Historically, the Meatpacking District is where good chefs come to sell out. Just look at 5 Ninth, once one of the most promising restaurants in the city, it now caters to the scenesters shelling out $150 a head for mediocrity. This is why some critics were shocked when Scott Conant, formerly of impressive Uptown locales Alto and L’Impero, decided to bring his haute Italian riffs to the cursed former space of Gin Lane on 14th Street.
And if he sticks around, making sure the kitchen doesn’t descend into the laziness that afflicts most of the ‘hood’s eateries, he’ll add a sheen of class to all the surrounding clubland crass. The large dining room, modern, austere and cozy, is decorated with brown leather banquettes, odd mirrors and entrancing minimalist curio-cube chandeliers. The room books three weeks in advance, so take advantage of the first-come bar area.
Conant has brought many of his august recipes from prior ventures to Scarpetta — one reason the average age here is at least 15 years older than its local competition — but sanely leaves the overly baroque behind. Our meal started on a down note. Chilled pea soup with crab and riesling ($12) had a perfect late-summer flavor, but the soup was unpleasantly gritty and the crab stringy. A large plate of scallop carpaccio ($12), on the other hand, was so suffused with lime that acid is all that registered at first. Later, the sublime sweetness of the shellfish peeked out along with rich avocado, and it shone in the three bites with orange flesh.
Likewise, main courses were both brilliant and flawed. Duck and foie gras ravioli ($23) were overly al dente, robbing the sinful filling of its silkiness, but a sweet marsala wine sauce had me dragging bread through the plate after I was done. Black cod with fennel and tomato ($25) was a welcome break from the sweet miso version Nobu ubiquitized, and it was the night’s savory star.
We hadn’t eaten much, but the food sure was rich, so my dining companion and I split the lightest dessert on the menu, coconut panna cotta with guava soup, caramelized pineapple and coconut sorbet ($11) and we suddenly had our appetites back. The interplay of four textures and the impossible harmony of coconut and pineapple with an elegant guava edge made this the best dish of the night and one of the best desserts of the year.
I see what this kitchen is capable of, and it can either fulfill that promise or descend into MPD mediocrity, hints of which were on display as well. I know what I’m hoping for, but it’ll be fun to see it play out.