Chipotle has its brick-sized burritos. Shake Shack has its gorgeously griddled burgers. Fuku has its habanero fried-chicken sandwiches. This level of specialization is the simple paradise — some might say pandemic — of fast casual, the prevailing term for narrowly focused, slick-designed, fast-food spots popping up in locations that might’ve otherwise housed a slice joint or any other establishment that would make New York feel less like the high-end, shopping mall food court that it’s slowly becoming.
Made Nice in Flatiron, the first fast-casual spot from the crew behind Eleven Madison Park, the so-called World’s Best restaurant, dares to be less straightforward and a bit more conceptual. Instead of hedging bets on a signature dish or two, owners Will Guidara and Daniel Humm are serving a broad and somewhat bland American menu focused on trickle-down gastronomy: reinterpreting multicomponent preparations from the fancier flagship and repackaging them into salads topped with meat or fish and vegetables, served on curved-cem, compostable dishes.
Or put more simply, Made Nice is the result of two of the world’s most heralded restaurateurs trying to translate their singular culinary vision and telepathic hospitality into a waiter-free venue that sells what are essentially ambitious lunch bowls. It is about as unexciting as it sounds.
The generic rectangle of a space, with off-white interiors and pop art murals, is about as inspiring as a Banana Republic. A cashier takes your cashless order on an iPad, and a counter worker hands you a shallow bowl holding a square of confit pork. The swine sits above a layer of chorizo and wheatberries under a canopy of watercress, pesto, and corn.
This naturalistic style of plating, where chefs hide their proteins underneath foliage, is common at Estela and other spendier venues, but unheard of at spots where you pay before you eat. Yet the plating makes sense, because chef Danny DiStefano is riffing on an Eleven Madison Park classic, slow-cooked swine topped with its own crispy skin. It’s a dish that has made its way to sister spot The NoMad, where it sells for $41, and now it’s available at Made Nice in a preparation that boasts an impressive degree of visual panache for just $15.
Once you have your food, you look for a table. Sometimes there isn’t one. Sometimes other patrons are saving seats. When you do sit down, you’ll discover the pork is a reasonably tasty dish. It yields to the weight of a (disposable plastic) fork with little resistance; the chorizo-toasted wheat berries sport the snappy texture like al dente pasta, while the pesto cuts through the porcine fats.
But fans of Humm’s fancier venues, or those who only dream of spending $1,000 for two at Eleven Madison, might wonder why this preparation lacks the crispy skin of the original. They might ask why the dish isn’t as juicy as it could be, why the chorizo lacks the sausage’s typically powerful smoke and fat, or why a single a single cube of bread adds $2 to the bill at Made Nice. (The bread, incidentally, is darn good: a garlicky Parker House roll topped with a coffee-cake like streusel of parmesan.)
Restaurateurs usually navigate around the dilemma of downmarket dishes by making sure their casual outlets are significantly different from posh ones: No one would sample a Dave Chang Fuku sandwich and deem it a cheaper version of his $150 fried chicken platter. Humm and Guidara, by contrast, aren’t shying away from origin stories of individual dishes. When you sample the $22 chicken stuffed with lemon-parmesan breadcrumbs, you know you’re eating a dialed-back version of the $91 foie gras and black truffle stuffed chicken at The NoMad; the unremarkable meat makes you long for something more succulent out of a Gristedes rotisserie.
Every dish at Made Nice supposedly has origins elsewhere in the empire, though I can’t quite pin down the story of braised chicken thigh over mushy rice, oversalted cod over chickpea puree, or any type of leafy salad whose dressings lack the bright acidity that’s so characteristic of contemporary cooking. The greens taste flat.
Some dishes actually work better at Made Nice than they did at Eleven Madison. The chicken veloute, the texture of liquid silk, packs a salty, concentrated punch of poultry that builds with every sip; at Eleven Madison, it was such a sake shot-sized amuse. While curried cauliflower with tofu and raisins doesn't have the same depth of flavor as the one Humm once put on a tasting menu years ago, I can't complain because I haven't seen the dish offered since.
I’ll even argue Humm’s most famous Eleven Madison dessert, liquid nitrogen-frozen milk ice filled with honey, shines more at Made Nice, where it takes the form of sea salt-spiked soft serve topped with honey brittle, and where it does what an ice cream sundae is meant to do: sate and indulge at a fair price, rather than tease at a high one.
Those who frequented Eleven Madison — currently under renovation and set to reopen this fall — are likely familiar with misses at that restaurant too. But even if some dishes didn’t wow, a visit felt personal: a four-star meal tailor-made just for you, the result of the restaurant’s highly trained staff, whose approach to service could feel as magical as a David Copperfield stunt. Few presumably want that level of coddling at a fast-casual spot: A manager need not read a patron’s LinkedIn profile before he picks up a salad. And the service I received at Made Nice has always been very, well, serviceable.
But a restaurant group so synonymous with hospitality that Guidara co-hosts an annual conference about the subject would be well served to make Made Nice feel warmer and more welcome than an average counter-service spot. It doesn’t. And so when more and more operators look toward waitstaff-free restaurants in our era of high labor costs, I start to wonder whether the magic of hospitality will start to disappear from dining rooms, and whether venues like Made Nice serving reasonably distinctive food will start to feel like that proverbial high-end shopping mall food court.