Apartment 13 makes diners feel at home, offers discount
BY HEATHER DUBIN | John Keller and Lorrae Doig want you to feel at home in their restaurant. They even named it after their own apartment. Apartment 13, modern American cuisine with Japanese and Caribbean influences, opened in August on Avenue C near Eighth St.
They hoped to open last November, but then the superstorm hit.
“We had the space two weeks before Sandy, and we had to redo everything,” Keller said. They spent more than $50,000 revamping the basement, the electrical system and the walk-in refrigerators.
The space had sat empty quite a while before they took it over.
“We put a lot of makeup on this place,” said Keller, 36.
With its cozy fireplace and friendly staff, Apartment 13 is comfortable, with different rooms and levels, like an apartment. The couple want the restaurant to emulate their own Lower East Side home, the actual Apartment 13 where they have lived for 13 years.
At Apartment 13, the restaurant, there is an oyster bar downstairs. Upstairs is the fireplace, with tables nearby and an outdoor seating area.
Currently, the couple are deliberating over a couch and some chairs for the front entrance in front of the long bar. A heater will be installed for the outdoor space, and they will have blankets for customers at the corner table, Doig’s idea.
Keller finds it liberating to have his own restaurant and call the creative shots.
“Being able to just do something like that, and not having to clear things with someone — like the blankets,” he said.
From the Baltimore area, Keller attended New York Restaurant School, then began his culinary career at Nobu, with an internship at Le Bernardin. He returned to Baltimore, working in restaurants, but came back to New York.
He was an executive chef at Bruno Jamais Restaurant Club, Celsius in Bryant Park and Co-op Food and Drink and Viktor and Spoils, which he opened, at The Hotel on Rivington. That’s where, he said, he met “the love of my life,” Doig, 27, who was born in the States, and grew up in Jamaica.
Keller traveled between jobs, which helped him rebound back to the kitchen after feeling burned out.
“You pick up things you like, and it’s usually about the mom-and pop-shops,” he said, “people who have been cooking the same way for hundreds of years.”
Keller takes culinary inspiration from local cuisine rather than five-star restaurant fare.
“I’d rather go to the country and go to the shacks on the side of the road where everybody goes for street food,” he said.
At Apartment 13, Keller draws inspiration from New York’s melting pot of multicultural cuisine.
“I’ve been a chef since a young age,” he noted. “I’ve worked in Nobu. I’m impatient, and I cook what I like — I don’t want to be put it in a box.”
He crafts seasonal dishes with local produce whenever possible. Keller also wants to build signature dishes, like his oyster pairings. Additionally, every menu item is paired with a wine, beer or spirit, picked by beverage directors Steven Olson and Leo DeGroff.
“It’s taking the guesswork and responsibility from the guest, like it’s a dinner party in our home,” Doig said. “It’s thought through, and tasted for you.”
Menu highlights include Mimi’s Maryland Crabcake, Keller’s grandmother’s recipe.
“I grew up eating it,” he said. “Every holiday in season, we’d eat crabs.”
Fish Tea is also a favorite entrée, made with halibut, miso butter, lemongrass dashi, baby bok choy and hon shimeji mushrooms.
Doig tastes all the dishes, and Keller makes new ones each week.
She tries to get Keller to cook for her at home, but that “never” happens, she said — except for Sandy and her birthday.
“I don’t want to take work home with me,” he said.
“Our kitchen is too lowbrow for him,” Doig responded with a laugh.
To show their neighborhood appreciation, the couple are “indefinitely” offering “Hood Love” — 13 percent off a meal for residents of the 10009 and 10002 zip codes. A New York State ID card must be presented.
“This is one of the last great streets in Manhattan,” Keller said of Avenue C. “Everybody knows each other, and they look out for each other. We want to take care of the neighborhood, let people see what we can do, and give back a bit.”