Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Some restaurants are born under a black cloud and can never seem to shake it. Such is the curse of the long-overdue, overhyped new West Village bistro 10 Downing. The place, which went through more chefs before opening than most restaurants do in a lifetime, finally welcomed its first paying customers late last fall—just as the dining-out public began singing the recessionary blues.
Paying no mind to the stark new economic realities, 10 Downing debuted with $28 entrées and an awfully showy, if wildly impressive, collection of modern art on its walls. If only the food were as consistently stunning. Jason Neroni (Porchetta, Cantina), the chef left standing, has devised an ambitious Mediterranean menu with as many hits as misses. It’s not as if the guy can’t cook—his flavors are for the most part clean, clear and delicious—but his compositions often feel incomplete. The biggest problem may in fact be an organizational one.
The menu—along with appetizers and main dishes, there’s a whole section devoted to “dishes for sharing”—is just plain confusing. The best stuff I tried, all under the “appetizer” heading—spicy duck meatballs, brussels sprouts with anchovies and a sweet runny egg—seemed more like communal, tapas-style nibbles than the beginning of an old-fashioned three-course bistro meal. The entrées that followed, while nicely cooked, were simply too spare. A falling-off-the-bone monster glazed lamb shank—carnivore overkill—was about as adorned as a steakhouse chop, with only a few cubes of feta and fried chickpea polenta as garnish. A more satisfying flaky arctic char fillet, with a few shelled mussels and an artichoke base, was also too one-note.
The situation might’ve been remedied easily enough with a few à la carte sides for the table—if only the waitress had thought to suggest it (the same problem cropped up at Sunday brunch, where a mushy, oversize pancake arrived drowning in whipped cream, and little else).
That minimalist approach works a bit better when it’s time for dessert—less was more when it came to simple lemon pudding with buttery pound cake, and creamy goat-cheese cake surprisingly well matched with sweet beet sorbet.
To draw the crowds foretold by all that preopening buzz—the place was barely half full when I dined—I’d rejigger the menu and dial down prices to better reflect the new lean dining landscape. Of course, given all the money already poured into this place, it’s likely the owners can scarcely afford to.
Drink this: The beer selection comes courtesy of Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, so go for the Allagash White ($7) or Brooklyn Local One ($20).
Eat this: Duck meatball cassoulet, brussels sprouts with egg and anchovy, goat-cheese cake
Sit here: The best seats are on the banquettes near the windows. Actually, the place is mostly windows—two walls of them overlook Sixth Avenue.
Conversation piece: The art, curated by West Village gallery owner Tracy Williams, features work by notable artists James Casebere, Richard Dupont and Shamus Clisset. Don’t leave without viewing the playful faux actor headshots—lining the room, Sardi’s-style—picturing, among others, Gary Coleman.