With so much controversy swirling about the Mott’s ownership, it has kind of been lost that the restaurant is finally opening. Tomorrow night, to be exact. Albeit without a liquor license (the owners are pursuing a right to serve wine and cocktails, and they won’t be allowing BYOB). The menu will be pretty much the same as the one we posted earlier, with a couple of tweaks and (starting a couple of weeks from now) daily specials. We chatted with the chef, Brian Bieler, who’s been lying low till now, to find out what “Soho seasonal” means, anyway.
So what’s your definition of “Soho seasonal”?
We wanted to separate ourselves from everyone else claiming to be doing seasonal, regional food — a lot of these restaurants are still serving tomatoes in summertime and strawberries in winter. One of our goals is to simply showcase the ingredients available in the month of July.
But what about the Soho part? Are you trying to capture the character of the neighborhood somehow?
And aren’t you technically in Chinatown?
Well, we’re south of Houston Street. It’s a weird part of the city — I have Chinatown one block south, Little Italy right here, “Soho” a block north, and the Bowery a block away.
Where are you coming from?
I grew up on a working farm in Kansas. We had everything from livestock to soybeans to fresh corn to milos to fresh strawberries. I was doing a lot of cooking with my grandmother at an early age. I moved to the city, and seven years later, here I am.
What chefs have influenced you the most during your time here?
One of my favorite people to work with was John Fraser — I was his sous-chef at Compass when we got two stars. I’ve also worked with David Chang.
How long were you with Chang for? Isn’t his whole thing that he wants people to be in it for the long haul?
He knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to be there long-term. I was at a point in my career where I wanted to check out different things. A lot of people think he’s hard to work with, and he’s notorious for yelling, but he was so nice and cool with me I never had a problem with him.
What did you take from that experience?
I know how to make his broth for his noodles. I didn’t learn anything as far as technique. Most of my training was self-taught— I don’t feel like I had a big mentor here in the city.
You’ve got a small kitchen there. What’s that like after coming from Bouley?
Are you kidding? It’s 75 square feet! But I think a lot of the great food in this city comes out of small kitchens. It’s exciting because we don’t have a huge inventory; it makes us do everything fresh every day. We get the fish fresh every day because we don’t have a freezer.
Are you taking advantage of the local Chinatown fish supply? Would that be a bad idea?
Wild Edibles is my main guy. I think the fish is horrible down [in Chinatown] — just walk down the street and see how they take care of it. They stack everything up, or they’ll have 40 pieces out when they should only have four.
What other purveyors are you working with?
Four Story Hill in Pennsylvania provides beef, [and] we’re going to start getting our chickens from them; pork belly from Flying Pig Farm. A lot of our vegetables come from the Greenmarket — all of our berries and asparagus and greens comes from there right now.
What are the dishes that are most indicative of your style?
I’m super-excited about our tomato soup, and our asparagus salad. It doesn’t seem like often enough you’re able to get an ingredient and barely do anything. Our big, beautiful tomatoes are just puréed, seasoned with salt and olive oil, and put in a bowl, served cold. We only use three or four different ingredients in the asparagus salad.
Has it been hard to focus on opening the place amid all the squabbles?
Honestly, it hasn’t affected me at all; I knew [investors] Emma [Cleary] and Fred [Loh] when everything was cool, and throughout this whole thing I’ve really been able to stay friendly with everyone even with all that’s going on.
Is there going to be a food element to the downstairs lounge? How’s that coming?
No, it’s going to be a completely separate entity — they’re going to be totally separate businesses. I don’t think you’d expect anything for a couple of months. Right now we have a lot of restaurant stuff down there, to be honest — a couple of my refrigerators are down there in the middle of the room. But it’s going to be beautiful.
Will we be able to recognize any of Double Happiness in it?
It’s going to be much more up[scale] than that.