Lyon Gets Revamped As Cole’s Greenwich Village

I was sad to see the French brassiere Lyon go last year, but with the onset of Cole’s Greenwich Village in the old spot, parting isn’t such sweet sorrow. After all, the new joint, owned by Lyon’s own Penny Bradley, skips the coque au vin and steak frites, and instead, they specialize in dry-aged Prime New York Strip, fresh pasta, and novel takes on classic cocktails.

On the food side, Bradley has commissioned chef Daniel Eardley, from the now closed Chestnut, who brings his knowledge of seasonal and local cuisine to the table. Try dishes including the grilled sardines with duck-fat potatoes, Eardley’s Tuscan kale salad with parmesan, a double-cut pork chop with white polenta and fig jus, and their stout-braised ribs.

Handling the drink side is booze maverick, Johnny Swet from Jimmy at The James. This means you can waltz into the corner bistro and try drinks laced with all sorts of fun stuff including honey, sage, mint, and peppercorns. Swet acts as a managing partner with David Rabin from The Lamb’s Club and Jimmy at The James‘s Larry Poston.

The space, while it maintains the integrity of its triangular shape, now is decked out with prints and sketches giving it more of a gastropub feel than the classic French that was there before. It’s 2013 folks, just like Bradley, I say, out with the old, in with the new-old-style eateries. 

Industry Insiders: Mark Strausman, Johnny Swet, and Larry Poston

When Johnny Swet (left) and Larry Poston (right) opened Hotel Griffou in New York’s Greenwich Village in 2009, it immediately attracted a host of bold-faced names to the eclectic, exotic space that brings to mind a 19th century boardinghouse. With its reputation firmly established, the duo decided to push things even further last year by bringing on board a dynamic new chef with a serious pedigree. With experience in restaurants in both Europe and the U.S., including the much loved Fred’s at Barneys New York and his own Agriturismo in the Hudson Valley, Mark Strausman (center) brings a new touch of creativity to the Griffou kitchen, while continuing to turn out the dishes that made it a neighborhood favorite. 

What do you have planned for the menu at Hotel Griffou? Mark Strausman: I came on board in mid-September and wanted to make the food a little bit more approachable. I’m someone who believes that when you take over a space, you have to remember what the space was before you got there. And it was very loose before I got there, kind of like a downtown speakeasy but with a little bit of an Italian and a little bit of a fish thing going on. So my idea was to make good Italian country food that people could share, but keep it in the New York vein. I wanted to do something fun, so we’re doing individual pizzas made the artisanal southern Italian way, with handmade dough and really good farm ingredients. I have a restaurant in the Hudson Valley and I bring down the hamburger, I bring down the suckling pig from the Valley. We’ll also have sliced, cured, and dried meats – the kinds of things that people can eat with Johnny’s cocktails, and go well with a glass of wine.

What’s your restaurant in the Hudson Valley called?
MS: It’s called Agriturismo, and I still run Fred’s at Barneys New York. I’ve been at Fred’s for 15 years, I’m the managing director there. It’s a very upscale, white table cloth kind of place. So when the opportunity at Griffou came along, I thought Wow, what a great thing to have a downtown restaurant. That’s kind of different. Creatively, it’s fun.
What is the difference between a white table cloth uptown place compared to a downtown place like Griffou?
MS: You’ve got to keep it simpler. At Fred’s we can do things at dinner more elegantly, with an elaborate table service. Here the tables are smaller and we have fewer deuces coming in and more parties of four women together or four guys together, just hanging out, and the food is really good, or course, but it doesn’t get in the way, it’s not fussy. At Fred’s it’s a little bit more international, we have people from all over the world over there. 
What’s it like working with Johnny Swet and Larry Poston?
MS: I thought it was a fun challenge and I really hit it off with these guys. I respect their sensibility, and they were just looking for good food. What I love is, I don’t have to worry about the front of the house because you got Larry and Johnny out there, so it’s a great team. I can just concentrate on the food and the kitchen and not have to worry about who’s sitting where and all that stuff. And I love the staff they had in place. My whole thing is, I don’t want to put anyone on unemployment. Everyone said, “You’re going to bring your own crew.” But this is New York City. People have rent to pay, no one can follow you, and we really didn’t lose anybody. Anyway, what do you want to lose a cook for? He knows where the lemons are! They’re good guys, they’re really generous and easygoing.
Where did you grow up?
MS: I grew up in a city housing project in Queens. I have a degree in hotel management. I worked in Europe for four years, in Amsterdam and Germany.
What was that like?
MS: It was all classical French cooking. We had so many white truffles in that hotel in Germany. We used to get five kilos at a time of white truffles, you could smell them down the block. You know, because the Germans are real gourmands.
Are there any particular ingredients you like working with?
MS: We have a purveyor that we buy wild mushrooms from, and I love working with mushrooms like chanterelles and porcinis. Right now I’m trying to work with as many local ingredients as possible and then getting a few things from Italy, like these amazing wild dandelions that are grown outside of Rome. I always say, eat as much local as you can and then you don’t have to worry about the carbon footprint. When everything on your menu is coming from all the way around the world it’s not cool. I prefer to use pears this time of year instead of raspberries, things like that. 
Johnny, how has it been working with Mark so far? 
Johnny Swet: I think things are working out well and Mark brings a maturity and a great reputation throughout the city – people know his food. We’ve always been kind of a fashionable downtown spot and with Mark working up at Barneys and that crowd also, now there’s a place to have his food downtown, so that’s exciting. It seems like kind of the missing link. It fits together well.
Do you have any favorites on the new menu?
JS: I love the suckling pig, and I love all the pastas. What I like about the menu is that you can come down three different nights a week and try completely different dishes each time. It’s all about how you really want to eat, which is great with the cocktail program we have. When you’re sitting down at the table and you see people eating and smiling and talking and they’re just caught up in the moment it’s just what you want a restaurant to be. 
Are you just focused on Griffou right now, or do you spend a lot of time at Jimmy?
JS: Yeah, Griffou’s my baby. I love Jimmy because it’s a fun diversion for creativity with all the cocktails, but my main focus is Griffou.
Larry, how are you feeling with Mark coming aboard? 
Larry Poston: I loved all of our other chefs in the past, they’re great guys, but you do get an amazing sense of experience and know-how from Mark. Also, I like that he’s been a chef in New York City for a long time and has a loyal following, not just customers but people he’s worked with. It’s a very small world, I suppose. We get to know each other the longer we live in New York City. The restaurant business is tricky for anyone and you have to have a sense of humor about it, and Mark has what it takes.

