Bill Bettencourt
SD26
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Moving Mountains

Jim Poris, Ted Gachot / November 2009

Three renowned trailblazing restaurants, born during the flush of exuberance that recalculated fine dining in New York City some two decades ago, relocate and reinvent themselves in grander spaces that bury their pasts and court a younger, savvier generation of diners.

SD26

The curtain of Swarovski crystals that winks across the threshold of SD26 may or may not set at ease the New Yorkers who, when they heard that Tony May's San Domenico was to reopen with a racy new name, and practically downtown, on increasingly hip Madison Square Park, reacted as if their grandmother had eloped to Miami Beach with a 19 year old Pilates instructor. "It's a hint of seduction," explains the restaurant's designer, Massimo Vignelli--which, coming from the high modernist responsible for New York City's subway signage and celebrated for his work's almost austere simplicity, verges on disturbing itself.

"When I say gold ceilings and Swarovski crystal," Vignelli clarifies, "people think of Versace, but this is not like that. It's dramatic minimalism as opposed to cool minimalism. This is an Italian restaurant, and to me it's most important that the design be appropriate." Thus the caffè latte walls and splashes of Pompeian red and black that enliven SD26's modernist bones are nods to May's hometown, Torre del Greco, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. The Giorgio di Chirico prints hanging in the mezzanine's private rooms and the nooks off the main dining room introduce a more haunting and modern idea of what it is to be Italian, while the vast 17th century table plunked among the racks in the 10,000-bottle wine cellar conjures a gregarious and familiar notion of the same. Except for the Mies van der Rohe Brno chairs (a nod to the timeless simplicity of The Four Seasons) under the "firmament of tiny lights" in the soaring main dining room, practically everything in this, Vignelli's first American restaurant, was designed by him to create an atmosphere that's "serene, comfortable, simple."

SD26 is not, in other words, San Domenico tarted up to take on a new demographic. And yet, May makes no bones about it, the restaurant "has fundamentally changed."

As Marisa May, who owns and operates SD26 along with her father, puts it: "We wanted to rock the image--to make it more modern and conspicuous. After 20 years, we were ready to tap into a younger generation. To become bigger and better. More exciting."

At 14,000 square feet, SD26 is twice the size of its forebearer. No jacket is required to clink Vignelli flatware under the fiber art sculptures (for sale) by Sheila Hicks. One may dine in the American Bar at a communal table of black glass and steel, while perched on a cylindrical red "pouf." And do so in earshot, not only of the open kitchen, but also the Berkel slicer whirring through prosciutto in the nearby salumeria. Customers cutting the bella figura in the Enoteca employ smart cards to serve themselves from nitrogen-based Enomatic wine dispensers. And in lieu of being handed, as the elder May puts it, "something like a Bible or a cello," one consults a lightweight e-book wine list that "even a computer illiterate can sort through."

The menu, too, has been radicalized. After dispatching executive chef Odette Fada and chef de cuisine Matteo Bergamini to the mother country for a month ("to meet the chefs of the moment, explore the emerging philosophies of cooking, find out what techniques are changing"), May worked with them to devise a menu that, he explains, "is not divided into appetizers, main courses, desserts, but arranged by product: for example, vegetables and salads, grains and legumes, shellfish and mollusks, meats and poultry, game and exotics meats. Under each category you find appetizers and main dishes, hot and cold, small and large. The customer orders what he wants. He makes a dining experience suitable to his palate and to his pocket."

If an office worker looking for a lunchtime recharge is not up to such a feat, he or she can, instead, pull up a pouf and tuck reliably into Il Quadrifoglio, a nutritionally balanced three-course meal served up in a smart Vignelli-designed bento box.

"My father and Massimo are in their 70s and full of wildly creative ideas," says Marisa May. "I'm more conservative, and I'm 38!" That peculiar alchemy seems to work. SD26 is at once classic, attuned to its times, and not at all predictable. Or, as Vignelli puts it, "very different but at the same time very Italian." --Ted Gachot

Aureole

"I wanted a home for Aureole for the next 20 years," says Charlie Palmer, "and I think that's what we got." He means, of course, the new Aureole on the ground floor of the towering glass, environmentally ambitious 42nd Street headquarters of one of the few banks to survive the recent financial fracas. It's a beautifully understated yet eminently friendly space that you might say seems to glow with a color that defines the city and follows naturally from the restaurant's name: luminescent gray. That is, you might if it weren't that Adam Tihany, the designer, would immediately correct you: "Not really gray. Taupe, mocha, café au lait, frappuccino. Remember, Armani never said gray but always something like Goat Number 7." So let's just say the color of the light that bounces off Bryant Park and, during the day, streams through the restaurant's vast windows.

