Kisses On Opening Night at Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art
“Truer than ever: a restaurant is never as hot as it is the day before it opens! Now: on to being good!”
—Danny Meyer‘s last Tweet before Untitled opened its doors at the Whitney Museum (May 1, 2015)
As observers and chroniclers of the American restaurant scene for more than 20 years now, we can think of few — if any — people from whom we’ve learned more about what makes a great restaurant great than Danny Meyer.
His final Tweet as his Union Square Hospitality Group creation Untitled opened its doors Friday night at the Whitney Museum speaks volumes about his wisdom and humility just as his newest restaurant was being named on Grub Street as the #1 “most talked-about, must-visit” restaurant in New York City.
While dining at Untitled on its — and the new downtown Whitney Museum’s — opening night, we were studying the secrets of how the USHG team works its magic.
None of them are truly secret to the observant and well-read, of course. Meyer’s characteristic generosity led him to share hundreds of pages of his greatest tips on providing the level of hospitality that wins respect from colleagues and guests alike in his bestselling book Setting the Table, now a restaurant-world classic.
Part of the secret — which Meyer shares in our own book DINING OUT: Secrets from America’s Leading Critics, Chefs and Restaurateurs — is hiring the right people:
“Selection is 80 percent of the game, training is 15 percent, and managing is probably 5 percent. The basis for success in this business is great hospitality. But the basis for being able to deliver great hospitality are an employee’s emotional strengths, that which we could not teach them if we had all 20 years of our lease….Prospective employees should be 1) extremely nice, 2) intelligent, 3) infused with an extraordinary work ethic, 4) empathetic, and 5) emotionally self-aware. When one of these five characteristics is absent, that person is probably going to be unable to provide the kind of hospitality we are looking for.”
—Danny Meyer, in DINING OUT
Meyer and his USHG partner Richard Coraine have long had a gift for attracting some of the very best and brightest — not to mention the warmest and most present — professionals in the business.
At Untitled, executive chef Michael Anthony — one of five finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s 2015 Outstanding Chef Award, which will be announced tomorrow night in Chicago — does what he’s long done best everywhere from Blue Hill to Gramercy Tavern: celebrate vegetables, elevating them from side dishes to rightful stars of their own plates. His trusted Gramercy Tavern compatriot Suzanne Cupps takes her own star turn as Untitled’s Chef de Cuisine, and appears to have picked up Mike’s magic touch. At Untitled, irresistible snacks like shaved chips and dip (pictured above) and lightly cured vegetables are gently priced from $7-12. Small plates (from carrots with chili and peanuts to spring onion flatbread) run $9-15, while entrees are $23-27. We happily made a meal of our small plates, the highlight of which was the deliciously earthy cauliflower, curry and crushed black sesame, satisfying enough to fulfill the role of an entree.
The USHG team also includes two of our favorite sommeliers — John Ragan (ex-Eleven Madison Park and Campton Place) and Sabato Sagaria (ex-Inn at Little Washington and Inn at Little Nell) — both of whom we interviewed for our 2011 book THE FOOD LOVER’S GUIDE TO WINE and both of whom have since gone on to earn the coveted and hard-won title of Master Sommelier. Untitled’s beverage director Eduardo Porto Carreiro (an alum of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud) immediately won our hearts with the Mary Poppins analogy he used to characterize our bottle of wine.
Across the board, service at Untitled is vintage USHG. Case in point: The happy occasion of sipping Madeira at the end of dinner led to our offhand comment to Sabato Sagaria that all we were missing were Hershey Kisses — an insider reference to his collegiate fondness for the pairing, as shared on page 267 of our book THE FOOD LOVER’S GUIDE TO WINE:
“While I was in college at Cornell, I was a teaching assistant for a wine course; I got paid $5.50 an hour and got to bring home two wines. One day, they sent me home with a bottle of Bual Madeira, and my mom had just sent me a care package for exams that had some Hershey Kisses with almonds in them. So I was studying late, and popped some Kisses while sipping my Madeira. That pairing is what turned me on to Madeira!”
—Sabato Sagaria, MS, in THE FOOD LOVER’S GUIDE TO WINE
What seemed to us to be mere moments later, we were stunned when a plate of Hershey Kisses was placed on our table so that we could enjoy the pairing! (No idea how on earth they procured some so quickly!) This was another a classic USHG “+1” case study in proactively seizing opportunities to make diners’ experiences even more pleasurable and memorable whenever possible. Mission accomplished!
During opening night with a roomful of heavy-hitters (like the Whitney Museum’s own director Adam Weinberg, who was seated with guests at a window table) and curiosity-seekers alike, to our palates the kitchen service seemed virtually flawless. But a few times during the course of the evening, the lighting flickered back and forth from dim to bright, as the staff strove to get the ambiance just right.
Because that’s what opening nights — not to mention USHG’s quality-obsessed team members — are all about. Other top restaurateurs might use opening night as a time to celebrate. However, it’s very telling that Richard Coraine mentioned to Andrew that he and Meyer were headed out for their usual restaurant opening-night ritual: sitting down over a cup of coffee and making lists of everything they still wanted to tweak.
We’d have loved to be flies on the wall to overhear that conversation, given how polished we found the restaurant on May 1st. Untitled is already very, very, very good. So apparently now: it’s on to being great!
P.S. Is it any wonder that such a magical night (on the heels of a magical day) ended up inspiring one of Andrew’s most magical photographs ever from the window of our taxi on the ride home from Untitled?
Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art is on the first floor of 99 Gansevoort Street between Washington and West. Website: untitledatthewhitney.com
StudioCafe at the Whitney Museum of American Art is on the 8th floor of 99 Gansevoort Street between Washington and West. Website: untitledatthewhitney.com/page/studiocafe