Inside August, the Upper East Side Reinvention of a Bleecker Street Bistro
All photos by Adam Robb for the Village Voice
As Bleecker Street overgrows with tertiary outposts of Upper East Side boutiques, it's again in fashion for cozy walk-in bistros and classic French cooking to thrive north of Bloomingdale's, as at the latest iteration of chef Josh Eden's August (791 Lexington Avenue, 212-935-1433). After the rustic West Village stalwart was forced to abandon its wood-fired oven thanks to a major rent increase last June, Eden's partner Richard Chapman ushered the restaurant to the former Pane e Vino space around the corner from his uptown apartment.
Like Chapman's other investments, including Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant group and the Num Pang sandwich shops, August 2.0 knows what a neighborhood wants. Just don't call roasted chicken smothered in carrots and mushrooms, gnocchi in brown butter, or a nourishing bowl of Jerusalem artichoke soup "comfort food."
"I think 'comfort food' is a difficult term; I feel the same way about 'comfort food' as 'molecular gastronomy,' " Eden says. "I think the general perception of comfort food is there's a little bit of homeliness to it. What we're doing here, I'd call it refined American cuisine. Nothing was more simple than the roast chicken dish I did for ten years, with mashed potatoes and green beans, but I think it was sophisticated." Eden labels the ethos "homey but not homely," and it's his way of putting a mark on the dishes his uptown customers demand.
"I learned from Jean-Georges many years ago: You cook for your customers, you don't cook for yourself. I take that to heart," Eden says. "There may be something on the menu my peers think isn't that interesting, but it's about the customer. They're paying the bills."
Still, to balance a popular charred caesar salad and as elegant a fried-egg-topped turkey reuben as you'd expect uptown, the newly expanded menu gives room for experimentation, including winter-weight starters like cauliflower risotto enriched by white chocolate and caviar. There are also barrel-aged cocktails up front, on display behind a gleaming Carrara marble bar destined to be an aperitivo scene come spring.
"We get frustrated with dishes just like customers get frustrated with dishes," says Eden. "It's just as important for cooks and chefs to be changing different things. Certain things — the mussels and chicken — will never change, and some things will come back seasonally."
That includes familiar faces. "Most of the staff came with me, and some are being added as time goes on," says the chef. "We placed people at restaurants [during the closure], and you don't want them to up and leave people hanging, so we tried to do the right thing. We'll always have a home for people who circle back." The same goes for his loyal customers willing to make the journey uptown.
Follow Adam Robb on Twitter, @lifevicarious.
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