333 Hudson Street
(at Charlton Street)
Noise Level: Quite high but bearable
Wine List: Around 80 bottles, Old and New World
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses, lunch, $11 to $19; dinner, $12 to $32
Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; snacks, 3 to 5 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
For 12 years, Don Pintabona was the chef at Robert De Niro and Drew Nieporent’s Tribeca Grill. Now he has opened his own restaurant in a former warehouse on the corner of Charlton and Hudson streets, on the far western reaches of Soho.
You walk into a large, handsome room filled with chatter and laughter and a great many men in open-necked striped shirts. Many of the old regulars from Tribeca Grill, it seems—Wall Street brokers and financial advisors—have followed Mr. Pintabona a few blocks north, while Saatchi & Saatchi is just a block away.
Dani (pronounced “Donny”) is spacious and lofty, and its décor reflects the turn of the century, with dark wood paneling, a wood floor and immense concrete columns, some of which are painted a distressed gold or encased in blood-orange-colored leather. The walls are lined with banquettes of black leather and wood, and plain wooden tables that are lit at night with votive candles. Thin filament bulbs on long wires hang down one side of the room and over the black walnut bar by the entrance, casting a soft, golden glow. Milk cans filled with spring blossoms line the mullioned windows, which look out on two sides of the restaurant. It’s all very robust and cheerful.
Tonight, eight people were dining at the chef’s table, which is placed high up in front of the open kitchen at the back, with a full view of the culinary goings-on (when the weather warms up, there will also be outdoor seating). Mr. Pintabona (who also has another restaurant, Trina, in Fort Lauderdale) was behind the stove, turning out rustic Mediterranean food that is predominantly Sicilian, with accents from North Africa, Spain and France.
I began with a plate of “citrus-cured” sardines. (They came, like some other first courses, on an interesting square gray plate imprinted with a round white plate inside the frame—a trompe l’oeil effect that must entertain the staff as customers like me try to lift up the inner plate.) The sardines were plump and boneless, served with slivered fennel and clementines. But the clementines weren’t sharp or acidic enough to cut the richness of the sardines, which needed salt and didn’t taste particularly fresh. My companion had a salad of sliced raw artichokes on a bed of wild arugula. It was very fresh, but the dressing was overwhelmed with lemon juice.
Things went further downhill when our main courses arrived. A Moroccan-Sicilian tajine of cod with raisins and capers was overcooked to a mush. (As Sir Edwin Lutyens, the British architect, once remarked in a restaurant, “This piece of cod passeth all understanding.”) My companion sent back the cod (we weren’t charged for it) and asked for chicken instead. “I think roast chicken is the test of a good restaurant,” he said. A bit late for that, I thought to myself. I didn’t have the heart to send back my rabbit cacciatore, which was also wrecked by overcooking—the meat shredded and dry.
The roast chicken was fine, however, not dried-out under its crisp skin, and came with a sweet-and-sour onion marmalade and puréed turnips. All it needed was a dash of salt. For dessert, we had a lovely mint panna cotta with blood oranges and pistachios, and a fine steamed molten chocolate cake. But we left in a bad mood.
So, another night, I returned to Dani with some trepidation. This time, I began with the house-made ricotta. What a pleasant surprise! It was wonderful, light and almost diaphanous, with grated Marcona almonds and wildflower honey, served with thin crostini. A white-bean soup was also very good, a creamy purée laced with pancetta and roast tomatoes. Grilled octopus, cut in big squidgy pieces, was served in a casserole with chunks of parsley potatoes, flavored with oregano and sherry vinegar. All it needed was a dash of salt. Perfectly cooked bucatini—thick chewy strands of pasta tossed in a Sicilian sauce of sardines, fennel and currants—were also excellent, but also needed salt.
In fact, almost every dish I tasted at Dani (apart from the desserts) needed salt. And you have to ask for it, too, because there’s none on the table. And when you get it, it’s fine grain, not that lovely, flaky fleur de sel or Maldon salt which is so good sprinkled on food just before you eat it.
Never mind that the breaded pork cutlet needed a dash of salt; it’s one of the best dishes on the menu. The juicy chop had a lovely golden-brown crust flavored with sage and was served with apple mostarda and a fig purée. A splendid dish. The rib-eye and lamb sirloin were both good, too, topped with salmoriglio sauce (oregano, garlic, olive oil and lemon) and accompanied by crunchy chickpeas cut in batons. You can also get side orders of escarole, polenta or cardoons, the latter served in a delicate cream sauce under a layer of breadcrumbs in a black earthenware casserole.
The international wine list consists of around 80 bottles, with an emphasis on Mediterranean and Sicilian vintages. The selections are interesting, but there are few bottles under $40. A Morgan pinot noir “Twelve Clones” at $39 was a good choice.
We wound up with a refreshing granita made with Campari and grapefruit and flavored with honey, vanilla and rosemary. We also had a crumbly shortcake with berries and whipped orange-blossom yogurt (labneh), and a wonderful toasted polenta cake with poached pears and mascarpone.
Dani is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, with friendly service, a cheerful atmosphere and some very good food. The kitchen just needs to keep a hand on the saltcellar and an eye on the clock.