430 Hudson Street, New York, NY, 10014 (b/n Morton and Leroy; map); 212-960-3801; pioranyc.com
Service: Well-intentioned but overly formal and somewhat unpracticed.
Setting: Welcoming space with quiet back room and livelier front bar space.
Must-Haves: Monkey bread, market vegetables, egg, rigatoni.
Cost: Starters $12-16, mains $23-24. We were encouraged to order more than two dishes per person, but an appetizer and an entree is a sizable meal.
Compare To: Perilla
Recommendation: Fabulous menu, competent cocktails, and service that's not quite yet up to par—stiff and formal rather than professional and personable.
I first became a fan of Chris Cipollone, now the chef at the West Village's Piora, when he was up at Tenpenny at the Gotham Hotel. In an era when some of New York's very best restaurants are stationed within hotels—Locanda Verde and Maialino, The Breslin and The Nomad—Tenpenny was a Hotel Restaurant in the bad way; anonymous-looking, tucked behind a nondescript lobby, easy to ignore. I was blown away by Cipollone's way with vegetables, with his inventive platings, but found myself thinking even as I put back one happy bite after another—would I really come back here?
Now Cipollone, recruited by proprietor Simon Kim, has landed at Piora, a far more hospitable-seeming place on Hudson Street—a snug space with an imposing bar up front and a sleek dining room fronting a wall of windows in back, looking out onto a sort of urban backyard (read: other properties' trees and buildings) in a way that almost suggests a back garden.
This is not your average small downtown restaurant opening. The crowds I've seen have been in their 40s, not their 20s. The music is at a reasonable volume. Cocktails are served on floppy cloth coasters, not paper napkins. There's a coat check. (And if you box up food to go, that's where it'll wait for you). Piora doesn't do the stripped-down, 2013, "Hey I just found this here space and opened a restaurant" thing. It strives for elegance, to be a place you might dress a bit for dinner.
To a large degree, it succeeds. Particularly on the menu, where every dish was polished, focused, delicious; worthy of the price tag, worthy of a special trip, of saying "Let's go back to Piora." The overall experience, however, wasn't quite up to par.
Let's start with the good news, because there's a lot of it, and let's start with the Monkey Bread ($6) because that's what you should do. If you're averse to paying for bread at restaurants, an increasingly more common practice, this is the bread course that might change your mind: a sextet of brioche-like, pull-apart, oven-warm rolls served with whipped lardo and a soft butter infused with dried Korean seaweed. It's rich enough to spoil your dinner, compelling enough that you won't regret it. And this culinary duality, Italian and Korean, nicely encapsulates the influences on the menu.
Keep the extra rolls on your table as you move onto the Market Vegetables ($16), a signature of Cipollone's—about 14 different seasonal vegetables in a carefully arranged tangle, some raw, others poached, pickled, dehydrated. It's an adventure to pick through, a playground of a salad brought together by a "Thousand Island powder," made from dehydrated ingredients of that dressing. The other must-order appetizer is as indulgent as the salad is light: a poached Egg ($12) served atop artichoke barigoule and chicken wings. Those wings are cured, then cooked in duck fat before they're deboned and sent through the deep-fryer, resulting in the most luscious chicken nuggets imaginable, made still richer with a potato purée siphoned on top and the burst egg yolk coating every bite.
Of course, fans of tantalizingly rich poultry could also order the Duck Confit ($14), the confited meat formed into a panko-coated patty, then deep-fried for a beautiful bronze crust, served atop an intriguing Earl Grey-plum-ginger sauce. And the Scallop ($16) is another strong choice, with sweet corn and chanterelles, garnished by crumbled chicken skin, a brilliant addition I also remember from Cipollone's Tenpenny days.
I don't have a bad word to say about Piora's opening courses. But at this point in my first meal, I was thinking about the service at least as much as the food.
