The food is—and looks—radical; some Spanish critics, who’ve been following the exploits of Ferran Adria and his disciples for years, say Romera’s food is the most high-concept cuisine in the world. It’s even got its own language: the chef, a doctor by training who maintained a neurology practice while running his Michelin-starred Barcelona restaurant L’Esguard, describes what he does as “neurogastronomy.” Which means that his precision with such banal details like temperature and color of the food is on another level that that of most other chefs; it is, appropriately, a scientist’s precision.
The dining room at Romera New York
A lot of the hype might just be marketing, but it’s obvious this isn’t everyday dining. “It’s the same as an art show,” Romera told me via a translator when I went to visit him at the restaurant prior to its opening last week. “You go three, four times a year.” We were standing in the basement-level dining room. The $245 tasting menu (it’s your only option) is served on a dramatic stage: the room slightly raised on a platform, everything pristine and white, a bit like a canvas for his colorful dishes.
As a youth growing up in Argentina, Romera had studied to be a painter, and it’s clear that he’s built these artistic aspirations into the foundations of his persona as a chef. On at least three occasions the chef, who has a professorial demeanor—earnest, excitable, playful, endlessly tangential—referenced Picasso or Van Gogh to make a point about his cooking. What the food more closely resembles, however, are the geometric abstractions of Donald Judd. (At least the dish that I tasted, a sort of idealized veggie soup Romera calls “Isis,” did.) If Judd’s boxes were more about what was excluded than included, then their minimalist purity have found a new incarnation in the plates of Chef Romera.
I asked the chef to break down the process of how “Isis” is made. Here are his notes: like Judd’s sculptures, what looks simple on the surface is deceptively complex.
“In the traditional vegetable soup, you peel the vegetables, add them to the water, turn on the burner, add salt, and cover it. When it’s done, each one of the elements are still there, but it doesn’t exists in its purity. You’re not eating a piece of potato or a piece of celery; you’re eating something that tastes and smells like vegetables, but they’re not the individual vegetables themselves. The temperature of the water has created a fusion. To make the flavor of each vegetable independent, you cannot use a pot. Which is why I divide the plate into three parts: The dried mini-vegetables; the steamed vegetables; and the consommé.”
“The vegetable squares are dried at 90 degrees Celsius in the oven. There are 15 different vegetables at the bottom of the plate in a mosaic of 48 little squares: including spinach, tomato, daikon radish, carrot, tomato, red pepper, artichoke, broccoli, beet, and green onion.”
“In the second phase, I make individual vegetables one by one. In Barcelona, I grew my own miniature vegetables; here, we have collaborated with the Chef’s Garden farm in Ohio. They are exceptional. I steam them in bamboo steamers, and then we warm them up in butter.”
“Then a consommé made up of the same vegetables is poured over the plate, dissolving the mosaic into broth.”
Photos: courtesy of Romera New York
When I spoke to him about a month and a half ago, the French-Canadian chef was dealing with the itinerant chaos of a Travel Channel shoot (Anthony Bourdain was filming an episode of “No Reservations” at M. Wells). “Crazy or not,” he said wearily, “it is something you got to do.” Dufour, who does not seem like a man very into promotion or publicity (Obraitis is much better at it), has had to do many such things ever since Sam Sifton, writing this past April in the the Times, opined that M. Wells is an evolution in the city’s restaurant scene on par with Momofuku. It’s been the worst-kept secret in New York ever since.
Le Fooding 2011 kicks off its two-part celebration the evening of September 17 with a “campfire session”—an outdoor party featuring renowned international chefs (like Inaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand in Paris) cooking alongside renowned musicians (James Murphy), and performances by the likes of Sondra Lerche and Hanni El-Khatib—at the Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan’s Nolita. Part two, which is where Dufour comes in, is more conceptual: a pop-up restaurant will appear in the Chelsea art venue Honey Space starting September 23, where a sequence of chefs (six per day) will prepare 4-course meals, each passing on their stoves, pans, and a symbolic touch of their predecessor’s soup stock—like a nonstop 52-hour game of culinary telephone.
From left: posters for Le Fooding's "Campire Session" and "Exquisite Corpse."
Dufour and Carmellini will get things going with a preview dinner sponsored by Mastercard. When I asked him what he was thinking of making, Dufour—who could maybe best be characterized as lovably irascible—replied, “It takes me forever to come up with a menu. I might come up with one tomorrow, but I might change it as well. Sometimes I am not even familiar with my own menu. It’s like, Come on—it’s happening in fucking September.” I asked if he knew Carmellini personally. “He used to come here when I had no business,” Dufour said. “I have a huge respect for that.”