Industry Insiders: David Rabin, Johnny Swet, & Larry Poston of Jimmy at the James

When you ask three nightlife veterans to transform the top of one of New York’s most fashionable new hotels into an intimate lounge, the result is bound to be exciting. But with the opening of Jimmy at The James hotel in Soho, David Rabin (center), Johnny Swet (left), and Larry Poston (right) have created nothing less than an 18th-floor paradise, with original art on the walls, creative cocktails on the menu, and breathtaking views of lower Manhattan from every seat in the house.

Jimmy is the latest in a string of successful nightspots for Rabin, who left a career as a lawyer to open Rex in 1990. Its success quickly led to other endeavors, including the first western-style nightclub in Moscow. (“I still haven’t told my mother half the stories,” Rabin says.) Back in New York, he and his business partner opened now-classic venues Union Bar, Lotus, Double Seven, and the Lambs Club. When approached about Jimmy, Rabin jumped at the chance, provided he could bring along two uniquely creative talents. “I was blown away by what Johnny and Larry created at Hotel Griffou,” Rabin says.

Swet’s introduction to the nightlife industry came just days after moving to New York from Los Angeles, landing a job at the Bowery Bar on the day it opened. “They said, ‘That’s your table,’ and Courtney Love was sitting there. I was like, I think I’m going to like this.” He was soon working with Keith McNally to open restaurants Balthazar and Pastis, and eventually became the general manager of Freemans. But it was the exclusive West Village boîte Hotel Griffou, which he opened with Pastis maître d’ Poston in 2009, that made him a perfect fit for Jimmy.

A native of North Carolina, Poston began his career as an actor in LA, which led to a job as a pool boy at the Chateau Marmont, passing out towels to Julia Roberts and once dropping a full room-service tray in front of André Balazs. He made the move to New York, learning the ropes at Pastis and Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn. While it’s not even six months old, JImmy is already looking like a downtown institution, drawing a healthy mix of New Yorkers, hotel guests, and celebrities. The party is even better during the summer, as the outdoor terrace and pool deck let the fun spill out under the stars.

[Photo: Brett Moen]

Industry Insiders: Larry Poston, Room Service Provider

Larry Poston officially opened the West Village resto Hotel Griffou with business partner Johnny Swet on July 1. Poston made his name in New York restaurant circles as a manager at Pastis and the Waverly Inn, and Swet gained his hospitality know-how at Balthazar and Freemans. Most recently occupying the 9th Street space was notorious speakeasy Marylou’s, but the name of the new joint is after the original, French 1870s occupants. The modern dining rooms are themed as a salon, library, and artist’s studio with a French-inspired classic cuisine menu. Poston gives us an inside look at the new spot.

What are you focusing on now that you’re open for business? My business partner Johnny and I are really priding ourselves on great food and great service. That’s what we know. We’ve learned from Keith McNally that no matter all the fanfare and no matter what comes in, great food and great service are the only things that keep them coming back ten years down the road.

How did you first meet Keith McNally? I started waiting tables at Pastis in 2000, so I interviewed with Keith. He hired me, and I worked there for six months and then moved out to LA with dreams of being an actor. I was a pool boy at the Chateau Marmont for four months. So that was my West Coast experience. I hated LA. I came back and started waiting tables again at Pastis. They promoted me to manager on the floor, and I worked at Pastis for six years.

