Unless you were craving the steak frites and bumps of cocaine on offer at celebrity-fueled Odeon, there was little incentive to dine in Tribeca in the 1980s. Long before its loft buildings were converted into swank apartments and Robert De Niro co-founded an international film festivals flaunting its name, the neighborhood was drab and sleepy. But trailblazing restaurateur Drew Nieporent sees potential where others don’t, which is why he chose Tribeca as the backdrop for his first venture in the mid-’80s—and probably why he’s been wildly successful ever since.
“I was running the New York Marathon in 1983 and saw this unchartered area,” the Myriad Restaurant Group founder says of his first time falling for Tribeca. Confident that local business opportunities were on the rise, the budding businessman signed a lease and opened Montrachet in 1985. All at once, this game-changer wowed diners with unpretentious French cuisine; catapulted the career of its chef, a young David Bouley; and led the charge in transforming Tribeca’s bleak streets into a culinary destination. While other restaurants quickly followed his lead, Nieporent continued to lead the pack by opening Tribeca Grill and Nobu—the latter of which has since spawned a global empire that’s name-dropped by the likes of Jay Z and Kanye.
A hallmark of my career is service. The guest comes first.
Nieporent became hooked on the restaurant world when he was just a kid. His father worked for the New York State Liquor Authority, and this prestigious post led to many meals with well-known circa-1960s restaurateurs. “They would invite us to dinner—not only Italian and French, but Chinese and Hungarian. I had exposure to different cuisines at an early age,” Nieporent remembers. “It’s like growing up with a piano in the house. You gravitate towards it because it’s there.” After graduating from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, Nieporent, a native New Yorker, worked with Warner LeRoy at Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern On The Green, because “you have to start somewhere. But I had big ideas from all I had seen, and realized I had to do this on my own.”
In 2008, Montrachet morphed into Corton, a more formal and avant-garde venture with Paul Liebrandt in the kitchen. Its newest iteration, European-inspired Bâtard, opened last week. A collaboration with chef Markus Glocker, who did time at Gordon Ramsay at the London, and John Winterman, formerly of Daniel, Bâtard revolves around two-, three-, and four-course menus featuring the likes of octopus “pastrami,” pea soup with crispy sweetbreads, and pan-roasted branzino in tomato-gin consommé. Although Nieporent hopes to break new culinary ground here, it’s not as important to him as hospitality. Says the man who opened nearly 40 restaurants in 30 years, “A hallmark of my career is service. The guest comes first.”
From a French legend’s Moroccan take on pigeon to a banana dessert that stands the test of time, here are 10 of the dishes that stand out in Nieporent’s long, ambitious career.
Black bass en Barigoule at Montrachet
When I opened Montrachet, this was one of the dishes on the menu. You would find black sea bass in Chinatown, but not in any other restaurants in New York at the time. It was a brilliant dish because the barigoule was a classic preparation of artichokes sautéed in olive oil with onions, carrots, and tomatoes, then deglazed with white wine. The vegetables underlined the bass, and there was an herbaceous basil puree folded in last minute. It had absolutely remarkable Mediterranean flavors. (Photo courtesy Drew Nieporent)
Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño at Nobu
This is a dish of utter simplicity. No one gets tired of the flavor. The fish is beautiful and creamy, but it’s also clean-tasting and has a firm texture. The taste of the ponzu dressing is unexpected and there’s a hidden ingredient that sits underneath the jalapeño: Like a number of Nobu’s South American-influenced dishes, it’s finished with cilantro. (Photo courtesy Drew Nieporent)
Roast chicken with mashed potatoes and garlic at Rubicon
In 1994, I opened Rubicon in San Francisco. The first chef was Traci Des Jardins, who worked at Montrachet under Debra Ponzek. Debra made a signature roast chicken, and for Rubicon, Traci made her own version. It was simple, with pan juices and a potato puree. I’m pretty sure we served it with peas or another green vegetable. It’s timeless; it probably still exists on one of Traci’s menus today. (Photo: Traci Des Jardins)
