Entries in Nish (4)


Wayne Nish's Career Path

wayne_nish.jpgWayne Nish is now in charge of the menu at Spitzer’s Corner, the Lower East Side gastropub. Incidentally, it’s named for a former dress shop that occupied the space, not for the disgraced former governor of New York.

What an odd career path Nish has had:

  • In the 1980s, he served an apprenticeship at the Quilted Giraffe, rated four stars.
  • In 1988, he took over one of the city’s old-guard French palaces, La Colombe d’Or, earning three stars.
  • In 1990, he opened March, earning three stars.
  • In 2007, he closed March and opened Nish in the same space, a much more casual restaurant that earned two stars. It closed within six months.
  • While Nish (the restaurant) was in its death throes, Nish (the chef) signed on at Varietal, which had recently been slammed with one star. It also quickly closed.
  • As of this week, with no restaurants to his name, he’s designing the menu at the “zero-star” Spitzer’s Corner.

If you’re keeping track, it’s taken Nish a bit over twenty years to get from four stars to zero. (To be fair, no one has actually given Spitzer’s Corner zero stars; no critic that awards stars has rated it at all.)

March was a serious restaurant, no doubt about it. But by the time it closed, in 2007, it had lost some of the early luster. My own visit there, in 2004, was mildly disappointing.

The casual make-over that turned March into Nish was a miscalculation. Though it won rave reviews, Nish (the chef) had turned a destination restaurant into a neighborhood joint, and there wasn’t enough foot traffic at 58th & First to pay the freight.

The failure at Varietal wasn’t Nish’s fault: after blistering reviews, the place was clearly on life support, and Nish’s menu—which won praise from the few who tried it—arrived too late.

So now he is at a Lower East Side gastropub, where he says, “What I’m really looking to do here is three-star bar food.” I’m actually eager to try it. It might be great, or it might not, but at these prices—nothing over $16—who wouldn’t be curious?

Yet it is a strange career path: four stars to zero. I wonder if Nish has another serious restaurant in him?


The Payoff: Nish

This week, Frankie Fiveangels made a winner of both Eater and NYJ, awarding the predicted two stars to Nish. Bruni seemed to love the food—indeed, the tone was more enthusiastic than a few of his three-star reviews have been.

The review trotted out more of Bruni’s trademark assault on traditional fine dining:

To trace the changes in upscale restaurants over the last few decades, you can survey the losers: Lutèce and white linens; servers in tuxedos and diners in ties. You can salute the winners: Nobu and filament bulbs; mix-and-match menus and polyglot cuisines.

Or you can look at a place that doesn’t quite fall into either category, a survivor that hasn’t thrived, now relaxing its guard to restore its vigor. It’s called March, or at least it was for 16 years, until the first week of January, when it was reborn as Nish, which is really March after a stint in whatever the opposite of finishing school would be.

It’s March minus some of the manners and mannerisms, March in (nicely pressed) jeans. It’s also an interesting answer to challenges that currently face fine-dining establishments. How do you present a sophisticated experience in an accessible way? In a dressed-down era, what still qualifies as a relished indulgence, and what’s just a prissy vestige of bygone days?

Do those challenges really exist? I mean, the restaurant business is challenging in general, but is there any good reason to single out fine dining in particular? I mean, look at the successful high-end restaurants that have opened in just the last few years: Per Se, Masa, Asiate, Country, Del Posto, The Modern, Cru, Gordon Ramsay. To those, add a much longer list of those that have been open five, ten, fifteen or more years, and are still thriving: for starters, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Bouley, Oceana, La Grenouille, Chanterelle, Le Perigord, L’Impero.

The excerpt above is full of Frank’s trademark phrases, betraying his hostility to traditional luxury restaurants, despite the fact that many of them are still doing land-office business: “white linens”; “mannerisms” (like what?); “accessible” (suggesting that many restaurants are not); “prissy” (the cousin of “fussy,” one of his favourite words).

