The convivial vibe of Restaurant North
The first view of 386 Main Street in Armonk is of an unassuming parking lot and a strip of stores in a quiet and pleasant town inWestchester County. But upon walking through the doors of Restaurant North, I was quickly transported from what I thought would be just a mannered, upscale eatery, to a night out with inventive and locally procured dishes, polished and knowledgeable service and a vibrant cosmopolitan energy.
The aesthetic of Restaurant North is light and airy with the feel of a lazy, sun-drenched day at the beach, replete with a stray Grateful Dead tune over the sound system. An old architect’s drafting table stands just inside the entrance, fashioned into a host stand. French doors line the north and west walls, and a staircase toward the back of the main dining room gives way to a set of skylights that shower natural light on the second floor mezzanine. The bar area is anchored by a chunky slab of white marble that adds levity to the space. A capacious and colorful chalkboard wall in the back of the room lists daily specials and does so with a certain amount of flair.
When chef Eric Gabrynowicz and Stephen Mancini opened the doors to Restaurant North in 2010, they set out to capture what the soul of the Hudson Valley means to them. For these two ceaselessly energetic men, this essence has been a self-described adventure of opportunity and excitement. The two were introduced while working at Union Square Café in Manhattan several years back. Gabrynowicz worked his way through NYC restaurants Tabla, Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, as well as Hudson Yards Catering, and was a sous-chef at the time he met his future business partner. Mancini was completing a miraculous rise up the NYC restaurant ladder. In four years, Mancini had gone from busboy to wine director via New York City’s two most popular restaurants, Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern. He had done all this while getting his masters at New York University in entrepreneurship and small business management.
Mancini was raised in Scarsdale, and his parents now live in Armonk. The utmost of hosts, he is always quick with a quip tableside, his humorous charm enhanced by boyish looks, bonhomie and an infectious smile. Gabrynowicz grew up split between Queens and Montgomery County, New York. He looks like a chef: bold, commanding and brash, but definitively gentle at heart. Mancini and Gabrynowicz’s rapport is brotherly and their banter informed by their unrelenting obsession for baseball, specifically the Mets, and their shared wry humor.
The partners were both raised in Italian homes where Sunday dinners with their families was an ingrained tradition. Mancini admits he still gets goose bumps reminiscing of vegetables from his grandfather’s garden, homemade wine, and prosciutto curing in the garage.
Gabrynowicz recalls six-hour meals with fresh pastas and slow-cooked meats, finished off with his grandfather’s blackberry brandy and grappa. Sitting around his grandparents’ table is where Gabrynowicz developed his love for what he calls his “inner fat boy.” Food-coma-inducing morsels like porchetta, house-cured bacon and lardo, which grace the menu regularly, are his green-light-go ingredients. A great example of this is in the presentation of the Restaurant North burger. It is 13 ounces of local farm-raised beef with homemade bacon, cheddar cheese, grilled onions, aioli and house-made pickles. The plate arrives at the table and fittingly represents what Gabrynowicz would eat every day if his wife would let him cook, and eat, that way at home.
“I tend to get heavy handed with the fat and pork content in my food,” he says. “Our customers tend to be conscious of their health, and I had to learn how to lighten the menu, but not sacrifice flavor. I love fat-boy treats, but had to learn out of necessity to cook other ways.”
FOODS WITH FRIENDS
Their philosophy of food and wine is inspired by what Gabrynowicz describes as “taking the cue from the farmer,” and is the sort of modus operandi at Restaurant North. If the ingredient was grown or raised in the Hudson Valley, it’s going on the menu in some way, shape or form. There is no shortage of persevering and working with innovative farms in the Hudson Valley; at Restaurant North, the interconnection between chef and farmer is more personal than your typical customer-vendor relationship, and often stretches back to childhood experiences and relationships.
Gabrynowicz met Kevin Smith in nursery school. They played Little League together and their families have been friendly for decades. At the age of 17, Gabrynowicz was hired by Smith’s father, Henry, who owns Sycamore Farms in Middletown, to work the farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. He worked three days a week that summer, hocking what Sycamore Farms is best known for, heirloom tomatoes and corn. While working the stand he met culinary superstars including Mario Batali and Wayne Nish, Dan Silverman and Michael Romano. At a young age, Gabrynowicz knew what he wanted to do for a living. When most kids were still playing with baseball cards, he was visiting culinary schools and dreaming of cooking with those food heavyweights. Well into his studies at the Culinary Institute of America, Gabrynowicz made a call to Chef Romano and landed an internship at Union Square Café.
The kitchen at North also receives produce from I & Me Farm, owned and operated by Mimi Edelman. Edelman provides Gabrynowicz with, as he explains, “Whatever the hell she wants to bring us.” They procure their meat from Meiller’s Slaughterhouse in Pine Plains [see “A Family Slaughterhouse,” Edible Hudson Valley, Summer 2012], where the beef and pork are humanely and organically raised. Guy Jones and Blooming Hill Farm in Blooming Grove provide fresh produce, and Madura Farms in Goshen delivers exotic and wild mushrooms. The average distance from the plant to the plate is just over 60 miles.
