of days later, by another, even more amazing preparation of lamb.
Passion fruit souffle for dessert was perfectly executed, tart and sweet with intense passion fruit flavor. It was quite satisfying.
I expected Falai to be good, or I wouldn't have chosen it, but I have not seen it get much play or media attention. It turned out that Falai was very good and probably one of the best values in the city for fine dining, being markedly less expensive and better than many restaurants charging considerably more and with bigger reputations. I believe that there are a number of reasons for this. The most important is that Falai does a lot with a little. The restaurant itself is little bigger than a closet, yet they fit a reasonable number of tables, all in one straight line to make it work. The decor is nothing fancy, but it is tastefully done and comfortable in a relaxed way. The food is beautifully prepared, interesting and most importantly, delicious. What it isn't is focused on luxe ingredients. It appears that Iacopo Falai has taken Ferran Adria's admonition that "a very good sardine is better than a not so good lobster" to heart. The chicken liver in my first dish serves as a prime example. The Momos get all the press, but my experience at Falai was more reminiscent of the best European "bistronomic" restaurants that use ordinary ingredients in extraordinary ways, serve in modest environments and pass the savings on to the diner. NYC has a reputation of not being kind to vanguardist restaurants, with many saying that WD-50, just down the street, has been the only successful one. Falai somehow gets overlooked in these discussions despite the fact that it has been around for at least a few years and uses a modern aesthetic to great effect. This restaurant clearly belongs in the discussion.
I am happy to say that the place was packed by the time we finished and that the rain had stopped. Now if they would only do something about the lighting!