A New Soho Pop-up Restaurant Answers the Question, ‘What Happens When’

In Soho, a pink neon sign asks passersby half a question — “What Happens When?” — and dares you to finish it. A glance at the simple black and white space behind it would lead you to believe this was just another sleek Soho restaurant full of sleek Soho people. In reality, What Happens When, a temporary, metamorphosing, and half-mad dining experience, is so much more.

The team behind What Happens When are completely out of their minds, especially the chef, John Fraser. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Fraser, along with artist Emille Baltz, musician Micah Silver, and designer Elle Kunnos de Voss, opened this restaurant in late January with the intent of closing it nine months later, and they had the very un-New York expectation of making no money on the venture. These two facts alone make What Happens When an anomaly in the restaurant business, where profits and staying power are the ultimate goals. But Fraser and his team decided to push their project further. Every thirty days for the nine months of the restaurant’s existence, they’ll redesign the space, re-write the menu, and compose a new piece of music to create a new experience — or movement, as they’re being called. To fund the project and to get ideas for the months’ themes, they turned to Kickstarter, a fundraising platform used primarily to crowd-source money for artists in need. The campaign succeeded quickly. By their January 25th opening, they had $20,000 to spend, no strings attached

What Happens When’s first movement was inspired, in part, by the brutal winter we’ve had this year: the jarring bite of opening your front door, the woolen mugginess of a subway car or an overheated building. When I stepped into What Happens When’s closet-sized atrium on a particularly windy and unpleasant February night , where I was inundated by a minimal but bold wall of sound, I could quickly see the winter theme at work in the extreme and sudden temperature shift. Thus, the first question of the night was formed and answered: What happens when you step into What Happens When?

The wait staff had a sparkle in their eyes, as if this wasn’t a job but a very strange and exclusive party they’d been invited to. Soon, our waiter brought a complimentary prosecco cocktail and an amuse bouche trio: a shot of split pea soup, an onion dip with spring onions and croutons, and what was referred to as ‘a grown-up ants-on-a-log.’ (What happens when a restaurant decides they don’t care about making money? Bubbly all around, that’s what.)

The dishes were bold and complicated without being pretentious. A standout first course was a half dozen tiny oysters served in a cool puddle of beet mignonette, and garnished with sunchokes and bits of arugula. Roasted cauliflower, a familiar standard on winter menus, was served in a tumble of buttery mushrooms, with wisps of heritage ham and slow-roasted grapes. After deciding against the arctic char at the last minute, we were struck by regret when we saw the otherworldly concoction on the table next to ours, a glistening pink cylinder. No less thought had been put into the main courses; The guinea hen was a succulent comfort served with a buckwheat crepe that was actually more like a savory cake. The cod was crisp, both from the expertly seared skin and the dill floating in the clam and squid broth.

The dessert course, while quite good, didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the menu. Choices seemed less deliberate and more conventional, like something you’d find at the end of any menu. (What happens when you throw a handful of berries atop some crème brulee? Not much.) image

In the black and white blue-print inspired space, the food stole the entire show in a landslide, which begged another question: What happens when you have to create a whole new menu every month, each one needing to be of this caliber? Adding even a few dishes to a restaurant’s menu can be a trial. There are sous chefs and line cooks to train, and once they’ve been trained it still might take the kitchen some time to turn out the dishes quickly and accurately. Also, the wait staff will need to relearn the menu and be able to talk intelligently about the food.

While the project seems to embrace the here today, gone tomorrow nature of restaurants in New York City, it also seems to tempt that same adage, so I caught up with John Fraser a few days later. He dashed in, having spent the day at Dovetail, and after a few minutes checking in with his three sous chefs in the kitchen, we left to grab an afternoon coffee across the street. The following morning, Fraser was going to cook French toast on the CBS Early Show because, “that’s what monkeys do. When you open a restaurant, you had to do stupid monkey things, like juggle and ride a unicycle.” From the minute we entered the cafe, Fraser seemed to immensely enjoy being in a restaurant that wasn’t his.

