It’s no secret that the New York restaurant world has entered an era of soft profit margins and downsized ambition. According to a recent report in this magazine, the city’s current king of high-priced haute cuisine, Alain Ducasse, has opened a new restaurant that promises an extraordinary recipe for, of all things, macaroni and cheese. Most of Monsieur Ducasse’s colleagues in the city’s great culinary pantheon pulled in their horns and began playing things safe long ago. They’re operating high-volume barbecue and bar joints (Blue Smoke), opening elaborate (and no doubt profitable) pizza and dim sum parlors (Otto, 66), and even peddling warmed-over (albeit tasty) versions of their mother’s meatball recipes (Rocco’s).
So it’s refreshing, in such tenuous times, to see two new downtown establishments, ’inoteca and Bread Tribeca, buck the popular trend and attempt to build their franchises the old-fashioned way: by going from lowbrow to highbrow and from little to big. Both new restaurants are Italian, as it happens, and both are spinoffs of popular, diminutive sandwich bars. ’Inoteca, which opened several months ago on the Lower East Side, is the offspring of ’ino, the original New York home, as every sandwich hound knows, of the hot pressed panini. Bread Tribeca is a larger version of Bread, a popular, neighborly shoebox of a space on the eastern reaches of Spring Street in Nolita. Both new eateries pay homage to their roots with an assortment of comforting sandwich selections, but both also manage to expand on their original formulas in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.
The more subtle of the two is ’inoteca, which occupies an airy corner space on Rivington Street, which seems to be undergoing a mini culinary boom like the one that afflicted the meatpacking district a decade ago. The room is simple and unadorned, with a wooden bar as in an authentic enoteca; polished, uncovered wooden tabletops; and two walls of louvered windows thrown open to the street. The food is generally bite-size (the most expensive item is a pork sandwich for $15), although the choices are plentiful enough so that if you lose control (like me), you’ll soon be buried under a blizzard of tiny white plates.
There are six sections to the menu, not counting dessert, and the biggest, not surprisingly, is pane, which is also divided into three subsections called tramezzini (little tea sandwiches), panini, and bruschetta. My favorite of the tramezzini was the one made with chicken (it’s served Grandma-style, with the crusts cut off), and all of the panini combinations seemed quite superior (try the one made with salty bresaola and Fontina cheese), except the pork version, which was overstuffed and fatty. The king of the bruschetta category was a little square of toast hollowed in the middle like a toad-in-the-hole and filled with egg, bits of truffle, and more melted Fontina cheese. The best of the larger piatti category was a dense square of vegetable lasagne (made not with pasta but with layers of eggplant), and if you want to order just one of the fritti, try the prawns, which are flavored with a light sweet-and-sour sauce and intertwined with crinkly strips of bacon.
These relatively elaborate items are accompanied to the table by a whole platoon of simple insalate and antipasti, like beets flavored with orange and mint, and shreds of grilled calamari mixed with soft, white borlotti beans. The wine selection is almost too modest (ten or twelve Italian whites, ten or twelve Italian reds). But then, modesty is one of ’inoteca’s main virtues. The most expensive dessert on the menu is a plate of seasonal fruit for $6. There’s also an underwhelming “granita of the day,” and a cooling affogato, which is essentially a glass of vanilla gelato with a shot of espresso poured over the top. Best of all, though, is another panini, this one made with two slices of Pullman toast pressed around a generous helping of chocolate Nutella spread. As a dish, it’s satisfying, economical, and even artful, in a humble sort of way, which is as good a description as any for the restaurant itself.
The proprietors of Bread Tribeca are more ambitious than their colleagues on the Lower East Side, and so their transition from little to bigger seems a bit less smooth. The new Bread occupies a great vaulted room off Church Street (formerly the home of Barroco), complete with loft-style windows, modish communal tables, and even a flat-screen movie monitor that, on one of the evenings I was there, was beaming images of Tony Curtis (in Sweet Smell of Success) over the bar. As at the original Bread, there is an open kitchen, only the new one is about as long as a bus (the original is Beetle-size) and almost as wide. The menu has expanded, too, to include numerous primi, several fine pasta dishes, and platters of chicken, fish, and steak, all baked in a wood-burning oven in accordance with the current rustic style.
The first thing I sampled was a helping of fritto misto, served with wedges of lemon in a triangle of white paper pleasingly stained with oil. There were fresh shrimp, mussels, and codfish in the mix, and little fronds of carrot and fennel, all of which were nicely fried to a golden, tempura-like crispness. There are other appetizers available (mini slices of veal, cold octopus muffled in potatoes), although nothing seemed to taste quite as good as the pastas, which came to the table smothered in spicy clams, fashioned into little pansotti dumplings and covered in walnut sauce, or picked out with pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, and a dusting of toasted bread crumbs.
A few of the larger, more complicated dishes tended to be more problematic. A whole roasted branzino seemed fresh and fragrant (it’s stuffed with a forest of rosemary), but the grilled shrimp I sampled (served with an overabundance of grilled vegetables) were a little chalky around the edges. My raffish Tribeca friends seemed to enjoy their rib-eye steak (it’s presented on a kind of chopping block with sweet cipollini onions), but my own giant serving of organic chicken (a half-bird, plus an awful lot of garlic) was mostly dry. For dessert, there’s a refreshingly cool strawberry soup, an overthick version of panna cotta flavored with cherries and mint, and a Valrhona-chocolate-lemon tart. Like lots of the food at Bread Tribeca, these uptown dishes are efficiently produced and competently presented. If you’re a devotee of the original Bread, they probably won’t make you forget the quirky pleasures of the snug little room back on Spring Street. But then, no one ever succeeded in the big city by sitting still, and ambition always has its costs.