August 16, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Downing But Not Out

10 Downing's kitchen sends out savory scallops alongside butter clams. Photo: Steven Richter

        Summer in the city seems to have emptied a lot of restaurants, especially on steamy weekends.  Mondays can be desolate too.  The surge of retail optimism early this year colored spring openings, but now the gloom-mongers are in full voice. Investors trolling for chefs and chefs tap dancing for investors stand momentarily locked in hardening cement. I’m thinking all this and feeling anxious about the future at 10 Downing Street on a sweltering Thursday night. The sidewalk tables are full of youngish folk who fear neither heat nor Sixth Avenue’s traffic fumes. But inside, customers fill only three or four tables.

Buttermilk-mellowed chicken fried to a savory crisp. Photo: Steven Richter

         I’m basking in the freedom to speak without shouting and enjoying the special fried chicken, crusty and bursting with flavor from its buttermilk bath and a dose of Tabasco and smoked paprika before getting rolled in cornmeal and flour. It’s a nod to the fried chicken of the many “family meals” chef Jonnatan Leiva cooked for staff en route to this kitchen. And it’s a solid contender for affection in a city crazed for fried chicken, though the meager macaroni and cheese underneath is lukewarm and I’d like it crisp on the edges.  Leiva, recruited from San Francisco, where he won three stars for Jack Falstaff and was the Chronicle's Rising Star chef in 2008, is shocked by the summer exodus. “It doesn’t happen in San Francisco,” he says. “I just had to get used to it.  Wednesday seems to be the new Friday and Saturday.”

A bouquet of summer beans gets tossed with frisée aux lardon. Photo: Steven Richter

         He arrived in winter of 2009 after Downing’s founding whisk Jason Neroni announced he was moving West to raise his family. Leiva’s first shock was seeing the limitations of the winter farmer’s market. “Not that I don’t like turnips.” Most of the Neroni’s crew had drifted off. “It’s taken a while to rebuild the kitchen and get a team that knows where I’m going.” 

Papas bravas and an anchovy come with steak tartare. Photo: Steven Richter 

         The concept of American casual bistro, small plates and pickles remain. Papas bravas survive, now on a hand-cut steak tartare with romesco and a lush curl of white anchovy (boquerone). The pickles come alongside a bowl of mixed nuts and kettle corn.  And his new spiced lamb burger with strips of thick bacon, caramelized onions and a choice of cheese has a cult following, he says, even at $25.  It’s a hit at our table too. I love dipping the shoestring fries in its side of cucumber-yogurt sauce.

The chef’s unique lamb burger mix with bacon and blue cheese is a hit. Photo: Steven Richter

         Creamy but creamless chilled tomato soup and a “frisée aux lardons” salad with a poached farm egg and summer beans - romano, haricots verts, yellow and fresh cranberry beans – are my choices over a meager and uninspired $6 taste of chicken liver mousse or the heirloom tomato and burrata salad. It’s not enough to be an heirloom if you ain’t got major tomato tang. 

         Sautéed diver scallops are sweet and salty on a roasted corn jalapeno sauce that is almost a porridge, so good it almost doesn’t matter that the clams alongside are mostly shriveled in their shells. At $27 there have to be better clams, more carefully cooked. Actually, prices strike me as aggressive for this uncertain moment, appetizers from $6 for a small plate to $18 for that frisée, entrees $24 to $32.50, but maybe that’s just the less-employed me keeping an eye on the bank account.

10 Downing’s sidewalk tables are busy this warm Thursday night. Photo: Steven Richter

         I let our companions choose dessert.  It’s got to be a pretty emotional panna cotta to move me and this lemon-buttermilk baby with roasted peaches in balsamic syrup just doesn’t do it.  The butterscotch pot de crème is shy of butterscotch. Dulce de leche and candied walnuts alongside scarcely make up.

Here’s an earlier photo that shows the house’s curated art salon look. Photo: Steven Richter

         The “curated” art on the walls has that vintage salon look The Lion perfected.  Take the time to check it out. And in daylight you’ll find a bright airy triangle wrapped in glass on a hot Village corner that already has the draw of Scuderia next door (quiet tonight too) as well as Da Silvano and Bar Pitti across the street. I don’t feel drawn to return from my upper west side Bat Cave, but 10 Downing remains good for the neighborhood.

10 Downing Street at Sixth Avenue. 212 255 0300.  Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 6 pm to midnight. Thursday, Friday and Saturday 6 pm to 1 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm.


One Small Oven. One Big Crowd.

We try to blend in with the crowd at Olio Pizza on a torrid night. Photo: Steven Richter

         It is not a good night for us at Olio Pizza e Piu, nor is it a stellar night for the newest authentic Neapolitan pizza game in town. I worry for Giulio Adriani, an instructor for Vera Pizza Napoletana, who moved here just three months ago to bring us pizza dogma. He is definitely off his game this Tuesday.  It’s a night of killer humidity, so the two of us seek a blast of arctic air inside the vast, pleasant-looking space at the Greenwich-Sixth Avenue crossroad.  But with a wall of doors thrown open to the sidewalk, it isn’t much cooler inside and I need to get out fast because the din rattles my brain.

Passersby go gaga over this heat-zapped dog behind his master’s table. Photo: Steven Richter

         So we settle at a rickety two top outside, a welcome chance to survey street fashion in the Village and to watch the waiters climbing over a languorous dog parked in the entrance behind his owner’s table.  I wave my arms trying to get water. Maybe the water-bearer doesn’t speak English. He shrugs, unable to pour because we don’t have glasses. “Glasses, bring glasses,” I say. He stares at me blankly.

Master Pizzaiolo Giulio Adriani can’t get the pizzas out fast enough. Photo: Steven Richter

         Ten minutes later a smiling young woman stops to say, “Welcome. Thank you for coming.” “Stop, stop stop,” I cry, as she walks away “Give us those menus you have in your hand and please…send water!”

         “Bring us a Caprese pizza please while we decide what else to have,” I instruct the waiter, choosing a $15 favorite from a roster of 19 pies, $9 to $30, including four with pizza competition award credentials in red letters.

         “Your pizza will be out soon.  It’s a little slow because so many people want pizza,” our waiter apologizes.  Twenty minutes later I suggest he bring our Fiorintina salad while we wait.  He delivers bottles of olive oil and balsamic and a platter with long tongues of grilled zucchini and eggplant and portabellas piled on naked arugula with two tough pads of mozzarella alongside. Ten minutes pass. “Bring meatballs while we wait for the pizza,” I say.  Half a toughie in tomato sauce is half too much for me. Our waiter can scarcely look us in the eye as he sweeps around the pavement delivering pizzas everywhere else.

Our pizza at last, its better-than-most crust paved with rubbery cheese. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s now 45 minutes. My hair and t-shirt are soaked from the heat.  Our pizza arrives.  I want to love it.  It has truly endearing bubbles of quite decent crust but, alas, a too-thick coverlet of rubbery cheese and a scattering of tomato slivers.

         I long to unpeel myself from this seat but I need to taste our shared pasta finale – gnocchi frutta di mare – after all, it’s my job!  The broth is luscious but four large shrimp still in the shell draped on top are daunting, as if not wanting to be contaminated by the rest of the company. 

Shall we peel and chop our own shrimp? And where are the clams? Photo: Steven Richter

        “Was this supposed to have clams?” I ask our waiter.  His face falls. I guess he was hoping we wouldn’t notice.

        “It’s no charge for the gnocchi,” he says. “You have it as a gift from the house.” Nice gesture.  Should Olio ever get it together, it will be good for the reputation of Naples.

3 Greenwich Avenue at Sixth Avenue. 212 243 6546. Sunday through Thursday 8 am till 2 am Sunday. Friday and Saturday till 4 am

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