Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.
A vibrant, multi-cultural restaurant mecca pivots and reinvents itself to survive and triumph through the trials of COVID-19. From iconic New York destinations to innovative newcomers, menus abound in a cornucopia of fresh produce, the lively beating heart of a resilient food-lovers’ paradise.
Chela Modern Mexican and Bar Crudo: Staying Strong in The Heart of Brooklyn
By Ellen Koteff
Located in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and a mere four blocks from Prospect Park, Chela Modern Mexican and Bar Crudo Oyster Bar and Restaurant are staples of the thriving neighborhood. Both restaurants are owned by Ronny Jaramillo, an immigrant from Guayaquil, Ecuador, who spent countless hours in the kitchen with his grandmother learning the fundamentals of cooking and traditional South American flavors.
“We have expanded the concept of Mexican cuisine at Chela,” says Jaramillo. “We slightly push the boundaries without breaking the structure or expectations of traditional Mexican food.”
Chela’s traditional Mexican fare with a twist brings customers back time and again, as repeat business hovers around 75 percent according to Jaramillo. The popular eatery menus an abundance of dishes that rely heavily on produce — about 90 percent. Even a majority of the drink menu includes produce items such as beets, pineapples, apples, guavas and kumquats. Lucero Produce of the Bronx, NY, is the produce supplier for both Chela Mexican Modern and Bar Crudo Oyster Bar and Restaurant, which are located on the same block on either side of a storefront.
Bar Crudo Oyster Bar and Restaurant centers around sustainability and locally obtained oysters through a partnership with an oyster farm in New Jersey where the oysters are flipped manually instead of automatically. The restaurant seats 54 and employs seven. Like Chela, Bar Crudo is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week and features a brunch menu on the weekend. Check averages run about $40 to $50. A vegetarian menu is available, and Bar Crudo also offers such dinner entrees as meat paella with roasted pork ribs, artichoke hearts, chorizo, haricot verts and black garlic aioli for $29; and black cod featuring miso marinated black cod, sunchoke puree and chef’s mom pickled vegetables at $28.
While Chela opened its doors in 2015, Bar Crudo Oyster Bar and Restaurant opened in January 2020, a mere six weeks before the onslaught of COVID-19 in the New York City environs. “From day one, the coronavirus has been a game of adapting. I was forced to react instead of being proactive and we reacted as best we could,” says Jaramillo. “We had to follow the rules and push forward through any challenges.” Meeting the moment required Jaramillo to only do deliveries at the outset. Along with his brother, Henry, they then proceeded to offer takeout at both restaurants. “We changed our menus to offer items that would travel well, and we developed a green vision on how we package our food. We did a lot of research,” affirms Jaramillo. For Jaramillo, the biggest challenge was keeping up the spirits of his staff. “My staff was scared, and we tried to stay positive and keep everyone sane. It was very easy to get discouraged, but we put ourselves out there. We did our jobs and three other jobs. We really hustled,” says Jaramillo.
These days the two restaurants feature takeout as well as indoor and outdoor dining with heaters. All patrons sit at least six feet apart, and there are shields between the tables. “Right now, we are playing the same game — keeping the people outside warm and making the people inside feel safe and comfortable.”
Despite COVID-19 — Daniel Reimagines Itself and Still Gives Back
By Ellen Koteff
Even with a global reputation as one of the premiere fine dining establishments on the planet, Daniel — located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — was stricken by the devastating fallout from COVID-19 that suffocated the restaurant industry here and abroad. Following an initial total lockdown when New York City was ground zero for U.S. coronavirus outbreaks, Daniel, which is the creation of renowned Chef Daniel Boulud, reimagined itself to allow the business to move forward without the tourists, regular clientele or 75% of its seating capacity.
In September, when Boulud learned NYC restaurants could reopen with limited seating, he teamed up with Stephanie Goto, founder of Manhattan design studio StephanieGoto, to redesign the restaurant’s space and Boulud Sur Mer was born. More affordably priced and meant to evoke the feeling of Provence in the South of France, the reincarnated and temporary space attracted a new following.
“It’s not the same restaurant, but we will go back to Daniel when the state allows 50% capacity,” says Eddy Leroux, chef de cuisine. “I am convinced New York will bounce back, but we have to be patient. Things will change when international travel comes back, but we lost the tourists and we lost our wealthier clientele,” says Leroux. As a result, he says the makeup of patrons changed by 70%, and the average dinner check dipped from $480 in 2019 to $245 in 2020. At 25% capacity, Boulud Sur Mer is able to serve approximately 180 people a day when table turns and expanded outdoor seating are factored in, but Leroux also realizes, “We know at a certain point we will have to raise our prices.”
