Taste for Change

A lot of people ask me about my favorite restaurants in San Francisco. It’s par for the course of working in the restaurant business, I think. It used to happen a lot when I was living in Los Angeles, friends would ask me where I liked to go all the time, and one of the effects of being asked to answer a question like that repeatedly is that it sets you to thinking about your favorite restaurants.

The first thing out of my mouth now when someone asks is that I feel a thorough devotion to the Green Chile Kitchen, which is a New Mexican restaurant at the unassuming intersection of Baker and McAllister streets. What I love about Green Chile, I often say, is that I think they serve the best, most honest meal in the city for the money. For less than $15, you’re served the most lovingly-crafted burrito, made with breakfast ingredients (eggs, rotisserie chicken, roasted potatoes, pinto beans) or dinner ingredients (rotisserie chicken, pinto beans) and spectacularly flavorful green chile salsa, and a beverage of your choice (coffee, lemonade, a bottle of Pacifico).
I like the place so much I sometimes go there two or three times in a week. I guess it’s my idea of a neighborhood restaurant, which to my mind is a place where I can go with an expectation of getting the same good meal all the time and not be more expensive than what I can afford. Of course, if you can afford just about anything, then just about any place could be your neighborhood restaurant, because the cost factor gets taken out of the equation. For me, a hearty delicious meal with a reasonable price tag means a lot, and I think nothing delivers that as well as the Green Chile.
The subject of neighborhood restaurants has been on my mind more than a little lately, since I opened a restaurant which I hoped would fit that bill for some restaurant-goers in San Francisco. We’ve certainly seen our share of neighbors and repeat guests in the almost four months since we opened, which inclines me to think that we’re doing something right on that front. A sympathetic writer even included us prominently in an article about neighborhood restaurants in a national magazine a few weeks ago. That was very gratifying.
If there’s been one consideration which has demanded more of my attention in the process of developing this neighborhood restaurant, it’s been the idea of how frequently our menu would change. Everyone seems to want to know the answer to that question. People talk about the fact that we only offer twelve or so different dishes at a time, they know we’re seasonally-motivated, they’re itching to know how often we plan to change things up. There’s no telling how much of this chatter has been influenced by the review that Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about us. He basically said that he really liked what we were doing, that he would have awarded us three stars in his review, but that he had hoped to see more change in the menu between his visits.
I happen to think Michael Bauer is a pretty astute critic, and I was thrilled at all of the nice things he said about our place (which were of course all very astute), and I have no wish to take issue with this one observation about the frequency of change that any restaurant menu might experience. I have to say, though, that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the restaurant opened, he wrote that article, and people began asking me about it in the dining room. How often should the menu change? If we think of ourselves as a place where local people could come a few times every month, what is it that we should strive to provide for those people?
My mind gets flooded by different ideas. I remember very poignantly the advice of my culinary school mentor, the barrel-chested teddy-bear-natured Austrian-Canadian Johannes Oberbichler: “The important thing, Mathieu, is to do one thing and do it very well.” That advice never seemed so salient as after my kitchen staff and I plunged into menu development, and the realization set in that the execution of our dishes improved rather substantially the more we practiced turning them out.
What’s more, I’ve always been much more inclined to the idea of developing and maintaining really excellent platings than I have to flashing culinary ingenuity every night. It’s true that I love the idea of a place like Chez Panisse that serves one different menu every single night, depending on their creative whimsy and the ingredients that are available at any given time, but I wonder if it’s possible to run a program like that and charge $40 for three courses instead of $100. One of the biggest advantages of our menu is that we waste next to nothing—which is a good thing because our profit margins aren’t built to sustain waste.
Then again, maybe our patrons would be thrilled to see new dishes on our menu all the time. I wonder if there’s something disappointing about arriving to a restaurant for the second time in a few weeks and being presented with the same options. I was friendly when I was in art school many years ago with a well-to-do lady who told me that she went out for dinner in order to find something new and creative that she couldn’t make at home. I didn’t feel the same way and I still don’t, but maybe a lot of people do go out to eat with the same mentality as if they’re visiting an art exhibition. They don’t want to go back to the museum and see the same thing again.
I guess in the end it has everything to do with this very personal way of thinking about food. How many people eat the same bowl of cereal every morning and how many people very much prefer to have oatmeal one day and eggs benedict the next? Personally, I enjoy revisiting the same foods over and over again. Of course I love discovering new and wonderful things, but there are weeks when I not only eat a breakfast burrito at the Green Chile Kitchen two or three times, but actually feel grateful that it’s there waiting for me when they open their doors in the morning. My occasional foray into a bowl of their green chile chicken stew, brimming with succulent, rich chicken stock and topped with a dollop of perfect guacamole, usually feels like all the variation I need.
The sagacious and soft-spoken Mark Peel, under whom I worked for two years at Campanile, used to say that the best diet is a diverse diet. And while I’m sure that there are very healthy people who subsist on more or less the same food every day, I think that perspective is pretty convincing. Apart from the fact that I think our bodies appreciate more protein or fiber or fat on some days and less on others, I think we rely on our senses to refresh our sensibilities. And it’s hard to imagine a more ready refresher than our mouths, which are called to action a few times a day already in the service of our physical nourishment.
It occurs to me that to run a restaurant is to try, somewhat audaciously, to incorporate the whole kit and caboodle. We want to nourish, we want to inspire, we want to honor our own creative instincts and steer clear of monotony, we must conduct the entire enterprise with at least an occasional glance at the bottom line of the financial ledger. There are so many considerations and so many possibilities that most of the time it seems to me that the only real choice is to do what feels true. If you can manage to open a restaurant and what really jazzes you is serving a different casserole everyday (not an unattractive idea to this writer), then by all means, start polishing those hotel pans.
I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do when Heirloom opened, and while I’ve been thrilled by speaking with people about their impressions of what the restaurant could be, we haven’t veered very far from the original concept. We set out to to design some exceptional dishes, to offer some variety every night, and to change things when ingredients became unavailable or when we could think of a better way of serving something. This approach is grounded in my own inclination to treat the restaurant more like a place to sit with friends and get fed, and less like a funhouse with a surprise in every room.