Lifting the Curse from the E.U.
Chef Akhtar Nawab talks about the formerly troubled NYC gastropub
The E.U. seemed cursed. From its opening in early 2006, the highly anticipated New York gastropub met with all kinds of bad luck. There was the yearlong struggle for a liquor license, flooding, and the departure of no fewer than four chefs. ¶ Enter Craftbar’s Akhtar Nawab. The new executive chef, who came on in January 2007, put together a menu of reimagined comfort food from Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and England. Good reviews and crowds followed, with the stripped-down East Village space earning a reputation for a festive atmosphere and creative dishes. CHOW spoke to Nawab about ending the curse, and what happens next at the E.U.
How did you get the E.U. back on track after such a rough start?
Honestly, it wasn’t easy. The owners, Bob [Giraldi, of Jean Georges] and Jason [Hennings, of August], and I sat down and went back to the drawing board, looking at the basic concept and refining it. We improved the quality of a lot of the ingredients. Which is important, since … some [dishes] have only, like, three ingredients, and are pretty focused—like the scallop salad with heart of palm, olive oil, lemon, and sea salt. It’s crucial that they be top-notch.
Was the complicated nature of the menu at all daunting? What was your strategy?
The first thing we wanted to do—and this sounds obvious—is make sure the different cuisines were represented evenly. We didn’t want it to be, you know, an Italian menu with a couple of German dishes. There had to be a unified aesthetic to the menu. I liked the idea of familiar classics, playfully reinterpreted. Small plates, of course: charcuterie, oysters, other things people could have with a beer, as well as more serious food.
Did you feel the pressure of being under such intense media scrutiny after the other chefs left?
Truthfully, I did not anticipate the attention. As a chef, you have to just keep your head down and do your best. And because of the nature of the work, you’re actually so incredibly busy that you can’t dwell on it too much. There are always going to be some people who want to see you fail—but it means that much more when people root for you. In a way, it’s an underdog story.
What experiences at Craftbar helped prepare you for this?
What I really took from my time at Craftbar is what I learned working with [chef] Tom Colicchio. Just in terms of teaching me how to manage [running a restaurant] as a business: that there’s a formula to it and a real skill to dealing with people. Plus, we both really like heavy metal!
Was there any morale problem when you came on-board?
It was mostly new staff, actually. Some people decided not to stay on—just didn’t show up—and that was probably for the best. I brought a few people with me. Otherwise, I hired everyone.
So what would you say to critics who proclaim the gastropub is over?
Really, what does that even mean? I’d say the definition has been reinterpreted. To us, a gastropub means a bar with really serious food—and an affordable menu. Basically, an approachable neighborhood place. And keeping the prices reasonable is a big part of that. We work pretty hard at that; you can find lots of things on our menu for under $10, and several for under $5!
What’s new on the menu?
We just added a paella that’s based on orzo instead of rice. It has an almost risottolike texture. We also have a new crudo on the menu, including pickled watermelon, and a tarte Tatin made with eggplant caponata.
What didn’t sell?
The pretzel sandwich, which was here when I got here. The owner wants it on the menu, and I’ve played with it, but I’m still not satisfied. I need to rethink it a little, do some research, go to the bookstore.
The bookstore? Like the culinary bookshop Kitchen Arts & Letters?
Yeah, exactly. I go there quite a bit, to get visual ideas, or learn more about the different [culinary] traditions.
What’s the one dish you think you’ll never take off the menu?
The two hamburgers we do—the German, topped with liverwurst and Black Forest bacon, and the English, with cheddar and brown sauce—we’re not touching that! And of course it goes great with beer.
Sadie Stein lives and eats in Brooklyn.
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe