Entries in San Domenico/SD26 (6)



Note: Owner Tony May sold SD26 in March 2015. The new owners expect to remodel the space, and re-open it under a new name. In three visits to SD26 and its predecessor, San Domenico, I never had a wholly satisfactory meal. In this, my final review, I gave it zero stars. For an appreciation from someone whom I respect, check out The Pink Pig’s closing retrospective.


Remember SD26? Yeah, we’d forgotten it too.

I won’t rehash the whole background (see my 2009 review). In brief: faced with a $600,000 rent increase on Central Park South (in the space that’s now Marea), restaurateurs Tony and Marisa May (father and daughter) moved their downtown, to 26th Street at Madison Park.

What had been the somewhat stodgy, old-school, and not-very-good San Domenico, became the trying-to-be-hip, and still-not-great, SD26. Sam Sifton gave it one star in The Times. Some liked it better, but I don’t recall any outright raves. The chef left. Eater.com put it on deathwatch.

Three years after the move, and two years post-deathwatch, SD26 is hanging on, perhaps even thriving. It’s a Saturday evening, and the bar is thumping: a really unplesant place, where you struggle to get a bartender’s attention, and frankly you wouldn’t want a drink there anyway. The dining room is far more appealing, and well on the way to a nearly-full house, with a crowd of all ages. If the owners’ plan was to broaden the customer base, they’ve succeeded.

I called Massimo Vignelli’s interior design “stunning” last time I was here. I retract that. On a second look, it strikes me as a dining room designed by committee, one that cannot decide exactly whom it is trying to please. Some tables have tablecloths; others don’t. Some have chairs with backs; others don’t. Many of the design elements clash. It’s not a terrible room, but if I’d spent $7 million on it (as the Mays did), I wouldn’t be happy.

We ordered the five-course tasting menu at $85 per person.


The bread service is a highlight at this restaurant, with four kinds offered; we had the focaccia (above right).


The food came rather quickly, delivered by servers who were in such a hurry that they twice forgot to describe the dishes they’d just dropped off. I believe the first appetizer (above left) was a Sweet and Sour Mackerel, which we rather liked. Fettucine with lamb ragu (above right) had an appealing spicy kick.


Sea bass (above left) was poached, and served in a soup with zucchini, cous cous, tomato, and spicy broth.

A wheel-shaped serving of rabbit (above right) was a substantial failure, both dry and flavorless, with root vegetables that we could barely taste, and not much helped by an asparagus purée. It was a disappointing end to a meal that was, until that point, going well.


Dessert was just fine, a tartina (above left) with orange sauce and chocolate ice cream, followed by petits fours (above right).

Prices here are basically in line with all of the city’s top-tier Italian spots, except for the four-star Del Posto, which is in a league of its own. Otherwise, for similar amounts of food, you’ll pay about the same at Marea, Ai Fiori, Babbo, Lincoln, Felidia, or Ciano, within a few dollars.

But I’ve never visited SD26 or its predecessor, San Domenico, without experiencing at least one severe fumble—in this instance, the terrible rabbit dish served near the end of our tasting menu. All restaurants make mistakes, but there’s a pattern here. SD26 is capable of turning out great food, but you cannot count on it.

For its price point, the service is acceptable but not particularly good. We spotted Marisa May, but not Tony. She visited a number of tables, but apparently only those where she knew the diners. (She lingered quite a while at those tables.)

The wine list is a bright spot, running to hundreds of bottles. The iPad wine list functions better than the no-name electronic gizmo they had last time I visited, and the sommelier provided better service than any of the various captains and runners who rushed by our table. You could spend thousands, but the 2009 Valpolicella Superiori to which she steered us, at just $60, was excellent at the price.

I’ve written before that upscale Italian is the most over-represented genre in the city, having supplanted what upscale French used to be. If there were a French restaurant like SD26, I’d fret about its inconsistency, but I’d still consider it essential. There is no need to do that for Italian cuisine. There’s at least a half-dozen other places in town with nicer dining rooms and more consistent food, at about the same price.

It’s a pity that Tony and Marisa May can’t get their act together.

SD26 (19 E. 26th Street at Madison Square Park)

Food: Modern Italian cuisine that’s excellent, except when it isn’t
Wine: The highlight, a list hundreds of bottles deep
Service: Too sloppy, considering the price
Ambiance: A high-gloss modern over-thought room, designed by committee

Rating: Not Recommended
Why? So many others in its price range are more reliable


Review Recap: SD26

Today, Sam Sifton drops the expected one-spot on San Domenico:

They really are trying down there at SD26, the old lion Tony May and his indefatigable daughter Marisa, the two of them working the dining room of their fancy new restaurant as if all that happened to their old one, San Domenico, was a face-lift. . . .

