August 4, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

Michael White Hits the Mark at Convivio

Enthusiasm fires Chef Michael White as he personally serves our sfizi.  Photo: Steven Richter
Enthusiasm fires Chef Michael White as he personally serves our sfizi.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Although the critics embraced his new menu at Alto, Michael White wasn’t happy with less than raves for his complex creations at L’Impero in Tudor City. Then he and partner Chris Cannon bolted the door for two weeks and invented Convivio: new look, pared-down prices, a $59 four-course prix fixe, and a wonderfully winning rustic style for the Southern Italian dishes the chef is smitten with.

        White is dealing with exactly the same essentials - eggplant, artichoke, octopus, quail, sweetbreads - but the look and taste is dramatically different and I can't wait to go back to taste more.  The man is big, like a onetime linebacker with no time to work out anymore, and he speaks very fast, as if to suggest there’s no time to persuade him otherwise.  He had three stars at Fiamma when he split with Steve Hanson there.  Then he took over what had been Scott Conant’s three star kitchen at L’Impero, overwhelming his southern Italian food with too much frou frou.

 
Skewer grilled quail with chicory and vin cotto. Photo: Steven Richter

        White himself welcomes us tonight with a gift round of savory sfizi, $4 to $6 snacks in tiny bowls:  Hot peppers stuffed with Sicilian anchovy and mozzarella. Radishes on a heavenly anchovy cream. Saffron risotto croquettes. Vinegared baby eggplant with basil and chili. A mash of creamy burrata with tomato and basil oil.  Our foursome of demanding gourmands still has an appetite for antipasti, enthusiastically savoring crunchy fried sardines with smoked cheese and pickled zucchini, quail grilled in vin cotto, and the chef’s sweetbread piccata, although for my taste, there are too many pickled and vinegary accents.

 
A ribbon of crisped skin ties up a package of tender pork and market corn. Photo: Steven Richter

        Housemade orecchiette with tripe, sausage, and wild fennel, and homemade fusilli with pork shoulder and a rich creamy melt of Cacciocavallo cheese to stir in are both knockouts. It is possible we are flagging as the entrees arrive. That extra first course and the chewy olive rolls are enough to tax even foodies like us. I am able to taste just one savory rare slice of the grilled flat iron steak pizzaiola and recommend it, as well as seared octopus with lemon, sweet peppers and bright green Castelveltrano olives.  But the roasted guinea hen is dry. Isn’t it always?  I think it’s a choice for people who like overcooked breast of chicken.

        A too herbal honey spoils the nectarine tart for me but I love the vanilla panna cotta with blackberry marmalade and lemon yogurt sorbet. Indeed, just-made sorbets, melting as we pass them around so all can taste, are the sane ending.

        I loved and actually miss L’Impero’s sheer white floating panels though the powder blue and brown look did need updating. In fact, decorator Vincente Wolf’s sheer white window shades, glossy ceiling and tufted rust leather banquettes are not exactly a dramatic makeover.  Subtle is the word.  Service, more professional than it was on my last visit, still needs discipline. (I only counted one “enjoy” compared to six last time, I’m pleased to report.) And the new menu makes it possible to spend less if you make a determined effort.  Our bill, ran $100 per person this time and last.

        Still, not many chefs can turn on a dime, abandon a look and style they spent months, maybe years imagining and come up with a winner.  I give White major credit for that. Is he unusually stubborn?  I don’t really know. But I see him as driven by that starry goal to get it right. Excitement definitely scents the air at smartly refitted Convivio.

45 Tudor City Place near East 42nd Street. 212 599 5045

***

 

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