Our waiter—well, let's say he averaged a B in Fancy Restaurant Behavior school. All the boxes were checked, all the basic structure was followed, but the seamlessness of a job truly well done just wasn't there. When we asked a question, his response was delivered so slowly I grew impatient before he finished. The speech following "Have you dined with us before?" simply confirmed my resolve to always, always say "yes" to avoid such speeches. I tuned out a bit after "Chef suggests you order...", particularly because the suggestion amounted to "perhaps share a few appetizers, then a pasta or two as a mid-course, before the entrees" for a party of two, who would later find a starter and a main per person more than enough food.
And along with another server, ours hovered so closely that I found my dining companion occasionally trailing off mid-conversation, waiting until they wandered back across the restaurant. (Granted, her stories tend to the somewhat salacious, but any conversation feels uncomfortable when overheard.)
It wasn't just a single server; our interactions all through that night seemed somewhat stiff, somewhat forced. Confusion when we were seated for an early reservation—suggesting a drink at the bar first, after which we said we'd rather head straight to the table, where we weren't led for another five minutes (in a nearly empty restaurant). Overeager bussers who, with unfailing politeness, offered to remove courses more than once before we'd finished.
But my dining companion and I both loved the Rigatoni ($23), perhaps more than any other dish on the menu: handmade pasta with hearty crumbles of duck sausage (also made in-house), spigarello broccoli, and a brilliant garnish of charred fig. I rarely order pasta when approaching a menu with so many other options, but I'd return just for another bowl of rigatoni.
The Rohan Duck ($28)—as I write, I'm realizing how much duck there is on this menu; no complaints—sports beautiful, crackly skin and works beautifully with jujube (Korean date) purée, duck jus with black garlic, and farro with an appealing kick of spice. Chicken ($24), light and dark meat both, rested over a sunflower seed purée, roasted sunchoke, and roasted corn that came together for an earthy, appealing bite; Halibut ($34) became an elegant fall dish with chanterelles, squash, and a brown butter fumet.
In fact, the kitchen's sole misstep was in a dessert, an olive oil Earl Grey cake ($12). Said cake is dehydrated and crumbled, served with roasted white chocolate, a reduced apple cider sauce, pomegranate, shiso, and Earl Grey ice cream. The flavors came together nicely; pops of acidity against the chocolate, the fresh bite of shiso as a smart mint stand-in. But it seemed a bit odd to take an olive oil cake, whose primarily selling point is that it's not dry, and dehydrate it; we didn't find cake croutons nearly as appealing as, say, cake. "It's like cake-zanella," said New York editor Max—"which sounds like cakezilla but far less fun." Elsewhere on the menu, dehydrated or otherwise manipulated ingredients served a particular purpose, in concert with the overall dish. Here, it simply seemed overcomplicated.
On a second visit we sat at the bar, and I found myself preferring that experience—less stiff formality, more order-and-eat, the bartenders professional and personable. And inasmuch as sitting at the bar tends to mean I order more cocktails, that's not a bad thing at Piora, with an Aperol-rye "Wear and Tear" served from a mini-barrel and an elegant Victor Laszlo with a splash of maraschino, a sugar cube, and Angostura in a bubbly glass of Cremant de Bourgogne. (The tequila-grapefruit-creme de cassis "Pairs Well" was the weakest link of the cocktails.)
Piora certainly doesn't resemble the willfully casual downtown restaurants you'll see more often these days. If anything, it reminds me quite a bit of Perilla, Harold Dieterle's first restaurant (and not only because I confuse the names in my head). Sophisticated American, occasionally Asian-inflected fare. Painstakingly crafted, nearly always successful dishes. Small West Village restaurant. But I'd recommend Perilla more easily on one criterium alone: I feel happy and comfortable when I'm there. The service seems polished and professional because it is, not because it's just taking a page from that playbook.
Only a few months old, Piora is still just starting out, and given the crowds I've seen at the restaurant, they have a willing audience while they continue to find their groove. And improve a bit I hope they do. Because with a bit more practice, it'd be a highly recommendable restaurant, a worthy home for a talented chef.