A new sign just went up in the window of 239 W. Broadway in Tribeca: Bâtard. The dining news website Eater.com quickly placed Bâtard at the top of its list of the hottest Manhattan establishments of the moment – declaring: “This is the restaurant that all the critics and fine dining lovers will be checking out this summer.”
But there are still other reasons why we all might care about this particular address and this new restaurant: The man behind it is not only a longtime Ridgewood resident, he also helped shape the American dining scene.
It was 1985 when restaurateur Drew Nieporent, then 29, opened his first restaurant, Montrachet, in a converted woodworking shop at that Broadway address. It was a highly pioneering move – most obviously in the neighborhood he chose, referred to in one review as an “alien ZIP code.”
The vision was also novel: a restaurant known not for its silver domes on plates and formal service but for a comfortable, genial atmosphere, even though this was no casual bistro. It had a $16 prix-fixe menu and no dress code. Its executive chef was a then unknown named David Bouley; the restaurant was quickly awarded a rare three stars from The New York Times.
“I think it was the beginning of fine dining without the tuxedos,” said celebrity chef David Burke, a Fort Lee resident who worked a short stint at Montrachet in the mid-'80s. “It was a dining room run by an American guy, where a lot of them were run by Europeans – and a friendly guy, who was a social butterfly.”
Nieporent explained: “I had worked at all these French restaurants where there was so much pomp and circumstance. The whole thing was to break away all the facades, let's just get to the food.” Besides, “that was all I could really afford.”
Getting to the food paid off. “When you get a three-star write-up at those prices,” Nieporent said, “and it's new and French and downtown, I could have filled Shea Stadium on most nights.”
Nieporent's wife, Ann, recalls barely being able to envision the project when Nieporent was building it. But the end result was that “he changed the way restaurants operate in New York City. … People were going downtown … because they were eating this incredible food and they didn't have to get dressed up.”
Nieporent went on to open 38 other restaurants, including the international sushi empire Nobu. Alas, none are in New Jersey, even though he and his wife have lived in Ridgewood for 23 years (they have two grown children). New Jersey's expensive liquor licenses and hit-or-miss weeknight business have long kept Nieporent from opening anything locally. He says his wife has been suggesting he take over a local restaurant that's for sale – and install an American menu like the one at his landmark Tribeca Grill — but he finds the $800,000 price tag (with liquor license) overly extravagant.
And as far as dining here: “I would just like to see New Jersey blossom a little bit more” — though he and his family enjoy Arturo's in Midland Park, Varka Estiatorio in Ramsey and the Park West Tavern in his hometown.
Most recently, his focus has been on whether to reopen his first restaurant space. Montrachet closed in 2007; the next year Nieporent veered off in a much different direction, using the space to open the much more refined and expensive Corton, with walls flecked with gold leaf and inventive tasting menus from chef Paul Liebrandt that eventually resulted in an average check of nearly $200 per person.
Like Montrachet, it received three stars from the Times, but Nieporent admitted that as the prices went up, fewer people walked in the door. “The food became a little too cerebral, too self-indulgent. People liked the experience, but they found it so precious they would only come once.”
Now, he's returning to his beginnings in more ways than one. At a time where many destination restaurants feature three-figure tasting menus and many others are embracing such trends as no reservations, no substitutions and backless stools – Bâtard is trying to meet in the middle, “get back to a more user-friendly, a more reasonable dining experience.”
Bâtard's modern European menu features distinctive dishes such as octopus spiced like pastrami and English pea soup paired with sweetbreads. With two courses priced at $55, three at $65 and four at $75, its prices are fairly moderate for Manhattan fine dining. The executive chef and partner is Austrian chef Markus Glocker, formerly of Gordon Ramsay at The London; their third partner is John Winterman, the longtime maitre d' of Daniel.
Corton's gold leaf has been painted over and the tablecloths deliberately removed from the dining room. Nieporent said comfort is still key: the tables are well-spaced, with comfortable chairs. The name evokes the past – a nod to the grand cru Burgundy Bâtard –Montrachet. So does the mission.
“I think Bâtard is about cutting to the chase. Serve hot food hot, cold food cold, treat people with respect, don't talk down to anybody.”
He added: “It's a space that has a lot of goodwill attached to it, and you can't put a price tag on goodwill.” With only a few projects left that he really wants to do, “at this stage of the game I felt it was important to give the legacy of this space one more shot. And I'm glad I did.”