But what’s happened here is much more than simply a face-lift. The sedate and elegant San Domenico, which opened in 1988, has been kicked to the curb. SD26 is the restaurant equivalent of a second wife: younger, considerably more nervous, dressed in a way that might raise eyebrows in the social circles the original restaurant was opened to serve. . . .

Then there’s the long walk back through the bar to the street, past slightly stunned old regulars from San Domenico and gastro-tourists wondering what all the fuss was about. Emerging onto 26th Street, the overwhelming feeling a diner is left with is one of exhaustion, the sense that at SD26 we are a long, long way from the kind of restaurant Mr. May has stood for in New York City. It’s a restaurant to make anyone feel old.

You have to feel bad for Tony and Marisa May. They invested $7 million in this place—reportedly their own money—in the sincere view that this was what today’s diners wanted. But in chasing the latest fashions, they weren’t true to themselves. This isn’t the restaurant that the old San Domenico regulars wanted. And it isn’t the restaurants that the younger, edgier clientele wanted.

As Steve Cuozzo points out in today’s Post, recent upscale hits like Corton and Marea, and the dressing up of Eleven Madison Park, have proven that sophisticated diners will flock to places that present serious food in an adult setting. That’s not the only path to success, but it’s the only path that Tony May had ever known.

There are ways of subtly updating the original concept without entirely abandoning it. “Renovation of the original mission may have been a smarter course,” says Sifton.

Eater predicted two stars, and loses a dollar on our hypothetical bets. We win $4 at 4–1 odds.

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $5.00   $2.00
Gain/Loss –$1.00   +$4.00
Total $4.00   $6.00
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 3–2

Life-to-date, New York Journal is 73–29 (72%).


Review Preview: SD26

Tomorrow, Sift Happens at SD26, the relocated re-do of the former San Domenico. The Eater Oddsmakers have set the action as follows: One Star: 4-1; Two Stars: 3-1; Sift Happens: 20-1.

As Eater notes, this is Sifton’s fourth review of a re-located or cloned restaurant. Aureole, Oceana, and A Voce Columbus were all rated one star lower than they had been before. That bodes ill for SD26, which had two stars in its old location. In general, Sifton has been a tough grader, except for the odd deuce given to DBGB in his inaugural review.

This is Sifton’s third Italian restaurant, after Marea (three stars) and A Voce Columbus. All three have been on the rounds of the city’s major critics, and a hierarchy is clear, with SD26 conspicuously at the bottom of it. A weak deuce is probably the best it can hope for.

Given Sifton’s biases thus far, we think the safe bet is one star.



In New York City, what happens when your landlord demands a $600,000 rent increase? If you’re father-and-daughter restaurateurs Tony and Marisa May, you spend $7 million on a super-sized, glitzy replacement thirty-three blocks south. That would be new and hip SD26, just steps away from Madison Park, replacing dull and dowdy San Domenico, on Central Park South.

The old place carried two stars in the Times, but we gave it zero two years ago, after a $300 dinner where almost everything went wrong. We’re sure that San Domenico was capable of serving better meals, but clearly the restaurant was no longer part of the culinary conversation, and hadn’t been for a long time.

Tony May probably wouldn’t admit that his restaurant had become irrelevant, but the name change is significant. Bouley, Aureole, and Oceana all moved within the last year, while keeping their old names. “San Domenico” no longer had the same cachet. Perhaps it had become a liability. SD26 keeps the initials, but in the new neighborhood it’s a tabula rasa.

If the Mays wanted contrast, they’ve achieved it. Massimo Vignelli’s design is stunning. Although the space is more than double the size of San Domenico, it is divided into several smaller sections: a wine bar, a casual café, a large dining room with smaller alcoves, and a soaring balcony with intimate tables overlooking the action.

The menu, still under chef Odette Fada, received a long-overdue facelift. Prices are lower, and most items (even mains) are available in half portions. There is no longer a chintzy $2.50 sharing charge. Tony May told the Times that the average check size will be $20 less than at San Domenico. The wine list, too, has plenty of bottles below $50; uptown, I struggled to find anything below $75.

The Mays have embraced technology, perhaps to a fault. The wine bar has a high-gloss wine dispenser, which accepts a “smart card” and dispenses pours one, two, or four ounces at a time. A sommelier told me that it’s the latest thing in Italy, but I am not sure that New Yorkers will be fond of it.

The wine list comes on a wireless electronic tablet that resembles a small notebook computer. Tony May told the Times, “People don’t know what to do anymore with those big leatherbound books. So an electronic wine list on a computer you hold in your hand will tell you as much about the wine as you want to know. It’s intuitive. The idea is to make it so simple that even a computer illiterate can operate it.”

