Barchetta: Ocean to Table

“After years of great dinners, lots of white wine, and crudo tastings at the bar at Esca, we finally decided to do a restaurant together,” says John Meadow of Chef Dave Pasternack. “And I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve always said that the dining experience at Esca was my personal favorite in New York, and now we have that in our own restaurant repertoire.”

Putting a more casual spin on Pasternack’s passionate approach to the brightest and freshest seafood, Barchetta (“Little Boat”) was born as a rustic Italian seafood trattoria. “Our objective with Barchetta is not to have another scalable brand—there will never be another Barchetta. We are going to have one magical jewel box of a restaurant, and I plan on eating there with family and friends for a long time to come.” With Chris Sheffield at the design helm, this time the process of developing the restaurant was a little different. Sheffield, Meadow, and Pasternack took an organic route to give Barchetta an intimate feel in a great spot in Chelsea. “Sometimes when something is designed to perfection, it’s missing a soul. So in this case, our design approach was simple: we’ve gone out and sourced everything ourselves, including antique 1960s Danish school chairs along with tables made from an 1840s ceiling joist from a factory in Philadelphia. Everything about Barchetta is nurtured. It comes from within. Even the logo was hand-painted by someone in our office. There is something true and simple in this approach that will resonate with everyone who walks in.” It’s a personal achievement for Meadow, who reminisces, “once upon a time, the little boy in me wanted to open a restaurant.” That
restaurant is definitely Barchetta, and he couldn’t find a better partner than Chef Pasternack with which to do it. “You can see so much of who Dave is in his food—not contrived or calculated, but heartfelt, humble, and understated with great conviction and precision. Dave Pasternack knows exactly who he is as a person. And that self-awareness translates into his pursuit of sourcing the best seafood and treating it with respect. With zero pretense and ego, he is the ultimate celebrated chef worshipped by his peers.”

With just 80 seats, Barchetta comes 14 years after Chef Dave Pasternack opened his acclaimed Esca, for which he has been called the “fish whisperer.” When he’s not in the kitchen, you’ll find him in the waters off Long Island, where he grew up and developed a love for the sea—and the art of fishing—at a very early age. “I think that people genuinely want to eat in a more casual environment,” explains Pasternack. “I’ve cooked up a seafood minestrone to be our house soup. There will be a Neapolitan fusilli using a surf clam. I get them from Cape Cod, and they are succulent, sweet, briney, and very tender. Tim Stark at Eckerton Hill Farms is growing chilies for me that we dry and smoke and use to make our own paprika. We’re doing octopus with Tim’s chilies and a Spanish red shrimp slightly poached with lemon aioli.” As he runs through the menu, you can picture Pasternack on his boat, reeling in fish after fish, dish after dish. After all, the beauty of his menus is that they change daily according to what’s fresh in the market. “Everyone talks about buying local, farm to table, but no one talks about ocean to table,” Pasternack explains. “People don’t realize that we have thousands of miles of waterways in our own metropolitan area, and the abundance of product is tremendous.” He continues to pull fish into his “little boat.” “We’re into spring, so expect shad roe and softshell crabs. I use everything I can get my hands on, and I get a lot of stuff that nobody else can,” he says, smiling. “Moon snails from Long Island up to Rhode Island; local conch too. Soon we will start getting milt, which is cod sperm that tastes like sweetbreads. It’s delicious if it’s done right. We poach them lightly and pan-fry them in breadcrumbs with a little mustard until they get real crispy on the outside but stay milky and creamy on the inside.” Pasternack credits his accessibility to relationships with the right fishermen. “I don’t buy fish from a distributor,” he states. “I actually buy the person behind the fish. It’s about trusting the guy on the other end of the telephone line. I have a native Alaskan fisherman who lives in Cook Inlet and sends me salmon that would crush anyone else’s in New York. No question about it!” He talks about “mixed boxes” he bought this morning straight off the boat from a fisherman who usually sells only straight to the fish market. “One was 50 pounds of monkfish and 6 pounds of monk livers; one was 21 pounds of gray sole, 5 pounds of squid, and 4 pounds of whiting; and the third was 38 pounds of skate wings. What a bonus!” He talks with more than just authority—he also talks with passion. Dave Pasternack still loves what he does. “I have a fisherman in Montauk who bleeds his fish, cutting them behind the gills and then putting them in a saltwater tank to firm up the meat. It’s a Japanese technique for sushi so that the meat comes out cleaner without veins. It’s expensive and there are other places you can get them bled for a little cheaper, but it’s just not the same.” The boat is getting pretty full now, but his fishing line is still taut. “Bay scallops in the shell from Cape Cod. Charter crabs and gunnard from Rhode Island, which is a very important fish in Italy. It’s a sticky white meat they call gallinella di mare, or chicken of the sea.” But it’s all for naught if you don’t have an audience. Pasternack says, beaming, “You’ve got to educate your staff and your guests. I make my own salmon caviar, and it used to be a tough sell. People wouldn’t eat it, and I’d have to come up with creative ways to sell it. Now all I have to do is throw it up on Instagram when it’s available and 25 people show up. Sometimes they come in two or three nights in a row. It’s crazy!”