Dufour, who has cooked at Au Pied de Cochon, a well-regarded place in Montreal, did not initially want to start a restaurant when he moved here to be with Obraitis, which might be why he has little sympathy for the ever-so-trendy foodistas—especially the Manhattanites—who complain about trekking up to Long Island City only to find themselves the victims of M. Wells’s rather irregular, almost whimsical hours. “I am doing food for people from Queens,” he said. “I would never, never, never go to Manhattan.”
If you remember, Sifton concluded his Times rave with this thought on Dufour: “You know those biographies where the great artist first moves to New York, has a cold-water flat in a desolate part of town? We are in that chapter now.” Usually, those artists move to nicer parts of town, to bigger galleries: they become the Establishment. The Establishment probably shouldn’t hold its breath for Dufour. Go eat his food on September 23—it might be the only time you see this emerging artist in Chelsea.
As special offer, W readers can purchase limited early tickets for both Le Fooding events at legrandfooding.com. Part of the proceeds will support Action Against Hunger, made possible by Mastercard, Jameson, San Pellegrino and Veuve Clicquot.
Click here for Campfire Session and here for Exquisite Corpse
David Waddington, owner of Bistrotheque
At last Tuesday's dinner (the restaurant ran through Saturday) Bistrotheque’s owner, David Waddington greeted guests at Westminster Pier, where they were transported to the pop up in a Mumm Champagne-stocked speedboat (could there be a more 80's-appropriate mode of transport?). Upon arrival, the likes of Henry Holland and Princess Julia, the eccentric English DJ who practically was the 80's club scene, were ushered into the pink-neon lit restaurant by hostesses and servers dressed in black geometric frocks designed by Giles Deacon.
The dining scene
“We chose 1988 because that was the year Canary Warf started being built in earnest,” explained Waddington, who topped off his 80's look with a black and white polka dot bowtie. “The late 80's were a moment when design was very important. Style was everything,” he recalled. Waddington went on to note that the menu, which was created by Head Chef and Director of Bistrotheque, Tom Collins, and Head Chef of Blueprint Café, Jeremy Lee, is representative of the simplified Italian cooking that began to arrive in the UK during the period. And judging by the fact that guests cleaned their plates of risotto and peas, devoured their tiramisu, and all but licked up the espresso martini shooters that topped off the meal, the menu is still a hit today.
While admiring the retro accents, which included black and white checkerboard floors, a color blocked dining room and a waiter with an uncanny resemblance to Patrick Dempsey in Can’t Buy Me Love, diners discussed the evening’s theme.
“In 1988, I was Dj-ing, but I also took a course in computers. I had a feeling that they were going to be a thing,” laughed Princess Julia, who, wearing a vintage emerald turban and an exquisite black satin dress, which was gifted to her by a famous Irish drag queen, also recalls watching pop group Take That play early gigs in gay bars around that time.
“My favorite part of the 80's was the hair. Because I still have it!” joked Henry Holland. Naturally the designer, who’s launching a range of cheeky his and her skivvies in Selfridges this fall, came dressed for the occasion.
Dining photos: Neil Wissink
The central bar area
Located on a quiet strip of Bedford Avenue, in solid L-train territory, the bar is a backroom addition to the farm-to-table restaurant The Bedford, which opened last spring under executive chef Blake Joyal, in a space once occupied by a coffee shop and before that, Beacon’s Closet.
While the dining area is all light wood and exposed brick walls with mounted film-set ready spotlights, the Bar is its darker, more mysterious cousin (both come courtesy of designer Crystal Taylor). The ceiling and walls are a lovingly restored, pressed tin, painted over to matte out any sheen. Floors of reclaimed wood act as a base for European café-style synthetic leather chairs (the real stuff is too expensive for potential spillage) and round marble tables, bookended by living room-esque lounge areas of tufted armchairs. Vintage mirrors dot the walls, which are illuminated by custom lights, some strung from old barn gliders.
The Bar’s garage heritage is evident in other industrial elements: an I-beam bar made out of old door frames and original metal beams in the ceiling. Though a more whimsical touch comes in the sliding library ladder that bartenders use to reach the top shelves, crowded with wine bottles. On busier nights, they often resort to swinging from the bar’s red poles like kids in a jungle gym.
The drinks and food help cater to this iniquitous mood.
“It’s like an upscale gastropub,” explains one of the co-owners, Sean Rawlinson of the Bar’s separate menu of easy to eat fare like local bluefish tacos, arancini and kielbasa the building’s landlord makes upstate. Rawlinson would know, seeing as he lives just upstairs, a move that has prompted a wardrobe adjustment.
“These are my Williamsburg glasses,” he jokes of his thick black frames.
Those may give him some neighborhood style cred, but it’s his drinks that will clearly win over its residents (the cocktails are the same for both the restaurant and back room because really, why mess with a good formula?). A sommelier and mixologist by training, he knows his way around a shaker and quickly has his tattooed bartender Matt Rodgers give me a sampling while he sips a German Kolsch draft beer (it is, after all, 4pm).
