From the moment you enter Rusty Mackerel (209 Pinehurst Avenue) you know that this isn’t your average eatery.
No, ladies and gentlemen, this is a sanctum of the sublime, a place where culinary alchemy happens daily.
No mere restaurant, it is a shrine of gastronomy. A place where food and flavor are the focal point. Case in point: their take on Chicken and Waffles on the brunch menu, which features jerked quail, sweet potato and smoked maple. O-M-G – Muy Bueno!
Started by Washington Heights’ natives and helmed by local boy made good, Chef James “Mac” Moran, Rusty Mackerel is putting forth some ridiculously delicious and straight up innovative fare. Go there now. Thank me later.
Q. With Rusty Mackerel, I get a sense that is all about the food but there is also a playfulness that is readily apparent. What was the idea going in with Rusty Mackerel?
A. The Mackerel is a culmination of a lifelong passion for Washington Heights combined with my career with Todd English Enterprises and all the amazing chefs and restaurants I’ve been able to work with. It’s bringing the sophistication of everything I learned downtown to Uptown because there are so many people right here who will really get it. They’ll also be happy they don’t have to get on a 40 minute subway ride or get dressed up to enjoy a really top-notch food experience. Above all, I wanted the restaurant to be a mirror of the neighborhood–casual, creative and intimate.
Q. How does it feel to come back to Washington Heights, being that you’re from the neighborhood and you started your culinary career literally around the corner at Franks?
A. It feels great and really natural. It was Frank that gave me the nickname “Mac” and everyone has called me that ever since. I’ve always lived in the Heights so it’s amazing to be doing what I do best right here at home. Frank McHugh and Bill Rodriguez gave me my first job and now they’ve partnered with me in my first restaurant. They are also local guys who have continually expanded to satisfy the every-changing neighborhood. Look at what they’ve done at Vines on Pine?! It’s one of the best wine shops in the city and it speaks to the character of our neighborhood perfectly.
Q. I also noticed that there are hints of Washington Heights in the food on the menu. Why do you feel that is important?
A. There are so many interesting stories in the neighborhood that I can tell with my food. Plus there’s some deep nostalgia for me–like that Gideon’s rye bread we use on the Brooklyn Pastrami platter. I grew up on that stuff. I’ve got other dishes soon to rotate onto the menu like a sancocho jus that obviously speaks to the Dominican influence. And I had a stinging nettle flatbread on the menu earlier this spring, which was inspired by the herb garden at the Cloisters.
Q. I loved the Bruce Lee print and quote in the men’s bathroom. Is there a similar one in the women’s bathroom?
A. We only have one bathroom. Kung-fu has always had a huge influence on me and I love that our designer heard that and then worked that attitude into our logo and branding.
Q. I have been saying for a while that Washington Heights is going through a Renaissance and I think your restaurant adds a distinct culinary flair to the progress that is taking place. What are your thoughts on all the positive developments in the neighborhood?
A. It’s all up from here and while I’m totally focused on the Mackerel for right now, I have strong ideas for future restaurants here. I absolutely see the Mackerel as the first of many others that will make Washington Heights a destination for foodies. I’m only getting started. In the end, it’s all about making people happy and food is my medium to do that.
Q. Any final thoughts?
A. There’s a sick amount of talent in this neighborhood. Amazing Broadway people, opera singers, writers, artists and journalists. We hope that Rusty Mackerel becomes the place where all these creative people can be together and connect. Late-night, post-theater drinks at Rusty Mackerel, anyone?