Platt on the fu­ture of mid­town dining; the Un­der­ground Gourmet on ve­gan Chi­nese fare and Frenchette Bak­ery

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - by adam platt hen he’s feel­ing low

Wabout his lit­tle cor­ner of that restau­rant ecosys­tem called mid­town, Paul De­namiel does what many of us are prone to do dur­ing th­ese side­ways times: He thinks about the good old days. His fam­ily en­ter­prise, Le Ri­vage, which opened in the ’50s among the gin joints and dive bars clus­tered west of the Theater District, on the stretch of 46th Street now known as Restau­rant Row, hasn’t been re­viewed for a while, or breath­lessly blogged about, or pa­tron­ized by mem­bers of the haute Broad­way celebrity set. But over the years, Bruce Springstee­n has been in for a taste of the sturdy French cook­ing, and Madonna has too. On good days, which were most days, you could set your watch by the dif­fer­ent crowds—the mati­nee crowd, the prethe­ater din­ner crowd, the post-theater reg­u­lars—who would keep the snug town­house dining room busy un­til af­ter mid­night.

“We were full most evenings, and on the big nights we pushed ca­pac­ity so we could do maybe 300 cov­ers,” De­namiel says with a sigh. Since reopen­ing out­doors in June, Le Ri­vage rarely does 300 cov­ers in a week or two, let alone in a sin­gle evening, and even with the lat­est vaguely up­beat de­vel­op­ments (the be­gin­ning of lim­ited indoor dining, the push for year-round out­door ta­bles), he doesn’t see that chang­ing in the near fu­ture. Th­ese days, his long­time man­ager, Gigi, stands out on the curb dressed in her mask and la­tex gloves, try­ing to lure stray cus­tomers off the sidewalk like at a tourist-trap restau­rant in Marseille or Morocco. De­namiel ticks off the names of all the places on the block that have closed and of other ven­er­a­ble es­tab­lish­ments, like Orso and Joe Allen, that haven’t re­opened yet. “This part of town is all about the buzz and the crowds,” he says. “Un­til they come back, it’s ba­si­cally a dis­as­ter.” Walk the sparsely pop­u­lated dining re­gions of mid­town and you’ll find hun­dreds of op­er­a­tions like Le Ri­vage: pros­per­ous, rel­a­tively anony­mous es­tab­lish­ments that have flour­ished over the decades on that same del­i­cate alchemy of den­sity, money, and con­fi­dence that makes the city it­self go around and around. Danny Meyer, who in March laid off 250 peo­ple at his MoMA-based des­ti­na­tion, the Mod­ern, com­pares mid­town to a great for­est that no­body talks about very much yet that af­fects the cli­mate of dining all over town. The res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods are al­ready bounc­ing back, he says, but with its reliance on tourism, pub­lic trans­porta­tion, and busi­ness en­ter­tain­ment, mid­town will likely take much longer to re­turn. “It’s go­ing to be a long win­ter,” he says, with an un–Danny Meyer–like hint of weari­ness creep­ing into his voice. But when mid­town does fi­nally come back, he says, New York City will be back too.

“We’re in a big war, Mr. Platt. It’s go­ing to be a fight to get back to the old days,” says Ben­jamin Prelvukaj, who opened his epony­mous Ben­jamin Steak­house 14 years ago on East 41st Street af­ter work­ing as a waiter at Peter Luger. Prelvukaj grew up in Mon­tene­gro and went to high school in the Bronx, and he de­scribes him­self as one of those tra­di­tional 20th-cen­tury New York­ers who still view Man­hat­tan in gen­eral and mid­town in par­tic­u­lar as the global epi­cen­ter of a cer­tain kind of glam­orous big-city so­phis­ti­ca­tion and style. When I dropped in on the first af­ter­noon of indoor dining, Prelvukaj was dressed to greet his cus­tomers in a freshly pressed aqua-blue suit. A few peo­ple were gamely en­joy­ing their steak lunch at a sin­gle lonely ta­ble out on the sidewalk, and in­side, his staff drifted to and fro in the vaulted, mostly empty dining room, wear­ing waist aprons and black bow ties.

“It’s go­ing to be a strange Christ­mas. Hope­fully, Santa Claus will ap­pear and make us all smile a bit,” Prelvukaj says, try­ing to muster a bit of a smile him­self be­hind his blue paper mask. The hol­i­days are the tra­di­tional mon­ey­mak­ing sea­son for most restau­rants in the city, of course, but nowhere more than in this re­gion of the East 40s, which used to fill up like a kind of cap­i­tal­ist Dis­ney­land with tourist dol­lars, bonus money, and big spenders from around the globe. Prelvukaj hasn’t trimmed his menu here or at his other steak joint, Ben­jamin Prime on 40th Street, but he re­al­izes that cus­tomers prob­a­bly won’t be clam­or­ing for the $110 “pres­tige” caviar ser­vice any­time soon. “We had 50 ta­bles in the dining room

last year,” he says. “Now we have 15, but only five can be oc­cu­pied. We’re op­ti­mists in the restau­rant busi­ness, and you have to start some­where, but if we don’t get more indoor ca­pac­ity soon, it will be dif­fi­cult to survive.”

