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A Little Change for Mizuna’s Tenth

September 3, 2011 | Frank Bonanno

I can’t believe it’s been ten years.

When Mizuna opened, we took reservations by telephone and scrawled them in pencil, barely legible in a gothic black leather bound reservation book. The servers—there were three—wrote the orders out by hand. Our wine book listed 62 labels, though we had no bar to speak of or place to store them– so they were shelved in the office, a the sub basement beneath a series of dripping pipework. Wooden benches provided Mizuna’s primary seating; they pressed against buttery yellow and deeply textured walls. Office carpeting floored the restaurant, and the cash register we inherited, already at least a dozen years old, sat propped on the line right next to the plates and serviettes and calculators the servers used to add up the guest checks. We all brought music from home to be piped into the dining room from our bulky cd player, and someone’s music always skipped.

It was beautiful.

Mizuna continues to run with three servers. And. A hostess, a floor manager, a sommelier, a bartender, an expediter and a back waiter–though our dining room still seats a mere 53 guests. The hostess relies on an online reservation system, and she walks our clients across crisp cherry wood floors, seats them along a padded banquette beneath smoothly plastered Venetian walls generously filled with the art of Quang Ho. The wine is displayed on open floor to ceiling shelving in a private room—it’s the only way we can store our 300+ label list–and there is no room on the line to house anything except for the 30 or so different shaped vessels the cooks use to plate food.

Mizuna is still beautiful. Even more beautiful because she continues to change.

Here’s the thing, in the beginning, I wanted a slightly different kind of Mizuna. I always wanted to run her with a prix fixe menu, a vision of restaurant nirvana that infected me in France. Imagine, me at 28, stepping into charming Le Cep before dinner service to meet the owner and chef. There was Chantelle sitting in the dim light of her bar, reading glasses low and wine at the ready, finishing off a stack of a dozen or so menus that she had composed by hand for that evening’s service. What a dream–I think at some level, it’s every chef’s dream: to collect your fresh ingredients in the morning and prepare them for the forty or so diners that you will serve that evening. Guests come in to enjoy tonight’s menu, all of it. It is what it is—no options–no picking and choosing and substituting and debates over proteins or conscience or after dinner plans or anything else. Fixed. Priced. Set.

Can you see why nobody agreed with my “vision?” It’s a bastard to pull off. I won’t say “impossible,” but thirty years into the business I’m thinking it really hard. So, we’ve had this lovely Mizuna menu (144 of them these past years!) and most diners enjoy the American Trifecta (salad, entrée, dessert), but many express the desire to try more (too full). Some clients–slightly more adventurous, or familiar enough with our chefs and som to take a risk–try the “Chef’s Tasting Menu” listed at the bottom of the page.

The chef’s taster give our chefs some opportunity a regular menu doesn’t offer–each cook is responsible for one course, and it is here they play. Play with ideas for next months menu; play with new or exotic ingredients; play with new cooking techniques or fun combinations. The only problem with the Chef’s Tasting Menu is that it can be overwhelming: all that trusting of the chefs, all those courses. What about food allergies or dietary restrictions? What if I just don’t like duck or arugula or organ meat?

Here’s the change, then, which feels to me like the biggest change at Mizuna yet. We’ve reformatted the menu to get closer to the ideal of a prix fixe menu, without the constraints. The menu is divided into five sections; a diner can choose courses, item by item, and pay accordingly, or select a full tasting menu and plug in the items that best suit the mood. (I will try to figure our a way to post a menu here as a visual aid.)

By altering the way our menu is set up, I’m hoping clients may have the opportunity to sample more of our fare, but in slightly smaller portions–or stick to dinner in the usual three round courses–or venture forward into the nine course blind tasting menu that Mizuna has offered since the beginning.

I like it a lot. Feels like something for everyone, including me.

Change is this necessary penance we pay—and in truth it doesn’t always work. Here’s hoping our evolution continues in a good way. Meanwhile, here’s what hasn’t changed:

We still write tickets by hand. It’s a nice, personal touch (but about every three months our entire management team debates the merits of a computerized ticket system). We’re still a white tablecloth joint. The linen backlights the food so nicely—and makes the room feel like a real night out.

We are still a team of professionals. Everyone who works at Mizuna is in the restaurant business and the restaurant business alone. We collaborate in the kitchen, every cook contributing to every menu. We collaborate on the floor, pooling tips and cross-training. There is no front to back of house division or bickering.

Our food philosophy hasn’t changed, either: the best ingredients we can source, prepared with love and attention, and often a lot of butter. A decade ago, there were no catch phrases for our food—no “free range” or “locavore” or “snout to tail” or “craft driven” or “artisan” but that is where we are and what we produce We simply offer you the best we have to give. Every night. For ten years.

Here, my friends (imagine my glass in the air, raised to you) is to ten amazing years.

And to another twenty more. May we continue to change, every one of us.