Utilizing local ingredients applies to libations at Restaurant North as well. Mancini has developed a wine and beverage program that rivals any restaurant in New York City. There is a quote from Mancini on the back of their wine list that reads, “When you celebrate wine you celebrate people. Hard working people who craft the wine, their families and their province. It’s important to celebrate wine.” Mancini believes there is humanity in wine, and when you celebrate the privilege of drinking it, the experience becomes much more than the wine itself. At times it can become a time capsule that brings you back to a vintage and a place in your past. It may also be about the livelihood the families earn by making the wine.
Mancini clearly realizes that not every winery is a huge corporation and that many grape farmers have small productions that desperately need local support. Nearby wine labels are well represented on the beverage lists at North. Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley gets a nod. Joe and Alex Macari, close friends of Mancini’s, own Macari Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island. Their wines have been on their list from the day they opened. Hermann J. Wiemer’s winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York is on the list, as well as Channing Daughters Winery and Wölffer Estate Winery out of Bridgehampton, Long Island.
According to the partners, going from working in other restaurants, under someone else’s management, to one that you own has created a higher level of anxiety. Mancini and Gabrynowicz relish owning and operating North and find it extremely rewarding, although it does open them up to criticism, as well as accolades. “We are in the firing line for judgment. We have received a lot of great press, but people are going to take their shots. Having to handle this pressure is the biggest difference when it comes to having our own place rather than working for someone else.”
The praise has come a little more fast and furious than the criticism. Since opening North, Gabrynowicz and Mancini have been on the receiving end of several awards. Gabrynowicz was shortlisted as a Rising Star Chef from the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Food andWine named him the People’s Choice Best New Chef in the New York Area of 2012. Zagat and Westchester Magazine both named North the Best New Restaurant in 2011.
However, these rave reviews seem to only motivate the duo to strive even harder to be better. There is no big ego here. Leading by example is their top priority, and Gabrynowicz and Mancini set the highest of standards. Every cook in his kitchen knows that, if need be, Gabrynowicz can step on the line and work any station as good as or better than his cooks. The staff respects that and strives to be better as a result. “You have to lead by example or it’s over,” says Gabrynowicz. “My motto in the kitchen is ‘don’t put a dish in the window if you wouldn’t be proud to serve it to your mother.’” When making new hires, the first question the duo like to ask themselves is “Would I have this person over to my house for dinner?” It’s their way of ensuring that they are bringing positive happy people in to work at the restaurant. Happy staff equals happy customers. Family meals (aka staff meals) are free at North, which is not the industry standard. Most restaurants take a few dollars from your paycheck every week, yet nary a dime is subtracted from the staff ’s for this twice-daily gathering, and the kitchen does not hold back when cooking for their co-workers. Smoked ribs, farm-fresh vegetables and their incredible flatbreads are a typical spread.
The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays and during the holidays. Decisions for the restaurant and its employees seem to be made in consideration of the staff rather than pure economics. “When we take care of our staff it makes the food taste better, it makes the service better.We try and keep the energy positive.” About a year ago, they put a hammock outside on top of the walk-in refrigerator for the management team. It’s a place to take a 20-minute break if they need it; just another reward for all of the hard work and long hours.
My motto in the kitchen is, don’t put a dish in the window
if you wouldn’t be proud to serve it to your mother.
Gabrynowicz and Mancini rely on new inspirations to grow and succeed, and they constantly seek out new avenues of imagination in food, beverage and service. Last December, Gabrynowicz did a stint at Per Se, chef Thomas Keller’s world-renowned restaurant in Manhattan, just to keep things fresh and learn new techniques.
Steven continues to explore new wines and beers and fine-tune his service staff by providing them valuable information to better sell goods. They recently purchased a Cryovac machine in order to experiment with sous-vide cooking, a method of cooking, which originated in France, where food is sealed in heavy-duty plastic bags then placed into a very low temperature liquid to cook for long periods of time, usually 24 to 72 hours. The results are most often fairly sublime. They have dedicated a laboratory-like room to use for this experimentation in the prep kitchen below the restaurant. It’s all very scientific. Gabrynowicz admits that this is not something he previously would have done in a million years, but it keeps him on his toes. “You can look at the chefs that let time pass them by and refuse to change. If I am ever that chef, I will be a flash in the pan, finished.” He relishes in the fact that his personal growth and inspiration are something that always need to be fed.
There is a sign above the kitchen door at North that reads, “Play Like A Champion Today.” It’s the same sign that inspires the players in the Notre Dame football locker room and was the first purchase Gabrynowicz and Mancini made when building out the kitchen. For them, it is the maxim of Restaurant North. Gabrynowicz and Mancini are actively supporting the local community by buying their ingredients from the surrounding farms, providing a workplace to foster growth and experience among their staff, and laying down the foundation of close-knit relationships to the patrons that come in to dine and taste a bit of the local effort.
386 Main Street
Open Tuesdays through Saturdays for Lunch and Dinner