Note: This review of Acme is under chef Mats Refslund, who left the restaurant at the end of 2015. Acme is now an Italian restaurant, under chef Brian Loiacono, who worked formerly at Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne. One desperately wants this incarnation of Acme to be as important as the last one was, while somehow doubting that it will happen.
In New York, restaurants open after years of planning, or they pop up seemingly out of nowhere.
The new Acme falls squarely in the latter category. When the venerable Acme Bar & Grill closed last March after a 25-year run, most people figured it was dunzo, notwithstanding the owner’s pledge to re-open “after a few months.” Renovations took longer than planned; don’t they always? A farm-to-table concept was considered. Yawn city.
After more like nine months, Acme re-opened with new partners (the guys behind clubby joints like Indochine and Kittichai) and chef Mats Refslund, a co-founder of the renowned Danish restaurant Noma, which is currently #1 on the S. Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants.
That came out of nowhere. By January 6, though still not even officially open, it was named (by one observer) The Most Exciting Restaurant in New York. (So how did Refslund wind up here anyway? The story is worth a read.)
The new owners are better known for “see and be seen” restaurants that attract art and fashion industry types. UrbanDaddy thought the new Acme was a dance club serving a bit of food. The owners forcefully denied it. The intersection of their world and the serious dining community is a shock to the system.
They are really taking the Nordic theme seriously. They owners gently suggested putting a burger on the menu. Chef Refslund refused (though he reluctantly agreed to offer french fries). The sign outside still reads, “Authentic Southern and Cajun Cooking.” But inside, it is nothing like the neighborhood dive that the old Acme apparently was.
Despite the connection to Noma, this is not a clone of that acclaimed restaurant, where dinner is 1,500 Danish kroner (about US$263) for a twenty-course tasting menu. Although the style is recognizably Nordic, Relfslund uses local ingredients. Prices are far more accessible, with appetizers $10–14, entrées $20–30, side dishes $8, desserts $10. A pre-dinner cocktail was just $12.
It is not a long menu, occupying about 2/3rds of a page, with about 14 of the dishes I’m calling “appetizers” in three categories (“Raw,” “Cooked,” and “Soil”), and seven entrées. Because the appetizers sounded so appealing, we ordered five of them to share, and didn’t get around to any of the entrées or dessert, which will have to wait for another time.
After the bread service (above left), we chose two items from the “Raw” section. House-cured salmon ($12; above right), dressed with winter cabbage and buttermilk horseradish dressing, was an excellent way to start.
Sweet shrimp & bison ($13; below left) were paired with bitter lettuce and white walnuts (the photo does not do it justice).
From the “Cooked” section of the menu, Farmer’s Eggs ($10; above right) were hollowed out and filled with a luscious cauliflower and aged parmesan soup. You get only a few bites of this ambrosia (the hay surrounding the eggs is stritcly decorative), but one can’t complain at $5 per egg.
It’s most unlike me to finish a meal with two vegetables dishes, but to me the section marked “Soil” was the most intriguing. Hay roasted sunchokes ($12; above left) in New England gruyère and winter truffles were superb. Salt-baked beets ($12; above right) with red grapefruit and aged vinegar were somewhat forgettable.
There are two precedents for the service model at a place like Acme, and neither is very good. One is to go the Momofuku/Torrisi route, and serve excellent food, along with purportedly “democratic” service that sucks. The other is to go the high-end club route, with a bouncer at the door and a snooty host who quotes an hour wait for everyone who isn’t a celebrity.
They could have done that. Yet, they didn’t. Acme takes reservations and checks coats. You arrive before your girlfriend, and they offer to seat you immediately. Servers and hosts are nicely dressed. They circle back regularly to check on you. Plates and flatware are delivered and cleared when they should be. A fork drops on the floor, and within seconds someone notices. The wine list makes sense and is served at the right temperature, with proper glassware.
The place is built on the old Acme’s bones, so it is not the most comfortable or the most gorgeously appointed. It gets loud when full. But the service matches the food, whereas at Momofuku, or Torrisi, or the clubby places these owners are best known for, it does not.
They’ve adjusted quickly to the food-centric clientele. At the long bar, every place is set with silverware and napkins: they clearly expect that most diners are coming here for the food. At the tables, patrons were in a wide age range. I saw a few waifs that could be from the fashion or art world, but they were certainly not in the majority—as far as I can tell. That was at 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. I hear the atmosphere at 11:00 p.m. on Friday or Saturday is more like a club. You won’t find me at Acme then.
Is Refslund here for the long haul? This menu is not replicable without him. In a tug-of-war between the fashion scene and the dining scene, one must prevail. If it’s the former, I suspect he’ll get fed up pretty quickly. If it’s the latter, we could be in for a wild and exciting ride.
Acme (9 Great Jones Street, west of Lafayette Street, NoHo)