‘You Can Taste the Wildness’

Venison tartare, eel mousse, sunflower miso, and an imposing clam flask in Greenpoint.

Surf Clam, from Ilis. Photo: Hugo Yu
Surf Clam, from Ilis. Photo: Hugo Yu

You’ve had clams on the half-shell, but what about clams in the whole shell? At Ilis, which opens this week in Greenpoint, a surf-clam appetizer arrives in the full housing, tied with twine like a roast that’s ready for the oven. It’s upright on a bed of ice, and the shell — sealed with beeswax — has been turned into a flask of sorts. On top, an opening; inside, clam juice, clarified tomato juice and smoked dashi. “You drink it almost like a Bloody Mary,” says Ilis’s chef, Mads Refslund. But the first thing I think of is Clamato.

If it sounds like something that might be served at Noma, well, that’s probably because Refslund was there at the very beginning, but he says the inspiration for this dish is more interesting: Surf clams are preyed upon by clever snails that can drill holes in the shells, through which they slurp up the clams.

One does not simply happen upon a recipe for revisionist Clamato, however, and the dish — like the restaurant — is the result of a million little decisions and years of work. The week before opening, Refslund’s team was still coming up with new ideas; Kane William Sorrells, a sous-chef in charge of R&D, presented a project, a plate made from a dried mushroom. He’d just finished fitting three pegs into the bottom. “Be honest,” Sorrells asked. “Is this stupid or what?” He was covered in sawdust.

“Yeah, it’s stupid,” Refslund said. “I think it looks like Etsy … not because Etsy’s bad.” It’s just that they’re not opening a bed-and-breakfast. Ilis, which is a portmanteau of the Danish words for fire (Ild) and ice (is), is housed in a former rubber factory, next door to the private museum Faurschou New York. A 6,000-square-foot space, it’s centered around an open kitchen that’s outfitted with high-end, highly priced equipment like custom Demant grills which can be used as a robata, for slowly cooking skewers; a French top, valued for even heat; and a rotisserie. It won’t be a beet factory, though. “We are planning to turn the tables one and a half times during the weekends and to do just one turn during the weekdays,” Refslund said. There are 58 seats at the tables spread throughout the dining room. “We are pushing with the landlord about getting a private dining room for 25 to 30 seats, because let’s be realistic, we have 25 cooks in the kitchen.”

Barbecued eel. Photo: Hugo Yu

Bar seating partially wraps around the kitchen; sunflowers and other ingredients hang-dry above temperature-controlled fridges for edging tuna and duck. Some of the dining tables are Knox Deco drafting tables that can be raised during the day and used as workstations. All of the cooks are servers, and all of the servers are cooks: They’ll all rotate, two weeks on the floor, two weeks at the stove. Will Douillet (who was the GM at Grant Achatz’s Next) and Bryce Shuman, whose past stops include Eleven Madison Park and Betony, will help run the kitchen.

Dinner is a prix fixe of sorts. The menu is a choice of 12 ingredients, presented in a booklet. There are illustrations, information on sources and preparation, and, in most cases, a choice: fire or ice? (Read: Want to eat this hot or cold?) Diners choose at least five (for $150), and then can add on more of whatever they’d like. Refslund says the menu is formatted this way because he “doesn’t like to put people into a box.”

To understand how that plays out practically, consider the eel: It can be ordered as an aerated mousse (cold), with horseradish and walnut oil, or barbecued with sumac. There is bigeye tuna made into a dumpling with nasturtium and salted plum, or grilled and served with sunflower-seed miso and shiso. Venison is offered as tartare in beet rosettes with beer vinegar and hazelnut oil, or as a skewer with salted cherry and black garlic. The kitchen will rely heavily on game, like duck provided by a farmer who plucks them from his lake. “You can taste the wildness in the duck,” Refslund said. “He’s been fighting for his life — it’s not something that was protected by a farmer and not feeling any fear for the fox or whatever is coming.”

Finding those ducks, and many other ingredients, is the responsibility of Sorrells, who seeks out farmers and strikes deals with them. Refslund’s insistence on wild things — animals that had “a real life instead of living in a cage” — has, at least, led him to some more interesting people. “We have a forager from North Carolina,” Refslund said. “He lives on roadkill. He’s really a funny guy.”

In the dozen-plus years that Refslund has lived in America, he’s accumulated a roster of guys — a duck guy, a boar guy, an eel guy — and none of it came quickly. He left Noma less than a year after it opened, ran his own restaurant in Copenhagen, and came to New York in 2012 to consult at the downtown spot Acme. Since 2016, he’s consulted on various other projects, always with one goal in mind: “I’ve been waiting for seven years just to build a restaurant here. I never really took a job as a head chef because I was waiting for something like this,” he said. “I think good things take time. I didn’t want to dilute myself.”

Still, he acknowledges that the comparisons to Noma are inevitable. “I can’t run away from who I am or where I come from,” he says. “My flavor profile is coming from a place where it’s Nordic. I think what you can say is that it’s a mix between Scandinavian, Mexican, and Japanese cuisine — if that’s what you want to say.”

The dining room is built around the open kitchen. Photo: Hugo Yu

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