Anyone who has wet a line in the Delaware River will no doubt understand chef Tom Valenti’s use of that river’s west branch - known for its beauty and abundance of trout - for the name of his new eatery, soon to open on the Upper West side. Non-fishing folks will likely see the name as a reference to Valenti’s flagship restaurant "Ouest", which is only seven blocks north on Broadway. But either connection will suit Mr. Valenti, whose goal for his long awaited restaurant is to create a local hangout that fits like a warm glove and that delivers taste-driven superior-ingredient cuisine to more casual customers at a lower price point. Now that fishing season is over, Mr. Valenti is putting the finishing touches on his latest venture, which will no doubt bring comfort to hungry Upper West Siders and traveling foodies alike.
The space itself is not fishing-inspired as the watery name may suggest, but rather looks and feels like a more open, neighborhood bar version of Ouest. The West Branch has hardwood floors, decorative brass applications and antique lighting and mirrors. The bar is clearly the focal point of the room, and is significantly larger than Ouest’s - coming in for a burger and a beer at the bar was not possible at Ouest, but it will be at The West Branch. There is clearly a commitment to fine dining in the design, yet at the same time its size signals an effort to keep the price point down.
Our interview with Chef Valenti took place a few weeks before The West Branch’s scheduled opening.
Restaurant Insider: I know you’re an avid fisherman so I can probably guess, but fill me in on the origin of the restaurant’s name.
Tom Valenti: When we first started throwing some names around, we were trying to have it evoke something that was clear and playful with a kind of a pubby groove, but not wanting to go “English pub” like last year’s gastro pub sensation. We started talking about fine fishing patterns, things like Royal Wolf and the Green Drake, and this small group of people I knew said, “Yeah but that’s not really working, what else in that idiom can you toss out at us?” There are a number of beautiful rivers across this continent with fabulous names like Snake River or Henry’s Fork, and they said ‘well what’s up by you?’ So I said, ‘Well, there’s the Willowemoc Creek.’ Nah! ‘There’s the Beaver Kill.’ No! ‘There’s the Delaware and there is the East Branch of the Delaware and there’s The West Branch.’ And they were like, boom, that’s it! Obviously it ties into where we are geographically; it is sort of a branch of our original Ouest, so it stuck.
Restaurant Insider: What are you hoping for as far as the customer base for The West Branch, are you hoping that people from Ouest will become customers, or that it will bring in a brand new kind of clientele?
Tom Valenti: Well, I think that both are going to happen. Despite its close proximity to Ouest, the neighborhood is a little different. Once you cross South or North to 79th Street, it changes, and when you get above 86th and then again above 96th it changes again. It’s very interesting to see who is a regular traveler on the sidewalk. It’s a lower price point, and there are certainly some nicely composed dishes, but we also will have a burger and some great sandwiches, so it will be different.
Restaurant Insider: How did you discover this space? I know there were many rumors over the past year regarding various partnerships, would you like to clear that up?
Tom Valenti: We were actively looking for space on the Upper West Side. We had looked at a couple of spaces, but it was like ‘this bed is too hard, this bed is too soft,’ and then this one came along and ‘this bed is just right.’ The space that we currently are in was actually three storefronts, and there was a fourth storefront that was a restaurant, the Zen Palate. Jeffrey Chodorow had the lease on all four spaces. He called me and said, “Hey, would you like to do a restaurant on the corner of Broadway and 77th Street?” And I explained to him that I would love to but it could be a conflict of interest with my investment team to do another restaurant a mere seven blocks away from Ouest. He was gracious enough to say, “Well, why don’t we just bring them along?” But it became very, very complicated, and one day Jeffrey called me and said, “Why don’t you just take the lease on the three spaces?” And I said, “Well, that is very gracious of you, but what would you like in return?” And what I love about Jeffrey Chodorow is he turned around and said, “Nothing!” He said, “I want to be your neighbor, I have always loved what you do. Would you consider letting me invest in your restaurant?” And so I said, ‘okay, so let me get this straight. You are going to give me the lease, and you’re also giving me some money. How can I say no?’ Next door he’s doing a Fatty Crab with Zac Pelaccio, which I am personally very excited about.
