Isa Gets New Chefs and Brunch

When Taavo Somer opened his Brooklyn restaurant Isa during the fall of 2011, gourmands flocked to get a taste of chef Ignacio Mattos’s eclectic menu. Eric Asimov of The New York Times described it as having a “complementary primitive aesthetic,” and he wasn’t alone in being charmed by the Williamsburg haunt. Yet, despite the reviews, Isa shut down this June after Mattos and other chefs left.

Now the popular shop is up and running again, but, while the owner, space, and name of the restaurant remain the same, the menu, brunch, and chef are different. Actually, there are two new chefs:Preston and Ginger Madson,a husband and wife team from Peels and Freemans. Their latest menu reflects Somer’s desire to have more of a rustic and hearty type of restaurant with a Mediterranean spin.

“Isa was always meant to be a cozy, neighborhood dining destination,” said Preston. “With the new menu, I’m trying to have something for everyone so no one feels excluded, and people that live in the neighborhood can come in and have a good meal a couple times a week.”

This means the new menu is more versatile than the original dishes, which involved items like deep-fried sardine bones and meals based on color. For brunch, the Madsons are sticking with the comfy and cozy vibe and have added Mediterranean-style plates of oven-baked eggs on polenta with pesto and tomato sauce, caramelized grapefruit, and sourdough pancakes with whipped ricotta. Don’t skip the drinks either: their beverage menu features dill-infused gin, bay leaf-infused vodka, watermelon juice, Sun Chai tea, and a cocktail called the Dayboat Swizzle, which involves absinthe, almond, and lime. Yum. But don’t take my word for it; starting tomorrow you can taste the goods yourself. 

Freemans’ Truly Bespoke Menu

Just when you thought Taavo Somer and William Tigertt’s chic Freemans Restaurant  couldn’t get any hipper, they decided to have Bench-Made Bespoke Studio open up in one of their bookcase-shrouded rooms. Adding on to the already stylish clothing boutique Freemans Sporting Club, the sleek barbershop, and the cabin-in-the-woods-style restaurant, Freemans has become the go-to for the modish male looking for a trim, a suit, and lunch.

To get to the studio you have to go down Freeman Alley and into the restaurant. Then up the stairs, past deer heads and stuffed birds, and through the bookcase (with real books!) and straight into the arms of master tailor Felix Aybar. While you look at Bespoke belts and wallets, choose fabrics, and get fitted for what-have-you, you can dine on Freemans’ a la carte menu and sip cocktails, which are also custom-made to your liking.

Last night they kicked off the opening of the shop with trays of Mai Tais, dumplings and pork buns by Mission Chinese, and Sunday Paper’s video about a kick-ass Chinese chef. As well-heeled people wandered around sewing machines and cutting tables, sipping drinks and delicately munching on the street food fare, Bespoke’s studio director Alex Young announced the shop and invited anyone to come by and visit – by appointment only of course.  Watch the video below:

Mission Chinese from Sunday Paper on Vimeo.

When Naming Peels, Taavo Somer Did Not Consider the Internet

Peels, that new Freemans spin-off on the Bowery, is a beautiful, bi-level space. Every detail – from the menu font to the artful manner in which the waiters fold your bill – is designed to heighten your experience. If you’ve been here or to Freemans, then you know: aesthetics first, food second. It seems, however, that Taavo Somer and crew might have a small problem on their hands, just slightly out of their jurisdiction, that they might want to look into.

On Sunday night, we decided to check out Somer’s Southern-inspired diner, so we did a search for it on Google Maps. The result was a near-total appetite killer, the very last image you want in your head before going to eat dinner:

image

Somer might want to get that checked out. It’s also the first thing that pops up on Google search, now that you mention it. But if you’re looking for Peels, don’t image search it, unless gagging is your thing. We understand the connection between the word ‘peels’ and the word ‘anal warts’ – but if you’re a restaurateur of Somer’s stature and reputation, don’t you think this might be something you oughta resolve? We’re just saying.

Industry Insiders: Vinegar Hill House’s Jean Adamson, Sam Buffa, & Brian Leth

Jean Adamson and Sam Buffa met while both were working at Freemans. Their relationship gave way to sharing a love of the food and aesthetic that formed Vinegar Hill House. Sam is also partners with Taavo Somer in the FSC Barbershop. Six months into their Brooklyn venture, the Vinegar Hill House team found Brian Leth, the chef de cuisine since April, formerly of Prune and Allen & Delancey. Leth excites patron with his locally sourced menu with ethnic flairs.

How did you start in the business? Jean Adamson: I started cooking in Salt Lake City, Utah. I had a fascination with cooking and went to the French Culinary Institute. Then I worked for Keith McNally for nine years at Balthazar and Pastis, but it was too easy there for me. I was just expediting the process, so I said, “I have to get out.” I started consulting for Frank Prisinzano of Frank, Supper and Lil’ Frankie’s. I helped him standardize things. I was getting their recipes in order so that in each restaurant everyone was doing the same thing. A friend then called me to say this guy Taavo Somer was looking for a chef at Freeman’s. Their consistency was really poor, and I’m good at producing large amounts of food at once. They were transferring into the first expansion so they needed a day-to-day chef to run everything. So I worked there for three years, and that’s where I met Sam. Sam Buffa: I was helping Taavo with the basic construction of their expansion. At the same time, the space at the front of the alley became available and I proposed the barbershop idea to Taavo. It’s still sort of my day job. Jean and I, from day one, have had similar interests. I always wanted to open a restaurant but had never worked in the field. I always liked the idea of building a restaurant.

How did you come across the space for Vinegar Hill House? JA: When Sam and I met, we were showing off the cool neighborhoods we knew in Brooklyn. I was living in Park Slope at the time, and the next day my landlord came to me and said the carriage house was becoming available in Vinegar Hill. It’s the house behind where the restaurant is now. I told him that I wanted it and I waited a year for it. SB: I told her to ask him about commercial spaces. Once we got the space it was like, “Oh shit now we have to open a restaurant.”

So you did. JA: When we told people about the location they were like, “No way.” When you’re milling around on a bicycle you just end up here. We opened last November after Sam designed the restaurant. We call the downstairs space “the den” and people rent it out for private events. I was the chef but was looking for a way to segue out. Then this gem, Brian, walked in the door. He’s changed the landscape of the restaurant. I always intended on being a local farms and local produce restaurant and he made that happen. He also wanted Brian wanted a Vita-Prep. It’s amazing watching the stuff he makes with it. Brian Leth: I’m a puree guy.

Where have you worked before? BL: I started cooking in New Mexico. A friend of a friend helped steer me towards a job at Prune and I learned a lot there. Then, I worked at Blue Hill and Café des Artistes. I was at Allen & Delancey for about a year. JA: Brian has a broad spectrum of food knowledge from having worked at so many places.

Are you already thinking about the next project? SB: I think its always on our mind. JA: We want to be solid here before the next place.

Something people don’t know about you? JA: That I’m nice. SB: I used to race motorcycles BL: I’m a serious Scrabble player

What are your favorite places? JA, SB, BL: Hotel Delmonico and Rusty Knot.

How about restaurants? BL: Ippudo, Prime Meats, and wd-50. JA, SB: Sripraphai for Hawaiian pizzas, Roberta’s, The Smile, Joe’s Shanghai for soup dumplings.

What’s on your favorite playlist right now? JA, SB: Lady Gaga and talk radio. BL: The Replacements and Steely Dan.

Industry Insiders: Taavo Somer, Rustic Freeman

Freeman’s and Rusty Knot co-owner Taavo Somer talks about his failed busboy career, the proper use of porno paneling, and why he strives for simplicity when doing three jobs at once.

Point of Origin: I moved here when I was 27, for a job at Steven Holl Architects. And my first day was an immediate wake-up call that it wasn’t gonna work out. I had been working in big firms for years, and this was my dream job. And when that disillusionment came, I thought: screw architecture. I’ll do something else. A friend there knew Serge Becker. I thought I’d be a busboy, learn to tend bar. When I met him, he was like, “Why do you want to work in a bar? I have no busboy openings but I have a project.” It turned out to be Lever House, which he was working on with John McDonald, and the designer Marc Newson. Serge didn’t have a trained architect in his office, so he said, “Do this until a busboy position opens up!”

Occupations: I co-own Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot. I was going to throw a big New Year’s party at a club Serge was opening in Brooklyn. The club didn’t open in time, and Serge felt bad, so he introduced me to this space on Chrystie Street. The landlord was cool with the party, but he said we had to use the alley entrance off Rivington. As soon as I saw the alley, the party dissolved, and I wanted to open a café. I already had a concept for a restaurant, and I just put the concept in the space. That’s how Freeman’s came about. The Rusty Knot is a 1950s nautical bar, really mellow, cheap materials, cheap drinks, 50-cent pool table, free jukebox. It’s got porno paneling, you know, fake wood like the Calvin Klein basement ads. The building itself is pretty unremarkable. But if you find yourself being a snob about something, my instinct would be to embrace and explore it, and that’s when epiphanies occur. It’s born from the location on the West Side highway. It’s not beautiful.

Side Hustle: I never wanted to do just one thing. When I was first in New York I was spending a lot of time in NoLita, which back then was really kinda cool. I started going into Selvedge and lamenting with Carlos [Quirarte, now of Ernest Sewn] about the state of New York nightlife, how there’s no Mudd Club. Where was the good rock party? So we decided to throw our own at the Pussycat Lounge. I started making T-shirts. And we sold them at Selvedge. Then we got in trouble, because the owners didn’t know. But they sold out. If I didn’t have the discipline I learned from architecture I wouldn’t be making clothes today. Now, we have Freeman’s Sporting Club. I design suits and shirts. The aesthetic of the restaurant definitely influenced the aesthetic of the clothing and the store itself. There’s also a barbershop in the store, and we just opened another, FSC Barber, on Horatio Street.

Favorite Hangs: Between Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot, there’s only a couple of nights a week that I’m free. I go to the Spotted Pig, because it’s like family there. I usually eat dinner at Il Buco once a week. I still go to Frank and Lil’ Frankie’s once in awhile … I have friends there. I go to a lot of the dive bars that I used to go to, like Joe’s Bar. In London I go to Rules, and in LA, for whatever reason, I like going to Dan Tana’s.

Industry Icons: Luc Levy, who owns Café Gitane. I love his set-up … he’s got his spot, it’s been open for 11 years, one owner … it’s an effortless business plan. Serge Becker, definitely. You could throw out ideas, and if he used it, he’d always credit you. This guy Jason Mclean from the old Loring Café, in Minneapolis. The place had Shakespeare one night, and a gypsy wedding the next, just weird shit happening. Freeman’s got its artichoke dip from there. Sean McPherson and Eric Goode, too. Even though they have a lot of projects, they’re still hands-on and obsessing about doorknobs. When I designed Gemma, I would go antiquing with them and saw just how much they labored over small details.

Known Associates: William Tigertt is my partner for Freeman’s and Freeman’s Sporting Club. My partner at the Rusty Knot is Ken Friedman, who also owns the Spotted Pig and is about to open John Dory. There are a lot of musicians that I love. My friends, kids I grew up with, are in the Hold Steady. I like what they’re doing. Their approach to music, in contrast with what’s happening in the rest of the industry, is really pretty awesome.

What are you doing tonight? I’ll be upstate. I have a house. I’ll just cook and hang out and garden.

Openings: FSC Barber, New York

imageWho’d have thought you could build an empire in the hopelessly ill-mannered contemporary New York City by reviving the aesthetics of 19th-century gentleman hunters and topping them off with a dollop of good ol’ Southern gentility? But Taavo Somer and Sam Buffa’s Freemans Sporting Club and Freeman’s restaurant, indeed, came on the scene like Adolf Loos and Philippe Stark never happened, and became de facto hipster stomping grounds. Now they takes their act West, with FSC Barber opening this week on a charming corner of Horatio Street.

Buffa conceived the shop as a throwback to 1930s Art Deco, with antique oak floors, distinctly old-fashioned lighting fixtures, and those truly classic vintage barber chairs evocative of breezy, pre-Sally Herschberger times. Treatments include their custom hangover remedy (sorry, Emo dudes), and if you’ve got an extra $1,500, you can walk away with your own custom, monogrammed FSC Barber Mastodon razor. Truly, the barber of the ‘Vill.