“People keep calling it a pop-up,” he said, “ and I really want to rail against the idea of this being a pop-up.” What would he rather it be called? Temporary restaurant seemed fair, he thought, but it was maybe even something more than that. “This was kind of an attempt to bring some of what Soho used to be back to Soho,” he said, talking about the spontaneity and grittiness of the art scene that existed south of Houston in the 70’s and early 80’s.

Sure, there is something spontaneous about jumping into a temporary restaurant-meets-art-installation. But, to be clear, a prix-fixe menu can only be so ‘gritty,’ even if it is a bargain compared to the rest of the New York dining scene. After the waiter told us that our silverwear was located in a small drawer under our table to save time for the staff and add to the DIY aesthetic, my dining companion, Brad Dececco, joked, “at home we have the butler do this.” At least a few of our fellow diners could have said the same in seriousness, because there’s only so much old Soho that the current Soho can handle.

But What Happens When is still pushing the status quo of the restaurant industry, daring others to do two things: Take more creative risks, and dare to collaborate (something a lot of meglomanic chefs seem allergic to.) When asked about how the collaboration process goes, Fraser seemed a little apologetic. “You know, it sounds really kumbaya, very treehugger-ish but, Ella starts to draw, and I start talking about words, and Micah starts making sounds…” These creative meetings could last many hours, and Fraser admitted that at times they get “a little nasty. I mean, there’s a certain amount of joy involved with it, because we’re doing something that’s important to us, collectively, as a foursome. But also, every person is used to driving the bus.” Ultimately the struggle has been worth it. “Yeah, it is a fucking mess, but I can feel the personal growth. Every day it seems like I’m thinking, ‘Oh what did I get myself into,’ but at the same time… it’s a bit like a rite of passage.”

As rites of passage go, this one is a bit more of a trial by fire than say, a sweet sixteen party. Fraser’s goal that “Money shouldn’t rule creativity,” is an admirable one, but one that’s brave to be serving up to New York’s deep-pocketed diners. In the restaurant industry, money rules with a gold fist and that’s especially true in the Manhattan. Space is a commodity. Audiences are discriminating. A critic can lurk in, (not to mention yelpers) and make or mangle a new restaurant overnight. So, certainly, with less than two weeks before the What Happens When’s first transition, Fraser had a menu ready to go. “No,” he said calmly. “I could write a menu right now, but it’s not about that. The menu has to reflect the collaboration between four people. There has to be a thread running through all the pieces—space, music, food.” Money (and it seems time) isn’t ruling their creative process. The collaboration is. “Have you ever heard of a restaurant that charges for coffee refills?” Fraser looks at me, incredulous, as we leave. “This place actually charges for coffee refills.” He laughs as if this is a prank he’s enjoying. “I love it! It’s just so awesome.”

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Photos by Brad DeCecco

Industry Insiders: Glen Coben, Design-Addicted

Glen Coben is the president of Glen and Company, specializing in architecture branding design. He’s had a hand in Bistro Chat Noir, Del Posto, Esca, the Neptune Room, Noodle Bar, and Zucca. Coben describes himself as an architect and designer with an intense love of creating spaces; his current projects include the new Wyndam hotel, Fashion 26, The Edison Ballroom, a complete renovation of the Old Homestead, Bar Luna, and 57 restaurant and club in Tokyo.

How would you describe yourself? My life varies between being in the office and working with my incredible team of architects and designers on great projects. I’m meeting with clients, contractors, artists. The industry is about relationships that form the foundation of what we do. What I do is the ability to tell stories through design.

Upcoming projects? Miguel Sanchez Romera’s Barcelona-based L’Esguard has one Michelin star, and I’m designing his first restaurant outside Barcelona. It will be called MSR New York. I’ve spent the last 18 months working with him, and we’ve unveiled what the restaurant is going to look like. Fashion 26 at the Wyndham is what brought us together. I was originally hired to design the restaurant, and then we were hired out to do the lobby and public spaces, and then the guest rooms. The great thing about the project is their corporate guidelines; they’re wonderfully fashioned and put together, not quite like a menu, but it talks about expectation of quality. When we first sat down, we were encouraged to follow the guidelines of quality, but to also strive for innovation specific to the location, or site-specific design.

