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Jonathan Morr On His New Restaurant, His Love of Jewelry and Why He's Drinking Less Sake

6345651540610987505539318_6__PMC0667 2.JPGInnovative restaurateur Jonathan Morr just opened Cherry, a Japanese restaurant with French influences. The plush, seductive space under the Meatpacking District's Dream Downtown is a far cry from when it was the short-lived Romera. He talked to us about his return to the neighborhood he helped pioneer, plus a few other things.

Why Japanese-French food? Did you go to Japan for research?
The truth is I sent my chef [Andy Choi] to Japan for a couple of weeks. It's so traditional there, obviously, that we didn't pick up too much. The Frenchy part is more of an influence. Andy used to work at Le Cirque. We came up with a basic menu that he then tweaked and polished.

Did you ever go to Romera?

I read in the Times that you described changing the design of the space "from hospital to bordello."
I think I was misquoted, but it was very sterile. Dr. Romera was a surgeon and maybe a little inspired by a surgery room. We gutted the whole space and it feels a lot warmer. It doubles as a fine dining space and lounge serving food until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 4 a.m. on weekends. I wasn't too sure about taking the space at first. A basement is not that easy to pull off.

You were a pioneer in the Meatpacking District, opening APT ten years ago when there was hardly anything there but slaughterhouses and prostitutes.
We opened at the same time as Pastis. APT went from being a lounge to more of a club and at that point having a club was not really my thing. We were only paying $6000-$7000 a month in rent and now it's probably quadrupled. I sold it a few years ago before it closed [in 2010]. Cherry is a little bit of a comeback in the neighborhood for me.

Did you reinvest all that money?
I bought myself a bunch of jewelry. I'm sure it disappeared rather quickly.

So you like to spend money?
Everybody likes to spend money.

You also pioneered fancy espresso bars, opening them back in the '90s.
A long time before Starbucks. And I opened BONDST when nothing was on Bond Street and Republic on Union Square when there was nothing but drugs and prostitutes in the park. It made sense to me at the time that it would develop. The Meatpacking District was much more of a risk. I don't think anybody knew it would explode.

You were ahead of the hamburger craze when you opened Stand. Do you see any neighborhoods or trends emerging in 2013?
I don't know. The Lower East Side is developing nicely. Brooklyn.

Are you going to open something in Brooklyn?
I don't have a visa to go to Brooklyn.

Really? You don't go to Brooklyn?
I get dragged there by friends. I respect all the good things happening there, but I go to places near where I live. My favorite restaurant in New York is Balthazar. I'm there all the time. I love going to Indochine for dinner. I'm old school. Acme has a great vibe. The food is good and interesting, very much the place to be in New York right now.

You get a lot of celebrities and fashion people at your restaurants but you don't snitch to the press about it.
It's not my policy to take advantage of their presence.

I think sometimes they or their publicists tip off the press themselves.
I'm sure they do, probably much more in Los Angeles. If they do that it's fine. Some may also want their privacy, but if you want to be a celebrity you pay the price for that. You can't have it all.

Is there anything you won't eat?
I don't eat the crazy things. I don't like snake. Certain things I have to be in the mood for. Sometimes oysters or uni -- I can't even think about it.

Uni is such a thing now.
We use uni for quite a few dishes at Cherry. Andy made uni with poached egg and I said, 'Hey, we've got to put this on the menu.' I didn't know if people would eat eggs at night. Oddly enough, it's being ordered a lot. Our uni with crispy rice is also delicious.

You always have good looking people working in your restaurants who also know how to do their jobs.
I don't know how it happens. It's not because of me. There's a balance you have to find. If somebody has an attitude -- never! Our servers have so much knowledge. They have to learn all the details of the menu, complex Japanese dishes, and we have 72 sakes on the list. It's not a diner. They're studying. They have to pass a test. We test them every three months.

That must be tough to have to learn to describe 72 sakes.
Everybody wants to learn new things. I love sake. I drink sake quite a lot. Not that long ago I found out it was very fattening, more fattening than wine. It's made from rice. You have to drink less of it or pay for it the next morning when you go to the gym.

I read your father was a diplomat and you grew up all over -- Israel, Paris, London, Africa. When did you come to New York?
1987 or '88. I studied hotel management in Switzerland. My father wanted me to go to college for something specific. We traveled a lot since I was five and I was always so excited to stay in hotels. I wanted to live in a hotel. He said the best place to study hotel management was in Switzerland so I went there.

And now you own hotels [in Mexico City and Miami]. Glad that worked out for you.
It was a good investment for him.

Photo by PatrickMcMullan.com

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