It's been a little over a year since chef Jonah Miller and Nate Adler opened Huertas, their Basque restaurant in the East Village. When they did, both were just in their mid-20s, but with many years each of experience in some of New York's top restaurants – most recently, for both, in Danny Meyer's empire. Their plan was ambitious: to essentially do two restaurants in one. Up front that had a bar with vermouth on tap, where they served small plates and passed around pinxtos on trays. In the back room, Miller served a set menu, which transformed over the months from a four-course prix fixe to a five-course tasting menu.
Though that earned them plenty of praise — two stars from the Times, and two stars from both of Eater's critics — after a year they decided it was time for a change. So they did away with the tasting menu, expanded the pinxtos menu into a full a la carte menu, and turned a divided restaurant into a more coherent one. That done, they're already moving on to new projects, like more collaboration dinners, and, starting next weekend, a hot dog takeout window. The hot dog — actually a house made housemade chistorra sausage — has been a hit off-menu special for a while now, but every Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day it will be available at the front window of the restaurant, along with horchata slushies.
Below, the duo talk about their background, the pros and cons of being young, and why they won't stop changing.
How did Huertas come about?
Jonah Miller: I grew up in the city, I grew up cooking, and I knew from a very young age that that's what I wanted to do. When I was 14, I started working in the kitchens, and that was around the time when Spanish food was at the forefront of modern cooking, For a native New Yorker, it was kind of humbling. We weren't the ones setting the trends. But I never worked in a Spanish restaurant here, I worked at Chanterelle and Gramercy Tavern.
Where were you working when you were 14?
Jonah: Chanterelle. Basically every summer during high school I worked somewhere. Two summers at Chanterelle, and then Gramercy Tavern, and then a place called Nice Matin. When I was in college studying abroad, going to Spain seemed like a natural choice. I figured I'd work on my Spanish, and then also get to see what the food is all about there. But unsurprisingly, that high-end cooking was unaffordable for a college student, and I ended up eating at traditional tapas joints and pintxo bars. I started to feel like we need more Spanish food in New York. So I knew as a college student that that was a direction I wanted to go in when I was ready to open a place.
What are my parents gonna think if they come in and there's red wine and Coke? When you were planning the restaurant, or even now, were there other Spanish restaurants in the city that you looked to?
Jonah: There's sort of an old guard of Spanish places which honestly, I don't know well. We probably should. But looking at the newer wave of restaurants like Tertulia and all of Alex Raij's places is important, to see what we're doing differently as well. Also, it's hard when we're the only ones bringing in a particular cider from Spain, but if there's a couple of the restaurants that have it as well, it opens doors for all of us to have these products.
Nate Adler: We set out to create something that was authentically Spanish in New York City. We wanted to really recreate that experience of being in a pintxo bar in Spain, like these awesome tapas bars in Madrid that were pouring vermouth on tap.
Jonah: And not be afraid to do things like kalimotxo – red wine and Coke. Honestly, it's a little embarrassing for us to serve that. Like, what are my parents gonna think if they come in and there's red wine and Coke? But we try to embrace these unabashedly Spanish things.
You're on the young end of people opening their own restaurants. Did that make it harder?
Jonah: It has been harder in some ways, but we're fairly experienced. People that I worked for growing up made me have unrealistic expectations of being able to open when you're young. Like David Waltuck and Peter Hoffman were opening restaurants when they were 24. But it was a different era. You could do it on family loans. Savoy and Union Square Cafe were inexpensive places. It would have been like us opening in Bushwick or Gowanus.
Nate: It's a prime time to do it when you're young, to be honest. It's a business that takes a lot of energy. We're fortunate to be in a place where we're this young at the helm of a restaurant in Manhattan, and getting staff here that are just as young and passionate as we are.
Jonah: Yeah, you have an idea of what you want the end result to be, but it's kind of meaningless without the people to put that all into action. Like any restaurant, it's a struggle to find those right people, but we really were lucky to have a few great ones out of the gate who are still with us. Our Union Square Hospitality Group background has taught us the importance of having good people and investing in them, especially for back of house. They're not gonna make a lot of money, so we have to be offering something more. That's one of the more exhausting parts of our day-to-day job: understanding we have to prioritize that, we can't just think about the food or the beverage.
If you have a bitterly cold February you have to have a team that's not gonna all go work somewhere else because they're seeing what the paycheck is over there. Some months are slim. We just had a cold, long winter, and our first summer was trying, but then we got our Times review, and I've never looked back. Last summer was the only moment where it was like, "oh man, hope everything's gonna work out." When we opened up, it was so busy out of the gate. Then you weather a few slower months, and it's like, "alright, we need to keep on evolving and changing and figuring out a way to get people in here."
Nate: Being young, both of us are very eager to make changes. Stagnation, complacency is not something that is in our bloodlines at all.
We created a weird segregated restaurant.And you're making another big change now, doing away with the tasting menu.
Jonah: After a full year of running this place, we realize this is the big change we need to make, and it's gonna set us up for long-term success in a lot of ways. I think we have succeeded despite a concept that was quite difficult to run, and tricky to communicate with our guests. Even after a year, a quarter of the people who walked in with a tasting menu reservation actually wanted to sit at the bar, and a tenth of the people who walked into the bar wanted to come for the tasting menu. We created a weird segregated restaurant where you had to sign up for only one of the experiences, and people would walk in wanting both. Now everyone who walks in the door has the same chance to experience everything that we're doing.
Nate: We want to create a transportive experience. We created so many rules here for the first year, but now we want to break those rules down, and have more fun with everything.
