Clarendon Metro

Carnage in Clarendon: Restaurant Trends in Arlington’s Hottest Neighborhood

“Define the definition.”

What the Hell is that supposed to mean? Beats me, but I said it. What can I say, it was my first podcast. I was recently a guest at the ARLnow.com offices for their series, “26 Square Miles-An Arlington Podcast.” Given my background and given the popularity of restaurant articles on the site, I was pretty sure that I was going to be asked about the recent spate of closings in Clarendon. It is a topic worth exploring for sure, and I did my best to contribute to the conversation.

If you are up for it, take a listen here. We jump right in, and then pull back to broader industry trends outside of just our neighborhood. At the end, we talk about the inspiration for Mothersauce, and the plans I have for the company.

So just what has been going on in Clarendon? Well…

Tagliatelle, Brixx (6 months), Park Lane (8 months), Ri Ra, Boulevard Woodgrill, Fuego, Spice, Hard Times, American Tap Room , Amsterdam Falafel.

That’s 10 this year, and I have probably left someone out. Rumors swirl about more closures on the way, and many in the neighborhood are seeing their numbers fall.

So what is behind the Carnage in Clarendon? Hyperbole aside, a lot.

Clarendon has come a long way since the days of my youth when we would head there for Vietnamese food and not much else. The Metro’s arrival, and the brilliant planning by County leaders about how to develop around Metro laid the foundation for the success many businesses have been able to enjoy subsequent. That was 40 years ago. The past 10 years the growth has exceeded even the most optimistic forecaster’s dreams, and Clarendon has become the destination nationally for development. It hit all the right metrics and the residents and businesses flocked.

But there is a limit.

Many of us who have been in the neighborhood for some time felt that the saturation point was inevitable, and we feel we hit it a couple years before half of the businesses above even opened. As operators raced to benefit from the exploding customer base in Clarendon, rents skyrocketed to levels that were just ridiculous. Businesses signed on to high rents right as the market became flooded with concepts.

At the same time, external trends worked to shrink the famous customer base. DC exploded. 14th St., Shaw, Navy Yard, Barracks Row, NoMa. Neighborhoods few would venture to five years ago have become sought after hot spots only a short, cheap Uber away. We have certainly felt that at Spider Kelly’s.

Stuck with high rent and fighting with similar concepts for a shrinking customer base doesn’t leave a business with a lot of runway to make it. This is only heightened if the concept offers nothing particularly distinct.

And so here we are.

As the culling continues, what remains to be seen is what comes next? Many of the concepts that close will be replaced by new concepts (Ri Ra, Boulevard Woodgrill, Hard Times). Others are rumored to be switching to retail. Still others remain dark with no signs of what is to come.

Clarendon is still a great place to live, work and do business, and there is still tremendous opportunity for success. What made it so attractive many years ago continues to be what will make it attractive in the future—proximity to the city, access to mass transit, great schools and parks, and of course a vibrant commercial corridor with great businesses.
The difference is that those of us still here need to work harder, be smarter and continue to try to grow our businesses to offer our customers what they want. Why do you think we built a Beer Garden?

I am a native Arlingtonian, and I still live in the County. My daughter goes to Arlington Public Schools and many years ago when the planning was being done to grow Arlington’s commercial centers and preserve our unique neighborhoods, it was my Mom, Judy Freshman, who helped with the plan. I am invested heavily in the County, and in Clarendon, and I am very optimistic about its future.

In the meantime, at Spider Kelly’s, we will continue to focus on getting better at what we do, and watch to see who is still around when the dust settles. Hopefully, we will be.

Full Podcast: http://arlnow.libsyn.com/ep-12-spider-kellys-co-owner-nick-freshman

Barton Springs

DCA>AUS

Mothersauce Partners went nationwide recently with an exploratory trip to Austin, TX. What an amazing city in the midst of an amazing time. There is a palpable energy to the town that is inescapable—what was for years a quiet capital is now undergoing explosive growth. It seems that everyone there is trying to figure out how to make it work.