Crème brûlée at Le Cirque
David Bouley worked at Le Cirque and absconded with pastry chef Dieter Schorner’s recipe for crème brûlée, their benchmark dessert. But there was controversy: Was the original recipe Dieter’s, or had Sirio Maccioni come back from a trip and told Dieter about it? The custard had the most silken texture. There was sheer brown sugar on top and specks of vanilla bean on the bottom. It’s one of the all-time great desserts, but it also had a certain simplicity. I don’t like to hide ingredients; I like to let them speak for themselves. (Photo: Le Cirque)
Jean-Louis Palladin’s roast pigeon with Moroccan spices
It goes without saying that Jean-Louis Palladin was the most important chef in the U.S. over the course of my career. He was ages ahead of his time; his cooking back then would stand up today as cutting-edge. Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, every great chef—they’ve all been influenced by him. Any trip to Washington, D.C. to see Jean-Louis at the Watergate was equivalent to going to one of the greatest restaurants in France. One day he brushed a beautiful squab breast with honey and Moroccan spices. I always remember him saying, in his very French accent, “I hate cinnamon.” There was no cinnamon in this, but there was turmeric. It was the smell of Morocco. (Photo: paperblog.fr)
Salmon with lentils and red wine sauce at Montrachet
Debra Ponzek has a great palate. She worked with us at Montrachet at a time when a lot of talented women chefs weren’t getting attention. What made this dish so interesting was that she sliced the salmon very thinly, as you would if you were having smoked salmon on a bagel, then draped it over a bed of creamy, bacon-y lentils. The salmon was molded around that lentil mixture and then put under a salamander, where it cooked for literally 60 seconds just to color it and make it opaque. She made a red wine sauce from fish fumet stock, and you could lap up the sauces. It all just melted in your mouth. (Photo: Cookstr)
Salmon with sorrel sauce at La Maison Troisgros
The Troisgros brothers, in Roanne, were at the cutting edge of nouvelle cuisine. You can find this recipe in a cookbook from the ’60s, where it physically looks more traditional, but they created this version in a new style, cutting the salmon more thinly. They pan seared this exquisite piece of fish and made a sauce with sorrel that was so redolently green. This is a dish that revolutionized [cooking] and transcends generations. (Photo: CNN/Parts Unknown)
Paul Bocuse’s potato-crusted fish
In one week of dining in New York, I went to Jean-Georges and he had tilefish wrapped in potato; Charlie Palmer had shad roe wrapped in potato; and Daniel Boulud had sea bass wrapped in potato (pictured). All these chefs took their own variations on one recipe. Why? Because Paul Bocuse was famous for his fish encrusted with potato ‘scales.’ Bocuse’s idea inspired not only those three chefs, but many others to create excellent versions. (Photo: Thomas Schauer)
Staff bouillabaisse at Tavern on the Green
I always dreamed about going to Marseille and eating bouillabaisse. When I worked at Tavern on the Green, there was a cook from France, Jo Eveque, who was from that area. Every Friday he would make us this amazing bouillabaisse, and we’d drink Domaines Ott rosé and get shitfaced. It was memorable. I went to Marseille last year and remembered Jo’s bouillabaisse, with Pernod, fennel, and the most delicious garlic rouille. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Gerry Hayden’s banana tart
When Gerry Hayden was at Montrachet he would come to me every day with dessert specials. Some were fine, and others were better. I remember one day he had a banana tart with praline ice cream—the way it looked on the plate and tasted, I said, “That’s gonna be huge.” Suddenly, an article appeared about banana desserts in Food & Wine magazine and they highlighted it. When we opened Tribeca Grill I transferred it, and it’s been on the menu for 24 years. It has been ripped off by some well-known people, but not on the level of the Cronut. Every tart we sell now goes towards Hayden’s Heroes, a charity supporting Gerry, who was diagnosed with ALS. (Photo courtesy Drew Nieporent)