Got to give it to Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick, the trio behind a growing list of restaurants that polish and refine (sometimes re-invent) the Italian-American cuisine of their childhoods — including Carbone, Parm and Torrisi Italian Specialties. Their Major Food Group has expanded their empire at an incredible clip (including an opening in Hong Kong this summer), while maintaining a deafening buzz and praise from hard-headed critics and fickle downtown diners alike. The stakes are even higher (and the steaks even rawer) at the crew’s first non-Italian opening.
Dirty French, which opens Thursday, is located in the Ludlow Hotel and inspired by the trio’s travels to French-speaking regions of the world: France, obviously, but also New Orleans and Morocco. “A dirty French restaurant for us makes a lot of sense,” says Zalaznick over beers with us at the U.S. Open, where they're serving a mean Italian hero at the Heineken House. Carbone, also on hand, says to expect a more aggressive restaurant experience that leans more sweet and sour. This means dishes like frisée with duck giblets on a skewer and classic papillote and terrine preparations. And the bread? It’s hardly an all-baguette affair. “We found this incredible semolina Algerian flatbread in Paris and when we got back to New York, Rich started working on it,” recalls Zalaznick of the inspiration for one of the restaurant’s crepe-like bread options, which will arrive topped with tomato and yogurt. We also found out about their new opening in Hong Kong, and how the hell to get into the world's most-exclusive clam bar.
You guys are doing all sorts of projects, and now in multiple cities with the opening in Hong Kong. What is the grand vision?
MARIO: We do shit that gets us out of bed. Anything that’s cool, and fun, we’ll do it. I don’t think that there’s a big master plan, but [like here at the Heineken House,] the U.S. Open is a cool event, so let’s do it.
JEFF: Participating in things like this, it’s not part of some grand marketing plan. It’s really more so being involved with people and events and brands that we like. That makes sense with the restaurants we’re opening, and just make sense with Major Food Group of what we do.
Do you guys feel super happy about the way Carbone came out? You’ve certainly been making waves…
MARIO: We feel amazing about Carbone and I love going there every day. The vibe is awesome. But a lot of that I had nothing to do with. The people bring it every day. It’s the customers. [They] come in every day with high spirits, they get rowdy, enjoy the food. It’s that sort of fine dining. It’s fun dining.
Alright, on the spot, how do you get into ZZ’s Clam Bar? What’s the special handshake?
JEFF: You can call and make a reservation.
I’m sorry, just straight up, it’s a hard place to get into.
JEFF: It’s hard because there’s only 10 seats. So by the nature of –
Whatever. It’s fine. It’s small. Restaurants that are small are hard to get into.
MARIO: I think the easiest way is to just call the main line. Often enough, it’s easier than it seems. During service, if we don’t have enough reservations to fill it, we wind up housing a lot of Carbone people, so that’s why there’s a lot of stopping at the door. Because we don’t want anyone standing up, making it a rowdy bar. So we wind up having people pre-dinner at Carbone, filling the restaurant. If there’s any slots open for reservations.
JEFF: You can definitely make a reservation through the phone line. And the truth is, the thing is it’s a 10-seat bar, and we really run it as a 10-seat bar. There are only 10 spots because the truth is that it’s so small, that if people are standing around you or the door keeps opening and closing, it kinda kills the experience.
Is it actually a clam bar?
JEFF: Yes, it’s actually a clam bar by our definition. It’s a very fantastical version of what a clam bar could be. It’s primarily crudo, raw fish preparations, lots of different oysters, a bunch of different clams, clams are definitely present, but it’s kind of a take on a clam bar.
Alright. Let’s talk about the Dirty French!
JEFF: It’s opening this week.
And it’s your first departure from Italian food…
JEFF: This one we worked with Sean McPherson, who’s one of our partners and the owner of the hotel that it’s in. So we worked in collaboration with him to design the restaurant interior. We’ve always been a fan of his work so it was fun working with him on it. And we’re getting excited. The food is great, I think people are gonna respond really well to it.
Is there a chef behind it? Is it just you guys?
JEFF: Well, Rich has done most of the food and conceived most of it, he comes from a very –
MARIO: He’s the voice.
JEFF: He’s the French – he comes from a French background, so it made sense –
Right, Café Boulud.
JEFF: Yeah, Café. We always knew that we would do a French restaurant of some sort. And a dirty French restaurant for us makes a lot of sense.
So what defines dirty French?
JEFF: So I think dirty French to us, I often compare it to the concept of a dirty martini. It’s taking something that’s very classic and very pure like a Parisian bistro, and you’re infusing it with big, bold flavors. Which is a comparison to vodka being a very pure, clean spirit, and you’re hitting it with this briny, salty juicy liquid. What is created by adding these big bold flavors to classic dishes — because when you read the menu, it reads all classics.
MARIO: But this isn’t a Parisian’s bistro. It’s not that classic sensibility. It’s not soft and supple, it’s spiced, it’s aggressive, it’s high sweet/high sour.
JEFF: Edgy. Like a little gritty. It’s exactly that if that makes sense.
Tell us about the rotisserie, which is going to be a big part of the kitchen..
JEFF: It’s a classic gas, very old school French rotisserie. So a lot of it is just taking these classics and building the flavors on top of them. And rotisserie actually plays a pretty big role because Rich became very focused on this incredible technique, which has a way of combining ancient and old school cooking styles with more of a modernist style cooking, which is basically a way to use the rotisserie so that you get the intensity of the high heat, but by keeping it open, you can actually let things cook more on the barbecue style of low and slow.
MARIO: Because you love the skin of Peking duck, but do you love the meat? It’s killed.
What about the opening in Hong Kong? Did you just get an offer you couldn’t refuse?
JEFF: It was really more situational. We never really thought that – when we went to Hong Kong, we had no intention of opening a restaurant there. When we went there, we basically very quickly kind of fell in love with the city. It’s got this incredible energy that is somewhat similar to New York. And as a New Yorker, you feel that energy that you’re used to, it’s in a different way, but it’s there. It’s got a real soul, it’s got a great vibe to it. And we all fell in love with the city as a place, and we were lucky enough to meet some people there, restaurateurs, that we ended up becoming friendly with, and were fans of what they were doing. And we didn’t want to do a restaurant there without having solid people on the ground there.
MARIO: We weren’t in Hong Kong searching for partners. It just happened.
Does it translate? Are the people in Hong Kong going to like garlic bread?
MARIO: A big part of the reason why I think it translates is movies and TV. I think that people walk in who have never been to New York before and they’re like, “Oh. it feels like New York!” Well, they’ve never been to New York. They’re like no, but it feels like New York! There’s a nostalgic vibe to it that you’re like oh, I get it, you know?
JEFF: We didn’t even realize it: a large similarity between the way we do service at Carbone and kind of old school Italian service, and old school Cantonese service. They bring stuff right to the table, family style, so there’s a lot of – while they’re not used to New York style Italian food they seem to be responding well to that. They are used to a lot of the cadences that we purposefully put in Carbone. They only order for the table.
MARIO: You don’t order for yourself in Chinese culture. You order for the table.
JEFF: So they took to that even quicker than New Yorkers. So that worked out.