Other than that, the meal was everything we envisioned and more. We left uncomfortably full, giddy, tipsy, and most importantly—inspired. That's what a great restaurant should do.
We are no Per Se. We have an old, teeny kitchen. So teeny that in the warm months, the staff sets up tables outside and sets up shop there. Most of our restaurant consists of hand-me-downs from old, closed restaurants. But our Per Se meal reminded us what a memorable restaurant experience could be; it was a push to look for ways to make our restaurant more special.
When I arrived, the dining room was a funeral hall washed-out yellow, the posters and paintings on the wall a lifeless, senseless jumble of what the owners had found lying around. After many months of campaigning, the owners agreed to paint the narrow room a deep red, with some walls a contrasting cream. Instantly, it looked warm and I heard words I believe had never before been uttered: "what a pretty restaurant!"
We replaced the bric-a-brac paintings with a series of identical mirrors. Nevermind that they were from Ikea, the place looked sleeker and a million times more sophisticated. It looked like a legitimate restaurant.
On a ramps-hunting expedition West, Micky found beautiful, spiraling branches. We stashed the big, plastic flower arrangement that the owners loved and the staff despised in the basement, and filled the vase with our cool, real find from nature.
There is so much left to do. I have two big peeves. First, the front windows, which are practically ancient. Because of this, and because they are double-paned, there is a grimy, musty layer that can't be cleaned away. It makes the whole restaurant look a little dingy. The other is the seemingly equally ancient blah-blue carpeting in the dining room. Oh, how I despise that carpet. There are rust colored stains from old tables that no professional carpet cleaner can make disappear.
When we make money, the owners promise, we will get new, shiny windows that open onto the street. We will get wood floors. And there is plenty more on the list: beautiful tabletops, silverware, a new salamander for the kitchen, French presses for coffee...and I could keep dreaming!
Getting Better All the Time
Like all business, restaurants have to get better all the time. We must push ourselves to improve, and grow. Stagnant means inevitable decline.
One thing we were meaning to do for a long time: make our own desserts. We were up against a shortage of space, time, staff, and perhaps most frustrating—equipment. The mixer bowl didn't fit properly into the mixer, so Micky secured it in place with plastic wrap.
Our desserts were a holdover from the previous life of the restaurant—we were outsourcing them from a big dessert company who made generic chocolate mousses and tiramisus and berry tarts. Nothing great, nothing terrible; just totally boring, totally passable. If our guest wanted a chocolate fix post rhubarb gazpacho and Elysian Field lamb saddle, they could have the chocolate mousse and it would do the trick. But if someone wanted a continuation of a creative, thoughtful meal, they would be left cold.
So Micky and his cooks put their heads together and came up with some really lovely desserts, considering none of them were pastry chefs. Our favorites were the deconstructed PB and J: peanut butter mousse, caramelized raspberry gel, banana mascarpone pudding, and banana pain perdu. There was a towering chocolate sandwich of moist dark chocolate cake and white chocolate mousse. And tiny creme brulees studded with coffee and cardamom, lemongrass or kefir lime.
And then the mixer broke. Just keeled over one day, refused to mix. Micky threw it into the trash angrily. Sadly, I called the Big Dessert Company to place an order. One container of chocolate mousses, please.
The kitchen really was working with nothing. They had not enough pots or pans. An oven that functioned sporadically, no mixer, and the blender was on its last legs, too. And then, a miracle occurred. The owners decided they wanted to invest some money into the kitchen. Hooray! At long last! The artists were finally getting some paint brushes, some easels.
Micky bought a sous vide machine, a flat-top cooking service for the stove, a mixer, pots and pans and equipment to stuff sausages. Just basics, but these things were so needed. The PB and J is back on the menu, and I am ordering desserts only for emergency backups again.
Now we look at how to use these things to get better.
We're making rich, flaky brioche to serve with our duck fat gougere and hay-smoke infused butter (it's addictive, trust me). We now bring you dainty marcona almond macarons with your check. Nice little touches, ways to make the experience unique. Like this whole journey, it's just a start. We'd love to prepare little jars of currant preserves as gifts for our guests, but we're starting with desserts, macarons, and bread.
My favorite idea that we stole from Per Se is personalizing our menus. So if it's Jane and Joe's anniversary, they will receive a menu that reads, "Happy Anniversary Jane and Joe! May 23, 2011." It makes people smile.
We want to make people smile. And keep pushing. One day, a sous vide machine. Perhaps one day soon, stunning wood floors. And not so far away is our elusive goal of becoming a truly great restaurant.
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