09 June 2010

Keith McNally: People and Product

There has been a great deal of press coveraage lately about Keith McNally, the New York restauranteur of Balthazar fame and most recently, Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria. The most insightful, however, were not the food reviews, but his admission that people and product are his magic touch. And, he's right.

I have history with Keith McNally, and not the kind that you think. Mine began in 1995, as a college transfer to New York City. His Lucky Strike restaurant on Grand Street was my go-to eatery. It also served as the meeting place for a small Italian brand called Diesel, where the plan to take over America was hatched. While the grilled chicken and spinach side remained comfort food at Lucky Strike, Pravda was a cellar with a flavor for someplace else: Russia. It was, well, exotic and chic, to me.

Then, in 1996, a leather factory in Soho was being turned into what is now Balthazar Restaurant. There was still plenty of graffiti on its, and neighborhood store, doors, windows and building facades. But this "charm" came with being a pioneer. With a job in Tribeca, I found myself having business lunches at Odean and weekend brunches at Pastis in the Meatpacking District. Now, as one who seeks dependable over fashionable, I find myself taking turns between Balthazar and Minetta Tavern.

I did try Schillers Liquor Bar, but it was too loud for me. As were Morandi and Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria. The food at these outposts was just OK and the staff seemed a class different from those at his other marquee establishments. Maybe because they are skewed to a younger crowd? Or maybe two of them are Italian? Let's face it. McNally does French really well and should stick to it. As for the hip places, there is certainly a need and audience for them.

The reason for my returning to his restaurants comes down to exactly what Mr. McNally stands by. The staff is always attentive, acknowledges return clientele and just enjoys doing what they do - and being where they are. It's contagious. The food is consistent with previous meals. The decor is tasteful, casual and sophisticated. The energy is stimulating and fun, but this credit ultimately goes to McNally and his staff. When a business retains staff for more than ten years, and in the industry of food, it is a commendable accomplishment. A testament to good management and the engaged employee.

I've met Mr. McNally on several occasions and he was a gentleman each time. Humble, he clearly sees that his reputation is built on Everyman, not he chosen few. I have observed for years that every guest that passes through his doors is treated the same as the next.

The affair continues. One which doesn't disappoint, and one without obligations. I've learned that good people and good product eventually make all relationships work and last, including the cote de beouf for two at Minetta Tavern.

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