Restaurant Insider: When you saw the space did you have to change the concept that you had developed with your partners, or did the space already kind of “fit”?
Tom Valenti: I really had a predetermination of what I wanted to do up here and the driving force for me was that I wanted a place that I personally would want to go to and eat in. There are certainly selections up here, but I didn’t think there were enough. We’re talking three years ago from the time we began our search to the time we concluded on the lease, and once I saw the size of the space, I was pretty much like, “Yes, this is it!” Because with the current rents in New York City, and especially along the upper Broadway corridor, you cannot afford to do business with a low price point unless you have the volume potential to compensate for it.
Restaurant Insider: Did you bring employees over from Ouest who had expressed an interest in doing something different or did you hire completely new people for The West Branch?
Tom Valenti: I was fortunate enough to bring Todd McMullen back, who was my opening manager both at Ouest and at ‘Cesca. With the kitchen staff, I’ll have my two top guys Lev and Jacque from Ouest who have both been with me for some years now. Lev Gewirtzman has been with me for ten years. I have a lot of staff who have been at Ouest since the day it opened and they deserved a new opportunity. I would rather keep them happily busy in a new place than lose them to some other opportunity.
Restaurant Insider: Are all of your dishes at The West Branch brand new, and how do you prevent people from comparing some of them to Ouest?
Tom Valenti: It’s all new, and it has to be noticeably different from Ouest or else why should you come to this one, you might as well just stay at this other restaurant. But I think that they are going to recognize that there is an inherent style - obviously coming from the source - but it is a different type of thing. If you want to have a quickly grilled steak and french fries for twenty-eight bucks, this is the place. If you want pay $48.00 for a steak, you will come to Ouest. We’ve got pastas and we have very simply composed dishes. A very, very simple approach to the plate versus the slightly more complex stuff that we do uptown.
Restaurant Insider: Do you and your partners see The West Branch as a restaurant that could be branded in the future, more so than Ouest for example?
Tom Valenti: No, but I think that if somebody from Vegas pops through the door and they think they may like to have The West Branch in a hotel there, I would certainly listen, but we did not design it based on that. It is a great way to go, but just for the time being I am happy staying in my own neighborhood. There is plenty of business here.
Restaurant Insider: What is the one thing you learned on this project that was different from your other openings?
Tom Valenti: What is there to learn? That they are always over budget and always over schedule. Opening a restaurant today is dramatically different than what it used to be. It used to be that you get a space, you get the tables and chairs, and you put a sign over your door. It has become very complicated and it’s very hard to pinpoint an opening date because there are inspections and permitting and all that stuff that has to happen. I think that to Mike Bloomberg’s credit, the city has become more and more stringent on issues relating to construction, and this has been on the heels of a crane collapse and a number of scaffolding collapses that has slowed the process of opening this particular business, and a number of others. I am not at all against or opposed to how he handles the physical health of the city because I think he does a remarkable job, they are making sure that everything is properly built. I think everybody is new to the condition that he runs New York as a business, as well it should be. We had four-stories of scaffolding built prior to June 30 and then after June 30, the regulations changed. They sent an inspector out to make sure that it was secure. I mean, I love that! I do not want some calamity on my hands!
Restaurant Insider: How much feedback are you getting from the new dishes from people outside your circle?
Tom Valenti: There is no reaction to my dishes outside my circle. I think that when we approach a menu, we try to design something wherein every menu item is a winner. It does not always happen that way, but it is really hard to know. When I started making lamb shanks at Allison on Dominick in 1989, I didn’t come out of the gate saying ‘this is going to be the big dish.’ I was hoping I sold half a dozen a night. But I am working on a dish now which is basically braised duck gizzards, red wine with tomato and garlic and onion and we are going to serve it simply over polenta. I am loving this dish. I probably will not sell any, but you never know.