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“Could you smell the smoke when you walked in?” Danny Meyer asks. The staff of the restaurant impresario’s newest venture North End Grill, which is set to open its doors in Battery Park today, unpack glassware and folded table linens in the empty, sunlit bar behind him. A wall of vitrines eventually intended to hold an “enormous selection of single malt scotches” holds decorative glassware instead. (The restaurant is still waiting on its alcohol license and will be open only for lunch until later in January.)
There is a hint of smoke in the air, to be sure, but just that. Informed of such, Meyer’s face turns briefly squally. He cocks an eyebrow.
“Well, then our fans are turned up too high,” he explains. “You will be able to smell the smoke.”
The grill is immensely important to Meyer. The restaurant is a large, attractively lit boîte done in monochrome, spread around a generous open kitchen and glassed in by floor-to-ceiling windows. The slate-gray wood paneling in the dining room is intended to echo burnt wood (the firewood rests in baskets between the fish counter and the glassed-in wine cellar). The grilling apparatus itself is operated by large wheels turned by hand.
“It’s all about the grill,” Meyer says. “Nobody grills like we’re grilling — it’s not that it’s traditional or that it’s modern. It’s charcoal and it’s the best ingredients and the best people.”
The Union Square Hospitality Group head brought along chef Floyd Cardoz to helm North End Grill after their successful 12-year run at Tabla, the much-loved “New Indian” eatery in Madison Square Park.
“Floyd’s a success,” Meyer explains. “He’s got his New York Times stars, he’s got his ‘Top Chef Masters 2011’ win, he’s got it. And I think he’s excited to try something different. You know, lots of people go through this, artists, musicians… you return to simpler things. Every pastry chef can tell you, the hardest thing to make is a perfect apple pie. He’s returning to fewer ingredients, mastering something else.”
Cardoz comes out of the kitchen and agrees with Meyer’s sentiments.
“There were times at Tabla where I was limited by the preconceived notions of the customer, and that was hard for us as a restaurant and me as a chef,” he says. “This is very different: grilling is almost primitive. When I was growing up in India, that’s what I would do when I went camping. That’s what I still do when I go camping. In other countries, in Europe, that’s what they do — they cook over wood. It’s exciting.”
Cardoz studies his menu, which holds offerings like Cod Throats Meuniére, slow-poached egg with California caviar, a grilled clam pizza and a bacon-shrimp burger with spice-dusted fries. “It’s going to be seasonal, it’s going to change,” Cardoz continues. “Yesterday I had snapper on the menu, today I have black bass. Whatever my fish guy tells me, ‘I got this today, it’s great,’ I use it. I’m not cooking on high heat, which is what for the most part we do [in the U.S.]: high heat, sear it, get a thick crust, get a char on it and that’s it. I’m going gentler, easier, you know, make the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Meyer has invested heavily in the stretch of real estate around North End Grill. Next door is a Shake Shack, his popular burger franchise, and around the corner will be a second Blue Smoke barbecue. The strategy echoes his previous forays into once-bad, now-great neighborhoods.
“I don’t see it as a Monopoly move,” Meyer says. “We’re not ‘taking over’ the neighborhood, nor do I think we did in Gramercy or Union Square or Madison Square. I see it as a commitment to the community. I see it as screwing in a light bulb. Like, hey, we’ve got a lot of moths, let’s give ’em something to feed off of!”
NORTH END GRILL
104 North End Avenue
Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., with dinner service beginning later this month.