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New Restaurant: Porter House

A dream finally fulfilled for Michael Lomonaco

by Francine Cohen - photography by Diana DeLucia

Joel Robuchon

There’s a pleasing symmetry to the fact that in the same season the classic New York musical A Chorus Line returns to take its rightful place on Broadway, Chef Michael Lomonaco had reappeared onto the New York restaurant scene in the kitchen of his new restaurant Porter House New York. For the last five years Lomonaco’s main focus has been his work on the executive board of the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. He has also kept his cooking edge sharp by consulting on various restaurant projects and hosting “Epicurious” on The Travel Channel. But now that the $22 million raised by the foundation has mostly been distributed to families of 9/11 victims, and the balance of the money is earmarked as education funds for these families’ children, Lomonaco is ready to get back on the line full time. So, while the cast of the Broadway show were on their chorus line singing about one singular sensation, Chef Lomonaco, along with architect/designer Jeffrey Beers (Japonais, DB Bistro Moderne), created their own sensation; a dining room that overlooks Broadway, and whose ambiance softly envelops you like a favorite cashmere sweater. Guests immediately feel welcome as they are drawn in by the beacon of light coming through the large glass and wood frame doors set at the end of the fourth floor corridor at the Time Warner Center.

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Open barely a month, Porter House New York is already booked solid most nights, a testament to Lomonaco’s reputation with diners who enjoyed his cuisine at ’21’ and Windows on the World, as well as his appeal to his television viewers. It’s also a reflection of the vision he shares with Beers that dining rooms, while often viewed by chef owners as theater and a stage for the food, should focus on guest comfort. “There are places for tension and thrills,” Lomonaco explains. “A bar or a lounge, that sort of place is good for thrills, but not a restaurant. A restaurant has a different purpose; it should be warm, welcoming and comfortable.” Lomonaco’s philosophy carries through so strongly to the service and design of his new endeavor that many guests who revel in their dining experience feel compelled to make another reservation before they even leave the restaurant. You’ll hear no complaints from the chef about this phenomenon. “People are responding well to being here,” Lomonaco says. “You hope to create an environment they enjoy. It’s all about pleasure, and creating an opportunity to have a good time. I’ve had an opportunity to make this restaurant mean more to me than anything else I’ve done. It’s a pleasure for me, and I hope it’s a pleasure for my guests.”

Getting from initial inspiration to the actual opening was a pleasure for Lomonaco and Beers. The two connected immediately as they worked very hard together over the past year to realize Lomonaco’s vision of what his first restaurant would become. Lomonaco had a thorough business plan and a blueprint for his dreams which Beers turned into a reality. Lomonaco comments, “A business plan is a starting point to build your hopes and dreams on. I had a sense of what it should be like, for instance I had expressed my love of the West, but I didn’t want a Western place. What I always said was how I wanted it to feel and Jeffrey made it in 3D, he made it come to life.” Lomonaco looks around his contemporary restaurant, clad as it is in rich brown leathers, warm woods and earth tone fabrics. “It’s not sawdust on the floor, gruff sort of stereotypical steakhouse,” he says. “I meant it to be welcoming.”

And it is welcoming. The custom leather arm chairs at each table. The round tufted booths anchoring the dining room. The two-tops ringing the perimeter, and the wingback chairs in the bar. As everything came together, it became apparent that Beers was designing exactly what Lomonaco had imagined. “This stayed so true to Jeffrey’s original concept and the look that we had discussed,” the chef continued. “As a restaurateur I knew what he was saying. We “got” each other.”

“I enjoy kitchens and designing a restaurant inspires me; It’s all about people,” says Beers, who’s been in and around the restaurant industry since the age of 14. “You’re bringing them into an extension of your home. And that’s important to keep in the forefront. It’s not about a design statement, it’s about life. When I create a dining room I see them as host-driven and I pay a lot of attention to the cuisine and the operator/chef. Something struck me when I started designing restaurants, and I was most fascinated by Sirio Maccione and how he walked through a room like he wore it - like a suit. An owner of a restaurant – it’s like his home, or its like his clothes. It must feel comfortable. And it’s the owner’s restaurant. Through design you’ve got to marry the owner to the guest, while Michael is doing it through cuisine. Ultimately it’s about three things; wonderful cuisine, great minds that create that cuisine, and a great host, and if you put it all together you’ll have a terrific guest experience.”

