In restaurant land, like everywhere else, there’s a quirky, unfathomable quality to the wisdom of crowds. Some places never get off the ground, some take off after one good review, and some are popular the minute they open their doors. 10 Downing, which opened a couple of months ago in an angular corner space on lower Sixth Avenue, appears to be one of the lucky ones. Possibly it’s the Euro-accented name, which also happens to be the restaurant’s address. Or maybe it’s the carefully contrived downtown vibe, which includes a Damien Hirst poster in the bathroom and lots of jumbled artifacts on the walls, among them a pair of entwined antlers and a lush landscape photo of somewhere in Mexico. Even though the place has no hard- liquor license, the patrons were three deep at the bar, waiting for their tables, when I dropped by a few weeks back. On a recent Friday evening, the party was still more or less in full swing, even with the city sunk in its deep recessionary gloom. One of 10 Downing’s proprietors used to run a buzzy Village bistro called Le Zoo, among other establishments, so they know a little bit about the delicate alchemy that goes into creating a trendy restaurant. It helps to have an eye for real estate (10 Downing is across the street from Da Silvano; Le Zoo used to occupy the space that now houses the Spotted Pig), an energetic publicist (the food blogosphere has been chronicling the oft-delayed project for months), and the services of a chef who cooks the kind of food that even the most addled hipster might actually wish to eat. The person they’ve chosen for this challenging job is a talented though star-crossed young cook named Jason Neroni, who made his reputation creating inventive, high-wire recipes at the prominent Lower East Side restaurant 71 Clinton, then almost ruined it in a murky, much-blogged-about dispute with the owner of a now-defunct restaurant in Brooklyn.
At 10 Downing, however, Neroni seems to have found his balance. In accordance with the fashions of the day, the menu is filled with rustic specialties, like pork rillettes served with a spoonful of delicately minced apples on the side, and the vinegary cocktail-size cassoulet studded with tiny duck meatballs. Nine dollars buys a helping of sautéed Brussels sprouts inventively swimming in a bagna cauda of anchovies, garlic, and olive oil, and topped with a wobbly poached egg, and for a few bucks more you can get a helping of delicate house-made agnolotti infused with squid ink. Neroni procures his tasty and rigorously organic chicken (served for two over a generous panzanella salad tossed with currants and crushed almonds) from a group of conscientious, poultry-raising upstate monks, and the hanger steak, on the night I ordered it, was cut not from a normal cow but from a free-range buffalo, and served with patatas bravas and an egg cup of fresh-whipped romesco sauce. This kind of diligent fussiness can turn cloying on occasion. The $30 lobster special I sampled one evening was bizarrely sweet and smothered in too much sunchoke purée, and the otherwise presentable arctic-char entrée was overwhelmed by oversize bacon lardons. But if you’re in the mood for a classy platter of braised short ribs, you’ll find it here (layered with a rich mash of shiitakes, Savoy cabbage, and onions), along with other neatly rendered bistro staples like Provençal-style lamb chops (with a chickpea panisse), and that old locavore favorite wild striped bass, garnished with pears and buttery chanterelles. The modest desserts include the inevitable offering of “farmstand” cheeses, a passably rich chocolate cake presented like a soufflé with a scoop of malt-flavored ice cream in the middle, and a helping of old-fashioned lemon curd, which is enlivened with a stick of fresh-baked pound cake and a cloud of whipped cream touched with lavender.
There’s nothing quite so precious on the menu at West Branch, Tom Valenti’s newest restaurant venture in that former culinary death zone known as the Upper West Side. Valenti’s stolid new bistro, which opened not long ago in a stripped-down, unrelentingly dark-toned space on Broadway and 77th, is a slightly more accessible, down-market version of his flagship establishment, Ouest. The dining-room walls are painted burgundy and sheathed, in a kind of clubby, neo-saloon style, with smoky mirrors. The banquettes are covered in acres of shiny brown pleather, and there’s a glimmering flat-screen TV over the bar, where you can watch Knicks games in the company of middle-aged bons vivants from the neighborhood dressed in their natty tweed coats, while chomping on the generous “house-ground” cheeseburger ($16), and a fine yuppie version of the Cubano pork sandwich ($14) flattened to a dense toasty goodness in a panini press. There’s a professionally executed escargot vol-au-vent on the menu, too, poured over a puff pastry, a worthy neighborhood rendition of steak tartare, and tender little sections of batter-fried quail plated with cool potato salad and creamy buttermilk dressing. Valenti has a fondness for offal dishes, but I’d avoid the braised duck gizzards (“coeurs et gésiers”) in favor of the duck-leg confit (set over a bowl of pork sausages and buttery sauerkraut) or the pan-roasted cod (with an excellent Mediterranean topping of zucchini and tomatoes) or the giant, truncheon-size fish and chips, served over a small hillock of hot, salty fries. If you’re still standing after this impressive, relatively economically priced barrage (none of the entrées costs over $30), I recommend the custard-filled tarte Basque ($8), a stylish little dessert, even by the now lofty standards of the Upper West Side.