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5 restaurants with the 'it' factor

It’s quite simple: Customers are drawn to cool restaurants because it makes them cool by association. What gives a restaurant that “it” factor? Check out these five concepts that have taken cool all the way to the bank. • See more New Restaurant Concepts

Clockwise from top left: State Bird Provisions, Trois Mec, King + Duke, Ox, Fat Rice

Because an eggheaded academic discussion of the subject of coolness is, well, uncool, let’s just agree that most of us know it when we see it. With this in mind, Restaurant Hospitality set out to find five of the coolest restaurants in the land to see what we can learn.

For one, none of the restaurateurs set out to be cool, and none of them think of themselves as cool (well, not that they admit). In fact, the universal response to being included in this piece was “Us? Cool?”

It’s a paradox. These chefs and owners are too focused on their game to worry about whether they’re cool. Some, like Adrienne Lo and Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice, are obsessed with their research and quest for authenticity. Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec is thinking about new, mind-bending ways to apply classic French technique. Others, like Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, occupy their minds with the next groundbreaking flavor combination or avante-garde plate presentation. At Ox, Greg and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton are sourcing local products and mastering fire. And in Atlanta, Ford Fry of King + Duke is so busy breaking rules, he has little time to worry about cool.

The lesson? Like Mom said, always be yourself. Don’t try to win the popularity contest. Instead, aim for awesomeness, and you might just end up being the coolest kid on the block. Take a closer look at each of these restaurants and you’ll get a better idea of what we mean.

Fat Rice, Chicago

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Lo and Conlon built a funky, casual space with help from comic-book artists.The signature Fat Rice has a distinct flavor profile.

Principals: Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo

The food of Macau in a casual neighborhood restaurant.

Hook: It’s Macanese! Yes, Macanese. Guests line up for a bar seat where they can watch the elaborate construction of the restaurant’s namesake dish. In this case, it’s cool to be off-the-charts different.

Signature dishes:
• Fat rice: A casserole made with jasmine rice laced with sofrito, Chinese sausage and salted duck and topped with Portuguese chicken thighs, char sui pork, linguica sausage, prawns, clams, tea eggs, croutons and assorted pickled peppers, $42
• Balichang Tamarindo (braised sweet and sour pork belly, tamarind, pineapple, chicharrones, $16)
• Po Kok Gai (Mussels, chorizo, olives, cabbage, coconut curry, $18)
• Piri Piri Chicken (Char-grilled half bird, spicy “African” tomato sauce, grilled potato, peanuts, $21)

Prices: Starters around $8; entrees around $18.

Why it's cool: “They are not the latest new-new thing—they are an actual new thing,” wrote the Chicago Tribune of Fat Rice. Well, sort of. Macanese cooking is actually really old, explains Abraham Conlon, who runs it with his partner Adrienne Lo. And trust us, he knows. Conlon is knee-deep in Macanese history and its gastronomic evolution. It boils down to this: A long time ago, the Asian Island of Macau was colonized by Portugual, and then they all made some great, incredibly complex food. But it’s not fusion. “With the exception of chefs like Norman Van Aken (for whom Conlon worked), I always thought fusion seemed forced. This came about organically over hundreds of years.”

Conlon and Lo, who ran an underground supper club in Chicago, understood Fat Rice was risky. “We knew people would be like, ‘What the hell is Macanese’?” says Conlon. “We described it as European-Asian comfort food. We could have done something stupid like call it Saffron and Lotus. Nobody would have come. Fat Rice is a dead simple name that’s easy to understand.”

To introduce a hip factor to an ancient cuisine, Conlon and Lo created a super casual spot and hired a comic book artist to help decorate the place with funky art. On top of that, Conlon carefully mixes the restaurant’s soundtrack, employing mostly hip-hop from far-flung places. Another lesson about cool: Deliver the unexpected and offer surprises. They certainly surprised Bon Appetit, which named Fat Rice to its “Hot 10” list.  The whole idea was a risky bet, but one Lo and Conlon won. Customers often wait up to two hours for a seat.

