R.J. Cooper calls his expansive tasting menu at Rogue 24 “The Journey,” a name that practically evokes epic Homeric tales, Hunter S. Thompson acid-fueled road trips or tribal ceremonies marking the end of puberty. When you listen to the James Beard Foundation award-winning chef talk about his new restaurant and its 24-course concept, you begin to understand why he chose the grandiose name.
Cooper’s progression of small plates, after all, is not just modern in concept — headcheese prepared to look like Gouda; a croquette that explodes with liquid chicken; shrimp and grits in which a sheet of shrimp “chorizo” is laid over corn-milk panna cotta covered in grits — but modern in experience, too. The kitchen at Rogue 24, which opens today, has been built in the middle of the dining room, a series of prep and induction-burner stations that essentially turns every one of the restaurant’s 52 seats into a spot at the chef’s table.
“We want you in the kitchen,” says Cooper. “We want you to go, ‘Oh, my gosh! How did you come up with that pretzel paper that’s going with the headcheese?’ ”
The price of admission is typical for a chef’s table: $120 for those 24 bites, an additional $55 if you want to take advantage of consultant Derek Brown’s cocktail pairings and general manager/sommelier Matthew Carroll’s wine selections. Add the price of valet parking, taxes and a tip, and you could easily drop $250 for the experience of going Rogue. It’s a New York City price tag in a D.C. market with a 9.8 percent unemployment rate and a federal government desperately looking to cut billions from its budget.
The funny thing is, Cooper is not unique in pushing a pricey multi-course menu on District diners during a down economy. His case might be the most extreme, but others in Washington have introduced more-streamlined tasting or prix-fixe menus in recent months. Chef Daniel Singhofen, like Komi’s Johnny Monis before him, ditched the a la carte options at Eola in Dupont Circle and instituted multi-course prix-fixe menus, which will set you back at least $61 without a drop of alcohol. Likewise, chef Eric Ziebold at CityZen, already home to a six-course tasting menu for $110, has upped the ante for those who want a slightly more modest dinner. Ziebold’s prix-fixe menu, once a three-course meal for $80, now serves four courses for $90. As always, a la carte is not an option at CityZen.
Prix-fixe menus may offer more flexibility, in that a diner has some options for each course, but they share at least two qualities with their more demanding cousin, the tasting menu: Both require patrons to commit to a set number of courses, and both demand more cash from the outset. And just as important, these menus trade on the idea that customers trust the chef’s vision and skill enough to willingly invest time (lots of it, often more than three hours) and money for such a feast. Think of the chefs who rely heavily on tasting menus, and you’ll see stars: Not just Monis at Komi but also Jose Andres at Minibar, Peter Pastan at Obelisk, Michel Richard at Citronelle , Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve’s Tasting Room and Nobu Yamazaki at Sushi Taro.
A decade ago, pricey, chef-driven tasting menus “would have been a train wreck,” says Howard Cannon, founder and chief executive of Restaurant Consultants of America. Diners wanted to put together their own meal because they didn’t trust the kitchen. Now, Cannon says, they are willing to “pay extra just to hang out with these celebrity chefs.”
The diner’s relationship with a chef is not always based on sheer culinary respect, either. “The concept of the celebrity chef is more developed from marketing and PR than it is [from] the power and the skill” of the chef, Cannon says.
Of course, for every rule, there is an exception. Consider Pastan. When he opened Obelisk in 1987, he was a relative unknown, an architecture major who found his calling in the kitchen, not the drafting table. He had cooked at Tabard Inn before launching Obelisk, but his resume did not exactly bring Jean-Louis Palladin to mind. “I don’t think anybody had any idea who I was,” says the Rockville native. “And I wasn’t very old.”
Pastan also didn’t have a PR person (and never has). But none of those factors stopped him from installing a prix-fixe menu at Obelisk from Day One. “When I opened, it was pretty tough for a while,” Pastan says. “We did get a fair amount of blow-back initially, I guess, because there wasn’t a lot of people doing that.”
