How to Mix a Manhattan Hot Spot

Over the hiss of a transatlantic cell-phone call, Thierry Klemeniuk, the owner of the newly opened Man Ray restaurant on West 15th Street, was asked to explain how a group of privacy-loving celebrities like Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and John Malkovich ended up as investors in a large, public, 12,000-square-foot, 200-seat restaurant in Manhattan.

Mr. Klemeniuk chuckled softly. “It’s not so large [or] public,” he said, pronouncing the last word as poob-lic . “It’s not Planet Hollywood.”

So what is Man Ray, then? The gossip-column and paparazzi coverage of the last few weeks has left the distinct impression that the restaurant–the sister establishment of Man Ray in Paris–was shaping up as a kind of high-class iconoclast’s Planet Hollywood. Instead of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the investors included not only Messrs. Depp, Penn and Malkovich but Miramax co-owner Harvey Weinstein–guys who have a jones for making small, interesting and often resonant films. (Mr. Depp and Mr. Penn are investors in the Paris branch of Man Ray as well.)

On July 6, Page Six reported a scene that sounded remarkably like one that might be encountered at the Miramax Oscar party: actors Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe dined with Gwyneth Paltrow; nearby were director Philip Kaufman, who was working on a crossword puzzle, and at another table, Talk editor in chief Tina Brown. (A Miramax source said that Mr. Weinstein had nothing to do with the composition of the room that night.)

A few days later, on July 10, the restaurant held a tasting dinner for both the press and denizens of the restaurant world that brought out Page Six’s Richard Johnson, New York magazine’s Beth Landman Keil, Ruby Foo’s owner Steve Hanson, Nobu and Tribeca Grill co-owner Drew Nieporent, Mesa Grill owners Bobby Flay and Laurence Kretchmer, and Union Pacific chef Rocco DiSpirito. And while the expectations weren’t high, the prevalent buzz the next day was that the food was surprisingly good.

Then on July 11, the night before the restaurant officially opened, Mr. Klemeniuk brought out Mr. Penn, his wife Robin Wright and his buddies Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola. Mr. Penn’s table, the Daily News reported, “proved to be the center of Man Ray’s small universe.” Also cavorting beneath the D.J.’s booth, the hand-carved Balinese room dividers, the gauzy covered chandeliers and the hand-painted red-and-yellow-hued stained-glass depictions of Tibetan Mandalas that hang above the bar–Man Ray cost almost $4 million to launch–were actors Robert De Niro, Drea de Matteo, Kristen Davis, Jennifer Esposito and Jon Favreau. Mr. Weinstein was on his way to Herbert Allen’s annual Sun Valley conference. And although Mr. Depp seems to be a guy who likes to invest in nightspots–remember the Viper Club?–he no longer seems to like going to them.

And on Monday, July 16, Mr. Beatty was back. He revisited the restaurant for a late dinner with a male friend; when the wait staff presented him with a dish of tomato sorbet, he said, rather loudly, ” Excellent .”

So what is Man Ray? Like executive chef Frédéric Kieffer’s roasted frog legs and sweet-corn polenta appetizer in licorice mussel broth, it seems to be a serious endeavor topped with a layer of froth. Sometimes restaurateurs are like movie producers: Warner LeRoy was practically sui generis , and Mr. Klemeniuk–who has dabbled in the movie business–seems to want to be Simpson and Bruckheimer, the hyperbolic, hyperglandular action-epic producers of the 80’s who, in movies like Days of Thunder , combined the hambone celebrity sex appeal of Tom Cruise with the showy but serious equivalent of Robert Duvall. Truth be told, Man Ray isn’t the first place to attempt this difficult union; Lotus, which is just a few blocks away, has offered a successful mixture of serious food and beautiful people since it opened in June of 2000, even though The New York Times ‘ Bill Grimes has inexplicably never reviewed the place. Mr. Klemeniuk has both a small stake in Lotus and employs the same P.R. agency–though unlike Lotus, he does not have a cabaret license that allows dancing. Still, he’s made one of the splashiest entrances on the city’s social scene since Moomba opened.

But then, we all know what happened to Moomba.

Of course, as Man Ray’s managing partner, Jean-Pierre Duteron, put it: “Man Ray is not a one-night-stand bar; it’s a restaurant about the atmosphere, food and service.”

The boyish Mr. Duteron spent four years working with Brian McNally as the vice president of food and beverage for Ian Schrager’s Royalton Hotel. And, he told The Transom, he hired much of his team for the restaurant from the hotel. Mr. Kieffer came highly recommended by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Laurent Tourundel, of the restaurant Cello. Although Mr. Duteron acknowledged that working with Mr. McNally provided him with a “great” education “about how [Mr. McNally] handled V.I.P.’s,” he contended that despite Man Ray’s celebrity pedigree, “we welcome everyone.”