Comfortable lounging options
First up is the Lovely Day, made with thyme infused lemonade spritzer, Luksusowa vodka and prosecco. It’s like summer incarnate.
“I’ve tried to stay local and seasonal, but also have drinks that aren’t overwrought,” explains Rawlinson. “There’s a few places in this city where you walk in and you’re like, ‘I’ll have that drink and while it takes you 25 minutes to make it, can I have a beer so I have something to drink?’ I like to keep my drinks very simple, very clean and no more than three steps for the bartender.” (There is also a very well-priced selection of wines by the glass, like a $7 Australian Riesling and an $8 Spanish Tempranillo.)
So easy, in fact, that we’re on to the next drink in minutes (no, I didn’t finish every last sip of each. Yes, I left considerably jollier than when I entered. Lovely Day, indeed.).
The Gin Ricardo packs a bit more punch, with a mix of Bulldog gin, muddle basil, fresh lime, soda and a salty spicy rim containing cayenne and cumin.
“You can’t taste the booze, I’m a big fan of that,” says Rawlinson. He’s right. I can’t. Danger looms.
Last up is his riff on a whiskey sour, the Bedford Sour: rye whiskey, fresh lemon and orange juices, egg white and bitters. Fortunately, in this one the alcohol is a bit more present. Though it’s nothing like the Old Fashioned’s many of his neighbors are downing even in the summer. Not Rawlinson.
“The big heavy whiskey drinks? I don’t drink them,” he says, confessing to a preference for “girly drinks.” “I have to save something for when my life really sucks, when I have a bad day, one alcohol that I really need.”
The no-frills tuna-on-white from Ruthy’s Bakery not only hit the spot, but apparently was such a big hit with Christina that her agent emailed our intrepid sandwich-purchasing assistant bookings editor Ashley Consiglio the next day to get the name of the diner. Was it the sandwich that saved the shoot? That might be overstating it, but perhaps only slightly.
A room in Mr. C.
And while Mr. C’s weight gain was something of a happy accident, Ignazio’s business style seems far more regimented. He started in the family business at Harry’s bar at 13 (working the cash register…not mixing boozy bellinis), then fast-forward only seven years, and at 20, he dropped out of Baruch College to take over the North American business with his brother. He starts every morning at 8:30, moving between the office and their New York locations, stops home for a break around 4pm, and then is back out to their restaurants and lounges again before getting home at 3 am. And despite his age, the late-nights aren’t about partying. “I’m always at downtown Cipriani. I’m there almost every night,” he says. “It’s work.“ Perhaps that’s why he explained all of this over an espresso.
So it’s no wonder that the Mr. C project came to fruition in a bit less than a year and a half—quite a fast pace. Steps away from Rodeo Drive, the 138-rooms were all designed by Ignazio and Marcello Pozzi (an L.A.-based conceptual artist) and feature dark hardwood floors, teak and marble bathrooms, a full bar, and private balcony. “We really tried to make it elegant, but at the same time comfortable and smart,” says Ignazio. “We spent a lot of money on the rooms.” And if you need more space, there are also five 3,000 square foot bungalows with private gardens, gourmet kitchens and private plunge pools.
The hotel also houses the Mr. C restaurant—a mix of classic Cipriani recipes (expect an appearance from the signature Carpaccio) alongside new, more casual grilled dishes and pizzas—that are also available via the 24-hour room service and at the 4,500 square foot teak-decked pool. “Cipriani has a formula that works, and we’re not going to change too much about it,” says Ignazio. “But that’s why we came up with the new brand, Mr. C; if we want to do something, we want to have the freedom of doing it without having to go back and ask.”
“I would like it to be a hotel that is timeless,” says Ignazio. “Not something that just booms in the first year and is cool for a little bit and then people move on to the next thing.” If the Cipriani track record is any indication, Mr. C doesn’t have anything to worry about.
Drinks at Apl.
The contrast is all the more striking then, stepping into Apl, the new restaurant-cum-lounge from club-veteran Joey Verdone opening tomorrow, whose colorful interior was overseen by Blackbook’s Steve Lewis. Strips of yellow, blue, red, orange and black paint and wallpaper, designed by Shepard Fairy, cover the walls; bronzed hi-top sneakers dangle like a Williamsburg baby’s mobile and a butternut wood bar beckons.
“I wanted to accommodate the area. When you come outside, it’s simple. And you come inside and it’s more complex,” explains Verdone, who also heads up the kitchen. “That’s sort of how a hipster is. He could be wearing dirty shoes, but he has a $30,000 watch on. It’s totally uncontrived.”
The interior of Apl.
