One chapter— or maybe two or three— in the history of a prominent downtown space has come to an end with the departure of the restaurant management group who were running Argent Restaurant and Raw Bar, in the Dana Hotel and Spa. Sean Mulroney and PR professional Julie Darling, who co-own a management company called COAL Inc., and chef Nathan Huntington are departing the restaurant and the hotel at the end of their one-year contract, citing “insurmountable creative differences.” Mulroney, who also owns the Double Door and two other properties, says that with his other projects, the difficulty of profitably serving the 24-hour needs of a hotel including its banquet and room service needs was more than COAL wished to continue dealing with. He says Huntington, who had been chef de cuisine under Laurent Gras at L2O, had raised the level of cuisine dramatically and turned it around after a troubled opening, but that he decided not to continue with the hotel without Mulroney and Darling’s management.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the restaurant, which began as a replacement for a previous restaurant which had also gone through many changes— it was a restaurant called Aja (pronounced, sort of punningly, like Asia, to reflect a mostly Asian bent), which became Ajasteak, which somehow meant Asia plus steakhouse. Then it was reconcepted entirely as Argent by Rodelio Aglibot (Sunda) in partnership with COAL Inc. Jackie Shen was brought in as chef after it was planned as part comfort food restaurant, part raw bar, but chafed against the degree to which the restaurant was set in stone by Aglibot and the hotel, and left relatively quickly; Aglibot left COAL. With mediocre reviews for what looked like a hotel-compromised menu, the restaurant kind of fell off everyone’s radar (except for a possible lawsuit with another would-be partner), but though no one really noticed, it actually started looking up a few months back with Huntington’s arrival, and Mulroney has nothing but praise for his abilities: “He’s an amazing chef, and he had really taken it to a new level. But if you want to get what he’s capable of, you have to give him full creative control,” and that’s apparently what the hotel was unwilling to do.
Beyond that, Mulroney says that managing a 24-hour program for an entire facility like a hotel, “I learned a lot about the business and I made a lot of money… for the hotel.” But for now he plans to focus on his existing businesses (and his family), including anniversary celebrations for both the Double Door, which will be 20 this year, and Santullo’s pizza, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary.