Next time you're dining at Sel Gris, listen. Over the muffled bass of background music, you'll hear bursts of laughter, the clink of crystal, and the animated conversations of people who are happy to be exactly where they are. And, if you're attentive, you'll hear executive chef and co-owner Daniel Mondok's voice, low and sharp, calling his staff to pick up a plate that's ready to serve.
The servers hustle, because those plates can't wait in the kitchen. "I don't use heat lamps," Mondok explains. He's a man of definite opinions. "My plates are hot. The food is hot. That's how I want it served."
You can't miss Mondok at Sel Gris, WW's 2008 Restaurant of the Year. He's the leading man, front and center beneath the gun-metal-gray proscenium that frames the kitchen in this shoebox of a restaurant. A rack of copper pots hangs from the ceiling, sparkling in silvery pinpoint spots. The bright kitchen light draws all eyes from the subdued dining room to Mondok, in chef's whites, his shaved head giving him a touch of Iron Chef.
If you're at one of the four seats at the bar—for my money, the prime spot in this restaurant—you'll be an arm's length away from Mondok. It's the perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the intense attention to detail that makes Sel Gris stand out. No dish leaves the kitchen without landing on his station first. He might do most of the cooking, or he might just add a squiggle of sauce or a tangle of greens. In any case, it doesn't go to the customer before he's made sure it meets his standards.
Not that Mondok presents himself as some kind of star. He's the first to say that Sel Gris is the sum of many parts, including business partners, servers, fellow chefs, purveyors. But in a world where too many restaurants resemble too many others, what brings customers back to Sel Gris is the sense that this restaurant is one man's vision, and that he's offering it up to the public with all the energy and focus he can muster.
Sel Gris isn't perfect. The room's so small it's hard to believe it seats almost 40; there's no place to wait for a table; the sound level can get out of hand. But, somehow, it works. Neutral colors and minimalist art accommodate both a dressed-up night out and a spur-of-the-moment snack in denim and fleece. Service is warm, efficient and smart. The chairs and banquettes were not designed by a chiropractor eager for business.
Most important, the food at Sel Gris is inventive without being gimmicky, luxurious without being too impressed with itself. The style doesn't work for everyone: Fans of lighter, more ingredient-driven cooking sometimes find Mondok's dishes overly elaborate, especially in warmer months. They criticize his intricate presentations as arty or precious, and I can see their point. But dining at Sel Gris is a take-it-or-leave-it experience. You're entering Mondokworld—it's not like anyplace else in town. And the food is just delicious.
Mondok loves remaking classic recipes. His calamari fritto misto adds preserved lemon and a walnut-olive oil-garlic dip to the fried squid. For his version of salade Lyonnaise (a French bacon-and-egg salad), he takes the components apart. On a matte black plate, he arranges a nest of curly, pale green frisée to cradle a poached duck egg in, then lays a sweet-salty piece of braised bacon on the side. A small pile of chunky gray salt (sel gris, of course) provides punctuation.