Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Sara Jenkins has a real gift for cooking pasta. Her noodle dishes are full of big, direct flavors, and imaginative ingredient combinations. The menu at Porsena, her year-old East Village restaurant, features simple things like pasta pomodoro, and more unusual creations like pennette with roasted cauliflower, olives, capers, and breadcrumbs. We recently chatted with Jenkins about how Porsena came together, and what she'd love to work on next.
Sara Jenkins, Chef and Owner: I've always wanted my own restaurant, since the first time I became a chef. It's maybe not for everybody, but you want to control it, you have so many ideas — it's an expression of yourself. You know, when I was doing Pizzeria Veloce, Frederick Twomey kind of wanted to open a fish place, and I said we should do a pasta place. We kind of loved the idea of doing a fish and pasta place, but then I think that fish is just crazy. In terms of economically, it's just up there in price, and if you're not Marea, you're not going to come out ahead. That's not what I wanted to be, but I really loved the idea of doing a pasta place.
Porchetta got a lot of attention because of its size, the low price point, and the originality of the concept. Were you at all afraid to jump into something bigger? I'm not a three star chef. I'm not a fancy restaurant kind of person, I never really liked...I mean, it's always nice once in a while, but it's not my kind of thing. I grew up in Rome, and I really love these places that become like your dining room table in a weird way. That's sort of what my whole motivation and goal was, you know?
How did you find the space? Were you specifically looking in the neighborhood? Yeah, I like this neighborhood. I've worked here more or less since I first came to New York. So it's a familiar and comfortable neighborhood for me. I actually called about the Goat Town space, because there was a sign in the window, and it was totally built out. But they wanted a lot of money for it, and I was talking with the broker who said,"You know, I just got the keys for this space today." So I came down here and I looked at it, and it was such a dump in so many ways. But there was something about it that I really liked, and I thought the location was amazing, and in a weird way, it was just really lucky.
What was here before? It was a Burmese restaurant for 25 years. I have to say, I'm really sorry for anyone who ate here, myself included — the kitchen was really horrendous.
How did you put the menu together? I've been doing this a long time, and you start to get to know what your strengths are, and stuff like that. And I thought that in a way, what I'm good at is comfortable, solid food — not the food that blows you away, and you can't wait to go back and it makes you think in a whole new way. But like the food that makes you come back three times a week because you just want to eat without thinking too much about it. And honestly, the guys at Lavagna are old friends of mine, and over the years I've done a lot of consulting for them here and there, and Lavagna is so off-the-radar. You never hear about it, no one's ever talking about it, I don't know if it's ever gotten a review in New York magazine, but they are busy. And every year, their business is always growing. I was talking with a friend about it, and he was saying, "The food is solid, simple, and kind of non-confrontational." And it was like, "Yeah, you know, and that's kind of brilliant."
There are many very simple dishes on the menu, and also some things that you won't find anywhere else in NYC. Did you do any research or were you trying to do a certain style of Italian cooking? Yeah, I mean, pasta with tomato sauce — I'd actually never put that on a menu before. I'd make it, I'd always have it, because you can't be an Italian restaurant and not make pasta with tomato sauce. But in the end, the people that order that sometimes are not going to order it if they have to ask for it. And, you know, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old kid, and one of the first things I got him eating was pasta with tomato sauce. I was like, "When we go to Italy, you better be able to eat something." Making that for him, I was like, "But you know it's really so good. It's so delicious, and it's so elemental." There's actually a place near my family's house in Italy, a little hole-in-the hole restaurant, and they only make two pastas: pasta with tomato sauce, and pasta with ragu. And so you kind of know when you walk in the door, "Am I in a pasta with tomato sauce kind of mood, or a pasta with ragu kind of mood?" And before you even sit down, you kind of know what you're going to order, and that's kind of what I wanted to do here.
