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Niko's Cobi Levy, James London, and Kwang Kim

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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.
[James London, Kwang Kim, and Cobi Levy; Krieger, 02/03/12]

Cobi Levy had a huge flop with Charles, his absurdly-exclusive West Village gastropub that attracted scorn from the critics and shuttered just two years after opening. When he was getting ready to open his follow up restaurant, Niko, Levy explained to the press that he'd learned a lesson from that ill-fated project, and that at his new place, anyone could get a table, and the food would be great. And for the most part, he made good on that promise: after opening, lot of people loved the sushi from Yasuda-vet Hiro Sawatari and the Japanese fare from chef James London, and you could make a reservation just like any other restaurant.

Niko was not, however, a critical darling in its early days. Many diners complained about spotty service and a general sense that Levy and his team didn't care about some of the guests in the dining room. One year in, Levy says that he's made a lot of changes to the service style at the restaurant. And with the recent addition of a young gun sushi chef named Kwang Kim, the menu at Niko has evolved into something new, and slightly more casual. Here's the story of the first year of Niko, as told by Cobi, James, and Kwang:

Why did you want to open another restaurant after Charles? Cobi Levy, restaurateur: You know, my former partners are doing exceptionally well with Crown and The Lion. We were a bad partnership. There was good talent, but the ingredients didn't come together so well on that one. And it's something that we really wanted to do, and I had enough good partners on this, and it was an opportunity to do something really great with a terrific team on the food side.

When was the first time you talked about doing this project? Cobi: Two of my partners came to me with the idea about two and a half years ago. They had a relationship with the sushi chef, Hiro, who left. But that was the first moment where we thought "We should do this." So, we thought about, "What if you took that beloved Soho space and served great Japanese food, and just do it with a bit more of a western delivery-style, without becoming fusion?" And that's really where we ended up.

James, how were you approached about working at this restaurant? James London, chef: I was brought in around November, right? Cobi: I kind of had you on hold, hidden away in a couple of kitchens. James: Yeah, I was hidden up in Montauk for a long while. This was a much-delayed project, and I agreed to be a part of this a long time ago — the end of April. We were finally about to get in the kitchen in the beginning of December.

A lot of people really had a connection to the Honmura An space. Were you afraid to change it? Cobi: Yeah, and in looking back, when we put the room together we probably went a little too far. At some point it might have been a touch over-designed, but in the last few months we've reconstructed it because we really did want to pay homage to the restaurant that it was. It had been here for 18 years, and it deserved its due — it was a great restaurant. So, we've kept a lot of the great guts like the brick walls and the hard wood floor, and we've scaled it back a little bit in the last few months, and I think it shows. People have reacted to it, and I think there are still a couple of other little tweaks that we'll probably make in here just to soften the room even further.

How was the opening? Cobi: We did a little friends and family, and then we got to it. It certainly took us a little while to get our legs on the service side, and it showed. You're so worried in the early days — you know that the reviews are coming. Adam Platt was here the second week we opened. So for me as an operator, I was so focused on making sure the food was good, and trying to get the service to catch up. Adam gave us two stars — he took away a star because he didn't like the room — but the food certainly won its accolades there. We had a great Times review. I still will say that it reads like a two-star review, although he gave us one. And part of that is that there is something to be said for...critics are susceptible to falling into the crowd mentality. They look around and they allow who's in the room to define the restaurant more than I think I would. Every interview I had before, I was like, "It's not supposed to be sceney, I don't want it to be a hot spot." And then people were still, like, "Well, there's a bunch of good-looking people there. It's a hot spot."

Some of that Times review reads like a profile of you as a restaurateur. Cobi: Right. I have a big enough ego — I didn't need that part, and I didn't want it to be about that. I wanted it to be about the food, and I thought that it was a little unfair that he never sat at the sushi bar. You can't come to a restaurant like this and not spend time doing an omakase. Yeah, Sifton didn't write about the sushi that much. Cobi: Right. I mean, all of the reviews have been fairly similar in that the food comes off very well. He picked up on some service issues, and again, I fully admit to having...there are parts of my past that probably caught up on it in terms of how people want to attach...there's that stench of Charles still on it. And as ridiculous as we were there, after a year or two years I thought it would be gone, but it still was with us and it was certainly unintended.

That's not why I opened this restaurant — it's not about me. I'm just trying to be an engaging owner, and somehow it still went there. The first thing that I did when that review came out was apologize to my chefs. I said, "Look, I'm sorry. It wasn't supposed to be about me." I thought that they had cooked their hearts out. They've been cooking with great passion, and great skill, and it should have been the top billing, not whether LCD Soundsystem was playing, or whether or not I have attractive friends. That's the craziest thing — at one point, it mentions, "chicken that will keep you happy for a day," or something. Most one star reviews have a few good things, and then a lot of sort of mediocre, or poor things. Ours was like, "Everything's great. The food's great." There was one service mention on the sushi, and then one star.

Was that disappointing at all? James: Extremely. Cobi: People say it doesn't matter, but it matters.

James, did the kitchen go through any changes after the reviews? James: There was never any critique of the food. Every single review said the food was amazing, pretty much. Cobi: The pressure was really on me and the front of the house.

Did you make those service changes? Cobi: The toughest part about service in a restaurant like this is simply that, with a kitchen in the back and a sushi bar up front, they need to gel. It just took time to get everyone on the same page, and to figure out what changes needed to be made from an operational standpoint, and identify what needed to be fixed, and a lot of those things happened. James: I think that service-wise, we were almost being a little too stuffy in a way. Now it seems more friendly, more at ease, and more natural. Cobi: I was so focused on making sure that everything was done kind of by-the-books, service-wise. About how you approach service from a classic, French technique, I guess. You see people that are so focused on, "Did I put the napkin down right? Is the table set right?" Your servers can get very wound up, and they're not just at ease and thinking about, "How can I make our guest's meal as good as possible."

You figure out what's most important for you. Your servers should be educated, and they should know how to bus a table properly, and all these things should happen. But the hallmark of good service is when you walk away and feel like you took care of them, and that's really the most important part. The prevailing attitude has to be, "We want you here." But it was also a little tough for us at the sushi bar, because a lot of our sushi program was so steeped in tradition, in a very Yasuda-way, that it took awhile for the sushi bar to react and kind of change to the downtown tastes, and that's why I think bringing Kwan on is so important. Hiro is a sushi master — there's no question. When it comes to skill, he gets it. But if you're working at Yasuda, which is really like a temple of sushi, people are coming in with the mindset of, "I'll sit, I'll do whatever you want to do, you tell me what I want to have." In here, people are having a good time, and they're going to ask for what they want. And that's the biggest change that's happened from day one until now — just being a lot friendlier, and a lot more accommodating.

What happened to Hiro? Cobi: It got to the point for us, mutually, that we as a restaurant realized that we needed to adapt a bit to our customers, and to our guests' tastes. And for Hiro, he was at a point in his career where I just don't think that he wanted to make those sacrifices. And it's not a quality thing — you have to change your attitude towards your guests, and it's such a different approach. There's a western way of looking at it, and a Japanese way of looking look at it. And for me as a restaurateur, I'm always like, "Look, the customer's right." It's a very western idea. If that guy wants to pour soy sauce in his water? Fine, that's what he wants to do. Give it to him. That's what he asked for, that's what he's going to get. This is a man who, for 30 years, he'd been doing things a different way. And he wasn't going to change for me, but I wasn't going to force him to change to something that he didn't want to do. It was like, "Look, if we're not in alignment on this, that's fine, we'll go in a different direction."

Kwang, how did you approach the sushi program here? Kwang Kim, sushi chef: I would say that 90% of my bosses at Nobu, 15 East, and Morimoto were pretty much trained in traditional ways. And it's funny, especially at Nobu and Morimoto, they're being a little bit more westernized now. But some of the chefs that come in that are traditionally trained, they're just not used to it. And when customers ask for something that's not on the menu, they just go crazy — they just don't know what to do. So from my perspective, I kind of respect Hiro's sushi bar, the way he ran it. But in a sense, I feel like it is a different crowd down here. And I'm new — I'm the new guy here, and I can't really tell how it's going to be. But, I'm more free to be like, "You are the customer, and I'm here to make you happy. If you have any questions, ask me and I'll tell you my opinions on how a certain fish should be eaten."

How has the menu changed lately? James: Basically, you know, before we kind of operated as kind of, "Okay, here are our appetizers, and here are our entrees." So this new menu is based on pairing it down so that everything is Japanese tapas-style. Everything's smaller, and everything's shareable, which I think makes it easier, because the guests feel more at ease, and not like locked into doing sushi and a certain entree. We're trying to dress it up a little bit, and put our modern spin on it, but we want something that everyone can partake in, and everyone can share. We try to stay fresh, we try to stay with the seasons, and we try to keep our customers coming back with new items and whatnot. Yeah, it's constantly evolving.

Kwang did you change the sushi selection at all? Kwang: Yeah, there were a few things that I wanted to get rid of. I've never seen a restaurant with so much salmon in my life. I wanted to minimize and focus on the quality of the fish and just make sure that when you eat a piece of sushi you say, "Wow, that was a great piece of tuna." Cobi: Our two chefs are very talented, and they've worked on putting this menu concept together. So if you order the raw dishes, some come from the sushi bar, some come from the kitchen, but you should just be able to have a full experience. There was more division in year one, sushi to cooked, and now there's certainly a lot more togetherness in creation, and we also have two very young and talented chefs.

What do you hope for year two? Kwang: Basically, my ultimate goal would be to have the bar packed every night, and just have repeat customers come in and say, "Let me just try your omakase." I love dealing with shellfish, abalone and things like that that you don't normally see. James: My goal for year two is to have more spontaneity. My dream has always been to have a chalkboard menu where you can just go in and scribble the menu for the day, and scratch it off, and just have the stuff on there that's awesome. We have some really good purveyors, and it's a dream to be able to use what's fresh for that day. Cobi: I was at my friend Seamus Mullen's restaurant Tertulia recently, and I commented after coming back that there was a real element of "cooking joy" that permeates through that room — it really resonated with me. I came back and I talked with Kwang and James about it, and so we started to reconsider the menu. I said, "You need to dominate this room — your food, your 'cooking joy.'" And it's starting to spread already, because since Kwang's been here, the staff is just taking that light approach. The room feels demonstratively different than it did last year. I would say that we were at about 70% of where we should have been in year one, and now we're going to get hopefully somewhere in the high 80s, and get it all together.
· All Coverage of Niko [~ENY~]


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