CREATIVE people should never explain their process to anyone except their biographers, who care, and their spouses, who have to listen. The rest of us ought to be left guessing.
It’s difficult, for instance, to give your full attention to a meal at the NoMad once you have read the interviews in which Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, its ambitious young operators, talk about modeling the restaurant on the Rolling Stones.
They went through a branding exercise, writing down words that defined the band (loose, alive, genuine, deliberate) and molding the restaurant’s identity around them. Those words hang on a kitchen wall, not far from the enormous photo of Mick Jagger onstage, one leg goose-stepped up to microphone level.
Once you know all this, you keep looking around the NoMad’s cluster of small, grandiose dining rooms thinking, “If this is supposed to be a night with Mick and Keith, why am I eating dinner at 5:30, and where are the police?”
True, there’s an absinthe-fortified martini, the Turf Cocktail, that could easily become a habit, but it’s probably not the kind described in “Sister Morphine.” And while the thin women at the next table have a seen-it-all air, I doubt they have anything to teach Anita Pallenberg.
If the “Sticky Fingers” flashbacks are distracting to me, though, they seem to have been liberating to Mr. Humm and Mr. Guidara. They run Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant that rose from the middling ranks, and kept rising, and finally soared into world-class status. With a chance to do a second, larger, more populist restaurant inside the NoMad Hotel, they could have taken the well-traveled route with a bistro or trattoria. You know the model: steak frites or pasta with skillful knife work and tricky garnishes to prove the chef’s fine-dining bona fides.
Instead, they have done something rather novel and wonderful. The NoMad takes recipes developed in Mr. Humm’s kitchen at Eleven Madison Park and translates them into a more open and generous style. Dishes fastidiously set in place by surgical tweezers to create the intimacy, delicacy and artfulness expected in a $125 four-course menu have been simplified, painted with broader strokes in a more relaxed hand that suits à la carte dining.
At Eleven Madison Park, which earned four stars from The New York Times in a 2009 review by Frank Bruni, Mr. Humm concentrates and compresses suckling pig for about eight hours until it holds more flavor than any one piece of meat should be able to contain. It is the enriched plutonium of pork. In its best-known version, the suckling pig and its garnishes are arranged like two exclamation points running beneath a thin green line of baby leeks. Vast stretches of the white plate are left vacant.
The NoMad serves suckling pig, too, but it is at the center of the plate, with pickled mustard seeds spooned over it and a crown of dandelion leaves resting around it. The dish is vastly easier to produce, no doubt, and does not scream, “Take my picture” quite as insistently. But it still looks grand and (let’s get to what really matters here) it offers a new way to consume enriched plutonium of pork.
Lobster, which Mr. Humm prepares expertly and with never-ending variety at his flagship, was on the NoMad menu recently as lobster minestrone — with tomatoes, string beans, peas and quills of handmade garganelli in a light broth. Duck is here, too: not the whole roasted bird glazed with lavender honey and then carved tableside, but flat slices of the breast, with pickled juniper berries and scrolls of shaved pickled peaches.
Color is splashed around with retina-filling gusto in Mr. Humm’s kitchen. A salad of strawberries, raspberries and roasted beets was supersaturated with ruby and garnet. Snap peas, cherry tomatoes, carrots in two shades and cauliflower in three are planted upright in a dish of shiny ice pebbles, the crudités tray treated as a botanical garden. And rarely have radish greens made the visual impact they have when left on the ends of red radishes enrobed in a thin shell of butter, like strawberries dipped in white chocolate.
The colors, and much of the NoMad’s flavor, result from the creative deployment of vegetables practiced by Mr. Humm and his chef de cuisine, Abram Bissell. But if you have heard anything at all about the NoMad, you know that its signature dish is a roast chicken for two accessorized only by white asparagus and the smallest swipe of potato purée.
Upstaged by the duck at Eleven Madison Park, here the chicken is the uncontested prima donna, and heads swivel when it goes by.
Under a skin of lacquered brown the color of a loaf of challah lies a stuffing of brioche with foie gras and truffles. It is a dish from another era, when chicken breast was still seen as a worthy canvas for great chefs. Taste it and you know why. This is white meat for sybarites. On the side is a fricassee of the dark meat with morels, almost an afterthought. If served at a dark no-reservations tavern in the Village, it would be enough to put the place on the map.
When things can go so right, you notice when they go even a little wrong, as they did with a slow-cooked halibut that was slightly squeaky and verging on dry in parts. Grated horseradish somehow didn’t lend raw hamachi the extra savor it needed, and while a finger-scorching loaf of bread topped with zucchini was irresistible on one occasion, on two others it was unpleasantly sticky on the inside.
But these are minor demerits for a kitchen that takes on as much as the NoMad’s (besides tending to the restaurant’s 120 seats, it also cooks for room service). At times the operation’s scale seems to strain the dining room staff, too. Menus and empty glasses can linger on the table, and a plate of five excellent cheeses (made in Switzerland, like Mr. Humm) arrived at the table with no introduction; we had to ask which was which.
Mr. Guidara, who oversees the dining room, has imported some talent from Eleven Madison, and you can still feel the difference between the veterans and the new hires.
With time, that should change, and the servers might even start to have fun. The restaurant wants everybody to have a good time, yet curiously nobody seems quite sure how to go about it. The music has the forced energy whipped up by D.J.s trying to draw too-sober guests to the dance floor: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and, of course, the Rolling Stones, in up-tempo numbers, as if Mr. Humm and Mr. Guidara wanted to host a class reunion for baby boomers.
The restaurant’s designer, Jacques Garcia, has built a series of rooms that try to evoke a belle epoque house, with rich fabrics, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, framed herb fronds and a glittering bar held up by carved mahogany elephants. It’s fancy without being elegant, and slightly decadent without being particularly interesting. It needs a little mystery and some more-attractive upholstery.
But while the NoMad seeks its tone, there are so many reasons for patience. The selection of cocktails, an entire fleet, is surely one of the best in the city, down to a cooling and alcohol-free fennel-basil soda. There is the crazily smooth torchon of foie gras wrapped around a rough bull’s-eye of pig’s head pâté.
And the pastry chef, Mark Welker, has a dessert called Milk and Honey that takes two simple flavors surprisingly far.
If the only way to conjure these pleasures was to summon the Stones on a Ouija board, that’s all right. The muse doesn’t always come looking for us. Sometimes, we have to build a trap.
RECOMMENDED Tagliatelle with crab; foie gras torchon; suckling pig; roast chicken for two; milk-and-honey dessert.
DRINKS AND WINE Cocktails are extraordinary, down to the soft drinks. The wine list is tempting both in mainstream regions and off the beaten path. With patience, good choices under $50 can be found.
PRICES Snacks and appetizers, $8 to $24; main courses, $20 to $39.
Dinner reservation is at 9:30pm. We will meet for drinks at the new bar at 8:30pm.
Pls make sure to have sufficient cash for food and wine consumption + ~30% tips and taxes and $5 event fee.