Upscale Grows in the Bronx
Within the magic of the month March, it’s snowing when we arrive to Hudson Garden Grill at the New York Botanical Gardens. Once again, warm spring weather has waived its tom-foolery and the green of the gardens has been dealt a big, fluffy hand from winter.
Still, everyone is gracious and sincere in welcoming us, especially Executive Chef Julian Alonzo. Such crazy weather is no glum setback to him and his team. Every bit of weather change only serves as different fuel for the day. In fact, one could almost look around the space and perceive it as a fantastic, earthy canvas: an open kitchen, large-scale floor-to-ceiling arched windows, iron twists making their chandeliers, a walnut-slab bar and accents of copper and deep blue from the water glasses to the blue and white gingham tablecloths.
“Look around you,” he says. “It was just snowing and now the sun is shining in this place, and now everything’s almost melted outside. Even when it rains, you walk outside and smell the earth. There is never a lack of inspiration here.”
As Hudson Garden Grill is situated within the Ross Conifer Arboretum, one can get an all-around view of constant natural renewal at work. The wood paneling on the walls is made from trees blown down on the grounds during Hurricane Sandy. A view of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is seen right down the path, currently housing the annual Orchid Show, which this year pays homage to the orchids of Thailand. With every season, the setting remains inviting to all.
“We appear to some like fine dining, but we lean towards a farm-to-table, upscale casual approach,” says Chef Alonzo.
Continuous exploration of cooking has played a huge role in Julian Alonzo’s life. Born and raised in New York City and having gone to Catholic school most of his life, he switched to a vocational high school as a teenager and decided to focus on cooking—“by mistake,” he says—when he was 15. By the time he was 16, he was earning school credits interning for David Bouley at the exclusive Montrachet in Manhattan, then worked in different kitchens while a student in the French Culinary Institute. Following his studies, he ventured off to France for four years, fulfilling wanderlust and giving him the opportunity to learn in the kitchens of Guy Savoy. However, his heart was home in New York, and he returned to continue working in many progressive chef positions and eventually was helping open restaurants.
“There were a lot—a lot—of things in all of it that made me disciplined, humbled and shell-shocked, of course. But if I wasn’t cooking, I wouldn’t know what I would do.”
Stephen Starr Events opened Hudson Garden Grill in 2015, the first full-service restaurant for the Botanical Gardens, seats up to 200 people in peak season. Chef Julian not only performs his duties as executive chef for the restaurant, but is also the regional chef overseeing all the food venues, cafés, trucks and catering in New York Botanical Gardens and additional venues around the city. He is constantly on the move and shifting gears, but still committed to ensuring a great experience for every place.
Hudson Garden Grill clearly provides this for its visitors. Many come up to Chef Julian after their meals to thank him, and it is received with the upmost sincerity.
“The food speaks for itself, and I only hope that we always give everyone a great, quality meal.”
The Grill’s seasonal menus are fostered through constant connection and visits with local vendors from the Hudson Valley—more importantly, sourcing herbs and greens straight from NYBG’s Edible Garden. “Each season, of course, brings a new excitement to the table,” says the chef. “In the fall, new game, meats, and root vegetables. With spring, we’ll be getting tons of great spring vegetables: ramps, garlic scapes, chive blossoms.”
Signature house specialties and guests’ favorites include their bucatini pasta and Hamachi Tartare. The Thai-inspired Orchid Show going on right down the path influences Chef Alonzo’s spring menu, adding fresh Thai flavors to his New American–themed menu: aged beef carpaccio with a charred papaya salad; crab cake with avocado, sea beans and mustard; Prince Edward Island mussels with Thai red curry, coconut, basil and lime. Each dish is executed with a vision of both modern and rustic intention.
Though classically trained in French cuisine, his approach to food is still one that resonates as classic with a personal connection. When asked if he has a favorite dish to make, he replies, “Way too hard to answer, there are so many. But I will say bread and fish might take the top spots. I used to watch my dad make ceviche a lot, and I try to prepare a lot of food with my kids. I like anything which involves a lot of careful handwork, and I hope some of this rubs off on them!”
With Hudson Garden Grill’s continued growth, Chef Alonzo hopes to see it thrive as a highlight to those coming for the food and staying for the gardens.
“I hope to make this known to people as one of the best restaurants in the Bronx, and I hope it will help them see how its dining scene is being revolutionized. What Dan Barber did, getting all those people to visit Stone Barns, the work is so smart and inspirational. I really hope that people realize how this is happening in the Bronx, too. We’re not in competition, of course, but definitely in this together. It’s a strange time in the world, but what can we do? We can help each other grow.”