NYC Restaurants



208 E 52nd St
New York, NY, 10022
(212) 308-0830

Cuisine: Mediterranean , Italian

Menu:   View the Menu

Reader Ratings:

Cititour Review:
There’s something I should warn you about before you go to Dona. Something you should know before you sit down, and before they are served. They are rather small, the size of homemade muffins. They are warm and soft and buttery. You can smell the butter rising off of them. They come with a little tulip of sheep’s milk ricotta. They are pastry chef Nancy Olson’s homemade black olive brioche rolls, and I must tell you now: Stay away from them. If you don’t heed my warning, you may, as I did the other night, realize you have consumed enough brioche buns so that your entire rear area has actually been transformed into a giant brioche bun. Buns of steel are preferable, I know, but right now I have buns of brioche. As if my booty were not amply padded enough. Oh dear. But such is the state of affairs at Dona, the Greece-meets-Italy “Southern European” showcase owned Donatella Arpaia (David Burke and Donatella) with an ambitious menu by chef Michael Psilakis, the self taught chef and owner of Onera on the Upper West Side.

The brioche rolls were just the beginning of the sort of excess that would become the hallmark of our evening. Just after we were seated and the rolls came along (vanishing in moments), Julie could not decide what to drink. The list of Martini garnishes included spiced almond stuffed dried apricots, or fat green olives stuffed with either Gorgonzola, Pouligny St. Pierre, or Idiazabel. She was all about the gorgonzola-stuffed olive (which was large enough to share, so I had a bite, it was fabulous), but also wanted a glass of one her favorite sparkling wine, a Franciacorta from the eastern part of Italy’s Lombardy region. Rather than choose, she decided to have both. So as Kathy and I drank our (single) glasses of sparkling Rosé, Julie sat double fisted, a Martini in one hand, a glass of Franciacorta in the other. Hilarious.

Dona, gift in Italian, is a restaurant that encourages such indulgence in dining as much as drinking.

As I looked over the expansive menu, trying to figure out what not to order (it all sounded great), the room filled. Soon, it was wall-to-wall boys (well, I suppose they are technically men) in suits. It seemed everyone was at a table of six or more, for a closing dinner of one sort or another. I just hoped I would not run into any former S&S partners. (They didn’t like me so much. Luckily the coast was clear.) But Dona doesn’t feel stuffy, like a place that would beckon quorums of men closing deals. It is an elegant room dressed in a palate of white and black, a stylishly modern space with leather chairs, contemporary art, and clean lines. But there is a distinct womanly air to the design: a white trestle separates the dining room from the bar, and warm yellow accents in the business cards, in flowers, in the tile work and trim that peek out to add sunshine to the space. It is a space that feels as strong as it is gentle.

Psalakis’ menu also displays that sort of yin-yang, blending strong flavors in unexpected sexy combinations, guiding diners into new territory with every dish on the menu. There are wildly bold combinations on almost every plate, creating a dining experience that is riveting.

Take the uncooked appetizers ($12-$16) to start. A briny lump of sea urchin shows up with burrata (a creamy mozzarella cheese from Puglia), caviar and fava bean puree. Urchin and cheese? Yes, it works. Cheese is actually a supporting character in many of the raw fish dishes. Diced mozzarella tops a tartare of orange marlin (no tuna here) with bits of basil and plenty of sea salt, and crumbled feta is sprinkled over delicate botan shrimp freshened with dill. It’s a remarkable departure from any crudo I have ever tried, but I loved the combination. If the idea of cheese with fish is too freaky for you, cheese-free favorites include the kumamoto oysters with pink grapefruit, salty ginger, and pink shallot vinaigrette and the sea scallop ceviche, sliced thin, and topped with salt cured olives and preserved lemon. But I could have done without the razor clams with fennel green apple and mint; somehow the flavors were muddy and a bit too oily.

Of the cooked appetizers, the signature is rapidly becoming the octopus and peaches ($13), a tentacled beast braised for so long in red wine that it becomes almost meaty in texture, teasing out the sweetness of the peaches, countering the smoky guanciale, and playing up the caramelized onions. It’s a wild slam dunk. Another impressive twist is a sort of updated salad niçoise, this one fashioned from skate, pulled apart and tossed with capers, potatoes, and string beans ($14). Crispy slices of baccala (salt cod) top triangles of crunchy fried ricotta cheese, garnished with a tomato and basil salad ($14). Have a couple of these at the bar with a glass of the Sigalas Santorini, a beautiful white with bright notes made from 100% Asyrtiko, and you are set.

After making our way through our avalanche of first courses, we came upon an issue that I think may plague other diners as well: too much choice. If I have any sort of issue with Dona it’s that the menu is too big. It leaves diners (or at least it left me) hard-pressed to figure out what to have. After a total of 13 cooked and uncooked apps, there are seven pastas, five fish entrees, and four meat courses. Look, it all sounds great, and based on what we had last week, it is also probably very worthwhile eating, but I’d encourage the kitchen to edit.

With four of us at the table, we worked through the menu with little argument. We went with the duck and chestnut mezzaluna ($22), crescent shaped ravioli plumped up with duck confit and caramelized onions and topped with duck jus, chanterelles, and queso de cabra (an aged goat cheese), the gnudi ($22)—whispy meltaways of sheep’s milk ricotta served with sage and crispy speck, and the veal cannelloni ($25)—delicate crepes filled with surprisingly light veal ragu, topped with porcini mushrooms and diced egg. And while I couldn’t squeeze it in, I had my eye on the chitarra with eggplant and lamb Bolognese ($21). It’s safe to say I’ll be back.

The dining room was still buzzing as our pastas were cleared—colleagues well into their fourth courses and bottles of wine to match, and a few couples in deep states of dreaminess. After a bit of a pause (well needed), our last courses arrived. A crispy-skinned pan seared wild sea bass ($27) was terrific, plated with sweet and sour leek confit, fingerling potatoes as fat as bon bons and a glossy punch of 20-year old sherry vinegar. The grilled lamb ($34)—a sliced loin smudged with tomato paste—was served over a killer lamb shoulder ragu tossed with fava beans, farro and baby dandelion greens surrounded by an Avgolemeno foam. It tasted slightly Persian to me—tart and bright and earthy and exotic—like something my Bibi has made. Needless to say, if I am comparing it to Bibi’s food, it was great.

Desserts, by pastry chef Nancy Olson were great, but I was in such a wine and food haze that my recollection is a bit fuzzy. I seem to remember something about a seriously seductive bittersweet chocolate mousse filled with sea salt caramel and a semifreddo with raspberry rose sorbet. I will pay more attention next time, I promise.

Dona is an impressive place on a number of levels. The restaurant is elegant and comfortable, with well-spaced tables and great acoustics; you can relax and enjoy your meal for hours and can hear your dining partners here with no problem. The service is excellent: attentive, warm, and knowledgeable, though you do get the “how to order instructions,” i.e., “If you haven’t dined with us before the chef recommends you have….” It’s a schpeel, but with the girth of that menu, I can appreciate why they do it at Dona. Heather Branch, the beverage director, is smart and savvy and paired our dinner with really interesting wines from all over the world. And Ms. Arpaia works her magic too, welcoming guests and creating an atmosphere of feminine charm. But most of all, Psilakis is a chef who’s doing great food. I like that he is taking some risks here, fusing cultures, styles and ingredients that may never before have seen the same plate. But his choices are not reckless, they are reasoned: each ingredient is there for a reason—to brighten, the lift, to strengthen, to soften.

Taken together, Dona is a place that lives up to its name. From those brioche rolls, right down to the last petite four—a little white chocolate-coated square filled with lemon praline—we were blurry with the gifts of food and wine.
Review By: Andrea Strong

Neighborhood: East 50s

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