Food: Haimish Is Hip At Motel Morris
Swank ‘Motel Morris’ Keeps It All In The Family
Akibbutz with delicious food in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood? Well, kind of.
“We call it the kibbutz,” Brett Nidel said of the building on the corner of 18th Street and Seventh Avenue, where he lives and works. Nidel and his brother Sam Nidel, along with partners Matt Mogil and Tamara McCarthy (who is married to Brett Nidel), own Motel Morris, a new restaurant that occupies the ground-floor corner of the building. The brothers live in apartments above the eatery, as do their aunt Vicki Hart and various cousins.
The family-kibbutz theme runs right through the business. Their cousin Bill Paley’s wife, Jessica Corr, designed the restaurant’s furniture and lighting (the studio for her design and lighting company, Tourmaline, is in the building, too); McCarthy, a graphic designer, came up with the eatery’s logo; Brett and Sam’s mother, Arlene Novick, makes the daily dessert special.
“She literally bakes it,” Sam Nidel said. “It’s her recipes. When she can’t handle it, we bake it.”
And then there’s the restaurant’s name. Perhaps it’s not a shock to learn that the Morris in Motel Morris is the Nidel brothers’ late grandfather, Morris Paley. He was their mother’s father. Their grandmother, his wife Sylvia Paley, who came over from Poland when she was between 18 and 20 years old, was a phenomenal cook. And because their grandmother lived the first part of her American life in Alabama, the brothers say she was cooking Southern foods when she moved to New York.
“She cooked a fusion of Southern and Ashkenazi,” Brett Nidel said. “I remember corn fritters that we used to dip in maple syrup, and fried chicken,” his brother explained. “That’s where we get the gene from. My grandmother was the cook in the family and my mother has the gene.”
While the restaurant’s general manager, Jamie Steinberg, and its executive chef, Bill McDaniel, aren’t genetically linked to the clan, they are romantically linked to each other. “Both of them are veterans of this industry, and that’s how they met,” Sam Nidel said. “They wanted to work together again.”
McDaniel, formerly the chef at The Red Cat, is turning out thoughtful plates that look busy
enough to inspire wows, but simple enough to let top-notch provisions shine. Roasted sweet potatoes arrive fork-tender but not mushy, their orange flesh beautifully set against tart Greek yogurt. A grilled lettuce plate plays piquant pickled vegetables against mellow haloumi cheese — an ideal warmweather starter.
Moist, juicy chicken rests atop a bright-green garlic puree. Only an “everything bagel tuna,” which sounds so promising and looks beautiful, ultimately lands with a thud. The dish is essentially that middle-of-the-road New York standby: sesame-crusted tuna, with a few extra grains attached but minus the salty-garlic kick of an everything bagel. Dessert’s a must here. The night we visited, Novick’s contribution was a lush, just-sweet-enough cheesecake, and it paired perfectly with potent espresso.
The food and the retro-chic room have drawn serious crowds since Motel Morris opened in April. Most of its diners look like millennials with money, and for a Chelsea restaurant, the throngs seem overwhelmingly straight. With nonstop conversational roar, and waitstaff in perpetual motion, the place carries as much of a party vibe as it does a dining mood. Sweet, smart touches include a (nonfunctioning) pink wallmounted rotary-dial phone in one bathroom and a vintage blow dryer in the other. A very clever graphic identity carries through, from the restaurant’s logo to its menu to the pink pens with which you sign your receipt; you can grab a 1950s-look Motel Morris postcard and coral-pink matchbooks on the way out.
What, we asked Brett Nidel, would Morris think of all this hoo-hah in his little building?
“He was a modest, simple, quiet guy; a serious man,” he said. “He was oldschool — it was a different generation. But I think it would be his greatest joy to see his family involved in this together.”
BUSINESS BROS: Sam (left) and Brett Nidel in their restaurant, Motel Morris.
Sautéed skate wing was featured recently on the restaurant’s menu, which changes seasonally.
STORY TIME: Morris Paley reading to his grandchildren.
BALABOOSTA BAKES: Arlene Novick’s