And how was working on Fashion 26? In making brand values local to space, Fashion 26 will speak value-for-money integrated with understated luxury in the Garment District. Those were our talking points as far as designing this particular Wyndham Hotel: value for less money. We used a lot of references to “weaving” things together with plaids and pinstripes to create custom wall coverings and treatments. The front desk is an old cutting-room table with cast iron legs. We’ve created a fashion stew.

Some of your favorite projects? I was the store designer for NIKE and NIKETOWN, which has a global brand presence.

How did you start out? I went to Cornell School of Architecture and learned that architects come in lots of different shapes and sizes. From there, I went to a collaborative organization for artists and architects called SITE for Sculpture in the Environment, and my first mentor was an artist called James Wines, an icon of the early 70s and 80s. From there, I was a principal at Rockwell Group, where my role was to head up the fairly large studio, and I worked on very diverse projects, such as the Kodak Theatre for the Academy Awards. I was working with Michael Ovitz to bring football back to Los Angeles. I was also in charge of the Mall at Jersey Garden. The diversity of work there inspired me to go out on my own and create a diversified practice.

What are your go-to places? The original Wild Ginger in Seattle. You remember the first time you ever taste the Seven Flavor Beef. I also like La Esquina, Corton, Dovetail, the front room at Gramercy Tavern, the Bouqueria in Barcelona and Amandari Hotel in Bali.

Who are your mentors? I admire David Rockwell as an innovator, a hospitality designer, and as a friend.

What is architecture focused on right now? Comfort. I see that we’re going towards a time where guests are looking for comfort as well as style and accessibility.

Anything that annoys you? Molecular gastronomy. I don’t truly understand the term. I understand that it’s innovation in terms of technique, but the need for a label to talk about something that is either new or avant garde puts people into a cubbyhole that’s too limited for some who are doing amazing things that are not molecular by nature. The term bothers me.

A First-Timer’s Field Guide to the Ballet

Let’s give a warm welcome to fall, which along with introducing you to your new fall wardrobe could also introduce you to the ballet, as the new season for the American Ballet Theater commences this week. If you lean more towards action movies and indie bands, getting decked out to make a pilgrimage to the uncharted wilds of the Upper West Side could feel a bit out of character. As daunting as trading in Converse All-Stars for conservative kitten heels seems, the ABT is something all New Yorkers should branch out and try. It’s recognized as one of the great dance companies in the world. A living national treasure since its founding in 1940, ABT annually tours the United States performing for more than 600,000 people, and it’s the only major cultural institution to do so. The ABT has also made more than 15 international tours to 42 countries, and this October the company returns home to Manhattan. Twenty-one-year-old Daniil Simkin, an award-winning veteran of the stage since the age of six, offers up his advice to a ABT virgin — or those with a serious aversion to men in tights.

So what do I have to dig out of my closet to wear to the ballet? Is it an excuse to get all dressed up? One wears definitely something elegant. I prefer dark colors. Depending on personality, something extravagant or flashy should work, too. A general outline would be: as long as you would wear it to a nice dinner, it should work. For everyday wear, I really like the clothes at G-Star. For something more extravagant , my go-to store is Emporio Armani.

Recommendations: Bergdorf Goodman (Midtown East) – The perfect afternoon destination for ladies who lunch. ● Blue&Cream (East Village) – This venue is the perfect place to really show off your style. Access Perk: 50% off a Lamptons Hoody. ● Intermix (Upper East Side) – Access Perk: Receive a $50 discount with any purchase of $300 or more at this one-stop shopping mecca for city fashionistas.

Where should one go to have a few drinks before the show? If the weather is nice, definitely go the Rooftop Terrace at the Empire Hotel right in front of the Lincoln Center.

Recommendations:Whiskey Park (Upper West Side) – Access Perk: 30% off your bill at this place for posh sips. ● Cleopatra’s Needle (Upper West Side) – Nothing to text home about, but if you’re up here, you might as well get in here. Cozy jazz scene that will make you seem cultured, even if it’s just your dress. ● P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Square (Upper West Side) – When you’re dolled up, step into the newest branch of this uptown classic. Enjoy your ballet with a side of burger.

