Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.
Here, we’re sharing the must-know intel on the recently opened Nudibranch in the East Village, which specializes in $75 three-course prix-fixe menus. This is the first solo (well, technically, trio) venture of head chefs and owners Jeffrey Kim, Victor Xia, and Matthew Lee. Alums of storied New York institutions like Momofuku Ssam Bar and Jua, and fresh off of their successful pop-up of the same name, they’re no strangers to the restaurant scene.
Here’s everything you need to know about Nudibranch, which opened in early March.
1. The restaurant’s name was inspired by a trip to Indonesia.
Nudibranch shares its name with a little colorful mollusc often found in tropical, coastal waters. Kim first discovered the creature while visiting a friend in Indonesia. At one point, he found himself on Gili Trawangan, an island known for its spectacular diving and crystal-clear waters.
“The guys that were doing the scuba tours were expats who just wanted to enjoy the beach bum lifestyle,” Kim explains. “So we were asking them, ‘What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in the ocean?’ Since this was the place for some of the best diving in the world and the visibility there is almost at 90%, we thought they must have seen a giant squid or a killer whale, and that would be the craziest thing they’ve ever seen. But they explained to us that it was actually this little nudibranch. It’s a little sea slug that’s the size of your fingertip.”
As with many things at Nudibranch, (technically pronounced new-dee-bronk, but intentionally mispronounced by the team as new-dee-branch), the name is deeper than the surface level reading of it.
“It felt very representational and symbolic of where we were in our careers at the moment,” Kim says. “The food we were putting out was very colorful, and we were influenced by the diversity in the city. But, in this massive ocean that is New York no one would know it unless they peered in, stopped, took a look, and experienced it. That’s where the name started.”
2. The chefs and owners met each other on the line.
The trio goes back quite a ways: Kim and Xia met working at Momofuku Ssam Bar in 2018, at its original location in the East Village.
“We had both just kind of broken out of the industry,” Kim remembers. “I had started off bussing tables. We were both trying to figure our lives out.” After Kim left Momofuku, he went on to work with Lee at Jua in the Flatiron District, as well as on the line at Eleven Madison Park, Atoboy, and El Cellar de Can Roca in Spain.
“It was super exciting at the time, but then COVID hit. We all got laid off. Matt went back to Jua for a hot second, and then Victor was operating a noodle shop in the East Village when the whole city was ravaged,” Kim recalls. But soon enough, all three reunited professionally to work together on the pop-up.
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A Closer Look at Nudibranch
3. And the pandemic brought them together again.
Had it not been for the pandemic, Nudibranch likely wouldn’t’t exist. When the pandemic hit, all three chefs were furloughed from their full-time restaurant jobs, and they turned that setback into an opportunity: In late 2020 and into the next year, Xia and Kim decided to open a pop-up restaurant, also called Nudibranch, traveling to cook for different people in different cities, including Boston, Andover in Vermont, and on a farm in Amagansett, Long Island. Lee joined Kim and Xia before they went to Boston.
They also kept the pop-up closer to home, inside a space at 130 First Avenue in the East Village, where they hosted several dinners; it was the same noodle shop where Xia had been working, called Nightmarket, a Taiwanese takeout spot that eventually closed during the pandemic. After months of touring as a pop-up, the trio then decided to work on having a brick-and-mortar spot of their own when the right opportunity presented itself. A year later, they would open their permanent space just across the street from where they hosted the pop-up.
“Having our own space wasn’t always a goal of ours. Doing the pop-up during COVID gave us an opportunity that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. One thing led to another, and it was kind of a snowball effect. [Opening the restaurant] took us by surprise as well, but we saw an opportunity, we seized it, and here we are,” Kim says.
Nudibranch marks the first time that all three are operating their own kitchen. “The answer [to how it feels to be in charge] changes every hour, every day. It’s definitely electric,” Kim says. “It’s thrilling,” chimes Lee. They prefer not to use titles like chef de cuisine or executive chef, Lee says, because they’re all willing to jump in wherever and whenever they’re needed.