When the coronavirus hit, Daniel, which opened in 1993, found new ways to partner with the Food First Foundation and City Meals on Wheels, where Boulud serves as co-president. Staff members volunteered their time by cooking thousands of meals a day for nurses and first responders supporting the health crisis. Leroux remembers it well. “In May when we opened back up, a small team of chefs and I prepared meals for about 600 hospital employees free for the Food First Foundation.”
About the same time, the organization launched Daniel Boulud Kitchen, which includes Boulud Sur Mer, a pick-up and delivery concept; and a partnership with Goldbelly, which is a curated online marketplace featuring artisanal foods crafted by local purveyors such as Daniel Boulud.
At the outset of the coronavirus, Leroux attests it wasn’t easy finding produce. “Everyone was closed, and we were used to importing a lot of produce from Europe, which further complicated things, but Baldor was very helpful and eager to make it happen. We found alternatives in the United States and sourced locally.” In addition to Baldor, based in The Bronx, Daniel Boulud Kitchen sources produce from Satur Farms in Calverton, NY.
Leroux says despite the coronavirus, Daniel Boulud Kitchen was able to serve a lot of fall produce including mushrooms, artichokes and Tiny Veggies sourced from Fresh Origins, San Marcos, CA. “We are also featuring a lot of figs and citrus, quince and pomegranate.”
David Burke Tavern Is Hanging Tough On the Upper East Side
By Ellen Koteff
Boasting a treasure trove of accolades after receiving Three Stars from the New York Times at Brooklyn’s River Café when he was just 26, David Burke continued to make his mark in the Big Apple and beyond. With many firsts under his belt, Burke is considered one of the leading pioneers in American cooking as well as a celebrity chef. Now, with a stable of 12 restaurants, Burke is also an entrepreneur, but he has never lost his love of discovering new things in the kitchen, a trait he honed at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
At his namesake David Burke Tavern on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a modern American restaurant with endless charm and a contemporary approach to classic fare, Burke is still offering imaginative, colorful and delicious presentations.
Like the restaurant industry itself, Burke’s maturing empire took a colossal hit when COVID-19 careened through New York City like a runaway subway train.
“We were devastated,” admits Burke. “Overnight we lost 65% of our gross income. We pivoted in every way possible, but still lost a lot of revenue. The PPP (Payment Protection Program) loan was a big help, but now it’s gone.”
As the day-to-day reality set in at David Burke Tavern, Burke admits that roadblocks remained. “The biggest challenge was, and remains, balancing a budget, tied with the uncertainty of what lies ahead and the lack of communication.”
When the city allowed additional outdoor seating during the summer there was a bit of reprieve from the harsh realities of the coronavirus. “We started serving outdoor diners in July, and we were lucky enough to have great weather for quite a few months, but now it has gotten too cold to eat outside,” says Burke.
Pivoting once again, the restaurant now charges a 10% COVID fee to help keep David Burke Kitchen viable. “The fee has helped quite a bit,” says Burke. “It’s what is helping to keep our restaurants afloat. We’re fortunate to have made a deal with the landlords to give them the 10% fee to pay the rent.”
Pre-COVID, the restaurant could seat 170 people but with restrictions that number dwindled to 45. “But even if we could seat 100, people are afraid and they aren’t going out like before,” says Burke.
The restaurant has been operating for about five years and menus upwards of 55 produce items that change seasonally. The guests are a combination of neighborhood locals and foodies. “Our big sellers include Brussel sprouts, mushrooms, cauliflower, potatoes and beets — all your fall veggies,” says Burke. David Burke Tavern’s produce is supplied by Riviera Produce, based in Englewood, NJ.
Despite a future that remains COVID-centric for the immediate future, Burke never loses his positive outlook. “I’m always optimistic about the future. I could be half eaten by a shark and still think I could eat him.”
Francie’s Opening Put On Hold But Optimism Abounds
By Ellen Koteff
While no restaurant in America was spared fallout from COVID-19, imagine you are a New York restaurateur about to open your dream project — your vision come to life. Look no further than the joint venture of owner-operator John Winterman and chef-owner Christopher Cipollone — Francie, which was set to make its Spring 2020 debut in the high-end Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.
“Once we didn’t open on time there was a lot of collateral damage,” says Cipollone. “The delay affected some of the finishing features for the design and our construction costs. City inspections took five times longer than usual, but through careful planning and good relationships we have pressed forward.”