I’m totally new to ABT; what would you recommend to newbies like me? For first-time ballet watchers, I would recommend the pirate tale of Le Corsaire. It is an easy to follow story about a pirate who falls in love with a beautiful slave girl. The production has strong pirates, gunshots, beautiful women in gorgeous costumes, and great scenery. If you prefer something less Hollywood-esque, go for our all-Balanchine evening.

What has been your favorite part? I also really like Le Corsaire because I like to perform the role of Lankendem — the bad guy who tries to kill his friend and steal the girl. I am able to have more fun on stage when I play the bad guy. I also really enjoyed dancing the lead role in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, which I did for the first time in May.

What are some helpful tips that can keep me from looking like a fool? Before the curtain goes up, there are three bells, normally sounded by the ushers. By the time the bell rings for the third time, you should move towards your seats. Normally the evening starts with a short overture by the orchestra before the actual dancing begins.

It seems like the evening is pretty long; what if I need a drink? Usually the evening is divided into two to three parts with an intermission of 20 minutes in between. Snacks and drinks are available during the intermissions and before the shows at various spots outside the seating areas.

How long are we talking here? Generally speaking, an evening last from two to three hours.

So, while I’m having cocktails in a nice outfit before the show, what are you doing? There is a long and complicated routine before every performance. You have to be in hair, make-up, and costume for the show. But most importantly, the dancer must be properly warmed up. If you are not, the probability of suffering from an injury is heightened. There is a half-hour call where all stagehands and dancers need to report to the stage to make sure everyone is where they need to be. That is also when the audience starts to be seated. We all warm up and feel out the stage starting at that time and prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally to take the stage for that evening.

What’s the atmosphere like backstage? Backstage I have to say it is not as glorious and imposing as the front of the house. There are costumes in costume racks everywhere, various headpieces for different costumes, props, and sometimes even animals. And there are usually so many people everywhere running around, on and off stage at any point.

After the ballet, where should I go to complete the evening? There quite a few restaurants around the area which also might offer special after-performance dinner. There is a list of them in the program which you will receive while entering the audience area. Personally I can recommend Fiorello’s next to Lincoln Center.

Recommendations:Dovetail (Upper West Side) – Stealth door, only slightly formal, totally modern. ● Compass (Upper West Side) – Access Perk: Enjoy half-price wine on Sunday evenings at this innovative downtown-style New American with an uptown zip code. ● Jean Georges (Upper West Side) – Access Perk: “Half-Glass” Wine Special means you pay half the cost of a normal glass and get a generous half-sized glass of wine.

What are some of your favorite places to eat, whether or not you are in ballet attire? Shake Shack on Columbus. As you might have noticed, I don’t go out much while we are performing at the MET. But I have to say, the best food in the very end is my mother’s. She cooks Russian specialties with a western touch, which is quite unique. There is still no place that comes even close to how she cooks.

What is the best and hardest part of being a part of the ABT? The best part of what I do is doing what I love and being even appreciated for that. The hardest part for me is getting up in the morning.

What do you hope first-timers will find out when they come to see you at the a performance? People will be hopefully love what they see so that the first performance will not be the last.

Where’s ‘Harry Potter’s Emma Watson Gonna Go Out As A Columbia Student?

6. Amsterdam 106 (Upper West Side) – Serves breakfast all night long with hospitality similar to that at Hogwarts. http://bbook.com/guides/details/amsterdam-106

4. Kefi – Once she ditches the Harry Potter crew and recruits her own clique, Emma will probably host girl’s lunches at fellow young-beautiful-successful worldly personality Donatella Arpaia’s haven to haute cheap Greek fare.

3. Jake’s Dilemma – Granted, the drinking age in America’s a tragic 21 for Watson, but once she secures a fake ID (as a Columbia student? Inevitable…), chances are, Emma will end up throwing one back here. It’s a great spot for British ex-pats and fellow Londoners homesick for a taste of London.

