Mark Ferri
Martin Brock and Gray Kunz seated in one of the restaurant's cozy informal lounges.
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Give 'Em The New One-Two

Bryan Miller - December 2007

Carving cozy spaces out of an unwieldy town house allows Gray Kunz to ride the crests of the lounge plates and private dining crazes.

Retooling a former restaurant space to conform to a new chef's blueprint is never a cakewalk.

Imagine, then, trying to design a clubby upscale establishment and banquet venue in a landmark turn-of-the-last-century town house where the dining areas are on three levels, where the kitchens—three of them—are linked by steep stairwells, and where the largest room occupies a towering glass atrium dominated by a noisy 18-foot-high waterfall. What's more, because of the building's historical pedigree, numerous walls, ceilings, stairs, and architectural details cannot be altered.

"Right away we saw it was a terrible space," recalls Chris Smith, the architect and designer of Grayz, the latest Manhattan venture of Gray Kunz (Café Gray, in the Time Warner Center). It's housed in one of two contiguous neo-Georgian town houses at 13-15 West 54th Street, which had been in the Rockefeller family from the turn of the last century until the late 1970s. Smith adds: "On the other hand, the building had lots of potential and some nice small areas to work with."

Kunz, Swiss born and Asian adept, moved into the space formerly occupied by Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant co-owned by Marcus Samuelsson, who moved it to East 55th Street.

Unlike Kunz's previous establishments—most notably the former Lespinasse, in the St. Regis Hotel off Fifth Avenue, and Café Gray—this is a three-pronged venture that is part cafe, part bar/dining lounge, and part private function room accommodating up to 120 guests. He explains that his decision to move ahead with the thorny project was driven in part by the cash flow potential of a sizable banquet space.

"I looked at this place and said, ‘I cannot do a regular restaurant in here,'" he says. "But then I began thinking about using these smaller areas in a creative way, and doing volume in the big room."

In opting for the laid-back lounge motif in the à la carte spaces, Kunz is surfing a swelling wave as many restaurant-goers tire of earsplitting stadium-like venues. The new approach, referred to as gastropubs, are a modern American take on the ever expanding tapas craze. Manhattan restaurateurs were among the first to go warm and fuzzy with places like The E.U. on the Lower East Side, Alchemy in Brooklyn, Fatty Crab in the meatpacking district, and The Spotted Pig in the Village. And the trend is not limited to New York.

"It's happening all over the place out here," says Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is truly the hottest trend."

He cites several Bay Area examples: Circa (an upscale place serving small plates), Laoila (small plates served in a mostly lounge setting), Spruce (eco-friendly new American complete with dining library). Even the renowned Jardinière has remodeled and expanded its downstairs lounge.

I toured the shiny new Grayz with Smith, whose firm, CMS Architecture & Design, specializes in restaurants and hotels. His résumé includes New York City's original Nobu as well as Dylan Prime and Eighty One, to be opened this month by chef Ed Brown. The firm has also worked on projects in California and Las Vegas for the Charlie Palmer Group.

"We wanted to give this place the feel of an old gentlemen's club, but with a modern edge," he explains, adding, "In a way, it would be just like Gray's cooking—traditionally rooted cuisine yet with his own flair."

To the left of the step-down entrance he created a snug cafe of sorts—two tables for four with a modern gas-fired hearth and partially exposed brick walls. Concerned that diners might feel closed in, Smith removed a wall to expose a small finishing kitchen where many of the small plates are assembled. Architectural restrictions, however, precluded further fiddling with the space—thus, you will find emerging from the brick a pair of odd-looking support rods and an (unused) six-inch brass water valve.

"Instead of covering these up we decided to leave them there. They don't look so bad, do they&rdqo;? he asks. Politely, I venture that they hold a certain historical appeal considering that several generations of Rockefellers showered with the same plumbing.

Two other lounges are situated near the stairs leading to the atrium—with fireplace—and in the bar. "We wanted this to be sexy when you walk in," Smith remarks as we enter the bi-level bar. And sexy it is, anchored by a sinuous 18-foot walnut bar, moody reflective lighting, and plum-toned, crushed velvet booths and chairs. Then again, even the most romantic setting can fall flat if it's so loud that couples must exchange flirtations by passing Post-it notes.

"You see this?" Smith asks, pointing to the smooth, seamless white ceiling. "This stuff is ridiculously expensive, three times the cost of other materials, but it looks so much better." Called BASWAphon, it's an emulsion based on mineral particles that has superior sound muffling capabilities. He further muted the room by covering one of the walls with thick cork arranged in a staggered two-dimensional pattern.

The banquet room presented another buffet of conundrums, above all the waterfall. They had planned to remove it but later learned that the stone was a critical supporting wall. After weighing several options, they elected to camouflage it with hydroponic greenery.

Those who dined in the enclosed atrium during Aquavit's reign could gaze upward and observe what appeared to be a bank of fluorescent-lighted offices. On closer inspection they turned out to be the working end of a street level coffee shop—not the most appetizing backdrop for Kunz's Asian-inspired mini masterpieces. Nor the easiest to conceal. The strategy agreed upon made up for in functionality what it lacked in finesse: simply cover the whole thing with a giant 10-by-50-foot black (make that "aubergine") curtain. A bit startling at first glance, almost Christo-like in its audacity, the fabric is a marked improvement—unless, of course, you happen to toil in the rear of a now-eclipsed coffee shop.