With a menu inspired by European flavors and designed to be flexible, the offerings range from $6 to $175.
Guests can choose from snacks, shellfish, first courses, handmade pasta, main courses, cheese and desserts.
“You can come in and custom tailor the cost and range of your meal,” says Cipollone. “It should be equally satisfying no matter which way you go. Our target customer is everybody. It comes down to the feel of what we are serving.”
With upwards of 80 produce items on the menu, there are decidedly many tempting dishes. If guests are interested in snacks, there is the Butternut Squash Bomboloni with pancetta pepato and fonduta, $12; mains include Lasagna with local mushroom, sunchoke and black garlic, $24; Dry-Aged Crown of Duck with Swiss chard, parsnip and soppressata jam, $88; and Pithivier with honeynut squash, lentils and hazelnut curry for $32; and for dessert the New York Cheesecake features citrus and fennel, $15.
For its produce, Francie uses Natoora NYC, Brooklyn, NY, a wholesaler service that connects foodservice operations with local growers, Norwich Meadows Farm, an organic farm located in Chenango County, NY, Windfall Farms in Montgomery, NY, the Union Square Greenmarket, Manhattan, and Veritas Farms, a sustainable mixed vegetable and livestock farm located in New Paltz, NY.
Francie, which finally opened its doors for the first time on December 4, 2020, is being steered by an experienced restaurant duo that is only looking forward.
A Greenwich Village Favorite — Jeffrey’s Grocery Learns How To Pivot
By Ellen Koteff
Fresh off its ten-year anniversary, Jeffrey’s Grocery, located in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, is settling into its new normal: the state of pivot. “It’s a lot like the Wild, Wild West,” says executive chef, Matt Griffin. “We’ve had to be light on our feet, pivoting and shifting, to meet regulations and provide for the changing needs of our neighbors and our community,” he says.
Looking for ways to mitigate the financial losses due to the coronavirus, Griffin says the restaurant initially provided free groceries and prepared meals for former employees. “We then opened the restaurant across the street, Joseph Leonard, to provide meals to front-line workers. That gave us a chance to rehire more former employees. When circumstances allowed, we opened our doors for pickup and delivery of meal kits and grocery staples. We then supplemented with TO GO offerings of a la minute food and beverage,” says Griffin.
Part of the Happy Cooking Hospitality group, Jeffrey’s Grocery is owned by Gabriel Stulman and named named for his father, Jeffrey Stulman. Other restaurants in the group include Joseph Leonard, Fairfax and The Jones. Decidedly a neighborhood haunt, Jeffrey’s Grocery gained some new devotees when it reopened before many competitors did. “We were one of the first restaurants in our immediate vicinity to open our doors. As a result, I would say we’ve become more of a beacon for the community, and some people discovered us that might not have,” says Griffin.
What guests discovered was a warm and inviting atmosphere with outdoor seating and a menu that features oysters and seafood complemented by braised meat dishes and a robust wine list. Over its decade-long arch, Jeffrey’s Grocery has evolved considerably. “Originally we were a neighborhood grocery story and restaurant, but we noticed more and more guests wanted to dine in, and the grocery concept eventually faded away.”
The restaurant seats anywhere between 42 to 56 depending on whether it’s an Open Streets day. “On certain days, we are allowed to shut down the streets to car traffic and put tables out in the street. It’s just bikes and pedestrians going by — it feels like European-style dining, in a way. The added seats, especially as some guests are hesitant to return indoors, are a boon to the bottom line,” says Griffin. At the current 25% capacity, the restaurant can seat 18 guests inside.
In order to further stem the financial hit, Jeffrey’s Grocery posts a note to guests on its menu that was approved by the New York City Council for the city’s 25,000 restaurants. “In doing our part to beat this pandemic, we’re operating with significant new costs, but only a fraction of the capacity — and revenue — of our former selves. The COVID-19 recovery charge that appears on our checks is not a gratuity — it’s there to improve the odds we’ll still be here when the masks come off.” Griffin says the surcharge is a “welcome suggestion” for customers in order to provide restaurants a little more padding. “In the end, it’s up to our guests whether or not they want to pay it, no questions asked,” he says.
Jeffrey’s Grocery utilizes about 30 produce items and relies heavily on Baldor, Bronx, NY, as well as filling in product from Union Square Greenmarket. “We didn’t have issues in the very beginning, but I did notice that some of the farms I was using were not available, and the greenmarket was not what it was normally. Overall, I would say that produce was relatively good — about 90% of what it was pre-COVID-19,” says Griffin.
