As we enter our fourth month in business, Mark and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the first three months’ worth of your feedback. Media reviews have been great, OpenTable.com has been splendid, and we hear so many great things every day in our dining room it’s been humbling. The notorious online sites Metromix and Yelp have been interesting to say the least, many food bloggers have been in and written about us, and everywhere we go people have to tell us what great things they’ve heard.
Yelp and Metromix get more than their fair share of “groupthink” issues and people who have never even eaten here and have to weigh in and warn you to stay away – you can spot those “reviews” a mile away when they don’t mention specifics, or the hooey doen’t add up. All of the chatter on Yelp and Metromix aside, we really take to heart what people say through the OpenTable system. They can only rate us after they have made and honored a reservation here, and the reviews are only visible to us, so there’s no “out-cool or out-critic everybody else” factor that plagues sites like Yelp, and there’s no incentive for a competitor to bash us anonymously, as some have done on the other sites.
The only reason someone would review us on OpenTable is because they sincerely want us to know how they felt about their meal here. OpenTable does compile ratings based on these reviews, and posts the top ten in several categories, and after only three months, we’re rated #4 in all of Chicagoland (actually #1 within Chicago city limits) for brunch and #9 among “Neighborhood Gems.” That feels good, and thanks for your support.
Sometimes, however, we feel like we haven’t done a very good job conveying what we’re trying to do here, and sometimes folks’ expectations are dashed, sometimes because we screwed up, but very often we think because people are expecting something other than what they find when they actually sit down to dine here. “Contemporary Coastal Southern” covers a lot of territory, to be sure, and we’ve been accused of heresy for even trying to make Southern “contemporary.” Well, at one time, Jello-salad was cutting edge, too, and it’s inevitable that the cuisine of the south will change over time (even though we still love Jello Salad.)
We don’t boil our greens to death because farmers have learned how to grow them to be sweeter, needing less cooking to be delicious, and scientists have learned they’re more nutritious the less you cook them. The current taste in vegetables is al dente. Just the fact that we cook the greens less than grandma did makes us at least a little contemporary, as does the presentation of our teas, and our emphasis on locally grown, sustainably produced ingredients. In a way though, too, that makes us very, very traditional. We painstakingly cook everything, including most of our breads, in-house, without any additives or food science nonsense. We’ve changed some things to adapt to current tastes, but that’s the entire history of cooking, so just call us old-fashioned if you like.
Some have expected us to be a spitting image of New Orleans when they walk in the door, and it’s a reasonable expectation given some of the press we have received, we just can’t meet it, because we are in Chicago. Mark and I are also big fans of contemporary urban design, and wanted to create a place that was evocative of the south, but firmly planted in 2008 Chicago, the home of Mies. There comes the linear, clean-line decor. Almost everyone loves it, and we can only shrug when someone hates it because it doesn’t fit an idea they had of what New Orleans would look like in Chicago. The wrought iron railing, light fixtures, chairs, and colors are all meant to call up the spirit of a charming old Southern coastal home, not reproduce it Clark Street, because we couldn’t even if we tried.
A few weeks ago, a native New Orleanean who’d moved to Chicago after Katrina thanked me endlessly for the gumbo, it made them feel at home at last. Less than two weeks later, I had a gentleman from New Orleans claim we had the worst gumbo he’s ever had in his life. Go figure. I bought the guy’s lunch, and while my ethic is to never argue with a customer, I had to point out that our gumbo was made by a gentleman who was the sous chef at Flanagan’s in Thibaudaux for four years, until this past winter, and asked him why our gumbo was so, well, awful. He said that the roux was too dark for chicken gumbo (ours is ya-ya, which includes chicken,) and that’s the way he’d make roux for duck soup. You can’t argue with that, and you buy him lunch.
Chicago is the greatest restaurant city in the world, and we’ve been humbled to get as much attention as we have. I admire many of the great chefs in this town, but I think it’s often lost on people how difficult it is to get rave reviews from everyone when your food is so familiar. I did Contemporary American for three years, and it happened more than once that a recipe didn’t behave quite right, or an inexperienced cook screwed up a bit, and you inform the servers to change the description and no one knows any better and the guests love it, because it’s a completely new dish with no history. Try messing up macaroni and cheese (we’ve done it a couple of times.) You have a very hard time living that down, because everyone knows that dish, and everyone has their idea of what perfect mac and cheese is. Getting something so familiar and so personal exactly right day in and day out for sometimes fifty people that have it in a day, that is hard. Really hard. But we love to do it.
I figured people would take red velvet cake so seriously, that I did something I almost never do – I ripped the recipe straight out of the Lee Brothers’ Cookbook, wanting a legitimate repoduction of the traditional Low Country style. Well, there are at least three distinct regional versions of the cake, and this one was too dense for almost everyone. We changed the recipe a few more times, following feedback. Finally, we satisfy everyone by making a classic spongecake method red velvet that most faithfully reproduces the bakery version most Midwesterners are used to. Sometimes you have to refuse to compromise your vision, and sometimes you have to embrace the compromise.
All said, we’re very, very happy, and thank you for your continued support!