I quickly figured out the user interface, but found it frustrating. On a traditional wine list, I can flip through the pages quickly, getting an instant sense of its breadth and depth. A small screen that shows only a few bottles at a time is disorienting. You have no idea what you’re not seeing. It’s probably a lot, given an inventory of 1,000 bottles. Response time isn’t bad, but turning a page is a lot faster.

At least no one can accuse the Mays of resting on their laurels. Both were in the house on Saturday evening, and it appeared they were stopping at every table to say hello. The crowd was a mix of former regulars who followed the restaurant downtown, and the younger generation the Mays covet.

Even Tony May himself is now business casual. At an adjoining table, we heard one of his long-time customers say, “I’ve never seen you before without a tie.” The lovely Marisa May got a makeover too, though unlike San Domenico, she did not need one. Formerly a blonde, she became a brunette.

The menu offers a long selection of cured meats and salumi, ranging from $7.50 (most) to $19 apiece. We tried the Pancetta (cured pork belly with garlic, spices, and freshly ground pepper), Sopressata (spicy salami with pepper and garlic) and Lard (pork fat cured with herbs, salt, and pepper).

At least, that’s what we thought we had. When the bill arrived, all three had different prices, even though they were listed at $7.50 apiece on the menu. After a conference, the bill was adjusted, though I am still not sure whether we were served the right items—many of them are similar—but the top-right photo is definitely the lard.

Anyhow, it’s an impressive selection, and well worth sampling, but sliced meats shouldn’t have taken 20 minutes to come out.

Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragu ($25; above left) was a lovely dish—carried over from the old place, if I recall correctly. Boar is a lean meat, and it needed more seasoning to bring out the flavor. The long, loopy noodles were a bit unwieldy, and we thought the kitchen should divide the portion for us, instead of leaving that task to us.

According to the website, the menu at SD26 has been designed to consider “today’s nutritional values.” Perhaps that is the reason why both entrées felt a bit like spa food. Red Snapper ($29.50; above right) was simply prepared, without any sauce. Smoked Lobster ($35; below left) with porcini mushrooms and orange segment was equally simple. Though I can’t find fault with the cooking, we felt that at these prices there ought to be more excitement on the plate.

Deconstructed Tiramisu ($9; above right) was certainly not an improvement on the more familiar version.

We were seated at a quiet corner table that Marisa May told us was her favorite spot in the restaurant, in a bright red alcove (photo above). The bustling main dining room could get noisy when it is full. In our cosy little alcove, we had no such problems. Service, as noted, is not yet as smooth as it ought to be, though none of the little glitches detracted from our evening.

The decision to upend the old San Domenico—both physically and philosophically—cannot have come easily. The Mays abandoned everything they had known, for an expensive remake that their old clients might not follow, and that new ones might not embrace. Once they decided that the old place could not be replicated, there were no half-measures or compromises. I have to admire them for that.

SD26 is not, as yet, wholly successful. However, there is much to admire. With so much riding on the outcome, I suspect that there are good times to come.

SD26 (19 E. 26th Street at Madison Square Park)

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


Exit San Domenico, Enter SD26


Note: Click here for a review of SD26.

We finally know the fate of San Domenico, the old-school Italian mainstay on Central Park West. We’ve known for months that the May family had lost their lease—more accurately, that they were faced with an increase they considered prohibitive—but not what would happen next.

Today, as San Domenico closes for good, owner Tony May announced that the restaurant will move to 19 E. 26th Street at Madison Square Park, and be re-branded SD26.

We have to wonder about the timing: if May had announced this on Monday, he could have had it in the Times, which instead just noted the closing without any details about the return.

san_domenico_logo.gifWe want to be bullish on this place, but we can’t. Leaving aside our awful meal there last year, the new concept sounds like May took an inventory of all the fashionable restaurant memes, and just ticked off the boxes: a 350-seat dining room (more than doubling the current space); a 75-seat lounge; a market that sells the same products used in the restaurant; a “less-structured menu”; and don’t forget, “product-driven.”

None of these things are bad per se, but when you see all of them in one restaurant, you get the sense that the restaurant is just following a bunch of trends. By the time it opens, something else will be fashionable, and SD26 will already seem old.

Don’t get us started on the décor, which looks like a Meatpacking-district reject.

The owners hope for an April 2009 opening, which means the over-under is somewhere around next September.


San Domenico

Note: San Domenico closed. Click here for a review of SD26, its downtown replacement.

san_domenico_logo.gifI’ve always been a little hesitant about visiting San Domenico. It advertises more than most restaurants. You can hardly see anything at Lincoln Center without running across the distinctive San Domenico logo in your program. Now, I’ve nothing against advertising, but I figured a place that needs to sell itself so aggressively must not have enough adoring regulars. And that’s a bad sign.

