When Faustina lost its talented executive chef, Billy Sotelo, to La Caille a few months ago, I feared it might be curtains for Faustina. Although it seems to fly a little under the foodie radar, I’ve always enjoyed eating at Faustina. The patio in warm weather is a terrific spot for weekend brunch, and when it’s cold or cool out, the restaurant’s modernist interior, with its curvy lines and soothing color palette, is always warm and inviting.
Sotelo’s departure hasn’t seemed to affect business, however. When I dropped into Faustina for dinner on a recent Friday night, the place was packed with a diverse mix of customers. And I was keen to explore the menu—especially the new small-plate options—of Chef de Cuisine Joe Kemp.
Too often, small plates are accompanied by big prices. That’s not the case at Faustina, where the small plates menu ranges from $4 for a plate of mixed olives to $12 for filet au poivre. All of the small plates are generous and sharable.
A favorite small plate offering of mine was Kemp’s chicken pillow pastry—a dome-shaped puff pastry about the size of a muffin, stuffed with chicken, cranberry, sage and pine nuts, served on soft polenta with a balsamic drizzle. The delicious, elaborate dish seemed a steal, priced at a mere $8. Fried calamari ($8) is lightly battered squid rings and tentacles, deep-fried and served with crisp, fresh lettuce (you can make Asian-style wraps out of them) and a “cocktail” aioli—cocktail sauce meets ProvenÃ§al aioli.
Kemp knows a thing or two about seafood. He’s originally from Iceland, studied at the Florida Culinary Institute and cooked at Maryland’s Blue Heron Inn on Solomons Island. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a simple, seared sea scallop—atop lump blue crab meat, garnished with microgreens and bathed in buerre blanc—was a spectacular way to open the evening meal. I love scallops, but they are delicate in flavor and structure. Too often they’re cooked to hockey puck toughness, wrapped in flavor-masking bacon and/or smothered in sauce so rich that the bivalves don’t stand a fighting chance. Not these.
Taking a gander around the restaurant—from the bar near the front door to the romantic booth in the back of the dining room—wine and cocktails were flowing, and the Faustina patrons all seemed to be enjoying themselves. We sure were. Chalk that up, in part, to excellent care from our server, Kelly. The top-notch Faustina staff is headed up by manager Hilary Merrill, a real pro. She’s constantly in motion: greeting guests here, helping to bus a table there, running an all-around tight ship. I’d also suggest enlisting Merrill’s help with wine pairings. Faustina has a really nice wine list, with all but a couple offered both by-the-glass and bottle, and Merrill is very knowledgeable and helpful with pairing food with wine.
It probably goes without saying that a guy who cooked in Maryland should excel in the crab cake department. And Kemp does. His lump crab cakes ($10) were precisely that: a pair of crab cakes where lump blue crab meat stole the show. These cakes aren’t about filler; they’re an homage to the world’s best-tasting crab meat, served with roasted corn, tomato, an avocado fan and homemade dill aioli.
And it just kept getting better. I love a good steak—for three or four bites. Then, my palate gets fatigued and I find myself bored and challenged to eat the rest of my rib eye or T-bone. That’s one reason I like small plates and tapas—I prefer to enjoy a little of a lot of things, rather than a lot of one or two things. And so, I found the Oscar filet ($12) to be quite satisfying. It’s a petite filet mignon—maybe half the size of a normal filet—seared to medium-rare and served Oscar-style, with lump blue crab and grilled asparagus, topped with a heavenly béarnaise sauce. True, I could eat a pair of Doc Martens bathed in béarnaise, but this mini-mignon was marvelous.
One of the wines Merrill suggested—spot-on with the Oscar filet—was from the Luberon, in France: M. Chapoutier “La Ciboise” ($10/glass or $42/bottle). It’s a fruity blend of Grenache and Syrah, a fairly light, easy-drinking red wine that enhanced the delicate Oscar filet rather than overpowering it. Another dish that paired quite well with the La Ciboise was beef short ribs—shredded and formed into a cylindrical shape—served on a polenta disc with Asiago cheese sauce and paprika oil ($8): dee-lish.
You know Mr. Creosote, the gourmand who explodes after eating one last mint in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life? Well, that was me. Those “small plates” add up to a lot of food, but I still had a hankering to share an entree portion of Faustina’s popular seafood scampi ($18). I wound up taking most of the scampi home in a box, though it was a divine plate of al dente angel-hair pasta in a tangy white wine and lemon sauce, a smattering of tomato and red onion, with a seafood assortment of crab, scallops and shrimp.
Forging on with Mr. Creosote in mind, we wound up the evening with a sensational blueberry soufflé. Kelly sliced into the airy soufflé with a sharp knife and drizzled it with a sweet and fragrant honey-lavender cream sauce.
With a new chef de cuisine and new small-plates menu, Faustina’s food has been re-energized.
454 E. 300 South
Thursdays, 6 p.m. Continues through Aug. 28 / Free