Restaurant Franchises, Restaurant Brands

Daniel Boulud, Legal Sea Foods.

Chef Boulud has restaurants around the globe, from his base in NYC to Vancouver to D.C.  Legal Sea Foods has a couple of dozen restaurants stretching up and down the East Coast, from its upscale room overlooking Boston harbor to airport outposts. Boulud is never called a franchise, Legal Sea Foods often is.  What’s the difference between the two?

Let’s look at what’s similar: Both have an extremely well-defined business model that addresses, in great specificity, service and food.  Both, as a result, deliver consistent products and experiences.  Whether you are at a Boulud restaurant in Florida or NYC or a Legal Sea Foods in Boston or D.C., you can depend on a reliable and familiar relationship.

Both are brands that people can count on.  Even when service or food go off kilter, the parameters of the failures or mistakes are within a branded context.  Think of it this way: When a BMW stalls, the driver sits comfortably in the luxurious interior and waits for BMW road side service.

The difference is that Boulud is driven by the name of the chef, which implies to customers that Boulud is lurking somewhere in the restaurant.  In today’s Boston Globe, for example, a columnist writing about Bar Boulud, which opened today in the Mandarin Oriental, is expected to be in Boston “every six weeks.”  That’s a good one.

In contrast, Legal Sea Foods has the name of the enterprise.  There’s no association to a chef who, in the fantasy of the customer, is standing behind a stove or going from table to table asking, “How is everything?”

It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.  Brand association through product, in the form of fish and seafood, or brand association through the chef.

In the short run, both have equal access to the imaginations of customers.  In the long run, the brand that is associated with a product, rather than the name of a person who will retire, may have the advantage.

It makes me think of other chefs and brands: Silvano Marchetto, whose cookbook I helped write (Bloomsbury), with Da Silvano.  Or Mario Batali: Not one of his restaurants has his name above the door.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Confidential Boston: Prelude to a Site that Will Never Happen

Just down the street from the house I’m in is Crema cafe, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and Au Bon Pain, but rather than that I defrosted half a bagel from Ess-A-Bagel, toasted it, and spread salted Amish butter and Hero strawberry jam on it.  A hot cup of coffee from Porto Rico, we’re all set.

I could have driven to the wonderful Swiss bakery, but is 20 minutes r/t in a car worth it so early in the morning?

Later today the choices abound: Should I get pizza from Armando’s, Otto, Just Crust, Pinocchio, or Iggy’s?  Or falafel?  Or a burger from one of the many farm-to-table restaurants in town?

I wonder: Same farm?  One farm is supplying all these tables?

But, no, I will defrost half a bagel from Ess-A-Bagel and spread Italian tuna on it.

Tonight: Fried rabbit?  Pork belly?  Burgers?

Or: Pasta from Eataly with tomato sauce?

 

Where to Eat on A Saturday in NYC

If you find yourself in East Village, as I did, you could go to Veselka, which has been there since time began, and feast on dumplings and food meant to help you forget about the cold and the Russians, this being a Ukrainian joint, but, me, I like Tompkins Square Bagels, as I’ve mentioned before.  A little goes a long way.  You can always change your mind: Veselka is open 24 hours.

At 10 A.M., Eataly opens its market.  The fresh pasta is the deal of the century, and I always buy lots.  1/4 pound per person translates to about $6.00 per half pound so for $24 you get four meals for two people.  That’s $3.00 a dinner plus sauces.  They have baby matsutake in this week at about $48 per pound, and for $12 you can pick up six, slice thinly, and sauté in olive oil and some herbs and add to a pasta dish.  The $12 catch yields two dinners for two people.

I’d intended to go to Lafayette for lunch, but went back to Il Buco Alimentari with a craving for pasta that was satisfied by a delicious, perfectly al dente carbonara.  The fried cod panini N had was good as well.

Why not go to Rubirosa for dinner?  On Mulberry, it has paper thin pizza, one of the best vibes in the city, and, bonus, they take reservations.  Don’t mind the tourists, they don’t bite.

After Odeon Pope, James Carter, Pharaoh Sanders, Reggie Workman, and Geri Allen @ the Blue Note, an uptown subway ride from around the corner to Rotisserie Georgette for duck cracklings, salad, duck foie, country pate, and roasted bunny.  Adults only.