“It’s not just line cooking anymore,” Kim adds. “We feel a lot of responsibility to ourselves, to our staff, to people that have come and helped, and to our guests. [We want] to provide them with a good time and make sure their expectations are met. We have really high standards on ourselves, so [it’s] just kind of constantly making sure that we’re staying there.”
4. If you loved the pop-up, you’re in luck.
The brick-and-mortar iteration of Nudibranch has plenty in common with the pop-up series, including some menu favorites.
“Some of the menu items were literally direct dishes we did in the pop-up that we love, and that people really enjoyed,” says Kim. “For example, the soba dish with bottarga? People really loved that. The mushroom dish with the Shaoxing cream sauce, and the rosette dessert — these three dishes are very symbolic of what we were doing. They’re directly what we enjoy eating and we felt it was super important to continue having them on the menu, at least for now, so that people that didn’t get to try them could try them.”
The restaurant was carefully designed by an architect friend they met while they were touring as a pop-up. Gunnar Burke, who has also worked on spaces for Ted’s Hot Dogs in Buffalo, N.Y., purposely designed the space in a way that would allow the vibrant food to shine. Burke designed the space with furniture from Staach, a Rochester, New York-based company known for using sustainable materials.
Kim hopes the individuality, excitement, and rawness that the Nudibranch pop-up had remains very much intact thanks to that blank canvas look and feel. “Right now, we’re teetering towards a little more refined, very wine-bar vibe. We’re very influenced by places where you can eat and drink and drink and eat, and go out after — not have dinner be the only thing or the last thing that you do that evening,” Kim says.
5. Don’t call their food “fusion” …
“We hate the word ‘fusion.’ It’s just the worst, and we don’t want to describe [our menu] as that,” says Kim. “It might not be the word ‘fusion’ itself, but for so long fusion had a terrible reputation and reminded us of restaurants that served dishes like ‘wasabi and pineapple’ or ‘wrapping something in seaweed’. Because of that, we’ve been active in staying away from that particular word. I do believe we might be in an era where fusion is redefined. Hopefully, our food can help it take on a more positive connotation.”
The trio of chefs all grew up relatively close to New York City, and all three are inspired by the many different cuisines found here. “It’s this kind of new Asian American New York cuisine. It’s just tasty food that people can relate to and share something in common with,” Kim said.
“I grew up in New York, Matt is from Maryland, and Victor grew up in New Jersey. We love New York; we say it all the time. We’re never sick of saying it,” Kim says. “We’re so inspired by the different cultures, the different kitchens that we’ve been in, and the people we’re surrounded by. We’re still toying around with the genre or the subgenre of food that we’re in. Not being able to label it is something we enjoy doing. It reflects the cooks and the team members that we have on staff.”
Nudibranch’s pre-fixe menu consists of three courses priced at $75 per person, with an optional add-on for dessert that ranges from $11 to $14. “We wanted to make sure we could be as inviting as possible to our guests,” Kim says. Highlights include the frog legs with lemongrass, galangal, and ginger; the pork jowl with ahi panca, pineapple, and cabbage; and their rosette, with pear and creme diplomat, for dessert.
“[In regards to our rosette], every culture has a version of a fried dough. Whether it’s funnel cake, the rosettes are very Scandinavian, or one of our friends who grew up in LA — he’s Mexican and grew up eating buñuelos. Everyone can relate to it but we’re just putting our spin on it,” Kim adds.
Peruvian culinary influences, introduced by a partnership that they had with the restaurateurs behind Celeste, Esmerelda, and La Royal in Boston, have also made their way onto the menu, too. “We were introduced to a lot of Peruvian ingredients that we were familiar with but hadn’t been able to use face-to-face. Our current pork dish is very influenced by that,” Kim notes.
Nudibranch is open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.