Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr reinvent the hot NYC restaurant every night, all the way down to the butters.
On any given night at Frenchette, the swanky Tribeca brasserie from longtime partners Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, there are at least seven different butters in the pantry.
The mini baguette from Arcade Bakery, nestled in a silver basket on top of each table, is accompanied by salted butter from Ploughgate. Kerrygold butter is heaped into the brouillade d’œufs. There’s Plugrá for baking and clarified butter for béarnaise, and the chefs import all kinds of Bordier butter from France. Some nights, framboise butter tops a boudin noire while buckwheat butter flavors black sea bass. Other nights, espelette butter could bring heat to spaghetti as kelp butter is rubbed over swordfish. Don’t expect to find these exact butters on the menu every night though, because the chefs change the dishes — and the butters — daily.
New York City is home to other restaurants that reinvent their menu each day, most notably the West Village spot King, owned by two Food & Wine 2018 Best New Chefs who lean on daily availabilities from local producers. Yet for Hanson and Nasr, changing the menu on such a regular basis offers a different kind of challenge: to avoid repeating what they have already done.
After meeting as sous chefs at Daniel, Hanson and Nasr worked under restaurateur Keith McNally to open several of the city's most iconic spots, from Balthazar to Minetta Tavern. Frenchette is the first restaurant that the duo actually owns, and there’s a reason why dishes like roasted bone marrow and a short-rib-and-brisket burger — two of Minetta's staples — aren’t on the menu.
“It’s very consciously not doing those things again,” Nasr says. “This is a big town. And you should offer something new to a dining experience.” That’s exactly what Hanson and Nasr do at Frenchette: offer something new, every single night.
Around 2 p.m. each afternoon, Hanson and Nasr sit in one of the red leather banquettes with their chef de cuisine to talk about what they'll cook that night. While they draw inspiration from whatever ingredients are currently available, they tend to zero in on micro-seasons: short periods of time where certain ingredients are at their prime. Take soft shell crabs. Many restaurants serve them all summer long, but that's not the case at Frenchette.
“Do you want to eat soft shell crabs for a month straight?” Nasr asks. “No, you don’t. So expose them when they’re at the peak, first of the season.” Then move on.
Though the chefs could keep up with a single ingredient, say blowfish or herring, until the microseason dies out, they don’t want to. “It shouldn’t be a static thing,” Nasr says. Besides, they seem to relish the spontaneity. As the template for bistro cuisine has become almost rote — relegated to classics like onion soup and steak frites — Hanson and Nasr seek to showcase the less-explored sides of French cooking.
Take the garnitures section, which looks strikingly different from that of any other brasserie.
“We wanted to get away from the side of mash, side of fries approach and actually do more compositional dishes,” Nasr says. That means Gnocchi Parisienne. Charred carrots. Shaved beets. Until, of course, they decide to switch out the beets for celeriac and add in a gratin of cardoons.
Nasr says that changing the menu every day keeps things fresh, both for the chefs themselves as well as Frenchette’s customers, who are sure to see a different item every time they eat at the restaurant. And though this might be exciting for regulars, it’s potentially hazardous for those who get restaurant recommendations on Instagram. “You come and take a picture of something and then it isn’t there for the next person that comes in,” Nasr says.
The chefs are happy to admit that Frenchette isn’t driven by social media, and in that way, the restaurant almost forces guests to live in the moment. To read the menu without any preconceived notions. To choose dishes for the purpose of eating, not Instagramming. To be as spontaneous as the menu itself.