Although Andy Warhol’s culinary proclivities were limited to pop art paintings of bananas and Campbell’s soup, his presence, among other artists like Keith Haring, are as essential to Jue Lan Club (49 West 20th Street; 646-524-7409) as its dim sum menu. As its decor and artwork make clear, the new restaurant housed within the former Limelight nightclub (from the team of executive chef/partner Oscar Toro and partner Stratis Morfogen) aims to reacquaint New Yorkers with an iconic space, as well as tempt them with edgy, modern Chinese cuisine.
“As a restaurateur, as a passionate hospitality entrepreneur, it’s once-in-a-lifetime that you get an iconic property in this location,“ Morfogen tells the Voice. Morfogen’s experience in building notable global restaurant brands such as Philippe Chow has taught him what to look for in a space. “Limelight just gave me everything,” Morfogen says. The movement to create restaurants with a notable scene is a firmly established one, which is why the building’s long history as a music venue lent itself to a rebirth.
Many of the original elements of the former church, which was built in the 1840’s, were left untouched, including the stained glass windows and exposed brick walls. While other concepts have opened and closed in parts of the building since Limelight closed its doors in 2007, the area Jue Lan Club now occupies had been left empty. There are multiple private rooms — including what was once Limelight owner Peter Gatien’s office – that are ideal for intimate group parties.
Morfogen and Toro decided that a modern Chinese menu would be perfect for the mix of art, cocktails, and fun that they were trying to create. After all, it’s hard to find the energy to stay out for a night on the town after diving into a bowl of pasta or plowing through a meal of deep fried chicken.
“Asian food in general compliments alcohol. That’s the key here. This is all about cocktails and light food,” Morfogen says. Toro, whose experience includes SushiSamba and Buddakan, is focused on showcasing a range of Chinese dishes, with a menu divided into raw, dim sum and noodle sections, as well as main courses such as filet mignon and a Peking-style duck.
“The one thing I wanted to do to distinguish ourselves from the pack was to be the first to do Chinese raw,” Morfogen explains. “It’s being done in Shanghai, and I haven’t found one restaurant in America doing it.” What does that look like? Think raw salmon with Chinese mustard, celery and blood orange vinaigrette and East coast oysters with longon and ginger-rice vinaigrette for starters.
Dim sum (which will also appear in weekend brunch) includes bone marrow and prawn dumplings; filet mignon with taro fries, tea smoked chicken, and salt and pepper lobster for two. Cocktails include a mix of classics like mai tais and corpse revivers, and new-school drinks like a grape crush made with lavender syrup, garnished with frozen grapes.
Jue Lan translates to “determination to create change.” That idea seeks to validate the concept of restaurants evolving to serve as all-in-one entertainment destinations. It also takes a page from Morfogen’s career: “Food and service to me are my new club kids — those are my promoters.”