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