But he started to build his reputation after a positive review in The Washington Post, which had “a much more powerful effect at the time,” when there weren’t online media to drown out the paper of record. Over time, the chef says, his connections in the close-knit restaurant community, his workaholic ethic and his dismal record at the James Beard Foundation awards have managed to keep his name in front of the public, despite his lack of even a Web site for Obelisk.
“It’s great losing the Beard award,” Pastan says, noting the spike in press coverage that occurred each of the eight times he’s been nominated. “If you win it, [the coverage] would go away forever.”
Pastan’s decision to limit diners to a set menu was a practical one: It gave the chef more flexibility. For example, Pastan says, if his supplier provides him with inferior eggplants one morning, he can easily drop the eggplant dish in favor of one with fresher ingredients; he, in other words, doesn’t have to prepare a dish just because it’s a standing menu item. “Even now, we order a lot of food from different people,” Pastan says, “and we send back a lot of food from different people.”
Much like Pastan at the start of his career, Eola’s Singhofen is not a household name — at least not yet. The Orlando native shares a nose-to-tail philosophy with many of his more famous peers, a style of cooking that made his decision to switch to prix-fixe menus that much easier. Before the changeover in April, Singhofen stuffed his a la carte menu with various offal dishes, such as a chicken-fried pork tongue or crispy pig ears, the kind of starters that only the most adventurous eater would order. Now Singhofen can incorporate those less-than-choice cuts into a trio of amuse-bouches, which he offers before launching into his formal four-course menu.
But Singhofen’s new approach is more than a method to trick diners into eating offal; he, after all, has a complete prix-fixe menu dedicated to organ meats. It’s also a way for him to create a more complete dining experience. In their feedback, the chef noticed, customers rarely mentioned such things as the progression of dishes, the points of service or the wine program, but instead focused on particular plates. “It felt like we were missing something along the way,” Singhofen says. “With the switch, it feels like we’re pampering the food more.”
For restaurants, the benefits of tasting/prix-fixe menus appear to outweigh the liabilities. With more concise menus and more targeted pantry orders, chefs and restaurateurs enjoy reduced costs. That is particularly true with full-blown tasting menus, says CityZen’s Ziebold, who worked for years at the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, where Thomas Keller currently offers a tasting menu for $270 per person. Such menus require less staff, Ziebold says, and usually result in less waste.
“It lets you focus the staff on doing fewer and different things, which makes it easier to execute,” says Ziebold, noting that tasting menus typically allow a chef and kitchen staff to prepare more intricate dishes.
The pitfalls of these lengthy menus are clear to anyone who has tried to introduce one. Customers, by and large, prefer more over fewer choices. Customers have allergies — or just a plain old disdain for an ingredient, sometimes disguised as an allergy — which must be accommodated within the rigid confines of a tasting/prix-fixe menu. And perhaps most damaging of all, customers show little patience for restaurants that demand a pound of flesh for their parade of plates. After a disappointing meal at a high-dollar restaurant, says Cannon, “people are less forgiving,” which can make it hard to persuade them to return.
Singhofen himself has experienced a drop-off in diners since moving to the prix-fixe menus. His total number of customers has dropped 20 to 30 percent, but his revenues, he quickly adds, are up. “The check average has jumped pretty significantly,” he says.
In the current economy, metropolitan areas might be the last bastions for chefs to experiment with such elaborate menus. The middle of America has, for the most part, turned a cold shoulder to fine dining, says Cannon, “only because that’s all their checkbook can afford.” But big cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington “still have a very strong fine-dining scene,” he adds.
Whether big cities are still fine-dining playgrounds is debatable, given how few pricey palaces have opened in Washington in recent years. R.J. Cooper, for one, is painfully aware of the economy and its potential effect on Rogue 24. Despite the lofty price of his 24-course and 16-course ($100 or $145 with drink pairings) meals, Cooper says he firmly believes in the value he’s offering diners. He also says his new restaurant, located in the middle of Shaw’s Blagden Alley, can provide a certain kind of relief, even if only temporary.
“When you walk through the doors, you’re leaving all that [stuff] behind you,” Cooper says. “You’re coming into a place that’s going to be mysterious and hopefully have you escape from those worries.”
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