And that would have worked beautifully, really…if their landlord hadn't blocked the entrance.
CANOE: 12:45 p.m. At a waiter's station, sommelier Ruben Elmer decants a half-bottle of Tuscan Brunello that looks tiny in his hands. "This is what the two-martini lunch has been reduced to," he says wryly. "I was born at the wrong time." Though guests at Canoe will spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine, the occasions of customers spending excessively to impress-"waving their dicks around," in the restaurant parlance-are few. At Canoe, they can tell that, post-Enron, expense accounts are being watched more closely; though the cost of utilities has risen more than 300% in the past seven years, the average bill for a meal has climbed just 22%. But once in a while, someone exhibits the old flourish, such as last Thursday, when a man with both a taste for $700-a-bottle 1995 Quintarelli Amarone and, in the words of one Canoe staffer, a "big, throbbing, purple-headed expense account," racked up a $3,500 bar bill.
Some things don't change, however. In terms of their tastes, businesspeople resist the unknown. There's a working formula for menus in the financial district: You have to have a steak, a tuna, a salmon and something hot laid on a salad. To some degree, that holds true even at Canoe; Walsh wouldn't eat a "big fuckin' steak" for lunch, but he knows he has to offer it. The same goes for shrimp cocktail. "These are things that people want," he says with conviction. "I don't mind."
But careful with the experimentation. Right now, the lamb's-tongue salad is not a winner, says Walsh. "As great as lamb's tongue is, we ain't selling it." Tom Brodi once tried to add a flatiron steak to the menu-long, juicy and flavourful, but denser than the typical strip loin. It seemed the lunch guests couldn't understand why they were being asked to chew so much; they had nothing but complaints. So Brodi added it to the banquet menu. The banquet guests ate it up.
VERTICAL: DECEMBER, 2005-MARCH, 2006 From the start, their noon hours were packed. After a few practice runs, they opened on a Monday to 100 covers a lunch. But anything after lunch was a problem. Dinner was dead, and even cocktail hour was troubled. Contractors took their sweet time refurbishing the patio, and construction tape closed off access to Vertical's front door. Anyone wanting to come to the restaurant had to snake through the underground PATH system, along the corridors and over the escalators of First Canadian Place, and then finally brave the crazed gauntlet of the food court right next to Vertical's rear entrance, which did not put potential guests in mind of the flavourful, minimalist Mediterranean fish and pasta preparations that Gary and Joe and chef Marco had devised.
And once they'd managed to attract guests into the restaurant, and put them at ease under a ceiling of gathered crimson fabric, or in the lounge, sitting at the sleek, custom-built sandstone bar, those guests had to listen to jackhammers pounding the patio surface into dust. "Our bar would clear out," says Gary, his eyes wide. "People would be like, 'Give me the tab,' and they're leaving."
And while all this was happening, because they needed another headache, it was becoming clear to Gary and Joe that Marco, though talented, was not working out. "We had a vision of where we wanted to go," says Gary, "and Marco was part of that vision. Unfortunately, he just couldn't deliver."
Before Vertical, Marco had worked at Zucca, where they'd never even opened for lunch. He wasn't prepared for the pace. "Very, very intense," is how he describes the Vertical lunch now. "You felt your blood get really worked." Joe and Gary wanted Vertical to be famous for fish; they wanted it to be renowned for simple, powerful flavours. And as hard as Marco worked, it wasn't happening. So they hired a chef recruiter to find Marco's replacement, while he slaved away out of his depth, a kind of dead man cooking.
They're a somewhat ruthless breed, restaurant recruiters-they'll walk up to a chef in the middle of a busy lunch, even at a chef's own restaurant, hand him a card without regard to who's standing nearby and announce, "I've got a job for you." The Vertical search narrowed to a gifted, if peripatetic, chef named Tawfik Shehata. Egyptian by background, with a wild bush of hair, Shehata had risen from an apprentice at Scaramouche, through sous-chef jobs at the Rosewater Supper Club, Boba and Auberge du Pommier, to run his own restaurant, Eau. Now he cooked for Joe and Gary after hours in his own home, and ate undercover at Vertical to see the kitchen in action. Within a few weeks, he and Joe and Gary decided it was a fit.
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