When Galen Zamarra opened Mas (La Grillade) in 2011 as a follow-up to his now decade-old Mas (Farmhouse), he wanted to cook everything on his menu over a wood fire. Unfortunately, while the chef received plenty of critical accolades for his venture, the neighbors weren’t so pleased with the concept: “It created a lot of smoke, which was troublesome for the neighbors,” he says. “We installed all this equipment and were largely very successful with making smoke not an issue, but it killed the passion of the restaurant.”
There were other things the team wanted to fix, too, like quirks in the dining room and the kitchen setup. “I own the building there, so we’re staying there forever,” says Zamarra. “It’s to our benefit to make a concept work there.”
After toying with the idea to simply finesse La Grillade into something else, Zamarra decided to reinvent the concept altogether — he shuttered La Grillade earlier this year, and the address was reborn this week as Almanac (28 Seventh Avenue South).
For this restaurant, Zamarra drew inspiration from journals he’s kept for years to track the seasons. “If I go to a farmers’ market, we’ll jot down what we see,” he says. “I’ll record what looks good, what’s especially nice. But I might also write down what’s not there or what’s not nice — it’s not always just what’s in season.” The journals become a planning tool — he can see more clearly what’s coming into season and begin anticipating dishes, and it helps him track the changes in, say, beets, which he says taste different throughout the year, and therefore lend themselves to different preparations.
It also allows him to prepare his menus in a way that lets him use all local ingredients. And this, says the chef, really plays into his philosophy. “This is very important to me for a lot of different reasons,” he explains. “Quality-wise, if I want to find the best-quality food, I’m going to be getting it from these small farmers and producers producing their product for quality instead of quantity and money. That’s going to be the best vegetable and pork that I can get. I’m also very concerned with how we grow things. I have the philosophy that our food system is very broken. I can force people to take more responsible steps by serving that kind of food in my restaurant, and that has more effect than just eating it myself.”
Zamarra also wants Almanac to serve as an educational experience. “We’re very disconnected from our food system,” he says. “We don’t understand that certain things are only available at certain times of year. We’ve forgotten the importance of using the whole animal. At Almanac, we’re not just going nose-to-tail for pig, but we’re looking at nose-to-tail anything. Pumpkin, carrot. We want to be responsible and use all of the food.”
For his opening menu, Zamarra is working with a lot of squashes, and he’s putting out one dish that features many varieties of gourd. Dishes are also rich in apples, pears, carrots, sweet potatoes, and oysters. And, he says, “tuna is running locally off of Long Island right now,” which makes that a highlight of his menu.
Generally, each dish is named for the food that inspired it — so while that squash dish also features braised breast of lamb, it will be named for the gourds. “I’m drawing attention to exactly what’s really nice,” he says. “I’m trying to showcase it in some way, shape, and form.”
And it probably goes without saying that dishes will change frequently. “I don’t categorize this as four seasons,” says Zamarra. “Each item has its own season. Sometimes things change during the season. Like rhubarb. In the spring, it’s green and sour, and you can’t do the same sort of thing that you can later in the spring when it’s pink, red, and juicy. Or pumpkins. Right now, the pumpkins I get are being harvested today. The skin is tender, so it’s a big component of the dish. But the farmers will store them in cellars — this is one of the things we’ll have throughout the winter — but the skin gets tougher, and you don’t want it on the dish as much.” He’ll also change preparations to keep his menu interesting, especially in the winter months, when there aren’t many new ingredients coming into season.
Cocktails follow a similar vein, with seasonal produce making its way into many drinks. Wines are predominantly French and American, says Zamarra, but wine director Sarah Sutel is curating a global list that also follows a seasonal current. “She’s thinking, what’s a good wine that goes with the type of food on the menu now?” says the chef. “You drink rosés in the summer. In the winter, there are mushrooms and game on the menu, so she’s identifying wines that go well with that sort of thing.”
Almanac opened its doors last night; it’s currently serving dinner nightly.