On Valentine’s Day 1994, Bistro 821 opened with Jesse Housman at the range. There were hardly any restaurants on Fifth Avenue South at the time, although a comprehensive plan was in place to make the avenue what it is now.
“The hot places at the time were Tony Ridgway’s Truffles and Chef’s Garden on Third Street South, and I worked at both before we opened Bistro 821,” says Housman.
Over the years, Housman has morphed from employee to partner to majority owner, but the concept has remained the same: an upscale yet casual neighborhood place with excellent food and friendly service. Housman, who studied under luminaries such as Jacques Pépin and Julia Child, specializes in what he calls “natural fusion,” a style of cooking where basic French techniques are applied to cuisines as far-flung as Italian and Asian. He gave the decor a facelift after buying out his partners earlier this year, commissioning sculptures from Ed Kohler and dedicating a wall to local artists.
The bar program is just as interesting as the food and ambience. Bistro 821 offers eight barrel-aged cocktails, including the Zombie (pictured), a combination of light, dark, and overproof rum with Velvet Falernum, citrus, and bitters.
Experimentation aside, Housman’s philosophy is simple. “We try to find out exactly what customers want and then give it to them,” he says. “There are dishes that have been on the menu for decades, but we’re always coming up with something new.”