But there are also a lot of dishes that are not so simple. Where did you get the inspiration for those? Looking back at old menus and stuff like that. Like, when I was at 50 Carmine, we did this pasta in red wine sauce, that was sort of this thing, and everyone got really excited about it. But it was a really strong flavored dish, and you either kind of loved it or hated it — my own father hated it. And I realized in an odd way that what I wanted on the menu were things that you always kind of wanted — they weren't a stretch. And the specials were where you kind of played around with stuff, and a dish like that really belonged on the specials menu. That wasn't the dish that you were going to come in on a snowy night in February and be like, "I must have it." But you might do that with pasta and ragu.
How was the build? It was okay, it wasn't so bad. By the time we opened, we were running on fumes — that's always scary. Sometimes I look at these $2 million build-outs, and I think, "How are you ever going to earn that money back?" I would be so uncomfortable opening a $2 million restaurant. This is manageable. I can get my head around it. If it all failed miserably, and I owed all the money, I could conceivably pay if off over time.
Did people check it out when you did open? Yeah. I'd say the New York magazine review was super, super helpful. And just when that died off, then the New Yorker, and a whole new crowd came in. But ultimately, it's a local neighborhood place. Sometimes people write the reviews on Yelp, and they're like, "Well, I wouldn't travel for it." But that's not the point of this restaurant. It's more like, "Oh, I just got off work, and I want to go around the corner and have a bowl of pasta."
Were you at all expecting a bigger review process? No, not really. I was thrilled, honestly, to get a New Yorker review. I was like, "Look, I made it! I'm in the New Yorker."
Did you have to make any changes after the first month? There were some things that surprised me. We do a lasagna here that's a really traditional Tuscan lasagna, with a meat sauce, a bechamel, and fresh pasta. Then we put it in a clay casserole dish and bake it to order. There was a fair amount of initial criticism. People's idea of lasagna is more of a Southern Italian, or Italian-American lasagna, so they were expecting more cheese, more red sauce, more this or that. That really took me by surprise, because I think it's so amazing. It comes to the table and it's all puffed up, and you can smell the terra cotta — to me, it's one of the most dramatic dishes that we do, and it was odd that people didn't react favorably to it. It was disappointing, but I didn't waiver.
The menu has only a handful of entrees. Did this format work out from the start? I was blown away by how much pasta people ate. People come in and order pasta as an appetizer, and pasta as a mid-course, and pasta as a third course. And for me, very much in my mind, when you go out to eat, you have an appetizer, you have a pasta, and you have an entree. We sell maybe 10, 15, or maybe 20 entrees a night. And that's a little sad in a way because I would love to play with those entrees more. I would love to bring other things in, but it is... I promoted it as a pasta restaurant, and the way people come in and eat here, it's all about pasta. Sometimes we fool around with the entree specials, but it's a really slow sell.
How was summer? Did it slow down? Yeah, it's summer. I mean, in the spring, we were still getting reviewed and stuff like that. Summer slowed down, but not that bad. December was great, and it's definitely not like December now, but it's okay — I'm not complaining. We do have a lot of neighborhood regulars. I hope that we're just a comfortable enough place, and it's easy enough to come in, and you don't have to think about it too much.
In the past, you've mentioned other ideas for restaurants that you might want to get off the ground. What are you thinking about these days? We're so stymied here with entrees, and I'd love to do a meat-centric place. I spend a lot of time in Umbria, because I have a chef friend over there, and my family's house is not that far, and so I go over there a lot. It's very meat-centric — like pork chops, sausages, and salumi, and all that. And in a way, I love taking the same idea of this place, and focussing on one element of Italian cuisine.
What about the Middle Eastern concept? Yeah, I have a million and one fantasies, and I must say Middle Eastern is one of them. I think it's something that I've sort of rolled over in my head again. Rather than a proper Middle Eastern restaurant, I'd love to just take over a falafel stand, but make everything with really good ingredients. I never understand why all the falafel stands make their tabouli with curly parsley — I don't think they grow curly parsley in the Middle East. Curly parsley to me is like this leftover, weird 1970s garnish thing. I imagine that curly parsley is cheaper, and that's why they use it. So, I'd love to "porchettify" that. In fact, Joe Doe took a space on First Street with his sandwich shop that I've been eyeing for a long time.
Does it feel like it's been a year? Maybe longer. I'm really happy for it to have been a year, and to be in as good a place at the end of the year as we are. Business feels really good.