The Tribune described the duo as “interesting looking, the kind of couple you see around town and wonder what their deal is.” But Conlon admits they’re no hipsters. “We’re eggheads. We want to put together food for a reason, to respect the cultures and cooks before us.”

They are particularly serious about Macao because a lot of its old culture has been pushed aside since China assumed sovereignty over the territory back in 1999. As a result, Conlon digs deep into the internet to find people who might be willing to share old family Macanese recipes. “But we keep all that behind the line and in the office,” says Conlon. “Out front we present something simple and fun.”

King + Duke, Atlanta

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Ford Fry

Principals: Ford Fry; Executive chef Joe Schafer

Open-hearth, down-home cooking in a casual setting. Many entrees and sides are made for sharing, including a one-kilo bone-in ribeye and crispy Brussels sprouts.

Hook: Hillbilly chow elevated for the well-heeled Buckhead crowd.

Signature dishes:
• Roasted Grass Roots Farms Duck: pastrami leg, roasted breast, house sauerkraut, persimmons, $29
• Whole Roast Chicken for Two (crusty bread salad, chicken drippings vinaigrette, $55)
• “The Duke” (burger of house-ground chuck and dry-aged cuts, coal roasted with onions; fries and a pickle, $16

Check average: $50

Why it's cool: Aside from tapping in early to America’s current collective obsession with open hearth cooking, Atlanta golden boy and James Beard-nominated Ford Fry (JCT Kitchen & Bar, No. 246, The Optimist) ignored the warnings of his peers and colleagues and brought down-home cooking to Buckhead. He’s done it, though, without trying too hard or stumbling into theme-restaurant territory.

Explaining his inspiration, Fry says, “A lot of chefs are going in a more modernist direction, and with King + Duke we went the opposite way.” There is a library vibe to the space, and the name is a wink to the roving con artists of Huckleberry Finn who try to pass off as royalty. “I liked that they’re hillbillies trying to show off,” explains Fry, a humble nod to his restaurant.

The Huck Finn characters wind up tarred and feathered, but the menu at King + Duke “shows off” with better results. The massive hearth is the dining room’s focal point and features four grills that can be raised and lowered by a pulley system. The effect is rustic with a kind of a steam-punk vibe. Some of the down-home menu is not for the squeamish. The whole roasted chicken, for instance, is just that—whole, right down to the talons.

The menu rests in the capable hands of executive chef Joe Schafer, as Fry believes in a deistic, wind-it-up and watch-it-go approach to his concepts. “As fast as I can, I give it over to the chefs so they can develop a relationship with local farmers and make ties with their neighborhood. I want them to make the restaurants their baby.”

Fry had a serious “What am I doing?” moment before opening King + Duke. He recalls walking through the restaurant and thinking about Buckhead, with its buttoned-up eateries and corporate clientele, and wondering if King + Duke might be a royal misstep. “But we really wanted to bring a little edginess to the area, to be dressed down but still offer quality. So we stayed the course, and it paid off,” says Fry.

Indeed. Esquire recently called King + Duke one of America’s Best New Restaurants. Alan Richman of GQ called it one of the 25 Best Restaurants in America, saying: “This is informal American dining, perfected.”

A lesson in cool: Break all the rules and offer the unexpected. Get all hillbilly with the bluebloods in a down-home environment? Go figure!

Ox, Portland, OR

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The massive grill at Ox is a center piece for the Denton’s lusty menu. Photo: Andrew Thomas Lee PhotographyOx’s signature chowder

Principals: Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton

Open-fire cooking with an Argentinian influence. The grill is smack-dab in the middle of the funky, rustic dining room.

Hook: Meat cooked over a fire close enough to singe your eyebrows.

