Irene Sax - March 2008
Still known for his fabulous fish, chef Ed Brown is gleefully embracing meat as well as he heads out on his own.
Remember the Curse of the Upper West Side? Folk wisdom dictated that an upscale restaurant couldn't survive in the Manhattan neighborhood north of Lincoln Center and west of Central Park. Sure there were kosher delis, Chinese take-out joints, and pizzerias. But when West Siders wanted to eat well—when they wanted to dine—they went crosstown or downtown.
The Curse seemed less frightening with the opening of Aix and Compass, Ouest and 'Cesca, Telepan and Dovetail. But the stake wasn't finally driven through its heart until late this winter, with the arrival of chef Ed Brown's Eighty One.
If anyone could do it, it was Brown. As supervising chef of Restaurant Associates (now called Patina Restaurant Group) for 17 years, he either opened or tweaked properties such as Tropica, Cucina & Co., Café Centro, The Grand Tier Restaurant, Rock Center Café, Aces, and, of course, The Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center, where he ran the kitchen.
"After all those years in a great company, I felt I came away with all the tools I needed to be on my own," he says. "And while I knew I'd make some errors, they should be minor and easily corrected. I feel happy, confident, and free."
When he decided it was time to go solo, he knew exactly what he wanted. The investors, the staff, the architect, the kitchen designer and fabricator, the size, and especially the location, which he was determined would be on the Upper West Side, where he's lived for the past 15 years.
When Brown found the space that would become Eighty One, it had been empty for seven years. It was not only big—6,000 square feet—but was an awkward shape, a column-studded horseshoe that bent around the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior across 81st Street from the American Museum of Natural History. It took someone with Brown's experience to see what it could become.
Not that you would notice anything odd about the warm elegant series of rooms that make up Eighty One today. When you enter through the east leg of the U, you're in a bar and lounge, with low tables forming a kind of conversation pit on your right. Then comes the 14 stool bar, its top carved from a single tree by fine carpenter Ian Ingersoll. Ingersoll left the edges "live"—that is, following the line of the bark—to maintain the energy of the tree in a manner made popular by Isamu Noguchi.
When you move into the dining room in the north face of the U, you find yourself in a rectangular space punctuated by two sets of columns. "We couldn't get rid of the columns structurally, so we used them to our advantage, letting them divide the sense of the room," says architect Chris Smith of CMS Design. He emphasized the tripartite division in the northern wall, where he created four wide shallow arches he lined with tomato red tufted leather. "Banquettes take away privacy," says Smith. "You can hear everything your neighbor says. By slanting three tables in each arch, we shifted the eye lines and redirected the sound."
Sensitivity to sound shows not only in the leather-covered chairs and walls but in the noise-absorbing Ecophon panels, covered with burlap-like draperies that hang from the ceiling. The goal, says Smith, was a noise level somewhere between a bistro like Balthazar, where you can't hear your dining partner, and one of those temples of haute cuisine so hushed you can hear him put down his fork. The burlap also diffuses the lights on the panels, creating an even flattering wash of light throughout the room.
The room's most dramatic feature is a glass-fronted wine wall opposite the arches. In it, around 3,200 bottles of wine are stored in three separate coves (three again!), two of them kept at 58°F for reds and one at 47°F for whites and Champagnes. Not only does storing wine in the dining room make for ease of service, cutting the time between a customer's order and his first sip, but it's a good merchandising tool, says Brown. "The bottles at eye level are slanted to show their labels. A customer will glance in and think, "Oh, right. I've been wanting to try that."
But diners don't see the most important part of this space, the kitchen in its west end. Most of the dividing wall is solid, topped with milk glass panels so customers can't peer round the corner. The kitchen is open for service in a narrow corridor leading to the Library, a private dining room that takes up the U's west leg.
Smith describes the room's decor as "an ideal of a library," with walnut walls, walnut shelves holding books and art, an Oriental runner on the floor and milk-glass panels on the windows. It has its own street entrance and theoretically can hold 40 people, but Brown will add another table on the north end for bigger parties. Private dining, he says, is an important component of even the busiest restaurants. "This is a good profit center, because you can control it. You know exactly how many people will be coming in and how much money you'll make."
