Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I love this bar...

Now this is my kind of restaurant!

In today's Globe and Mail Beppi Crosariol reported on a unique Vancouver restaurant. All they serve is wine, cheese and meat. No fancy kitchen or gourmet chef necessary. This is totally up my alley! One of my favourite dinners is what Steve and I call the snacky dinner. A couple of different cheeses, some nice cured meat, gourmet olives, a few crackers and a good bottle of red wine. Kind of a rustic European thing. In fact, the snacky dinner has kind of become our Christmas Eve tradition. We spend Christmas Day and Boxing Day with family so Christmas Eve is our time. We lay out a yummy spread and open the presents we bought for each other. Just the two of us. It's a nice tradition. But I digress.

I've included the article below even though I linked to it above. The Globe is one of those annoying newspapers that cuts off access to articles after a few days, unless you are an online subscriber.

Rise of the anti-restaurant
It's in a seedy alleyway, has no kitchen and never bothered to hire a chef. But Sean Heather's meat, cheese and wine bar is anything but a misstep - instead, it's turning the restaurant model on its ear


From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
September 26, 2007 at 10:22 AM EDT

VANCOUVER — Want to succeed in the restaurant business? Consider some tips from Sean Heather:

Find a rundown space in a seedy alleyway with no pedestrian traffic or other businesses; replace the existing wood flooring with bare concrete; set up a long, picnic-style, communal table and offer patrons paper napkins instead of linen. Oh, and don't bother with unnecessary details like hiring a chef or installing a stove; buy ready-made food and slice it up onto plates.

Welcome to Salt Tasting Room, a 14-month-old charcuterie restaurant and wine bar in Vancouver's Gastown that has not only played to positive reviews but also emerged as one of the most envied, and unlikely, successes in this city's hyperactive fine-dining scene.

From a culinary standpoint, Salt taps the growing appetite for raw-milk cheeses and locally cured meats with farmhouse provenance. There's ash-covered camembert from Moonstruck Organic Cheese Inc. on Salt Spring Island, for example, and wild-boar headcheese that Mr. Heather sourced from Oyama Sausage Co. on Granville Island.

There's also no denying the cheap-chic allure of the minimalist design, complete with a chalkboard that serves as the menu and a Ferrari-red, hand-cranked Italian meat slicer - the latter one of several ideas borrowed from New York superchef Mario Batali.

But it's the novel - at least for Canada - kitchenless fine-dining concept that has been turning professional heads and pulling in a steady stream of hungry and curious chefs in their off hours.

"It's genius, it really is," said Jeff Van Geest, chef-owner of 4-1/2-year-old Aurora Bistro. "I think every restaurateur in the city is saying the same thing: 'Why didn't I think of that?' "

Mr. Van Geest says he resists even categorizing Salt as a restaurant because Mr. Heather and his business partner, Scott Hawthorn, have brilliantly turned the traditional business model on its ear, avoiding the crippling costs that can ultimately capsize even the best cooking.

Call it the anti-restaurant.

"The staffing issues, the equipment, all the overhead things that make our [profit] margins so tight in restaurants and make us struggle for every cent - he's eliminated all of that, and he's full most of the time," Mr. Van Geest said.

Salt is also the model around which Mr. Heather, who owns several other local establishments including the Irish Heather gastropub and Salty Tongue deli, is building his expansion plans. Get ready for a bigger original Salt in Blood Alley, two more Salts in Vancouver, a "seasonal" Salt for summer wine tourists in the Okanagan Valley and, if Mr. Heather can find the right eastern partners, a Toronto Salt.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Heather, 41, who grew up and trained as a chef in Ireland before moving to Canada and eventually launching the Irish Heather 11 years ago, spoke candidly about Salt's economics.

"We didn't have a lot of business today, but I still made a hundred bucks," he said, sitting at a 6-metre-long communal table that runs along one side of the dimly lit, main dining area. "I don't need to do a lot of business to make money. My rent is not high. I'm in an alleyway. I have no chef - that would cost me 50 or 60 grand a year. There's no waste. There's no gas. There's no grease trap, there's no [ventilation] hood."

Another key to Salt's profitability is the autocratic menu. The minimum food order must consist of at least three items, whether meat or cheese, at a cost of $15. You can't just taste one for $5, an option that has scuttled many a wine-bar concept in the past. Add a glass of good wine and the typical order doesn't take long to exceed $30.

"We have an average spend of 35 bucks a head here, and that rivals most restaurants, but we're not cooking anything," Mr. Heather boasted in a cheerful tone that suggested gratitude for what he calls his "Irish luck" rather than any sort of arrogance.

Because of Salt's success, Mr. Heather has dropped long-standing plans to open a more expensive, hot-food restaurant that was to be called Pepper. Instead, he says, he is now expanding into an unused basement area with Salt Cellar, virtually doubling the 800-square-foot dining space and storage area he now has. Then, next year, he will expand the concept to a location on Main Street and one in Kitsilano.

Not that salami-slinging wine bars are new. Italy has countless. But as Mr. Heather and other restaurateurs note, the bare-bones concept is virtually unknown in Canada.

In fact, Mr. Heather had to lay some blarney on provincial liquor inspectors to get his alcohol licence. Aware that "liquor-primary" licences for bars are rarely issued any longer, he decided to ask for a "food-primary" licence for his wine bar concept. But his kitchenless blueprint perplexed the booze patrol.

"So, about two weeks into discussions with these guys, we stopped calling it a tasting bar and we started calling it a sushi bar," Mr. Heather recalled, referring to the Japanese raw fish delicacy.

"Once they heard 'sushi,' they said, 'Oh, yeah.' They had a reference point. It was only until about two weeks before we opened that, when the guys came to do actual inspections, they were like, 'Where's the sushi?' I said, 'It's kind of like sushi, but it's meat and cheese.' ... We were a sushi bar on the books for a long time."

The other virtue of not needing a chef is that Vancouver is currently facing a shortage of culinary talent following a flurry of fine-dining openings during the past 18 months. "We could open up 20 of these and not have to worry about that problem."

With Salt, Mr. Heather has also shrewdly sidestepped another of the big nuisances of running a restaurant: customer complaints. "You go to a restaurant and you want your steak done medium-rare and it comes back medium, 'Nah, nah, nah.' You come here, if you've got a problem, we can say, 'Talk to the cheese maker. We just cut the cheese.' "

As for the competition, Mr. Heather believes he's eluded that, as well. "As more and more restaurants open up, we become a place that you could come to before or after. We're not competing. We're complementing all these new restaurants."

If Salt does eventually expand to Toronto, it could face competition there, however. Terroni, the popular downtown chain of southern Italian-style trattorias, is expanding to a big new location in the historic courthouse building on Adelaide Street East, with plans for an adjacent, but separate, wine bar that will offer a bare-bones cured-meat-and-cheese menu and have a strict policy of not serving hot food from the Terroni kitchen.

"They can have a nice cutting board with specialized meats, prosciuttos and salami," said Cosimo Mammoliti, Terroni's owner. "But they cannot have food in the bar."

Mr. Mammoliti says he believes Toronto is ripe for an "authentic" Italian wine bar. "People need a place like that to go to - even if they're going to dinner somewhere else," he said. "It's hard to find that any place in the city."


Anonymous said...

mmmmmm....salt..... When are we going?!?

vivian said...

that depends, anonymous. when are you taking me to Vancouver?