An overcast afternoon in late March. A quick impromptu lunch with a co-worker at a restaurant a few blocks up the street. A restaurant that will be changing hands in a few days, but that has no aroma of decline about it. True, the spacious, high-ceilinged dining room is only a quarter full, and the open kitchen seems to be operating with a skeleton staff — but the service is as crisp as ever, and the food is, as it always has been here, perfectly cooked and full of flavor.
This is SD26, veteran restaurateur Tony May's Madison Park reimagining of his longtime classic San Domenico (uptown, where Marea is now) — a restaurant that perhaps suffered from its just-out-of-the-action locale and its curiously unwelcoming extended entryway, but where the modern-accented traditional Italian fare, first prepared under the estimable Odette Fada and more recently at the hands of the talented Matteo Bergamini, has always been first-rate. And a restaurant that May, and his daughter and partner, Marisa, are moving on from this weekend.
The Mays have sold SD26 — which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last April — to John Doherty, longtime executive chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and more recently chief operational consultant for Brady Risk Management's Restaurant Group, who will take possession of the premises effective Monday, March 30. He plans to run the place with chef Bergamini in place — and the same menu — through July, when he will close it briefly for renovation before reopening it as a (need we even say) farm-to-table American restaurant.
Meanwhile, lunch was pretty near perfect: a plate of pale, firm menaica (net-caught) anchovies with fingers of crisp toast spread with lardo; Piedmontese-style ravioli del plin, filled with ground veal and tossed with butter and sage leaves; the celebrated San Domenico "uovo" — an oversize raviolo concealing a soft egg yolk and moistened with white truffle butter; a bowl of rigatoni alla genovese, a classic pasta with a sauce of long-cooked onions, that's actually from the Campania region despite its name; pieces of long-braised, intensely flavored beef cheek with polenta taragna, a variation from Lombardy that mixes buckwheat flour with the cornmeal; and an impeccable dish of roasted baby goat with tiny, crisp rosemary potatoes and shards of lightly caramelized little artichokes.
It was the kind of meal you'd want to remember a disappearing restaurant by. The slightly good news is that the restaurant won't be disappearing quite yet. Bergamini is staying on at least until July, cooking the same food, with presumably the same good ingredients and calm skill. He might even stay on when the place goes American, he says. "I used to cook French," he notes (at no less a place than Daniel), "then I came home to Italian, so maybe I'll try American next." If he does, I'm sure he'll nail it.