Up on the sun-splashed cor­ner of 44th Street and Sixth Av­enue, serv­ing his Vendy­win­ning $7 piles of ten­der, spicy chicken tikka over mounds of rice, MD Alam is do­ing his best to sup­press sim­i­lar dark thoughts. “We need 200 cus­tomers per day to survive. Now we’re only get­ting 50 or 60,” says Alam, who ar­rived in the city from Bangladesh 22 years ago and has been do­ing a brisk busi­ness on this cor­ner since 2005. He re­mem­bers the big crash of ’08, he says, but the streets weren’t empty back then, as they are now, al­though he has no­ticed that in the past few weeks, the city has been slowly fill­ing up. Most of his cus­tomers th­ese days are es­sen­tial work­ers—park­ing guys, cops, and con­struc­tion work­ers—but he’s hope­ful for the re­turn of the cor­po­rate armies: the of­fice as­sis­tants and the ex­ec­u­tives with their im­pres­sive gold wrist­watches who used to wait pa­tiently in lines stretch­ing around the block for this clas­sic brand of street-cart cook­ing.

Back at Le Ri­vage, Chef De­namiel is wait­ing too. He heard ru­mors that Broad­way will be open­ing up in Jan­uary, but he doesn’t be­lieve them. On this for­merly packed mati­nee-Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, the ta­bles are mostly empty in­doors and out­side, and as I en­joy a crock of steamy, un­ex­pect­edly de­li­cious onion soup, he greets char­ac­ters from the neigh­bor­hood as they pass by. There’s the UPS guy, and the dim sum chef from next door, and presently some­one from the Hour­glass Tav­ern down the street, who comes by with the grim news that, af­ter 30 years, the own­ers are clos­ing down and ev­ery­thing in­side is for sale. The dim sum chef wan­ders off to have a look, but Chef De­namiel turns his head away and waves his hands in the air like he’s ward­ing off an ap­pari­tion. In France, it’s “bad juju” to take any­thing from a clos­ing restau­rant, he says, and the last thing they need on this lit­tle stretch of 46th Street in this cursed year of 2020 is more bad luck.

Lmet as young cooks at Daniel in the early 1990s and spent 16 years ex­pand­ing Keith McNally’s New York em­pire be­fore leav­ing the fold to open their own restau­rant, Frenchette, in 2018. Be­sides kitchen du­ties, they share preser­va­tion­ist ten­den­cies, both for clas­sic cook­ing and clas­sic New York spa­ces. Last year, they took over Le Veau d’Or, the oc­to­ge­nar­ian Up­per East Side bistro, promis­ing to keep the name as well as the tripe stew. Not long af­ter, across town and culi­nary spec­trums, Nasr launched an (ul­ti­mately fu­tile) In­sta­gram cam­paign to save Gem Spa, the land­mark East Vil­lage news­stand and egg-cream mecca.

And now, when so many New York in­sti­tu­tions are in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing, the part­ners have man­aged to re­vive one: This month, they un­veil Frenchette Bak­ery in the same un­likely Tribeca of­fice-build­ing hall­way where Roger Gu­ral ran his semi-se­cret Ar­cade Bak­ery for five years be­fore clos­ing it last sum­mer. Over its short life, Ar­cade be­came a des­ti­na­tion for its dis­tinc­tive baked goods (lam­i­nated baguettes, whiskey-pecan babkas) and in­ge­nious de­sign, which un­ob­tru­sively in­cor­po­rated ma­hogany re­cessed seat­ing and drop-down ta­bles into the slop­ing cor­ri­dor’s long walls.

With the ex­cep­tion of a new espresso ma­chine and dis­play case (plus a re­tooled oven), Nasr and Han­son have left the place in­tact, aim­ing to honor Gu­ral’s vi­sion of a neigh­bor­hood bak­ery and com­mu­nity hub. They had sourced their bread from Gu­ral when Frenchette opened. “Roger was tim­ing the bakes so bread was de­liv­ered at 4:30 right out of the oven,” says Nasr. When Gu­ral cur­tailed his whole­sale ac­counts, Frenchette pas­try chef Michelle Palazzo be­gan bak­ing house loaves in 40 in­di­vid­ual Le Creuset dishes. “That gave us the con­fi­dence to take on the bak­ery,” says Han­son.

Join­ing Palazzo is head baker Peter Edris, an Aure­ole and Bourke Street Bak­ery veteran who uses terms like small plot and sin­gle ori­gin to de­scribe the re­gional grains he buys from a New Jer­sey co­op­er­a­tive and mills fresh daily. There’s cracked rye and dark-malted spelt in his city loaf and dark-malted corn in his baguette; both have been avail­able to out­door din­ers at Frenchette and at the restau­rant’s Rock­e­feller Cen­ter pop-up. But you’ll have to visit the new bak­ery for the other loaves and for vi­en­nois­erie like crois­sants both sa­vory and sweet (the for­mer filled with kim­chee or greens and a soft egg; the lat­ter in­clud­ing a “twice-baked pis­ta­chio,” which is soaked in rum syrup and stuffed with Si­cil­ian-pis­ta­chio frangi­pane). Al­though the team is toy­ing with a “Frenchette bread pizza” as a nod to Gu­ral’s round pies made with baguette dough, Frenchette Bak­ery won’t im­i­tate its pre­de­ces­sor. “The spirit is there,” says Nasr. “There’s a standard and a tem­plate we hope to live up to.”

Pho­to­graph by Vic­tor Llorente

Pre­par­ing for the din­ner rush at Ben­jamin Steak­house on the first day of indoor dining since the pan­demic be­gan.

Frenchette Bak­ery’s loaves are made from house-milled re­gional grains.

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