Falai: Fallen for Falai
I’ve fallen for Falai – a tiny jewelbox of an Italian restaurant on a happenin’ strip of Clinton Street near Rivington (neighbors include wd-50, Fat Hippo, Clinton Street Baking Co, ABC No Rio and Frankies 17). Unlike some of the other big name Italian spots downtown (think: Babbo, Locanda Verde, Il Cantinori, Il Mulino), Falai manages to coast under the radar despite matching these hot spots in quality of food, charm, and pedigree.
Barely a sliver, this cozy brainchild of Ianoco Falai, the former executive chef at Bread Tribeca, keeps things contemporary with a sleek all-white look, an immaculate stainless steel open kitchen, and an inventive playful Italian menu. The 35-seat railroad space keeps the focus on the food with minimal decor – clear almost plastic-ky chairs creep up to stark white and grey granite tables, twiggy boughs spring from vases, a 5-seat bar peers over the kitchen and twinkling liquor bottles. Unless you’re twiggy also, good luck moving around easily; the narrow space barely allows one to squeeze between the bar seats and the column of tables and usually, the bustling staff gets right of way.
To make up for the sparse look, chef Falai prepares truly gorgeous food, in presentation, flavor, and originality. The menu toys with classic Italian ingredients and turns them on their heads to offer truly surprising dishes. Traditional ricotta is whipped into a fluffy bufala ricotta flan, textured with salty pine-nut crumble, roasted cauliflower, and a light frisee salad; chicken liver pate is layered delicately over polenta instead of rustic white bread and paired with sweet dried dates. Both starters are marvelous, showcasing restraint, skill, command of flavors, and a true sense of elegence.
The entrees are equally wonderful, ranging from homemade pasta dishes to olive-oil poached fluke filet, Peking duck breast with pear & mustard puree, and roasted rabbit loin. My boyfriend and I opted for the pici pasta and the pan-roasted lamb loin. Without any hesitation, the hand-rolled eggless pici pasta with marsala-braised Berkshire pork ragu, black truffles, and herb aged pecorino is one of the best pasta dishes in Manhattan. It satisfies on multiple levels with complex well-married flavors, a rich savory goodness that makes you wish for bowls more, and that heart-warming heartiness that keeps you toasty from the inside out.
The pan-roasted lamb loin came a bloody pink with a tasty complicated mess of accoutrements including smoked eggplant puree, fregola, black trumpet mushrooms, tomato compote, goat milk, and cumin breadcrumbs. Perfectly cooked, this sophisticated dish shows off Chef Falai’s impressive command of various and varying ingredients, flavor palettes, and techniques; while not the best lamb we’ve had in NY (that honor still goes to Maialino), Falai’s version is memorable.
The service is a bit bobbly and the space very cramped, yet the mostly excellent and innovative cuisine shines brightly and prompts one to quickly forgive any minor foibles. Attractive not only for the downtown set, Falai is perfect for a first date, dinner with your parents (if there aren’t too many of you…), or a wine-fueled gabfest with your closest girlfriend before a night on the town (location – check!).