By phone from France, Mr. Klemeniuk affirmed the emotion. “In every good restaurant, you have celebrities,” he said. “If you go to Pastis, you have celebrities, or Balthazar, you have celebrities.” Then Mr. Klemeniuk laughed. “Celebrities are also normal people,” he said. “Last week was the opening, so for sure we have more celebrities there. This week we’re going to have less celebrities for sure.”

And according to the Laws of Restaurant Heat, a year from now there will be even fewer celebrities, the bulk of them having moved on to the next new thing. This is when a restaurant stands the true test of its worthiness. If it works as a restaurant, it will become a neighborhood joint, and like Indochine or Balthazar–which is clearly on Mr. Klemeniuk’s radar–will enjoy several periods of hotness. If not, it will close.

But Mr. Klemeniuk’s reputation as a man who knows how to seduce the most elusive celebrities is pretty tough to beat.

“Over in Paris, he knows more actors than the top agent at CAA,” said film producer Chris Hanley ( American Psycho , Buffalo 66 ), who has done business with Mr. Klemeniuk on two films, the recently release d Bully and the upcoming Spun . “I’ve made 17 movies, and he’s probably higher up in the Hollywood food chain than I am.”

Mr. Hanley attributed Mr. Klemeniuk’s secret to plain hard work. As a recent Vanity Fair item noted, Mr. Klemeniuk juggles two cell phones that seem to be constantly ringing. “Don’t underestimate what these club owners do,” Mr. Hanley said. “He never stops. It’s kind of the way Bill Graham did the Fillmore East: He watched all the angles.”

With Mr. Duteron running the show in New York, Mr. Klemeniuk may be able to jet back and forth between Paris and New York and still keep an eye on all the angles–but it won’t be easy. Just ask Alain Ducasse, who put down stakes in the Essex House last year and found that the road to acceptance in New York was full of potholes.

Mr. Klemeniuk is creating a different kind of restaurant experience. Ducasse was billed as, and became, a nearly pure culinary event; Man Ray has to create another kind of combustion. Ducasse is a one-chef’s castle, an almost overwhelming place to spend an evening; it’s the culinary equivalent of being tied down to train tracks as the Super Chef comes roaring toward you. Man Ray is a social thoroughfare for that part of New York society that can adapt to the Parisian combination of late supper, conversation, music, food and the roiling tide of high society.

Mr. Klemeniuk didn’t see the parallels between himself and Mr. Ducasse–and not because he’s offering a different level of culinary experience. “Ducasse is a French restaurant who come to New York. We are more like an American restaurant coming to New York,” Mr. Klemeniuk said. “The investors are all Americans. The staff is French, but they have lived in New York. I chose my cook in New York; I did not choose him in Paris.”

“Do you think it’s a big place?” Mr. Klemeniuk asked of the restaurant, which seats 80 people downstairs in its lounge, which boasts a fireplace (for the winter) and an as-yet-to-be activated waterfall. He added that the space is 1,000 square feet smaller than the Man Ray in Paris. “It’s smaller than Balthazar or Pastis. To have a small place, it’s not easy to make money with. It needs a lot of energy.” Finally Mr. Klemeniuk declared: “It’s a good size.”

And then he excused himself. “My other phone,” he said.

Far away, in the July heat of West 15th Street, Man Ray was preparing to open its doors for the day, to trap and gather the Celsius degrees and celebrity it needs to make it necessary and viable in November.

You Drinkin’ With Me?

Welcome to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca, where the actor- cum -property-owner appears set to develop another stronghold: a bar at 116 Hudson Street.

Mr. De Niro has hired the law firm of Maloney & Porcelli, which specializes in getting liquor licenses for eating and drinking establishments (the New York restaurant of the same name was represented by and then named after them). In a June 12 letter, the law firm notified Manhattan’s Community Board 1 that it is seeking a liquor license for the property at that address, which Mr. De Niro owns, on behalf of a concern named only as Hudson Lounge, Inc.

“[Mr. De Niro] is just trying to do a nice quiet little place,” said one source familiar with Mr. De Niro’s businesses in the neighborhood. “That’s it. Where people can enjoy a quiet conversation, and you can think of it as a low-key place to have a drink or a coffee or something.” Neither Mr. De Niro’s lawyer, Joseph Porcelli, nor a spokesman for Mr. De Niro returned calls for comment.

