San Domenico, which closed last year, was a venerable dinosaur, the last of its opulent breed. SD26, its downtown successor, is not a resurrection, but a reincarnation. Tony May, the dapper host who has been a New York fixture since he worked the door at the Rainbow Room in the late 1960s, has been grooming his daughter, Marisa, to take over the business. Although she could often be found greeting patrons at San Domenico, it was still Daddy’s restaurant. SD26, however, bears her youthful imprint.
Located in the new dining mecca that is Madison Square Park, SD26 is enormous, modern and frenetic—the opposite of its stuffy forerunner. An avant-garde sensibility informs the food and the space. Father and daughter have bet big on the project, investing in cutting-edge design and technology, and unveiling a menu that abandons the traditional three-course approach.
The venue features modern, sleek interiors from Massimo Vignelli (his work appears in the permanent collection at MoMA) with punches of color from textile sculptures by Sheila Hicks. It’s been divided into distinct spaces: a self-service wine bar (with an Enomatic wine dispenser), a vast lounge (the wine list here, and in the dining room, is available only in computer tablet form). While the bar is already a rowdy after-work scene, the chaos in the dining room is more controlled.
This is the domain of Marisa and Tony, a high-ceilinged theater-in-the-round with an open kitchen, a salumi station and balconies overhead for private affairs. Hicks’ “Sumo Ball” sculptures dangle like cat yarn above a bewhiskered salumi man proudly working the Berkel, slicing off wisps of mortadella, guanciale and lardo like Roberto Benigni playing a part. Between his theatrics, the Mays and the chef, few diners escape a personal touch.
Chef Odette Fada, who had been at San Domenico since 1996, has adapted her cooking considerably for the new space. The menu is split not into courses but food groups, with most dishes available in small and large portions. By abandoning the classic strictures of an Italian meal, she permits diners to eat as they please.
Fada’s wide-ranging menu whips from highbrow to low. During white-truffle season, the dining room is fragrant with the locker room funk of exorbitant fungi, shaved to order. But diners will find plenty more modest dishes. Lush pumpkin gnocchi in a chicken-liver-and-fried-sage rag are listed beside a butter-drenched raviolo, a San Domenico signature dish—and still one of New York’s finest pastas—oozing yolk.
Some new creations find an inspired middle ground. A baccal trio presents lowly salt cod splashed onto a porcelain canvas, a creamy whipped fish cannolo in one corner, silky sashimi-style slices in another, and a hearty cube with tomatoes and capers in between. A cerebral dish of mesquite lobster with a muddy streak of porcini puree gives way to a rustic plate featuring the flavors of linguine with clams, distilled into a delicious vongole broth, served under olive-oil--poached halibut. Slices of pink veal in pan drippings come with crispy sweetbreads as snackable as offal McNuggets.
Though the dessert menu is small and not terribly scintillating—a decent-enough warm chocolate doughnut and pistachio cake are among the four options (plus sorbetto and gelato)—the cheese counter is crammed with plenty of reasons to finish the meal on a savory note.
On a recent evening, Tony May nibbled cheese in the kitchen—at the informal chef’s table. He smiled while his daughter, Marisa, was still out on the floor, stopping, it seemed, at every occupied table. Hospitality, clearly, still runs in the family.
Drink this: The ambitious wine program offers a reasonable way to sample a range of styles and price points, with the Enomatic dispensing one-ounce tastes for as little as $3 apiece.
Eat this: Pumpkin gnocchi with chicken livers, raviolo with egg, halibut with clams, veal with sweetbreads
Sit here: The front lounge, quiet midday, is a sedate spot for a quick lunch. Come nightfall, retire to a corner booth or kitchen-side communal table in the dining room.
Conversation piece: To lure in a lunch crowd, the Mays devised the “quadrifoglio”—a sort of Italian bento box, featuring four mini dishes in a compartmented tray. This “nutritionally balanced” spread is designed to leave you perky for a return to your cubicle.
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