There remained another challenge. The eight-story atrium did not square with the intimate theme of the restaurant. To address this Smith designed a false ceiling by dangling dozens of small halogen bulbs from thin wires 20 feet overhead. The addition of carpeting—a low-key pattern in shades of gray and cranberry—not only absorbs sound but also lends a modicum of formality. Overhead, on the restaurant side of the atrium, is a two-story, glass-enclosed wine wall.

"We had to make this space feel entirely different from Aquavit," Smith proffers. "New Yorkers want new, new, new. They don't want to walk into a new place that reminds them of the old place."

Equipping the three multitasking kitchens was turned over to Jimi Yui of YuiDesign, based in Takoma Park, Maryland, and New York City. China born and reared in Tokyo, Yui, 52, studied architecture and hotel management in the United States, at Cornell University, before specializing in kitchen design. His client portfolio includes, in Manhattan, Morimoto, Del Posto, and Nobu 57; he is currently working on a project for Charlie Trotter at The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas, as well as another Kunz project in Hong Kong.

"Style is not so much my mission," he explains over a bag lunch in the bar. "It's all about coming up with functional solutions and following through for the most practical price."

Yui's first functional solution involved figuring out how to transport tons of food up and down three floors in a busy, highly specialized restaurant.

"There were a lot of aerobics going on here," he says as we clomp down a steep stairwell toward the subbasement. "It soon became clear that the only way around this was to build our own elevator."

And so they did. A 3-by-3-foot cabin holds wheeled racks holding 30-by-36-inch sheet pans. (Technically speaking, the device is a "material lift," not a full-service elevator, which explains the signs cautioning employees from taking joyrides). I ask Yui how much such an undertaking cost. He rolls his eyes skyward and moans—as did Kunz when asked the same question—so I drop the subject.

The subbasement, also referred to as the receiving level, contains storage rooms, coolers, the pastry kitchen, and vegetable prepping room. Immediately above is the 1,400-square-foot main kitchen, which may sound luxurious but is actually quite snug when populated. As Yui shows me around, Kunz drops by to talk shop with his kitchen designer, specifically regarding the new American Range setup they had purchased for the bulk of the restaurant's cooking. After weighing several options, Kunz and Yui concluded that prestige European stoves like Bonnet and Molteni had become prohibitively expensive, owing in part to unfavorable exchange rates for U.S. dollar. "I'm amazed at how American Range has improved the quality," Kunz says. "It's taken some time, but they have really put it together."

His assembly includes two 34-inch-stoves with French tops (removable metal flame covers), a gas-fired char-broiler, a sink, a spreader (steel countertop), and a deep fryer. At roughly $25,000, the setup was about a third the price of the European models.

Like winning halfbacks, good kitchen designers know when to fake left and go right when trouble arises. For Yui, this came in the form of a mysterious "bump" in the kitchen floor, right where two vertical glass coolers were to be installed.

"It turned out to be part of the building's foundation that had been exposed years ago," he says. The coolers did not fit. Looking for alternatives, he resorted to substituting a pair of shorter side-by-side coolers, by True, each capable of holding 13-by-18-inch sheet racks.

"These are essentially what you see in most convenience stores," he pointed out. "But they work fine."

One of the most important pieces of equipment for a restaurant that serves banquets is the tilting braiser (in this case, the Modular Bratt pan), a device measuring 3 feet wide by 18 inches deep, with a hinged lid that is used for slow cooking. "We can make large batches of stocks and do all kinds of other cold weather cooking with this," Kunz says.

When asked to identify one of his favorite appliances, Kunz points to the Diva portable induction burners (the kitchen has four). "These are so great because you can pick them up and go somewhere away from the busy line to make a quick sauce, sear something, boil, cook vegetables—anything," he says.

They are particularly helpful in small plates restaurants, he notes, where many mini chores are performed simultaneously. One example from the opening menu is a pasta served with an à la minute tomato concassée flavored with lemon thyme broth.

Grayz's executive chef, Martin Brock, Bavarian born and European trained, oversees a kitchen staff of about 20, depending on banquet activity. He was Kunz's sous chef at Café Gray when it opened in 2004; he later returned to Europe before joining the team at Grayz.

Brock underscores the necessity of versatility and speed in an operation like Grayz. To that end, he says, a major asset is the pair of Eloma convection steamer ovens that can be programmed to varying levels of humidity according to the dish.

"If you're making a custard, for example," he explains. "I would set it to about 30 percent steam; for a terrine, which needs more moisture, that could be up to 80 percent." He adds that they are ideal for keeping food on hold without moisture loss—always a challenge for banquets.

The 600-square-foot finishing kitchen, near the restaurant entrance, is a model of economy. Fed by the rolling racks of prepped ingredients, this is where the small plates come to life. It holds a small grill, several induction burners, an oven, a fryer, below counter refrigeration, and tiny pastry and garde-manger stations.

Before taking leave of Grayz I ask about sous-vide, the vacuum packing and preserving system that has more comebacks than Don Rickles. Both chefs Kunz and Brock praise the technology, but as of opening week the machines (made by Julabo—two of them) remained unopened.

"I continue to toy with the idea of sous-vide, especially for fall and winter dishes like stews and short ribs," Kunz says. "You could even have fun with things like foie gras when you have time. Why not?"

Equipment

Equipment

Char-broiler American Range
Convection/steamer ovens Eloma
Duel kitchen coolers True Manufacturing
French-top range American Range
Fryer American Range
Griddle American Range
Induction burners Diva
Sound-proof ceiling BASWAphon
Sous-vide Julabo
Spreader (steel counter) American Range
Tilting braiser (Bratt pan) Modular
Undercounter freezers True Manufacturing
Undercounter refrigerators True Manufacturing