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A great sushi meal in S.F., and some thoughts about somms

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Had a fantastic lunch at Pabu Izakaya, Michael Mina’s sushi restaurant at 101 California in the FiDi. My goodness, I love sushi practically more than any other food but it can be pretty generic. In this case, it was outstanding. We had a bunch of different things off the menu and ate it family style and everything was so fresh and delicious, I couldn’t help stuffing myself, down to the last piece of nigiri. Incidentally, their ahi tuna poke, served on a crispy wonton, is my desert island food. OMG, so good, and the perfect starter.

One of my fellow diners was Scott Christopher, from the House of Prime Rib, up on Van Ness, which brought back great memories. I haven’t eaten there for some time, but well remember the cart with the standing rib roast and the Yorkshire pudding, not to mention an excellent wine list. So I’m going to have to get back there, and soon. You’re never too old for that beef fix! And retro is back, as a new generation discovers just why great restaurants like the HOPR have endured through decades of wars and earthquakes and tumultuous times and emerged triumphant.

My fellow diners, including Scott, all seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, wine people, and it’s so interesting to chat with them and find out what’s on their minds. One of the questions I ask restaurant people is, “What’s hot these days?” and that always stimulates a good conversation. A topic that arises with frequency is that a restaurant can’t just have a wine (or beer, or spirits) list that contains stuff the proprietor or beverage manager or sommelier likes. It has to offer customers things they like! This would seem obvious, from a service and commercial point of view, but it isn’t always. For example, I like telling the story of the Sonoma County restaurateur who told me about another restaurant, someplace around Petaluma, that didn’t have any Chardonnay on the wine list. The reason: The somm didn’t like Chardonnay! Anyhow, the restaurateur who told me about this added that he’d heard about it from a diner, who came to his restaurant and told him she’d never go back to the no-Chardonnay restaurant again, because she likes Chardonnay, so why would she? Well, of course, that no-Chardonnay sommelier certainly didn’t do his restaurant any good. He tried to impose his own tastes on his customers. It’s all well and good for a somm to have maybe 20% of the wine list be “interesting” stuff he or she is enamored of. But the other 80% should be stuff that real customers want! The ideal somm, it seems to me, plays the role of a bridge between his tastes and those of his customers. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve dined in fine restaurants where the somm tried to push bizarre stuff on me that, frankly, might have been interesting by itself but was awful with the food it was paired with. We need to get past that era, which, hopefully, is ending. When somms respect wine more than they respect their customers, something is seriously askew.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    An adman named David Ogilvy once famously said, “In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

    Ogilvy again: “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

    Another adman Bill Bernbach wrote, “Our job is to sell our client’s merchandise . . .”

    Somms have a fiduciary responsibility to sell their entire wine list.

    Those who don’t (won’t) should be given their walking papers . . .

    (And let these creative thinker/”taste maker” Somms go out and open their own wine bars/restaurants.)

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Quoting Wolfgang Puck:

    “Mr. Puck says that he considers himself a chef first, but these days, most of his time is spent making high-level decisions and running his company’s daily operations. ‘It is called the restaurant business, and if you run it, you have to make money,’ he says.”

    From The Wall Street Journal
    (March 25, 2016):

    “Wolfgang Puck’s Next Dish;
    At 66, one of the original celebrity chefs is still cooking up plans to expand his culinary empire”

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/wolfgang-pucks-next-dish-1458915390

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    So, I’ll posit my usual response to this issue. Why aren’t these restaurants going out of business? Why aren’t there restaurants with domestic focused wine programs springing up to to fill this void in the market, to satiate the yearnings of the “real customers?” Why aren’t these somms getting whacked as their unsellable inventory piles up?

    Maybe–just maybe–that any restaurant (other than a steakhouse) in a decently sophisticated market that tried to offer a restaurant made up of 80% domestic Cab-Chard-Pinot would drive away more “real customers” than they would attract.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    I see restaurants come and go in Los Angeles all the time. (Can’t speak for other urban markets.)

    Your question — “Why aren’t these restaurants going out of business?” — is difficult to answer without a database of openings/closures to access.

    The next best thing would be informed anecdotal experience/memory of restaurant reviewers in those urban markets. Perhaps cross referenced with Zagat guide and Yelp listings.

    Example: “Alma – CLOSED – American (New) – Downtown – Los Angeles – Yelp”

    Link: http://www.yelp.com/biz/alma-los-angeles

    An ill-conceived but well-funded start-up restaurant might take 18 months to 2 years to burn through its initial capitalization, and subsequent recapitalization. (Pride being what it is, no one wants to give up too early on a venture — particular one that has your name on it.)

    By the 18 month to two year mark, that restaurant (in the minds of the dining out public) would no longer considered “new” or “fashionable” . . . so its demise won’t be chalked up as a start-up failure.

    ~~ Bob

    Quote circa 2005 from the Los Angeles Times “Food” section (still relevant today):

    “We are fighting for the same 500 people who regularly go out to dinner in Los Angeles,” says Caroline Styne, co-owner of Lucques and A.O.C. [Los Angeles restaurants] with chef Suzanne Goin. “Whenever a new restaurant opens, we feel it. Then there is a shakeout, and business bounces back.”

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