Yes indeed, Lutèce has closed. But so has the Second Avenue Deli. If you are determined to manufacture a story, you can cherry-pick whatever facts seem to support your theory, and ignore those which do not. It is undeniably true that high-end classic French restaurants in the Lutèce mold have become scarce. But fine dining itself has not. In a “dressed-down” era, sometimes people still do want to dress up.

To round out the week, we present the running scorecard. Eater and NYJ both win our two-star bets on Nish at 4–1 odds.

  Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $3   $7
Gain/Loss +$4   +$4
Total +$7   +$11
Won–Lost 3–1   3–1

Rolling the Dice: Nish

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Nish, the casual makeover of the former three-star March. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 5-1
One Star: 8-3
Two Stars: 4-1 √√
Three Stars: 90-1
Four Stars: 15,000-1

The Skinny: For the first time in a while, almost any outcome is possible (except for four stars). March was a three-star restaurant. The last time he was there, Bruni loved the food, but he found the servers’ cult-like reverence for chef Wayne Nish a little off-putting. He also thought that its “dowager refinement” was overdue for a makeover — precisely as Nish has now done. Bruni’s track record is that he actually likes restaurants better when they’re more casual. If the food is as good as Steve Cuozzo says, Nish could be headed for the trifecta.

But Cuozzo also found irritating service glitches, and if Bruni found the same, he’s likely to blow the whistle and march off a one-star penalty. I also suspect the cult-of-the-chef mentality—something Bruni seldom finds endearing—isn’t totally gone. Indeed, given the name change, that factor could be even more prominent than before. If Bruni isn’t as wowed by the food as Cuozzo, then there’s no telling how low we could go.

The Bet: Eater—betting against its own odds—is taking the two-star action. We think that the chances of a three-star payoff are a whole lot better than Eater says, making the 90–1 odds awfully tempting. But we think the chances for a singleton are very real too, so we will compromise in the middle, and bet on two stars.


March Restaurant

Note: Owners Wayne Nish and Joseph Scalice closed March at the end of 2006, re-opening in early 2007 as a more casual restaurant, Nish. Alas, the new version was no longer the destination restaurant that March had been, and there wasn’t enough neighborhood traffic to keep Nish in business. Despite favorable reviews, it was gone by the end of June. The space is now Bistro Vendôme.


March restaurant is an occasion place. I visited recently to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Without question, we were treated lavishly. The maitre d’ presented her with a bouquet of roses. Service throughout was impeccable. But for the price, none of the courses at March wowed us. Or perhaps, as my friend suggested, Wayne Nish’s cuisine is just too subtle. Mind you, it was all good, but I expected to be transported, and we weren’t.

March’s menu is an interesting hybrid between the tasting menu and the prix fixe. You choose a number of courses, from three to six. ($68, $74, $85, or $102). Wine pairings are another $10 per course (or, like anywhere, you can just order from the wine list). You can select which courses you want — listed in broad categories like “raw,” “vegetarian,” “shellfish,” “fish,” “poultry,” and “meat,” with about three or four options per category. Or, you can put yourself in the chef’s hands.

We selected the four-course menu with wine pairings and allowed the chef to choose for us. Each of us got different items, and we swapped plates about halfway through each course. This, indeed, is encouraged at March. Another of the menu options is called the Five Course Dual Tasting Menu ($270 for two, including wines), with which it’s assumed that a couple will share plates.

Now to the food … and here I’m afraid I’ve failed as a food writer. I can’t remember exactly what we had. The first plate for each of us was a cold item, then a fish course, then a meat course, then dessert. What were they? I don’t recall, except that they were all very good without being transcendent. At these prices, I wanted at least some of the courses to reach culinary orgasm, and none did.

March is located in a gorgeous East Side townhouse. The tables are on three levels, with ample space between them. It is a lovely and romantic setting that makes you feel like you’re in another world. The food failed to transport me, it is true, but I would still try March again on the right occasion.

March (405 East 58th Street, just east of First Avenue, Sutton Place)

Food: **
Service: ****
Ambiance: ***½
Overall: **½