Nicholas Morgenstern, who opened Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream last spring, says that he isn’t in the rock-star class of chefs (i.e., the McNallys, Changs, Carmenellis) that dominates the New York City dining scene. But his skinny jeans, cherry-red motorcycle, and internationally popular ice cream parlor suggest that he is at least on his way. Especially when the ice cream parlor has become successful enough to command long lines of tourists and locals alike, who descend upon the shop for scoops of durian fruit and Szechuan peppercorn chocolate ice cream. “It’s like Katz’s or something,” he says.
But before Morgenstern’s, the chef had Goat Town, which he’s retooling into GG’s (511 East 5th Street) and reopening later this week. “This restaurant keeps my feet on the ground,” he says. “This neighborhood is very real.”
Morgenstern has grown to know this pocket of the East Village and its inhabitants well. During our interview, he directs construction workers, who are building benches in a gutted dining room; talks with an elderly neighbor named Eddy about the best place to park a van filled with building materials; and is approached by a sink salesman from down the street. He manages each with a seasoned managerial air that implies nothing can surprise him.
It was a similar managerial impulse that led him to close Goat Town — he thought doing so would allow him to better lead his team. “The Goat Town concept was built for Joel Huff, but he left, and it was hard for me to realize that,” he says.
So GG’s will channel a more informal and classic vibe than Goat Town, which received criticism for feeling too stuffy. The behind-the-pass concept is different entirely; the GG’s ship is to be helmed by chef and co-owner Bobby Hellen, who will use a monstrous deck oven to crank out baked pastas (think pea-stuffed agnolotti with sofrito, sorrel, and crispy lamb) and pizzas with toppings like littleneck clams, house-made morcilla, and lamb chorizo. “Bobby has an interesting way with that oven,” Morgenstern says. “He’ll make a pizza product that you won’t see.”
In keeping with the relaxed attitude, GG’s will offer a cocktail list built around sessions, these low-alcohol drinks meant to be sipped over the course of an evening rather than thrown back before the main event like a traditional pre-dinner tipple. GG’s will also serve breakfast and lunch seven days a week — look for items like pasta carbonara topped with an oven-baked egg and a BLT with an avocado vinaigrette — and will provide delivery to the neighborhood.
Most of all, Morgenstern wants to create a relaxed spot for the folks from his adopted neighborhood to enjoy a meal. Standing in the backyard garden, a carry-over from Goat Town that will continue to provide produce for the menu, he says, “In Manhattan, you won’t survive on hype.”