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Former Horses Chef Opens Frog Club in New York

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As would-be diners approached a nondescript door on a placid block in Greenwich Village on Wednesday night, they were stopped short by a tall, lean man wearing a black fur hat and red carnation boutonniere. He pressed stickers over the lenses of their phones. No photography was allowed, he insisted.

As they complied and disappeared through the door, the block fell silent again.

Inside, silence was scarce. It was the opening night of Frog Club, the first restaurant involving the chef Liz Johnson since the very public implosion of her marriage to Will Aghajanian, with whom she ran the acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant Horses.

Occupying the historic space formerly home to Chumley’s, Frog Club has been veiled in secrecy. Only a 12-minute stiltedly lo-fi YouTube video announced its official opening, and a sparse website offered just an email address for requesting reservations. With Ms. Johnson and Mr. Aghajanian in the middle of a contentious divorce, it’s even unclear who owns the restaurant.

Mr. Aghajanian, 32, told The New York Times, in an Instagram direct message, that the project is “in legal limbo currently,” and that “Frog club is a concept I created and designed.”

Asked Wednesday how she felt about the restaurant, Ms. Johnson, 33, surveyed the space and said simply, “It’s all mine.”

Horses was a critical darling and celebrity favorite until The Los Angeles Times published an article on the bitter breakup at the Sunset Boulevard restaurant. A New York Times article from May reported that Ms. Johnson had accused Mr. Aghajanian of assaulting her, visiting prostitutes and torturing a number of the couple’s pet kittens to death. He denied those allegations and accused her of threatening to kill him and deliberately burning him with kitchen implements.

The divorce proceedings are ongoing, but despite the scandal, a recent report suggested that Horses remains as busy as ever.

Allison Otis, 31, a student who lives in New York City and has been to Horses twice was less concerned about that restaurant’s past than both it and Frog Club’s food.

“Obviously the story was a little wild, but the food’s always been good. It stands on its own for sure,” she said. “People love scandal, so I imagine there are people who might go just to see, but what will sustain the restaurant will be the quality of the scene and the hospitality.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Johnson moved calmly through the frenetic room in crisp whites accented with a green frog-patterned neckerchief, serving hamburgers on housemade English muffins and slices of banana chiffon pie.

Before their messy split, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Aghajanian had amassed nearly a decade’s worth of praise for their deft, inventive dishes at Horses, the Catbird Seat in Nashville and before that Mimi in Greenwich Village.

“It’s funny to say it this late in the game, but I’m figuring out what my food is,” Ms. Johnson said.

In front of a fireplace across the room, a woman crooned into a microphone. A wraparound fever dream of a mural depicting carousing frogs in Prohibition-era cocktail attire ran the length of both dining rooms. Hundreds of plates were suspended from the ceiling with vaguely sinister chains, while an antique clock and several framed works of art also loomed overhead, as if in an exploded museum.

Ms. Johnson answered a reporter’s questions about the corkscrew-shaped “sidewinder fries” (they’re a specialty item Ms. Johnson buys frozen), the mustard crème fraîche sauce on the crispy roast chicken (the same one she served at Mimi), and stopped at least once to pose for a photograph with Josh Beckerman, a social-media personality better known as the Foodie Magician.

Beyond a few comments, Ms. Johnson declined to speak for this article, or permit any photos.

With its antic amphibian murals by the illustrator Normandie Syken, and its buttery lobster pierogies, the restaurant teeters between haute speakeasy and fun-house spectacle.

Ximena Lascurain, 29, a travel consultant who lives nearby, was intrigued. She had snagged a reservation after walking by and peeking in. “I’m here because I was curious,” she said. “More about the space than about the owner.”

Maybe, but the menu did offer a “Kiss the Chef” option for $1,000. And by 10:30 p.m., a server reported that a male diner had bought the first kiss — on the cheek — with Ms. Johnson.

“It was sweet,” the server said. “She was blushing.” Also on the menu — the back of the dessert menu — was a mini-manifesto, with the last line reading: “Frog Club is the New Yorkiest room in New York and it will leave you wondering, what happened at 86 Bedford last night?”

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