Almost a decade ago, Christian Fantoni ran the kitchen at Fiamma, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in New York City with a big following. A few years later, he was making wedge salads and chicken parm at a Portillo’s branch in Aurora. It’s been a strange career, but with knowledge of his early accolades I was intrigued when I learned that he’d taken over the kitchen at Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush, normally the kind of business lunch, try-to-please-everyone place I avoid. In 3 meals during the early part of 2013, I saw a tiny glimpse of what might have been the Fiamma Fantoni, but for the most part I still see the same Phil Stefani 437 Rush that’s always been there, with perhaps even a slight decline in basic execution.A delicate bibb lettuce pesto was crisp and bright without overpowering the meticulously-prepared clams and tender cuttlefish that were the stars of the dish. These ingredients sauced flavorful potato gnocchi that, while not as light and dreamy as those at places such as a Tavola and Spiaggia, were well-crafted - not the gummy, leaden balls found at most restaurants. Textures and flavors worked in harmony here, and I started to see why a NYC Michelin reviewer or James Beard House representative might have taken notice.
Then I tried the butternut squash soup and imagined a multi-gallon vat of premade glop adorning a Portillo’s quick-service counter. It was thick like spackle and utterly devoid of flavor, but for some crumbled cookies used as garnish. It was a vile bowl of food.Two more pasta dishes failed to invoke any of the joy I felt with the gnocchi. Orecchiette with rapini and sausage were cooked pleasantly al dente, but the advertised broccoli puree was either non-existent or flavorless. Neither the rapini nor the sausage had much flavor either. It was the kind of bland, inoffensive dish you’d expect to find at a place like this. Nothing more. Worse yet were ravioli, advertised as being stuffed with ricotta and herbs, then sauced with some kind of lettuce pesto. The filling was indeed green as if herbs had been used, but I tried really hard and failed to taste anything beyond plain ricotta. The pesto was a vile, separated mess of flavorless green oil in a massive pool, and flavorless clumps of dry greenery with sliced almonds that hadn’t been pulverized at all.
Fantoni hasn’t been at the helm here for too long, so there may be some hope that he will influence the menu and execution in a positive way. My confidence about that isn’t high though, and after the dreadful soup and ravioli it’ll be a while before I try again.