Chef Lomonaco's Grill to Live

The view from the new steakhouse Porter House New York, tucked up on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, looks like something whipped up by a movie-set designer charged with creating a picturesque Manhattan. Central Park stretches lusciously to the north, midtown skyscrapers glitter to the south, and seen from a helpful distance, even the honking traffic circle appears appealing.

“I seem to have a passion for unique locations,” said executive chef Michael Lomonaco. Mr. Lomonaco’s last restaurant was the fabled Windows on the World, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. On Sept. 11, 2001, all 79 of the restaurant’s employees who were working that morning—along with more than 80 patrons—perished in the terrorist attacks, with the exception of Mr. Lomonaco, who had stopped on his way to work at an eyeglass store on the concourse level to get his reading glasses fixed. “I was just trying not to waste time in the day,” he said thickly. “Sometimes you’re lucky. I was lucky. It was pure luck.”

Last week, Mr. Lomonaco, 51, who projects a boyish and contagious warmth, was clad in a rumpled white chef’s jacket and slacks as he stepped over the electrical wires and sawdust-covered floors of what will eventfully be Porter House New York’s 140-seat dining room. He excitedly pointed to where the banquets and booths will be installed, which tables would be treated with linen, and extolled the merits of the cherry-wood bar that will seat 60. The restaurant opens in early October, after a week of trial-run events.

Mr. Lomonaco will be joining some pretty impressive company: On the same floor are the city’s two-most-talked-about four-star restaurants—Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Masayoshi Takayama’s Masa—as well as Gray Kunz’s highly regarded Café Gray.

But Porter House New York has the additional challenge of making people forget that it will occupy the exact same space that another highly anticipated steakhouse with an impressive pedigree did: Jean-George Vongerichten’s V Steakhouse, which closed last December after unfortunate reviews. Insiders blamed everything from the over-the-top décor—which included fake gold trees and multiple chandeliers—to Mr. Vongerichten’s somewhat fussy presentation.

Mr. Lomonaco, who said he had a good meal when he visited V Steakhouse, demurred on speculating on what went wrong. He and his partner Kenneth Himmel, president and C.E.O. of Related Urban Development and the Time Warner Center Restaurant Fund, chose to gut the space, undertaking a full renovation designed by Jeffrey Beers, with exposed wooden beams, soft lighting and subtle, comfortable seating.

“It’s an environment that’s cohesive and speaks of food the way that I prepare American food—straightforward, great ingredients, warm, hot, flavorful and without pretense,” said the chef.

Steakhouses, long a staple in the American suburban landscape, have lately come into vogue for established urban chefs. Tom Colicchio opened Craftsteak last May, and BLT Prime opened the year before. Off-duty, however, top chefs tend to dismiss steakhouses as “heat ’n’ serve” restaurants where dishes are so basic, some plates do not even require a sauce.

Mr. Lomonaco said Porter House New York’s menu would distinguish itself, in part, with attention to high-quality beef and an extensive seafood selection. “At a lot of steakhouses, you’ll get a lobster, a salmon, a swordfish, and that’s the end of it,” he said. “But there’s nothing like Catskill Mountain trout, lake fish from Lake Superior, fresh whitefish freshly roasted or maybe farm-raised sturgeon. You don’t see enough of these things with steak, but this is American cooking at its best.” He grinned. “At this stage of my life, I’m cooking food that I like to eat.”

He said he had been toying with the idea of an American grill since he opened Windows on the World’s offshoot, Wild Blue, in the World Trade Center in 1999: “We had a chophouse menu. It made me really take an interest to have an American grill, and a steakhouse is the perfect vehicle for an American grill.” (His price point is certainly friendlier than his fourth-floor neighbors, with entrées ranging from $24 to $39, and a prix-fix menu for $35.)

“Steak and its accompaniments—wine, vegetables, potatoes and generous desserts—is a primal source of pleasure to which many people can relate,” said Danny Meyer, the chef behind Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Smoke. “My hunch is that in Michael’s hands, the new restaurant will be more than a steakhouse, or even a caricature of a steakhouse. It will first be a solid, gracious, delicious, American dining experience, that also happens to take its steak seriously.”

Mr. Lomonaco said he wants Porter House New York to have a homey neighborhood feel, and to become a part of the Upper West Side community. Homey is not the word one might think of while looking at the sleek 43-story building, but Mr. Lomonaco likened the Time Warner Center to a modern piazza.

“You can call it a mall, you can call it anything you want, but to me it is like an urban street. This is the most exciting building in New York that has been built since Rockefeller Center,” he said. “This is something that I’ve yearned for for the last two or three years. I’ve been looking for a home base. For a chef, the kitchen is our home. You know how when you’re shopping around for an apartment, you know it when you see it? That’s how this felt.”

Michael Lomonaco was born and raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where he described a childhood of becoming an avid foodie thanks in no small part to his mother’s Sicilian home cooking. “I have really fond memories of my mother and the food that she made,” he said. “You know how an actor can remember lines? I have always had a great ability to remember recipes and have a good catalog of my mother’s.” He attended P.S. 205 and New Utrecht High School, where one of his classmates was Michael Musto, the nightlife columnist for The Village Voice. “Michael was always a sunny, easygoing presence and a proud member of the bunny club I founded with Judy Singer,” said Mr. Musto. “You hopped around and wiggled your nose and ate lots of carrots, but not when anyone was looking. Michael is still sunny and optimistic. The word ‘nice’ should be emblazoned on his chef’s hat.”