Old Homestead Steakhouse: Also A Home For Fresh Produce
By Carol Bareuther, RD
Like hand-in-glove, Marc Sherry, co-owner of Old Homestead Steakhouse in New York City, says, “What’s a steak without the vegetables on the side?” Sherry is speaking especially of the restaurant’s signature creamed spinach, a recipe handed down from his grandmother. This side green is far from the only veggie on the menu of the 152-year-old eatery, one of the longest continually serving steakhouses in the U.S., and aptly located at 56 9th Avenue in Manhattan’s meat-packing district.
“The world has changed, but not our commitment to steaks. We serve USDA prime aged Texas-size cuts of beef and have a long-established relationship with our purveyor and get the first pick of the prime. The same is true for fresh produce. We have one supplier, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, and do business directly with them. Prices on some things have become higher with the pandemic, but the supply is always there. That said, we are a multimillion-dollar restaurant and pre-pandemic would spend up to $20,000 a week on produce. Now, that’s scaled down. We order day by day based on what we need.”
Fresh produce is featured throughout the menu at the Old Homestead Steakhouse. For example, there’s an appetizer of beef carpaccio topped with truffle oil, aged parmesan and microgreens; side salads such as an iceberg wedge with crumbled blue cheese and beefsteak tomato with buffalo mozzarella; and sides like garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus hollandaise, truffle butter baked potato, sauteed mushroom caps, sauteed broccoli and, of course, creamed spinach.
Heated outdoor dining, 25 percent capacity for indoor dining (where an episode of Seinfeld was once filmed), and take-out and delivery service have helped the Old Homestead Steakhouse survive despite the pandemic.
“It used to be people would ask, ‘Where are we going for dinner tonight?’ That’s disappearing. Now, they stay at home and cook during the week and then ask, ‘Where will we go for dinner on Friday or what restaurant should we order from?’ So, as long as we can do indoor or outdoor or take out, any or all of those three, all is well,” says Sherry.
Rocco Steakhouse: Dry-Aged Prime and a Namesake Salad, Making it Fresh
By Carol Bareuther, RD
Known for its prime beef and chops dry-aged on-site, it’s a salad at this elegant five-year-old classic American steakhouse that bears the owner’s name. The Rocco Salad Chopped, a colorful crunchy combination that includes fresh spinach, romaine lettuce, green peas, corn, carrots, cucumber, avocado, red and green bell pepper, red cabbage and hearts of palm, was invented by well-known restaurateur Rocco Trotta. Today, this salad is as iconic as the center plate proteins at this eatery, located at 72 Madison Avenue in New York City’s borough of Manhattan.
“Steak is our signature dish, especially the porterhouse for two or more,” says Patrycja Mirecki, office manager. “The two most popular sides are our German potatoes and creamed spinach. The chef uses Idaho russets to make the potatoes from scratch. The potatoes are cooked, sliced and sauced with onion, then broiled so they are crispy on the top. The creamed spinach is a secret recipe. We have pretty much stuck with our original menu items. It takes a lot to change the menu, and there’s always a risk when you do, and this can be more so now in the pandemic.”
Salads and sides at Rocco Steakhouse are full of fresh vegetables. There is a mixed green salad, an arugula, apple and pear salad with shaved parmesan, a Roquefort topped iceberg wedge, Caesar salad, sliced beefsteak tomatoes and onions, and fresh mozzarella and beefsteak tomatoes. In addition to the German potatoes, there are steak fries, mashed potatoes and jumbo baked potatoes. Other sides include creamed spinach as well as asparagus or broccoli either steamed or sauteed based on the patron’s desire. Onion rings and sauteed mushrooms round out the produce offerings. Fresh fruits like pineapple, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries feature in desserts.
Rocco Steakhouse re-opened to on-premises dining, albeit at 25 percent capacity, at the end of September after closing March 17. What has sustained the restaurant since this time is a transition to take-out and delivery and utilizing online food ordering and delivery platforms such as Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash, according to Mirecki.
“We have had such great customer support,” she says. “They say they miss our steak, salad and potatoes. To adapt and maintain quality for delivery, we pack everything separately. The salad and dressing separately. The hot protein separately. Sides separately. Then at home, all the customer has to do is put it together on the plate to eat as if they were at the restaurant.”
Outside Dining, Word Of Mouth Help Strangeways Despite Coronavirus
By Ellen Koteff
When Strangeways opened its doors in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, nearby residents were growing weary of COVID-19 after living with it for almost six months. “We opened at the end of August, because we couldn’t open when we were planning to in March,” says chef-partner Ken Addington.