Not that Palmer came especially for the light. "The real attraction was the ability to do something multidimensional," he says. "For 20 years, Aureole was great, but it was a one-dimensional restaurant." Though prized for its comfort, the snug townhouse setting meant "no bar area and limited seating, broken up on different floors. We could only do a prix-fixe menu, which is a big-deal commitment. You can't eat like that every night."

The new restaurant sees the repressed return big-time. The Bar Room, with seats for 64 and an 18-foot bar, now all but dwarfs the Dining Room. "It's less formal," Palmer explains, "and allows people to dine however they like--bar snacks, a glass of wine, just dessert. There's a lot of flexibility." Something of a Palmer signature, an all-glass wine mezzanine--glass shelves, glass floor--hovers overhead like a thought balloon. While providing a touch of spectacle ("The stewards look like they're in a test tube," says Tihany), it also does an excellent job of nudging attention in the direction of the restaurant's 17,000-bottle collection, which is now stored on the premises rather than in caches all over the metropolitan area.

The 54 seat Dining Room "carries on the Aureole tradition. It's a little more formal, plush," says Palmer. "People always commented on how good it felt at the townhouse. I wanted that sort of comfort but modern design." The curtains for the glass wall that separates the Dining Room from the bar have never quite made it out of the box, since diners seem to like the view of the action, "but at a safe distance, protected," says Palmer. And if the bar crowd has a view in? Well, apparently, the fishbowl effect is no problem. "People love it."

The truly publicity shy can slip through a separate entrance into the 60 seat Private Dining Room--a very welcome addition as far as Palmer is concerned: "For 20 years I sent people somewhere else!"

"The great thing is that before, a visit to Aureole would always have the same character. Now the customer can use the restaurant in different ways: A person who has a business dinner in the Dining Room one night might be back the next for a casual dinner in the Bar Room."

A bit of leftover space--the 3,400-square-foot basement--was set aside for the kitchen, where Mark Stech-Novak installed a battery of the Viking Commercial ranges he just helped design under an ultraviolet-filtered vent system that helps soothe the building's ecological conscience.

"The space is very different from the original townhouse," says Tihany. "A different plan, energy, scale. This is a contemporary space in a contemporary building on a very busy street--everything the old Aureole wasn't. The look and feel is simple, contemporary, clean: few materials, not highly decorated, but thoroughly designed and tailored."

Indeed, the only flourishes in the refreshingly subdued design are a few "signature chandeliers" and digital photos (technological feats that took weeks to render and print) depicting glass Bacchus and maenads in architectural settings by Tihany's eldest son, Bram.

If the tanking economy and building's environmental bent have something to do with the low-wattage look, all for the best. The result: "polished, modern--all about materials and lighting," as Palmer puts it, is appropriate not just for the moment but very likely, he seems equally happy to see, "built to last for a long time." --Ted Gachot

Oceana

For Oceana, its new mooring is more--much, much more. Outfitted like a stately yacht anchored in New York City's Midtown, it deftly navigated the expense account waters of piscine fine dining for 17 years, a Le Bernardin framed by American boardroom sensibilities--clubby, discrete, and hushed, with expressive food that rippled but didn't roil the culinary waters. Now, after tacking a few blocks west in August to the McGraw-Hill Building, one of the steel-and-glass monoliths shadowing the Avenue of the Americas from 48th to 52nd Streets, Oceana has been refitted as a cruise ship, 7,500 square feet of rollicking dining and drinking spaces united by one fluid menu format.

This isn't a restaurant that's been tweaked, reborn, or renewed. Instead, it left parts of its pedigree behind so it could affix its shingle to the cultural current unshackling consumers as supplicants and encouraging them to dictate the flow of action: in a restaurant that means where to sit, how to piece together a meal, how finely to dress (or not), how loudly to converse and laugh (too often, these days, at max volume). In short, the hierarchy is taken down a few pegs and interactions are democratized. This script, speaking of an indulgence of choices (everything except running amok), has been hammered out over the last few years in the louche urban fringes from the Lower East Side to the Mission in San Francisco, throwing a fright into restaurateurs in more well-mannered precincts. But couple withering social imperatives with a squeezed economy, and it can be no surprise that some of the more salient aspects of "downtown" dining have drifted toward the upper end. Only at Oceana, they've taken hold in a space as grand as any.

"Admittedly, over the last six years or so, our business at Oceana had turned [down] a little bit but not our reputation," admits Nick Livanos, the head of the Livanos Restaurant Group, which owns six restaurants in the city and nearby suburbs, including the heralded Greek trailblazer Molyvos. "Oceana has always been dearest to us in an emotional, spiritual way as it was a major part of our lives for so long. It was never an option to end it. We had to make it continue and move it to a worthy location and space."

