Saul Bolton has been in Brooklyn for more than a decade. His eponymous Smith Street restaurant is one of only three establishments in the borough to be awarded a precious Michelin star. Now, like so many a Michelin-starred chefs these days, he’s going downscale with the “opening really soon” Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights (570 Vanderbilt Street). And, if all goes well with that, he plans to open two more restaurants next year.
Is this a bad time?
I was just making ricotta. I’ve never made it before. It’s so freakin’ easy! I’m totally putting this on the menu [at The Vanderbilt]… A 1/4-moon section of squash on a plancha, sort of caramelized with ricotta and lemon confit, pine nuts, and currants. And just a good really good honey drizzled over top with some fresh herbage. Maybe some lemon thyme or sage. I’m just developing the recipes [for The Vanderbilt] now. We were supposed to open way earlier so I was working on a summer menu, but now it’s a fall menu.
What’s your vision for The Vanderbilt?
Well, it’s not just my vision. It’s mine and Ben’s (Daitz, of Num Pang Sandwich Shop), who I’ve worked with at Saul for two years, and my wife, Lisa’s. [The Vanderbilt space] was a shell when we got it. The vision for the design was a lot of reclaimed wood, old brick, marble, high ceilings, an open kitchen, and a better sound system than at Saul. We’ll have small plates, and more substantial things like charcuterie, which is so de rigueur these days. I’ve always made my own sausage. Now, I have a smoker so I can make things like jadgwurst (pronounced jagerwurst), which is like kielbasa. The price point will be fantastic. Also, another thing that is de rigueur: Brussels sprouts. Everyone is doing them. David Chang, everyone.
Speaking of de rigueur, it seems like every Michelin-starred chef is opening a downscale restaurant these days.
Well, when you say “Michelin-starred chef,” you mean guys like Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud. I’m not in that world at all. Those guys are huge juggernauts. We’re a mom-and-pop shop… not corporate in any way. Daniel Boulud and other Michelin whatnots, they’re always doing fine stuff. They’re on a plane that’s, like, wow. But for me, it’s not a stretch… not having linens, flowers, and the fancy china, and the milk-fed lamb chop. Sure, it’s a reflection of the economy, but it’s also a reflection of what every little piggy that cooks wants to do. It’s the same ingredients, but in a kitchen that’s fun.
Your relationship with Brooklyn goes way back, is that right?
Hell, yeah! I’ve lived in Brooklyn longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life. In the past 10 years, the number of choices and the quality of places has grown. The customer base has always been here, but now it’s expanded with so many people coming here, even from Manhattan, to go to places like Stinky or Blue Ribbon for late night. The Vanderbilt will be late night, too.
You’re developing a serious cocktail program. Are you into the whole retro cocktail culture?
I’ve never been a typical chef who goes out a ton. I have two boys and a house. But I’ve been to some of these cocktail lounges, like Clover Club. And I love watching these guys — their mise en place, so to speak. They have to have the right ice, fresh fruit, the right temperature of the glass. They’re like cooks, but they also have to interact with the customer. It blows my mind.
How does a Michelin star change the life of a restaurant?
It’s a romantic fantasy, in a way. Romantically, I like it. Did it affect us business-wise? Sure. The business went up, like, 25 percent. But, in terms of pressure to produce, not really. We’re a chef-owner place, so we’re not going to change our personality. We season well, cook things at the right temperature. Michelin recognized that. When the big Michelin guy came by, he said, “Do what you do and be confident. Don’t be afraid to just cook.” That’s what we did anyway. When Michelin came to the U.S., it got whacked. People thought it was too French, too pretentious. I think it’s cool [that we got a star], but I don’t obsess over it.
What else are you working on?
If things go well with The Vanderbilt, we’re going to open two more places next year. We’ve been fixating on an Italian place. Very simple, well done Italian food. And we’ve also been thinking of — and we don’t have many of these in Prospect Lefferts, where I live — a pizza place. Pitchers of beer, cheesy red-and-white tablecloths. Simple pies.
So, you’ll be staying in the neighborhood?
Probably. But Manhattan is not out of the question.