How sweet it is! I bet that’s what Michael White is thinking right about now. How many chefs get to return to the very same space where they were just a young chef struggling to make a name for himself and come back as an owner with a legion of successful restaurants to show for himself? That about sums up the story of Costata. Anyone remember Fiamma, BR Guest’s upscale Italian, located in a townhouse on Spring Street just off Sixth Avenue? Michael White got his start in Fiamma’s kitchen. Nine restaurants and eleven years later, White has returned to the former Fiamma space with an Italian steakhouse all his own called Costata, which means rib eye in Italian.
Scallop Crudo with Black Truffle Vinaigrette
Not that Michael White has anything to prove to critics or New Yorkers. He proved himself a culinary force in New York years ago with Marea, then followed that up with Osteria Morini, Ai Fiori, and Nicoletta, then on to world domination everywhere from London to Hong Kong. (Just this week, he opened The Butterfly in downtown New York.) But Costata feels different and there’s something about returning to the place it all began that seems to have inspired the chef to give it everything he’s got, and this just might be White’s most outstanding performance yet. This is the kind of place you’d consider dining at for your last meal on earth. I’m not kidding.
It’s that good, especially the crudos, which may sound odd, considering it is a steakhouse. But don’t bite the hand that feeds you a rich, sultry Scallop Crudo, anointed with a black truffle vinaigrette (flecked with plenty of black truffles), and served over a celery root puree. If you want something a little lighter, but just as wonderful, sample the Red Prawn Crudo. These vibrant red specimens are sliced lengthwise and glossed with nothing more than lemon, olive oil and a paste made from the prawn’s heads. And there’s Razor Clams, too, served in the shell, mingled with nibbles of fennel and soppressata (dry salami), lending a unique meatiness to an otherwise delicate, raw seafood preparation.
If it really is your last meal (and even if it isn’t!), you’ll want to splurge on a glass of wine listed under the header, “Premium Wines by the Glass via Coravin” because these are glasses that you can’t get by the glass anywhere. Why? They use this ingenious system called Coravin that literally lets you pour wine from the bottle without taking the cork out, so you don’t have to worry about wasting the rest of the bottle. The options ain’t cheap, but you can splurge on anything from a Kistler Chardonnay $34 to a Gaja from Piedmont $48 without committing to a bottle. But let’s get back to the food! I know it’s a steakhouse, but I think it would be a tragedy not to try the Mare Seafood Salad, which is better than any I’ve had the pleasure of sampling in Italy (and I’ve eaten more than my fair share). Michael White, along with his talented executive chef PJ Calapa, has pulled off an exemplary rendition of this Italian classic, an exceedingly fresh tangle of tender octopus, shrimp, calamari, sweet scallops, olives, and celery, dressed simply in olive oil and lemon for acidity, bringing out the best in each crustacean in the bowl. If I had to pick a weakest link, I’d say it’s the Insalata Verde topped with a Ricotta Crostini, but only because there’s too many other great things on the menu to waste your time on a salad, so let’s not.
Instead, order a killer version of Spaghetti alla Vongole, tossed with both manila and razor clams, sweetened with caramelized leeks, and finished with mollica (the Italian word for breadcrumbs). If you’re craving a meatier pasta, I recommend a comforting bowl of Cavatelli with Braised Oxtail, diced carrots, and Fontina Cheese. White is a maestro in the pasta department, so you’d be wise to dabble in the handmade pasta section, which also includes Agnolotti stuffed with Ricotta and a Seafood Risotto. With all the great crudos and pastas, it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball. After all, Costata is first and foremost a steakhouse with a serious dry-aged meat program, like a supremely tender 10 oz. Filet, best sided by these addictive Red Bliss Potatoes, baked then fried, so they manage to be both soft and crispy at the same time, spiced with garlic, rosemary and red chili flakes. Or find a partner in crime to share the Tagliata for two, a beautifully charred and juicy, 36 oz. bone-in NY strip. Your steak won’t need any sauce, but there are a few worth sampling just for fun, especially the Mushroom Sugo and the Salsa Verde. Average steakhouse sides pale in comparison to Costata’s Artichokes alla Guideaand Balsamic-Glazed Cippolini
Gelato alla Meringa
You’ll probably need a little time to digest before delving into the dessert menu, so spend a few minutes admiring the colorful artwork of Nasser Azam, scattered around the mahogany paneled walls of the sleek, three-story space. The desserts are Robert Truitt’s turf, who just incidentally was nominated as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chefs for 2013. I’ve never been a huge panna cotta, but Truitt’s Panna Cotta is marvelous, topped with a watermelon granite and fresh mint — an unexpected combination that manages to be simultaenously luscious and light. While I didn’t love the Baked Apricot & Lavender Crostatina, I dug just about everything else, including a rich Chocolate Tartaletta, filled with dark chocolate ganache and hazelnut praline, a Baked Meringue with poached rhubarb, sponge cake and strawberry gelato, and a slurry of homemade gelati and sorbets, like Mint Stracciatella (my favorite!) and Rhubarb Gelato. Costata’s not the kind of restaurant you could eat at every week, but if I die tomorrow, it easily makes my top ten last meal spots. Until we eat again…