The sommelier hunched over the electronic wine list, fingers pecking at the screen. He looked exactly like an airline ticket agent as he pursed his lips, muttered to himself, and sucked air between his teeth. We’d asked him to recommend a bottle at the very bottom of SD26’s price range, which starts at $35, after we ordered a tricky combination of red meat and fish. I felt like I was about to be denied an upgrade, but finally our fellow—wearing the old-school silver tastevin my husband insists on calling a “rapper’s medallion”—cracked a smile and suggested a 2007 pinot noir from La Versa Pavia in Lombardy. It’s a strange mix of the old and new at SD26.
San Domenico, Tony May’s excellent and legendary Northern Italian restaurant, was ensconced on Central Park South for 20 years. Now it has moved downtown to the Madison Square Park area, renamed and reincarnated as a sleek, modernist machine—complete with touch-screen wine lists, a blindingly bright open kitchen, an Enomatic wine contraption, and a cold, clean, cavernous dining room.
May’s daughter, Marisa May, has taken the reins of the new restaurant. The menu has been completely revamped, although a handful of old San Domenico favorites, like the raviolo filled with raw egg yolk, remain. But in place of Sicilian red prawns with cannellini beans and rosemary, we find hiramasa (also known as yellowtail kingfish) cured in citrus. Instead of veal in a pancetta-cream sauce with braised endive, we’re offered seared veal loin with sweetbreads and butternut squash. The roasted rabbit saddle is gone, in favor of more generic plates like lamb chops.
The long-reigning executive chef, Odette Fada, has made the move downtown; she and her crew were shipped off to her native Italy for a crash course in modern Italian food before SD26 opened. Fada, who is extremely well regarded, does not seem to be cooking from her heart here. Most (not all) of the technique is flawless, but the food just does not seem loved. And although we have every reason to believe the contrary, neither does the restaurant. It’s slick, it’s moneyed, and it’s actually a little depressing, given its potential.
Much has been made of the interior design, which transformed an old office space into a 300-seat establishment. But “transformed” might be too strong a word, as the place gives off a distinctly office-like chill—all white walls, glass panels, and shiny steel railings. The main dining room has its sight lines blocked by three gargantuan white pillars. One night, we were seated behind one of them and stared at a blank wall for several hours. It was Zen-like, I suppose. The ceiling rises up two stories, encompassing private dining rooms on the second floor that look down onto the main room from glass balconies. When the dining room fills up, the din becomes tremendous, not helped by the numbing unch-unch-unch of generic lounge music.
The menu, which is organized by ingredient—vegetables, grains, fish, and meat—contains many dishes that can be ordered as either small- or regular-size portions, enabling diners to create primo and secondo courses without feeling like a stuffed turkey in the end. A nice touch. One night, our party of four snagged a table in the middle of the room, with a view of the kitchen, and ordered two courses each, plus a bit of charcuterie to start. The servers, while genial enough, whipped us through those courses with the efficiency of a carwash—a blur of items put down, taken away, brushed off, and flourished about. Occasionally, servers picked up plates we were still eating from. “Are we having a good time?” bellowed the captain, making a perfunctory stop at our table. It was exhausting: Meal as sprint.
One of the best pastas is the old signature dish of San Domenico: uovo in raviolo, a single ravioli the size of a hacky sack. The tender pasta packet, doused in truffle butter, oozes brilliant yolk when pierced with a fork. (At $23 per one-piece portion, it’s an indulgence in more than one way.) Other pastas were not as enviable: Butternut squash gnocchi with nubbins of chicken liver and fried sage would have been wonderful were it not for the lack of salt.
Worse, a $17 portion of baccala three ways—seared, whipped, and made into carpaccio—was tiny enough to be an amuse bouche, and included a nugget of baccala that had not been properly de-salted. A sad, tough smoked lobster tail needed to borrow some of that salt. The panzanella salad was made of bread that had been minced into crumbs, so that the salad arrived as a molded disk of mush. What you like in a panzanella is the way the day-old bread cubes are sodden (traditionally, they’re soaked in water before being added to the salad), but retain some of their texture and character. Just because you’re going for “modern” doesn’t mean everything’s got to fit into a ring mold.
The kitchen shows its best cooking with meat dishes, but, weirdly, those preparations seem more New American than even vaguely Italian. Best of all is the lamb chop, a gorgeously fleshy specimen, served with sprightly mint couscous and figs. Likewise, a flawless veal plate comprises rosy slices of veal loin, crisp veal sweetbreads, and slices of butternut squash. Beef cheeks—is there a more forgiving cut?—are also wonderful in their pot-roasty way, soaking in a rich red wine sauce atop one large disk of semolina gnoccho.
Charcuterie and cheeses, all imported from Italy, are just fine, and a selection of three cheeses provides an enjoyable way to end an evening here. In fact, the best and most affordable way to experience SD26 is probably to confine yourself to the charcuterie and an appetizer or two and sit in the wine bar, where you can tinker with the Enomatic wine machine—a gadget that uses inert gas to preserve wine, enabling restaurants to offer more bottles by the taste and the glass. Get a card from the server patrolling the area and stick it in the machine, where it will tally up your bill as you dispense one-ounce, two-ounce, or glass-size tastings for yourself. I chose the $8 taste of an inky, tobacco-y Brunello di Montalcino I could never otherwise afford to try.
Change and innovation are good. But not when it comes at the expense of soulful food.
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road