It isn't Easy getting everything right, but it's definitely possible. Once in a blue moon a restaurant assembles the total package: the right concept for the times, a well-executed menu, stylish décor, seamless service, all for a price that makes sense. The front line talent is well matched to the creative genius in the kitchen. The critics like it, and the locals are loyal fans.
Of the hundreds of thousands of restaurants in this country, we have singled out three as role models. We aren't saying they are perfect, but we do admire what they are doing, and there may be some lessons for you in studying them.
We turn first to Frasca Food and Wine, the five-year-old improbable addition to what was Boulder's already overachieving dining scene. Improbable because it was launched by two outsiders, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey, alumni of the famed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Improbable because it features cuisine from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, an obscure region of Italy.
Frasca has ascended to the national limelight and become a favorite of locals and visitors to Boulder by keeping a sharp eye on all the little details that go into the guest's experience. The food, the vibe, the wine, the service: all are in top form. “We have no excuse to have a bad day. We've got to be there,” Stuckey told the Denver Post recently. The paper's former dining critic summed up the memorable result of that commitment in a review: “From now on, my life will be divided into two time periods: before I ate at Frasca and after I ate at Frasca.”
So what's the big deal about the food? Frasca's preference for local and seasonal is in sync with the rising locavore movement. And Mackinnon-Patterson, who learned classic technique in Paris and honed it at French Laundry, knows how to coax flavor out of his ingredients, and it shows on the plate. Reviewers tend to swoon over the latest creations. Not surprisingly, Mackinnon-Patterson captured the James Beard Award last year for Best Chef: Southwest.
Then there's the setting. The 17-table dining room is stylish yet understated, outfitted with starched white linens, Riedel stemware, fresh flowers, a salumi bar and a wall of wine, while remaining “refreshingly absent of snobbery,” one critic notes.
Under the direction of Stuckey and a second certified master sommelier, the 200+ bottle wine list impresses without intimidating. Last year the retaurant moved some 13,000 bottles of wine, representing more than a third of its revenue.
Servers, one observer notes, “are self-aware, not self-important. The meal isn't about them or about the restaurant. It's about the diner, and what the diner wants and needs.” Maybe that's because they are treated well, with a 401(k) plan, health care and an annual trip to Friuli, including everything but airfare. They are encouraged to learn from visits to other restaurants (with a subsidy from Frasca) and share their experiences with their colleagues.
“Someday I want us to be considered the greatest neighborhood restaurant in the world,” Stuckey has said. He and his partner are on their way.
FRESH - SIMPLE - PURE
Michael's Genuine Food & Drink aims to be exactly what its name suggests: a restaurant where guests are welcomed and recognized, they can always find something they want on the menu and what goes into those menu choices is simple, fresh and pure. That philosophy alone, though, is not enough to push a restaurant to the top.
What is? Chef/owner Michael Schwartz, who cemented his reputation with the pioneering South Beach restaurant, Nemo, serves up moderately priced, contemporary American fare relying on the best possible ingredients. He favors products from local growers and small farmers — items like roasted poulet rouge, a rare breed raised in North Carolina, or roasted pork shoulder “so tender it threatens to cross over from meat to custard,” or deep-fried hominy nuggets dusted with ginger, garlic, chipotle and sugar. The dinner menu changes daily and offers moderately priced bar snacks and small, medium, large and extra large plates to appease all appetites and wallets. Extraordinary wines, including boutique and rare vintages, are sold at sane prices. The upscale, unpretentious interior with tiny globe lights, leather seats, polished concrete floors and rich woods reinforces the “genuine” mantra.
Put all these elements together, and you have a spot that pulls in top chefs and celebrities, Miami's design community, a slew of regulars who stop by several times a week, and even tourists and shoppers, who have followed the strong buzz to the arguably dicey location. Since opening two years ago, Michael's has racked up kudos from Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Esquire, and the New York Times' Frank Bruni cited the place as one of the 10 U.S. “restaurants that count” last year. Like many of his peers, “he's ditching the haute for the homey and focusing more on sourcing than on saucing,” Bruni said.
“Michael's is the geographic and social epicenter of the Design District,” one maven pronounced.
A reviewer for a Miami paper called Michael's “a remarkable restaurant that epitomizes everything positive about today's slow, inexorable worldwide movement toward slow, indisputably honest food.”
HAVING A BALL
Michel Richard's grinning mug is all over the place at his latest creation, Central Michel Richard. The blown-up photo underscores the theme behind this popular D.C. spot: fun. “Central is the warmhearted bistro Richard says he has long wanted to launch and the restaurant that so many of us crave nowadays,” the Washington Post wrote when Central opened two years ago.
At this affordable cousin to Richard's acclaimed Citronelle, the kitchen at Central plays with its food, setting a festive tone: lobster burgers, “faux” gras terrine made from chicken liver and butter, fried oysters standing in for Chicken McNuggets, to-die-for frites, a trademark dessert meant to evoke a Kit Kat bar on steroids.
Photo: Stacey Zarin
Photo: Len Depas
Photo: Chris Molina
It's stylized American comfort food, reconceptualized by a haute French chef. “The kitchen sends out bistro classics that taste as if they had been FedExed from one of the Michelin Guide's bib gourmand (good value) picks in Paris,” the Washington Post noted. It's a pinch-me opportunity for foodies, an affordable brush with culinary greatness in a comfortable and chic setting. By letting his hair down and relaxing the prices a bit, Richard has pulled off the neat trick of making his food accessible to a much broader audience.
The elegant but laid-back place, situated a stone's throw from the White House, is half dining room, half bar and exhibition kitchen. In D.C., where one's seating location is everything, it's a plus that apparently there is no Siberia in Central.
The menu choices include something for every budget. And in true bistro fashion, wines by the glass and interesting beers dominate the bar list, which is also broad enough to include popular domestic brews.
“The place hums with energy and a sense of possibility. It's as relaxed and unpretentious as a serious restaurant gets,” one reviewer notes. “Artistry is rare enough. But artistry and affordability? In a city that offers too little of either, Central is cause for elation.”