Since coming to this city, I have learned to trust the wisdom of crowds. Where in most of the country, the only lines you’ll see are for the Olive Garden — which happens here too, but that’s another column — we get lines when something special is going on. It was true at Studio 54; it was true at the Soup Nazi; and it’s true at 10 Downing, where, five months out, the place is still throbbing and the dining room din still pervades the street. And that’s high praise for a Continental restaurant near Soho that even lacks a liquor license (though it does have terrific by-the-glass wine program and a sufficient craft brew selection).
The restaurant’s triangular shape, with glass walls jutting onto a non-grid corner, creating some of the city’s worst acoustics, explains the terrible noise. For that I was glad. The conversations around me were like those at an L.A. party, but instead of talking about the pretty young women who light up the screen, everyone was praising the ugly, fat old men who created our current state of affairs. Though I couldn’t ignore the surrounding tables, I couldn’t hear my dining companion, so I focused on the walls, which were covered with a fine array of prints, paintings and photos on loan from select galleries and better than you’d find walking into almosty any individual gallery in Chelsea or Soho. My attention returned to the table to enjoy a charcuterie platter ($25), enough for four, with fine renditions of rillette, duck prosciutto and chicken liver mousse; best were smoky cubes of mortadella and spicy morcilla, a blood sausage best described as chorizo pudding.
Next out was a squid ink agnolotti ($14 appetizer, $27 entrée), an informal ravioli with slippery strands of peekytoe crab and piquillo pepper in lemon butter. Amazing without biting into the pepper, disappointingly sweet and one-note with it. Not so with the marinated Brussels sprouts ($9), which with anchovy vinaigrette, a fried poached egg and parmesan flakes melded into an unctuous vegetal mass. Our one entrée, braised beef cheeks ($25), wasn’t huge, but afterwards I didn’t feel like eating for days. The rich red wine reduction glazing the quivering meat wasn’t the main culprit. No, that would be the even more quivering masses of soft bone marrow, which add an impossible richness and depth of flavor beyond what I expected. But, for what it was, it was great, as was the accompanying mustard spaetzle, with a rugged chewiness to balance the other yielding textures.
Its resonant address aside, 10 Downing isn’t even remotely British. And I’ve no clue why it’s now come to a critical mass. 10 Downing is loud; the kitchen is known to be inconsistent; they feature truly horrific wine cocktails (don’t ask about the Port Flip); the chef is infamous for a tawdry dispute with a former business partners. And Damien Hirst posters can only get you so far. And yet, it works. So get on over while it lasts; blood sausage and duck meatball cassoulet won’t seem so appealing come July. Or maybe that’s when it really gets fun.