I often say that restaurants are living, breathing things, organisms greater—and sometimes lesser—than the sum of their parts. A place can have perfectly starched linen, attentive service, better than passable food, enough even to appeal to reviewers, but feel soulless. A humble hole in the wall that uses store-bought red sauce and has grimy loos can hold its own special magic.

The heartbeat of a restaurant is elusive if you listen too hard for it. You have to squint, savor what’s served up, what it tells you about the chef, and wait for the energy of the room to wash over you…because the special ones, though few and far between, will attract like-minded folk who are attracted to, and simultaneously essential to, the je ne c’est quoi factor. They’re mathematical reciprocals: restaurants and their clientele.

The best part about this energetic heartbeat of a place is that like all iterations of beauty, it’s utterly subjective. What makes my toes curl may make your skin crawl. It’s a gut reaction, a love connection, like any other. But this is my little Lovage you’re visiting, so I’ll tell you now about what I’m in love with: Navy.

Navy Sardine

Antique Japanese indigos from the early 20th century cover the windows, and the morning sun shining through highlights the careful, hand-sewn geometric patchwork repairs in the aged boros. Do you know what wabi-sabi is? It’s almost impossible to define in our Western lexicon, but in essence, it’s the Japanese notion that something is beautiful because of—not in spite of—its imperfections. It’s one of my favorite principals, and one that applies to most everything (a snaggletooth; an heirloom carrot; a riff of jazz).

At Navy, a copper coffee bar near the door becomes an oyster bar at night. Old naval flags and yellowed wooden banquets that look like they came from the deck of a salty old ferry line the narrow room. Vintage army canvas and saffron-hued antique French linens reflect the warm light cast by impeccable Kaiser-Dell scissor lamps and graceful milk glass shades. My favorite spot  is where an old linen sheet was embroidered for its original owner; a aged marital gift, perhaps, appropriated in this maritime hub.

Navy Monogram

It’s no surprise I love this place; it’s from the old friends and owners—Matt Abramcyk and Akiva Elstein—who gave us the minute and magical Smith & Mills. At Navy, they’ve cleverly commissioned Camille Becerra to preside over the seafood and vegetable-focused menu. House-cured cod with a crispy grain cake and a smear of wasabi tobiko crème is a harmony of tastes and textures. A whole sardine with red roe garnishing its fishy head is, by Camille’s own admission, “a flavor balancing act,” and a successful one.

Camille may not look like the quintessential chef in her French laborer’s coat and wide-brimmed hat as she nestles up to us in a booth to say hi, but she’s killing it in the kitchen with dishes like crispy gnocchi with squash, poached egg and piquant, audacious tonnato. Her food, like all my favorite chefs’, is recognizable. The combination of elements—something creamy, something fishy, something crispy, something clean—are her tell, the artist’s thumbprint amid the brushstrokes. Decadent curls of cold uni butter on thick toasted pan de mie with celery and sorrel leaves is enough to make my knees go weak.

Navy had my heart at antique Japanese indigos and keeps it with roast bass with sauce gribiche. Daytime meals there, when there’s a little bit less bustle and lot more light to reflect, are where I’d happily ensconce myself to read for hours (if I had them). The perfect egg sandwich—something I’ve dedicated many a cruel morning to finding—with boiled eggs, caper-punctuated mayonnaise and cress, waits in a glass case for me like a beacon. An egg bowl of farro, sumac yogurt and roast veg appeases every hungry hippie.

I’m biased, sure. I’ve known these guys forever; they’ve supplied me with clubhouses before. Navy plays to all my maritime and Francophile tendencies; it’s where wabi-sabi and je ne c’est quoi meet. But biased or not, I am honest, and sometimes it’s nice to go where everybody knows your name.

A bientôt, mon amie bleu marine.

137 Sullivan St (Prince – Houston)

 All photos by Nicole Franzen but the Polaroid, which is mine. 

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Preserving Chilies with Thomasina Miers on

The Wahaca Restaurateur Pickles Peppers and Reminisces to Tarajia Morrell

Thomasina Miers has championed Mexican cuisine in Britain since she fell in love with the sights and smells of the country at age 18. In the last of our Preserving miniseries, the chef leads us through her early enchantment with Mexico’s flavors and the vigor that those peppers impart. Co-founder of Wahaca restaurants, author of Mexican Food Made Simple and the imminent Chilli Notes: Recipes to Warm the Heart (Not Burn the Tongue), Miers lovingly riffs on the range of possibilities of the ‘chili effect’ and how her zeal for spice and zeal for life are one in the same.

What is it about preserving that appeals to you?
Thomasina Miers:
Often the process improves the flavor of the food we are preserving. So cured ham, particularly when acorn fed, is an astonishingly delicious food; a marmalade or jam sometimes better than the original product—helped along by a little sugar. A pickle heightens the flavor of the vegetable with its acidity and also can lend other flavors through the spicing you use.

What is it you find so inspiring about Mexican food?
It is a cuisine of contrasting textures and temperatures, of the diversity of different food from different regions. Most of all it is fresh with bright, vivid tastes.

