On March 18, one year and two days from the shutdown of New York City restaurants, chefs Ian Alvarez (formerly of Momofuku Noodle Bar and Bara) and Ryan Angulo (an owner of French Louie) will open Victor in Gowanus.
The restaurant, located in the space formerly occupied by Freek’s Mill at 285 Nevins Street, will serve a menu of Mediterranean dishes, many prepared in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven — think shishito peppers with squid ink romesco; smoked paprika prawns with almond aioli; a spiced half chicken with braised greens and charred lemon; roasted cauliflower with walnut harissa, lentils, crispy shallots and yogurt; a whole fish with preserved orange and sesame gremolata; and charred carrots with pistachio and sumac-aleppo honey.
General manager Dylan Wells, a former GM at French Louie who was most recently a sommelier at Le Crocodile, has curated a list of affordable, mostly natural and organic wines from the Mediterranean region, all available by the glass. Other beverages include hyper-local beers from Gowanus and the surrounding neighborhoods, and a menu of classic and modern cocktails including a section devoted to aperitifs.
The chef-owners have been collaborators on and off for over a decade, opening both Buttermilk Channel and French Louie together. They’d been talking about working on a project together when the Freek’s Mill space became available in 2019. But the realtor said the space was already under contract and had a waiting list a mile long when they looked at it. They went on their way.
Not surprisingly, given the pandemic’s toll on the restaurant industry, the space was never developed, and it became available again this past June. The broker reached out and the chefs went back to take a look. Outside on the sidewalk in the blazing July sun, the pair immediately began hatching a plan for what would become Victor. “We had been thinking of just a bar with simple food, but we realized pretty quickly that we are chefs, and who were we kidding. And this place screams proper dining room,” Angulo says.
The pair took over the space in September of 2020 and called on their friend Ben Schneider, an owner and designer of the Good Fork, Insa, and Gage & Tollner, to look at the space. Angulo added that “Ben came in and said ‘I’ll do it,’ which is what we were hoping he would say. We didn’t want anyone else.”
The space has a signature “Ben” ceiling, curved and slightly shiplike, and the restaurant has loads of his gorgeous glossy custom millwork. The overall feel is beachy mid century South of France, with a little 70s Miami tossed in for good measure.
The front room is airy and has a groovy vibe, with floor to ceiling glass windows, potted palms and elephant plants, a long and inviting curved bar, and white-washed brick, while the back room leans more warm and lush like an autumn forest, with moss-colored tufted banquettes, cane-backed chairs, deeply hued walls, raw exposed brick, and modern navy wallpaper etched with gold prisms. The restaurant’s corner facade, painted in cheerful pink, matches the playful exterior mural by local Bushwick artist Caty Wooley.
Opening during a pandemic presented its own challenges, said the chefs, who explained they could not take advantage of many of the loans and grants available to existing restaurants. But they did find some of the processes less cumbersome. “Our liquor license and permits were much easier to get. There was a lot less waiting time and red tape,” Alvarez says.
Otherwise, the chefs say it was nerves all the way. “It’s scary opening a restaurant in good times, but the pandemic throws a new wrench into things,” says Angulo, who is buoyed by the expansion of indoor dining to 50 percent on March 19th.
The pandemic did weigh into the formula to name the restaurant. “Victor” is not an old relative, but a moniker meant to convey a sense of identity and resilience. “We liked the idea of using a person’s name because it gives a sense of identity beyond all of us,” Alvarez says. “But it’s more than a name, it’s also a noun. Going through this, it was really important to have a positive word like Victor. It became our mantra. Every time I said the name to myself it made me feel like we could get through it.”