It'd been a while since a server handed me an opened, leather-bound menu. But you can sense an air of elegance at Dieci even before that happens. Drum brushes, upright bass, and horns from the pre-war jazz era sound through disguised speakers. Tables (four or five of them), chairs (a couple dozen), and silverware are aligned as if each had done stints in boot camp. Slats on dark wooden blinds are open just enough to reveal a kitchen, also small, in one corner of the restaurant.
The chefs cook up Italian food inflected with serious Japanese influence on one side. On the other, guests enjoy those creations from a communal table that spills into the room like a glob of mahogany paint. Two seats facing the street are prime for people watching, but any chair at Dieci is a good one.
Eight years ago, a few steps down off of East 10th Street, Dieci started serving a menu of Japanese-Italian, sometimes Italian-Japanese, food. There's great finesse either way. In some cases, Japanese technique brings new perspective to old classics, like the combination of octopus and celery. Marinated Octopus ($12), served with celery, zucchini, red onion, and chive was a recent special. Never have I seen a red onion cut into such tiny, delicate flakes, and only on rare occasion have I seen chives chopped with such symmetric precision. Celery and zucchini, slightly pickled, were cut to closely mimic the size and shape of thinly shaved pieces of octopus, which were turned from their raw state to a slightly cured one in a bath of shiokonbu.
The plate was cleared leisurely and a small sheet of white paper replaced it on the table, to which the convex side of a spoon was laid. We'd need the concave side to get at the bottom of a glass bowl, where cubes of Buffalo Mozzarella ($11) sat beneath sea urchin and a cloud of yuzu foam. The cheese isn't made in house, but that's fine, because the kitchen found a purveyor with mozzarella that has the perfect salinity to match the sweet, citrusy yuzu poof and meaty orbs of urchin.
New paper and new spoons were set down for Foie Gras Chawanmushi ($9), a steamed egg custard laced with dashi and, at Dieci, enriched with whipped foie gras and flecked with oyster mushrooms. Also set down here is the kitchen's knack for umami, as every spoonful of the warm custard nailed all of my palate's pleasure centers
Of the four pastas on Dieci's menu, it's hard to not order the Ramen ($15), which comes out as a tightly twisted nest hugging a spicy lamb bolognese. It came split from the kitchen, so instead of fighting over a single portion my guest and I talked about a classic ragu, thoughtfully worked over with clean spice and supported by perfectly cooked noodles. Dieci and Yuji get it: ramen pasta practically sells itself.
Virtuosity flows in equal streams from the front and back of house at Dieci. The Japanese influence brings a slowed hospitality—we were never rushed. Instead, we enjoyed a Strawberry Compote ($8), with mascarpone mousse and truffled balsamic glaze, as the sun set and brought twilight to another night in the East Village. We weren't invited to pay until one of our hands left an imaginary check mark hanging in the air.
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