Beneath the courtly Swiss reserve, Gray Kunz betrays the mildest impatience. “We are just so ready to open this place.”
And how. It’s been seven months since Time Warner Center opened, and the Restaurant Collection has seemed rather leisurely about its unveilings. But Kunz, who made his reputation at Lespinasse, hasn’t been frittering the weeks away. Café Gray “is my first restaurant, really, really, that I own,” says Kunz, “and I’m going to do it right, and say, ‘This is what I believe needs to get done.’ ” The list of things that need to get done is apparently almost infinite. No detail has escaped Kunz’s attention, from the odd location of the open kitchen (between the dining room and the Central Park view) to the breadbasket. “I spent hours and hours designing these bread stations, and we’ve also worked out the way to have our butter at the right temperatures,” he says. “It’s crucial. If you start wrong with the bread and butter and the water, you’ve got a very bad head start.”
Kunz knows something about those. He’s lacked a kitchen of his own since he left Lespinasse in 1998. Since then, he’s written a cookbook, scouted for locations, and collaborated with Jean-Georges Vongerichten on Spice Market, where he could, until recently, be found reveling in the Asian ingredients that animated his fanciful fusion. But “I left most of it at Spice,” says Kunz of that exoticism. At Café Gray, he’s excavated the café classics learned during his apprenticeship in Switzerland.
Vitello tonnato, for one. “When I was working in Zurich, we used to do that dish every Thursday,” he says. “I felt it needed something: lightness, maybe more acidity. So I added some bottarga, some nice herbs on top. I use Parmesan shavings, lemon dice, some fresh thyme. Certain recipes call for hard-boiled egg, so I push them through a sieve very fine, and mix them with chopped olives to make a vinaigrette.”
That’s what happens when you unleash prodigious talent on a staid recipe. “I’ve been doing that high-high-high-end thing for so many years,” says Kunz. “I’m going to try and provide a price range where people will be surprised.” (Though $23-to-$34 entrées are astounding only next to Lespinasse’s.) What he wants, for now, is to remind New York what we’ve been missing: the lushness of his truffled risotto, the technical prowess, and the attention to detail that extends even to coffee. “The sheer serving is very much the style of Viennese coffee,” he says. “It comes with a glass of water. It’s really beautiful. We’ve worked a lot on that.” We bet they have.