Tapping the sea/ship analogy one more time, the 12,900-square-foot gutted shell of the former women's clothing store that Oceana would soon occupy resembled the empty hull of a super tanker. In New York City especially, and in almost every other urban area where restaurateurs and landlords butt heads over every square foot, Livanos was looking at the proverbial field of dreams. To Livanos, his landlord, The Rockefeller Group, is a dream, too, after it handed him an additional 400 square feet to accommodate the air conditioning. That triggered a redesign of the kitchen, which could now fit what Livanos always wanted at the old Oceana--an enclosed chef's table beside the working line. On the other side of the kitchen a space was carved out for a reservations/banqueting office, a godsend when maximum effort has to be made to turn the corner on a reported $8 million investment.

"We wanted to take advantage of the size of the space, but the danger was in making it too vast," he notes.

From the one big mother hen, Oceana was divided into many distinct areas to produce many golden eggs (walking to the right, from the entrance): a three-sided marble-topped raw bar highlighted by a whole fish/seafood display afloat on flaked ice (14 seats); a casual dining area of booths and tables scattered about the raw bar near the 49th Street front door (30 seats); four high-top tables near the raw bar along one side of the mahogany screen dividing it from the bar, with the other side of the screen shelved at waist height for nibbling bar standees; a long marble-topped bar (25 seats), a congenial space that's already a scene with suits and suitors; a very visible "wine" private dining room ringed on three sides by sexy labels lounging in their coolers that's become a billboard for the party business (20 seats); a main dining room (150 to 160 seats); a divisible private dining/banquet/reception room; and the chef's table (six seats). When the weather warms next spring, 60 more seats will be divided between an area just off the sidewalk along 49th Street and, at night, in a newly landscaped public area in the wide walk-through between 49th and 48th Streets. That's a lot of restaurant, even with the loss of 34 seats from the main dining room because the four-tops planned to surround the squared-off columns wouldn't fly. They've been chopped to oversized two-tops and have become the most eyed tables in the house.

"It's a big space that doesn't feel cavernous," says Paul McLaughin, the general manager who babysat the new project. "Hats off to Kim Nathanson [Morris Nathanson Design, Pawtucket, RI], who took nearly 13,000 square feet of broken up space for the women's clothing store and turned it into a warm, friendly feel-good restaurant. People come in here and are just wowed by what they see."

But all that's architecture, the flow and go of a public space, conveying mood, regulating oxygen. It's the kitchen--the engine room--that stokes the entire enterprise, the seductive dance of food and drink where one thing can lead to another, for richer or poorer. That's why executive chef Ben Pollinger, relishing the prospect of battalions of diners with the typical aplomb of a hard-riding range jockey, and pastry chef Jansen Chan, a trained architect, plotted every inch of the 5,400-square-foot bi-level kitchen to efficiently replicate Oceana's high-end touches--a mandate, really, from regulars expecting no less--for more diners over a longer service period (Oceana's hours stretch from lunch to midday bar food service to dinner, with Saturday/Sunday brunch replacing lunch). A few things broke in their favor, most importantly--and a deal-breaker, says Livanos, if it weren't there--the ironwork for the vent shaft to the 51st floor, which someone had the foresight to construct when the building went up in 1974 even though no restaurant had ever been planned for the space. "It's always the first question you ask," Livanos says about an existing exhaust outlet. "If the answer is no, then you just walk away."

Early on, Livanos and Pollinger discarded the idea of different menus for the various sections of the restaurant. "We wanted to make the whole menu available throughout," says Livanos. A few gotta-have-a-drink-with-that food items--fried clams, fish tacos, lobster spring rolls, seafood sausage sliders--are tailored for the bar. But who's to say at this Oceana? Those could wind up on a seafood antipasto platter in a few months. In any event, one menu meant kitchen food flow could progress in a more traditional manner rather than dedicating fully equipped stations for each menu. But size matters, and Pollinger knew he had to gear up.

Take ice, for instance. With more stepped-up volume signaling more seafood needing proper care and storage, Pollinger installed two Hoshizaki flaked ice makers, with the one churning in the below decks butchering kitchen feeding a dual door 3,000-pound capacity stainless-steel box (upstairs there's an Ice-O-Matic cube ice maker for the bar and other needs; the other Hoshizaki supplies the raw bar). The downstairs machine pumps ice for an ingenious 13-foot long, three-tiered stainless-steel bunk bed for fish storage, designed by John Livanos, the company patriarch, and tweaked by Pollinger. Fitted inside a dedicated fish walk-in, the top tier is reserved for shellfish nestled in ice-filled perforated inserts fitted into hotel pans or large hard plastic containers. The two bottom tiers, iced to the hilt, hold whole fish waiting to be cut or cooked--a roasted stuffed branzino, a grilled dorade, and a fried curried pink snapper were on the opening menu. Melt-off flows through a hole in each tier to pipes connected to a main line that peeks through a cutout at the bottom corner of the walk-in and drips into a drain beneath a sink in the butchering room.

