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Monday
Dec152008

10 Downing

Note: This is a review under Chef Jason Neroni, who left the restaurant in September 2009. Jonathan Leiva replaced him. The restaurant has since closed. It will be replaced by a French bistro, La Vilette.

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If you want to know when a restaurant will open, just double the estimate. When they plan to open in a month, it’ll take two. When they say six months, it’ll be a year. Even openings less than a week away are seldom a sure thing.

Then there’s 10 Downing, which finally opened in the West Village on November 12, after more delays than almost any restaurant in memory. In the Timesfall preview, on September 2, Florence Fabricant reported that the restaurant would be opening “Next Wednesday.” But that wasn’t the first such promise: 10 Downing had the dubious distinction of appearing in the fall preview two years running.

As early as August 2007, the chef—then projected to be Scott Bryan, formerly of three-star Veritas—sat for an interview with Food & Wine, and described his plans with some specificity. Exasperated by the delays, Bryan left the project. By December, Jason Neroni had replaced him, with Katy Sparks “consulting.” We’ll skip the chronicle of the restaurant’s many postponements. Suffice it to say that dates were announced and retracted many times over the past year, before the place finally opened last month.

We had some healthy skepticism about Neroni. Since winning two stars from Frank Bruni at 71 Clinton—a restaurant I didn’t love—he has bounced around from project to project, including the disastrous Porchetta in Brooklyn. But he is still a bona fide talent, so why on earth does he need a superfluous “consultant” at his elbow, especially the peripatetic and overrated Katy Sparks?

The concept left me wondering whether 10 Downing would be a mindless clone of six dozen other places. A breathless Andrea Strong announced that Neroni would “create a collaborative, market-driven menu that will draw upon the goods at the Union Square, and Sixth Avenue farmer’s markets.” Wow! Who’d have dreamt it?

Well, after all that, 10 Downing has arrived, and my verdict is a cautious endorsement. If Neroni stays put, this could become a very good restaurant. My girlfriend and I both started with the Duck Meatball Cassoulet ($12; left), and it was terrific. The meatballs were tender and full of flavor. The beans were hearty and well seasoned.

This dish wasn’t on the opening menu, so I gather Neroni is adding things regularly, as a purportedly market-driven chef should be. While I was waiting at the bar, Neroni brought out a pile of spoons and a container of sauce, which he asked all the servers to try so that they could describe it to their customers.

Neither of the entrées impressed us as much. Chicken ($23; above left) and Atlantic Cod ($25; above right) were solid, but unelectrifying choices. That chicken, by the way, was originally offered for two, at $43, but as of last Friday it was available as a hearty portion for one.

10 Dowining is priced a tad below other restaurants in its peer group. The highest entrée is $28, the highest appetizer $14 (with many just $9). I found a very respectable red wine for $40. The total bill was just $115 before tax and tip, which is extremely reasonable for food of this quality.

The space is smartly decorated, with a wall of glass doors looking out over Sixth Avenue. When the weather improves, there will be a large outdoor café. The medium-sized dining room is comfortable, but it can get a bit loud. Service was generally up to par, though a bit less attentive after the place filled up. I loved the warm bread rolls.

It’s hard to forecast the trajectory of a new restaurant, but 10 Downing is already respectable, and if Neroni keeps re-inventing and refining his menu, it could turn out to be a lot of fun.

10 Downing (10 Downing Street at Sixth Avenue, West Village)

Food: *½
Service: *½
Ambiance: **
Overall: *½

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