More Details on Nick Elmi and Rittenhouse Tavern

Former Le Bec-Fin chef Nick Elmi had about a month’s warning of the impending closure of Georges Perrier‘s landmark restaurant–and that was just fine by him. He’d been planning to leave for a while (about a year) and had been making some (very) preliminary inquiries about opening a restaurant of his own, and had also hoped to take a nice, long vacation. But as always seems to happen in the restaurant industry, things didn’t go exactly the way he’d planned.

“Things moved a little bit quickly,” he told me when I got him on the phone this afternoon. Once he knew for sure that Le Bec was going to be shutting down, he heard from friends that Ed Brown (the chef from Restaurant Associates, the company looking to re-make the space in the Art Alliance building that had previously been Le Jardin and Opus 251) was in town and actively looking for someone to run the line at a new modern American restaurant going into the address. He met with Brown, cooked for him and, apparently, the two hit it off immediately. “It seemed like a good fit,” Elmi told me. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’m on board. Let’s do this.'”

For his part, Brown seemed to know almost as quickly that Elmi was his guy. The project at the Art Alliance was held up for a long time “by not finding the right players,” according to Brown. But when Elmi showed up, he knew he had the right guy. “He [Elmi], like I did, started in French food. And what French food teaches you is technique and respect for the ingredients. Once you know that, you can do anything. You can do a Chinese restaurant using French technique.”

The restaurant, which will be called the Rittenhouse Tavern, is expected to open by the end of April and will be what Brown calls “an American brasserie.” That means a neighborhood restaurant (though in a very upscale neighborhood), offering “food that people want to eat, prepared at a high level, served for a price that makes them think, ‘Why wouldn’t I come back here often?'” He’s promising a menu that runs the gamut from halibut in a red wine reduction with kale to a great burger; a place where someone in a suit and someone in jeans can sit down next to each other and no one will be able to guess who’s having the fish and who’s ordering the burger. “It’s not going to be a trend-setting restaurant,” Brown told me. “We’re just going to be a great restaurant. Not an expensive restaurant, but a busy restaurant. It’s not going to be pompous or overstated. It will be a casual restaurant for grown-ups.”

For his part, Elmi seems excited by the new gig. Though he doesn’t officially start until Monday (he insists he wanted to “finish strong” at Le Bec, so gave all his attention to his former kitchen during its last days), he and Brown and the Restaurant Associates team have been talking about the place for almost a month while the space was getting re-done and the kitchen gutted and completely re-built. Now that all that is behind him (and now that he’s back from a radically abbreviated version of the long vacation he wanted to take), Elmi is anxious to get to work on the new project. “The bones of the restaurant just seem to fit perfectly,” he said. “This is going to be someplace special.”