Tweaking Convention at 10 Downing
Let's begin with the most scrumptious dish on the menu: a free-range chicken for two ($43)—a pullet, really, the tender young flesh marshaled in sienna-skinned fragments across an oblong heap of arugula. At the first forkful, the arugula seems like an uninspired haystack, though one slicked with a lovely mustard vinaigrette. But upon excavation, you'll find a wealth of subsidiary delights, including chewy currants, crunchy almonds, tendrils of Moroccan-style preserved lemon, and, finally, luxuriantly large cubes of toasted bread, making this the most perfect panzanella you've ever tasted. As my dining companion and I flew at it with our forks, the thought occurred to us that this participatory bird might be the best date dish of all time.
Occupying one of the city's distinctive Flatiron structures, where the cow pastures of Peter Stuyvesant were gradually absorbed by the crooked lanes of Greenwich Village two centuries ago, 10 Downing is a bistro in the most modern sense—albeit one that nods to the French bistros that were a distinctive feature of Village dining during much of the 20th century. Thus, the waiters wear somber black aprons and white dress shirts, and one wall is plastered with lighthearted and evocative art. Another wall is entirely windows, giving out on a charming low-rise landscape.
Though Katy Sparks served as a consulting chef in the restaurant's early stages, Jason Neroni is currently the chef on record. In his previous short-lived commands, Cobble Hill's Porchetta and the East Village's Cantina, Neroni was pushing pork in a big way, wreaking novel and adventuresome changes on swine. This pork provocateur seemed like an odd choice for a staid Village bistro, but he's come through with flying colors, incorporating a soupçon of wildness into what was basically a comfort-food menu.
But don't imagine he's abandoned oinkers entirely. On a menu that has evolved in complexity over the four months since 10 Downing debuted, a recent special of suckling pig confit ($28) featured a boxcar of pale meat textured like pudding, with a delicate piece of skin balanced precariously on top. Running parallel was a river of a blood-orange mostarda (the menu misspells it "mustardo")—a weird-ass mustard-oil pickle associated with Cremona, Italy, that spontaneously appeared centuries ago. In addition to a bewildering number of sections devoted to apps, mains, specials, pastas, sides, and sub-appetizer bar snacks, the menu offers some kick-ass porcine charcuterie. The collection of $6 tasting portions includes mortadella, pork-belly rillettes, and morcilla, the Spanish blood sausage, which shows the chef's continuing appreciation for all things Iberian.
This appreciation is further demonstrated in the bar snacks, designated "For Sharing" on the menu. Baked feta ($9) comes flavored with a purée of piquillo peppers, while squid-ink agnolotti—a pasta that looks like so many black Band-Aids as it lolls in the bowl—also sports the same Spanish peppers in pickled slivers, in addition to lemon butter and shreds of crabmeat. The dish sounds scattered, but once in your stomach, you'll crave twice as much as you get in the generous appetizer portion ($14). Oh, and the sides ($6) include papas bravas, a tapas-bar staple dusted with smoked paprika, a condiment I've grown weary of. Order aligot instead—a French bistro standard of potatoes whipped with Tomme cheese into a drop-dead-good purée.
While the centerpiece of each app and entrée may be a plain, well-cooked hunk of meat, poultry, or fish, novel accompaniments radiate like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. A plank of striped bass appears with seckel pear, celeriac, trumpet mushrooms, and mint pesto, while an ocean trout tartar features pignoli, chorizo oil, a quail egg, and pickled mustard seeds. Who'd take the trouble to pickle mustard seeds? Neroni used the same trick at Cantina—and I suspect it's just the seeds left over at the bottom of a jar of dill pickles. The menu is sprinkled with little jokes and sleights of hand, and the chef continues the East Village and Williamsburg locavoric chef tradition of depending on a crazy assortment of miniature pickled veggies during the winter months.
In the usual fashion, the wine list is mad expensive, composed of bottles from California, Spain, France, Australia, and Italy, among other locales. My favorite bottle at the lower end is a 2007 chardonnay from Napa's Joel Gott ($39), which is flinty, austere, and less fruity than other California chardonnays, making it a surprise favorite when matched with the suckling pig special. Another surprise: The price is barely twice what you'd pay at a liquor store—not a bad deal if you've got the bucks.
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