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A New York Story
The Nieporent Brothers, Tribeca, and Montrachet

This is a true New York story.  It’s about a pair of brothers, Tracy and Drew Nieporent. They grew up in a two bedroom apartment in Peter Cooper Village on the East Side of Manhattan with their mom who was a radio actress (she was the princess on “Let’s Pretend”) and their dad who was a lawyer. As kids, they loved baseball -- the Yankees, and then the Mets once they came along. They also loved good food, probably because their dad Andre, who had been born in Paris, did a lot of legal work for restaurants and took the family to eat out pretty often.

“We’d go to all different types of restaurant, not necessarily high falutin ones,” Tracy remembers. “The owners and chefs would come over to the table, sit down and talk to us. These people weren’t celebrities. These were real hard-working folk with a lot of integrity. They had a big influence on us.

“My favorite restaurant was a place called Headquarters which was run by the man who had been Eisenhower’s chef during World War II.  Frank McGee would be there in the corner doing a show for NBC-TV. Wow, Drew and I thought, this is real cool stuff.  We’d always go there for my birthday. After dinner, they’d bring out a cake with a sparkler on it and say ‘If you blow it out, you get to keep the restaurant.’ Man, I tried. But it never worked.” Tracy and Drew got to keep other restaurants though. Today the boys from Peter Cooper Village are principals of the Myriad Restaurant Group which creates and manages sixteen dining and drinking establishments and consults for restaurants all over the world.

Back in the mid 1980’s, Drew -- who had gone to the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell -- was working for Tavern on the Green and looking to move on. One day as he was jogging his usual route from the Upper to the Lower West Side, he took a second look at the neighborhood south of Canal Street. “It was light industrial, absolutely nothing was going on,” Drew says. “But for some reason, when I saw it that day, I had the idea there was potential down there. I talked to Tracy about opening a restaurant in this neighborhood.”

Tracy was an advertising exec for Young and Rubicon at that time. Although he worked on the "Be All That You Can Be" campaign for the United States Army, he was getting disenchanted with the advertising world.  “I felt I couldn’t fulfill my destiny in an environment where agencies were being bought and sold all the time,” he said. “You’d be working for one agency one week, and the next week you find it has merged with another agency. The idea of having a restaurant with Drew was exciting.”

The brothers had more than a locale in mind; they had an idea. “If you go back to 1985, French restaurants were typically formal and intimidating for a lot of people,” Tracy told us. “If you didn’t speak French, if you didn’t know about wine, if you asked questions, you got a lot of attitude. That was a barrier for a lot of people. That wasn’t what we wanted to do. We had been to enough formal places to realize that wasn’t our life style.”

“We wanted food of the uptown French restaurant caliber and a very good wine list,” added Drew. “But we wanted to create a different kind of environment where the staff would be helpful to customers, answer their questions, make them feel comfortable. We also wanted a restaurant with prices along the lines of what most people could afford.”

Drew responded to an ad for space in a former industrial building on West Broadway below Canal. The original plaster ceilings with exposed pipes running across them were still there. “The place had a real old New York quality that we liked,” Tracy said, “the rent was cheap, and so we worked up the confidence to sign a lease. We put in a mahogany and onyx bar and some banquettes, seating for 80,” he added. “If the look was minimalist, it wasn’t because we were in love with that style. We couldn’t afford paintings. We used all our savings and some help from Mom and Dad. It cost us $100,000 to open.  That would be unheard of today.

 “Our first chef was David Bouley. Nobody knew who David Bouley was in those

days. We found him in a kitchen in San Francisco. Now we had a place and a chef. But we still needed a name. All kinds of names were going through our heads. Then one night Drew saw this bottle of wine. The light was hitting it a certain way, and he was very inspired by it. We named the restaurant for that exquisite burgundy: Montrachet.

