Tao Group, a hospitality company run by Marc Packer and Rich Wolf, has reportedly bought Hiro Ballroom and Matsuri from the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea. Both venues are expected to close in late March so that Tao Group, which also owns Tao Asian bistro in Midtown East, can begin demolition on April 1.
Matsuri Executive Chef Tadashi Ono found out about the deal only one month ago, but he says he sensed it coming. Originally the owners of the Maritime, in which Matsuri and Hiro Ballroom occupy the bottom floor, had, according to Eater, Hiro and Cabanas on the market, not Matsuri. Ono says when Tao Group looked at Matsuri, “they liked it and wanted all of the basement space.”
Of Matsuri, Ono says, “We’ve been doing okay, but since the recession we were not doing as much [business] as we used to, which is understandable.” Owners Eric Goode and Sean Macpherson can charge – and Tao Group can pay – “an enormous amount of rent a month . . . so, why not?” says Ono.
What does this mean for Chef Ono and Matsuri? While uncertain of his immediate future, Ono, who lives in Mamaroneck with his wife and their two daughters, wants to stay in New York. A chef who began his career in French cuisine, Ono is also sticking with his native Japanese cooking.
“There’s talk [of future projects, even possibly moving Matsuri elsewhere], but nothing’s for sure,” says Ono. (He politely declined to elaborate.)
He can say with certainty that he will take time off after Matsuri closes. “I’ve been working here for nine years [since the restaurant opened], so I’ll take some time and think about what I should do.”
In the meantime, Ono is working on his third cookbook with food journalist Harris Salat. (Japanese Hot Pots, which Ono says is still selling very well, was released in 2009; The Japanese Grill came out last summer.) Under the working title Japanese Soul, the new cookbook is scheduled to be released at the beginning of next year. The theme is “Japanese soul food,” down-to-earth cooking that includes favorites such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki, gyoza, ramen, tonkatsu, and Japanese curry.
“It’s not exactly traditional Japanese food,” Ono says of the post-World War II fare, “but it’s what people eat now.”
Although Ono thoroughly enjoys the cookbook aspect of his career, he considers it a side project. “Cookbooks are fun, but I’m a chef,” says Ono. “I love to cook for people . . . I’m staying in the restaurant business.”
When Matsuri opened, New York magazine described the restaurant as “the most tasteful of the big new Japanese dining palaces that began their assault on the city.” It’s easy to see why the Tao Group finds the space attractive. Dimly lit and well-appointed with dark wood furniture, striking lanterns, and elegant Japanese accents, Matsuri elicits an impressive gasp from patrons upon entering for the first time. The food doesn’t disappoint, either. The menu is filled with traditional Japanese dishes infused with modern sensibilities.
Ono acknowledges that the restaurant industry in New York is highly competitive, but of Matsuri he says, “We were busy from Day One . . . If you do it with the right people, the right location, dramatic décor, and good food, you’ll make it.”
And Ono is sure to make it in New York long after Matsuri closes its doors in March.