Updated: 12:30 p.m. Sept. 14
Call it Ishmael.
“or, The Whale,” a farm-and-fisher-to-table concept located along the Boulevard of the Allies at Grant Street in the old Salvation Army Building Downtown is now open, and diners can grab a seat in a captain’s chair and dive into a Moby Dick-infused culinary adventure.
The restaurant is attached to the newly opened, boutique Distrikt Hotel.
The uncommon name is the first thing to greet restaurant-goers, so what’s up with the title?
It’s a nod to Herman Melville’s 1851 classic. The book was originally published in Europe as The Whale and then changed to Moby Dick or, The Whale in its New York release, said the restaurant’s head chef and owner Dennis Marron, who searched for months to determine the right restaurant title.
“I was never much of a reader, but as a kid I was always fascinated with books and stories that had to do with adventure and the sea. … I lived near the ocean and was surrounded by three rivers, so growing up by that much water, I was always drawn to it,” he said, of growing up with surfing and fishing in Red Bank, N.J. “I kind of revisited that with this concept. I wanted to get back to to my childhood and do that food that I grew up with and make it feel like I was back home in New Jersey.”
The vision for the restaurant draws in the vibe of an east coast seafood house paired with a chophouse, all with a modern-day twist. It serves seafood and steaks, along with dishes like pork, lamb and poultry, with produce and meat sourced from local farms and butchered and dry-aged in-house. The seafood is sustainably sourced — “down to knowing the names of the captains of the boats,” Marron said.
The dinner menu is divided into four sections: Loomings, Chowder, Nantucket and The Ship, which are named for chapters in the book but aren’t the most descriptive for diners. Skip over those and just dive into each menu item’s description. Save room for dessert because pastry chef Jessica Lewis is a master at whipping up rich, creamy concoctions (you know her from Carota Cafe at Smallman Galley). Or, The Whale opened its doors to food writers Wednesday night for a preview featuring beautifully crafted cocktails (look at that garnish), mini duck burgers, soups and octopus.
The restaurant is located in what used to be the Salvation Army’s gymnasium, a 1926 addition to the 1924 building.
Continuing the nods to Moby Dick, reclaimed nautical-style ropes decorate the ceiling, and a dramatic mural by a local artist depicts the book jacket.
“It’s a variation on my favorite cover of a Moby Dick. It’s just one that I loved,” Marron said. “The coloring of it was really cool, red and grayish blues, a whale breaching.”
Captains chairs line the bar, which is crafted in a high-gloss maritime-inspired red mahogany wood reminiscent of a vintage vessel. Plenty of outlets outfit the bar, ready to charge phones tired from Instagramming the space and the food.
In addition to bar inside the restaurant, another bar located in the hotel will be called “Evangeline,” a reference to a Salvation Army women’s program. In the morning, it’ll serve as a coffee and juice bar; at night, it’ll transition into a raw bar and high-end cocktail bar. A mural by spray paint artist Jeremy Raymer will decorate the space featuring “hints of old Salvation Army images,” Marron said.
As the restaurant prepared to open, servers underwent training in wine, beer and cocktail theory and will continue to receive in-depth lessons on the spirits. Staff have the opportunity to cross-train (cooks, for example, sit in on wine tasting courses), and Marron is passionate about continued education.
With more than 25 years of experience, Marron most recently worked as executive chef at The Commoner, The Commoner Corner and the Biergarten at Kimpton Hotel Monaco, another boutique hotel located downtown.
Marron’s looking forward to offering what he describes as a “well-rounded” restaurant offering a versatile space equipped to host everything from lunch to an anniversary date to a night with friends. No matter the occasion, the nautical influence of Moby Dick permeates.
“It was the fantasy of it,” Marron said about the work of literature. “It took you to another place, and I think that’s kind of what I want to do with my restaurants. It’s an opportunity to transport you to another place.”