Remind me not to go to a restaurant on opening night again. I know I probably should’ve known better, but I’ve been to plenty of thrilling opening nights. It’s a lot like attending a movie premiere or Broadway debut. There’s just something about being one of the first diners in the door, one of the first to see it all come together, to christen a new menu, and spy the chef on his or her brand new stage. As we all well know, it’s entirely risky to open a restaurant, a brave endeavor that too often ends in failure.
Elizabeth Falkner has made her New York debut twice in the last year. The first time was at Krescendo, a Neopolitan pizza restaurant in Brooklyn. And now at Corvo Bianco on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But let’s back up for a minute. Elizabeth Falkner is a lauded pastry chef who made a name for herself at Rubicon, Citizen Cake and Orson in San Francisco. She’s also a prominent TV chef, who’s competed on Iron Chef, Top Chef, and Top Chef Masters, to name a few. But what does she know about pizza? Well, she did win first prize at the World Pizza Championship in Naples, Italy, which is pretty darn impressive. So Falkner headed to the East Coast to strut her pizzaiola abilities in Boerum Hill at Krescendo,where she didn’t quite make the splash we all thought she might. And after just months six months, she announced her departure from the restaurant. Two months later, she resurfaced as the executive chef at Corvo Bianco, a coastal Italian eatery with a whopping 225 seats in the former Calle Ocho space.
If you want a taste of her “award-winning” pizza, head to the upfront bar with high top wood tables, a whitewashed brick backdrop, and wood branches dangling from the ceiling. Unfortunately, you can see the strings holding up those branches in both the bar area and main dining room (where they don’t serve pizza), making it feel like you’re at some off off Broadway show where they couldn’t afford a better set design to camoflauge the strings. Then, there’s the skylight in the dining room, which sounds lovely, but makes it way too light in the massive dining room even at night. The result feels a little like a cafeteria, admittedly with better furniture, but cold nonetheless. Did I mention the blue banquettes along the walls are way too high off the ground, leaving short diners (like myself) with their feet dangling in the air?
But decor, just like acoustics, is easy to forget when a meal is amazing, so I wasn’t terribly worried until I starting asking my server a few questions. Instead of the traditional Spaghetti Vongole, there’s a Scialatielle Vongole, which our server explained as mussels with a thick spaghetti noodle. Vongole is Italian for clams (not mussels), so that was our first warning sign to come back at a later date. But I selfishly persisted as I really wanted to sample Elizabeth Falkner’s savory side. We ordered a starter of Burrata and a Salad of Carrots, both raw and roasted, with seeds, sunflower sprouts and radishes. Like most restaurants out of the gate, service was slow, but entirely expected. Eventually, the Burrata and Spaghetti came, but no Carrot Salad. When I asked where it might be, our server answered that he was coursing our meal out and thought he’d serve it as a mid-course. That made me uneasy. Technically, pasta should be the mid-course, especially in an Italian restaurant, but I was open to a new order of things, so I went with the flow. I love burrata, but let’s be honest, it’s hard to mess up creamy cheese. The Burrata itself was properly gooey, but didn’t have much flavor to speak of other than a dusting of bottarga, and it was oddly paired with shavings of summer squash and a mound of black garlic pan grattato (breadcrumbs). The combination didn’t make a whole lot of sense, like staring down at a plate of misplaced ingredients. Not to mention the pine nut puree listed on the menu that never made it onto the plate. Then, there was the Scialatielle Vongole, which was nicely seasoned with olive oil, chilis and lemon zest, though the clams, served in the shell, were a little big for a pasta dish. It would’ve been better served with baby clams or razor clams, but no matter.
There was a long lag in which we drank one of the three Negronis from the Cocktail Menu. We tried the Negroni Classico, a blend of dry gin, campari, and sweet vermouth, a beautifully balanced cocktail that’s just perfect for this time of year. If you’re in the mood for a Mojito, there’s an Italian rendition here, made with rum, lime, mint and Orangina. Finally, the next course came, though it wasn’t the Carrot Salad mid-course he mentioned. Instead, it was our entrees, a Grilled Whole Branzino and Scallops. When I enquired about the missing carrots, our server answered, “I thought I’d bring it out as a side.” Oh boy. As for the entrees, the scallops were seared and arranged on a plate with a Cutting Celery Pesto and Summer Beans — a fine, summery dish though nothing you’d remember the next day. The Grilled Whole Branzino was not as successful. Out from the kitchen came a rather small and sad looking fish, wrapped in Chard leaves, which tasted like it had been left in the oven too long, dry and underseasoned.
While most people would’ve called it a night and asked for the check, I wanted to stay for dessert and see this thing through. After all, Elizabeth Falkner is a pastry chef and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Alas, waiting for the dessert menu was like waiting for Godot. It never arrived. Finally, we pleaded with another server to grab us one, only to find out there was no dessert menu and there were only three desserts, which included Grilled Peaches, Cheesecake, and a so-called Tartufo. I say so-called because what actually arrived at the table was a Gianduja Mousse of sorts with Roasted Hazelnuts and chocolate sauce. Tartufo is supposed to be made with frozen ice cream and fruit. There was nothing frozen about it and no fruit to speak of.
While I won’t judge them on opening night, I will say that it doesn’t bode well for Corvo Bianco, and maybe just maybe, Elizabeth Falkner’s cooking doesn’t translate on this coast.