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NEW YORK — It takes a certain amount of creativity to walk into a 12-story Chelsea gym and envision a sleek, fine-dining establishment in its place. Greggory Hockenberry has such an imagination, and this week his new restaurant, Varietal, opens on an anonymous strip of West 25th Street.

Of course, it helps that Hockenberry isn’t put off by a challenge. After all, prior to Varietal, he worked as an estate manager for the ever-demanding Linda Wachner and then at Donatella Versace’s Upper East Side town house, an experience he recalls as being akin “to running a small hotel.”

The latter stint is evident in Varietal’s fashion-friendly decor, with its cool, Mod bar decked out with molded white stools and a soothing monochromatic dining room, crowned by a stunning chandelier made of fused dangling wine glasses. The entryway walls are painted shades of red and pink to mimic malbec, pinot noir and rosé wine varieties.

“We wanted something clean and modern and contemporary,” explains Hockenberry, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of Visual Arts before becoming a personal chef and sommelier. “When a lot of people think about wine, they think sort of stuffy, classical.”

But Varietal is more than simply a chic aesthetic exercise. The bar will offer a rotating list of 75 wines by the glass, flights of different wine tastings and even hard-to-find grower Champagne labels. Executive chef Ed Witt, previously of Il Buco and the River Café, has created a menu of what he terms “New York cuisine,” a seasonal selection drawing as much as possible on local farm sources, with dishes such as John Dory sautéed with almond cauliflower puree and Meyer lemon, and steamed monkfish liver with roasted pork shoulder and black bean miso.

And the unexpected combinations extend to the desserts, where 23-year-old Jordan Daly creates concoctions that defy normal sweet conventions.

“If you look at my menu, there’s a lot of savory elements: I have mushroom with chocolate, mango with taro root and celery root with muscovado sugar,” says Daly, who has toiled in high cuisine kitchens at The French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea in Chicago. Indeed, desserts such as a cube of pistachio, white beer, chrysanthemum and licorice are plated to look like works of art, often themed around a particular color combination. Adventure-wary diners can rest easy, though, Daly assures.

This story first appeared in the December 4, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The thing about my desserts is they taste like dessert,” he says. “A lot of the times pastry chefs try to incorporate savory elements and it doesn’t work. It tastes out of place. It’s like, ‘Who the hell put an olive in my dessert?'” — Vanessa Lawrence

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