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Two New Restaurants Vie for Same Small Storefront in Gramercy

By Mary Johnson | October 1, 2012 10:55am

GRAMERCY — It's a battle of the chefs on Third Avenue.

As two prospective restaurateurs vie for the same narrow, 600-square-foot storefront near East 23rd Street, neighbors are now salivating over their options: a $100-a-head sushi joint, or a small plates restaurant featuring foodie specialties like pork belly and frogs legs.

The vacant space at 284 Third Ave., which was an Asian fusion eatery and yogurt bar until this past June, appears almost too small to house a legitimate restaurant. But that hasn’t stopped two entrepreneurs in the New York culinary scene from pitching their starkly different concepts to members of Community Board 6 last week in separate bids to secure a beer-and-wine license for the space.

In one corner, there’s Amy Clark, a soft-spoken, demure woman who envisions the space at as Pistola, a 20- to 25-seat eatery with an open kitchen and small plates featuring fresh, local ingredients from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket.

In the other, there’s David Bouhadana, a young sushi chef who wants to turn the space into Sushi Dojo, a 14-seat restaurant serving sushi “sessions” starting at $100 per person.

Both Clark and Bouhadana have applied to lease the space, which is situated between East 22nd and 23rd streets, but they were surprised to encounter the competition at the community board meeting Thursday.

Clark presented her proposal for Pistola first, telling members of the community board about her family’s deep roots in food. Her great-grandmother operated a restaurant in San Francisco for 40 years, Clark explained, and she developed a passion for fine dining during her tenure as general manager at the Michelin-starred Casa Mono, also in Gramercy.

Clark said she is mulling a breakfast menu that would consist of biscuits and artisanal coffee, and a dinner spread that would include homemade sausages, pork belly and frogs legs, as well as lesser known craft beers.

She also pledged to close at midnight seven days a week and promised she would not let her restaurant morph into a bar catering to college students.

“I live in the neighborhood,” she said. “The last thing I want is one of those drunk 22-year-olds wandering into my cute little restaurant.”

Clark added that she left Casa Mono to pursue the Pistola concept full time. She said she is committed to bringing the idea, which she’s been refining for 20 years, to life.

"I do love this neighborhood and have a concept that is based around it's needs," she wrote in an email after the meeting.

While Clark gave her pitch, Bouhadana and his team of investors whispered to each other, ducked in and out of the meeting, and, at one point, asked to be removed from the agenda entirely.

But by the time their turn arrived, he and his investors were prepared to make a pitch of their own while Clark and her attorney looked on.

Bouhadana, who works at Hatsuhana on East 48th Street near Madison Avenue, said he would like to transform the space into a 14-seat restaurant specializing in high-end sushi dinners that would start at around $100 per person.

Reservations would be strongly suggested, he explained, and the restaurant would close by midnight every night.

As a testament to his culinary prowess, Bouhadana explained that his investors are customers who can’t get enough of his food.

“We got tired of paying for sushi,” one of the investors explained with a laugh.

Several months ago, members of the Community Board 6 committee issued a negative resolution to another business owner eyeing that same space, because they feared the restaurant would become more of a bar in a neighborhood some locals say is saturated with drinking establishments.

But both proposals presented on Thursday met with unanimous approvals — and now the landlord must decide who gets the space.

Kevin Kim, who owns the building where the storefront stands, said he accepted both lease applications to protect his interests in case one of the prospective tenants dropped out. He said he doesn’t anticipate a bidding war and expects to make a final decision in the coming weeks.

“I think both of them are very serious, but for us as landlords it depends on how quickly they can execute their plan,” Kim said in a phone interview.

For the residents who attended the meeting, they were just happy to be dealing with restaurants instead of another bar.

“I think it was an all-around win,” said Sean Brady, chair of the Gramercy Park Block Association’s quality-of-life committee. “Either [proposed restaurant] would be an asset to the neighborhood.”