The Iron Chef Does American Comfort

What’s next for chef Morimoto, aka the original Iron Chef? As of last night, the Japanese culinary master opened his latest venture downtown not with his iconic sushi, but with the aim to serve up an Asian interpretation of classic American comfort food.

The new restaurant is called Tribeca Canvas, and under Morimoto’s guidance the kitchen plans to turn out bistro-style dishes including a macaroni and cheese dish with a poached egg on top, and lamb ragu steamed buns. He also does a bit of Japanese-French comfort food, which you can experience in the Escargot Takoyaki, a take on the ball-shaped Japanese treat that, instead of shrimp or pork, gets stuffed with a delicate snail, herb butter, and dollop of kewpie mayonnaise.

Thomas Schoos of Schoos Design handled the look of the 65-seat dining room, and sought inspiration from the neighborhood. That means you can see Schoos’ ode to Tribeca’s art scene and the area’s origins as a green parkway with the hand-painted trees lining some walls, and the light fixtures that were made with vines and help add a wooded depth to the décor. On the gray leather banquettes, they have bright pink flowers, which contribute a nice splash of color to the forest.

Though they don’t have their liquor license yet due to Hurricane Sandy related delays, when they do you can expect to hit up to the 10-seat bar and sip, nibble, and relax starting at 5pm and going until 4am every day.

Photo via Eater.

Deli Ramen and Brooklyn: Q&A With Josh Kaplan of Dassara

Last week, the buzz surrounding Josh Kaplan and Justin DeSpirito’s new ramen shop Dassara was everywhere. After a short soft opening, the Carroll Gardens shop officially opens today, and yes, the now famous Deli Ramen is on the menu. Dassara isn’t the first to offer a wacky take on the iconic Japanese dish. Last month, Angelo Sosa started making a brunch ramen at Social Eatz and Do or Dine was doing one, too, with bacon and eggs during the now defunct Sunday brunch service. But what makes the fifteen-dollar bowl of ramen at Dassara stand out? I talked to Kaplan to find out.

You have gotten a lot of press for your deli ramen. How did you think it up?
The Deli Ramen was a pretty logical leap for me as a Jew. When you have your first chicken ramen, you kind of get that Proustian rediscovery thing bringing you back to your first chicken soup, which for me had matzo balls in it. From there, the question was how to translate that to ramen. For chashu, the pastrami seemed like a fairly logical leap, and we also have an amazing deli willing to work with us [Mile End]. Rather than go the Totto route with raw onion, we thought we could achieve that crunch and heighten the sense that you’re having your Jewish grandma’s chicken soup with celery.

Are you a fan of regular ramen?
We love traditional ramen; my partners eat it regularly. Before this restaurant devoured my free time, I had eaten at every ramen-ya in the city.

You have said your concept focuses dishes infused with a Brooklyn fare. What does that mean to you?
The truth is we don’t know what Brooklyn ramen is yet. We’re trying to figure it out and there is a chance we won’t be the restaurant that definitively answers that question. To me, what defines Brooklyn and really New York City is its eclecticism: the mix of cuisines and cultures and the ways their proximity here influences one another. This allows us a wide berth for experimentation, and we are excited for the opportunity to explore the possibilities.

Do you have any NYC influences?
Yes we’re very influenced by the city. I think New York has the most intelligent, ambitious, adventurous chefs in the world.

What made you decide to open up in Carroll Gardens?
My partners live just on the other side of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights, so it was a natural fit. Carroll Gardens is a wonderfully supportive neighborhood for restaurants and amazingly didn’t have a ramen shop, so it made a lot of sense.

What can we look forward to having at Dassara in the future?
For the fall, we’re developing a pork and apple ramen and a Xian ramen that features the flavors highlighted by Xian Famous Foods, one of our favorite restaurants in the city. Down the line, we’re working on a K-town ramen, a Creole ramen, and about a thousand other half-baked ideas that will probably never make it on the menu.

What of the Now Todd English-less Ember Room?

When the Ember Room opened up in February 2011 in Hell’s Kitchen, it did so with fanfare, parties, and with chefs Todd English and Ian Kittichai backing the project. Not long after it opened, Ember Room fell into that same problem a lot of celebrity-owned restaurants do: the food, service, and vibe all rode on names and in the end, didn’t deliver. Basically, it sucked. Now Todd English has stepped down from the Ember Room, a move he did quietly a few weeks ago, and has let Kittichai take over the kitchen. So what will become of the Ember Room? Will it continue to smolder or will it gradually cool to stillness?

Perhaps English’s move is smart, he has after all been running restaurants since the 1980s when he opened Olives in Massachusetts. Since then he has quickly moved up in the restaurateur world, starting businesses, staring on his own TV show, and writing numerous cookbooks. Maybe he just heard Ember Room’s death rattle, after all, it’s not unusual for celebrity helmed eateries to fail when the restaurant doesn’t step up to the plate. For example look at Britney Spears’s short-lived NYLA in New York or J-Lo’s Madres in California. Some restaurants, like the Heath Ledger’s Five Leaves, remain strong even when the celebrity presence is gone, and that’s usually due to its solid food and service.

Kittichai, in his thick Thai accent agrees and says, “I want to make this restaurant more impressive, more fun about eating, more fun about experiencing. Like, trying the Ladyboy [cocktail].”Aside from the whimsical drink list and recognizable Asian-flare themed dishes like lobster pad Thai, whole striped bass, and juicy volcano chicken, Kittichai has worked to recreate the menu into something people, not just tourists wanting to eat at a famous chef’s restaurant, will make an effort to go out and try.

Under Kittichai’s command, the food offerings appear to have perked up, though it still remains safe for diners not really wanting something too different or spicy. The chef also tapped into today’s current trend of comfort-fusion food by adding dishes like green curry lasagna, Thai chili mac n’cheese, and Thai tacos with shredded chicken, coconut, and a sweet chili sauce.

In the end, perhaps English’s exit was a good thing. He might have brought the crowds but it is Kittichai’s name carries weight in food-conscious circles. So we hope: English is gone but the Ember burns on.  

New York Opening: Hakkasan

The restaurant that first taught Londoners back in 2001 that Asian food can be utterly life-altering (as well as bank account-altering). A couple of Michelin stars and Dubai and Miami outposts later, Hakkasan’s celebrated mod Cantonese cuisine has finally found a home in NYC.

Located along a rather noir-ish stretch of 43rd St., stepping inside is nevertheless like entering a fantastical glamour bubble. Indeed, the 11,000-square-foot space houses a marble entrance hall, a long bar, the Ling Ling Lounge, and elegantly sexy dining areas separated by intricate Asian lattice work. Chef Ho Chee Bon, who has done time at Moscow’s Turandot, mixes Hakkasan classics (Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese honey–yum!) with dishes conjured from locally-sourced ingredients. The Hakka cocktails are a must.

Industry Insiders: The Men Behind Rockit Ranch Productions, Rockin’ it to the Top

As the original pioneers of two of Chicago’s storied nightlife districts past and present–Weed Street and River North–it appears that the gentlemen of Rockit Ranch Productions possess the Midas touch.  With the continuing success of their current venues, The Underground and Rockit Bar & Grill, Billy Dec (CEO/Founder), Arturo Gomez (President), and Brad Young (Chairman/Founder) seem to have perfected that elusive formula for success and longevity (more on that later). Amid a whirlwind lifestyle spent constantly managing, honing, and promoting their venues, their brand, and their city, Dec, Gomez, and Young found time to chat with us about how they all met, what you need to do to create longevity, and why Chicago simply has everything.

How did you guys all meet?
Billy Dec: I opened Dragon Room in 1998 [which is] where I met Arturo.
Arturo Gomez: I actually started working for him at the time as a barback.  I had recently graduated from University of Michigan where [I studied] biology and Latin American Studies. I’m using absolutely zero of what I studied. I was supposed to go to dental school and I had cold feet so I moved here to see if there was anything that sparked my interest in the year I was taking off.  When I jumped in, I quickly realized I had a passion for the hospitality industry.  
Billy Dec: The cool thing about Arturo was he started as a busboy, a barback, and then he made his way up to head barback and then manager and now he’s the president of the company.  
Young: I [had] left a job working at Mesirow Financial and I had planned on taking the whole summer off and traveling, going to Europe. It was probably two weeks after I left Mesirow, I happened to run into an old high school friend who was in the nightclub business and was partners with Billy at Dragon Room.   The direction of the club scene in Chicago at that time was going really small. There were a lot of boutique clubs but not a lot of big dance clubs like there were in New York and Miami. We began a partnership to start Circus in 1998 and it was a 17,000 square foot dance club that people would perform live circus acts over your head when you were dancing. It was really over-the-top. People loved it. It was a great way to get my feet wet in the business.  
 
You guys ushered in that era where Weed Street was crazy.
Dec: Yeah, it wasn’t there before we got there. We totally pioneered Weed Street; no one was there. Brad and I, in 2002, went off and started our own company, Rockit Ranch Productions, and looked for a desolate, up-and-coming area, and it happened to be Hubbard [Street]. No one was in River North, which is now the #1 entertainment district in Chicago. One of the first things we did in 2002 when we looked for a new space [was] we took a consulting deal with ownership at a club called Le Passage, which wasn’t doing well [at the time]. [We] took it over, made it a hit. They were losing their butt in the first two years until we came in in 2002 and made all their money back.
 
Le Passage was huge in the early aughts.
Dec: Yeah. Then immediately we started building Rockit [Bar & Grill]. We were building it in this area that everyone said we were crazy to be in. It was called Hubbard/River North and we pioneered that neighborhood.  
Young: Basically we looked at [Rockit] kind of how we looked at Circus. Not necessarily that the concept was the same but we looked for voids in the marketplace. What are the things people might want but don’t know they do? At that point, personally, I was sick of dance clubs and hearing the same kind of techno music or trance or hip-hop or whatever. I was in my car driving one day and listening to Guns N’ Roses and thinking, “God, what an awesome song.”  This was nine years ago already. “How come I can’t go somewhere and listen to rock music and not have it come out of a jukebox at a dive bar?” So we also said, “You know, there’s not a lot of places where you can go out to dinner and have a great meal and not spend $50 a person.” There was nothing that fit that middle market. So we combined that into Rockit Bar & Grill, which tailored to a very mainstream [crowd]– no velvet rope, no guest list, no VIP. We had rock music, pool tables. It was a place that I would want to go to and hang out. We always build places that are places that we’d want to go to because if you don’t enjoy what you do, what’s really the point?  
 
How would you summarize the three of your respective roles?
Dec: I’m mostly focused on branding and communicating to the rest of the world outside of our four walls. Marketing. PR. Social media. What I do has a lot of celebrating what our team of top talent is constantly creating and is capable of creating. I do a lot of external communication at large, rapid volumes. I’m constantly meeting with influencers from around the city or people who are visiting the city. I’m hugely into creating new products and new brands and new business and new relationships for the company.
Gomez: My personal responsibilities as the president are really to ensure that all departments that exist within the company are focused, given clear-cut directions, and have the resources needed to achieve and accomplish the goals we set out in the beginning of the year. It’s also to make sure there’s consistency in all of our products. A lot of my time–I would say a vast majority of it–is focused in on the four walls of our businesses. Billy is focused on business development and outward messaging. He’s become an ambassador of the company. Brad also shares that responsibility with him so together they are really focused on how the company is going to grow. Brad is the person who is really the front person for all of our investor groups. Brad is the person who has become a liaision to those individuals.
Young: My role was always the creation of the entity from the ground up. Everything that people take for granted, as far as the actual opening of a place from the financing of it to the actual construction to the design to the conception. Not just raising money but making sure your place is [going to be] profitable.
Dec: I think a really cool way to look at it is that anything that happens within the four walls of any property we have, whether it’s training, the temperature of the food, a lightbulb, anything a customer can touch or see or taste, that’s Arturo. Anything that happens outside of our four walls that a customer can hear, perceive, learn about, that’s me. And things that customers will never know about or see, that’s Brad.  Like accounting, finances, architecture, design, things before we even open that people will never know about.
 
