Over the last couple of weeks, downtown tastemakers have been slipping into the long-shuttered Honmura An space on Mercer Street to preview Niko before it opens on Monday. At the helm is Cobi Levy, whose only other restaurant venture was the Charles, a West Village eatery that garnered a lot of attention but turned out to be a flash in the pan. This time around, armed with Sushi Yasuda alum Hiro Sawatari slicing fish and critically acclaimed Josh DeChellis overseeing the kitchen, he’s determined to do things differently. We caught up with Levy at the restaurant. Dressed in jeans, a black V-neck sweater, and sneakers, he was surrounded by giant windows, polished wooden floors, exposed brick, high ceilings, leather banquettes, and wooden panels with intertwining rope designs by Jim Drain Rafael de Cárdenas.
How did you get this hallowed space?
I was having lunch with Ben Leventhal in November of ’09 and we thought we would eat here, and when we realized it was closed, he said, “You have to take this place.” It had been Honmura An for sixteen years and then the owner’s father died and he went back to Japan to run the business. He left so fast there was still beer in the walk-in.
There’s a rumor Ben is a partner.
I know, but he’s actually just a good friend and he offers sage advice.
Weren’t you going to take the Beatrice Inn location?
I was going to do Beatrice; I had the lease and I was planning to do a tapas restaurant. But the place had been left in shambles and there was clearly a mandate out of City Hall saying “get it closed.” There were Department of Building issues and the community board was such a headache. There are enough great spaces in New York that I didn’t need to deal with all that.
So you picked Soho instead.
My office is here and I live here, and there are not that many places to eat. So many of the restaurants have turned into retail spaces. I go to Lure twice a week — in fact, I asked John McDonald’s permission before opening.
How did you get such an impressive crew?
My partners knew Hiro because they used to go to Yasuda all the time and they wanted to do a restaurant with him, and I loved Josh’s food at Sumile. He’s a guy who got two stars doing Japanese food and two stars doing Spanish food. Hiro is very traditional and Josh is modern, but it’s not like he’ll say, “Hey, I’m gonna make this Japanese dish with some salsa.” They work well together — Hiro will say, “I got this great fish,” and Josh will say, “Good, I’ll take the head and tail for stock.”
Are there any conflicts for you with a chef as traditional as Hiro?
Not really, but I had to explain to him sustainability is very important to me and I want to offer a sustainable omakase.
What will set Niko apart from other Japanese places?
The ethos behind this is most Japanese dining has too much compromise. You either have traditional bleached wood, bamboo, and super-bright lights or an overdone downtown version with some 80-foot Buddha, flags, and ninjas flying through the air. We wanted it to look like a Soho restaurant with Japanese references. And here the waitstaff can actually answer questions. Ushiwakamaru on Houston is good, but the girls walk around like geishas and don’t speak English. If you ask a question like, “Is there gluten in this dish?” they say, “Hai!” Is that an answer?
Why did Charles crash and burn so quickly?
We went in with the best intentions, and we were happy because we were the hottest thing on earth and we were making money, but it wasn’t really what any of us wanted. We were at odds on everything. I had a vision I had discussed — Adolf Loos — and then John DeLucie said, “I thought this was going to be a neighborhood place.” When I said “Viennese secession,” what made him think neighborhood? I wanted a chic, clubby place with light Mediterranean fare and his menu was very New American. At the end of the day, it was expensive, the food was subpar, there was bad service and a whole lot of attitude. Not really a recipe for success. But it’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — you can make anything hot for six months to a year. Like any bubble, it burst.
Apart from the level of food, how is your approach different at Niko?
I drank my own Kool-Aid at Charles, but everything I learned there I am applying now. You can’t really monetize that buzz. I want this place to be hard to get into like Locanda, but because the demand outweighs the supply, not because of attitude. We’ve been having tastings for people I trust, like Andrew Carmellini, Mario Carbone, and Joe Campanale, and I want their opinions. The only way anyone can offend me is by bullshitting. And the key is, you have to want customers. We are in the hospitality business; if you can’t be hospitable, you miss the point.