Empire state of mind: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Scott Conant’s Scarpetta

Empire state of mind: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Scott Conant’s Scarpetta

Celeb chef Scott Conant opened his third outpost of Scarpetta this summer. Too bad it looks, feels and tastes like a branch plant

(Image: Lorne Bridgman)

This city’s corps of celebrity chefs has lost some of its swagger in recent years. Lynn Crawford has retreated into what tastes like semi-retirement; Jamie Kennedy’s mismanagement cost him, and the city, his best restaurant (anybody been to Wine Bar lately?); Marc Thuet can’t seem to find a winning formula for his once-vaunted King Street space; and though I’m eager to be proven wrong on this point, Susur Lee is too busy chasing fortunes abroad to give it his best back home.

Scott Conant, on the other hand, is young and hungry, and his Scarpetta, in the new Thompson Hotel, is the first unapologetically expensive and formal room to open here since George, on Queen East, way back in 2004. Conant is also the first U.S. celebrity chef to build a satellite in Toronto. So sure, the city’s gluttonous class got excited: new blood, naked ambition, world-class cooking and all that. One chef even said privately that he hoped Scarpetta’s arrival would force the coasting locals to step up their game.

Conant, with his gel-slicked hair, stubbled face and gravelly northern Connecticut accent (it sounds like a Bostonian crossed with Officer Krupke), is already a household name in the U.S. He’s been a recurring guest judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and the Food Network’s Chopped, and this summer he debuted his own show, 24‑Hour Restaurant Battle, in which contestants plan and open their own restaurants in—you guessed it—a single day. Conant acts imperious enough when the vicissitudes of reality television demand it, but mostly, he’s a big, goofy showman with a Ryan Seacrest smile.

Off-air, he’s a torchbearer for the any-publicity-is-good camp. His “Open Letter to Toronto,” which appeared on the Huffington Post in the run-up to Scarpetta’s launch (opening line: “You don’t really know me—and that’s OK”), was an effective if slightly tone-deaf attention grabber. Though it read heartfelt, self-anointed defenders of the city’s restaurant community—bloggers, mostly—circled their tiny town wagons and called the letter condescending; Conant, meanwhile, scored reams of free press. Need more proof he’s not one of us? He uses his Twitter feed to rebroadcast criticism from detractors: recent posts include “Scott Conant can be such a pretentious prick,” “Scott Conant can kiss my ass” and “Scott Conant is still a douche.”

The trait that most separates him from his U.S. Food Network counterparts, however, is that Conant can cook. L’Impero, which he opened in Manhattan in 2002, won him the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant award, and his Tyrolean-focused Alto earned swoons from the critics. But it was Scarpetta’s first location, which he launched in New York’s meat-packing district in 2008, that gave him
his first mass-market hit. The menu combined favourites—his signature spaghetti with tomatoes and basil; polenta with mushrooms and truffled jus—with a raft of can’t-miss dishes, like foie gras ravioli. Scarpetta Miami opened six months later, and then Toronto this summer. This fall, he’ll launch Scarpetta Beverly Hills, and he’s already begun to promote the Las Vegas location planned for this winter. With its front man spread this thin, maybe it was inevitable Scarpetta Toronto would fall short of the hype.

The room, set off from the Thompson’s lobby and bar, is the first disappointment, though by no means the last. With brown wood floors, tables and wine cabinets, and not a single piece of art to speak of, the long space is as dark and banal as a UPS uniform. It’s loud, but in all the wrong ways—noisy but lacking energy—and the tables are spaced too far apart for much sense of a shared experience.

As for the food, the concept, our waiter announces, is straightforward: “It’s very rustic, Italian soul food,” he says. “The cooking is very simple; it’s just about the ingredients.” But after eating much of the menu, I wouldn’t say that’s accurate. The food is as authentically rustic as your average Muskoka McMansion. Raw ingredients are nearly irrelevant in nine items out of 10; the style here is all about muscling meat and produce into limpid submission. Most of the dishes are rich, sweet, mangia-cake smooth and so middle-of-the-road inoffensive they taste as if they’ve been focus-grouped. And strictly speaking, in many cases it’s a stretch to even call the food “Italian.” Scarpetta does Italian as interpreted by a chef who’s crazy for foie gras, Japanese beef and classical reductions—who cooks as if he wishes he had been born in a little French town called Marne-la-Vallée. Of course you’ve probably never heard of the place. Most people these days just call it Euro Disney.

For what it’s worth, there are a few excellent dishes. The fritto misto—squid, rock shrimp, eggplant and zucchini—is cut into batons, fried, then tossed with rosemary, basil and sea salt; it’s a knockout starter. Conant’s polenta is delicious: the grits, as heady as summer corn, are merely a vehicle for the accompanying mushroom fricassee (his word, bien sûr, not mine). As the waiter lifts away its lid, the smell is woodsy, brooding, with a little truffle funkiness and the sweetness of chicken stock to round it all out. “Would you like me to stir it for you, sir?” our ever-eager waiter asks. I decline his offer. I want the pleasure all to myself. The red beet and smoked ricotta casonsei, a classic and, yes, even rustic specialty from Cortina D’Ampezzo, is easily the best pasta on the menu, and one of the nicest I’ve eaten: the dough is rolled out to translucence, so the half-moons with their cocks­comb edges glow pink from within. They taste creamy, smoky, earthy and bright.

The problem here is in trying to build an even remotely sensible meal from a menu that’s overwhelmingly rich. After eating that polenta and mushrooms, and then a plate of duck and foie gras ravioli (smooth as yacht rock and nicely sweet at first; cloying after three bites) and their syrupy marsala drizzle, all I really want is a crisp autumn apple. I have the capretto instead: dry baby goat, shellacked under yet another reduction, with roasted finely diced potatoes (the non-Italian term, I believe, is “hash browns”) and bitter rapini. Even fish gets the heavy treatment. Ocean trout comes seriously oversalted under a flavourless foam, and the black cod is cloaked in another highly adhesive sauce. It’s all as dark as a murder-suicide.

The service doesn’t help. Everybody’s trying 40 per cent too hard, but without getting the simple things right. One night, my dinner mates, who arrive before me, and who reserved a table more than a week in advance, are informed that we can keep our table for only 90 minutes. (A manager later apologizes and comps a round of drinks after declining to kick us out.) All the fine-dining pretense—the porcelain cloches whisked, for example, from the signature spaghetti—plays more like parody when nobody can remember who ordered what. Our waiter interrupts to ask the requisite “Is everything to your liking?” not once, not twice, but for every course, cocktails included, and he asks all three of us individually. And “Shall we start with the lady” is always sort of stiffly amusing when there is a lady at the table and she’s younger than, say, 76, but it’s just bewildering when there are two.

You can’t blame the local staff for the drab design, the lack of personality, or even the bulk of the problems on the restaurant’s plates; they’re replicating a formula that’s meant to be infinitely reproduced. It’s Conant’s job to get it right. Scarpetta is a chain restaurant with an absentee figurehead, but it charges far more than many local, more accomplished, lower-profile labours of love. It’s a line item on a balance sheet. And that’s a reality that no amount of celebrity can ever fix.