There are certain advantages available to any restaurateur opening their second restaurant.
That is, of course, in comparison with the many disadvantages involved. The opening of a second restaurant is the only occasion on which restaurateurs will be asked to double in size, putting plenty of stress on their financial muscle, their management skills and asking the same of the sympathy of their partner, whether in business or emotional. Then there is the challenge that restaurateurs can no longer devote all their energies to looking after one set of customers – they must divide their time as fairly as they think fit. And, finally, a little bit of the fun goes out of the experience because restaurateurs cannot be in two places at once, so in one establishment they perforce lose the opportunity to set the lights at just the right level, to choose the music, to act every inch the host with the most.
Having said all that, the restaurateur starts with certain advantages in his or her second restaurant. That they are putting their necks on the block again, metaphorically speaking of course, is invariably because they have too many talented staff in the first place – and nothing is more difficult than recruiting for a first restaurant without any kind of track record or menu.
Secondly they have some idea of locations that will prove to be geographically suitable. I recall a conversation many years ago with my friend Danny Meyer about his second restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, and its useful location on E20th Street that he decided to open in 1994, nine years after he had opened the highly successful Union Square Café on E16th Street. Its location was exciting, Meyer explained, because at the traffic lights of E20th Street and Park Avenue South cars could turn uptown straight away, towards the offices and apartments that then brought so much custom from Midtown, rather than being forced downtown for at least a block or two. Finally, those behind a second restaurant have a much stronger notion of what their customers want – it is an opportunity to, as it were, fill in the gaps.
These were definitely part of the calculations behind the enterprising partnership that has developed between the front-of-house and sommelier skills of Laura Adrian and the culinary wizardry of Braden Perkins. They met in Seattle and moved to Paris in 2007 where they cooked at a supper club in their own apartment and struggled against French bureaucracy once they decided to open a restaurant. Estate agents were none too helpful nor was the system which decreed that they could not pay themselves a salary while they persuaded a French friend to hold a licence in his name. And that was even before the trials and tribulations of obtaining the vital work visas.
Their perseverance, perhaps the single most valuable ingredient in the DNA of any restaurateur, finally paid off and in 2011 the couple opened their first restaurant, Verjus, in Paris's first arrondisement. Perkins' style of cooking is now much more assured than it must have been when they first opened. Today he cooks a set menu, Monday to Friday dinner only, at a fixed price of €68 per person. There is a wide choice of snacks to begin with; a clever combination of salads and vegetables; a fish course; a meat course; and a dessert, with the option of an extra cheese course. There is a wine bar downstairs with a limited menu of small plates.
I do not want to be controversial but I have trouble reconciling Verjus with my notion of what a restaurant ought to be. Here, and at every single restaurant which serves only a set menu, it is more of a 'cooking performance' and less of a restaurant with which I associate an element of choice on the part of the customer and the possibility for a longer verbal association with the waiting staff than just giving my name and being told how freshly picked each ingredient was that morning. Such a menu also has the disadvantage of lacking spontaneity and of therefore not being able to attract the kind of regular customers that are the life and soul of any restaurant.
Presumably that was in part the reason why Adrian and Perkins decided in 2015 to open Ellsworth close by. They already knew the area, close to the Palais Royal, and its appeal to many, including many American tourists, and they were fortunate enough to find a site that for many years had been a restaurant. Their new home had been Les Bistronomes, a restaurant run by two Frenchmen that specialised in dishes of mussels and oysters, inter alia, and had, and continues to have, the dubious distinction of having its kitchen on the first floor. When I asked Adrian why they had continued with the kitchen upstairs, her answers were quite straightforward. 'Cost was the first reason and probably the impossibility of getting the necessary permits to change was the second.'
Unlike Verjus, Ellsworth (named after Perkins' grandfather) is very much my type of restaurant. There are three choices at each course and in the top right-hand corner of the menu are three prices, for first and main courses, for main course and dessert, both €22, and one for all three, at a very reasonable €28. Presumably there is also a special price for the five Spaniards who came in at the very unFrench hour of 14.45 for coffee and their dessert of malt ice cream, chocolate sorbet and a milk crumb, served by French waiting staff with great, and atypical, willingness.
I enjoyed everything I ate at Ellsworth. We began with two very different first courses, a colourful salad of heirloom tomatoes, ricotta that had been replaced on the menu by a brebis, basil and watermelon and a plateful of clams, strewn with greens, herbs and garlic. We tried all three of their main courses: their unmissable fried chicken, very cleanly fried in buttermilk, with pickles and cabbage; delicious trout with slices of cucumber, radish and apple; and a piece of pork belly whose crackling really was superb. Their strawberry shortcake is as good as their malt ice cream.
My bill for all this came to €90 and that included an excellent bottle of rosé, a 2015 Cuvée YL from Corsican winemaker Yves Leccia that was fresh and youthful – exactly the two characteristics that I had asked Adrian to select for us from her well-chosen and well-priced wine list.
Ellsworth reopens 16 August for dinner at 34 rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris; tel +33 (0)1 42 60 59 66