NEW YORK — Last week Adrien Brody held his birthday celebration at Chez Es Saada, a subterranean restaurant in the East Village. In the past two months, the place has been the scene of dinners for Witness, a human rights organization co-founded...
NEW YORK — Last week Adrien Brody held his birthday celebration at Chez Es Saada, a subterranean restaurant in the East Village. In the past two months, the place has been the scene of dinners for Witness, a human rights organization co-founded by Peter Gabriel; the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Brazilian singer Virginia Rodriguez.
Chez Es Saada hasn’t seen so much action since the mid-Nineties when it attracted models, actors and other types who kept the phones ringing and the reservation books full. In the last few years its buzz evaporated like the water in the Moroccan fountains seen throughout the restaurant.
In February, Izhar Patkin, an artist with a wide circle of friends, took over Chez Es Saada with his sometime collaborator Alina Slonim.
Patkin, whose enormous studio is in the same East First Street building as the restaurant, has a penchant for bringing people together. At a benefit for Olana, the Hudson Valley home built by the painter Frederic Church, Patkin lured uptowners such as Eliza Reed Bolen and Samantha Bass to his studio.
Patkin, who was never crazy about Chez Es Saada’s food, which critics called uneven, or the Disney-fied Moroccan atmosphere, has reinvented the restaurant with Slonim as a lively place with serious Middle Eastern cuisine.
He’s also changed the atmosphere, which he described as “a dark cave.”
One of his allegorical paintings of the Garden of Eden, which was shown at the 1990 Venice Biennale, hangs on a wall in a dining room. For the piece, Christy Turlington posed for Patkin as Eve to whom stylists offer temptations such as Prada clothing and Verdura jewelry.
Naturally, art is a major element of Chez Es Saada’s new design.
Pedro Almodóvar, a friend of Patkin’s, sent as a housewarming gift, a series of photos he took during production of his upcoming film, “Bad Education.”
Kim MacConnel, a contemporary artist and Whitney Biennial alumnus, painted a second dining room with bold colorful stripes and covered the banquettes in hand-painted fabric of the same design.
Patkin, who works in a wide range of styles and materials, often references little-known events in Jewish history. His mixed-media series “Judenporzellan” grew out of a story about the Mendelssohn family, a Jewish clan in Berlin in the 1760s that was forced to buy low-quality, overpriced porcelain in order to obtain business permits.“Host Culture,” a set of Oriental rug paintings, is based on the tale of a Jewish carpet made in Iran. With his Israeli accent softened by years of living in the U.S., but still audible, Patkin says, “It’s about one culture hosting another and the fusion between the two.”
That’s the idea behind Chez Es Saada, too.
The new Middle Eastern menu includes Arab and Israeli dishes, deconstructed and reworked into sophisticated, modern fare.
On a recent evening, Patkin and Slonim were dining with guests when the artist launched into a primer about the cuisine of chef Ido Ben Shmuel, a veteran of Hôtel de Crillon and the Bristol in Paris and Ocean, Israel’s top restaurant for much of the Nineties.
An appetizer of grilled unleavened Jerusalem bread was topped with crumbs of feta cheese and served with leaves of romaine lettuce. Kibbeh, a lamb meatball wrapped in semolina, floated in a bowl of clarified beet broth and an entree of wild salmon was accompanied by hummus ravioli.
Patkin enthusiastically plunged his fork into every dish, passing the plates reluctantly to his fellow diners.
An Iranian belly dancer entered the dining room balancing a glowing candelabra on top of her head and swaying her generous hips. Shadows from her candles played with designs on the walls and ceiling made by lights projected through stencils.
“Reinventing the restaurant was like making a painting,”Patkin said. “It’s a process that was familiar to me. Rather than Morocco, the sensibility here is more like Matisse looking at Morocco.”
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