World-renowned artist Magda Sayeg, known as the founder of yarn-bombing (a joyful, guerrilla street art movement in which public structures such as signposts get covered in colorful, soft yarn), is opening Magdalene, her first-ever New York restaurant with a distinct menu and a playful, patchwork look.
Though Sayeg calls her new Williamsburg restaurant a “Lebanese oyster bar”—fresh oysters from Greenpoint Fish & Lobster appear on the menu with a sumac mignonette ($15 for a half dozen)—seafood is only one part of the theme here.
The menu combines Sayeg’s experience growing up with parents of Arab and Jewish descent in Houston, Texas—a fusion of cuisines that New York has yet to see. In a kitchen led by chef Haimadou Conteh (an alum of Greenpoint Fish and Five Leaves), you’ll find Mediterranean and Southern ingredients that come to life in the form of falafel-crusted fried chicken ($21), a Texas-style shawarma ($23), a baked whole fish (market price), a crudo plate with tuna ($17)—”I’m an appetizer person, I like the beauty of lots of little small plates”—and a revolving dessert menu that will kick off with sumptuous pistachio tres leches cake ($11), in addition to many other items.
“Thanksgiving at my house was always stuffing and then baba ganoush, but then also matzo ball soup,” she says, making the point to note that dishes at the new restaurant are totally modern interpretations of her childhood. “If you look at the history of al pastor tacos, it came from Lebanese food, the way they do shawarma. It’s appropriate.” Cocktails and wine on the menu will also have nods to the mélange of flavors.
The desserts will be crafted by Sayeg herself, who flexed her baking skills when opening her first restaurant, Brasil café, in Houston, many years ago. She eventually left to pursue a career as a textile artist and gained global accolades, with work at a Dallas library, trees on Capitol Hill, a London bus, galleries and work for Dover Street Market, the Standard Hotel and Etsy’s own office, among many others.
“It was so exciting. Me, this little person in Houston, inspiring people in other countries,” she says of the impact of her grassroots “knit graffiti” collective at the time.
Sayeg no longer associates as a yarn-bomber, blushing at the name she once used for herself. Leaving behind her anarchy, today, she works in tandem with cities and organizations to commission her soft sculptures.
“This restaurant is an extension of my art practice,” she says. Bringing her yarn off the street and into the Technicolor dining space, she’s cloaked columns and shelves with her yarn installations, a project that has the potential to evolve, as the needs of the restaurant do. Sayeg plans to seasonally swap out the signage with her business’s name out front with different colors, too.
But on top of her long awaited restaurant opening, Sayeg says she’s currently developing another huge Brooklyn project this year. She’s currently in the works to cover parts of the Williamsburg Bridge with a giant fiber installation, recycling discontinued mid-century modern Knoll fabric scraps for a first-of-its-kind mega, public art experience set to be unveiled later this year.
“Clearly, I love color...and, maybe, to a fault. This color palette, I guarantee you, has probably, like, 27 colors,” she says of her maximalist interior design scheme, outfitted with mismatched swirling marble table tops, a style that doesn’t adhere to the aesthetics of other new restaurants of late.
Magdalene is located at 524 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211. It opens to the public on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, and will begin with Wednesday through Sunday service, 5pm to 12am, with plans to expand operating hours soon thereafter.