Nick Curtin, the chef at East Broadway newcomer Rosette, had never visited the out-of-the way spot on the Lower East Side five months ago. But it did not take him long to grow an appreciation for the unique charms of the area surrounding the restaurant, across from Straus Square and Seward Park. What Curtin noticed right away is that it felt like a real neighborhood. “Community for me in New York is almost non-existent,” he explained during a recent interview. “I’ve lived in so many neighborhoods in this city and very rarely do I feel like I’m a part of something.” So in the new place, he’s making the most of that community feeling. “For the first time as a chef I am creating food that’s really geared toward the neighborhood itself,” he said.
One afternoon last month, we sat down for a conversation with Curtin, as well as with Warren Hode, who’s overseeing the cocktail menu, General Manager Lisa Limb and Rosette’s owner, local architect Ron Castellano. The space, right next to The Forward Building, was previously home to pop-up concept LTO and Broadway East, two ventures that were probably a little bit ahead of their time. But in the past few years, the neighborhood has started to change; restaurants are popping up a few steps away on Division, Canal and Orchard streets. The Hester Street Fair, which Castellano co-founded, takes place up the block. Even though the area is morphing, he knew the new spot had to feel right in a still-low key section of the LES. So the Rosette team is focused on catering to local tastes.
Curtin was most recently at Acme in Noho, where he was chef de cuisine, and he previously was in charge at a little place in Tribeca called Compose and worked at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in the East Village. Hode was the mastermind behind the bar at Bond Street and later Cherry (now he splits his time between Cherry and Rosette). Limb was also at Bond Street and Cherry, and at the Blue Ribbon restaurants before that.
By design, Rosette is a restaurant set up to serve different purposes. While the decor has been toned down and warmed up from the Broadway East days, it’s still a high-end place. The restaurant is landing on lists of the hottest spots in the city, meaning well-heeled uptown diners are flocking to the 100-seat space. At the same time, dressed-down locals are hanging out both in the more casual bar and the spacious, exposed brick dining room.
The idea, Curtain said, is to keep it casual while still providing a special experience: “We want to create food, an environment, cocktails where people feel they are walking into our home and we’re pulling out the white tablecloth and we’re saying sit down. Have a great time. Here’s food we know you’re going to like.” Having grown up in Virginia and Rhode Island, Curtin always intended to bring rustic “East coast cuisine” to Rosette, focused on seasonal, regional ingredients. “We’ve stuck with that,” he explained, “but what may have been a very heavy menu initially really lightened up when we started meeting people in the area.” When Rosette was in soft open mode last December, people who came in to check the preliminary bar menu made it clear they really wanted to see some vegetarian and vegan options.
As it turned out, Curtin had the perfect new toy at his disposal — a wood burning oven that’s located right in the front room. “The wood oven drove a lot of our creativity,” he said. “It’s a focal point for the restaurant. It’s such a special piece of equipment that so few restaurants have.” One day, he shoved a whole cabbage into the back, near the embers, and sealed the oven. The result was a beautifully caramelized vegetarian treat. “It was one of the most complex flavors I’ve ever experienced,” Curtin said. “It was smoky, it was sweet, it was a little acidic. It was so rich and satisfying.”
The cabbage heart became a standout on the regular menu, along with several other vegetable dishes, including ember roasted leaks and a hearty parsnip “steak,” drizzled with hazelnut butter. Rosette is not a vegetarian restaurant. Far from it. There’s a decadent burger, pork belly topped with cracklins and Wagyu beef. But the kitchen is determined to make sure, in Curtin’s words, that vegetarians aren’t “getting the short end of the stick.”
There are other nods to the neighborhood. The chicken cracklins, coated in cashews and lime and served with hot sauce are an irreverent tribute to the area’s Chinese and Jewish influences. “It’s like a snapshot of the block,” Curtin said. The same spirit is reflected in the drink menu. A distinctive offering is the house blended sesame whiskey. Hode is intrigued by the fresh produce stands dotting Chinatown and has been experimenting with a variety of fresh fruits. On the brunch menu, he’s drawing from his New Orleans upbringing. One creation is a Cajun coffee with french roasted chicory, infused bourbon and licorice root. “I’m trying to do homey things in a New York way,” he said.
In the early going, there was an expectation that the bar area would be a place to have a few drinks and snacks, while the more formal dining room was where the serious eating would happen. But Limb said people coming into Rosette have brought their appetites, and don’t seem to be distinguishing between the two areas. Wherever they sit, the idea is to keep the service and style as laid back as possible. “It’s a zone between fine dining and being a casual neighborhood place,” she observed. “We want to be in this middle place where people get a level of service and attention and their needs are being recognized and met and at the same time it’s not overly formal.”
Rosette is one of many projects on Castellano’s plate. Not only is he a partner in the Hester Street Fair and in the night clubs, Santos Party House and Le Baron, Castellano is also overseeing the restoration of the Jarmulowsky Bank Building. The city landmark, located just a stone’s throw from the restaurant, is scheduled to open as a boutique hotel in a couple of years. Given all of his responsibilities, the Rosette team has a lot of creative control. He set the stage by changing the interior and installing the wood oven. Castellano also converted a downstairs lounge to a private dining space that can be rented for the evening or used for chef tasting dinners.
But the menu choices were left up to Curtin and company. Castellano, a neighborhood history buff, appreciated the fact that they came up with the vegetarian focus on their own. It seemed fitting, he thought, since the space at 171 East Broadway was once home to Schildkraut Vegetarian Restaurant, a spot frequented by Yiddish writers after they dropped off their manuscripts at The Forward Building, just one door away. Castellano barely changed the facade at all. The scene inside? It’s a far cry from the old neighborhood!
Rosette is open Tuesday-Saturday 6 p.m.-midnight. Weekend brunch is offered 11:30-3:30 p.m.