After stepping off the 6 in Union Square, I made my way through careening drunks, all kids, to my place.  I’d had too much food, they’d had too much drink.

Choose your poison.

Confidential Manhattan Prelude

The day started at Tompkins Square Bagels, which is on First and 10th, facing the park, where the lively, attentive staff sell bagels that are hot, fresh, firm, crisp on the outside, and just doughy enough inside to accommodate lox cream cheese spread as delicious as the bagel.  TSB lacks the PR machine of Black Seed, over on Elizabeth, but it’s just as good, and more NYC.

Later that day I had a meeting at Century Club on 43rd and 5th.  High ceilings, what appeared to be Stickley furniture, rooms so silent and beautifully lit, I thought of staying, but it was evident that staff there did not share my way of thinking.

Lunch at Mailino with a finance guy in the restaurant industry, that rare person who not only has a vision that really will revolutionize things, but someone with the skills and stamina to do it.  Crispy, baby artichokes and Bombolotti all’Amatriciana.  First rate food and service.  In a town where pasta is on every block, Mailino excels.  (Nothing like competition to make one play harder.)

Prior to dinner, drinks with N at The Brandy Library on North Moore.  Here is a subdued, subtle, perfect bar with cool jazz and well poured cocktails.

Dinner was at Batard, just up the street, where start to finish, from the short rib and tafelspitz terrine to the veal tenderloin, from the octopus “pastrami” to the duck breast with figs, to the chocolate and cherries to the stone fruits, everything was so good as to be deeply memorable. (Tafelspitz, I recalled today, is a classic Austrian boiled beef dish.  Here it was a few wonderful tablespoons, reduced to their essence, inside a cube of baked dough.)  Made me think of my first visit to the old Bouley many, many years ago.

Heading back to East Village, having a nightcap in a quiet bar was an idea, but that’s just not possible on Second Avenue where one bar after another was crowded and noisy, the bartenders pouring fast.  It hit me that back in the day I’d have gone in anyway, and that I have no memory of anything that was said.  I don’t just mean now, years later, but even back then.  We were talking about getting things done, I think, but we didn’t get anything done, or little of it, and our observations were limited to the little we thought we knew about ourselves strictly.

Then it was time to call it quits.

Notes on Where to Eat & Drink in NYC

Plans are afoot to launch a portal that will guide onlookers and outsiders and others overwhelmed by the massive array of choices in Manhattan for eating and drinking. With that in mind, here is a preliminary report on the past twenty-four hours.

We begin with a visit to a charmless coffee shop on the corner of Stuyvesant and 10th streets where the guys behind the counter perform as if they have been miscast as guys making coffee and instead should be at barricades.

Lunch was a step up.  Bar Primi where the three ping-pong sized meatballs ($12) benefitted from a delicious, thick red sauce, and had great texture and density.  The spaghetti with tomato sauce, priced somewhere in the teens, was once al dente, it had to have been, but when it arrived 40 minutes into our sitting down it was soft enough for a guy with dentures to eat without complaint.  The tables next to ours all had food about twenty minutes before ours in far more plentiful portions.

For dinner it was time to head to Barchetta, over on 23rd, housed in what was once a fun, old school French place I was just at last year.  I met my friend S there for dinner, and she’s very particular and knowledgeable about food, which is a pleasure.  The crudi tasting was first rate and the pompano was the best I had ever hard with a charred, crispy skin and a moist, thick interior that had me thinking of Dover sole.

Afterwards, around 9:30, I met N at Angel Share, around the corner from the apartment I’m in.  It’s a hidden bar on Stuyvesant Street with Japanese cocktails and service and although pricey is first-rate.

Eating in East Village

The apartment is on the fourth floor, in the rear of the building, on 10th Street between Second and Third, and my, how the neighborhood has changed since I was a boy.  Why, back in the day, we’re talking 1971, which might as well be during the Civil War, which, come to think of it, was an approximation of what was happening back then, things here were falling apart, to some degree.

Fillmore East was open–it’s just around the corner–and the streets were filled with junkies, and those who looked cast off.  Nowadays, you have lovely shops and plenty that’s upscale.  Izakayas,  Japanese grocery stores, fancy-pants dumpling shops.

