The latest project from Gabriel Stulman is a thoughtful meditation on the "neighborhood restaurant."
Simon & The Whale, the highly anticipated new restaurant from Gabriel Stulman's Happy Cooking Hospitality, opens for dinner service on Monday, February 5 in the Freehand New York hotel.
Designed by Roman and Williams, the 80-seat restaurant (located at 23 Lexington Avenue) offers elevated yet simple American food with Italian inflections from executive chef Matt Griffin.
"We were inspired to take our culture of neighborhood restaurants and partner with a hotel that aligns with our values and beliefs and expand to a new neighborhood," Stulman tells Food & Wine. "We were and continue to be inspired about the opportunity to extend our hospitality beyond a single meal, and turn into a sleepover."
The restaurateur is insistant that the concept "isn't about bringing something new" but rather about doing what he does—offering memorable and "essential" food—in a new neighborhood: Flatiron. Griffin, of Stulman-owned Bar Sardine and Fedora in the West Village, was a natural fit for the project, as he shares a similar discomfort with contorting the restaurant's concept into something flashy or edgy. Indeed, the seafood-heavy menu is straightforward yet ambitious, at a price point that is reasonable for the neighborhood, which was important to Griffin: that someone could enjoy an excellent fish sandwich (on housemade poppy seed challah) at the bar for $18, or "ball out" with multiple courses and wine pairings.
As for the cozy, brass-accented space, Simon & The Whale has over double the amount of seats as Happy Cooking Hospitality's largest West Village property, which has posed some challenges in maintaining that all-important community vibe.
"With this restaurant, we really want to articulate that a neighborhood restaurant can, and should, simultaneously embody a sense of both familiarity and adventure," says Matt Kebbekus, managing partner at Happy Cooking Hospitality. "We want diners to feel good about the pricing, and offer the kind of food—bright, beautiful salads, a perfectly balanced fish sandwich, etc.—that you would eat again and again, today, tomorrow, next week."
The Spaghetti Acqua Pazza, a take on the linguine and clams Griffin grew up eating, is enlivened with Castelvetrano olives and blistered cherry tomatoes, and several other items on the menu, too, play off familiarity and nostalgia with bright modern touches, like the simple arctic char toast and pork collar milanese. The governing principal, it seems, is simplicity: The black bass crudo, for example, is just four ingredients—fish, shiso, puffed rice and coconut milk—and is one of the highlights of the menu, according to Griffin. Stulman, however, refuses to play favorites. "It’s a brand new menu that we worked really hard on," he says. "There really isn’t anything on the menu that we aren’t very excited about."
Stulman opened Studio, a sunny all-day restaurant on the hotel’s second floor, and The George Washington Bar in January.