The Clinton Street stroller with an appetite for tapas has hardly been at a loss for options in recent years. The opening of SavorNY is not a coup in that sense, but it is nonetheless a quiet triumph.
In the small restaurant's even smaller kitchen, chef and co-owner Joe Dobias puts together vignette-like small plates that wear their influences proudly. It's hard to order any two dishes with the same culinary heritage, so a meal here feels like a breakneck world tour with a skillful but wild-eyed driver at the reins. The only approximation of a road map comes from two menu headings, "Fingers" and "Forks," but since the two categories' contents are in the same price and size range, and I'm no likelier to root around in the former's pickle bowl with my fingers than I am to pick up the latter's skewered meat with a fork, whim is perhaps one's best ally here.
Some dishes are more clever than tasty, and some vice versa, but one of the best, a pair of "reuben empanadas" ($8), is both. It is the savory marriage of a classic corned-beef deli sandwich to a Latin pastry, in a pool of Russian dressing. A sprinkling of caraway seeds gives an authentic rye-bread note. Whether kitsch plays a role in the straight-faced presentation of mock-Chinese classic crab Rangoon ($9), four deep-fried dumplings of crab and cream cheese with a hot mustard dip, is irrelevant to their luxurious taste. The pairing of sweet, firm, full-flavored cubes of house-cured salmon with matzo crackers evokes the Streit's factory a block away, while the accompanying beet-onion puréée evokes Passover chrain.
Other dishes make less sense, like a Spanish approximation of sushi rolls ($11), which bundles slippery roast peppers and Manchego cheese into fat pink cylinders wrapped with meaty Serrano ham. The taste is good, but what technologists call the "form factor" is a little unwieldy. The same goes for hardcooked eggs ($6) that are deep-fried to give them a firm, golden skin, then quasi-deviled with Thai fish sauce, and served in halves in a pool of fishy vinaigrette. A big helping of pickled okra ($6), unprofitably topped with pork rinds, has a classic briny-spicy tang, and the slimy, homey crunch that okra lovers prize.
The menu swings by Vietnam briefly, in the form of grilled skewers of pork ($10) with mint, laid on a bed of rice noodles, then heads to China's juicy slivers of duck ($10) with pancakes for wrapping, Peking style, but without the usual delights of crispy skin or sweet hoisin sauce. A couple of decent Mediterranean fritters — one with lentils and mint ($7), one with cod and yogurt sauce ($11) — provide a pick-me-up on the way to Italy, where treats await. An antipasto of cold baked ricotta ($8) has a heavy richness, strewn with little roasted tomatoes and served with crisp garlic toast for spreading. At the first prod of a fork, roasted winter squash ($8) feels undercooked, but in the mouth the vegetable's even firmness is pleasing, a rebuke to overdone squashes elsewhere. Olive oil, pine nuts, and shreds of salty ricotta salata cheese give it a refined brightness.
One dessert has the resonance to anchor the whole meal: a deep, decadently viscous honey custard ($6) with all the faintly bitter character of its component honey. Crisp, puffy flatbreads, erect like sails in the sea of custard, are dusted with sugar but also have a measure of salt, which makes an already excellent composition extraordinary. Apart from that custard, though, for all his comfort in a dozen culinary vernaculars, Mr. Dobias doesn't give any of them an impact that would take them beyond the moment. The parade of neat, glib snacks works together, but none is the marvel of a master chef.
What makes SavorNY noteworthy is its sense of leisure. In new restaurants, especially creative new downtown restaurants, there's often a feeling that you're eating in a crucible: a hot, high-intensity environment where everything is scrutinized, aligned, and fine-tuned to an exact fit. You'll never get a whole artichoke at those places: It's unapologetically messy, and more importantly it takes time to eat, time that holds up profitable turnover. But SavorNY serves a chilled, marinated pair of them ($7), to be lingered over for as long as you like, and that unpressured ease pervades the rest of the meal as well.
This commitment to the secondary, transitive-verb meaning of the restaurant's name — to appreciate fully, to give oneself to the enjoyment of — is rare and delightful. It's also closer to the spirit of tapas, small plates designed for leisurely grazing, accompanied by abundances of wine and conversation. The restaurant offers all of its 30 wines by the glass or bottle. No bottle costs over $45, and the staff is amply knowledgeable about them.
SavorNY (63 Clinton St., between Rivington and Stanton streets, 212-358-7125).