The Micro Restaurant Trend Has Hit the Big Time From Nashville to New York

It’s a Tuesday night at Atera, a restaurant cloaked behind smoky windows on a quiet street in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. The stone countertop is occupied by two couples sipping cocktails in Necco Wafer pastels garnished with geranium leaves and sorrel stems. They gaze over the U-shaped bar into a glass-walled kitchen where a small army of cooks armed with tweezers perform surgery on a bowl of lime- and cream-colored ribbons flecked with black sesame seeds. Coos and soft murmurs hover over the curious plated landscapes that appear every few moments. Throughout the evening, two sets of 16 diners arrive, sit, and bemusedly take in their $150, 20-plus course tasting menu.

No menus. Counter seats. Cocktails as food. Impossible reservations. Open kitchens. Moss, nasturtium, tarragon dust, and beets that resemble lava rocks. And tweezers. Always tweezers. These are the things you can expect to encounter at micro restaurants like Atera, one of several establishments defining haute-petite dining. And for the restaurateurs behind each they are the definition of a passion project.

“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and I can say with a great deal of certitude that no one is doing what we’re doing.” Even over the phone, Chef Phillip Foss’s animation is palpable. “I wanted a place where I do the food, and I wanted my personality to come through.” His 22-seat EL Ideas in downtown Chicago was born of a commissary kitchen he used to prep for his former food truck business, Meatyballs Mobile. When he realized it had a restaurant license, he set up shop with his dining room table from home and started cooking one seating a night for 12 people at $135. Eventually the guest list crept up to 22. “The kitchen is wide open so guests will frequently come back and see what we’re up to,” says Foss. Dishes range from artfully composed mini-forests of snails and mushrooms to beautifully unrecognizable diner fare basics like french fries and ice cream. Though he prefers not to compare the atmosphere to that of a dinner party, the intimate set-up allows diners to interact with one another and the kitchen with a comfortable familiarity. As each of the dozen or so courses appears, a member of the kitchen explains the dish to the entire room: Oohs and ahs, coos and soft murmurs.

Atera and EL Ideas are two models that started small, literally. On the other end of the continuum are restaurateurs like José Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup, which began with spaces as large as the 300-seat Bazaar in Los Angeles before opening the diminutive six-seat Minibar in an underutilized space at Café Atlántico, a former TFG venue in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter. From a chef/restaurateur’s perspective, Minibar also served as a mad scientist’s dream lab, and it proved to be an effective, brand-boosting tool that paved the way for a pile of accolades. “That was when José’s national and international nominations kicked in,” says Rob Wilder, CEO of TFG. “It was an important part of our story.” “José talked for years about wanting a restaurant with one table,” says Wilder. Minibar originally served two seatings of six each night at $120. Recently reopened at a stand-alone location, the new Minibar serves a $225, 20-course tasting menu to two seatings of 12 a night. True to the laboratory concept, dishes from Minibar have made their way into Andrés’s other ventures: The Bazaar sends out 400-500 air bread and Kobe Philly cheesesteaks a night, while hundreds of salt-air margaritas cross the counters of Oyamel and China Poblano each week.

Though Chef David Chang’s 12-seat Momofuku Ko in New York is often cited as the driving model behind the current micro restaurant trend, Minibar opened in 2003, a full five years prior. “When Ferran [Adrià] was operating El Bulli [in Spain], it was a required experience,” says Wilder. “It was a big inspiration for the creation of Minibar.” Certainly the proliferation of Adriá’s modern cooking techniques has played a pivotal role in inspiring the micro restaurant trend. At the moment, New York—specifically Brooklyn— is a petri dish of Adrià–inspired, aspirational, nutshell spaces, including Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Blanca, a project from the team behind Williamsburg’s popular pizza restaurant Roberta’s. However influential modern cooking has been on any of their menus, this style of dining is a clear derivation of Japanese omakase menus—from direct interaction with chefs over counter-style seating to the surrender diners make to a meandering, menuless meal. And this new hybrid of personal attention, extended experience, and enthusiastic submission seems to be sitting well with those responsible for handing out Michelin stars: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare was awarded three in the 2013 Michelin Guide, Atera and Momofuku Ko earned two apiece, and newcomer Blanca garnered one.