If the packed dining room, and plans to open for lunch service, are any indication of success, Porter House New York is certainly poised to be the kind of restaurant that makes a positive impact on the city’s dining landscape. Although Lomonaco is enjoying his new role as chef/managing partner and taking one day at a time, he admits that he’s been waiting for years to be in this position. “I’ve been patiently waiting to find the right location,” he explains. “I spent several years looking for suitable space to build an American restaurant, and if I ever envisioned a spot, this is it. I wanted to have a New York contemporary restaurant and I knew I wanted a special location, in midtown in the heart of things. It took years. I couldn’t envision I’d be here in the Time Warner building, but the opportunity arose and it was the right one. I stand here every day and think this is a dream come true. I’m very happy to be here.”

It came true primarily because both Beers and Lomonaco had a long standing relationship with Kenneth A. Himmel, the President of Related Urban Development and the driving force behind the restaurant collection at The Time Warner Center. Related is the owner of Porter House New York, and Michael is the managing partner. Beers explained that Related’s first goal was to build a restaurant collection with only the highest standards. “I’ve known Ken for long time and Michael knows him too,” Beers said, “so when Related started looking for someone who would compliment the existing venues, they began talking to Michael, who presented a business plan that was well researched and focused through and through. He comes at this from a fresh, modern place with a lot of respect for the building.” Lomonaco adds some thoughts about joining the exclusive restaurant community in this new, somewhat controversial setting, “The Time Warner Center is a good neighbor. This mixed-use development has become a good neighbor to midtown and the West Side, and is a cornerstone of the neighborhood. It’s a marketplace, and in a marketplace there is always food. I think of it as a public square, a piazza like in Milano.” Beers agreed with Lomonaco’s reference to Milano, saying “You’re right, this is not a new idea. This is how a public square gets built in an urban area.”

Lomonaco sees his restaurant as a welcoming place that is not cost prohibitive, and as a unique and special addition to this small restaurant community. “I want to see great big eaters, relishing their food and wine,” Lomonaco said. “What I bring is a more open and accessible dining experience. It meant a lot to me to have a menu that appeals to a lot of people. When you take the pieces apart, Per Se is one of the world’s top five gastronomic destinations, Masa is one of the most revered and respected Japanese chefs, a Rande Gerber bar (Stone Rose) is fun, sexy and well run, and Gray Kunz is a super high talented, incredibly credentialed chef. I’ve known Gray for years, he cooks food I adore, and I’ve known Thomas 20 years too. So this was a great opportunity to become a part of it.”

Lomonaco spent all of 2006 in planning menus and concept development, and every experience a diner will have was considered, including the décor. Beers was faced with quite a professional challenge. He had to renovate around an existing room and accept those parameters, like existing windows and beams. Beers focused on using natural, earthy materials like stone, wood, and leather - he has an aversion to slick molded plastics - to create an intimate, multi-level dining experience. Lomonaco explains, “When we first started we decided it needed levels, movement and zones.” Beers continues, “Michael acknowledged that people come for different reasons, big dinners, special occasions, etc., so we should offer different ways of sitting in the restaurant; for example bar booths, communal tables, power booths in the center of the restaurant, a banquet that seats large groups, all seating arrangements that create a wonderful experience.” Lomonaco shares his impressions of Beers’ vision. “Jeffrey created a second level because he saw a wonderful opportunity in the high sill height to let whomever is sitting at the window appreciate being in New York and see the city, while the sightline of the restaurant will continue to be stimulated by who’s in the audience; the center of the room, or at a booth, which then becomes the center of attention.”

Creating just the right lighting took up a lot of Beers’ attention too. “Indirect lighting is important, as you want to light the stage and try to bring the guest in. The best of all light is candlelight; fire brings out warmth and automatically brings you back down to primary earth, balancing the busy lives we lead with simpler things.” Lomonaco loves the scaled down, uncluttered design. It dovetails perfectly with his approach to cooking. The chef points out the wood beamed ceilings and wagon wheel inspired light fixtures evoke the old west, and comments on the reference to the primal notion of campfires. “There’s fire, there’s food; you cook it. I focus on bringing in the best ingredients and preparing these fine ingredients simply. This is the food I’ve been cooking for 15 years. It took many months to source the right vendors, build the right relationships. It might seem like commerce but there is a relationship in that trade. I feel lucky we found people with high quality supply of high end beef. We’re going to get the best. In American cooking, for generations the key has been getting to the source. There’s a big connection to the source of supply. One thing that sets a restaurant apart from cooks at home is chain of supply. Then knowing what to do with it.”

Francine Cohen is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.



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