Tony May’s San Domenico restaurant, which closed last year after a long, respectable run on Central Park South, was a stately place designed to feed 150 or so clubby, well-heeled patrons at a sitting. But its radically modernized successor, SD26, which opened not long ago off Madison Square Park, has clearly been designed, somewhat self-consciously, with a younger, more fickle generation of eaters in mind. The waiters at the old joint wore white jackets with gold buttons. At SD26, they’re dressed in postmodernist outfits with Nehru collars. The old wine list was set between thick leather covers, in the traditional style. At SD26, it comes embedded, for the benefit of tech-savvy oenophiles, in a kind of handheld, PSP-like touchscreen device. The old room was decorated in lustrous tones of scarlet and gold. The new one has a darkened, disco-style wine-and-cocktail bar in the front, and what appear to be giant decorative balls of wool strung, more or less randomly, across the dining room ceiling and walls.
Mercifully, however, the chef running the large whitewashed kitchen at SD26 (the salumeria station alone is the size of a small bus) is Odette Fada, whose cooking won her a loyal following at the old San Domenico uptown. Which means once you’ve oriented yourself in the cavernous, bizarrely impersonal dining room and puzzled your way through the tortuous new menu (organized according to food products, like “Salumeria,” “Vegetables and Salads,” and “Meat, Poultry, and Game,” instead of the usual progression from appetizers to entrées), you’ll find some very good things to eat. I’m thinking of glistening ribbons of lardo served on wedges of fresh bread (from the excellent salumeria section), and a classic Sicilian caponata folded with pine nuts and segments of melting Japanese eggplant. Panzanella is a rough country dish, but in Fada’s hands it’s transformed into a kind of savory pastry, made with a round of finely mashed bread soaked in the juice of fresh tomatoes, with strips of silvery anchovies on top.
But like other venerable gourmet establishments that have been bravely attempting to reinvent themselves on a much larger, more accessible scale (the new Oceana in midtown, Charlie Palmer’s Aureole), SD26 has a problem with consistency. The cod trio I sampled one evening tasted fine in the familiar whipped form, but didn’t work quite so well when cut into waxy, salted strips of crudo. The cold seafood salad is served country-club style, in a hollowed-out, overrefrigerated tomato, and the lumpy “Chitarra SD26” pasta was covered in a flat-tasting basil tomato sauce that didn’t taste much like basil at all. If you like opulent pasta dishes, however, you won’t be disappointed with the spaghetti tossed with pink chunks of lobster, crinkly, fresh-baked cherry tomatoes, and flakes of Pecorino cheese, or Fada’s decadent and delicious “uovo in raviolo,” which is poured with truffle butter and stuffed with the vividly orange yolk of a single egg.
Consistency is an issue with the ambitious, occasionally overworked entrées too. One evening, my tasters and I enjoyed a generally excellent feast of pan-seared snapper (scattered with porcini), grilled lamb chops set over mint-flavored couscous, and soft, ocher-colored beef cheeks braised for many hours in spiced red wine. A week later, however, the suckling-pig special was tragically rubbery, and the sweetbreads we ordered managed to be overcooked and tepid simultaneously. Until these glitches are ironed out, you can divert yourself with the computerized wine list (1,000 bottles are in the cellar), or pick at the selection of $9 desserts. These include an artsy rendering of bomboloni (dusted with Nutella powder), and a deconstructed version of zabaglione that tastes surprisingly good but does nothing to dispel the nagging sense that Tony May’s brave attempt at finding a new audience is more about style than substance, when it should be precisely the other way around.
A be & Arthur’s, which opened a couple of months ago in the old Lotus space (next to the Apple Store) on 14th Street in the meatpacking district, is another overlarge, overstyled establishment with a highly qualified chef in the kitchen. Franklin Becker made his name slinging high-end bistro food for debonair business titans at Brasserie in the Seagram Building uptown. At this boxy, three-level entertainment center (the basement lounge, SL, is where Lindsay Lohan and Mark Ronson go to party), his clientele includes the usual meatpacking brew of Euro lounge lizards, bridge-and-tunnel voyeurs, flocks of Amazonian swimsuit models, and the BlackBerry-pecking midlevel finance guys who come in droves, every evening, to gawk at them. The bi-level dining room is appointed with smoky mirrored walls, bland linen-covered lampshades, and rows of steel girders painted gray, which make it feel like you’re dining deep inside the vault of a very loud, underdecorated bank.
Food is a notoriously perishable product in Meatpacking Land, but right now you can obtain a very competent rendition of fresh, spicy tuna-tartare tacos at Abe & Arthur’s (with whipped avocado), and a smooth, professionally made chicken-liver terrine, which our swimsuit-model-caliber waitress brought to the table on a butcher board stacked with wedges of toasted country bread. The blue crab in my jumbo crab cakes was surprisingly fresh, too, as was the hunk of Chatham cod, which Becker flavors with hints of sweet soy and ginger. I enjoyed my $26 serving of crackly-skinned free-range chicken much more than the undersize, overpriced $88 Black Angus, which lacked that nice charred bite, possibly because Becker likes to rest his steaks in a bath of butter before serving them. And if the earsplitting decibel levels don’t send you fleeing into the night before dessert rolls around, you might actually enjoy the house bread pudding, which is made with French toast instead of plain bread and soaked in maple syrup spiked with generous amounts of bourbon.
Address: 19 E. 26th St., nr. Madison Ave.; 212-265-5959
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Prices: Pastas, $9 to $27.50; fish, $14.50 to $35; meat, $18 to $37.
Ideal Meal: Salumi, panzanella or “uovo in raviolo,” braised beef cheeks, zabaglione.
Note: Wine geeks can taste multiple wines via a fancy computer-card system in the front lounge.
Scratchpad: Uneven two-star cooking in a zero-star space.
Abe & Arthur’s (See Menu)
Address: 409 W. 14th St., nr. Ninth Ave.;646-289-3930
Hours: Monday through Wednesday 6 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $18; entrées, $26 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Tuna-tartare tacos or blue-crab cakes, roasted chicken, French-toast bread pudding.
Note: The Moscow Mule cocktail here is a worthy competitor to the Russian Tea Room original.
Scratchpad: Two stars for Becker’s cooking, minus one for the usual meatpacking chaos.