Nearly twenty five years after they opened their first Blue Ribbon restaurant, Bruce and Eric Bromberg have unveiled Blue Ribbon Federal Grill at 84 William St., a 98-seat restaurant in FiDi on the ground level of AKA Wall Street, an extended-stay hotel.
But as one Blue Ribbon restaurant debuts, another has closed: Blue Ribbon Bakery Kitchen at 35 Downing St. shuttered at the end of January after the 20-year lease came to a end; the rent hike was just too high to renew it. (Emmy Squared will move into the space later this year.)
This particular restaurant held special meaning for the Brombergs. Over two decades ago, the brothers found themselves rehabbing the building as part of an “excavation project,” says Bruce, in part, to restore a built-in oven from the 1870s.
To stay true to the building and the oven design, they spent many afternoons at the library, looking up microfilm on ovens, the original building, and the neighborhood architecture. Eventually, they brought over a mason from Italy who put it back together by hand.
“The oven had been a lifeblood of communities like this one,” says Bruce, who said it was rare for residents to have ovens in their apartments at the time. In the end, it’s why it was so important to them for customers to see the oven, despite that, historically, they were most often in basements.
Shortly after it opened, Ruth Reichl wrote about the oven — a precursor to the wood-fired oven in open kitchens now ubiquitous in restaurants.
It is a sensory experience, the room dominated by a brick oven so large you can easily imagine pushing a witch right into it. Arrive at the right time and you can eat your meal while watching the bakers as they work.
It is so cozy down there, with the smell of wood and wild yeast in the air, that emerging into the light of upstairs is like entering another world. In this clamorous place, people sit at small tables having serious discussions as they eat just about anything you can imagine.
Having to leave the place, unleashed “a sadness we can’t even put into words,” says Bruce. Yet opening a new restaurant shortly after the closing of the bakery has an advantage. “We got to keep the entire staff from the bakery,” he says. “The timing was a blessing.”
They haven’t stopped baking, but instead moved it to a Lower East Side property, where they’re baking for all the restaurants and nearly 20 wholesale accounts.
Down in the Financial District, the menu at Blue Ribbon Federal Grill shows off simple execution in dishes like kabocha squash ravioli, shishito tempura with malt vinegar, grilled shrimp and farro salad, and veal tongue sliders on challah bread.
The formula sounds quite similar to their menus of two decades ago. “Blue Ribbon Bakery seems to want to be all things to all people,” wrote Reichl.
“Federal Grill,” says Bruce, “is the culmination of a lot of years of kitchen learning.”