Popular: A Splashy Peruvian Restaurant Heats Up the New York Dining Scene
By Beverly Stephen
Restaurants attract tourists and locals alike. Nobody knows this better than that master of creating a buzz, hotelier and nightlife impresario Ian Schrager, co-creator of Studio 54.
He’s counting on a splashy new Peruvian restaurant to draw a chic crowd to his completely rebranded 28-story Public Hotel on New York City’s Lower East Side. The headliner, called Popular, (meaning “for the people” in Spanish ) is helmed by two marquee chefs: Peruvian Diego Muñoz, an alum of Lima’s acclaimed Astrid y Gastón, and New York City Michelin star chef John Fraser (The Edition in Times Square and North Fork Table and Inn in Southold), who just launched his own reopening gambit Iris, a restaurant featuring Greek and Turkish cuisine.
Schrager believes this is the first such collaboration between two high powered toques. He calls them “a dream team.” Fraser will oversee front of the house while Muñoz dazzles with Pisco sours, made-to-order ceviche, and other Peruvian specialties. Peru’s cuisine is a multi-cultural blend of indigenous, European and Asian influences. The country grows an astonishing variety of potatoes, corn, and mildly spicy aji chiles. Some menu highlights reflecting Chinese influence (Chifa) are wok-fired lomo saltado (stir fried filet mignon with Vidalia onions, tomatoes and chili-soy) and sticky prawns. Other typical dishes are aji de gallina (shredded chicken in a cream sauce with aji amarillo) and papas al la huanciana (potatoes in a spicy aji amarillo sauce). Whether you consider this good news or bad news, there is no cuy (guinea pig).
We recently sampled a few delicious dishes from the new brunch menu: classic ceviche with snapper, octopus, hominy and crunchy roasted corn kernels; avocado toast with smoked salmon and poached egg; and soft scrambled eggs with spicy pork sausage and fried yuca. There’s even a cheeseburger for the less adventurous.
“There are some New York crowd pleasers that need to be there,” says Muñoz. “The spirit of Popular is to embrace dishes, cultures, and produce with Peruvian DNA but to also be aware that we are there to please and satisfy as many people as possible.”
Foodies who make bucket lists of restaurants such as Gastón Acurio’s Astrid & Gastón, which earned a number one spot on the World 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America list, will be thrilled to know they can now get a taste of the cuisine without travelling to Peru. Muñoz is particularly proud that he led the restaurant when it moved to a new location in a cultural heritage site and earned its international recognition.
“It was a huge challenge to learn how to work with conservationists, architects, designers, technicians, and artists and fill the space with amazingly talented people for the grand opening,” he recalls. “We are bringing back a little memory of that time on our special menu for July 28 to celebrate Peru’s bicentennial.”
In keeping with Schrager’s new motto that luxury belongs to all, the prices at Popular are somewhat more budget-friendly than most New York hotel restaurants. Some cocktails actually start at $14. Hotel rooms start at $250 a night.
Popular is the signature fine dining venue. A more casual Cantina and Pisco Bar offers more affordable options as well as late night live Latin music. Time to brush up on those salsa steps. There’s also Louis, a “gourmet food bazaar” and bakery that serves up sandwiches and salads.
The grape brandy Pisco is the national drink of Peru. Some 21 Piscos are on offer at the bar. The classic Pisco Sour ($15) is topped with a froth of egg whites and served up in an elegant thin stemmed glass. Muñoz is very involved in the creation of craft cocktails. He recalls that when he worked at El Bulli under Ferran Adria, there was no bar per se. All the cocktails were made in the kitchen and he enjoys carrying on that tradition.
Schrager believes: “Pisco is about to step into the limelight and Chef Diego creating our Pisco cocktails really takes them to a new level.” Time will tell whether it can make inroads into the popularity of tequila and mescal.
“We put a lot of money back into this hotel because we knew things would go back to normal. Not the new normal, but normal,” Schrager said at the opening.
The Hotel Association of New York City says the city lost 225 hotels due to the pandemic and the hospitality industry is still reeling from its losses as it awaits a robust tourism revival. The city welcomed 66.6 million visitors pre-Covid in 2019. The goal is to get back to at least half those numbers this year. Visionary hoteliers like Schrager, who is credited with creating the concept of the boutique hotel, can help with the revival with alluring properties and destination restaurants.
Muñoz strongly believes that restaurants are a crucial driver of tourism. “New York City was, is, and will be one of the most important gastronomic destinations on the planet,” he says. “I am amazed by the speed and energy that things are coming back in New York City. It is really inspiring. If we can be agents of helping the recovery, that would be triple rewarding.”
All the eating and drinking takes place on the ground floor, in the garden and at the roof top bar with spectacular views. To enter the hotel itself, you ride a neon orange lit tunnel-like escalator up to self-check in and lounge and workspaces. Once you go through this looking glass entrance, you can’t help but wonder how young and hip you have to be to qualify as “one of the people” this stylish luxury is intended for. I’d volunteer to be 30 or 40 again. Or at least young enough at heart to fit into this picture of democratic luxury.
Popular, Public Hotel, 215 Chrystie Street, New York, NY 10002
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.