Stephen Starr is a master of translating his Philly-based concepts to NYC. He's done it twice before successfully with both Morimoto and Buddakan (which have become NYC mega-hits in their own right), and now he's gearing up to do it again with the opening of El Vez later this week at 259 Vesey Street (212-233-2500). We caught up with the restaurateur this morning to get all the details. Stay tuned for a first look of the space later this week.
Zagat: Tell me about the process of bringing El Vez to NYC's Financial District.
SS: The idea of bringing it to New York was not in the forefront of my mind. But I’m always looking in New York for something. We just signed a deal on the Bowery to do a restaurant, so I was looking and we got approached by a real estate company that said, "Look in Battery Park across from the World Financial Center." Initially I didn’t really want to go there, because it’s not an area that I would normally gravitate toward. The financial deal was strong, which is compelling because the rents in New York are so out of control right now. It’s impossible to get something that seems fair. And then I met with the people that own the World Financial Center at Brookfield, and I saw what they were doing with the retail and the restaurants they may be bringing in (Parm, Jean-Georges, etc.), and I said, "There’s something going in there."
So there’s always this movement occurring. And it happens in every city. The entrepreneurs flock to areas where they have a better chance of success in terms of rent. The rent elsewhere in New York...you’re paying insane prices. So you have a really good chance down here. And I think the more people that are opening, the more people that are going to come down. It was in an office building, which is not my first choice, but the space was very strong. It had good ceiling heights. It was very wide space - plenty of room for a private event.
I saw a lot of people that were living there - lots of strollers lots of families and lots of sky. We can look out the window and we can see the river. It felt nice. Was it as hip and cutting edge as the Village? No, but it’s not that far. There are a tremendous amount of office workers there. Conde Nast is opening their HQ a block and a half away. And Blue Smoke is our neighbor, so I called Danny and he felt very bullish on the area. After I talked to him, I figured, if it’s good enough for Blue Smoke, it should be good enough for us.
Zagat: Can you tell us who the chef is yet?
SS: It's not a secret. We just took the chef from Philly. We have a Mexican culinary team - literally from Mexico - developing this menu. Dave LaForce is the chef, and our director of culinary operations for Mexican concepts is Dionicio Jimenez.
Zagat: Will the menu differ from the Philly location?
SS: A little bit. There’s some new stuff. Actually what we did in Philly in the last year is redevelop a good portion of the menu in anticipation of going to New York. We’re also doing some stuff that we’re just doing here and not in Philly.
Zagat: This is the third time you’ve brought a Philly restaurant to NYC, but it’s been awhile. How are you translating the concept for a NY audience?
SS: We've been steadily tweaking the menu plus adding some new stuff. There’s a goat enchilada on the menu now. We have the chile en nogada, which is a pepper with walnut cream stuffed with rice and raisins. We have some very authentic things that we’re putting on the menu that are inspired by where Dionicio grew up in Puebla. That influence was on that menu.
Zagat: Do diner expectations differ between Philly and NYC?
SS: No. In Philadelphia maybe they’re slightly tougher. It’s like going to your family’s. I know them all and it’s the same people. There’s not a lot of transient customers. It’s like your uncle or your mother or father will just tell you “that was awful.”
Zagat: Any special features of the space?
SS: It’s a very unique design. I wanted it to be the antithesis of the financial institution style. It’s very warm and cozy inside. The bar is like a saloon - something you’d find out West in the early 1900s. It definitely has a Mexican vibe to it, but it’s not super literal. We have big booths for groups of six or eight. I want the restaurant to be a lot of fun; I’m not trying to be pretentious with it. One of the dining rooms kind of looks like a garage - it has a concrete floor. All the booths are done with automobile fabric. The last thing I wanted was for it to be slick. I’m not going to claim that I’m taking Mexican food to the highest level. We are of course paying attention to it.
Zagat: It seems like audiences are willing to pay more for Mexican food, once considered a cheap street food than ever before. Do you think Mexican is kind of the next "it" cuisine?
SS: It’d be good for me to say that from a public-relations standpoint. You can’t make it too fancy or it becomes silly. All you really have to do with food like this is be true to it and use really great ingredients, right? And cook them the right way. A lot of Mexican restaurants still use cheap stuff - boiled chicken, overcooked, thrown inside an enchilada with salty sauce on it. I’m not going to claim that I’m taking Mexican food to the highest level, but we are of course paying attention to it. We’re not fusing things together. We’re using the ingredients you’re supposed to use.
Zagat: Anything you can tell me about the project on Bowery?
SS: It’s St. Anselm. I’m joint venturing with Joe Carroll. It’s basically that restaurant done a little bigger, with a giant wine and whiskey list. No frills - chairs, tables, exposed kitchen. Really wonderful small space. Only 95 seats. It probably will open in the fall.