Mr. Lomonaco attended Brooklyn College and wanted to go into the theater (“I still have my Actor’s Equity card”), with cooking as a passionate hobby. However, at 28 he decided to pursue culinary arts full time and enrolled in the New York College of Technology.

“I thought, ‘I love this so much, there’s a way to combine a creative aspect with a business where I can eat regularly.’” He pointed to his stomach and laughed. “Eating is my downfall. It doesn’t work so much for actors.”

His first cooking job was at a Carroll Gardens restaurant, Monte’s Venetian Room—“a real red-sauce kind of place”—before finding a spot as a line cook at Le Cirque in the mid-80’s, where he trained under famed chefs Alain Sailhac and Daniel Boulud. In 1987 he followed Mr. Sailhac to “21,” where he also worked under Ann Rosenzweig, who with Alice Waters and Larry Fagione inspired him to throw himself into American cuisine.

“There was a time not that long ago, where most of the restaurants were run by people other than Americans,” he said. “In the last 10 years, American chefs have had tremendous ability, and I think the restaurant world is feeling the world of American ideas.”

He spent almost a decade at “21,” where he eventually became executive chef and made a name for himself by reviving classics like chicken hash and lobster Thermidor. In 1996, he left to become executive chef at Windows on the World.

“Windows was special, I was very happy to be there,” he said. “It was an incredible privilege to work there—it was an honor. I have a lot of wonderful memories. [Owner] Joe Baum created something really beautiful in the sky. I liked to tell people that from up there, you could see the source of all the ingredients we were cooking with.”

He laughed. “Maybe that’s a little poetic, because those cattle ranches were far away, but a lot of the ingredients were local. We used to go to the greenmarket at the base of the tower with hand trucks, load ’em up, and take them straight up.”

“We asked Michael to cook for 60 friends and family at Windows to celebrate my father-in-law’s 75th birthday,” said Danny Meyer. “It was much too much pressure for me to do that in any of our restaurants, and his generous food and ebullient hospitality made everyone delighted and comfortable.”

“He’s always in a good mood,” said Le Bernadin’s chef, Eric Rippert. “He’s very generous and humble.”

When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower on Sept. 11, Mr. Lomonaco, not immediately recognizing the extent of the damage, walked out of the main concourse to call his wife, Diane, whom he’s been with since high school. He was standing on the corner of Liberty and Broadway when the second plane hit.

“I was really just below it …. Those images will stay with me forever,” he said. “I felt like they were burned into my retina: the feeling, the sounds, the smell … the whole experience.”

In the months that followed, he attended a funeral almost daily. It never occurred to him to find a new profession or city.

“I never felt that I could stop doing the things that I love, which is cooking,” Mr. Lomonaco said. “My friends who perished on that day were doing the same thing—they were cooking, or managing restaurants, or serving guests. I thought that I could be a better person if I would get up every day and dedicate myself to the memory of my friends by going to work and doing the things that we all loved doing together.”

Though he had offers to run restaurants in San Francisco and Chicago, he said, “my heart is in New York, and never more so than after the events on Sept. 11. I always felt from that day forward, that this was the place where I wanted to be, to stay a part of this privileged existence.”

He and other restaurateurs established a fund, Windows of Hope, which has raised $21 million for the families of the food-service workers. “I’ve always thought that chefs and restaurateurs were generous people,” he said. “But now I’ve learned they really are.”

Mr. Lomonaco continued to cook, whether it was for the Food Network or the Travel Channel. He wrote a book, Nightly Specials: 125 Recipes for Spontaneous, Creative Cooking at Home, and did consulting stints at Time Square’s Noche and Guastavino’s.

But it wasn’t until the opportunity for Porter House New York came along that he felt at home.

“It’s my first time back as an executive chef and the first time I’ve been a true partner,” he said, adding that he plans to be in the kitchen nightly. “I’m not going anywhere else. It’s a very exciting moment in my life because I’m a chef and what chefs do is really simple is: We cook for people. That’s it. We want to cook for others.”

As the fifth anniversary of the attacks approach, Mr. Lomonaco plans to mark the day quietly. “The date is personally significant to me,” he said. “The real amazing thing is that five years have gone by. In so many ways, in 2001 and 2002, it felt like time was standing still. So many good things have been done, and I’ve seen so many families reinvent themselves and move ahead with their lives and do good things for their children. I’m awestruck by that.”

“We just can’t forget the lives that were lost, and the people who rushed in to help,” he continued. “And then, when you put that in your heart, you save it as a memory and then you have your life to live. Because that’s what we are required to do. It is our obligation to go on with our lives. I’ve read that New Yorkers are forgetting, and I don’t think that’s true at all. They’re persisting. You’re supposed to head out into the storm and keep going. It’s survival. We’ve all survived this in some way.”