A few months ago I was asked by a food website, I think it was Foodbuzz.com, to answer a few questions. One of the questions was to provide a quote that would reflect how I feel about food. I thought a lot about it, and I had a few ideas. I liked the one by Virginia Woolf, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” That was a good one. Then I thought of Brillat Savarin’s timeless words: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” That would work, too, but then I really had one on my mind that I felt more accurately reflected my true life-long philosophy on food. And so I emailed the following answer: “Never eat more than you can lift”- Miss Piggy. What can I say, for better or worse, the epitome of my attitude toward food was memorialized by a Muppet.
So I was tickled to open the menu at 10 Downing, the buzzing American bistro that opened a few months ago after a world of heartbreaking delays, and find that very quote printed across the center of the menu, dividing appetizers like braised beets with ruby red grapefruit and Bayley Hazen blue cheese ($11) from entrees like duck breast with pickled cherries, Tokyo turnips and shallot marmalade ($27). I knew I was in a place that spoke my language.
10 Downing comes to us from a team of three old industry pals—Vincent Seufert (5 Ninth, Rhone), Stephane Dorian (Waterloo and Le Zoo) and Joel Michel (5 Ninth)—who know their way around a hot concept or two. With 10 Downing their aim was to create a stylish and lively neighborhood spot showcasing local ingredients in the same vein as the fabled West Coast favorite, Zuni Café. Along with Meyer Davis, the partners designed the hay-colored space with walls of tall glass French doors (that will open up to a wide sidewalk café as the weather turns warmer), soft glove leather banquettes, and glossy hard wood floors.
At the bar, a smooth slab of grey veined marble, you’ll find a reasonably priced selection of wines (try the Bonny Doone Syrah for $40), and an artisan beers selected by Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery like Smuttynose, Victory Pils, and Allagash White. Those with more of an interest in art than food will relish the chance to take in the works hanging on the walls: a rotating collection, which is curated by Joel’s friend Tracy Williams (of the Tracy Williams Gallery).
While Zuni Café was the inspiration, chef Judy Rogers is not in the kitchen. But there’s a muse-like relation working the stoves—Jason Neroni (Tasting Room, 71 Clinton) who developed the menu with Katy Sparks. Together they’ve drawn on a flurry of Mediterranean flavors to create something terrific—the food at 10 Downing is approachable, invigoratingly seasoned, and at many points, fantastic.
On my first visit a few months back, I enlisted about a half dozen friends and we ate our way happily through most of the menu. The aforementioned beet salad with blue cheese, a relative snoozer in theory, was smashing thanks to the beautifully roasted beets, the quality of the cheese (ripe and pungent) and the addition of juicy tart supremes of grapefruit that woke that salad up and made it sing. A first course “salad” of marinated roasted brussels sprouts was topped with a lovely soft poached egg that ran its bleeding yellow heart over the sprouts, picking up hints of the anchovy vinaigrette, thin shavings of nutty Parmesan, and warm toasty bread crumbs (nice texture) along the way. It’s the greatest Brussels sprout preparation in the city at the moment. Please go have it if you haven’t already.
The entrée hit of the night was the roast chicken for two ($23/$43), a peasant dish made for a king that tasted like the chickens I imagine grandmothers in the south of France make every Sunday night: salty, lemony, crackling herbed skin capping juicy, moist meat. To accompany the bird, a salad of warm greens with chunks of grilled bread (they do well to soak up the juices), adorned with currants, almonds and preserved lemon. While the bird is offered for one or two, the portion for one is truly big enough to share if you’re not all that hungry.
Neroni is also showing off an impressive talent with pastas. A remarkably delicate squid ink agnolotti ($14/27) is set up with Peekytoe crab, piquillo peppers and lemon butter, bringing together some rare bedfellows who clearly should have been shacking up together a long time ago. And as seems de rigeur these days, he’s making his own charcuterie, serving a great starter platter ($25) to share with friends that includes mortadella, pork belly rillette, sopressata, chicken liver mousse and chorizo with pickled vegetables and grilled bread.
He’s also having fun with specials, which often can almost outnumber the items on the printed menu. On a return visit last week with Craig, we had a crock of crisped flash-fried head on shrimp, quite Spanish in style, served with wedges of lemon ($12), an ideal finger food for a glass of crisp white wine (maybe an Albarino?) at the bar. A jamon Serrano and duck egg “sandwich” ($10) was brilliant: wide smoky slices of jamon Serrano serve as an envelope for a pan-fried duck egg and then gets topped off with bracing, fat-cutting tapenade of capers, olives, and pickled onions. It’s a tour de force of flavor.
Craig and I also gobbled up the duck meatball cassoulet ($12), which on my first visit was an entrée, but has since been trimmed down to a neat appetizer, served in a cute crock-pot that houses not only the fork-tender duck meatballs (I’d eat these daily) but a sherry-spiked stew of flageolets beans. (Save a bit of your soft rosemary roll for dunking.) On a cold winter night, this dish is essential eating, but so are the braised beef cheeks served like an Austrian dinner with braised cabbage and wonderful toasted mustard spaetzle that was so shamelessly mustardy that I might have piled some on a pastrami sandwich thereby eliminating the need for condiments.
The crowd at 10 Downing—a mix of artsy folks (lots of wide black framed glasses, skinny jeans, air kissing, and the like), neighborhood couples and friends, and seems to be as happy to be there as I was. Their joy can mean the noise level gets loud, so if you’re looking for cozy conversation, sit close or eat early.
But even with the high noise level, the room is very comfortable with great cushy banquettes, and a fun atmosphere, so it’s very easy to linger on and on. And as you linger be sure to add dessert ($8) to your evening, specifically the Meyer lemon pound cake with lemon curd (as my friend Susie said, TDF—To Die For), and if you’re a peanut butter fiend (as I am) have the peanut butter and jelly—creamy peanut butter gelato with homemade preserves that can be spooned over slices of toasty buttery challah. I could not have been happier. In fact, let me be clear. From start to finish, at every visit to 10 Downing, Miss Piggy would have been proud. Maybe even Virginia Woolf, too.