For years, ambitious young chefs like WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne have turned their backs on big-money midtown establishments and set up shop in cheap, out-of-the-way dining rooms, where the rents are more reasonable and they can conduct their culinary experiments in peace. But lately, this migration of uptown talent to cramped kitchens in unlikely downtown locations has turned into a downright stampede. Whenever I crave a top-notch Continental-style dinner in a swanky Eurotrash setting, I sneak into one of the miniature disco-white banquettes at Bar Blanc, on 10th Street, for a taste of the crispy house sweetbread salad, and the scallops, which the new chef, Sebastian Zijp, serves with curried carrots and a decadent hint of house-cured lardo. For an equally accomplished if slightly more traditional European feast, the choice is Allegretti, on a darkened stretch of 22nd Street in Chelsea, where the Le Cirque 2000 alumnus Alain Allegretti turns out carefully rendered Provençal treats like rich, steamy bouillabaisse-style “Provençale” soup served with house-made rouille and helpings of crispy, coral-colored rouget, which taste like they’ve been beamed in from one of the more glamorous seaside hotels in Nice.
For the best paella this side of Valencia, I like to visit the tiny, perpetually jammed Socarrat Paella Bar, on 19th Street in Chelsea, where the delicious house specialties (try the superb “paella de carne,” made with duck, pork, chicken, and sizzling bits of chorizo) are hoisted to the table in giant cast-iron salvers, just like at a festive Sunday dinner in Spain. If it’s high-minded brasserie cooking you’re after, then join the rest of the glittering mob at Montrachet alum Tony Zazula’s popular back-alley restaurant Commerce, in the West Village. The tiny wooden booths feel like they’ve been designed for parties of hobbits, and the bar area in the crooked little space turns into a mosh pit on weekend nights. But the talented chef and co-owner, Harold Moore, has worked at Jean Georges, among other hoity-toity establishments, and stocks his menu with all sorts of improbably polished uptown treats, like “hand cut” steak tartare dressed with pickled ramps and crème fraîche, oysters served in a delicate stew of leeks and Champagne, and an impeccably cooked roast chicken for two served over butter-laced whipped potatoes, with a crunchy bread stuffing infused with foie gras.
Simone Bonelli is the name of the newest boy-wonder pasta wizard in town, and his laboratory is a little East Village hole in the wall called Perbacco, where the small, sparsely appointed room was crowded, one recent evening, with legions of pasta loons eagerly gobbling down helpings of weirdly flavorful basil ravioli stuffed with mascarpone and tomatoes, and bowls of perfectly articulated agnolotti filled with a delicious mash of crushed melon flavored with mint. Similar rococo creations are available at Olana, on lower Madison Avenue, where another young Italian chef named Al Di Meglio cooks up fat crespelle pancakes stuffed with chestnuts and clouds of lemony ricotta, and a roast rabbit so delicately constructed that even the lunatic bunny lovers at my table pronounced it a success. And if you’re in the mood for comforting trencherman recipes cooked with a light, gourmet touch, make your way to 10 Downing, on a darkened corner of lower Sixth Avenue, where the peripatetic young chef Jason Neroni produces feathery mounds of pork-belly rillettes flavored with apples, an elegant cocktail-size duck cassoulet made with duck meatballs, and a cut of curiously tender bison hanger steak, served with the best patatas bravas in town.