For excitement these days, nothing quite beats a restaurant’s opening night. There’s an electricity in the air, and a sense of jubilant expectation, as fidgeting foodies line up outside like they’re waiting for a big-ticket rock concert or a Broadway blockbuster. Restaurant debuts have become desirable events unto themselves — but you have to be willing to wait in line.
Thus it was I found myself on Friday standing with a friend outside Nishi ("West"), David Chang’s new Chelsea restaurant. We arrived at 5:45 p.m. when the queue merely extended to the avenue corner, but 15 minutes later it had done a right-angle turn and stretched halfway down the block on 22nd Street. Friendships were struck up in that line as scenesters speculated what the menu would be like, repeated intel that had appeared in the food press, and summoned Instagram pictures on their phones. Astonished neighbors peppered the line-standers with queries, as a garbage truck trolled up 8th Avenue emptying trashcans. The driver leaned out and shouted contemptuously, "Have the Justin Bieber tickets gone on sale?"
Guests were gradually let in the door in twos and threes and fours, and when an hour was up, we’d reached the front of the line, only to be told the place was full and there’d be a 45-minute wait before seating would begin again. We left a cell number and repaired to a nearby coffee bar, fortifying ourselves with espresso as we waited expectantly. After only 20 minutes we received a text telling us to report immediately to Nishi, where a new line of supplicants had formed. We were whisked in as the doorman told us, "So good to see the texting overflow system works! You’re the first try-out."
Before us stood a sea of blond-wood tables, some high, some low, each seating from two to eight. Backless and cushion-less wooden stools stood alongside, and under each table hooks were provided to stash coats and backpacks. This is a cramped and look-after-yourself kind of place, though the ensuing service proved efficient and prompt. With regular changes of share plates and silverware, refilled flasks of free fizzy water, and measured delivery of plates (not too many at once), the front of the house spun like a top. At the rear a bar serving beer, wine, and cocktails ran along one wall, and opposite stood a prep counter where a guy in a bandanna assembled desserts and finished other dishes. A busy six-person kitchen could be seen through a door at the rear.
All eyes were on Chang, and it was almost like a nightclub act.
Though chef Josh Pinsky marched through the dining room a couple of times, David Chang presided. In a red baseball cap he surveyed the room, then walked among the patrons, asking opinions and exchanging quips. All eyes were on Chang, and it was almost like a nightclub act. A few of the customers he obviously knew, but others he greeted for the first time and readily engaged in conversation. Nevertheless, he seemed nervous about various aspects of the operation. When he reached our table, he remarked, "I don’t think we rolled quite as much pasta downstairs as we’ll need this evening."
First to arrive was a tataki of Spanish mackerel topped with jagged green mizuna leaves in a yuzu marinade ($16). Tasty, but nothing out of the ordinary. Served in thickish slices with skin attached, the quantity of fish was meager. Not so the so-called romaine and walnut bagna cauda ($14). It was actually a formidable Caesar salad with the welcome addition of nuts, each leaf crunchy and perfectly dressed. But calling it a bagna cauda ("hot bath") — a northern Italian specialty involving crudité and an oily warm fondue — was not an accurate description. Still, how can you argue with something that good?
Like everyone else’s, our faces were glued to our Instagram accounts, so when David Chang sent out a picture of his favorite dish of the evening — clams grand Lisboa ($27) — we ordered it immediately. Titled with the Korean word "myun," which means noodles, it came from the pasta section and consisted of a bowl of lo mein surmounted by five clams dabbed with an herby green sauce. Some of the noodles were soft, others had been fried to a dark-brown crispness. This dish was supremely delicious, and I could eat it every day of my life.
In fact, it was the noodle portion of the menu, one of five sections, where much of the restaurant’s excitement lay on that first evening. Nishi’s version of the Roman classic cacio e pepe, called ceci e pepe ($23), substituted a chickpea paste fermented in-house for nine months for the traditional pecorino Romano. This produced a slight sweetness, through which the crushed black peppercorns prevailed. We licked the last of the sauce from the bottom of the bowl. The spicy beef Sichuan was not quite as good, though the pappardelle noodles used in the dish were as good as those you get at Raffetto’s on Houston Street.
Based on the apps and pastas, it’s easy to think of Nishi as a strange Italian restaurant with Asian (most especially, Korean) accents. And the advice to stick with the pastas as main courses would be good advice. Three big-format entrees are offered, at prices pegged around $35, and it was one of those, not the pastas, that was actually the first thing to run out. Lucky for us, it was the one that we picked and we got one of the last servings: pork shoulder with white kimchi. It owed nothing to any Asian school of cooking, though the white kimchi might be mistaken for sauerkraut, and the slices of succulent pork shoulder were like a cross between Texas barbecue and German ham. We sided it with fingerling potatoes ($10). Flavored with smoked yolk and tarragon, they caused my companion to exclaim, "This tastes just like poutine."
The meal ended with two desserts ($10), both of them semi-irresistible. A kid further down the table, obviously out past her bedtime, dug avidly into the pistachio bundt cake sided with a quenelle of thickened ricotta that felt like a scoop of ice cream; the cake was said to be a recipe of the chef’s mother. The other was a panna cotta with droplets of olive oil sluiced with salty plum vinegar.
The menu is extensively and humorously footnoted. At the conclusion of our meal, Chang cruised the room handing out samples of the app called shaved winter vegetable, a fluffy heap of thin-sliced radish, green apple, and white fungus awash in a delicate chilled beef broth. It was one of the more purely Korean things on the menu. "Nobody has ordered this all evening," he lamented, "so I’m giving it out."
The meal set us back around $215 for two people, with a cocktail (a blood orange daiquiri) and glass of wine (a Mosel Valley Riesling). The bottom of the menu had a note in boldface: "No tipping please." As we left, we heard Chang telling another table, "It’s been an okay evening, but this menu is going to change a lot."