Friday, July 5, 2013


San Domenico, ventisei.  Or, as I've seen it since its origin, Super Deborah 26 (my birth date).  So it beckoned as a birthday destination, also conveniently located near my home just north of Madison Square Park.  This is father Tony and daughter Marisa May's second incarnation of San Domenico, the former on Central Park South now shuttered.  The room is big, softened
 somewhat by strategically placed pieces of art and sparkly imbedded spotlights that give the ceiling a celestial festivity.  Without these, I fear the space would look quite cafeteria-esque, with its open kitchen appearing too much like a pick-up counter and the sparse room reminiscent of a set from The Office.

However, the servers are attentive and gracious, which helps to buffer that sensation somewhat.  Described as "efficient and unobtrusive" they are just that.. which can come off as a bit sterile.  In keeping with its predecessor, this San Domenico is wine-focused: their maître d' is a former sommelier and the wine list is so expansive that it is compiled onto an iPad for convenience and facility (and weight).   They also host seasonal wine dinners from their Connoisseur's Cellar to celebrate their collection.  SD26 considers itself high end Italian "proudly... Authentic Italian" actually, but even it's dinner prices are relatively reasonable considering the quality of their ingredients.  A much smarter option, however, is to go at lunch, where they offer a two course prix-fixe at $28.  Because despite the "finest ingredients" that inspire our chef, sometimes the execution is a little lackluster.

For example, a respectable side dish of grilled vegetables on its own is $12, and the zucchini, eggplant,
radicchio, endive and peppers are exceptionally flavorful.  They are perfectly grilled, tender but retaining their integrity, minimally adulterated.  That said, they are just that, no bells nor whistles.  So that sets the stage for SD26: solid, simple Italian cuisine, with white tablecloths and crystal chargers:  elegant enough surroundings to justify its pricepoint.  But while the food is good, there is little thrilling to be had.

We began with a fresh burrata and San Daniele prosciutto, both prime examples of their kind, and generous in quantity.    A Roman Vignarola
teamed a seasonal trio of peas, favas and artichokes in a buttery white wine broth and shaved pecorino: a dish with potential. But the peas and beans had a dull cast on their undersides, as if the chef had skipped shocking them, which would've retained their fresh emerald hue.  Instead, they ebbed to a wan olive, and then hid underneath a shard of cheese.    This didn't so much affect the taste as the visual appeal, but so it goes with the human psyche: it's hard to separate the two.  And the lighting is such here that it really demands that the food be gorgeous.

Luckily, my main course excelled on that front.  A snowy hunk of firm halibut dazzled against it oily tomato broth, basil seeds adding a novel, dotty crunch although nary any basil flavor.  But the sauce incorporated a nice herbal hint itself, and sang of excellent tomatoes, swimming with
 chunks of summer squash.  Scallops were just as attractive, seared to bronze and nuzzled into a thick puree of purple Peruvian potatoes capped with well-cooked sugar snaps.   Crispy bits of
 prosciutto crowned the dish and contributed some salt and substance- as well as nudging it into the surf 'n turf territory (always a winning combination).   That aforementioned grilled vegetable plate helped round things out, since as you can see, vegetables are not the prime component of entrees, added mostly for color and balance- not roughage.

As is typical of fancy Italian, desserts are lovely to behold and consume.  Our honey semifreddo was deceptively chocolatey: I didn't have any way of intuiting that the sweet, golden frozen custard would be cloaked in a 'magic shell' of dark chocolate.  The only mention of chocolate was the gelato, cocoa-rich, which paired jewel-like cherries, caramelized into dark orbs of sweetness.  Had I known its composition, I would have definitely chosen the fresh fruit crostato or the pannacotta with strawberries and balsamic.... something decidedly more summery.  But the flavors were masterful for what it was- be it a surprise what they were.  A flight of miniature friandises arrived as a second sweet (or a third through seventh,
depending on your accounting tactic).  Each little delicacy was little hard to divide, so make a mess of them in sharing or divvy them up according to taste.  (The cream filled spice cake napped in raspberry was my favorite).

For a business lunch.... a business anything, SD26 might be the perfect-est of perfect venues.  The noise level is low and the atmosphere serious.  While it was my birthday, a rousing round of the birthday song might've been surprising at best, disruptive at worst.   And the prices at dinner time warrant some sort of excuse, so if the vibe here isn't exactly festive, a business expense account occasion might be in order.  Or, like we did, the lunch prix-fixe is a true bargain.  Play grown-up and treat yourself.... and add dessert for $12.  Experiencing it from this vantage point makes SD26 a Slam Dunk.

19 East 26th Street, 
Telephone 212 265 5959

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