“Opening later gave us an opportunity to think through our capabilities and how to make it work. We were also very fortunate to have a landlord who considered us a partner and gave us a break on the rent,” says Addington. Once open, the restaurant survived on press mentions, Instagram and word of mouth. “In the beginning, we opened our doors, and people walked past and saw how nice it was,” he says.
Blessed with 1,700 square feet outside, Strangeways will be able to serve up to 160 people once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, “We make our guests feel comfortable when they come to us. We want them to get a real sense of normalcy,” says Addington. At 25% capacity, there are currently only 18 available seats inside, but that number will jump to 80 at some point, he says.
The evolving neighborhood now houses an affluent, professional crowd that likes to eat out regularly. Average ticket prices range from $50 to $65, including drinks. Strangeways does up to three table turns a night and employs about 30 people.
The venture marks the re-teaming of Addington and Australian restaurateur Jamie Webb, who had worked side by side in New York City as well as Down Under in Sydney. “Once we had worked together, we always wanted to start something new.”
Strangeways is a seasonal American restaurant that serves upward of 80 produce items in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere where hospitality is key. Some have described the menu as sophisticated “pub fare,” but Addington calls it eclectic.
Addington, who was once a vegetarian “for a long time,” says some of his best-selling dishes include a house-made Ricotta flatbread with fermented fig honey, pistachio and fennel pollen dukkah; Roasted Baby Beets with stracciatella, holy basil and sunflower gremolata; Crispy Brussels Sprouts with sweet and spicy pecans and pomegranate and Delicata Squash and Terviso with crunchy olives, pickled red onion and pine nuts.
Entrees include Marinated Lamb Steak with cauliflower chevre puree, grapes and pickled trumpets ($28); Grilled Half Chicken with piri piri, preserved lemon mashed potatoes and green sauce ($28); Scarlett Runner Bean Stew with roasted pumpkin, turnips, maitake and black rice ($22); and Lobster Bucatini with tomato confit, saffron-coconut sauce and sea beans ($32).
“We wanted to be able to take care of our vegan and vegetarian customers,” says Addington, “It’s a big part of the client base.”
Strangeways uses several sources for its produce, including Riviera Produce Corp. in Englewood, NJ; Miquel Gonzalez, who supplies all of the restaurant’s avocados; Southeast Asia Food Group, Bronx, NY and Baldor, Bronx, NY. “In New York you can get whatever you need. Baldor is a great source, and all my produce suppliers are great.”
The Leopard at Des Artistes for All Seasons
By Carol Bareuther, RD
The finest seasonal ingredients simply prepared in an authentic Southern Italian-style is the guiding philosophy of Vito Gnazzo, chef partner at the II Gattopardo Group. The Group owns The Leopard at des Artistes at 1 West 67th Street and Il Gattopardo at 13-15 54th Street, both located in Manhattan and frequented by celebrity and everyday customers. Gnazzo works with produce supplier Manhattan Fruit Exchange to source fresh fruits and vegetables like beefsteak tomatoes from Long Island, New Jersey and surrounding states. Dishes feature ingredients iconic to the regions south of Rome, along with fresh seafood reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast.
“Asking me to name our signature dish is like asking which one of my children is the most beautiful. They are all excellent,” says Gnazzo, a native of Salerno, who started his culinary career at a three Michelin Star restaurant in Milan, immigrated to the U.S. in 1981 and has since received two stars (a Very Good rating) by The New York Times restaurant critics. “To give you some examples, everyone likes the Zucchini Parmigiana, the Spaghetti with grey mullet bottarga (salted cured fish roe), garlic, parsley, extra virgin olive oil and a hint of crushed Calabrian red pepper; and the Sardinian fregola (pasta) risotto style with asparagus tips and scallops.”
Seasonal themes are evident on the menu. For instance, an autumn menu included an appetizer salad with mixed lettuces, delicata squash and pear; an entrée of scallops, citrus and fennel; sides such as roasted carrots with Sicilian oregano; and for dessert, Panna Cotta with fresh grapes.
“Now, the menu is shorter, we order smaller amounts of fresh produce and more frequently and have 3 people in the kitchen now instead of 10. That’s because we do an average of 70 to 80 dinners nightly rather than the 300 to 400 we use to. But the way I look at it, we are already nine months into the pandemic and hopefully six months from now we’ll all be in a better position,” says Gnazzo.