“Nico is one of my favorite restaurants in the city,” says Paul Einbund, the owner of The Morris. “Each meal I’ve had there is better than the one before.” That’s why, even though he says he’s been looking for opportunities to expand, he was unnerved when Nico owners Nicolas and Andrea Delaroque approached him asking if he’d like to buy the restaurant.
“They said they wanted to take the year off to spend some time in France with their daughter,” and that the only solution they could think of was to sell then start the work of opening a new San Francisco restaurant after a year away. “That’s an interesting idea,” Einbund said, but he had an alternate plan: What if he, working in conjunction with a current Nico chef, just kept the place warm for them? And so the idea for Gap Year At Nico was born.
The Chronicle first reported about the yearlong project last week. But as Einbund, the Delaroques, and chef Jordan Guevara detailed their plans to Eater SF, it was hard to see why more break-needing restaurateurs haven’t tried a venture like this one, which Nicolas says he’s seen done in Paris but rarely elsewhere. On paper, it actually looks pretty simple: As of 2020, Guevara, who’s Nico’s current chef de cuisine, will take over as head chef of Gap Year at Nico, the official name of the spot for those 366 (2020’s a leap year) days.
As this is Guevara’s first time in the driver’s seat, the action will be managed in tandem with Einbund and his team at The Morris. “The Morris is here to guide and to manage,” Einbund says. But, ultimately, the menu is Guevara’s, the first he’s ever created outside the pop-up sector.
Guevara has been at Nico for about seven months, he says, and the last five or six have been spent developing French dishes with Nicolas Delaroque’s guidance. The result — a “culmination of Nico’s and my food,” Guevara says — will include a $145 (or so) tasting menu “inspired by ‘dusty old cookbooks,’” Guevara says. He’s a collector of works by old-school French chefs like Eugénie Brazier, about whom Guevara speaks with a touching reverence.
“I want to look back to move forward,” he says of his menu of classic French food, but “none of these dishes will be verbatim.” At this point, Einbund interrupts: “Whenever I talk to young chefs, it's like ‘look at how creative I am!’ That’s not how it is with Jordan. He’s foundational.”
Nicholas Delaroque agrees. “There’s something special about Jordan,” he says, explaining that he’s “interested in French food, and there’s an obvious connection between us.”
“I think a lot of people think of food as art right now,” Guevara says, “but I think of it as a craft. The only way to get better is to improve on technique. I want to practice the technique behind it.”
In additional to (in Einbund’s words) “crazy complex” food, there will be wine — likely a foregone conclusion, given The Morris’s well-known bottle list. “Gap will will definitely have a lot of fun, exciting, unique wines,” Einbund says, adding that it will also serve classic French cocktails “with a modern sensibility.”
There’s also a focus on building a relationship with guests, something that Nico patrons say the Delaroques are the masters of. For Gap Year, Guevara says that he’s going to have the chefs run all the meals out to diners, so if people have questions they can ask them at the source.
It’s an edgy idea, perhaps, blurring the line between the front and the back of the house —one of several signs that Guevara is taking the invitation to experiment to heart. One might imagine, then, that Nico and Andrea could be worried about what might happen to their business baby while they head to France to spend time with their human baby (well, four-year-old). After all, it hasn’t even been two years since the couple moved the restaurant from Laurel Heights to Jackson Square. Is this like giving the keys to a year-old Peugeot to a newly-minted driver?
When asked, however, Nico just laughs. “When you’re running a restaurant you have plenty of anxiety, especially in a place like San Francisco. But I know Jordan will take care of the place like it’s his own.”
Nico will remain open for dinner on Tuesday-Saturday from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. until December 31, 2019. Gap Year at Nico will open in January 2020 at the same location.