Montrachet: the restaurant named for an exquisite burgundy - Click to Enlarge
Montrachet: the restaurant named for an exquisite burgundy
Montrachet opened in April of 1985.    When it was seven weeks old, it got a three star rating from Bryan Miller in the New York Times who praised its “alluring food, relaxed atmosphere, and reasonable prices.”  That summer, lured by the Times review, we headed in to the Lower West Side to have dinner at this exciting new restaurant everyone was talking about.  We drove in from Long Island to meet friends who drove in from Staten Island and Jersey. 

All of us got lost. “Come down Varick and make the turn on Beech,” they told us when we called for directions. We had never even heard of those streets. Luckily it was still light out at seven in the evening; we could imagine ourselves driving up and down the dark streets of an unknown, deserted neighborhood for hours. But ultimately we found the place, and it was like Paris. To this day, we remember great French food and a prix fixe dinner of $16.00! 

We’d been back to Montrachet over the years, but when we reserved a table for dinner on a Friday night last month, we realized it had been a long time since our last visit. The neighborhood is hopping now. Even if we didn’t know the way, there are plenty of people on the street, and probably each one of them can direct you to Montrachet. The place is hopping too. It hasn’t lost its Left Bank ambience but the look is more elegant with huge abstract paintings adorning the walls and hundred of bottles of wines stacked up the high ceilinged wall behind the bar. Montrachet seats 100 today, but it’s still a compact, comfortable place, the kind of place where pretentiousness is unknown.

The food is still sublime. In a decadent mood, one of us started with warm oysters with champagne sauce and Osetra caviar while the other went for the arugula salad topped with a mound of endive and tossed with bits of little chunks of roquefort and walnuts. We shared a salad of the most delicate crab meat we had ever tasted seasoned with purple basil and finished with a tomato basil puree as smooth and refreshing as sherbert, and in honor of what for us was the longest awaited spring in history, an incomparable vegetable risotto with morels and asparagus.

“We are not of that persuasion that only a Frenchman can make great French food,” Tracy had told us.  Montrachet’s Executive Chef Harold Moore is American, but his preparations are undoubtedly French. The horseradish crusted Scottish salmon was a zestful delight, the turbot with artichokes and tomato confit tender and flavorful. Harold Moore also does mustard crusted sweetbreads, pan seared duck breast, roasted chicken with potato puree and petit pois – all options we seriously considered and put on hold for our next visit. For dessert, we binged on the rich, warm chocolate bread pudding and lemon cake with raspberries. It was a dinner of great food in an atmosphere that lacked attitude, just as Drew had imagined it sixteen years ago.

“We have a very strong wine culture at Montrachet,” Tracy told us.  “We bring in famous winemakers from all over the world who don’t come to this country very often for special wine dinners. They’ll explain, say, twelve different kinds of wine. I’m more insane about baseball than wine, but people who are like moonies when it comes to wine really enjoy these tastings. Our cellar has maybe 35,000 bottles.”

We had one of them, a pure, perfectly clear and dry white Burgundy Comte Lafon 1999 – from Macon-Milly, one of the top Burgundy producers, according to sommelier Bernie Sun, who told us it is also a great value. Ask Bernie what makes Montrachet special, and you’ll get a one-word answer “Burgundy.” If pressed, he’ll elaborate: “Montrachet has the best Burgundy list in the city, if not the country, for overall depth and style. Some people call us the Burgundy Club.”

“Bernie works with our wine director Daniel Johnness who has been with us from the beginning,” Tracy told us. “Daniel goes to France several times a year to buy our wines. Bernie came to us from Lespinasse which has “less panache” now that Bernie’s here.”

