Byline: Robert Haskell
NEW YORK — For two years now, Leshko’s, the shabby Polish diner that Bob Pontarelli and Stephen Heighton turned into a late-night bistro, has been the bustling, table-hopping centerpiece of the East Village renaissance. A critic once called it the ’21’ of its ten-block radius. Better still, Heighton boasts, “Bjork eats there.”
Tonight, Pontarelli and Heighton open elmo (it’s spelled with a small ‘e’) on Seventh Avenue and 19th Street — right around the corner from Barracuda, their popular neighborhood bar that has lately become the stage for latter-day camp icons like Tonya Harding and Gennifer Flowers. Like Barracuda and Leshko’s, elmo is meant to be a relaxed neighborhood place. “We’ve never had snotty queens at our door,” says Heighton.
But the new restaurant, with its glittering silver marquis that reads, simply, “RESTAURANT,” would look more like a neighborhood place if that neighborhood were South Beach. The giant tiled wall feels like an homage to Morris Lapidus’ Eden Roc hotel, and the white Deco pylons and potted plants would be at home in any beachy Miami outpost.
Elmo was designed by the team of David Schefer and Eve-Lynn Schoenstein, whose resume includes Moomba, Veruka and Leshko. But if Moomba was, in Schoenstein’s words, “a restaurant people loved to hate,” elmo intends to be a restaurant people love to love. For one thing, it’s got two design elements that Chelsea folk adore: mid-century modern furniture (there are ice-blue Knoll chairs and wonderful, tinkling Verner Panton shell chandeliers) and a painting by Ross Bleckner.
“Us Together,” from Bleckner’s DNA series, was commissioned for the restaurant and is owned by Heighton. “Bleckner doesn’t normally do commissions,” he says proudly. “His only other one was for the World Trade Center.”
The painting’s floating orbs echo the pearly discs of the Panton chandeliers, and its prominent placement — over the restaurant’s bar — calls to mind the giant Maxfield Parrish that has long commanded the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis. Pontarelli acknowledges that he has any affinity for what he calls the “referential”: At Leshko’s, the pierogis (now truffle oil-infused) nod to the restaurant’s more modest past; elmo, meanwhile, takes its name from El Morocco, the legendary New York night spot whose zebra banquettes cradled the biggest stars of the Forties and Fifties.
“A long time ago,” Pontarelli explains, “when I was an eager young press agent in New York, somebody wanted to reopen El Morocco. We went in and it was like ‘Follies’ — truly magical, steeped in glamour.” Elmo acknowledges its forebear subtly: Zebra banquettes would have been too obvious, says Heighton, so they striped elmo’s seats in red, black and mint. The menu, more pan-ethnic than retro, includes a few classic El Morocco dishes: clams casino, Waldorf salad, bananas Foster.
Kevin Reilly, once the executive chef at Zoe, is making more serious food than the blue plates served up at Leshko’s, but comfort dishes like alphabet soup, fried chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese (here asiago, and truffle-crusted) seem designed to entice the same late-night diehards who continue to fill the tables at its East Village sister. Pontarelli, for his part, is confident that lightning will strike again.
“Stephen and I have very different ideas about everything,” he says, “but when we finally agree, it ends up being something that people like.”