October 28, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Excavating Tao Downtown 

Descend into the temple fantasy and share many small plates with uninhibited pals.
Descend into the temple fantasy and share many small plates with uninhibited pals.

          Congenital cynics might dismiss Tao Downtown as pop goods recycled, a sequel, or the exploitation of an aging debutante already deprived of her virginity in Las Vegas. That would underestimate the ambition of the nightlife gurus from Tao on East 58th Street, consistently one of the country’s top moneymaking restaurants.

There a reclining Buddha in the lounge and a bar beyond where you can disappear.

          To hear Tao Group partner Rich Wolf tell it, the 2000 model uptown was just a warm-up. Tao Down, in its 22,000 sq.ft. $17 million temple-museum-playpen below the Maritime Hotel, is a new iteration. Gawk, graze, giggle. It’s fun and delicious – well, mostly.

See the $17 million in the details of the narrow entrance, the soaring block-long dining chamber, the 3D tricks, the chefs' tasting tours overseas, the tabletop.

          I understand that you might prefer to plead old and grumpy and not be caught smiling here. You might write me off anyway because I seem to have a gene that leans toward David Rockwell. (Confession: He was the stranger sitting behind me at a club called Wildcat one hundred years ago, and not much later, he started working to help Citymeals-on-Wheels. I’ve eaten in his theatrical settings ever since. Who can forget the exquisite brilliance of Vong?)

A mix of lobster, tuna, mushroom and mango is piled into these kueh pie ti pastry shells.

          To sum it up without exaggeration, the block-long cellar that took two years from talk-to-launch is barely big enough to show off the Rockwell savvy and dazzle. The dramatic entry with hushed lighting, a punctuation of Asian artifacts, and gorgeous women appliquéd on the walls -- the long march that opens up to the shock of vast expanse like an archeological excavation below.

Here’s a big casserole of tender lobster wonton in shiitake-ginger broth.

          The reclining stone goddess at the top of the lounge, the funny little carved men squatting all in a row, the tattooed ceiling, the tiered stairs and landings, the undulating sushi bar that lets four chat, the Quan Yin goddess guarding all below, with two dozen arms that come alive along with waterfalls and flights of birds. Look up to catch the recurring 3D show if you’re not too distracted by the lobster wontons in shiitake-ginger broth or the shrimp toast rolls with Thai chili.

Lobster, shrimp, crab and crispy squid are tossed in black rice.

          Come for the fantasy – it’s cheaper than Disneyland or a flight to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors -- but stay for dinner. It’s noisy, but not unbearable, romantically shadowed, but you can see your food. (That’s a Rockwell signature.) The table is much too high for the banquette. (A Rockwell lapse.) My chin practically falls into the slightly too sweet Thai pork with oyster sauce, mango sticky rice and a nice kick of chili. But I can still reach across to taste my friend’s forbidden black rice salad.

Sesame eggplant is piled alongside rare salmon with shiso vinaigrette, $29.

          Yes, it’s expensive, if you must have $88 Wagyu ribeye teppanyaki, the $42 crispy snapper in the sand, or the $32 chicken chow mein, and too many dim sum ($13 to $32), small plates ($9 to $19) and $15 cocktails. My nicely tart Pama Sutra with rum and pomegranate liqueur goes with the dim sum as well as the décor.

Moist meat and crackling shellacked skin are the hallmarks of fabulous $75 duck for two.

          For me, the Peking duck for two at $76  -- moist, perfectly-cooked flesh under a mahogany crunch of beautifully shellacked skin -- is worth the splurge, even though the pancakes in the steamer could be more elegant.

A thin pastry crepe hides Shanghai vegetable dumplings with spinach and watercress.

          You can pinch pennies sharing a $10 soup, $16 dragon tail spare ribs, and the $12 spicy eggplant with togarashi yogurt, curry and crisp fried taro root strings. But don’t miss my absolute must, the Shanghai vegetable dumplings with their crisp pastry overhang. And end sweetly with the $14 Taiwanese shaved pineapple-lime ice with mochi balls, yuzu gel and ripe berries, enough for our table of five to share.

The eggplant is fine, but even the skinny dames are gobbling up the crispy taro strings.

          But tight as I can be, I think you should just go for it here. Bring enough friends so you can taste pot stickers and chicken wing lollipops too, maybe even some specialty rolls on the Japanese menu. It’s not Gari, but I like the glazed tuna and wild mushroom roll.

If you’re not a sushi perfectionist, you’re free to enjoy glazed tuna and mushroom roll.

          In fact the only strikeouts were soggy agedashi tofu, the doughy pork bao buns, and  boring artichoke yakitori. A scant portion of miso cod was ho-hum as was Cantonese cauliflower. I love udon noodles but this vegetable toss lacks flavor pizzazz.

The Thai BBQ chicken is fine, but I’m saving my calories for dimsum and Peking duck.

          I wouldn’t waste my time with glazed Thai BBQ chicken, though my friend seems happy enough with the bird. He finds asparagus with crispy brown rice and sesame gravy a revelation. He announces it four times.

Pastry chef Michelle Kogen’s marvelous Taiwanese pineapple shaved ice outshines the classic.

          Tao Downtown is probably not going to become your new favorite fall-in, though you might return to liven a business dinner, or when you have friends from out of town. I don’t know who goes to the original Tao. I haven’t been myself since it opened, except once when a persuasive friend wanted to show me how good Chef Sam Hazen’s Peking duck could be. That was six years ago. Now I'm savoring the smartly burnished version from the eclectic new menu by Chef/Partner Ralph Scamardella and his house team. Surely Tao-hounds will migrate downtown too.

Can you resist stealing a chopstick holder? The next batch will have “Tao Downtown” printed on them for “branding.”

          Direct your driver to watch for the bright red TAO sign on the east side of Ninth Avenue. Be careful as you step out of the car – he can’t pull up to the curb because it’s a bike lane. I barely escaped death twice. I was so caught up snapping at the first speeding biker, I almost got run over by the second. 

92 Ninth Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets. 212 888 2724. There’s an elevator in the Maritime Hotel if you wish. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 pm to 1 am. Thursday through Saturday 5 pm to 2 am.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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