There, another Pollinger idea speeds the process of breaking down the daily trawl. Cutting boards some five feet in length are fitted into stainless-steel stands that sit flush to the top and under the faucet of each of the two sinks. The fish cutter doesn't need to remove the cutting boards to clean them. Rather the water is turned on, the boards are squeegeed, and the debris is caught by oversized sink traps. On to the next fish. Product from the fish walk-in and the vegetable walk-in next to it reaches the main kitchen via dumbwaiter lest cooks want to hustle down and up the stairs.

Hard to believe, but Pollinger's expediting post in the working kitchen--an open stage to the dining room with an enormous, two-tier DayGlo blue lobster tank partially obstructing but certainly focusing the view--stands nearly in the path quick-stepping patrons from the forward parts of the restaurant must follow to the restrooms. Should their needs be not too urgent, they'll be able to linger and watch Pollinger's top chefs hammering mise en place on a pieced-together Jade suite that has two six-burner ranges facing off (one for vegetables, the other for hot appetizers), a plancha for vegetables and seafood, two French tops for panned fish and sauces, a grill, and a double- and single-well Pitco deep fryer. Standing at one end, a Rational double deck combi-oven steams lobsters (top) and roasts branzino (bottom). On the other end, a double-deck Jade broiler gets fired for the meat. Yes, meat, like a 28-ounce dry-aged bone-in strip loin and prime filet mignon. There's chicken, lamb, and hanger steak, too. It's a different Oceana.

Pollinger's menu, strictly à la carte, dispenses with the holy trinity of appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Again, the floor is opened up to the diner (sometimes even his seat, as one can migrate from raw bar to dining room): perhaps raw fish preparations (marinated, smoked, poke, crudo); perhaps composed appetizers like seafood stuffed calamari with wilted greens and herb vinaigrette or peekytoe crab cakes with wasabi aïoli; perhaps a composed main course like taro wrapped pompano with baby bok choy, long beans, peanuts, and coconut/cilantro curry; a whole fish; a meat; or something simple like grilled swordfish. Of course, there are veggie sides--spicy napa cabbage with lime/chile glaze is one--and side sauces--romesco, Moroccan-style hollandaise, for instance.

Despite a soft August opening that didn't officially ramp up to full speed until mid-September, Oceana quickly caught on with locals, especially at lunch. With midday bookings reaching 160-plus and with the last guests leaving shortly before dinner service, Pollinger got a crash course on the versatility and speed of his equipment, settling upon the double-deck Alto-Shaam combi-oven with smoking function as "simply amazing." Pollinger rattles off its virtues like a pitchman on late night TV: "We use it to roast striped bass, which comes out crisped, succulent, and moist…we oil-poach the halibut in it…it's great for family meals that we can prep a service shift ahead…for parties it's awesome." And best of all: "You should taste the smoked sable fish I made in the combi. It blows away every Jewish deli around." As the covers spiral up, the combi and 12 burners and a range in a banquet prep area in the back of the kitchen have morphed into an all-day prep area.

Chan, too, can't believe he's lucked into so much space--an area for pastry and one for bread making. And he's got toys: a walk-in refrigerator and a freezer, a four-door Traulsen freezer with shelf heights calibrated to the height of his dessert amuse--pudding pops (frozen pudding on a stick in various flavors); undercounter freezers and refrigerators; shelving galore for dry goods and tools; an "ice-cream zone" with Pacojet, ice cream service box, and 10-quart Carpigiani ice cream maker; two Hobart mixers (20- and 30-quart); Doyon sheeter; six-burner Jade range; a stacked Blodgett convection oven; a stacked Doyon bread oven with proofing box; and a Bongard dough divider. And he's got ideas. His doughnut platter includes five variations: an Earl Grey tea glazed yeast doughnut; a walnut frosted/fall spiced cake doughnut; a salty caramel custard-filled doughnut; a sour strawberry fritter; and a chocolate/cocoa nib doughnut hole.

"We're finding out that we have the right tools for the variety of cooking methods and the wide range of the menu," says Pollinger. "And that's backed by the proper support--the kettles, the tilting skillet, the banquet line--that keeps up the production. "Jansen and I spent a lot of hours visualizing each part and how it would fit into the whole kitchen. Then we sketched it out. He taught me how to draw like an architect. It was a great collaboration that worked out." --Jim Poris