King isn’t a perfect restaurant, but it is a perfect example of a type of restaurant that many New Yorkers dream about. It’s that small, charming spot downtown where the details have all been thought about, though not so much that it becomes uncomfortable, and the menu is a likable quilt of flavors from Tuscany, Provence and other parts of Europe where humanities professors used to rent villas in the summer.
Even mediocre restaurants on this model can be appealing. King is far from mediocre; it embraces the archetype and draws fresh pleasures from it.
Late last year, the three women who own King opened a second restaurant, Jupiter. (There is a nice feminist joke in their swiping names from masculine power figures. Maybe they can call their next place Pope.) The focus this time is firmly on Italy, especially pasta.
Jupiter is one giant leap from King’s little downtown space. A member of the platoon of younger, more idiosyncratic restaurants taking over Rockefeller Center, it inhabits a sprawling dogleg inside glass walls on the concourse level. The bar and one dining room recede away from the skating rink. Another room faces the rink head-on. A third seating area along a walkway in the concourse will open in March, a sidewalk cafe that happens to be underground.
All told, there about 140 seats — green Gio Ponti chairs, yellow leather banquettes, gently curved bar seats that match the red-marble bar. Servers ricochet around in seersucker shirts that are color-coded by zone: blue stripes in the dining room, yellow behind the bar, green at the door. The colors stay separate and so, in some ways, do the different elements of the restaurant. While you can have a pleasant lunch or dinner, it’s harder to have a great one. I’m not even sure great meals are the point of Jupiter.
You can get off to a brisk, Italianate start with one of the house aperitivos like the fizzy, vodka-based Callisto spritz, which pits bitter quinine and charred lemon peel against sweet quince purée. If you’re going straight to the harder stuff, let me direct you to Jupiter’s reworking of Ian Fleming’s Vesper, which adds a soft, almost tropical taste to the original by infusing vodka with roasted fig leaves.
Either one should click with green and black olives, drenched in good oil and scented with bay leaves and ribbons of orange peel. This would also be a good time for a fried snack. Steer past the sullen artichokes alla giudia and call instead for a plate of fried zucchini sticks in puffy, golden husks of batter. They are very good and almost certainly a homage to the ones at the River Cafe in London, where two of Jupiter’s owners, the chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, were working when they met. Their executive chef, Gaz Herbert, has served time in its kitchen, too.
The third owner, Annie Shi, has assembled a varied, idiosyncratic group of wines by the glass, all made in Italy. (Some bottles from France and California were allowed to slip into her full list.) With a glass of wine on the table, maybe the obscure Friulian white from Edi Kante called vitovska, you can zoom on to antipasti, a strong suit of Jupiter’s.
Slices of cured meats are draped invitingly beside crisp and colorful giardiniera dusted with dried oregano. Under dark leaves of charred and wilted Treviso, a big creamy lump of mozzarella di bufala is served with warm chickpeas mashed with loads of olive oil; I’m not sure I understand the pairing, but I like it. And there’s nothing mysterious about the joy of spreading impeccable, lemon-dressed crab meat on rustic grilled bread with a smear of aioli.
In the best starting dishes at Jupiter, ingredients that need very little help to begin with are given some unexpected turn — the oregano crumbled over the giardiniera is a great example — and, more often than not, showered with fresh and fragrant olive oil. The kitchen takes a similar tack with the housemade pasta, both fresh and dried. Often, though, the unexpected turn goes awry, and pastas that are probably supposed to be saucy come out soupy.
How are you supposed to eat a nest of tajarin with whole chicken livers perched on top, like meatballs on spaghetti? Watery melted butter didn’t cling to the noodles, but instead pooled around the rim of the plate. Bottarga whipped with olive oil did the same thing with spaghetti given a last-minute application of grated bottarga. That dish later evolved into one with small clams steamed in white wine, but the sauce still didn’t act like a sauce.
Alphabet soup in brodo — minus all the letters except the ones that spell out Jupiter — sounded comforting. But the broth was hard to taste under a hail of grated nutmeg.
Some of the soupier pastas were better. Double-barreled curls of casarecce made a great bed for beef and onions braised in white wine, aromatic with juniper berries. And Jupiter has a fascinating, extremely rustic take on pizzoccheri de Valtellina, that fortifying amalgam of cabbage, potatoes, cheese and buckwheat noodles that helps Lombardy get through its cold mountain nights. Like some other dishes, it is unexpectedly oily, but the lid of toasted cheese on top is very hard to say no to.
There is also a superb tomato sauce with tagliarini and squares of shaved ricotta salata. But there are too many ways to go wrong with pasta at Jupiter, and pasta is hard to avoid. Until recently there were only two main courses, a 32-ounce porterhouse alla Fiorentina and a whole grilled dorade, stuffed with rosemary and lemon and dressed with sizzled anchovy. It is very good, but like the steak it is meant to be shared. In the past few weeks, grilled sardines and veal Milanese were added to the menu.
If you want to eat an appetizer, a pasta and a main dish, though, you will need strong eardrums. The dining rooms are loud at lunch; at night, they’re roaring. When dinner goes beyond 90 minutes, I want to run for the peace and quiet of the nearest subway track.
Jupiter seems to be aiming for a cross between a serious trattoria and a casual pasta bar, but it is stuck somewhere in the middle. The prices reflect the quality of the ingredients but not the consistency of execution, and they’re in active conflict with the noise.
Building a large, exciting restaurant in the twilight corridors of the Rockefeller Center concourse has to be a challenge. Anybody can show up at the host stand — NBC executives, Saks shoppers, King regulars, people on their way to see Big Thief at Radio City or “Leopoldstadt” at the Longacre. Jupiter probably hopes to appeal to all of them.
This will make for fun people-watching, but it may also explain why the owners haven’t hit on an identity for Jupiter yet. Everybody knows what a charming Village restaurant looks like. But a charming pasta restaurant in the Rockefeller Center concourse? They’ll have to make it up as they go along.