Some of the bottles that support the strong wine culture at Montrachet - click to Enlarge
Some of the bottles that support the strong wine culture at Montrachet
On Bernie’s recommendation we sampled Inniskillin ice wine from Canada. Ice wine is made from grapes that are frozen on the vine and crushed in the winery so that all that comes out is the concentrated nectar which is aged in stainless steel. The product is the pure essence of the fruit, not fortified in any way. While on the subject of desert wines, we told Bernie of our recent visit to Madeira whereupon he brought out an 1834 bottle and gave us each a small sample.
Bernie Sun, Sommelier Sensationale! - Click to Enlarge
Bernie Sun, Sommelier Sensationale!
The ebullient young sommelier's enthusiasm for his work was contagious. We mentioned this to Tracy who agreed. "You can't be good unless you have good people following you," he said. "How could anyone operate multiple businesses otherwise? You can't be in front of every business you own. You can't do it all by yourself."

The Nieporent multiple business operation began five years after Montrachet’s debut when the brothers opened TriBeCa Grill in what formerly had been a warehouse.  Their dad, who died in 1986, thought they should stay put with Montrachet. “He loved this place,” Tracy said. “And when we’d talk to him about opening other places he’d say, ‘Why do you want to do that for? You’ve got this.’ He had a Depression mentality. If you risk something, you can lose everything. But Drew knew it wouldn’t be fulfilling to be in just one place and not try to do something else.”

 By 1990, the erstwhile dim downtown industrial neighborhood on the Lower West Side was defined by a name: TriBeCa, an acronym for the triangle below Canal Street. It had a shape and an identity, and the new Nieporent restaurant, with its big central bar and sophisticated ambience, underscored the area’s vitality. “It’s not your typical bar and grill mentality,” according to Tracy. “It’s more sophisticated without being haute.”

Nobu, the next Nieporent eatery is definitively haute, albeit Japanese. It debuted in 1994 after Drew lured the Beverly Hills sushi chef Nobu Matushisa to TriBeCa and named a new Hudson Street restaurant after him. By this time the brothers could count on financing from celebrities like Robert De Niro and Mikhail Baryshnikov to create the stunning David Rockwell interior where birch tree columns seem to be holding up a copper sky. If you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, you’ll step from Hudson Street into the Japanese countryside and dine on Japanese delicacies such as you’ve never had before.

Now it’s 2001, and there’s Middle Eastern cuisine at Layla a few doors down from Montrachet and home-baked bread and pastries at TriBakery next to TriBeCa Grill. Uptown there’s healthful Heartbeat, Icon, and Pulse.  There are restaurants in Pittsburgh, London, San Francisco, Boca, Martha’s Vineyard and Seattle . . .

The Brothers Nieporant: Tracy (left) and Drew - Click to Enlarge
The Brothers Nieporant: Tracy (left) and Drew

How did this all happen to a couple of kids who went to public schools, played on the sidewalks and schoolyards of New York? To Tracy, it seems kind of inevitable. “Drew is very perceptive about what the public wants and trying to satisfy it, and he’s also on top of every operation,” he says. “Beyond that we set out to do the best job we could and were able to reach a market where people appreciate good food and develop a following with many long-time customers. Of course we also had a little luck. But I have to admit we never imagined we could do this when we started. When we see all these people we admired growing up, baseball and basketball players, movie stars, boxers coming into our restaurant and wanting to know us, it’s surreal.”

What’s surreal to us is how nice these guys are. These are the people who saw the future in the down and out downtown neighborhood that became TriBeCa. They run restaurants all over the place. They own some of the hottest spots in the City of New York. Yet they are the most down-to-earth, warmest, friendliest people you could imagine.

Married, with families of their own, Drew and Tracy live across the river in New Jersey. But in their hearts, they'll always be New Yorkers. They're still big baseball fans, and their favorite teams are still the Yankees and Mets.

How about the restaurants? Any favorites? “We love all our restaurants equally,” says Drew. “But Montrachet, being the oldest and being the one that basically gave us the opportunity to do other things, is special.”

Montrachet
239 West Broadway
New York, NY  10013

Phone: 212-219-2777

The Myriad Restaurant Group
375 Greenwich Street
New York, NY  10013

Web: http://www.Myriadrestaurantgroup.com 

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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