November 9, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Starting Over: SD26

Host Tony May shows off a fortune in rare ovoli ‘shrooms. Photo: Steven Richter
Host Tony May shows off a fortune in rare ovoli ‘shrooms. Photo: Steven Richter

        "We’re ready now,” said Tony May’s email.  “You can come back.”  But still I waited two weeks. My first two very early meals were disappointing, the vast SD26 space itself still raw, far from finished.  But when I couldn’t book a table except at 5:30 (using another name, of course) for a recent Saturday night, I took that as a good omen.  So here we are, recognized at once, but clearly a surprise to the house. Some consternation. We’re early. Our table isn’t ready. Steven and I settle on stools at the big table looking out at the park across the street, a new installation since our last visit. At the far end a wall of wines and some sort of fancy do-it-yourself wine dispenser is getting a lot of action from a cluster of young people.

Young grape nuts flock to SD26’s Enomatic Wine Dispenser. Photo: Steven Richter

        The crowd is three deep at the long bar and all the small round tables in the lounge are populated. A seemingly unself-conscious solo diner is wiping up a deep bowl with a fistful of bread.  Is he the Michelin Man, I wonder, or a spy from Serious Eats? The vending machine has an illuminated wine menu on top.  An assistant sommelier answers questions: it seems you buy a smart card that adds up your purchases – 1, 2, or 4 ounce pours at varying prices depending on the label – and pay when you leave.

Salumi and cheese emerge from a handsome station opposite the kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        Of course your usual credit card is smart enough to order from the digital menu but we’re about to be seated.  I’m shocked (are we being punished?) as Maria May leads us into a rather boring side room off the main action.  We have no view of the kitchen, the great looking salumeria – also finished since our last visit – where huge hams and cheese are sliced -- or the scene, a mix of aging San Domenico camp followers and their spawn. Yes. The crowd skews young and the table is too high for the banquette. The legendary Massimo Vignelli has never designed a restaurant before. I see his signature here in this 14,000 square foot, trilevel space: dramatic, playful, striking, with an occasional wobble.

Kitchen action and the chef’s table are a stage for the dining room. Photo: Steven Richter

        Before I can complain about the isolation, I realize it is quiet enough to talk, bright enough to see, and here comes May with a platter of something organic and otherworldly. Truffles? No, ovoli, an equally rare fungus remarkable for its bright orange skin.  “My truffle man just sent them along, you must taste,” he says, caressing one and bustles off with his treasure.

         Now the waiter hands over the wireless digital wine menu again. It’s like a peewee notebook. Technophiles love this toy. It organizes the cellar by grape, country, and type, but not by price.  I’d rather just chat with a human. Sommelier Jason Ferris obliges. He knows I like rounded, fruity and cheap. A pleasant $38 Dolcetto arrives and I’m happy.

Start with a gathering of sea creatures, all exquisitely cooked. Photo: Steven Richter

        Once you realize starters or antipasti are scattered throughout the small menu – salumi on its own page, vegetables and salads sharing a page, sea creatures mingling at various prices, you get the message.  Anything goes.  You can start and middle and end anywhere. Most pastas and entrées, even wild mushroom soup, come in small or large size, so compulsive tasters can order small and run wild.

Chef Odette Fada finishes a pasta in its sauce in the open kitchen.  Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m starting on a high borrowing from a new menu addena that offers dishes to pair with truffles at $8 a gram. Marisa May suggests at least five or six grams to provide that sensuous earth scent to the minced raw beef or classic fettucine with butter and parmagiano.  And maybe my whole fried egg on soft robiola cheese-enriched polenta given a blizzard of dirt-like fungus would knock me off my seat, but it’s remarkably lush even in a celibate state. From the regular listing, carefully cooked sea food stuffed into a tomato with pesto and white beans is not merely pretty, but also lemony and good.  And raw porcini salad dressed simply with olive oil, parsley and a few shards of parmagiano is marvelous too.

Mini “ravioli del plin” need a big truffle flurry to fight too intense jus.  Photo: Steven Richter

        In fact the small veal-filled nubbins, “ravioli del plin,” my companion orders proves not the ideal vehicle for the mythic fungus.  The veal jus is too strong, too salty. Or maybe it needs big bucks worth of truffle.  Innocently she asks for one gram.  “Give her two grams,” I instruct the captain with his truffle shaver.  And with a blink of an eye and a slip of the wrist, she has three grams at least.

Baked tomatoes, pecorino and lobster on spaghetti wins our vote. Photo: Steven Richter

        By now at one month old the staff has mastered some style.  The bread server’s Italian accent is so charming, everyone makes her recite the offerings twice.  The kitchen is more confident too.  Both spaghetti baked with cherry tomatoes, pecorino and lobster ($17 or $26) and butternut squash gnocchi with chicken liver and fried sage ($13 or $22.50) are fine. I’m tempted by red wine braised beef cheeks with semolina gnocchi (one size fits all:  $27.50) but settle on halibut cooked in olive oil ($17.50 or $29.50).  It’s picture pretty with chickpeas and clam ragu but not “rarish” as I ordered.

Lamb chops boast exceptional quality and perfect cooking. Photo: Steven Richter

        During long construction delays the Mays stewed waiting to get into their new kitchen. Tony took the chefs, executive Odetta Fada and her chef de cuisine Matteo Bergamini, to Rome to develop the menu and the whole extended family ate in Italy’s top-rated kitchens.  He often mused about bringing back adventurous ideas from Italy’s avant garde.  But aside from snapper-filled ravioli in a broccoli gazzetto, bok choy in wild bass acquapazza and a crudo or two, we could be back on Central Park South.

Picture-perfect halibut confit with clam ragu is too cooked for me. Photo: Steven Richter

        True, Jessica Mogardo, the pastry chef recruited from Todd English’s Da Campo in Miami, a belated arrival, has a few snippets of lawn in her dessert salvo. Zabaglione for one, with marjoram, caramel, roasted pear, muscat gelée and vanilla sticks. What a beauty it is with its strings of sugared vanilla bean and marjoram, so subtle I can’t complain.  Next time I might risk the chocolate gathering: bomboloni, Nutella powder and extra virgin olive oil ganache.

       Tony stops by our table with a confection inside some paper.  “It’s her chocolate rolled in paper,” he explains.  “If it’s good we might print our name on the paper.”

       It tastes a little like a Tootsie Roll. Actually the little sweet plate needs more work. The chocolate truffle is not thrilling. The fatal flaw is that it didn’t come till we asked for it.

Starting over: Tony May and daughter Marisa in the SD26 kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve been writing about Tony May since he introduced America to beef carpaccio in regional Italian Fortnights at the Rainbow Room in 1973. And the Road Food Warrior and I joined his Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani on two of their annual merry prankster jaunts through Italy tracking trends. May is thee Godfather of authentic Italian eating in America. I worried about him when he shuttered San Domenico over a tripling of the lease and announced he’d signed up to launch a 350 seat dining room on 26th Street with an Enomatic pouring system and wireless wine computers.  It cost $7.5 million and he financed it himself, he says.  Enough, I imagine, to retire in Naples, maybe even Tucany or Milan.
       “Tony,” I say, “the tables are too high. We feel like kindergartners.”

       “I know,” he says smiling.  “They’re taking the tables back to make them shorter in the next two weeks.”

       Picking up steam now, SD26 remains a thoughtful work in progress.

19 East 26th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  212 265 5959. Dining room lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner 5:30 pm to 11 pm.  Bar lounge menu  11:30 am to midnight.
Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers