I wanted to meet right when it opened, but my friend at Cherry, a French-Japanese restaurant adjacent to Vikram Chatwal‘s Dream Downtown hotel, was worried. "You might miss out on the scene," she said. Her concerns were overblown. Even though we were dining at the AARP-approved hour of 6pm, there was scene aplenty. To my left, a wealthy-looking group of men and women–probably guests at the hotel–were already indulging in cocktails, their laughter rising with each clink of glasses. To my right, a sharp-dressed man and woman, possibly brought together for business reasons based on overheard snippets of conversation ("So, where’d you grow up?"). The guy, maybe 33, was fit, had artfully-trimmed stubble on his face, and wore a well-pressed blue dress shirt. The woman, a gorgeous 28 or so, had impossibly blonde hair and a shirt so white that she seemed to radiate light, cutting through the darkness of the bordello-esque dining room. It was impossible not to steal glances and concoct a fictional back story for them that ends in a suite upstairs. If this was the scene at 6:15, I can extrapolate from here.
Enter the Ninja
And here was quite nice. Starting with my chair, one of those C-shaped numbers that hold you snugly upright no matter how much sake you drink. Speaking of, here comes the Sake Ninja, known to his family as Chris Johnson. I told the Ninja that I generally prefer dry sake. He returned with a flight of four small pours, from the dry to the still-dry-but-not-so-much. I loved them all. (It went from Yoshinogawa to Akitabare to Marada to Mai, and I liked the Marada best.)
Then he talked about the purity of sake, and the reasons people believe it doesn’t give you a hangover if you drink water along with it (something about "congeners"). He also whipped out a little plastic box of rice, similar to what some Idaho angler might keep trout flies in, to show me the differences in polish level. The deal with sake is that the smaller the grain is polished, the better the sake made from it is. Okay, there are other "deals" with sake, but that’s a big one. Since I also like weird beers, I had an Ozenzo Yukidoke IPA. It was okeydoke.
We ordered a bunch of food, mostly small plates. My favorite was the one I kept referring to as "that pizza thing," but was officially known as the BONDST Tuna Tart. It had creamy ponzu, micro shiso, and white truffle oil (probably the source of the omg). It paired beautifully with the sake, with the richness of the tuna dissolving under the dry fruit notes of the Akitabare. Another winner: Foie Gras Mousse, with tuna tataki (yes, more tuna), umeshu cherries (more zing than bing), and spiced cashews. And of course there was a sushi course, with barbecued eel dancing in a jacket of avocado, crispy tofu, and candied bacon.
Dessert? Oh I shouldn’t, but if you risk losing face if I decline, then bring on that Fuji Apple Gyoza, with hazelnuts, macerated cherries, and vanilla crème anglais. And surely it’s Suntory Bread Pudding time – yamazaki whiskey, toffee sauce. Goodness, I’m stuffed.
And here’s the man responsible for all this nice stuff: Jonathan Morr, who, along with Eugene Morimoto, opened the restaurant in January. He’s a friendly sort with fine-dining bona fides from here to Switzerland, where he went to hotel school (I had wrongly guessed Cornell). He’s also the force behind BONDST, a legitimate New York classic and Nobu rival, as well as the former APT in the Meatpacking District, which helped propel the neighborhood to its current status as one of the city’s most popular nightlife districts.
The obvious question, then, is how he came upon the French-Japanese concept. "Honestly, I can hardly remember at this point," he said with a laugh. "We wanted Japanese food, and needed it to be different than BONDST, and the bordello decor led us to a French influence." Whatever the genesis of the idea, the execution is precise. Every dish that came out of chef Andy Choi’s kitchen was dynamite, though I wish they served actual dynamite, by which I mean scallop with mushroom and smelt roe.
Morr insists on the highest standards of service and presentation. "What are you doing?" he asked the waiter as he set down my friend’s decaf at the end of our meal. "The cup goes here, with the handle turned like this. The sugar goes here, creme here." And he was right. The way he adjusted the coffee service, you’d hardly have to look down and interrupt your conversation to fix your cuppa the way you like. Sure, it’s the ultimate first world problem to have to reach across the table for the Splenda, but it all counts when you take fine dining seriously, and the cumulative effect of doing everything just right is a meal to remember, and perhaps even a Michelin star somewhere down the line.
Cherry is a restaurant first, and a lounge second, by which I mean it’s comfortable and cool enough to linger after dessert, maybe ordering another round of drinks like the Cherry Bomb (tequila, cherry jam, black pepper agave, lemon) or consulting with the Ninja for another sake flight. Morr insists the focus is fiercely on the food and service for now, and they’ll worry about the nightlife component when the time comes. But for early birds like myself, who slouched into that perfect chair for the better part of two hours, it felt like a proper night out. I went home and kipped down at 10pm, sleeping more deeply than I had in months.
The next morning, my head was as clear as a spring day, and I felt like a million bucks. Always listen to your ninja.