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NEW YORK — When architect Phil Wu first saw the unremarkable Village diner he was to transform into Jefferson — Simpson Wong’s sleek new restaurant located two doors down from his Pan-Asian restaurant, Cafe Asean — he had a remarkable revelation.
“Skylights!” proclaims Wu, formerly of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. “How many one-story restaurants do you know in the city?”
Wong, who had longed for a lofty, refined space to house his upscale New American cuisine, was more than happy to OK the blueprint. So, Jefferson, a vision in sun-drenched minimalism that opens Jan. 8, now boasts three of them.
Perched on a cappuccino-colored banquette on a recent morning, Wong explains why the restaurant’s name stuck. After all, Jefferson evokes visions of all-American standbys like steak and potatoes, not Wong’s inventive fare like rice flake-crusted Diver scallops or edamame ravioli with ginkgo nuts. “Initially, we thought of calling it J Squared,” says Wong, gazing across the street at the historic Jefferson Market Garden, the manicured Village courtyard that once held a women’s prison. “But it was too hip. Too Internet. So Jefferson just stuck.”
Hip, however, is the only word to describe Wu’s flawless interior. French white-oak paneling, embedded with rectangular incandescent lights, contrasts with dark concrete-poured floors. The ceiling is made of special acoustic Japanese tiles, new to America. “You could have a party for 100 and it would still be quiet,” boasts Wu, who recently completed a project restoring a Japanese teahouse on Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in the Hudson Valley. The dining room seats 65, plus additional bar seating and a smoking lounge downstairs.
Come spring, the roof will be Wong’s greenhouse, where he will grow herbs and a few vegetables. And eventually, he plans to serve a proper afternoon tea. But for now, he is poring over Chinatown’s fruit and vegetable markets for Jefferson’s inspiration. He’s tested much of the new menu on the Pad Thai-loving crowd at Cafe Asean as nightly specials.
The winner? Organic black silky chicken with red Asian wine leeks and Malabar spinach ($19). Other dishes include seared sea bass in a lobster lemongrass reduction ($20), seared toro and foie gras with garlic stems ($25) and grilled Guyana shrimp with chrysanthemum risotto ($15).
“Jefferson works more like a tapas or a dim sum bar,” says Wong. “A group can order three dishes and share them all.”
He hopes Cafe Asean regulars, including Marisa Tomei, Christy Turlington, Amanda Peet and Natalie Merchant, will trickle in — and that they’ll still recognize him. While lighting a new gas stove last week, a flame ignited in his face. Wong was fine but his eyebrows and much of his hair were singed.
“I smelled like fried chicken,” he says. “We’re still getting used to the kitchen.”