When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.” Our waiter delivers a shot of Hunter S. Thompson and two glasses of Templeton rye, nightcaps to a recent meal at Piora, Chris Cipollone and Simon Kim’s Hudson Street hole-in-the-wall that opened last summer. When journalists sit down to dinner, the conversation always goes editorial, and it had just veered into dark gonzo musings.
The hushed space makes for earshot intimacy with every table, but if the walls have ears, you get the feeling you can trust Piora’s service with your secrets. It also means your experience relies almost totally on your server — and most of the ones I had over several visits were fluent in Cipollone’s culinary language, which speaks in interesting, elaborate preparations that would rightly overwhelm a front-of-the-house rookie.
Disciples of Cipollone’s cooking will recall his alchemical tendencies. As at Tenpenny uptown, he distills flesh to dust, shrouding carrots ($18) in “ham snow,” featherlight flakes of salty, piggy cure.
His food is elemental and comforting, but don’t call it comfort food — if Piora serves mindfully sourced, seasonal dishes, it’s not chasing trends. The restaurant claims some Korean heritage (part of a new wave of culinary mashups — infusing rather than fusing cuisines), but Italian cookery is the base note. Simon Kim’s Far East floats through in fleeting whispers, staccato soy here, seaweed subtlety there. Barbecued octopus ($18) is charred but tender and spicy with fermented chile. It’s one of Piora’s more Korean dishes, but anywhere else, it would read “New American.”
So don’t let dissecting spheres of influence distract you from your food. Definitely don’t miss a resplendent rigatoni ($26), whose scent fills the room in pungent waves. Spigarello (broccoli rabe’s clement cousin) and duck sausage crumbles feed a red wine undercurrent, and charred fig tastes like purple feels: full, round, ripe, and lush. The dish is worlds better than a black garlic bucatini ($31), in which Dungeness crab, maitake, and chile are tasty but inundated with oil.
If you’d like to share your pasta, they’ll split it for you: As your waiter notes when you order, the kitchen prefers to serve one plate per person.
The formality is refreshing, if at times a bit uptown and dusty: One evening, a sunchoke chip amuse arrives with instructions given in holy seriousness: “Please use your fingers.” This sends my girlfriend and me to tears in barely stifled giggles, as if there were any other way to eat the thing. That night, our waitress delivers menu additions as spelling-bee recitations and meets our questions like a deer in the headlights: “Let me check on that,” she’ll say, taking cover in the kitchen. But at least she doesn’t make up answers or tell half-truths.
Later, she arrives with a glowing white fillet of halibut ($34), pan-seared a sunny golden hue on one side. She expertly pours fragrant brown butter fumet around the fish, which flakes away in clean layers, and all is forgiven. Shame it’s out of season now, replaced by ocean trout ($31), which is well-prepared if a bit generic.
Try instead the Rohan duck ($33), which is anything but. Wide slices of pink breast sit in a puddle of plummy puréed jujube (Korean date) and nutty farro. Cipollone’s preparation honors the Rohan’s pedigree — a hybrid of mallards and Pekins to emulate the fine French Rouen farm roaster. The bird was so hammy we at first wondered if we’d been given the suckling pig by accident.
The duck pairs well with sweet, saba-candied sunchokes ($9). Dry and salty, if ever there was a gainly bar snack, they’re it — dip them in the duck’s jujube purée and keep them when the plates are cleared.
If you opt for dessert, best pack your sweet tooth. Cipollone recently brought in pastry chef Ryan Butler (Whitehall, Gramercy Park Hotel). His caramelized apple ($12), served warm with eggnog ice cream and crisp crumbled toffee, is nuanced but smacks with sugar, while a “bitter” chocolate mousse ($13) with Earl Grey ganache is misnamed — unless it means “sweet until the bitter end.” Both are made well but too saccharine for me.
So if sweet isn’t your thing, sip a whiskey — there are too many to name, but a 15-year Japanese Nikka Yoichi, served over hand-chipped balls of ice, is a fine choice. If you haven’t done so already, look up from your table and watch your fellow diners. Piora is an all-ages show, appealing broadly to dates and celebratory evenings, even if that evening is a Tuesday night dinner for friends needing to talk business. With quiet candor flickering through the candlelight, three courses, a bottle of wine, and a nightcap or four never felt so special.