Jonah: A lot of that comes from the team. Sitting down and saying, "what about your job is not exciting you? What part of service is a drag? Let's try to remove that." Our initial style choice at the front involved a lot of touching the table, a lot of interaction with guests. Our server has to go to the table like 14 times in an hour. Not every table wants to have that experience. Yes, someone's gonna want a porron poured straight into their mouth, and someone else may not.
Nate: One thing that they were very keen on was the idea that they thought they were just doing too much talking.
Jonah: It's not my favorite thing when you sit down at a place and they say, "Have you been here before?" which is inevitably followed by, "If you haven't, it's confusing, and I have to explain it to you." We want to try and eliminate that and have a menu that says, for example, what a pintxo is. Then we've saved 30 seconds at least.
Before, it was kind of unhealthy how much changing we were doing. We would change three dishes in the back often, and one dish in the front, and three pintxos, all in the same night.
Jonah: It's fun and exciting, but it also forces you to fly by the seat of your pants. I get away with that, sort of, but it honestly isn't going to produce the best results, and beyond that, it's just hard to keep the staff trained. Now we can change one or two things and make sure everyone knows exactly what's going on. Ultimately, I think the food will be better for that.
Going from the big picture to the small picture, are there particular dishes that you wish had worked, or thought would work and didn't?
Jonah: I don't know that we've had many dishes that have completely fallen flat. Something that has not always worked out is doing cider pairings with the tasting menu. Spanish cider is something that people have to want, and not have forced on them, especially some of the more stringent, unbalanced ones.
I guess there are some things that, when they're on the tasting menu, just aren't for every guest, like quail. Some people are afraid to eat little birds.
Nate: Maybe like dessert food sometimes, but that's another point about not having as much time. We don't have a pastry chef here, and it's been hard to have to change the dessert once a week.
Jonah: Usually our executive sous chef was spending a lot of time working on desserts. Now we'll still have ice cream and churros, but not having to come in every day and prep dessert is gonna free up a lot of time. When you were changing things so frequently, it wasn't even worth standardizing recipes and training people on them. Now things are gonna stay on the menu for a month or two, so we can really fine-tune them, and then I can train someone how to make it, so I can start thinking about the next dish.
Nate: And maybe even the next idea. Or what we do with this space to incubate ideas for the future.
So are you thinking about doing another restaurant?
Jonah: We've at least gotten to the point where we can imagine thinking about it. In a multitude of ways it would be easier a second time, but at the same time, it's still quite challenging here. So it's not as if we're actively trying to sign a lease. But to an extent we miss the creative beginning process. There's things that we've been doing here as well, like the hot dog, that have an opportunity to grow beyond off-menu item. I think that's the most fulfilling, natural way for things to evolve. The next steps, whenever they happen, become outgrowths of our strengths there.
Nate: One thing that I've learned from my experience working at USHG is to incubate from the space that you have. Continue to fine-tune ideas here, and it'll progress. But it's not something that's front and center right now. Maybe after the summer we'll start thinking about next steps.
Jonah: If you asked me two years ago what would it feel like to have been open a year, I would have been like, "No big deal, we should be open a year, otherwise we're huge failures." But having been open a year, I understand now what the accomplishment is, and it's tough.
The restaurants that succeed in New York are those that are simple. What was the best or most important advice you got from other people in the industry when you were planning this restaurant?
Jonah: The most universal piece of advice, which I was really reluctant to follow, was to start in a former restaurant space. You have this idea of what you want the restaurant to look like, and you'd rather start with a vanilla box, but there are benefits to taking over an existing space. Despite the fact that we scrapped almost everything that was here, we did save a lot.
Nate: For me, advice came from just being a part of the Union Square Hospitality Group. We opened this restaurant trying to take the framework we learned from, and build off that. We wanted to create something that was inherently a place of hospitality.
Jonah: We also have to trust ourselves and each other. When I was going out to seek advice about specific things, I would get five different answers from five different people. It's still very much an industry where there are a lot of different ways to do things.
Nate: The restaurants that I've seen succeed in New York, the ones that I like best, are those that are simple: you can, in one sentence, describe what that restaurant is and what it means to you.
Jonah: And that was very hard for us to do.
Nate: Also for us, coming from USHG, the number one thing was that employees come first.
Jonah: For me, especially more on the back of house side, the Danny Meyer enlightened hospitality is much more relevant now. At Maialino as a sous chef, you're kind of running a crew, but I didn't really care if people there liked me. But here, it's really important that everyone likes us, and wants to work hard for us, and respects us.
You start to understand more and more what Danny's all about, and why it works. We're trying to tread that line, trying to offer great hospitality, great service, but also be cool and hip and youthful. That's sometimes not the first thing that you think of with Danny's restaurants. They're not necessarily the Brooklyn aesthetic. We want to find that middle ground – be young and try things out and experiment, but also don't be rude.
Were there any big surprises for you in the past year? Anything that totally blindsided you?
Jonah: Not a huge surprise, but it's been even more difficult than I would have thought or hoped to staff the kitchen. It's kind of bleak out there. It's hard even to ask your friends if they have cooks because no one has any cooks.
Nate: The biggest surprise for me has been just reacting to this daily-evolving restaurant environment. There are restaurants opening every week. In the past a two-star review in the Times would get you sailing for a long time. In this day and age, there are a lot of restaurants opening, and a lot more of them that are good. It's not surprising at all that it would take somebody a year to come in here. I remember overhearing somebody the other day at Mission Chinese, as they were leaving saying, "I guess we can check that off our list now." And that's how it is. That's the world that we live in.
Jonah: We've been on people's lists, but we want to inch closer to the top, and make sure we're can't miss. Quite frankly, the concept before was like splitting your popularity. So I think unifying the restaurant hopefully makes it an easier decision to come here.