After traveling throughout Europe, chef Jeremy Salamon launched Fond in 2017, a series of pop-ups that focused on Hungarian cooking, with home-y recipes like wild mushroom goulash and stuffed cabbage, dishes not often highlighted in New York in recent memory. The success of the dinners caught the eye of his former boss Jason Soloway, the owner of the East Village’s the Eddy, who tapped then 24-year-old Salamon — who had worked at the likes of Buvette and Locanda Verde — to come back to the restaurant as the executive chef and revamp its menu with Hungarian flavors.
Though the Eddy has since shuttered, Salamon continues to be a leader in New York’s new wave of Eastern European cooking. These days, he’s in especially good company, with pop-ups like Dacha 46 taking a new, regional-look at the vast cuisine.
“Within the last five years, I feel like there’s been an exciting new era of chefs reimagining Eastern European flavors,” says Salamon. “But it still feels kind of rare.”
Now Salamon is stepping out on his own terms with his first-ever restaurant: Agi’s Counter, which opens at 818 Franklin Avenue, near Eastern Parkway, on Monday, November 8 in Crown Heights. The restaurant is named after Salamon’s Hungarian paternal grandmother of the same name and largely features reinterpretations of Hungarian and Austrian dishes he grew up with, with sprinklings of recipes that nod to his Jewish American heritage on his maternal side from his grandmother Arlene.
“Agi didn’t teach me how to cook, it was more about the culture and the language; the grandmother that feeds you until you’re full and even when you’re past full,” says Salamon. Arlene, meanwhile, taught Salamon how to bake cakes and properly hold a knife.
“I have a pretty close relationship with both of them. My Hungarian grandmother is 94 and to have that relationship with her is really special; Arlene and I talk once a week!”
When the 25-seat restaurant opens, it will only offer breakfast and lunch to start. The first week, the hours will run from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (starting the second week, the space will close at 5 p.m.). In the mornings, coffee and Hungarian and Austrian pastries such as the Ferdinand buns — coiled up like a sticky bun, or, “deflated sand castles,” as Salamon lovingly refers to them — as well as a cinnamon, coffee and walnut twist, will be available both for those who’d like to sit-down or order takeout. Other baked goods, like the gerbeaud — a Hungarian cookie cake made with yeasted shortbread, apricot jam, and chocolate ganache — are available all-day. The bakery menu (and the standout sandwich potato bread) is led by executive pastry chef Renee Hudson, whom Salamon met while working at Locanda Verde. Specials, such as an Austrian sacher-torte cake, will also make an appearance only on Fridays.
Two sandwiches will only be available in the mornings: the leberkase (an Austrian staple featuring a square of pork pate served with a fried egg garnished with pickled peppers, frisee, and a pear mostarda sitting between two fluffy slices of potato bread) as well as the pogacsa (a Hungarian-style biscuit sandwich with a fried egg, dill, alpine cheddar, and mayo).
Until 5 p.m., guests can order from the rest of the sandwiches and durans (Austrian open-faced sandwiches). “Durans are usually served with things like curly parsley or a tomato floral garnish. This is our more modern take on it,” says Salamon. One of the durans is the Ritzy Titzy, an open-faced poached chicken sandwich with blue cheese, pickled grapes, and herbs, that’s a play on a Waldorf salad. “My grandmother used to call fancy food or people ritzy-titzy,” says Salamon.
The rest of the menu is centered on veggie dishes — such as the beets with fermented honey — and larger plates. The Hungarian breakfast, for example, arrives with boiled ham, a chicken liver pate, six-minute deviled egg with paprika, pickles, spelt crackers, and more.
“I felt a lot of pressure at first to be the Hungarian Chef — that there was no middle ground. But as I worked through the menu, I didn’t want to just stay in that lane anymore,” says Salamon. “I am a gay Jewish man making Hungarian food; there are a lot of influences, but a Hungarian might come in and not recognize some things.”
More traditional, though, are the palacsinta, or rolled crepes, stuffed with fresh cheese, a glistening toasted caraway brown butter, with a poached pear and seasonal jam. “My grandmother used to make palacsinta all the time for me when I’d sleep over,” says Salamon. “I would always wake up to palacsinta and go to bed with palacsinta.”
Beyond coffee, Salamon serves a daytime shrub that’s called the Thumper, a riff on the Hungarian soda Bambi, that was indeed named after the movie. Upon opening, the team will also launch with a sour cherry and plum vinegar as well as a version with celery and lemon verbena — with rotating flavors to follow — that’s served table-side with an old-school seltzer bottle. “We’re going to see how that goes,” says Salamon with a laugh. “It might get messy.”
When the restaurant opens for dinner in the new year, Salamon’s plan is to keep things simple. The main entree on the nighttime menu will be schnitzel, or rantott hus as it’s called in Hungary. There will be around 13 different vegetable sides to choose from, as well as matchstick fries for mix-and-match opportunities. Once his liquor license comes through, Salamon plans to pair the dishes with a Hungarian wine list, a lesser-highlighted viticulture scene in New York.
As for the design, the charming interiors were meant to evoke being at a grandma’s house but “with a bit of a chef-y diner situation.” There are two luncheonette counters as well as banquette seating with tables in the back. Salamon and his designer, who also worked on the Eddy’s space, looked to the art deco work of Ilonka Karasz, a Hungarian-American textile designer and New Yorker cover illustrator. The most important detail of all is the family photos. While grandma Agi herself isn’t able to take a plane these days, grandma Arlene and the rest of his family will be dining at Agi’s Counter on opening night. But long after they leave, there will be photos of them hanging on the wall, including one of grandma Agi herself, taken at Salamon’s father’s bar mitzvah, watching over the restaurant.