No one in the restaurant world has followed a career path quite like Mathieu Palombino’s. First it was all Bouley tasting menus. Then came butter-poached lobsters at Cello followed by salt-crusted pink snappers at BLT Fish. And after that? Margherita pizzas and meatballs at Motorino. Now, with the opening of the Bowery Diner, the Belgian-born, Michelin-starred chef is turning his attention to blue-plate specials, eggs over easy, and whiskeys down. Given this downwardly mobile trend, one wonders whether Palombino’s next move will be hawking peanuts at Citi Field (first-rate peanuts, no doubt, but still). Here he is to explain for himself.
You’re French—all right, Belgian. What do you know about diners?
I identify closely with the diner, because when I was doing my apprenticeship in Europe, I worked part of the time in a brasserie. From a conceptual point of view, the diner and the brasserie are pretty much the same thing.
But when you got this space, that wasn’t what you had in mind.
I wanted to do a steakhouse inspired by Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte, but I was at a meeting with the community board, and a lady said: “Well, it sounds great, but of course, we all wish you’d open a diner,” and that struck a chord. I believe that if the neighborhood adopts you, you’re in good shape.
What do you like about diners?
I like them because they’re honest, but the food’s another story. The problem is that it’s all about the biggest possible portion at the cheapest possible price. This is what kills it. I understand that’s what the truck driver wants, but I think there’s a happy medium, and while New Yorkers like these classic dishes, they also want quality.
A diner needs a good burger. Have you got one?
I think I have a great idea: All the burgers that I’m going to do will be doubles. My thinking is that the best part of a burger is the part that gets browned, so if I do two five-ounce patties, I have twice the real estate of browned beefy meat. I have a Béarnaise burger, an heirloom-tomato burger, and a cheeseburger deluxe on the menu.
What dish are you most excited about?
The Reuben. Except for the bread, I make it entirely from scratch. I met my father-in-law in a tiny bar in Michigan over a Reuben. I’d never had one before—I was blown away. I ate nothing but Reubens for an entire week.
Do you miss fine dining?
I do, but it doesn’t matter. When I look at a sandwich that took me twenty attempts to get right and it’s perfect, that satisfies my chef-ego. It’s the same at Motorino: When I walk between the tables and all the pizzas look beautiful, I’m happy. It doesn’t have to be a lobster.