The source said that Mr. De Niro is planning a minimal menu for the yet-to-be-named space, which in the late 90’s housed the bar Embassy. More details will become public soon enough: A representative for Mr. De Niro is scheduled to make a presentation to the quality-of-life subcommittee of Community Board 1 on July 23, according to assistant district manager Judy Duffy.

“We usually want floor plans, sample menus, number of seats” and some idea of the style of the place, she said. The information is taken into consideration before the board weighs in with the State Liquor Authority about whether an establishment’s application should be approved.

Mr. De Niro, who lives on the same block as the site of the planned bar, has extensive business dealings in the vicinity. He co-owns the Tribeca Productions film company in the building at 375 Greenwich Street, which houses the Tribeca Film Center and Tribeca Grill, which is owned by Mr. De Niro and the Myriad Restaurant Group. Mr. De Niro and Myriad also co-own Nobu and Next Door Nobu on Hudson Street. As The Observer reported last month, Mr. De Niro is in discussions with hotel developer Richard Born about erecting a boutique hotel on property that the actor owns at 377 Greenwich Street, on the corner of N. Moore Street.

In addition to 116 Hudson Street, he owns two adjoining lots: 112 Hudson Street, a six-story condominium building that houses the Fourth Estate coffee shop, and 114 Hudson Street, which is an empty lot. In fact, Mr. De Niro used 112 and 114 Hudson Street as collateral to secure the $3.1 million loan he used to buy 116 Hudson Street, which is a four-story loft building with a vacant space on the ground floor. When reporting the sale of 116 Hudson Street last February, Real Estate Weekly surmised that the sale provided the owner (Mr. De Niro was not mentioned) with the possibility of developing a single, contiguous ground-floor space spanning the three properties. A source told The Transom that while such a move had indeed been discussed, “nothing has been decided. They are trying to figure out what would work in that spot …. The only thing he’s trying to do is open a little place as a stop-gap measure right now.”

–Tom McGeveran

Johnson at 95

Three birthday celebrations in four days may have been two too many for architect Philip Johnson. “Tonight I feel perfectly horrible, thank you. This is not the way I like to spend a day,” the bald, bespectacled Mr. Johnson replied when The Transom asked him how he was holding up to the demands of celebrity worship.

It was the evening of July 12; Mr. Johnson’s actual birthday was July 8, and a lot had occurred in between, including a private lunch with his longtime partner David Whitney and a star-studded luncheon in his honor at the restaurant he’d designed, the Four Seasons, on July 11.

On this particular night, the celebration at the Guggenheim museum took the form of a fund-raiser for the soon-to-be-built Center for Architecture, an event that had been packaged as a salute to 30 years of collaboration between Mr. Johnson and the developer Gerald Hines.

Luminaries of the architecture world, including Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Robert A.M. Stern, and Richard Meier, had come to get down. And there was yet one more cake, ablaze with 95 candles, that would have to be extinguished.

After a short panel discussion that featured Messrs. Johnson and Hines, Mr. Johnson held court in the Guggenheim’s cavernous lobby surrounded by a small city of ice sculptures carved in the likeness of eight of his and Mr. Hines’ skyscrapers. Cool air blew off the sculptures as Mr. Johnson, wearing his trademark Mr. Peabody glasses, a blazer, black turtleneck, black sneakers and lime-green socks, reached for a glass of Coke that was being handed to him.

“The secret to staying young,” he said, tapping his knee with his finger, “is, I only like to do one thing: to design. I can’t keep going if I don’t do the next building. I’ve got to work hard . I have to run to catch up and not waste my time talking to press.” Here, Mr. Johnson laughed. This was, after all, the architect once described as “thrillingly attuned … to promotion’s sordid glories.”

But those glories came with a price. At the Guggenheim, Mr. Johnson had to patiently endure the rambling, bottomless toasts offered by architects David Childs, A. Eugene Kohn, Mr. Stern, Mr. Gehry and Museum of Modern Art president Agnes Gund.

Ms. Gund recounted a story she’d once heard from MoMA director Glenn Lowry. “Glenn and [his wife] Susan were discussing Philip Johnson at the family dinner table,” the stately Ms. Gund told the crowd. “Their young daughter, Alexis, unable to follow the conversation, finally asked in annoyance, ‘Who is Philip Johnson, anyway?’ Their son … with all the omniscience that comes with being a teenager and all the exasperation of being an older brother, said, ‘Gosh, Alexis, don’t you know anything ? Philip Johnson is only like the world’s oldest gay man!”

The crowd roared, and Mr. Johnson seemed to take it all in stride. And after all the speeches were finished, he blew out the candles one more time .

–Beth Broome