Signature dishes:
• Fresh Clam Chowder (Smoked Marrow Bone, Scallion, Jalapeño, $13)
• Asado Argentino for Two (Grilled Short Rib, House Chorizo & Morcilla Sausages, Skirt Steak)
• Sweetbreads, Fried Potato, Green Salad, $6
• Five Chilled Seafood Preparations (Oregon Bay Shrimp Ceviche, Dungeness Crab Cocktail, Mussel Poke)
• Scallop Salad “Dynamite

Check average: $50

Why it's cool: Greg and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, who met at Napa Valley’s Terra in 1999, have a relationship with fire that runs long and wide. They’ve cooked with it from Hawaii to Vermont and they sure as hell know how to tame it. The couple fell in love with Portland and its food scene on vacation a few years back and decided to chuck their surfboards for earthy Oregon.  

Ox—whose name is an homage to the beast who tilled the farms—fuses the ingredients of the Northwest with the fire of Argentina. To point: Northwestern halibut travels through Argentina on the way to the plate and it’s served with a mint chimichurri sauce. And take the signature chowder, just one of the many reasons you might wait three hours for a table at Ox. It has whole clams—shells and all, ‘cause that’s how they roll in Portland—and it’s thickened not with flour but with smoked marrow bones, which also give it its deep flavor. Spiked with cream and garnished with breadcrumbs and jalapeños, “It hits all the tastebuds: you’re sweating, crying, overwhelmed.

“I can’t get sick of it,” says Greg Denton. The simple stuff knocks one’s socks off as well. Gabby is particularly excited to get grilled artichokes with olive oil, salt and pepper back on the menu this season. Ditto for the heirloom tomatoes grown in their back parking lot.  

Their cooking is hot, the dining room is cool. The Dentons knocked down a wall so everyone’s in on the action. The grill grates raise and lower with wheels that sound like a roller coaster. Greg cooks, and any chef he hires had better be able to multitask because there’s nowhere to hide. “I don’t hire anyone that can’t carry on a conversation and cook at the same time,” Denton says.

Denton does most of the plating and presentation design, while Gabrielle does the recipe writing. “Everything is a collaboration, and I think it’s both masculine and feminine,” she says. We’re both always reeling each other in or pushing each other forward.”

Greg agrees: “We give each other balance. We both have to feel really excited about something before it makes it on the menu.”

The work has paid off. The restaurant was a James Beard Semifinalist this year and Bon Appetit named it one of its 50 Best New Restaurants. Most succinctly, The Wall Street Journal called it one of the best steakhouses in the country: “Portland math: fire + wood + meat = delicious.”

It’s another lesson in cool: It’s not always about the next thing. Cooking over fire goes back to cavemen. It’s about how you make it modern.

Trois Mec, Los Angeles

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Yeah, he can be feisty and tempermental, but Ludo Lefebvre can cook the socks off of most chefs. And that’s why he’s calling the shots.

Principals: Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo

Concept: Eclectic French in a tiny, funky-chic dining room. No menu to choose from. You get to eat what the Frenchman is cooking.

Hook: Like a concert, a play or sporting event, if you want to eat at Trois Mec, you need to buy a ticket.

Signature dishes: None since the menu changes daily. However, items that have consistently popped up since the restaurant’s opening last year include Lefebvre’s flavor-packed potato pulp and a pre-dinner snack of buckwheat “popcorn.”
Check average: Tickets run around $75, and do not include wine or other alcohol.

Why it's cool: Located in the most unassuming spot—a former pizzeria in a somewhat worn strip mall—Trois Mec feels like a secret. But to L.A. foodies, it’s anything but. The principals are a dream team of chefs.

Hard-to-secure tickets to a Trois Mec meal go on sale in two week chunks on alternating Fridays at 8:00 a.m. As the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold put it, “There is not a less convenient way to dine.” No matter. Tickets are sold out within a few minutes. The system is rumored to have come about after devotees crashed the Open Table site.

Trois Mec, or “Three Guys” in French, is led by Lefebvre, who classically trained in his native France under the renowned Pierre Ganaire and Alain Passard. He helped L’Orangerie in Los Angeles earn its first Mobil five-star rating. Later, at Bastide, the brooding, tattooed rebel made a name for himself with dishes like poularde marinated in Pepsi, and panna cotta topped with caviar in a salted-butter caramel sauce.

