In the culinary world, you seldom get a second chance. Take professional restaurant reviews for example, a bad New York Times review usually dooms a restaurant, few survive long enough to warrant another look. Diners are just as unforgiving. One bad meal and you’re unlikely to give it another try with your hard earned dollars. New restaurants are opening every week, new culinary talents are finding new stages to showcase their craft, we simply don’t have the attention span to look back.
Why then do some restaurants bother to re-structure, or shake up the kitchen staff and team? It’s unlikely that a chef change will warrant another look by professional critics, and the average diner doesn’t follow Eater.com closely to know that CO-OP Food and Drink got a new chef. Well, now you know.
My first visit to CO-OP was shortly after it first opened in 2011. I was invited to an event as an “influencer”, and the day was really more about drinking than eating. The highlight of the night wasn’t anything food related, but the arrival of a RHONY. That’s housewife if you didn’t know. I hope you didn’t.
The restaurant itself seemed like too many ideas forced upon one another. The front of the house looked like a hotel lobby, the middle a bar, the back a restaurant, and the bathroom a club. In the middle of all this was a sushi bar. There was also velvet rope surrounding certain tables for the RHONY to dine in peace.
Fast forward almost two years, an email shows up in my inbox about a new menu at CO-OP. There were no mentions of housewives, and on it was the name of a new chef that I recognized: James London. While not a household name yet on the culinary scene, Chef London ran the kitchen in the early days of Niko, and I was thoroughly impressed by his cooking. Since the demise of Niko, I’ve been trying to find out where Chef London and Chef Satawari went. Is he ready to headline his own restaurant?
Arriving at CO-OP, the space looked exactly the same as before. If it wasn’t for the email, I wouldn’t have given this place a second look. Everything however was slightly more toned down, gone were the velvet ropes, freeing up valuable dining tables for people who are here for the food and drinks.
The menu is a blend of American, Japanese and French, a good reflection of Chef London’s background. Since I was such a fan of what Chef London did with fish at Niko, I started the meal with hamachi crudo topped with red beets, kanzuri (a reddish version of yuzu kosho), and tobiko (flying fish roe). This together with the miso tuna tataki, while not the most original, were solid executions of fresh sashimi style seafood.
Seeing that the sushi menu is dominated by rolls, I reluctantly ordered 4 pieces of nigiri sushi, thinking that that traditionalist in me was going to detest the fusion elements. To my complete amazement, the quality of the sushi matches that of Niko or Sushi of Gari. The rice and cut of fish all showed influences of Hiro Satawari, who himself is trained under the venerable Yasuda.
As we move into cooked dishes, the soy burnt octopus was another winner. Having tasted quite a few good octopus dishes recently, I was very impressed by how tender the dish was, and the aggressive seasoning to bring the palate an added dimension to the charring.
Finally, I ordered the crispy pork belly with miso butterscotch and apple mignonette. Miso aside, it seemed much more like what a chef from South Carolina would cook. While pork belly isn’t the most difficult protein to tackle, it was a satisfying way to end the savory portion of the meal.
Actually more savory pork made another appearance, this time as bacon on the cheesecake.
If there was ever a “comeback restaurant of the year”, this is it. As a humble food blogger, I’m urging the mainstream critics to give this place another taste. You just might come out impressed.
What does this rating mean?
From the Notebook: The meal was complimentary, though it did not affect my opinion. Chef London told many stories of his days at Niko, which I’ll share after I visit Sen in the West Village, which was where Hiro-san apparently ended up. Pretty photos are obviously press shots, mine is dark and grainy.
CO-OP Food & Drink
107 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002