Comfy Chairs, Sexy Patrons, and the Sake Ninja: An (Early) Evening at Cherry

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.

Sweet Tart

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.

Food Dude

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.

Coffee Talk

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.

Party Down

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. 

[Related: BlackBook New York Guide; Listings for Cherry, Dream DowntownBONDST; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]

A Cherry Bomb of Sushi Hits Chelsea

There’s something sexy about Cherry, the latest venture into Asian cuisine from BONDST’s Jonathan Morr, which opens up in the Dream Downtown hotel this Wednesday. First, the décor by Studio Gaia exudes a pop-culture romance with a cherry-red, cherry-shaped entryway. Once inside, the plush velvet seats, polished wood floors, and merlot-colored wall hangings cry out for ruby-lipped ladies to dine clandestinely with men in snappy suits. Second, with former Le Cirque and Momofuku Ma Peche chef Andy Choi leading the kitchen, they are pumping out modern Japanese cuisine with a French twist. This means you can find sharable treats including foie gras with short rib gyoza, uni-poached eggs, black cod shumai, and tuna spring rolls.

However, Cherry’s specialty is their sushi and sashimi menu. With this, you can order à la carte or go for the omakase tasting menu, where Choi dishes out his selection of items including salmon belly sushi, spicy caviar, giant clam, and golden amberjack sashimi. They also have a selection of sakes curated by sake specialist Chris Johnson, which features some rare and special varieties like Harada Nama Muroka and Daishichi Myouk Rangyoku. In true classy fashion, you can also reserve a bottle of liquor for your visits, or, just settle into one of their craft cocktails.

Each dessert comes with a cherry on the top, and, since the kitchen stays open until 2am, you can eat early, in the light of day, or secretly at night, depending on your company.

Industry Insiders: Julie Farias, the General’s Butcher

As one of the many talented cuisiniers participating in Le Fooding D’Amour (September 25-26 at at New York’s P.S.1), Julie Farias knows a thing or two about a good cut of meat. The Texas-born chef—who recently moved from Brooklyn’s Beer Table to The General Greene—worked for Daniel Boulud for five years (at Café Boulud, db Bistro Moderne, and Daniel), but attributes much of her culinary know-how to her southern upbringing and family influence (her clan owns a tortilla factory inside a San Antonio meat market). Farias tells us about working in kitchens on both coasts and how Le Fooding is going to taste for New Yorkers. In her case, it’s going to taste like tacos made from 40 cow heads.

What influenced your move from Beer Table to The General Greene? Nicholas Morgenstern, the owner of The General Greene, and I met at Daniel when he was the pastry sous-chef there and I was working the soup station. We worked together at 5Ninth. There, I was the opening sous and he was the pastry chef, and then we also worked together at Resto. I’ve known him for a really long time, and before last year, I was living and working in Los Angeles and Las Vegas on a project for the Palazzo. Nick came out to see me and asked me to come to his new restaurant, The General Greene, and I didn’t think anything of it. I said that I wasn’t in the position to leave. When I came back from Vegas, I moved to Beer Table. Owners Justin and Tricia Philips were friends of mine, and they needed a little help setting up the menu. They said, “We have this place, and there’s no kitchen, but we love your food and we think that this would work out.” And I loved the idea of it more than anything. Especially the spatial challenge. We had no kitchen at Beer Table. There was a convection oven, no dishwasher, no prep, no kitchen. When you take things away and you have bare essentials, it made me think about food in a different way. I always thought that fire was a bare essential but I realized that electricity is. I’m not as much of a Neanderthal as I thought I was. The timing was eventually right when Nicholas asked me again, and it just had to happen. He’s a fantastic partner.

What were you doing in Las Vegas? I was working for a gentleman named Jonathan Morr. He owns Republic and Bond St. We opened an Asian noodle restaurant called Mainland at the Palazzo Hotel and Casino. I created the menu, and I was also Jonathan’s consulting chef. I traveled from New York to Miami to Los Angeles to Vegas. I did consulting work for Thompson Hotels out there, creating their room service menu. I also lived and worked at Hotel Oceana in Santa Monica. I had no home for a year.

What was it like building the menu at The General Greene? I’m going to give a metaphor: me being here right now is, in some ways, like cutting in on a dancer. I’m about to dance with the pretty girl, so I’m cutting in and I have to keep up the pace for whatever waltz or jitterbug or lindy-hop they’re doing. There’s already a rhythm here; it’s a successful restaurant. Nick has asked me to work on organization, on execution, kitchen techniques, things like that, and keep up on the quality of products. It was a very big change to go from one burner to a stove and a downstairs and four to five cooks and a dishwasher.

What should we order on our first visit? We have bar snacks, and my favorite one right now is the bacon dates—dates wrapped in bacon and cooked in maple syrup. After that, you’d have to try the butter lettuce with a lemon vinaigrette, curried almonds and ruby-red grapefruit. I’m a big fan of ruby-red grapefruit. For me, they are a little sweeter, a better color, and before, we were using regular grapefruit on this dish. I also put collared greens on the menu, and these you have to try. They’re sautéed with garlic, red pepper chilies, and a squeeze of lemon juice. You have to try the chuck flap steak from Niman Ranch. It’s something known as a bavette, and it’s a tough kind of meat meant to be cooked medium rare. We grill it then slice it thin, and we serve it with a roasted garlic sauce with olive oil and Portuguese sea salt. It’s got a really hearty flavor. Then, you have to finish it off with a salty caramel sundae. It’s a hot caramel cake with salted caramel ice cream, whipped cream, caramel sauce, and then crushed, salted mini pretzels on top of it. It’s out of this world. You may have to stop by Nick’s Greene Ice Cream Cart as well.

How did you get involved with Le Fooding? It turns out, [Le Fooding founder] Alexandre Cammas lives in the neighborhood. His wife, Natalie, had actually had dinner at Beer Table, and so there was sort of a little match-making there, and they contacted me and came down to The General Greene.

What will you prepare for the September Le Fooding D’Amour event? I’m doing tête de veau tacos or “veal head.” It’s traditional barbacoa from San Antonio, Texas. I’m doing this classic recipe here, and I think it makes sense with the idea of the picnic setting. I actually smoked one of the cow heads today. They’re kind of scary looking. I’m going to be smoking about 40 of them for the event. They’re really kind of magnificent with the eyes, the skull, and the teeth.

Will New Yorkers embrace the Le Fooding concept? New Yorkers are all about food. I came here from Texas to cook. I returned to New York from Vegas because I felt that there was more of a focus on and interest in food here—from grocery stores to cooking at home. In keeping with this mentality, to me, it just seems like Le Fooding is a very natural thing. People will be attracted to this, and Alex’s interest in graphic design is reflected in the style of the event. Why would New Yorkers not want to come? I think that Alex’s goal is definitely going to be fulfilled.

What are your favorite bars and restaurants? Because I’ve been working at The General Greene so much, I’ve been limiting my going out to Brooklyn. I love Five Leaves and Char No. 4. They do a lot of smoked meat, and I butcher there on Mondays. Defonte’s in Red Hook is a sandwich place, and oh my God, it’s super yummy. I love the Skybox at Daniel. For drinking, I’m kind of a liquor snob … but when I feel like being a bit more on the rowdy side, I go to the Palace Cafe in Greenpoint. Budweiser and Jack & Coke is about as sophisticated of a drink you’ll get there. All of these places are in keeping with the same mood.

Nicholas Morgenstern and Julie Farias photographed by Michael Harlan Turkell.