In Nashville, Tennessee, where Michelin stars don’t exist, Max and Ben Goldberg have opened The Catbird Seat in a rambling old home above genteel cocktail bar The Patterson House. “The impetus for The Catbird Seat was the ability to work with chefs Josh [Habiger] and Erik [Anderson],” says Ben Goldberg. “They have complete creative control, and we wanted to realize their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” Like other scaled-down ventures, diners sit around a U-shaped bar or at one of two banquettes—32 to 36 per night—and wander through seven to eleven courses served directly by the chefs, including variations of Nashville standards like hot chicken—spicy chicken skin, dill pickle salt, and Wonder Bread puree. “They touch every plate that leaves the kitchen. Josh and Eric wanted to stay true to that standard,” says Goldberg, “so it forced us to open a really small restaurant.” It would be naïve to assume that the chefs and owners of The Catbird Seat do not enjoy the recognition they’ve received for the beautifully quirky experience they have created, but like all micro restaurants, it’s about the passion they bring to each plate. “I don’t see myself doing a restaurant like this anywhere else,” Goldberg admits. “Honestly, this is a love of the game situation.”

David Chang to Join Toronto’s Hotel Shangri-La

The Shangri-La Toronto is slowly starting to flex its muscles as a major downtown attraction—and it’s still only skeletons and scaffolding. The 5-star, 66 story hotel and residence tower, which straddles the Financial and Entertainment districts, it’s already causing a stir amongst locals. Anticipation has been building on Urban Toronto‘s forum, where construction progress and rumormongering have been laboriously detailed by users. The latest to come out of the construction site (and perpetuated on Twitter): David Chang has plans to open a restaurant in the hotel, joining the property for its 2012 scheduled opening.

Chang is an incredibly busy dude: ruler of the Momofuku empire (which includes Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Má Pêche, Momofuku Milk Bar and the Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko), celebrated cookbook author, culinary bad boy (a title earned after telling Anthony Bourdain that Cali chefs “don’t manipulate food, they just put figs on a plate”), and most recently, an iPad app publisher. While Chang has not made an official confirmation, he did cryptically Tweet something rather leading:

@DavidChang: hello southern ontario . . . late late 2012ish?

To which the Urban Torontoans exclaimed:

David Chang? Seriously? That’s a massive score. I’d had my fingers crossed for a Nobu, but I’ll take a Momofuku anyday.

Hopefully they don’t build up too much buzz about it, so that I’ll actually be able to get the odd reservation here and there. Major pain in the ass to get in to some of his NYC locations.

I think the other hotels are dead to me now. This is the one I’m waiting for.

This Toronto-based project would be the chef’s first restaurant outside of New York City—a major coup for Shangri-La. His restaurant is rumored to be three full levels, in construction next to the hotel’s pools on the northeast end side of the hotel.

Afternoon Links: Willow Smith Is Orphaned, Kings of Leon Fire Back

● You have to ask yourself: Is Naomi Watts feeling lucky, punk? You betcha! The blonde beauty was just cast as Leonardo DiCaprio’s secretary in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover biopic, J. Edgar. [/Film] ● Jay-Z joins famous child-exploiter Will Smith in exploiting famous children, after it was announced he will produce a new Annie remake, starring Will’s daughter and famous child, Willow. [Vulture] ● David Chang is going digital. The celebrated chef will bring his Momofuku empire to the iPad, proving once again that print is dead. McSweeney’s will also print a Momofuku journal, proving once again that print is not dead. [Diner’s Journal]

● Apparently, the Kings of Leon take offense when someone says “Fuck You, Kings of Leon.” Weird. [Twitter] ● Lady Gaga reportedly wants her new perfume to smell like “blood and semen” aka our pillowcase. [Fashionista] ● Cher has tweeted her displeasure at Burlesque‘s alleged Oscar snub for best song. [Daily Mail]

Where Celebs Eat: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Williams, Betty White

Maggie Gyllenhaal @ the Fresh Air Fund gala: Al di La and Il Buco: anything there! ● Maggie Rizer: At Nobu I get everything. I like the sea bass and the lettuce leaves, the tuna sashimi salad, the shishito peppers, and the Kobe beef. ● Brian Williams: I’m laughing because my wife and I go to the same two places all the time! There’s a little French place on Lexington; there’s a pasta place on 49th, Alfredo’s, because it’s right next to NBC.

Betty White at the Time100 Gala: Shun Lee Palace. ● Mark Feuerstein at the Royal Pains premiere party at the Lacoste store Fifth Avenue: Anywhere from The Waverly Inn to Smith & Wollensky. The most delicious chocolate souffle I’ve ever had was at the Four Seasons restaurant. In LA, Mastro’s or Boa. ● Henry Winkler: The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien is unbelievable! ● Amy Landecker: I just had lunch at Blue Water Grill, and it was fantastic. Union Square Cafe has a tuna steak that is just absolutely to die for. And Momofuku in the East Village is unbelievably excellent. ● Jill Flint: There’s one restaurant in Brooklyn that I’m absolutely loving called Prime Meats. My favorite dish is meat with a side of bacon and a little bit more meat. ● John Legend at the Sesame Workshop’s gala: Le Bernardin. I just love the whole tasting menu.

Industry Insiders: David Chang, Chef Afire

A few years ago, a little restaurant called Momofuku Noodle Bar tucked itself into an East Village storefront. There was buzz over noodles, pork buns, a consistent gaggle of wait-listed patrons out front, and an of-the-minute, Pitchfork-grade music selection. The proprietor? This David Chang guy, this chef who couldn’t complete an interview without being self-depreciating to a fault, or throwing in an expletive or nine. Cut to present: Chang’s interview style hasn’t changed. His business has.

He conquered the East Village via a Ssäm Bar, a Milk Bar, and Ko—one of the hottest reservations in town, moved to the old Noodle Bar space—with his next mission being midtown, he’s gone from chef to full-on restaurateur. He recently took part in the “Four Fucking Dinners,” hosting some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs in his kitchens. He’s got a cookbook coming out, co-written by former New York Times $25 and Under critic Peter Meehan. And he’s participating in French food movement/magazine Le Fooding’s takeover of New York next week. We caught him for a few minutes to wax poetic on Le Fooding, fried chicken, the cookbook, cooking critics, and how Chang’s holding up between it all.

How’d you get involved with Le Fooding? I heard about Le Fooding through my friend Mauro Colagreco, who is a chef at Mirazur in France. He’d done some events with them and they approached me in New York last summer. I was pretty amazed that [Le Fooding’s] Alexander Cammas had moved his entire family here to make sure that it would take off.

How will this food festival will differ from others in New York? It’s a different spin. I hate doing events where you basically just serve something, and then people get drunk. They’re almost all the same. This one’s a collaboration of artists, musicians. It has a lot going on for it. Food’s the afterthought, but not really. It’s more of an event to get together and do something cool. On our end, it’s been organized very well.

What will you prepare? We’re trying to keep it simple. We’ll probably do a pulled pork, put it on some lettuce, and figure it out from there. Some type of variation of a Bo Ssäm. There needs to be some ease to what we do, but it still has to be delicious.

Tell us about the Four Fucking Dinners. In French, it translated to something like, ‘to eat fucking dinner.’ That was how it happened. It was a literal translation. It was all set up by Omnivore. We just figured out where was best to put who. Wylie has the beautiful kitchen, so at wd-50, they’re getting the Godfather, Michel Bras. We thought Ko is small, so it was perfect for Pascal Barbot. It really wasn’t that hard for us to decide. It’s exciting to have these chefs; I just hope we don’t fuck up their food.

How would that happen? Anytime you’re cooking in someone else’s kitchen, it’s tough on both parties. We’ve never worked together and I think everyone’s bringing their sous chefs, which is a challenge, logistically. Everyone wants to serve the best product possible. You have five chefs coming, that all have incredibly high standards, so we’re going to try to be of assistance to them and not a hindrance.

Are you surprised at the way the fried chicken dinners took off? Very much.

Locanda Verde now has a fried chicken dinner, did you ignite a trend? No, I know that they were all doing it independently. I had no idea that Andrew Carmellini was going to do it. I didn’t think that the other chicken we wanted would be an Old Bay spiced chicken. I knew that it would draw inevitable comparisons to Andrew’s chicken that he cooked at Café, which was amazing.

You told Alan Richman, GQ Food Critic, to ‘open up his own fucking restaurant’. Do you think he could? No, it was more just to be like, “I love you, Alan, but shut the fuck up.”

How did you get set up with Peter Meehan for your cookbook? Pete and I became friends over the years. I never knew who he was when he started coming into the restaurant, until Mark Bittman accidentally told me. Then I was like: “You’re the motherfucker who reviews restaurants.” He’d always come in for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. He looked familiar, but I never knew that he was the Peter Meehan. I don’t know if we’d actually be friends if it weren’t for Mark Bittman, but we might have bumped into each other at a concert because we have similar musical taste. That’s how I met Peter Meehan, or at least figured out who the hell he was. Most things I do get a lot of attention, the less I do, the better it turns out. Pete really took charge (with the cookbook). Everyone helped, and Pete had a tremendous amount of work and he put it all together. If it’s a great book, it’s all Peter. If it’s a dud, it’s all my fault.

What’s up with Momofuku Midtown? We’re trying to get it ready and still trying to find a name. It’ll open late-Fall or early-Winter.

Are you over-extended? I do feel over-extended. We have a great staff, I’m not working the line every night. The midtown show is really Tien Ho’s project. I’m just going to be there in a supporting role for whatever he needs. I’m not necessarily bored, I’m just constantly trying something new with the rest of the restaurants. This year’s particularly trying in terms of events and scheduling, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. I don’t plan on having this hectic of a schedule again. Ideally, I’d like to not do so many events. But this might be how it is for the rest of the time, no one’s told me how things are supposed to be. I don’t know if it’s over-extended, but we want success, and I didn’t realize the baggage that came with that. It’s certainly surreal and weird.

What’s the key to keeping the dynasty afloat? I think that we need to hold ourselves to a high accountability, don’t believe the press, and we’re only as good as our last dish. We just need to keep pushing to get better everyday, and stay as humble.

What’s your fall drink? When fall and winter come around, I hit the brown stuff. Bourbon, usually Pappy Van Winkle‘s. 15 year and if I’m lucky, 20 year.

Where are you going out? I go to bars less and less these days. I always try to keep up to date with what Wylie is doing at wd. 15 East is great for sushi. I’d go to Sushi Yasuda all the time if it wasn’t in midtown, and Oriental Garden.

New York: Top 5 Spendy Restaurants Worth Every Penny

imageSometimes you’ve got the urge to splurge …

1. The Grocery Innovative farmfresh cuisine in a tiny, elegant setting: as transcendent as NYC gets. 2. Chanterelle The city’s best spot for foodgasms, with elegance done to perfection. 3. Eighty One Creativity saved on the name is channeled into impeccable locally sourced menu.

4. Gramercy Tavern Danny Meyer’s pride and joy is classy but not crabby, and soaring on its second wind courtesy of laid-back chef Michael Anthony. 5. Momofuku Ko David Chang’s East Village answer to Per Se, loaded with wit, flair, and originality.