And so Apl, pronounced “Apple”—it’s on Orchard, get it?—has Fairy’s wallpaper juxtaposed with wormwood floorboards that had to go through Canada before reaching New York (“It’s exotic and rare and you don’t see it anywhere” says Verdone) and leather chairs and banquettes replicating the seating in a 1937 Bugatti Lewis found (Verdone is a car aficionado). Framed wooden carvings of pigeons in flight, an ode to the neighborhood’s avian inhabitants, separate the front bar area from the back dining room, where a corner DJ booth allows the space to segue from eatery to lounge once the mood strikes.
Helping with both ends of that spectrum is mixologist Jeremy Osslund, who crafted six specialty cocktails and one dessert drink, drawing on and rejiggering recipes dating back to the 1850s and early 1900s. The East River, for example, pays homage to the classic East Side, a gin, mint, cucumber, lime and sugar concoction. In Ossslund’s reincarnation, the gin is replaced with rum, a Swedish fish floats in the bottom and the mint is infused into the alcohol in a way no 19th century bartender would have imagined—with nitrous oxide gas.
Joey Verdone on the DJ decks.
“It’s not so dangerous,” he assures me (I didn’t taste the drink, but he seemed like a trustworthy fellow). “It’s the same idea as making whipped cream. It’s the same canister.” In addition to allowing him to play around with ingredients that normally wouldn’t render much result—“You’re able to infuse hard, porous materials, so instead of doing a pineapple fruit infusion, I can infuse the rind of the pineapple and give it more of an earthy flavor”—it also cuts down on time, taking minutes instead of the days for a traditional process.
It also might make a few patrons unwittingly tipsy, should a server blunder their espresso order. One of Osslund’s nitrous creations is an infusion of espresso and cocoa nibs with vodka, mixed with water, demerara syrup and lemon oil and served in an espresso shot glass.
“It takes away the heat from the alcohol to the point where I have to be very careful and know which one is the alcohol and which is the actual espresso,” he says with a laugh. “You wouldn’t be able to taste the difference.”
As for the food, there are Share plates like fried house-cured pickles with whipped ricotta and slow cooked deviled eggs with a custard-like texture; Regular plates (a bit smaller than appetizers) including everything from a clam gratin in place of a more expected clam chowder and uni ravioli; Larger plates like a lobster stew with herb gnocchi and Smaller plates of potato puree with nutmeg and fairy ring mushrooms. Dishes will morph depending on available ingredients. After all, even the most intransigent hipster might enjoy a little change of pace.
Illustrations by Joanna Neborsky
What are the biggest differences you notice cooking in New York?
First, the clientele is very different. San Francisco diners are just really food-focused. In New York, the atmosphere and the scene are just as important as the food. It's frustrating at times, but I'm adjusting.
What do you miss most about San Francisco?
Overall, the produce is much, much better there. It takes a whole bunch of East Coast carrots to equal the flavor of one California carrot. There'd be times in California when I'd add just a little parsley to a dish and be like, "Holy shit, now the whole thing tastes like parsley!" Everything is just so much more flavorful.
Does that force chefs in New York to be more creative?
Definitely. When we first opened Pulino's I tried to make everything ingredient-driven, kind of like what I was doing in California, but it didn't necessarily work out. It's been a huge challenge.
So do you think there's truth to David Chang's "figs on a plate" claim?
Yes, that's San Francisco cooking, but I don't necessarily think it's a negative thing. That's how I cooked in San Francisco. I would put figs on a plate. I would celebrate that fig. Things are changing though--ten years from now it will be different.
Different how? Less ingredient-driven?
Not at all. Even more ingredient driven but, whereas before it was very rustic, now there are these guys who've worked in many different realms and didn't necessarily come up through the Chez Panisse way of thinking. They're still using the best ingredients but they're also pushing the envelope creatively and that's going to lead to a resurgence of people looking to the Bay Area for inspiration.
What will you be making for Le Fooding?
I'm slow-cooking beef in its own fat and then serving it room temp with anchovy butter and fried garlic on crostini. Though Pulino's is a pizzeria, we're very meat-centric. We only bring in whole animals so we look for ways to use all the parts, even the fat.
What else are you working on now?
I'm concentrating on Pulino's and in the process of writing a children's book. I read to my three-and-a-half-year-old son all the time and these books are just so boring. Mine will to be food-focused and one of my sous chefs is doing the illustrations.
Of course, this is New York, where any eating establishment that has the word "best" in its name invariably invites suspicion. We recently had one of the cakes sent to the W offices for a taste test.
Our editors were divided: Some were fond of the "cookie/candy texture" while others deemed it "not overly sweet" and a couple of us thought it was "cloyingly chocolate-y." Try it for yourself when the Best Chocolate Cake in the World shop opens on Friday. 55a Spring Street (Lafayette Street), (212) 343-2253.