Indochine's Jean-Marc Houmard sat down to talk at his warm and stylish new bistro Acme, totally transformed from its days as Acme Bar & Grill, a Southern roadhouse that lasted in NoHo for 25 years. His new chef, 34-year-old Mads Refslund, was a co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen, critically acclaimed as the best restaurant in the world. The new ownership and Nordic menu has caught a few of the old regulars by surprise.
 
You've only been open three weeks and your reservationist said you're already turning people away, it's been so crazy.
But not everybody knows it's the new Acme. We still have people every day coming in asking for the collard greens and fried catfish. It's funny. Big families will show up at six o'clock on a Sunday, not the typical crowd that would have read about what we're doing here now.
 
Do they stay?
Some stay but some don't get it. What we're doing is the opposite of the old Acme. Pretty much every one of Mads' dishes has a vegetable component that's mixed in with the fish or the meat. That's what he's known for, kind of mixing everything together. The old Acme was not about vegetables unless they were nuked or cooked for hours and there was a lot of fried stuff. I don't think we have one single fried dish on the menu. Except French fries. It was the one concession Mads had to make. He said absolutely not in the beginning but we convinced him to give in.
 
No hamburger?
That was another big fight. Some of the partners really wanted a burger, but no. We may have a burger when we open for late night, sometime in the spring. After we get our bearings we'll be open until two in the morning, and then maybe he'll come up with some interesting sliders, but that would only be after midnight.
 
How did you end up taking over this space?
A friend of a friend knew the owner and we were introduced. I was thinking of taking over the space 15 years ago when there was a transition of owners but it didn't go anywhere back then. It's funny. Fifteen years later it happened.
 
When did you start construction?
We took over the lease in April of last year and at first we thought the changes would be cosmetic. We started knocking things down and realized everything had to be replaced. We were hoping to open by last September's Fashion Week but at least now we are here for this Fashion Week [starting February 9th].
 
Tell me about Mads Refslund. I'm hearing people are blown away by his food.
I met him completely by chance. We were introduced by someone I work with. He was here on vacation, not thinking at all of moving to New York. It was his first trip here. We hit it off. I had coffee with him and invited him to Indochine for dinner. He thought it was kind of amazing that it was still so much fun after so many years. It was very different from what he had done in Copenhagen. After he left Noma -- he was only there the first year -- he had his own restaurant, MR. It was very serious, no music, all about the food, no ambiance. When he realized that our restaurant was not just about food, that it was a package, an overall experience, something kind of clicked in his mind. Somehow I convinced him that he should try to cook in New York, at a place that was more social, where the food would still be amazing but not as serious.
 
It sounds like you were successful in loosening him up. Did you take him out partying?
Yes, all summer long I showed him New York. He had to go back and forth to Denmark every week since he had signed on to be part of a TV series where he had to build a restaurant in a prison and train all the prisoners to be cooks or servers or restaurant managers. Filming was starting right when we were doing research and tastings so it was very challenging.
 
It's actually a great idea for show.
When he came back sometimes he was kind of upset because it was really real. There were murderers he was trying to teach to--
 
Use knives?
Yes. They actually had to chain the knives to the walls to be sure nothing would happen.
 
There could have been a prison break.
It was kind of eerie to hear the details. It was not just white-collar prisoners he was working with. They were the real deal.
 
One of the big complaints of food critics last year was that too many restaurants were playing it safe, not doing anything experimental because of the economy.
Some of the partners thought we should do more comfort food at Acme because we know so many people, we would be able to pack the restaurant no matter what. I wanted to do something where I would feel proud, something a bit more daring than roast chicken.
 
Who are your partners?
Jon Neidich of the Boom Boom Room and Evanly Schindler, the founder of Tar magazine and BlackBook, and our chef at Indochine, Huy Chi Le.
 
Huy never considered cooking here before you found Mads?
We didn't want to do another Asian restaurant [Houmard is also a partner in Kittichai, BondSt and Republic]. I needed to have a couple of meals a week that were not eaten with chopsticks. After 25 years I was kind of ready to use forks again.
 
Can you tell me about the downstairs?
The setting is a bit like a casual, old European café with booths and banquettes and tables. There is food but you can also just have drinks. We didn't feel the city needed another lounge with big couches and low tables. The hallway downstairs has doors to nowhere with peepholes where we're going to install some sexy art works.
 
There was a rumor that it was going to be a dance club.
I have no idea where that came from. That was completely made up.
 
Did you envision yourself being a restaurateur in New York?
It was by chance. I came here after graduating from law school in Geneva in 1986. I did an unpaid internship at a law firm for six months and worked as a waiter at night at Indochine.
 
You decided you preferred working in a restaurant?
I couldn't see myself making the law my life. I liked the people I worked with at Indochine so I stayed there. I became a maître d' and then the manager and in '92 I took over with my other partners.
 
How did that go over with your family, choosing to be a waiter instead of a lawyer?
They did not understand how glamorous it was to be a waiter at Indochine in 1986. No one in Switzerland thinks it's cool to be a waiter.
 
Do you still have those recurring waiter nightmares?
I haven't in a while but for many years I dreamed that the dining room was across the George Washington Bridge. I had to cross the bridge to my tables and walked really slow, really slow, and it took forever to get to my customers. It was horrible.
 
Acme
9 Great Jones Street, 212-203-2121


Photo courtesy of PatrickMcMullan.com