July 13, 2007 | BITE: My Journal
The Day Wayne Nish Saw Stars
| It was one of those warm, intimate, swooning excursions into a sublime dining experience that Ruth Reichl occasionallywove in her corner at the New York Times. Reading and rereading the emphatic approval, paragraph after paragraph -- “memorable…” “impressive…” “extravagantly hedonistic experience…” “a dream” -- surely had hearts racing at March that Friday, February 10, 1995. Or did owner-chef Wayne Nish and his partner Joe Scalise actually levitate?
Without a doubt, it read like a four star review. Yet there were only three stars on display. How could that have happened? It seems there was the bread, alas, “a flabby bit of starch,” and the pralines, “slightly burnt.” “There are other little off notes that keep March from four-star status,” Reichl wrote. She cited “the waiter who did not know the names of the cheese he had just served. Or how to pronounce them.” The soft but damning sentence still haunts Nish even now: “There are other little notes...”
Not long after that Nish decided he was so close to four stars he would have to invest everything in attaining them. “I was working at my peak,” he recalls. “Some people felt the service was not up to snuff. I felt I must upgrade the facility.” Nish and Scalise had opened March in 1990 on a shoestring, moving into Bobby and Karen Pritzker’s 1979 build-out for the beloved and lost Dodin Bouffant. “By 1995, we were holding it together with band-aids,” Nish recalls. “The bathrooms needed desperately to be redone.” His grand scheme simmered as he mined for the money to do it.
At one point long ago when he was out of college and in the printing business, Wayne Nish’s highest aspiration was to open a luncheonette in the garment center. He’d been the cook in his fraternity. Then, in 1980 on his honeymoon, lunch at Restaurant Girardet outside Lausanne was a revelation. “This is what you want to do, isn’t it?” his wife asked. It took him three years to organize his life and enroll in the New York Restaurant School where he won an apprenticeship at The Quilted Giraffe.
Now he was seeing stars. Some close friends who had loaned him money before refused to bank Nish’s costly expansion plan. “I thought he was going too deep into debt,” one longtime friend and admirer tells me. “I told him to divide the cost into the number of new seats…it wasn’t going to work. But you couldn’t tell Wayne anything.”
March closed in January 2000 for six months. Nish concedes the $1.3 million rehab went $400,000 over budget. But he points out that even when the Nasdaq imploded, the restaurant had its biggest year ever, even by candlelight during the blackout. Customers loved the romantic townhouse and the chef’s “make-your-own tasting dinner,” but the fourth star did not follow. The house suffered after 9/11. “Someone wrote that March was the most expensive restaurant in town and that image stuck,” Nish laments.
It was still on everyone’s “most romantic” list. But the new balcony was not that enticing and tables often went empty. A devoted fan insisted I go with him to rediscover March in June, 2004. It was a treat to have someone else paying for the iconic beggar’s purses, the caviar bundle borrowed from Nish’s time at the Quilted Giraffe; the lobster and black truffle, his own rich-as-Croesus variation. The silken firmness of hamachi sashimi had us both exclaiming. A tataki of smoked beef was seared on just one side, with a Cabernet reduction. I succumbed to the old world taste of morels in mustard-tinged cream, to quail with a few drops of pomegranate molasses.
I recall Chinese wine jelly with a cluster of wine grapes and aromatic flavors. And a thrilling embellishment of Brillat-Savarin cheese -- with butter and minced truffles folded into the unctuous creaminess of the cheese. Was that a $75 supplement? My host did not whimper.
The kitchen had lost some muscle when I returned more recently with another March fan. He was working off a loan to Nish in free meals, he confided to me only after the restaurant finally closed a few weeks ago. “I should have come more often,” he lamented. “I shouldn’t have brought my own wine.”
I read that Nish had let his heralded chef de cuisine Harold Moore go, put in a new less expensive menu and was actually cooking himself again not long after. March had been born-again as Nish. On April 11th with yet another passionate Wayne Nish fan insisting, we met at the townhouse.
There was a rather down-market reception at the door (compared to the stylish snap of past memory) and a blinding blizzard of white tablecloths. And then...what a shock, Wayne himself, still remarkably dashing in chef’s whites, young looking at 55, greeting us...taking the order for our four-course tasting at a smartly affordable $59...insisting we must not miss the exquisite raw milk cheese he had collected. “You won’t find anything like these cheeses anywhere in the city,” he said, cutting generous wedges of a dozen cheeses for our sixsome to share. Others at the table were raving about everything: Wayne Nish food and other worldly cheeses for less than $100 a person...I listened...I am not one to be swayed.
I thought about what I would write. Should I send readers to this sad, empty place? I wasn’t mad about some of the fusion tastes on his new menu...I actually hated the pallid ballotine of turkey -- a concept that thrilled me in the ‘60s when I knew nothing because it was French, but even then it was usually a beautiful bore. Still, I knew I would be back myself one day soon. Perhaps for the exquisite poached egg and those intoxicating cheeses.
There were some raves in the press. I drove by on my way to dinner nearby a week later and walked through the place to see how it felt. It was noisy and bouncing. And not sad at all.
Then came the shock. With no warning, it closed. It was over. It wasn’t working. The debts were too big. “We looked at the numbers for the last month,” co-owner Scalise told NYMag.com’s Grub Street. “And we were working just to pay the payroll and the vendors…so we had to make a decision.”
“It was coming,” Nish says. He still speaks of Ruth’s review as the moment “I was that close to four stars.” He couldn’t help observing that like his former marriage, the restaurant had lasted 17 years. “Seventeen years. That must mean something.” He mentioned an email from a friend of the house saying “Too bad it didn’t work out.” He laughs. “I wrote back, ‘I would say a restaurant that lasts 17 years in New York did work out’.”
He had thought when he signed a 25 year renewal lease in 2000 “that the lease would take me to my retirement.” Now he contemplates starting over. He is weighing dozens of offers from everywhere, he says.
Solace for the Neighborhood
Unassuming Solace, a wonderfully affordable discovery for this neighborhood, got an unexpected press spotlight when Restaurant Nish shut its doors abruptly in June and co-proprietor Joe Scalise emerged managing the new townhouse spot with a garden -- not far from his townhouse-cum-garden that was March (and briefly Nish) for seventeen years.
Monkfish and sea creatures at Solace. Photo: Steven Richter
Curious to see if Scalise has found himself another small oasis of romance and luxury, I quickly booked. But no, Solace is not March reborn nor was it meant to be. Instead of the polished and graceful welcome once the mark of March, I felt myself almost an intruder. Not that the greeter was not warm . Just that he looked surprised. Okay it was early, the place not yet discovered even by the locals. It is pale, cream and beige and a blur of white, simple commercial tablecloths, but nicely lit.
At any price Chef-owner David Ruggiero’s triumph of delicately butter-braised lobster with artichoke, sweet peas, chanterelles and early corn would be impressive, but the good news is that no entree is over $28. The Aureole veteran piles a small hill of toasted almonds, shallots and chopped dates that add texture to a creamy soup that just hints of cauliflower. The chef’s layering of eggplant, goat cheese and tomato with hazelnuts and toasted garlic bread sings with flavor, as does proscuitto-wrapped pork tenderloin (it would have been tastier less cooked). Alas, his shitake ravioli are sadly coarse.
A special of carefully braised monkfish is rich with a toss of sea creatures in a puddle of fragrant broth. Sides for just $5 and desserts at $7 are unfashionably sane. These are simply desserts, not works of art, not even trying to be: a tangy key lime tart is fine but the coconut ice cream is icy.
It’s pouring tonight and guests cluster in the doorway taking measure of the drenched garden which promises a magic you can see in spite of the downpour. By now I’m hoping the kitchen will have steadied and even with the arrival of the liquor license, the tariff will seem gentle in this neighborhood.
406 E. 64th St. at 1st Avenue 212 750 0434
I can’t imagine myself cooling off in a sidewalk cafe when it’s really steamy. But I see no reason why we can’t all cool off with the cocktail that took first prize in the City’s Second Annual Sidewalk Cafe Drink Mix-Off late in May in a lecture hall at the Institute of Culinary Education.
To be frank, I didn’t even notice there was a first Mix-Off last year. It’s a sweet gig put on by the City’s Department of Consumer Affairs and the New York State Restaurant Association, mostly so they can point out that New York now has over 900 legal sidewalk cafes. I agreed to be a judge this year, which is how I came to discover the Porch Swing -- the judges’ unanimous winner by mixologist Jay Doren, beverage director of Blue Smoke. Smartly refreshing, it tastes like a summer classic with its hit of gin and Pimm’s Cup No. 1, although I can’t say I’ve been drinking either since I-can’t-remember-what decade. Subtly sweet homemade lemonade, a splash of 7-Up, and slivers of sliced cucumber tossed on at the end are the operative coolants.
Blue Smoke’s Porch Swing
1 ½ oz Hendricks Gin
1 ½ oz Pimm’s Cup No. 1
4 oz. Homemade Blue Smoke Lemonade (Blend 1 part fresh squeezed lemon juice with one part simple syrup to 2 parts water)
Pour into tall Collins glass. Add a splash of 7-Up. Finish with 10 paper-thin half-moon slices of cucumber.
There was a marvelous non-alcoholic winner, too.
Bubby’s Watermelon Lemonade
2 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 oz. fresh watermelon puree, strained through course strainer to remove seeds
1 1/2 oz. simple syrup
6 oz. water
Shake and serve over ice with a big wedge of fresh watermelon as garnish.