Designer Chris Sheffield knows what it’s like to operate with deep pockets. He just wrapped up two projects for MGM and has worked for the likes of Walt Disney World, as well as bespoke hotel groups. So when John Meadow and Dave Pasternack approached him for Barchetta, its refreshing honesty—and shoestring budget— hooked him from the start.
“The most exciting part about this project was getting back to our entrepreneurial roots and getting creative,” explains Sheffield. “We are telling a very specific design story here because of the kind of restaurant this is. There is an honesty and authenticity to the food that is carried over into a very primal design aspect. It’s a reflection of what’s going on in the kitchen.” Like Meadow, Sheffield is a fan of not only the food, but also the man behind it. “Dave Pasternack is as real as it gets. The first time I met him, I felt like I had known him all of my life. From the level of ingredients to preparation, everything is top-notch, but it’s also straightforward. You kind of know what you are getting, and yet that makes it even more spectacular. Here, too, the design is unfiltered because it’s essentially about three people coming together all bonded into the same idea of where we wanted to be.” Working within an iconic neighborhood, Sheffield was conscious of highlighting the space’s details and architecture for the sake of its history. “We wanted to connect back to the context of this 1920s building and the surrounding area.” He also wanted to let in more light and enhance that Mediterranean sensibility it gives off inside the room. “We wanted to introduce some lighter vertical surfaces to be reflective.” The wood ceiling is new and adds warmth. The floors are refinished in a lighter shade. A large window in the back opens up the space, reflecting ambient light coming off the courtyard. This dining area is elevated, and Sheffield celebrates this bird’s- eye view with a 1930s French pendant light that lives over a big wooden table for private dining. Despite the lack of a formal attack plan, a common vocabulary exists between the design elements. “There is a composition of some crafted things, but given our budget we looked for functionality as well.” He points to a lead glass screen from a house in Philadelphia that shields the view of the bathrooms and the kitchen. “We don’t have the big open-kitchen experience here, but we did want to create some of that energy and dynamic of service as an integral part of the experience. And so there will be shelving on the back of the screen to add functionality as well as the feeling that you are still connected to what’s happening in the kitchen.”
A dark navy wainscoting around the perimeter grounds the space. There are clear hints of something nautical—portals in the bathrooms, and copper and brass lights salvaged from a decommissioned freighter—but it doesn’t go overboard. “It’s a nod to something absolutely nautical, and yet the finish and detail isn’t.” If there’s a cohesive theme to point out, it might be a brush with French industrial design found in the details: brass accents in the form of brackets on a steel frame, or brass railings at the front on which will hang the menus. But it’s mostly a “special eye to the big picture that we curated all of these found objects,” Sheffield says. School chairs from Amsterdam were upholstered to “kind of match” the wainscoting. Tables were crafted from beams taken from a 1870s farmhouse in Lancaster County, each with its own character. “It’s less rustic and more about the sense that somebody’s hand touched this table, much in the same way that Dave’s hand touches everything served on it.” No one piece will jump out at you, but each adds that sense of soulfulness Sheffield was going for. “And that is the line that runs through the design. We want it to feel a bit special. Everything has a backstory.” Even the art direction, which draws from its location to the galleries in West Chelsea, has depth. “Scenic paintings layer the walls, as opposed to a flat applied paint. It doesn’t feel fake. There is a bohemian mix of emerging artists, and some vintage pieces that, again, hint at the sea. Like the needlepoint of a clipper ship from the 1920s that will live right next to a hand sketch by a Brooklyn artist done six months ago.” The result is a residential, comfortable feel. There’s a distinct dining room but a larger bar that can seat more diners. “We created a drink rail deep enough to accommodate people eating appetizers or waiting for tables, with ample circulation room.” There’s something casual and reassuring about Barchetta, like going home. “It’s the kind of place we want to come to, and bring our friends to, and let it grow organically. It’s scary to fly by the seat of our pants,” concedes Sheffield, “but it’s also been a lot of fun. We walked into this saying, ‘Let’s prepare to be surprised’—and we have been.”

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