Remember the days when Mom would experiment with a new recipe and you’d wrinkle up your nose? It was something you didn’t recognize. You didn’t know if you’d like it, and sometimes it took a little mustering of courage to give it a try.
On Day 5 of our Raves & Faves tour of Los Angeles, we found two restaurants that operate on the basis of “try it, you’ll like it!” From the sheer numbers of customers walking through their doors, a lot of people have accepted that challenge.
Start with the “healthy alternative” concept named Rutabegorz, a charming place we visited in Orange County. “They said we would never make it without hamburgers and french fries,” reminisces owner Paul Berkman. “I spent a whole year knocking on doors handing out menus.”
Of course, that was back in Berkman’s days as a Southern California hippie, when a vegetarian menu was an unknown. “We call ourselves ‘old school vegetarian,’” says Berkman. “It’s stuff that’s real, with less manipulation of the product. Fresh vegetables and no additives.” The menu has expanded over the years to where it is now about half pure vegetarian, so there literally is something for every taste preference.
They are known for their salads, like the popular Garlic Chicken Salad with lettuce, avocado, cruncy noodles and caramelized walnuts. “We were doing caramelized 10 years ago,” points out Berkman. “We’ve always been ahead of the curve.” Or, try The Walnut that Kissed the Chicken sandwich (pictured here, with a bowl of Cockie Leeky soup) with chicken, light mayo, walnuts and celery served on squaw bread. Or, a house favorite—the Chicken Enchiladas Verde (pictured). There’s a lot to try; it’s a 24-page menu.
“Once we got them in here, we had them hooked,” smiles Berkman. “We made a point of letting people sample, and of becoming part of the community.” That means that his expansion into other locations (now in Tustin, Fullerton and Orange) includes an “old downtown” location in every case. “Back then businesses would never come into the old downtown area,” says Berkman. “Again, they said, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Being in those downtown locations means they support local art festivals, parades, street fairs, car shows and more. “Events go on all around us,” says Berkman. “We are good neighbors.”
Rutabegorz has also been willing to experiment with its people. Andra Villaborowitz, General Manager of the Tustin location, says, “We’re so casual—not corporate.” That’s a sentiment echoed by Veronica Comeau, General Manager of the Orange location. “Every one of us learned on the job,” she says. “It’s what works.”
In fact, they tell the story of Dane Henderson, General Manager of the Fullerton location: “Dane was hired by Veronica. When she asked him, ‘What experience do you have?,’ he answered, ‘Absolutely none.’ She said, ‘Perfect!’”
This willingness to face life with curiosity and passion shows up in their food, too. They offer a “dollar dip” each month that gives people a chance to try something new, like pumpkin hummus or mango chutney. “For a dollar, they say, ‘Sure, we’ll try it,’” says Villaborowitz.
We saw that same sort of passion for experimentation at Bluewater Grill. General Manager Chris Rock and Executive Chef Brian Hirsty are completely aligned on that.
“A lot of people are scared of seafood,’” says Rock. “We think it’s important to teach them and remove the fear.”
As an example, he picked up one of the Salt & Pepper Shrimp, a whole-shell on shrimp that has been flash fried until crispy and encrusted with garlic and ginger. Gesturing with it, he said, “People think there might be a texture or taste problem. There’s a stigma about something like the tentacles.” Demonstrating his point, he said, “You don’t peel these.” Instead, he removed just the head, then popped it, shell, tail and all, into his mouth. With a grin, he added, “But if we can have fun with you, you are going to try it.”
Chef Hirsty, too, is passionate about the adventure of food. “I love to break down their inhibitions,” he says. “Whether it’s teaching my people or teaching my guests, I enjoy getting them to try things they haven’t tried before.”
That means that, on many occasions, the Chef takes a sample directly to the table—something like the Ponzu Sashimi Sea Scallops, served in the shell and topped with wasabi aioli, seaweed salad and masago. “I’m a front-of-the-house kind of chef,” he says. “So, I’ll start talking about various food items. When they tell me they’ve never tried something, next thing I know, I’m taking two out on a plate.” He grins as he adds, “It’s hard to say no to the chef.”
He also does some innovative things to further food knowledge, including a “Girl’s Night Out” where the Chef shares recipes, cooks right in front of a group, and shares his cooking tips with them, including his secrets for cooking on a cedar plank (see the Cedar Plank Salmon, pictured above). “We share a little wine, have some fun—it’s a cool way to do it,” he adds.
At Bluewater Grill, too, the experimentation extends to staff. Rock says that when they opened the doors of the Tustin location two years ago, he didn’t worry about experience. Instead, he looked for people with a passion for food. “I was willing to hire people even without server experience,” he said, “because they cared so much about the customer experience.”
Perhaps Hirsty sums it up best when he says, “I like exploring new things. If you are passionate about food, you live for those taste sensations that inspire you to something you haven’t felt before.”
Two very different restaurants that are successful because they are breaking boundaries. Removing inhibitions. Getting people to try things they haven’t tried before.
In other words: Try it. You’ll love it.
_Join us as we open ourselves up to new experiences as we move through Los Angeles this week, visiting restaurants on our Los Angeles Restaurant tour, sponsored by U.S. Foodservice. You can follow the tour on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/foodchannel or Facebook.
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