The Red Cat restaurant takes a final bow

One of The Red Cat's signature dishes is tempura-fried green beans with sweet-spicy mustard sauce.
One of The Red Cat's signature dishes is tempura-fried green beans with sweet-spicy mustard sauce.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Chef Jimmy Bradley and his then-business partner Danny Abrams opened The Red Cat in 1999, on the west side of 10th Avenue, north of 23rd Street, just south of a car wash.

The restaurant was meant to evoke, Bradley said, New England by way of Paris and his cooking did the same, with side trips all over the world.

The restaurant evinced a particular kind of New York elegance: confident and relaxed, witty, not too formal, but not informal either.

"The Red Cat feels vaguely colonial and tavernlike," Mr Frank Bruni, then-restaurant critic for The New York Times (NYT), wrote in a two-star review in 2005, "except when it feels downtown-gallery cool, and apart from those moments when it feels modestly and eclectically elegant. Choose your mood."

Bradley's current mood is both cheerful and elegiac. He closed the restaurant yesterday and is heading home to Rhode Island and from there to parts unknown.

He was not facing a rent increase or a slump in business. (He and Mr Abrams dissolved their partnership years ago.) Bradley just wanted to quit: 51 years old, Generation X, raised at the nexus of hippies and punk.

"It's time for something new," he said recently, his eyes laughing, as if he were Buddha or a drummer with a line on a place to stay.

"I don't know what it is and I'm not going looking for it. It's going to come."

The dining room was packed before its closure and so many people have tried to steal the restaurant's signature red plates that Bradley removed them to his office, where he packed them in a fish cooler.

Two weeks ago, he hired a jazz band to march through the bar, recalling a New Orleans second line.

Restaurants close every day. But not many close after nearly two decades in a flurry of business, after serving hundreds of hundreds of thousands of meals.

Quick-sauteed zucchini with pecorino and almonds is one of Bradley's greatest hits, a dish he has cooked since 1990, when he first made it at the restaurant Savoir Fare on Martha's Vineyard.

"Half the people who ate it called me a genius," he said. "The other half wondered where the marinara sauce was and why the zucchini wasn't fried. That's the life of a chef in one story."

Valentin Garcia-Luna, named for his birth on Valentine's Day, has been at The Red Cat since its very first day, running the daytime kitchen-prep station and making all the restaurant's stocks.

Bradley met him in the late 1990s while working as a consulting chef at the restaurant Opaline, in Avenue A, and has since hired many members of the Garcia-Luna family.

"I'm going to find him a job," Bradley said. "I'm going to place everyone who works here."

The New England chef and burger maven Dave Dubois once worked for Bradley, who took the name of Dubois' Boston hamburger mini-chain as the name of the burger he serves at The Red Cat.

"It's not even Dave's burger," Bradley said, laughing. "But I like the name and so I stole it."

Tempura-fried green beans with sweet-spicy mustard sauce are another of the restaurant's signature dishes.

When NYT food editor Sam Sifton wrote about them for NYT Magazine in 2009, he called them "buffalo chicken wings for people with good art on the wall and a capacity for avoiding, as A.J. Liebling wrote, the fatal trap of abstinence".

He still thought that was true a decade later. On a recent night, they were on every table in sight.

The Red Cat has never been simply a neighbourhood restaurant.

As Mr Bruni wrote in his review, "its fluid, flexible nature is such that it seems - and is - in equal measures a local joint and a destination. It's the exceedingly rare place that can often take a reservation only a few days in advance and yet is almost always packed".

Until yesterday. The Red Cat is now gone.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2018, with the headline 'The Red Cat restaurant takes a final bow'. Print Edition | Subscribe