Entries in Wayne Nish (5)


Spitzer's Corner


When I heard that Wayne Nish was serving “three-star bar food” at a Lower East Side gastropub, I was a little skeptical.

Guess what? He has pulled it off.

Spitzer’s Corner, which opened in August 2007, had a tough first nine months, with a revolving door in the kitchen. Nish is the fourth chef. The early reviews found his predecessors’ menus underwhelming, and it’s tough get the critics back for a second look.

Wayne Nish

They should come back, because Nish’s menu at Spitzer’s corner is remarkable. Although Nish is billed only as a “consultant,” his hand-picked chef de cuisine, Sung Park, has serious credentials, with stints under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Didier Virot, and Laurent Tourondel under his belt. He was also Nish’s chef de cuisine for the short-lived second act at Varietal.

And Park is no absentee chef: he was there on a Saturday night.

When I think about the food here, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Both restaurants offer sophisticated cooking with luxury ingredients in a laid-back, pared down environment. Park seemed taken aback when I mentioned the similarity, as David Chang’s food has an Asian tang, while Nish and Park come from the French tradition. But once I explained myself, he seemed to agree that the analogy was valid.

The foodies haven’t descended on Spitzer’s Corner as they’ve done at the Momofuku restaurants, but it’s not struggling either. The Saturday evening business was fairly brisk. The restaurant seats 130 and is open daily for lunch and dinner, with food served until 2:00 a.m. There is also Saturday and Sunday brunch.

spitzers_inside1.jpgThe menu is inexpensive. A section called “Bar Snacks and Sides” features eight items priced from $4–10, while a section called “Plates,” corresponding roughly to appetizers and entrées, has fifteen selections from $9–17. Most items are suitable for sharing.

The aesthetic is pared down, with most of the seating at long communal tables. (There are a few two-tops.) The wood that lines the walls is alleged to have been made from reclaimed pickle barrels. There are broad picture windows, which on a warm evening are open to the outside.

The name, by the way, comes from a dress shop that formerly occupied the space. It has nothing to do with Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of New York.

They don’t have a hard liquor license, but there are 40 beers on tap and another 40 in bottles. They’re listed on the menu with brief tasting notes, as you’d find on a wine list (“Epic malts, spicy notes w/ hints of baker’s choc”).

spitzers_inside2.jpgThey aren’t just the obvious beers, either. There couldn’t be many places in town serving Delirium Tremens, Victory Golden Monkey, Stone Arrogant Bastard, or Rogue Dead Guy Ale. The servers are like sommeliers, recommending beers that pair well with the food you’ve ordered.

The wine list is more modest, though the server insisted it should be taken seriously too: five reds and seven whites, all available by the bottle or the glass, with the most expensive bottles priced at $36 (not counting Veuve Clicquot Brut, $110).

Full disclosure: We dined at Spitzer’s Corner at a publicist’s invitation, and our meal was comped. We sampled considerably more food than any two sane people would order on their own. However, as I always do, I am calling the shots as I seem them.


I’ll be haunted for a long time by the “French Kisses” ($10), five luscious armagnac prunes filled with a liquified foie gras mousse. This was a dish that could come out of the kitchen at Per Se or Jean Georges, and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Prunes and foie gras make startling bedfellows, but we had the same observation several times during our long meal.

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Nish works similar magic with a salad of warm Spinach and Shitake Mushrooms ($6), in which the startling extra ingredient is a white soy sauce.

I was eager to try the Duck Fat Potato Cake ($6), but it was the evening’s only dud. There’s plenty going on in this dish too, with confits of shallot, garlic, rosemary and thyme, but it was too dry. I expected the duck fat to be more flavorful, but I really couldn’t taste it.

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We loved the bracing, bright flavors of a Red & Yellow Tomato Salad ($9), with goat cheese, marcona almonds, balsamic vinegar, and watermelon-chili dressing. Even better was Mac & Cheese ($9), which the menu says is made from local artisanal Saxelby cheese and topped with herbed duck cracklings.

A Sweetbread Po’ Boy was just fine, but the sandwiches that came next surpassed it.


We had the Roasted Pork Belly Sandwich ($11), the Warm Duck Confit Sandwich ($12) and the Soft-Shell Crab Po’ Boy ($15). We couldn’t agree with was the best, as all had their merits. They all benefited from Nish’s playful combination of unexpected ingredients. The pork belly was paired with a red wine sauerkraut, the duck with pickled daikon radish, the crab with housemade aioli. My girlfriend thought that the tempura batter on the crab was especially successful, while I was partial to the pork–sauerkraut combination.

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Halibut, at $17, is the most expensive item on the menu. It was the second item we had (after the “French Kisses”) that could come out any three or four-star kitchen with no one batting an eyelash. It was certainly as good as the wonderful halibut we enjoyed the night before at Café Boulud. A lemon walnut crust imparts a tangy crispness to the perfectly roasted fish.

Our stomachs had by now reached our limit, so we barely tasted the Herbed Roast Chicken, but it seemed to be just about perfect, with (according to the menu) herbes de provence and jus roti. Once again, take note of the price: a half chicken for $12.

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The last item we tried was the Kobe Burger ($16). There’s a bit of dishonesty here, as it’s actually American Kobe beef, and strictly speaking, that’s a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, where else is any kind of Kobe beef (even if it’s Wagyu) available for $16.

We aren’t the hamburger experts, but my girlfriend said, “This is the best hamburger ever.” A blogger on Serious Eats disagrees with us, but to our taste it was excellent: a nice charred exterior, a perfect medium rare inside, and a buttery brioche bun. To be sure, the real Kobe beef would have more marbling, but this was impressive enough, and what do you want for $16? At the Old Homstead, the Kobe burger is $41, and I don’t know if their menu is any more accurate about its origin than Spitzer’s.

For the record, Spitzer’s also serves a trio of sliders for $9 and a short rib burger for $10. Both are available with cheese, but when a customer asked for cheese on the Kobe burger, the server declined. There are culinary standards to be upheld, even for hamburgers.

Our server was knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. There are paper napkins, but silverware was replaced after every course. We were clearly getting the VIP treatment, so you can take that for what it’s worth. But there’s no denying the attempt here to serve “pub food” several orders of magnitude better than the norm. Word of mouth seems to be catching on, but only time will tell if this level can be maintained.

There are some limitations, besides the spartan surroundings and communal tables. At present there is no dessert menu or even coffee. Some people would consider the lack of cocktails a drawback, but with 80 beers available no one should go thirsty here.

Full credit is due to the persistent owners of Spitzer’s Corner, who could have given up on their gastronomic ambitions and relied on their beer menu. Instead, they snagged Wayne Nish and Sung Park, who have turned this pub into a destination.

Spitzer’s Corner (101 Rivington Street at Ludlow Street, Lower East Side)


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