2. Dovetail – When Emma’s squeeze, Jay Barrymore, comes to visit, they might have to go out on a schoolnight. If that’s the case, and they stay in the approximate neighborhood, it’s a solid bet they’d end up at this intimate Upper West Side resto with a menu for pretty sophisticated—or at least, pretty-pretty—palates.

1. The Heights – No question, every Columbia student will end up here at some point or another, as it’s the de facto late night drinking destination

Industry Insiders: Eddie Dean, Pacha Honcho

The owner of the flagship Pacha in New York on international clientele, the rough lifestyle required for nightlife connoisseurs, and flushing out the phonies.

When you’re not partying at Pacha, where are you? I always find myself at Sushi Samba on Seventh Avenue. I love the outdoor roof. It’s a great place to entertain. I’m forever hosting people from South America and Spain there. They treat us well, and the food and the vibe is great. Asia de Cuba has great service, great food, and a great energy. I like Henry’s End in Brooklyn at the end of Henry Street. The owners are real wine connoisseurs … they search the globe and feature five reds that are unique. Just had a great meal at Dovetail, another great spot.

How did you end up here? I knew I wanted to have my own business, but I didn’t know it would be a nightclub. The opportunity presented itself. We put together a business plan to open this little bar in Bay Ridge, and then we owned about 15 places. It’s a lot of late hours, a lot of grueling work, but it’s what I do. I have moments when I’m tired and want to do something different — and then I realize that I love the people, the experience of making people happy, of employees doing well. We’re the biggest nightclub in New York, and everybody’s trying to take us out, so you need a strong constitution to come in every day and keep on fighting. It’s an exhausting battle. I was 24 when I opened my first place, and 28 when I opened another couple of places. People sometimes ask me my secret: I think long term and don’t take short cuts.

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? The first thing I think of is longevity, not the flashy guys who are in for six months. I think of Jeffrey Chodorow and Steve Hanson. They’re successful with different restaurants with different menus in different neighborhoods. Promoters who have been successful owners include Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss from Marquee and Mark Packer of Tao. And then there are people who get into this business for the wrong reasons and muck things up.

What’s a positive trend you’ve noticed in nightclubs? I think what’s going on now is economical. The economy is going to separate the men from the boys. Over the past couple of years, people have become so money-driven that they don’t care about quality, just about how much they’re going to make before they produce anything. So, as tough as the economy is, it will flush out the phonies. The strong will survive. It will bring the quality up because there will be more good people working in fewer places. We’re making adjustments here, but we’ve buckled up and made some tough decisions. We have a viable product — a world-class nightclub — and DJs around the world want to play in a successful place more than ever.

And negative things? We don’t have enough unity in nightlife. Some people feel that it would compromise relationships, and others feel it’s getting too close to the competition. There’s too much at stake not to unify. We would get a unified voice to get the positive things that we contribute to the city to overcome the negative image. People are quick to report negativity. If there’s an arrest, if there’s a problem somewhere, it gets reported — and it’s really not fair, it’s a one-sided story.

What do you love about your joint? There’s nothing better than to be here on a Friday or Saturday night to hear the accents from around the world. More than half of the people here on New Year’s Eve were from Europe and South America. They came to celebrate at Pacha . That’s the greatest compliment of all. My doorman speaks four different languages, just to accommodate the questions from people who don’t speak English.

What is something that people might not know about you? I’m obsessed with sports. I’m a big Mets fan, but if Derek Jeter was in the club, I’d love it — he doesn’t take short cuts either. I could watch sports day and night. I watch ESPN six nights in a row. I love college sports, but right now none of my teams have had the best year. But I’m a fan, so I’m eternally optimistic. Ballplayers will come in here, and I’ll be introduced to them. I’ll tell them about their careers because I’m a statistics nut, and sometimes it spooks them.

What’s on the horizon? I’ve had several places over the years, but Pacha is a full-time project, and anything going forward will be more and more Pacha stuff to expand the brand throughout North America. The economy means we’re proceeding with caution. I take it very seriously. It’s a big responsibility, and we’re doing everything we can to keep from laying off people.

