Spanning a New York City block below the Maritime Hotel, the pan-Asian restaurant TAO Downtown is hoping to attract a real cross-section of customers both familiar and unfamiliar with the brand. Since its midtown Manhattan and Las Vegas openings in 2000 and 2005 respectively, TAO has ushered in the concept of vibe dining and its original two properties have become some of the highest-grossing restaurants in the country. Its third outpost after years of perfecting the brand is offering new flavor profiles and heavily-reasearched dishes in an attempt to step up its culinary game (think hand-pulled noodles and a three-level fish tank).
But of course, the design elements are just as exciting as the food. Designed by the Rockwell Group, the 400-seat, multi-level space showcases such design elements as a 40-foot staircase, hand-painted, mixed media murals by English street artist Hush, two custom-made 16-feet long Buddhas and a koi pond.
Partner Noah Tepperberg’s favorite design element is the “salon bar” in the bathroom lounge (wet your whistle while you wait in line!), and when he’s there (almost every night since the opening), he orders the Shanghai vegetable dumplings and the beef short ribs but he’s also obsessed with the dim sum offerings.
“Guests can have such a variety of experiences at the restaurant,” partner Rich Wolf explains. “From dining in the staircase banquettes or daybed-like love seats to a new take on the sushi bar experience, it’s incredible to feel the energy that’s alive in the room.” And some of the décor elements are distinctly-Asian: “While traveling through Asia I picked up many of the pieces found throughout the restaurant and these sculptures and artifacts are sprinkled throughout the restaurant’s dining room.”
We spoke with TAO Group chef/partner Ralph Scamardella to learn more about what we can expect.
What’s going to be different food-wise at Tao Downtown compared to the midtown or Las Vegas outposts?
We will continue to celebrate Cantonese-style cooking and the flavors of Thailand and Japan, but our research abroad has resulted in a menu that draws on a breadth of Asian influence from Hunan and Szechuan-style cooking to the flavors of Singapore and Malaysia.
What kind of crowd do you think this new space will attract?
We strive to offer a variety of experiences to accommodate a diverse crowd. Guests who want to have a light bite and a cocktail can do so at Ink Bar or in our restaurant lounge, or they can stay for a meal and have dinner and a show in one of our staircase banquets, providing sweeping views of the restaurant and prime seating to watch who’s coming in and out.
What have you learned from the two other locations that you can instill here?
The other two locations prepared me for high quality in high volumes, which is something we’re challenged with nightly here at TAO Downtown, as well. We were able to perfect our techniques uptown, so it made training, as well as the execution of service, much easier to implement here.
How has the Tao brand matured over the years?
At TAO Downtown we’re showcasing how TAO will look moving forward—from design and décor to the menu. I think it’s going to surprise people. Guests will know they’re at TAO, but it will be unlike anything they’ve seen from us before. We’ve taken more risks with our menu, and we want our guests to come back to enjoy their favorites that have been re-imaged, as well as make new favorites as they taste their way through our predominantly new menu.
Are you experimenting with new ingredients and dishes?
Yes. TAO Downtown’s menu will feature predominantly new menu items. Our main goal was authenticity, and I spent weeks traveling throughout Asia to countries like Shanghai, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Tokyo to study these flavors and even brought back talent from overseas to help execute this vision. We are hand-pulling our own noodles in-house for dishes like our Roast Chicken Chow Mein, and we have a three-level fish tank in the kitchen to only serve the freshest ingredients possible.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I love the Crispy Snapper in the Sand which has been our most popular dish so far. It was something we saw during a great dinner in Hong Kong. We were having a great time and the dish came out but the chef wouldn’t budge on the recipe. Eventually, I bought the entire kitchen a beer and they finally let me videotape how the dish was made. Another dish that is truly special to me is the Shanghai Dumplings. It’s is a fun dish to watch people eat because the crisp hides the dumplings underneath and they pull it apart to reveal the gyoza on the plate!
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