The food and drink scene in Austin is in the midst of a powerful transformation in concert with the city’s growth as a whole. Standbys like barbecue and Tex-Mex are having to adjust as new concepts gain a foothold in the scene. Navigating this as a newcomer can be tricky, but it was made easier thanks to Rachel Charlesworth. Her Instagram, ATXEats, boasts almost 14,000 followers. If you want to know where to eat—just follow her.

Unfortunately, no one told me how to dress. After my third meeting where I was in a blazer and dress shoes, and the other party was in flip flops, I started to get Austin. I shed my DC armor and began to enjoy myself a bit more.

I tried to hit a lot of the spots—Launderette, Uchiko, Fleet Coffee, Easy Tiger, Tamale House East and so on—but there were just so many on the list.

A special shout goes out to the dynamic CEO of an Austin institution, Mason Ayer at Kerbey Lane Cafe. It was great to hear about the history of an iconic company and learn about what the future might hold for them.

Also, the kick ass team at SMGB Hospitality is ready to take over Austin—and beyond. Their upcoming project, Old Thousand will no doubt make an immediate impact. These guys are real pros. Thanks for all the time, gentlemen.

I think a lot about startup culture in this country and how it is always talked about in tech, but it is as prevalent in food as much as anywhere. Restaurants are startups—aspiring restaurateurs have a great idea to meet an under-served need, they scrounge for some capital, then they take a huge risk and hope to make it big. Austin is full of these people, as is DC, and it is a big part of what makes the cities great.

I was lucky enough to meet with some of these food startup folks down there who are ready to disrupt the Austin scene for the better, and I hope to have some info soon about how Mothersauce Partners will help them do it.

In the meantime, my last meeting summed up Austin perfectly. I had heard about Barton Springs Pool, a spring-fed pool in the middle of a city park, and I wanted to jump in before I left. Turns out the guy I met with last was a swimmer, and he offered to take me on the way to the airport—and jump right in with me. Now that is a cool guy, and it was a great meeting.

I started the trip in a sport jacket, and I finished it in board shorts. Thanks, ATX. I will be back soon.

barton-springs

second restaurant location

Introducing Mothersauce Partners: Restaurant Consulting and Investment Opportunities: A New Approach

I am excited to announce the launch of my new venture, Mothersauce Partners. Mothersauce is the culmination of a 20-year career in the greatest business in the world. I have spent my entire career behind bars, inside walk-ins and standing ruefully over grease traps–and I can’t imagine doing anything else. With Mothersauce, I hope to give a new generation of entrepreneurs the chance to achieve their dreams of ownership and be able to introduce their talents to a greater audience.

But first: The name, right? What does Mothersauce mean? Chefs will instinctively recognize the nod to French Chef August Escoffier, who is credited with elevating cooking to a respected and noble profession—in the late 19th century, mind you. It took some time for it to be as respected here in the U.S. Of the many things Escoffier did, perhaps most notable was to record and classify five basic sauces that form the backbone of French cooking—the mother sauces. These sauces provided the base for countless recipes that followed.

Cooking has come a long way since 19th century France. Many world cuisines have their own core ingredients and recipes, but to me the idea is the same now and wherever you go. Recipes always start with a solid foundation—how many recipes have you read that start with chopping an onion? Those recipes then grow, diverge, flourish and eventually become something completely new, but the ingredients for their success remain largely constant.

Through this venture, we aim to facilitate that “new.” Mothersauce Partners will provide the solid foundation—the mother sauce—from which these culinary entrepreneurs will launch their passions. With investment capital and seasoned expertise, we can offer them an opportunity to take that great leap.

We also want to continue to add to the culinary scene—and by extension, the culture and community—by selecting the talent with the true vision. We are looking for the rising stars who want to elevate their particular specialty to new heights and become impactful members of their communities. We will look to do right and do good.

