Entries in Jimmy Haber (2)


Casa Nonna

When investor Jimmy Haber and chef Laurent Tourondel broke up their BLT Restaurant Group last year, expansion strategy turned out to be the sticking point. Haber “wanted to develop new restaurants that were more affordable, appealed to a wider audience and did not carry the BLT name.” Tourondel did not want any other chef as an equal partner.

Haber’s rustic Italian joint, Casa Nonna (“Grandmother’s House”), finally sent Tourondel packing. According to Crain’s, the Washington, D.C. restaurant threw off $70 million in annual revenues. You can see why Haber would expand in that direction, and why Tourondel would consider it a threat. [Correction: $70 million was the group revenue; see comment below.]

In truth, even the group’s high-end BLT restaurants were gradually losing relevance: there were too many of them for Tourondel to do much more than lend his name to efforts that were increasingly derivative. Haber’s plan to focus on food for the masses was probably the more sensible one. He was headed in that direction anyway.

Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic for The Washington Post, gave Casa Nonna two stars out of four. I have no idea whether that’s justified. But in New York, where there are dozens of excellent rustic Italian restaurants, the bar is much higher.

The 200-seat Casa Nonna in far west midtown is handsomely decked out in a Corporate Italian way. When the 3rd Casa Nonna opens, heaven knows where, they’ll hand over the blueprints and source Italian knick-knacks from the same second-hand supplier that decorates the likes of Applebee’s.

Chef Amy Brandwein’s menu is somewhat predictable and a shade on the expensive side. Antipasti are $6–13, primi $17–28, secondi $21–45 (but most in the $20s), contorni $6–10. These aren’t outrageous prices by midtown standards, but Casa Nonna is competing in a crowded field, and for the same money you can do better elsewhere.

Whole Grilled Branzino ($26; above left) was very good, although plenty of New York restaurants offer the same item. Guance di Maiale, or braised pork cheeks ($23; above right) was the only item on the menu that seemed slightly unusual. The plating would win no awards, but the white wine tomato ragu and creamy polenta complemented the pork nicely.

Located on an uninteresting block near the garment district, west of Eighth Avenue, Casa Nonna isn’t an immediate hit. On a recent Wednesday evening, there was a decent crowd at the bar, but we had the dining room very nearly to ourselves. The site is a bit too far away from Broadway to be an obvious pre-theater place, and it isn’t interesting enough to be worth a detour.

Casa Nonna (310 W. 38th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


BLT Bar & Grill


Earlier this year, chef Laurent Tourondel and his namesake BLT Restaurant Group split up, with owner Jimmy Haber keeping most of the restaurants and Tourondel’s plans unclear. At first, the divorce was described as amicable, but that unlikely story exploded quickly enough. Last month, Haber sued Tourondel for opening a burger joint in Sag Harbor, LT Burger, that allegedly infringed the trademark of the extremely similar BLT Burger in Greenwich Village, which Tourondel opened but no longer controls.

Under the terms of their settlement, Haber is no longer permitted to open new BLT restaurants, but BLT Bar & Grill, which was already under construction in the W Hotel Downtown, was allowed to keep the coveted initials—presumably the last time we’ll see them in a new place. The hotel remains blanketed with scaffolding, but the restaurant has been open since late July.

Under Tourondel’s supervision, the BLT restaurants were crazily expensive and frustratingly uneven. The potential for a great meal was always there, but they didn’t deliver it consistently. Tourondel’s menus, however, were always clever. He seldom served a classic without tweaking it—usually for the better.

If BLT Bar & Grill is the best the group can do sans Tourondel, the future is not bright. This is a routine hotel restaurant, showing off about as much culinary imagination as a T.G.I. Friday’s. The food is much better than a Friday’s—not bad, in fact—but the menu is a real snoozer. Even in a neighborhood starved for good restaurants, there are surely more interesting options (even if I can’t name them).

At least it is not as expensive as the other BLT’s. Most of the entrées are in the 20s, most of the appetizers in the teens. If that’s a bargain, it is only in relation to the other restaurants in the group, where it is hard to get out for less than $100 a head. In the modern fashion, the menu is in eight categories: snacks, starters, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, meat, fish, sides: something for everybody, but with no clear vision.

The wine list is as unadventurous as the food, and too expensive, with very few reds below $50—and the first one I asked for was out of stock, despite being listed as a choice by the glass.


I had a snack of Parmesan & Olives ($7) at the bar, which came with many more olives than I could finish. At the table, the bread service was a pizza-like substance that tasted like it was yesterday’s left-over.


Tuna tartare ($16) was a much happier experience, one of the best renditions I’ve had in a while, with high-quality tuna overa bed of soy, wasabi, and avocado. Both of us had the burger ($16) with aged cheddar and double-smoked bacon—enjoyable, but not a destination product. An order of fries was soggy, and had to be sent back.

The two-story space is cavernous, with over 200 seats, including two bars and an outdoor patio. We have trouble imagining that it will ever be full, when there is so little of interest on the menu, none of Tourondel’s inspiration, and it’s run by the same management that made the other BLT restaurants so inconsistent.

BLT Bar & Grill (123 Washington Street at Albany Street, Financial District)

Food: Satisfactory
Service: Fine
Ambiance: Cavernous
Overall: Satisfactory