Opening a restaurant — and staying open — in New York City is difficult under normal circumstances. Even beloved and well-reviewed restaurants come and go, victim of high rents, low margins, and constant competition from new restaurants.
Spanish chef Mikel De Luis was all set to open Haizea, his first solo restaurant, on March 19. Two days before that, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all restaurants in the city to close. Since then, some restaurants have reopened for takeout and delivery — with varying levels of success — and most have had to grapple with widespread uncertainty within an industry that’s since rallied together to support their own.
Two months later, Haizea is finally opening — just not how De Luis originally imagined. The chef was planning to serve his Basque-inspired menu, tapas-style, to guests seated at bar-only seating. It will be awhile until that vision is realized. Instead, the intimate 22-seat restaurant will open with a takeout-only menu.
Since March, De Luis has been enjoying the unexpected quiet time at home with his wife and continuing to develop new recipes. Without being able to dine out, De Luis suspected that people are growing increasingly more interested in dining-in via takeout after months spent inside. The warm weather has certainly drawn people outdoors, if recent photos of packed piers and streets in downtown Manhattan are any evidence.
Much of the menu at Haizea has been updated to reflect the pivot to takeout. There are several obvious to-go options, such as the sandwiches — the Iberico sandwich, calamari sandwich, and veggie tuna sandwich — and even the croquettes trio with squid ink. Less-obvious choices, like the cheese board and quince cake with fig, and the artfully plated anchovy duo, appear less easy to adapt from artful plating to at-home dish.
“The main thing right now with takeout is you need to make sure the food is arriving properly,” says the chef. “Making sure the food will be almost the same as eating in the restaurant.”
There’s also the hurdle of getting people to order from a new place rather than a familiar tried-and-true haunt. He views the takeout opening as similar to a soft opening, when the restaurant can quietly refine dishes and settle into actually working in the space before business (hopefully) picks up. Employing just a handful of people, Haizea, which is located on a charming block of Sullivan Street just south of Houston Street, was already a modest operation. For at least the first four weeks, Haizea will be operating as a two-person kitchen of De Luis and a chef de cuisine. He hopes to add a sous chef down the line.
De Luis has worked in the kitchens of Michelin-starred chef Martín Berasategui at the Ritz-Carlton in the Canary Islands, SoHo House and Aspen resort The Little Nell. He also runs his own events catering company, aMona (named for his grandmother), and sells a line of branded salsas. Before deciding to take the plunge into the New York restaurant market with Haizea, he was thinking about leaving the city all together; there are certainly less risky and competitive cities to open shop. Instead, Haizea marks a final chance at making a mark and proving himself in New York.
Although there are plenty of tapas restaurants, Basque cuisine is still relatively unsaturated in New York — although with the opening of Ernesto’s in January, Haizea might signal that the cuisine is prime for a moment. De Luis sees his concept as distinct, a blend of his background working in Barcelona and growing up in the Basque region. When finally open to in-restaurant diners, he’ll be cooking in front of guests, providing a sort of culinary theater similar to the Spanish tapas restaurant Boqueria, but on a smaller scale.
With the continued closure of restaurants in New York, though, it’s hard to say what the scene will look like once the city is open for business again, and what diners will gravitate toward. As an intimate restaurant, Haizea’s size may work in its favor — better a handful of people then a mega dining room seating over a hundred customers at one time and turning twice that in covers on a busy night.
The restaurant has the benefit of built-in social distancing, with two separate and unique dining rooms seating 10 people at bar stools. A hallway connecting the two rooms will feature a small market, selling his aMona salsas and other imported goods from Spain, and De Luis hopes to eventually cultivate a speakeasy-vibe in the back room once Haizea is fully open.
“I think that we’ll learn from this situation; we’ll be more careful,” he says, adding that the situation has been good in terms of personal finances — at least from a customer perspective. (“Of course, my wife has the privilege that I can cook all the time at home,” he adds.)
“The situation is going to be tough, but whoever gets the remaining business will be successful, I hope so,” he says. “I don’t want to get rich or anything. I just want to express myself and make people happy.”