What do you think the Rockit Ranch brand signifies today?
Gomez: I think three words: Elevated Entertainment Experience. That’s something that we preach and we focus on in everything we do, whether it’s a nightclub experience or a higher-end culinary experience. For us, it absolutely means looking at every single detail start-to-finish and making sure people enjoy our products as much as we do. It’s giving them a mental vacation when they stop by. That’s the mantra we focus on and [we] make sure we’re always delivering that elevated entertainment experience.
 
What has been the secret to your longevity when people are so fickle about nightlife?
Young: I think the key factor is we have three partners: Billy, Arturo, and myself who all do different things. I think a lot of the problem with a lot of operators is that they start off with a common goal because they’re either friends or they’ve always wanted to do a certain thing – whether it’s a restaurant or nightclub – but their skill set overlaps a lot. What that doesn’t allow you to do is expand or cover each other’s weaknesses. What Arturo and Billy and I have set out [to do] from the start is truly to have a mission to define our roles and do what we are best at and apply it not only to Rockit Ranch Productions but also to our venues.
Dec: No one in this entire organization is more important than any other–it’s a collaboration. That mix and commitment to the mix is what separates us from everyone and what has kept us in business. We have our separate strengths, [so] we need to work together and keep them equally valued.
Gomez: We pride ourselves on really staying very, very close to the pulse of the way the city is moving in likes and tastes. Relationship-building is something we put a strong emphasis on too.  
Dec: Chicago is a very relationship-based city. It’s not as transient as, let’s say, L.A. or Miami or even New York. People here create relationships and a lot of that is built on dependability, so when people like Arturo execute consistency and Brad has implemented accountability, which helps solidify the relationships, you have true relationships in place. People will then communicate with you how you’re doing.  If they like something, they’ll let you and 100 people know and if they don’t like something, they’ll let you know so you can have honest feedback and you can improve. The whole relationship-building thing is literally at the core of our mission statement.  
Gomez: It’s [also] really continually coaching our people that the overall experience–whether it’s an entertainment aspect, service aspect, or actual product aspect–has to continually evolve to accommodate to changing tastes but also have some consistency.  
 
As guys who have traveled to a lot of different cities, what would you say Chicago has that other cities don’t? What do you think is a misconception about Chicago?
Young: First and foremost, I think Chicago is the best city, really, on the face of the Earth. Maybe I’m being biased but Chicagoans are good people to their core.  What I think separates Chicago from the primary markets–L.A., New York, Miami, Las Vegas–is that those are way more transient cities than Chicago.  Most people who live in Chicago are either from Chicago or from the Midwest.  
Gomez: I think the misconception–from people who haven’t been here–is that Chicago is still some ho-bunk town in the backwoods of the Midwest. Obviously, if you’ve ever been here, you know that’s not the case.
Dec: [People] don’t understand the different diverse offerings [in Chicago] and the levels within each of those different offerings. Diversity in culture, diversity in income and flash. People don’t realize how beautiful the new buildings are to the old architecture. They don’t realize how cosmopolitan, how business we are.  They don’t realize how hardcore our business and financial scene is and they don’t realize how beautiful our parks and lake are. They don’t realize those extremes. The extremes are bigger than anywhere in the world and the diversity is really special. Basically what I’m trying to say is we have everything!  We have everything!  
Gomez: I’ve had so many people who have come to visit and been floored by everything Chicago has to offer. This is a world-class city without a doubt. For me, growing up in the Midwest, it’s the epitome of everything I’ve ever known. It has true Midwest hospitality–that means welcoming everybody with open arms, and you don’t necessarily get that in every major city. From an entertainment aspect, Chicago is on the level of any other city, no problem.
 
What can you share about the two new venues you have in the works?
Dec: Basically we just have two new places that we’re opening! They’re like restaurants and bars–they’re not clubs. I can’t really say anything about them because partially we’re still in the process of formatting the concepts.
Gomez: We think that there’s going to be some more movement in the more casual sector.  
Dec: But what people don’t have with casual and quicker as we know it is [something] as innovative as Sunda is, so we won’t compromise the innovative part.  It’ll still be ridiculously cool and innovative and we’ll combine that with quicker and easier.
 
Do you have a timeline for them to open?
Dec: I would say one is gonna happen spring/summer and the other will happen summer/fall.