The street I’m on is redolent of marijuana smoke, but no dealers in sight.   That’s different, too.

And nearby, on Great Jones and also on Lafayette, are two of many restaurants worth visiting.  I had drinks last night with N at restaurant Lafayette; saw my friend the chef hanging out at the pass, and booked a table for later in the week.  Dinner at my favorite go-to Italian in the city: il Buco Alimentari.  Earlier in the day, on 13th off of First: Motorino–I’ve never had a better pizza.

 

Geniuses in the Kitchen

I started reading, “10:04,” the new novel by Ben Lerner, which opens in Chelsea, NYC, and describes with poignant vivacity a meal he had of a whole baby octopus, and the intensity of the writing vacillates between his preoccupation with the writing itself and the real effort to describe with pith his observations. I’m not sure he succeeds, but the work is unlike most other writing these days, except for Dyer and Ferrante and Knausgaard, and for that it’s instructive and worthwhile.

Nowadays, the celebration of cuisine is bigger than ever in the States, and this Fall alone literally six dozen or more new restaurants have opened in NYC.  How does one keep up?

I am finding that my favorites in town are few, and that the list of regular places is small.  I keep adding names, taking away a few, but in sum, as with books, not many make a lasting impression or are worth a return visit.

I think that’s because what’s attempted is so very difficult, and that chefs add more rather than take away. The French way of layering ingredients ultimately convinces chefs that their interpretation matters more than their observations.  It’s the same tension that Lerner writes about: His internal view, and the view of things around him.  It’s true genius to reconcile those two seemingly disparate experiences, but, let’s face it, percentage-wise it’s just impossible for more than about 5%, and that’s generous.

Seasonal Mix-Ups

Normally, it’s spring with its range of greens that inspires in me a concatenation of work and thoughts, but somehow and for reasons known and unknown the past eleven weeks have spurred.

Here’s the latest piece: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shrink-in-the-kitchen/201409/race-riots-towards-psychology-identity-and-race.

On Sunday I’ve a piece in the Sunday Boston Globe on Switzerland.  This past week: Gastronomica reviewed rather favorably my book, “Back of the House.”  The reviewer, a professor of social psychology at Princeton, noted at one point a comparison between the book and the writing of Orwell on restaurants.

Keeping up with a very pleasant regimen of reading two books each week, no matter how many pages, I’ve enjoyed seventeen.  Currently, I’m reading, “The Polyglots,” by William Gerhardie; I hadn’t known about this classic, which is said to have influenced Waugh and all the other English greats.  Following that it’s the new Eichmann book by Bettina Stangneth; I love the articles I’ve read about this philosophical work that peels away the rubbish laid down thick by Arendt who seems, in retrospect, to have been either listening to the music in her head during the infamous trial or gullible, which seems unlikely.

Meanwhile: Last night went to Legal Osteria, in Charlestown, with someone and his wife who of course know the place, and I’m here to tell you: It was top tier Italian.

The Strike That Will Come in 48 Hours

Labor Day ended, and this Thursday labor will be part of the news when fast food workers strike to demand an increase nationally of wages to create a minimum of $15 per hour.

In unrelated news, the Science section of today’s NYT makes note of a groundbreaking study that for the first time shows a loss of body fat and a decrease in cardiovascular problems from a non-caloric restrictive diet based on lower carbohydrate intake and more fat in proteins.

Those are the two First World food stories of the week.

Summer, 2014, Good Riddance!

Lots of highs and one low this summer, and the low was very low so with that in mind it is definitely time for this one to move on.  Or, as the wise turtle in Crusader Rabbit used to say, “Time for this one to come home.”

The past few days, fine, yes, it’s been a celebration of summer’s bounty: Cold tomato soup made to perfection and so fresh tasting you feel as if the tomato has just been picked–garnish with any herb, from chive to basil, drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with a smidge of salt, and you might as well be a ladybug feasting in the garden.

Or jerked chicken in a homemade marinade culled from Vernor, the king of jerk in NYC: Equal amounts of soy and white vinegar, fresh thyme, ginger, and onion and dried allspice and a few pods of dried red pepper and some cracked black pepper.

Or grilled swordfish with a bit of lime juice and salt.

Still, what’s left is a desire for absence, and the spool of “U Got the Look,” which keeps playing between my ears.