Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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The enchanting afterlife of exceptional dining establishments.


I am not a strong believer in the principles of feng shui, and my evidence for this stance was always the large pillar situated in the center of Batard, one of my preferred dining establishments in New York City. My limited understanding of Chinese geomancy led me to believe that the structure would disrupt the cosmic energies crucial for the success of a business. However, Batard defied feng shui, as it quickly became a hit and even won the prestigious James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2015. Interestingly, Drew Nieporent, a partner at Nobu, had previously opened two other thriving restaurants in the same space: Montrachet in 1985 and Corton in 2008.

However, in the month of May, Batard shut down. Did the principles of feng shui ultimately catch up with it?

If that’s the case, it wasn’t the sole casualty. Numerous restaurants have been shutting down recently, and I am feeling personally affected, especially since some of my favorite spots in New York and London have closed. Aside from Batard on West Broadway in Manhattan, Marta on 29th Street has disappeared. After being open for 10 years, Contra on Orchard Street will be closing on October 28th. And on Monday morning, news broke that Native, which I’ve been visiting at various locations over the past five years, including its charming hidden garden in London’s Mayfair, has come to an end.

I have previously lamented the impermanence of restaurants, so I will briefly mention the various issues that are more detrimental than poor energy flow: narrow profit margins, increasing property expenses, lack of workers, controversy, rising prices, government restrictions, the impact of the pandemic, and weariness. Each of these alone would pose difficulties for a small enterprise – and a single restaurant may encounter a combination or all of them simultaneously. As a frequent customer, the toll is emotional for me: These are establishments where I seek joy repeatedly. The connection is not solely based on food but also on a sense of community and spirituality.

The final connection is what brings me optimism. While nothing is permanent, aspects of excellent restaurants continue on: Talent is passed down. The livelihood of restaurants is sustained by individuals. Abilities are shared; negative influences eliminated; and lasting impacts created.

For instance, Batard provided Markus Glocker, who successfully endured the challenging kitchens of Gordon Ramsay, with his initial opportunity to lead a prominent restaurant. Since then, he has assumed the role of chef at Koloman, the renowned Viennese eatery located in the Ace Hotel within the Flatiron District.

John Winterman, Nieporent’s partner in business, will utilize his exceptional skills in managing the front-of-the-house operations, which he developed at Daniel Boulud’s prominent restaurant in Manhattan, at Francie in Brooklyn. In the interim, Glocker and Winterman’s approaches to cooking and customer service have been passed down to numerous individuals who have worked with them.

That kind of transmission of experience and talent goes beyond the boundaries of a city. I’m always heartened to discover how survivors of shuttered restaurants have thrived outside of New York City. I mourned when Tertulia in Greenwich Village closed in 2018 but am ecstatic that its chef de cuisine, Neil Zabriskie, is getting accolades for Regards in Portland, Maine. The beautiful, glass-encased Untitled at the Whitney Museum was shut down in 2021; but husband-and-wife veterans of the restaurant — sommelier Arjav Ezekiel and chef Tracy Malechek — have just won Food & Wine magazine’s restaurant of the year award for Birdie’s, their self-described “fine casual” in Austin, Texas. Good culinary genes travel well.

Persistent restaurants also experience change. Native, which was in four different locations, closed last week. I was not in the UK yet when chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes and Imogen Davis opened the first Native restaurant in Covent Garden and later closed it. However, I did have the pleasure of experiencing their warmth and cuisine at the Borough Market location. Due to the pandemic, the restaurant had to close temporarily like many others. It briefly reopened in a former munitions factory on Osea Island off Kent before settling down in a small but elegant space behind the upscale retailer Brown in Mayfair. I am confident that Davis and Tisdall-Downes, who caught the restaurant bug while foraging for Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, will open another Native restaurant and I will be there to support them.

Compared to its counterpart, Native, Contra remained firmly rooted in its location on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a decade. It attracted influential restaurant owners, many of whom were friends of Contra’s co-owners and chefs, Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske Valtierra. Restaurants from cities such as Tokyo (Den), Paris (Septime), and London (Lyle’s) would take over their space, introducing New Yorkers to new culinary experiences that would later become must-visit destinations for future travels. I have been a loyal patron of Contra since its opening, even though I initially had a negative experience with their service during my first visit. However, I kept coming back week after week, won over by their innovative and delectable dishes. In return, I have received love, friendship, and valuable culinary advice. Saying goodbye to Contra will be extremely difficult.

Jeremiah and Fabian promise a new venture in the Contra space. But maybe it’s time to travel: Bring Contra to London. I’m not an expert but I’m sure you’ll find good feng shui here. — Bloomberg Opinion