Peter Webster | February 01, 2012
Even in New York, the breeding ground of hyphenate overachievers, Miguel Sanchez Romera is undoubtedly unique. Until last June, he was the chef-owner of L'Esguard, a Michelin-starred restaurant outside Barcelona, Spain—moonlighting there for 15 years while holding down a day job as head of neurology at a neighboring hospital. The singular cuisine developed by the self-taught Romera is thoroughly informed by his understanding of brain science. Eating, he believes, is as much a matter of the mind, memory, and emotions as of the sense organs. He even coined a term for his theory: neuro-gastronomy. Brightly colorful, highly nutritious, and intriguingly quirky, his innovative dishes are as hard to characterize as they are ravishing to look at and delicious to eat.
Romera's food so impressed Sant Chatwal, CEO of Hampshire Hotels & Resorts, that he persuaded the Argentine-born chef-neurologist to shutter L'Esguard and open Romera New York in the basement of the Dream Downtown hotel, the latest Hampshire property. The two men further agreed that Glen & Company's Glen Coben, whose local restaurant interiors include Riingo in the Alex Hotel, had the right sensibility to complement Romera's high-concept cuisine. "I spent a week with Miguel at L'Esguard, which was in a 17th-century building. Eating there was like being a guest in someone's home," Coben begins. "We took some of the elements of that dinner-party feeling, of being transported to a private world, and reformulated them here."
A carefully planned journey away from the hustle of the street begins with descending a staircase like a ship's companionway. Past a group of museum-style vitrines is an intimate library-the restaurant may be 5,000 square feet, but it has no bar, per se. The library, where guests can relax with a predinner drink while perusing the chef's cookbooks lining the shelves, is the last stop before entering the hushed serenity of the 48-seat dining room.
The descent into calm and remove is a gradual immersion in the world of the soft-spoken neurologist-chef, who furthermore studied fine art on the side. Artistic photographs of signature dishes hang in the stairwell, suspended on a system of pulleys and counterweights that introduces the motif of science and technology. At the foot of the stairs, a vitrine contains objects of personal significance to Romera: a porcelain phrenology head, a stethoscope, Japanese paintbrushes. Around the corner is a laboratorylike office where, against the white-tiled walls, shelves display jars containing spices and vegetable powders in every shade of the rainbow.
"Just as Miguel has done in his life, the restaurant brings together the realms of cooking, medicine, and art," Coben explains. The juxtapositions reach a climax in the dining room, where the circular pendant fixtures above every table evoke surgical lights in an operating theater. But these fixtures' role is atmospheric, not clinical. Dimmed until the first course is brought to the table, the halogens then power up to throw a spot on each place setting. The effect is both intimate and dramatic, focusing attention on the artful food while creating animated reflections off the gleaming flatware, gold-banded china, and sparkling crystal. Keen-eyed diners who look upward will notice small butterfly decals dotting the pendant fixtures themselves. For Romera, these decorative insects, which change seasonally, are culinary symbols: "They're multicolored, fragile, and short-lived, just like the delicate flavors and subtle aromas in good cooking."
The butterflies and the food are the only sources of bright color in the dining room, which has a palette ranging from the tawny tone of the white-oak floor to the chrome of more vitrines, acting as serving stations, and the off-white of the open-weave curtains. Fishermen's nets that Coben saw in Barcelona's celebrated Boqueria market inspired the curtains, which snake around the tables. Beyond the curtains, a dash of green is supplied by herbs in oak planters, again suspended on pulleys and counterweights. The plaster walls are white, a nod to the hospital where Romero used to work, but they're saved from looking antiseptic by an all-over bas-relief of ivy vines, an homage to the abundant vegetation at L'Esguard.
Coben did use stronger color in the library, where food is not served. Pale green leather covers the sofa and armchairs, and the wall behind the sofa is punctuated by rows of porthole windows in multicolored translucent acrylic. The composition may look like a Damian Hirst spot painting writ large, but it's actually based on. . .what else? A Romera dish featuring a medallion of venison surrounded by spiced mayonnaise polka dots.
sachi masaki; allyx seeman; natalia todorova: glen & company. patricia spencer design: graphics consultant. jacobs doland: food service design consultant. thomas polise consulting engineer: mep. studio hoon kim: plasterwork. ca seneca construction: general contractor.