Most important thing you learned from McNally? Keith had been a maître d’ when he first started out. He taught me a lot as far as what to look for with people, and he would say, don’t just seat the people in front of you with the suits and the flashy money, because they always get a table. Look behind them and see the nervous couple or the little old couple or the funky-looking group that doesn’t always get a table, and seat them. That adds to the room and also keeps that eclectic mix of New York going. You don’t always want suits, you don’t always want fashion people, you don’t want all of any one thing. I would love to have Mick Jagger over here, some drag queens over there with a rock band and then some Wall Street guys. That’s what keeps it interesting. That’s New York to me.

Then you worked with another legend, Graydon Carter. It was just that time, that point of trying something new and spreading your wings and getting out there. And that’s when I met Graydon Carter over at the Waverly Inn. That was a whole other aspect of service and learning people because that’s a man who is like maître d’ to the stars. He’s the epitome of a host. It’s his room, and he knows where everyone should go. I got to know a lot of names at the Waverly Inn, obviously.

What’s the Waverly’s secret for remaining A-list over the years? You have Eric Goode and Sean McPherson who know restaurants, and they also have their own chic clientele of people who they bring to any project they’re involved in. You get that mixed with the energy of Graydon Carter and all these amazing A-listers in there for a great dining experience. You get the mix of a person who knows the people and the people who know how to run a restaurant. Once, I was telling a friend some of the names who went in the place one night, and he was like, “So, what you’re telling me is, if the Waverly was to explode right now, it would be the end of civilization.”

What’d you take from that experience to opening Hotel Griffou? How to deal with certain people. There are a million different personalities here in New York City, and then you have a certain amount of clientele that is …

High maintenance? Well, the great surprise is when the ones you expect to be high maintenance aren’t. It’s just having to deal with personalities. Higher-end personalities have higher expectations. You learn how to coddle egos in a way. I think that’s what the Waverly taught me: how to really deal with egos. That’s a good way to say it.

What came first for Hotel Griffou — the concept or the space? Johnny and I talked about doing this for awhile, and we had a concept. We had this place over in the East Village at one point, because we were thinking of modeling after some of those southern juke joints, speakeasy-type places that have great names like the Playboy Club or the Lizard Lounge. But you have to walk into a space that feels right. Johnny worked at Freemans, and I worked at the Waverly Inn, and both those places are very unique — Freemans is down that alley, and the Waverly Inn is at the bottom of a townhouse. In New York. It has to have a special vibe or a special space, then the bones were here and boom. I was never here for the Marylou’s experience, but I’d heard these amazing stories about what was here before. We’re hoping we can return it to some of its past glory.

You’re obviously alluding to that with the name. Hotel Griffou was what is was in the late 1800s. It was owned by this woman by the name of Madame Marie Griffou. It became this real mecca of ideals, artists, writers, and poets. One of the true stories is that Mae West actually did come here after her indecency trial, which is funny.

How long has this been in the works? From embryo to now — about two years. We initially started construction this past February.

What’s your favorite part of the interior? I can’t really choose. The inspiration Johnny and I talked about was an artist’s town house. There’s something about the feel of the salon, and I like the studio because of the crazy art and all the work that’s been contributed. Johnny spearheaded the design, but it was collaborative, and all the work that was contributed was by artist friends.

How much input did you have in the menu with chef Jason Michael Giordano (of Spice Market)? Johnny and I had ideas of what we wanted on the menu . We wanted those traditional dishes. Classical American cuisine is what we called it, and then we discovered that this place was owned by a French woman, and we had to throw a French nod to the cuisine. We wanted a signature dish, which is the lobster thermidor fondue.

Is that the most popular menu item? Yes, as well as the poutine, which is French fries with duck confit topped with a little buffalo mozzarella. It’s amazing. Also, the fried seafood basket, which is something from home. I love fried food, fried fish, cod, fried shrimp, fried oyster, with chips, we’re calling it Calabash, we’re not going to call it Southern, but yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a mix of some rich dishes and some light dishes. We thought that the idea of a great restaurant was that you can go here three or four nights a week and always have a new experience.

True that the pork cutlet recipe was found on the menu from the 1800s here? It’s very true. We have a sautéed pork cutlet recipe that was on the original Madame Marie Griffou menu from 1892. They’re sautéed, lightly breaded with this delicious pork gravy au jus with green beans. They’re delectable.

How was your soft opening? It was great because we invited a lot of industry people that we’d worked for and trusted their opinion. We got really good feedback and notes that we can take with us to keep improving. You get a little anxiety about your peers coming, and knowing you’re going to really hear the truth — which can be unpleasant, but always necessary. The bottom line is that everyone was pleased with the look, the feel, and the vibe of the place, which is important.

Where do you go out? I like Norwood a lot, and Little Branch. As far as dining I still love Indochine and also Peasant.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Photo: Scott Pasfield