It takes something truly special to keep New Yorkers filling tables at a restaurant even months after its opening. Midtown hotspot 53 has proven to have that something, and we’d safely bet that chef Akmal Anuar has something (or everything) to do with it.
Singaporean-born chef Anuar has had quite the year: First, his Dubai restaurant 11 Woodfire earned the chef his first Michelin star, and then he opened 53, a fine dining restaurant serving an elevated blend of Asian cuisine, to great success.
Chef Anuar brought the space to life alongside Ahmass Fakahany, founder and CEO of the Altamarea Group, which includes the Michelin-starred Marea and Ai Fiori. ICRAVE provided the design for the space, with all three stories featuring gorgeous modern details that perfectly complement art in globally renowned Friedrich Petzel Gallery’s installations.
A meal at 53 is everything a modern fine dining experience should be: elegant yet approachable, nuanced yet accessible and, of course, utterly delicious. We caught up with chef Anuar about everything 53, from his personal favorite dishes to feedback from New York’s Asian communities.
What inspired you to take on this project?
It’s all about chemistry and luck! I have known Ahmass Fakahany for many years, since his days on Wall Street, when he ran Asia for Merrill as part of his early finance career. He visited Singapore often and would dine at the high-end restaurant where I was head chef with many senior finance colleagues and clients. We clicked and I saw he had a true passion for food & beverage. Then somehow we bumped into each other in Dubai, reconnected and deepened our relationship. He told me of his vision to create a special restaurant in New York with all the authentic flavors of the restaurants in Asia that he had visited. He was very passionate about it. Then one day he said, “Akmal you are the one to lead and guide this with me,” he said, “You know all of the true, core Asian flavor profiles being Singaporean and the different techniques since you traveled to, and cooked in, many of the top kitchens in the world.” I was so surprised but really excited. New York has always been such a dream for me and the design plan was so cool. He wanted this to be an authentic Asian restaurant with New York inspiration. We had to find that balance.
How is 53 revolutionizing fine dining?
I am not sure we are revolutionizing but hopefully bringing an alternative experience with Asian cuisine. My whole philosophy is simplicity, a focus on real flavors and how to make them delicious and comfortable. Developing the menu was based on my upbringing, my travels, and my memories. The menu is only one page, which I know is unusual for Asian restaurants. We want the guests to settle, order, and enjoy the evening and not study a book. Everyone can review the menu at the tables and order together or request their favorites. It is all for sharing. Also, the menu is categorized by temperature and technique, not the more customary seafood or poultry, etc. We have small plates with flavorful hot and cold selections, the steamed section, the grill section, the wok and the clay pots. You decide how you want to experience it. You can mix from each section or stay in one if you prefer. It is about having fun and enjoying the food, design and atmosphere altogether.
53 serves cuisine inspired by traditional Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean and Thai cooking. How did that idea come about?
Ahmass wanted to have a range of flavors, and we are calling it contemporary Asian. We were first leaning toward Chinese in initial discussions, then organically widened the scope but ensured we maintained focus. In Singapore, we have all the flavors of Asia in one country and multiple ethnicities – so the idea plays to that origin. Many dishes speak to different cooking techniques or are classics reimagined or reinterpreted for today.
Many different chefs with regional specialties cook in 53's kitchen. How did you source these chefs and what kind of experience do they have?
At 53 we really have the United Nations of Asia in the kitchen! There is a multinational and global team in the back and I am so proud. We have Asians from different nations with experience in many top kitchens. We have sent some talented chefs from Singapore to round out the team too. Everyone from the U.S. and elsewhere is working together as one and creating a strong culture. We had to find expertise in pure wok chef skills, dim sum technique, grill knowledge, raw slicing and plating. It is like having different restaurants within one kitchen. We are really lucky to have Mark Yu run the day-to-day kitchen as Executive Chef with all his good leadership, knowledge and experience running big U.S. kitchens. He is a great partner. Every one of these chefs and cooks grew up with these flavors in their homes from their youth like me, and this was an extremely important factor in the hiring. We constantly asked, “What did they cook at home with mom and dad?”
53 is known to serve impressively authentic Asian cuisine. What does that feedback mean to you?
If this is the view, then it means the world to me, and for everyone in the kitchen dedicating their career to cooking based on their experiences and parents’ teachings at 53. I already see that we have a very large Asian clientele coming to 53 even in the heat of summer. That tells me they trust us and know the flavors and experience we are aiming for. We have a long road ahead and will get better and tighter and introduce new dishes. For now, we are focusing on what we believe in and maintaining consistency.
What is your favorite dish and why?
Glad you asked that. I have two unexpected favorites, though I am proud of how the whole menu is coming together. First, is the Eel Club. It is decadent and brings contrasts of Asia and Europe together in a land and seafood version all in one explosive bite. It is already a top seller. My other favorite is the Skate Sambal. It is unique and unusual to have on a menu and brings me back to my roots and what I grew up eating in Singapore with all the full robust flavors of Southeast Asia. We barbecue our fresh skate wrapped in banana leaf that is marinated in our house-made sambal sauce. Our sambal is made with freshly ground chilis, shallots and dried shrimps cooked over a large pot for hours and seasoned with tamarind, palm sugar and salt. This dish is best enjoyed with our fried rice.
Photography by: Evan Sung