TO NELL AND BACK
Byline: Daniel Peres
NEW YORK — She’s a restaurateur, a night club hostess and even a party girl, but Nell Campbell is, first and foremost, an entertainer. That’s what has sustained her downtown night spot, Nell’s, for the past 10 years. It has also drawn attention to her Lexington Avenue boote, Kiosk, and is what will help fill the banquettes at E&O, the Vietnamese restaurant she’ll open next month at Houston and Thompson Streets.
“I’m a thespian, darling. A thespian!” she declares. “Do you think people care about the food?”
It’s Saturday afternoon and she’s perched on a stage of sorts — a dozen or so plywood planks smack in the middle of E&O (which stands for “Eastern and Oriental”). There’s no ceiling, no heating, no chairs, no working kitchen, and the hardwood floor hasn’t been hard in years.
Although the doors won’t open to the public for another two weeks, there’s a pretty important dress rehearsal here tonight — Vogue is hosting a party for a swarm of fashionables in town for the shows and for its unlikely April cover girl Lisa Marie Presley.
“It’s gonna be great,” Campbell says, with an exaggerated laugh. “We’ll be fine. The ceiling’s going in tonight. If I didn’t know that everything was going to work, I’d be in a state.”
Just then, the contractor warns Campbell that the molding surrounding the glass plate on the door needs to be reinforced; otherwise it could fall and injure one of the guests.
“I can just imagine. ‘Oh, hello Ms. Presley, so sorry about the glass splinters in your head,’ ” she says.
But Campbell trusts the contractor will handle everything in time for tonight’s fete. He is Emon Roche and he’s also her partner and boyfriend. The two have been together for nearly four years and opened Kiosk along with Campbell’s longtime associate Lynn Wagenknecht, of Odeon fame.
Each partner has a distinct function. Wagenknecht handles the business, Roche is the builder/designer and Campbell is not only the brains behind the operation, but the barker and mascot. She is well-known for her arms-open manner of greeting customers and for her irrepressible table-hopping once they are settled.
E&O is just one of several nouvelle Asian cuisine eateries targeting SoHo, but Campbell doesn’t fear the competition.
“The more the merrier,” she says. “Plus, there aren’t that many Vietnamese places.”
The two-level restaurant will feature fish — spicy, grilled and steamed — duck and even a filet mignon “for those steak-eating men.” There will be a bar downstairs.
Campbell hopes the new spot will attract a mixed clientele from all over Manhattan, instead of the more provincial Upper East Side crowd that gathers at Kiosk.
“People who live downtown will not pass Go, collect $200 and go uptown,” she says. “Uptowners find it novel to go downtown, but downtowners are not amused by going up there.”
Campbell has but one problem with E&O.
“This isn’t a restaurant you can wear black in,” she says. “It’s a crisis with my noir-to-noir wardrobe. We’ve painted the interior the same pale blue color the Vietnamese paint their homes — and pastels just aren’t right for my skin.”