The kitchen's placement was inevitable in what kitchen designer Jimi Yui of Yui Design calls the "knuckle" of the space, since it had to serve both à la carte and private customers. Its size of 1,800 square feet is the result of the usual compromise between wanting more tables and the requirements of cooking.
Two considerations determined its design. One was that it would be open for service, therefore visible to anyone in the corridor between the dining room and Library. An open kitchen, says Yui, works only if the kitchen is immaculate and the staff disciplined. He should know, having worked on Café Gray in the Time Warner Center, where the kitchen famously intrudes between the diners and the view.
The second consideration was the private dining room. When 40 meals have to go out at one time, you need a dedicated staff and space so as not to wreck the à la carte service. This was accomplished by dividing the kitchen into three zones. The first, next to the service window, is a hot cooking line for à la carte cooking. The second (middle) zone is either for production or for private dining when needed: One side is a huge counter where 40 dishes can be plated at once. And the third zone, along the back wall, is for deep prep like butchering, washing vegetables and salads, and making ice cream. Brown wanted the sight lines kept open between all three areas to allow for instant communication. "The guys in back and front should have eye contact because they're working an order together," he says. "If the front gets behind, someone can notice and hop up to help."
Not an inch is wasted. The narrow side aisle connecting the three areas is a cold station where the custom-fabricated refrigerators' space-saving glass doors slide sideways instead of opening out and blocking the workspace. "It's so obvious. I don't know why nobody sells them this way," says Yui. "You can buy a refrigerator with doors or with drawers but not with sliding glass panels."
Some equipment is predictable; other pieces grew out of Brown's experience in different kitchens. At the Sea Grill, he was a passionate advocate of cooking fish on the plancha, a mirror-finished griddle so nonporous it's almost nonstick. No surprise, therefore, to find two planchas in Eighty One's hot line—one for fish and one for meat. But he's also committed to the slow gentle process of sous-vide cooking, which he has used since he worked with Alain Senderens in Paris in 1985. To that end, he has a large combi-oven that does regular, convection, and steam cooking or combinations of the three. Because the oven works on a computer, he can put, say, short ribs and aromatics into special food-grade bags, then program them to cook for 15 hours at 165°F. When it's time to reheat the chilled ribs, they go into one of Yui's innovations: an insulated sink with a cover in which you insert an immersion circulator, creating a built-in bain-marie.
On top of the standing stove, Brown asked for an S-grid, wavy metal lines that cover the whole stove and allow cooks to slide heavy pots from one burner to another without lifting. And he wanted a butchers' sink like the ones used by Japanese fish cooks, a shallow sink with a removable cutting board resting on a metal rack positioned in the sink. When meat or fish is cut up on the board, the scraps are pushed off through the spaces in the rack into the sink, which is later hosed down.
What kind of food comes out of this kitchen? Of course, everyone was expecting seafood, because of Brown's years of expertise at the Sea Grill. But the opening menus had as many meat as fish dishes, and you do get the feeling that the chef is happy to be released from the tyranny of the sea.
One thing that's new is the organization of the menu. In addition to appetizers and main courses, there's a section called "The Tasting Collection," dishes that may be added either as an intermediate course or to replace one of the others. A light eater could start with an appetizer of shaved winter salad with walnut pesto and then choose a Tasting Collection dish of pumpkin risotto with braised chicken wings. A hungrier diner might start with crisp skin Berkshire pork belly from the Tasting Collection, then proceed to yellowfin tuna and Hudson Valley foie gras from the list of main courses. And the hungriest of all might start with baby calamari a la plancha, add marinated Jones Farm leeks from the tasting menu, and go on to poached breast and crispy thigh of Label Rouge chicken.
What they won't find are deconstructed dishes. The cooking is in Brown's style, which he describes as "great modern American ingredients prepared simply. When you order a veal shank, it looks like a veal shank."
And, in fact, he has a veal shank on the menu, served with Anson Mills grits enriched with Jasper Hill cheddar cheese, plus side dishes of celery heart gratin, black trumpet mushrooms, and Brussels sprout leaves. It serves two, costs $35 a person, and precisely fits Brown's description: modern, American, and simultaneously simple and profoundly sophisticated.