New Jersey native Roger Llanes, who externed behind the burners at Eleven Madison Park, then worked at BLT Prime, and spent 18 months running a restaurant out in California before he decided to move back to the East Coast. “I wasn’t getting enough out of it,” he explains. “It was my restaurant, and it was cool, but didn’t work out for me.”
After scrapping plans to cross the Atlantic Ocean–“I thought about going overseas to Europe to cook for awhile,” he says–he responded to an ad on Craigslist and landed his position at Sons of Essex. “I met with the partners, and we had a great casual interview. It felt like the right fit, and what they were looking for was the same as what I provided when I went in to do my tasting: upscale comfort food, nothing pretentious, no silly garnishes; just good neighborhood food. I still have a fine dining mentality when it comes to ingredients and sourcing key ingredients, but the plate shouldn’t look like art. It should look like food.”
He jumped on board, creating a menu that’s “not bar food, but there aren’t going to be 16 or 17 components on every dish, either. But food will be expertly sourced and technique-driven. We’re going to pay extremely close attention to every ingredient that comes through the door.”
It will also be seasonal. “When I came on board, they had short ribs on the menu all year round,” he says. “No one’s going to order short ribs in the summer.” So he’s switching that out for items like the tuna tostada, a crispy flat wonton layered with tuna tartar, yuzu guacamole, and pacu fish ribs. “Pacu is part of the piranha family, and they’re huge,” Llanes explains. “So we can get actual fish ribs, and you pull the meat out with your teeth. They’re really cool to eat and really tasty. They’ll be on the menu in two to three weeks.” He’ll also do the obligatory burger made from a blend of dry-aged prime rib, filet, hanger steak and brisket.
Come fall, Llanes will work in some family dishes, an homage to parents who’ve always experimented in the kitchen. He cites in particular a nacatamale, a Nicaraguan specialty that’s “like a tamale but instead of masa, there’s potato purée with lard,” the chef explains. “So the women will probably love them.”
See his changes go into effect over the next few weeks.