What’s the most important lesson from your time in Mexico?
Never underestimate the power of terroir, or how food tastes in its own setting.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I would have loved to have danced. Or written more, if I had the patience. I’d have loved to have painted if I’d had the talent, or sung if I’d had the voice….

When you’re feeling lazy, what’s the simple, comforting but delicious meal you might make yourself to enjoy alone?
Welsh rarebit, or cheese on toast or sautéed greens on toast with chilli and garlic and a fried egg on top.

Guilty pleasure after a long shift?

Aphrodisiac (edible or not)?
Good music, a keen understanding, a meeting of minds, a spark of recognition.  A cocktail.

Last meal?
The best steak, the best chips, the best mayo, a delicious salad. Some very good wine. Great company.

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Preserving Lemons with Angela Hartnett on

The Acclaimed Chef Muses on the Italian Roots of Her Kitchen to Tarajia Morrell

“Instead of letting good produce spoil, preserving the last of the seasons’ harvest opens up new possibilities for creating meals with depth and intrigue,” says Angela Hartnett, the celebrated British chef who divulges the influence of her Italian grandmother’s cooking in the second installment of our miniseries. The successes of the chef patron of both Murano, where she received her second Michelin star, and Café Murano, are an ode to the rustic recipes passed down via once exotic, essential ingredients from her familial larder. Here the restaurateur expounds on guilty pleasures and secret ingredients.

Is there a cuisine other than Italian that you are inspired by?
Angela Hartnett:
Japanese food intrigues me as it’s a foreign take on the same theme of sophisticated yet simple food that I strive for. In a way the principles and some techniques are similar to Italian ones, it’s just a completely different range of ingredients to play with.

What is it about the preserving process that appeals to you?
Treatment with salts and brines develops the flavors of ingredients in interesting ways, so that just when you think you’re sick of a particular ingredient, it becomes interesting again.

Who is your greatest culinary inspiration?
Not a who, but a where: Italy.

What’s the best trick your Italian grandmother taught you about food?
Rather than any trick, my grandma taught me to appreciate the best seasonal ingredients and to value family meals. We would always buy the best produce we could afford to provide for the family, and she would make me take back anything that was substandard. It was also from her that I first learned to make fresh tortelli and ravioli—a version of which I still cook at Murano to this day.

What’s your secret weapon ingredient?
Parmesan, rosemary and garlic are always close to hand.

Would you really be up for life without a refrigerator?
Yes, use ice.

Guilty pleasure after a long shift?
Plain crisps and a glass of strong Italian red wine.

What would be your last meal?
A brilliant prosciutto crudo with the ripest melon for starter and a bowl of agnolini – which is stuffed pasta with veal and beef in a meat broth for main. I don’t really do puddings but a vanilla tart if pushed.

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Preserving with Skye Gyngell on

Pickling Squash and Nostalgic Recollections as Tarajia Morrell Talks to the Australian Chef

The memories inspired by the process of preserving food are explored in a three-part weekly series for NOWNESS, launching with a trip to Skye Gyngell’s north London residence. “It’s a lovely thing to see glowing jars of preserved produce sitting on shelves—there is a romanticism to it,” says the Australian-raised chef, who was awarded a Michelin star in 2011 for her vegetable-focused menu at Petersham Nurseries Café. “I dream of flavors from my childhood: penny sweets such as musk sticks, freckles, cobblers, jaffles and minties,” she says, (though is quick to counter that she no longer indulges in such sugary pleasures). The author of three cookbooks and currently the Director of the culinary program at Heckfield Place in Hampshire, Gyngell’s on the eve of announcing her long awaited new restaurant project and below she divulges her culinary inspirations.

What is it about pickling and preserving that appeals to you?
Skye Gyngell:
I love the way you can elongate the seasons of certain fruits and vegetables in an authentic, natural and time-honored way.

Is there an ingredient you are most enamored of?
What enchants me more than any single ingredient is the bounty that each season brings. Cooking seasonally feels very comforting and familiar, and I am always enchanted and surprised by how well ingredients work together from their own season: I find it miraculous and awe inspiring.

What was the moment you realized that you’d found your calling in the kitchen?
In my first year at university I got a job washing up in a restaurant in Sydney, and loved the atmosphere of a working kitchen. I was soon given small tasks to perform, like making basic stocks, peeling veg and making the sweet pastry for the desserts. I loved it, it felt very comfortable and right. I soon fell in love with these little tasks and craved to learn more. Those feelings have remained with me over the years.

What’s the greatest life lesson that cooking has taught you?
That life is so much nicer when you are doing something you love. That it’s important to persevere. That talent is one thing but it doesn’t ever make up for hard work. The world is full of talented people but it rarely amounts to anything if you’re not prepared to put in the work.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
It would be unthinkable not to be a chef—but perhaps a gardener?

Guilty pleasure after a long shift?
Toast and Vegemite with lots of butter.

Fondest food memory?
Eating a perfectly ripe peach with my father just outside Florence in the summer of 1983—it made me truly fall in love with produce in its purest form for the very first time.

Aphrodisiac (edible or not):
It’s got to be oysters.

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