He created the menu for the restaurant Lavo in Las Vegas and then, back in L.A., the pop-up LudoBites in diners and art galleries. Partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are celebrities in their own right, owners and operators of the lauded Animal and Son of a Gun restaurants in L.A., and 2009 Food & Wine “Best New Chefs.”

Esquire named it the best new restaurant of 2013, L.A. Weekly called it “the most exciting, most fun, most delicious restaurant to open in L.A. in recent memory.” While Trois Mec is French, it’s laid back. There’s no dress code and the loud sound system plays French hip-hop. Half the seats are at a counter overlooking the line where Lefebvre is no stranger.

The eclectic menu might feature such items as a confited and deboned chicken wing with white asparagus, a flavorful broth, English peas and a smear of chicken liver mousse that’s sprinkled with brioche crumbs. Lefebvre’s signature potato puree is hearty and grainy, riced onto a plate of brown butter, onion soubise and Salers cheese, then sprinkled with dried Japanese bonito flakes.

Lefebvre says his goal was accessible fine dining. “My food is very personal. It’s based on my French techniques, but incorporates a fun international influence. Respect the past, live in the present, but look toward the future,” he says. “For me it’s about focusing on the ingredients and not having crazy amounts of manipulation. I prefer to blow people’s mind with a simple potato.”

A lesson in cool: Play hard to get. No, you can’t just walk in and get a seat at Trois Mec, and no, you can’t have a menu. You eat what we’re making. Crazy, but it works . . . if you’re good.

State Bird Provisions, San Francisco

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Brioza and Krasinski surprised nearly everyone when they decided to serve their food on dim-sum-style carts in an industrial setting.

Principals: Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, chef proprietors

Creative food using local ingredients in an industrial space.

Hook: Imaginative presentations served dim-sum style.

Signature dishes:
• Quail (the restaurant’s namesake, the state bird of California) deep-fried in a buttermilk batter and served on lemon-stewed tomatoes. $9/$18)

Prices: Most items on the dim-sum carts are under $5.

Why it's cool: Rolling dim sum-style carts allow guests to make choices throughout their meal. “The place is friendly, full of vitality and everyone sits and waits to see what the next rolling dim-sum cart will carry,” writes John Mariani of Esquire. Although there is a traditional menu as well, “It is very hard to go wrong with anything from those carts,” he says. The servers are knowledgeable and well taught, describing State Bird Provisions’ elaborate offerings to rapt diners.

The restaurant, from owner-chefs Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza (both of the former Rubicon) has earned wide praise. Zagat named it one of the Ten Hottest Restaurants in the World; Bon Apetit and the James Beard Foundation each called it the “best new restaurant in the country.”

The small restaurant opened so strongly that it quickly took over the vacant space next door to expand by 12 seats for a total of 60.
The bare space, with unfinished cement walls, 1970s-era peg boards and simple, utilitarian chairs, provides the perfect setting for Brioza and Krasinski’s complex offerings. State Bird Provisions is serious food in a playful package.

The menu changes all the time, but examples include roasted bone marrow with chanterelles and pink peppercorn; deep-fried spicy cauliflower with blue cheese and fermented green tomatoes; a half-dozen cast iron quail eggs on apples, sunchokes and Mount Tam cheese; and rabbit and fontina croquettes served like lollipops on wooden sticks.

The couple loves to cook versions of pancakes found in every culture. They serve as a perfect canvas for all sorts of sweet and savory flavors, including black cod with paprika sauce, or duck ham-maitake, pecans and kumquat mustard.

Michael Bauer, in the San Francisco Chronicle, said he thinks the food has actually improved since the restaurant’s stellar opening. He adds, “It seems that just about everyone in the food world is showing up at the door. It’s the type of place that makes chefs stand up and take notice: The food and the entire concept are original.”

One last lesson in cool: Borrow an idea from one style of restaurant (the dim-sum cart) and offer it in a completely surprising way. Something old can seem so new.

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