August 8, 2011
A Matter of Price: Is the Lounge ON20 menu revision cause for concern?

Lounge.bmpLately, this blog's subtitle could be: "Bad News about Food and Wine." Yes, we've hit a rough patch with restaurant closings, but there are still plenty of restaurants doing well. As restaurant critic for The Bee, I tend to look in restaurant windows when I pass by - not because I enjoy seeing people talk with their mouths full but because I like to know how the restaurants are doing. I can't sift through the books, but I can look at the seats.

But somewhere between the closures and the thriving restaurants like Magpie, Mulvaney's, Waterboy, Ella, Formoli's, Lucca, New Canton, OneSpeed and others, is the restaurant that is compelled to change its menu and cut its prices in an effort to fill more seats and sell more food. In this case, I'm referring to Chris Macias' report last week about the new version of Lounge ON20, the one serving up creative, modernist, and high-end food the likes of which we don't get to see here often enough. This is actually the new-new version, as Lounge ON20 went through a major revamping a few months back by showcasing cooking that touched on the avant garde.

When I wrote a "First Impressions" piece about Lounge ON20 in late May, I was impressed with the breadth of the menu, the creativity and ambition behind the dishes and the execution of the disparate cooking techniques, some of which bore the sometimes alienating label "molecular gastronomy." The kitchen is led by executive chef Pajo Bruich, executive pastry chef Elaine Baker and chef de cuisine Mike Ward.

The food was not only exciting, it was relatively pricey. But that's changing, with a much greater emphasis on small plates instead of full entrees with multiple components. Why am I revisiting this issue with this restaurant? Because I think the response to this place could be an important signal of what kind of restaurant town we are - and what kind we might become.

When I first heard the news that Bruich was revising the menu, I was dismayed. Sacramento "foodies" always talk about San Francisco and Portland and all those cool food cities doing great things. Wouldn't it be nice, goes one version of the inferiority complex, if Sacramento was cooler and more willing to be different.

But if you want great things in Sacramento, you have to support chefs who are willing to take chances to be great.

When I called Bruich today to ask him about this, he was upbeat about the menu and said he was not waving the white flag. Right now he is finding a balance between the artist within who wants to be new and different, and the businessman who knows the food costs and the food sales have to pencil out.

"What's going to make it better is appealing to the masses a little more and making it a little more accessible," the chef told me. "If I can get people in the door at a lower price point and they can see the value in what we are doing, then I think they are going to end up ordering more food."

What does he mean by that? Instead of ordering one big-ticket item for, say, $28, the curious diner might chose a small plate as an entry point, then dig in for another, enjoying a glass of wine in-between. Three small plates, and you're on your way to a varied and potentially stimulating meal.

"I'm trying to find to find the balance of bringing people in and letting them explore the menu," Bruich said. "Once they try something for $8 or $10, they are going to say, 'Wow, that is really good,' and they may ultimately order more dishes."

The new menu is clever and nicely organized, ranging from "bites" and salads to seafood, meat and something titled "Artisan," which includes hand-cut pasta with baby squash and heirloom tomatoes, and ricotta gnocchi with a black truffle butter sauce. Many of the plates costs $11 to $14, with several in the $6 to $9 range. The priciest items are the oysters ($18) and Wagyu beef ($18). Compare that to top traditional restaurants like Mulvaney's and Taste (in Plymouth), where it is not uncommon to encounter at least a few entrees over $30.

Bruich says the new menu is working, that more people are coming in and giving the food a try. Restaurants, at the end of the day, are about sales. A chef's work is about sales and the servers at the front of the house are sales people, too. They need to explain, describe, entice - with their knowledge, with their enthusiasm and with their integrity. Good sales in the restaurant business comes down to believing in the restaurant's mission and conveying that to the guests.

If the first version of the menu wasn't enticing people to part with their money, then perhaps this new effort will do the trick and, in doing so, it just might introduce more folks to a restaurant kitchen intent on being new and different and special.

Finally, if you're interested in a behind-the-scenes look at a top chef's struggle with creativity versus food sales, look for the movie (it has run recently on HBO) called "A Matter of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt." The movie follows Liebrandt for 10 years as this talented and cutting-edge chef tries to make it in New York City. As you'll see, he gets canned several times before he finally lands at a place (Corton) that earns two Michelin stars. I was lucky enough to eat at Corton last year and found the three-hour meal (and the $250 price tag for two) to be a great food experience.

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