The Jean Nouvel-designed tower, 53 West 53rd may have stoked up some controversy in its time, but 53, the stylish restaurant occupying its ground and sub-ground floor, has only ever garnered rave reviews. Managed by the Altamarea Group, and a pet project of Ahmass Fakahany, the hospitality group’s founder and CEO, 53 is an evocative tribute to contemporary Asian cuisine and manages the seemingly impossible by serving exquisitely authentic dishes that are elevated in their treatment.
Inside 53 restaurant: a passion project
53 is the result of Fakahany’s time spent in Asia – ten years living in the region as a finance executive, which gave him firsthand experience and access to some of the finest food there. ‘Being a New Yorker, I wanted to bring the tastes of my time in Asia from places that I have been, to the city that I love,’ he says. ‘During my time there, I experienced many wonderful places to eat food in elegant settings done with precision or with innovation. For 53, we wanted to take that inspiration and build in a comfortable, chic atmosphere, a multisensory experience for the guest around taste, visuals, sound and smell. It was a long passion project in the making with a lot of research and curation.’
The concept became a reality once Fakahany met Akmal Anuar – a Singapore-born chef whose culinary journey began with him helping out at his parents’ hawker stand and saw him become head chef at Iggy’s, one of the country’s most established fine dining restaurants. ‘Given all the flavour profiles in Singapore and chef Akmal’s technique in Japanese and French cuisine, I felt he was the right culinary partner and we started building around the vision to bring it to reality,’ Fakahany says.
At 53, the typically extensive menus ubiquitous of Asian restaurants have been condensed into a single page. ‘We turned the typical Asian menu on its ear, and you essentially order by cooking technique and not the protein, such as steamed, grill, wok and clay pot, for example,’ he continues. ‘Despite being a one-sheet menu, there are about 46 dishes. I believed if we could capture the flavour elements of different regions so one dish would not overwhelm the palate but stimulate, we could get visitors to try and enjoy a breadth of flavours and dishes in one sitting.
‘I wanted to create classic dishes reimagined or reinterpreted and new ones that stayed true to core flavours. There are great Japanese and Chinese restaurants in New York, but I felt there were not any with all flavours done very well under one roof and uniquely, also with Southeast Asian dishes and techniques included in the roster. We call it Contemporary Asian. It is a true sharing experience and New Yorkers love to be adventurous and daring. It was the perfect backdrop.’
Aside from being a thrill for the palette, 53 stimulates the senses with an art programme curated in partnership with Petzel Gallery, which rotates every four to six months. ‘The artists that we’ve installed at 53 – Jorge Pardo, Robert Heinecken and, most recently, Ross Bleckner – work in mediums ranging from photography to painting to design. When I consider the ethos of 53, there is so much variety presented and we want to showcase artworks that complement this variety, in addition to the artful plating of each dish to give a multisensory experience,’ says Friedrich Petzel.
‘The concept of the restaurant-as-gallery has persisted over time as countless restaurants have paired works of fine art with their overall atmosphere and menu. We felt that showcasing art in this setting provided both physical and visual nourishment to guests and the location of this restaurant at the base of MoMA could not be better.’
Pei-Ru Keh is the US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru has held various titles at Wallpaper* since she joined in 2007. She currently reports on design, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru has taken a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars and actively seeks out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.
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