On OpenTable, you can book San Domenico any day of the week, at almost any time you want—especially after 8:00 p.m., when the pre-theater crowd has departed. Another bad sign.

But San Domenico gets respect in the local press (New York rates it a critic’s pick), and many a fine Italian chef has passed through its kitchen. So I figured it was finally time to give it a try.

San Domenico has been offering luxe Italian cuisine on Central Park South for almost twenty years. It earned an adoring three stars from Bryan Miller just six weeks after it opened in 1988, with a celebrity chef that had earned two Michelin stars in Italy. Two years later, that chef was gone, and Miller demoted it to two stars in 1991. Ruth Reichl, always generous with her ratings, bumped it back up to three stars in 1993.

Owner Tony May (center), daughter Marisa May (left),
and Chef Odette Fada (right)

Since 1996, Odette Fada has been in the kitchen. William Grimes demoted San Domenico back down to two stars in 2003, finding that Fada “continues to perform marvels,” but that “the dining room is working from a different script,” noting a tourist atmosphere, “aggressive salesmanship,” and servers who “begin calculating their tip almost as soon as they approach the table.”

Grimes also noted that sometimes “the B team was at work” in the kitchen, and we seem to have chosen such an evening to dine at San Domenico. But maybe something more fundamental is wrong here, because no restaurant charging as much as San Domenico should be as clueless as we found it.

We began with drinks at the bar, served up by an old-school Italian bartender who took a while to notice we were there. When our table was ready, the service team insisted that my girlfriend’s unfinished drink would follow, but it took more than five minutes to arrive.

On the way to our table, the host was suddenly stopped by a more senior colleague, who berated him in Italian—for what sin I couldn’t perceive. We were offered fresh cut vegetables and olive oil immediately, but the bread it was meant to go with (excellent, I should note) didn’t arrive till quite a while later.

The waiters who served us were Indian, and they had a huckstering quality about them that belonged on Restaurant Row in the theater district. Our main server kept bumping into things. Others would come along and ask the same question (more bread? tap or bottled water?) we’d already answered. Did we want wine by the bottle or by the glass? It’s a crucial question, as there are separate menus for each option. I asked for wine by the bottle, and they brought both menus anyway. Bargains on the massive wine list are few, but I did find a great nebbiolo for $75, though with no help offered from the staff.

The dinner menu comes, and it’s a confusing jumble, with a lot of dishes to consider, and two loose inserts with additional choices, some of which are duplicated. One of those inserts is a white truffle menu. The server brings two truffles by our table, so we can see what they look like. If you go that route, you choose your food at the usual (very high) prices, and truffles are “$9 per gram” on top of that, with five grams recommended.

Who among us knows what a gram of truffles looks like? In 1993, when truffles were only $5/gram, Florence Fabricant reported that they actually bring the scale to your table and weigh the truffle before and after. It sounds like a procedure more appropriate at a gas station.

The pasta menu warns that dishes may be split, at an extra charge of $2.50. It seems almost churlish, when most of the pastas are around $25.

sandomenico01a.jpg sandomenico01b.jpg
Candlestick pasta in spicy sausage sauce (left); Suckling pig (right)

To start, I had the nightly pasta special, described as “artisanal candlestick shaped pasta with a reduced spicy sausage sauce and green peppers” ($23.50). I was struck by the laziness of the plating, which would be unappetizing even at a diner. The pasta was undercooked and tough. The spicy sausage sauce packed some nice heat, but I didn’t see any green peppers. And for the life of me, I couldn’t perceive a “candlestick” shape; it just looked like large penne.

My girlfriend was even more disgusted with a similar-looking pasta, likewise undercooked, that was supposed to include lobster, at a price of almost $30. There were just two dinky pieces of lobster in there, which hadn’t been detached from their shells.

We both ordered the suckling pig, an entrée that’s tough to screw up, but was somewhat dull in light of a price point north of $35, and again unimaginatively plated. (To be fair, I had already eaten a bit of it before I remembered to snap the photo above.)

After all that, we weren’t going to take any chances on desserts, which at around $14 apiece struck us as exorbitant, even by this restaurant’s standards. After our meal, the server dropped off a plate of petits-fours, which were probably the best thing we had.

The room seems a bit dated, but I suppose it could be charming if only the food and the service lived up to it. San Domenico is surely capable of doing better than this. Then again, maybe not. We certainly don’t plan on trying it again anytime soon. At $300 (including tax and tip), we have better ways of spending our money.

San Domenico (240 Central Park South between Seventh Avenue & Broadway, West Midtown)

Food: unsatisfactory
Service: classless
Ambiance: the perfect setting for a good meal that never arrives
Overall: disappointing