New York: Balloons & Bites at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

You’re a New Yorker. You like the hubbub around the Thanksgiving parade, the bright, big balloons and the cheery tourists gawking around the parade route, but you don’t actually want to get up at 6 a.m. to get a good (standing) spot on Broadway and shiver your way through the day. No. No you don’t. So like any good New Yorker, you’ll find another way. A way that will allow you to see the parade without the crowds and still sit around and eat turkey and watch football on the day of thanks. Here’s your other way. Starting around 3pm this Wednesday, stroll on over to 79th and Central Park West to watch the balloons getting blown up. Take photos. Feel superior to the crowds that will show up the next day. Then go grab a bite to eat at one of these fine neighborhood establishments. Enjoy not cooking.

1. ‘Cesca – Old school southern Italian. Order the entire antipasti menu … it’s that good. 2. Bello Sguardo – Tapas by candlelight will get you in the mood. 3. Calle Ocho – Eight kinds of Mojitos, bright colors on the walls, and you’ll be dancing on the ones before you know it.

4. Citrus – Sushi and margaritas — the perfect cultural fusion. 5. Dovetail – Proper, tasty Anglophile dishes. Bread puddings and lamb meatloaf done right. 6. Eighty One – Locally sourced, melt-in-your-mouth lamb. It’s good enough to order twice. 7. Haru – One of the only Japanese joints in the ‘hood. 8. Isabella’s – Polo shirts abound at this UWS standby; order the pear salad and talk about your swing, and you’ll fit right in. 9. Land – Thai food with a skirt steak and snapper twist. Usurp the long line — put your name in, and go grab a beer next door while you wait. 10. Nice Matin – A crowded Pastis clone, uptown. French menu makes for great desserts.

New York Food & Wine Festival Tour

imageThe Food Network is throwing a three-day party, and you’re invited. The first ever New York Food & Wine Festival debuts this weekend in the city. Held mostly in the Meatpacking District and DUMBO, this foodie festival will have mouths watering all weekend. Get your tickets here, and check out our selected three-day itinerary to figure out how and when to get in on the action.

Friday 10 p.m.-midnight: Highline Ballroom for Midnight Music & Munchies (hosted by Daily Candy). Top Chefs featured on Daily Candy make late-night treats, hot-spot bartenders make drinks, and Tom Colicchio makes music (really) with Milton.

Chefs: Govind Armstrong from Table 8, Anne Burrell of Centro Vinoteca, Scott Conant of Scarpetta, Michael Psilakis of Anthos, Harold Dieterle of Perilla, Jimmy Bradley of The Red Cat, Akhtar Nawab of Elettaria, John Frasaer of Dovetail, and Joey Campanaro of Little Owl.

Bartenders: Jim Meehan of PDT, Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club, Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric of Employees Only, and Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club.

Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.: Del Posto wine tasting seminars. … or … 10 a.m.-4 p.m.: Hotel Gansevoort wine tasting seminars. … or … 3 p.m.: Una Pizza Napoletano, pizza, pizza, and more pizza. Talk about it, learn about it, eat it. … and then … 7 p.m.: Adour, dinner hosted by Alain Ducasse. … or … 7 p.m.: Craftsteak, dinner hosted by Tom Colicchio, Jess Jackson and Alfred Portale.

Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.: More Del Posto wine tasting seminars. … or … 10 a.m.-4 p.m.: And yet more Hotel Gansevoort wine tasting seminars. … then … 6-9 p.m.: Hotel Gansevoort wrap party.

New York: Top 5 Date-Night Dinners 2.0

imageA new generation of creative spots covers your foreplay duties …

1. Dressler Williamsburg elegance defined, stepping up from Dumont with brilliant fish dishes and top wines. 2. Little Owl Top Mediterranean fare fueled by Greenmarket’s latest arrivals, West Village looks quaint as all get-out through paned windows. 3. Applewood Sates your Earth Day alter ego with sumptuous organic bites and an atmosphere like a Vermont B ‘n’ B.

4. Dovetail Stealth door, minimal but warm brick and slate brownstone. Seriously sophisticated cooking delivers on all counts. 5. Freeman’s Hunting lodge chic, worth the effort to find, with a meaty menu and perfect lighting.