I hope that many of you will join us. If you would like more information on investing, sign up on the site. If you are a concept and you are ready to talk, do the same.

coffee restaurant

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee: A Third Wave Coffee Concept Seeks Restaurant Financing

That’s often the phrase on repeat in my head. Morning through the afternoon and even sometimes at night. I love it, and I want it all the time. Many of you out there can relate.

But it’s worth noting that the appeal of coffee goes far beyond the caffeine fix. Coffee is a ritual, and to many people it is a fundamental part of who they are and how they operate. Coffee is a way to start the day, a means to connect with others, a respite from an otherwise busy day. Because of the value of that ritual, and because of America’s growing desire to improve upon culinary traditions, coffee has enjoyed a powerful and exciting renaissance—the third wave.

The third wave took coffee out of the freezer and the tin can and elevated it to something worth thinking and caring about. All of a sudden, people started to realize that coffee came from a place. From lots of different places, in fact. Pioneers like Philz and Peet’s kicked it off, and then Starbucks pounced and exploded. And here we are now, entering what I would call a fourth wave. Maybe a third-and-a-half wave, at least.

We are at a point now where people go out of their way to avoid a Starbucks. The original $4-latte destination is now seen as a last resort option for many who have realized that lighter, more balanced roasting of fresher, higher-quality beans makes a world of difference. It just tastes so much better. And an environment that feels original and welcoming is far better than the generic, corporate-manufactured coffee spot.

Like tasting your first Premier Cru, once you taste and experience good coffee, good luck settling for anything else. Fortunately, the market is attuned to that, and the renaissance of the “local coffee shop” is underway in force. D.C. has become a city that serves up not only good coffee, but also the unique environments in which to savor it. Add to that the development of cafes that also serve amazing teas, great food and—maybe best of all—beer, wine and cocktails.

Now the Third Place is truly complete. The basic ritual of “getting a cup of coffee” has become something more, and the city is better for it.

I am thrilled to announce that we are joining the coffee evolution with our first project, Takoma Beverage Company. Mothersauce Partners will finance and advise Takoma Beverage Company as they seek to make their mark in one of the D.C. area’s most important neighborhoods. Seth Cook and Chris Brown bring years of expertise honed in perhaps the most influential coffeeshop/café in the city—Northside Social in Clarendon—with them, as they break out to open their own store.

The talent behind this concept is top-notch and their plan is solid. With Mothersauce Partners providing the foundation, I am confident they will make a positive impact on both their community and their industry. Sign up on our site for more information about the launch of this promising new venture.

lunch platter

Cook Like a Pro: Advice from Restaurant Expert Nick Freshman

How can I cook like a pro? How can I make my food taste more like food that I eat in restaurants that I love?

There are certainly some tips you can take home that will improve your cooking, but it is important to note that technique will not replicate that amazing meal you had last week. Nor will the exact recipe, or even the top of the line commercial equipment in your kitchen (though that really helps). The fact is that your meal was made wonderful by much more than the food. Eating out is as contextual as any experience—it is all about the moment. It was the setting, your mood, your companion and many other things that worked together in concert with the food to make the meal special. That is why we go out, and it can’t be copied at home. Home is for different moments.

OK, having got that out of the way, let me also throw this one out to you: I did not go to culinary school, and thus I am not a trained chef. I have spent plenty of time ‘behind the line’ in professional kitchens, but I am not a pro. I know how to cook, however, and I know what to look for in food. I also ran these ideas by the real pros that I work with for their approval before I submitted them. Given those disclaimers, take this advice for what you think it is worth.

These are some simple tips and strategies that should help your cooking at home. The most important tip I have is that the more you can approach cooking without anxiety or fear, the better your food will taste. Many people see recipes as intimidating and hosting as nerve-racking. I can guarantee you it comes out in your food. The more fun you have and the more relaxed you are, the more sumptuous your meal will be. Many chefs and cooks chose this line of work because it is their passion. It isn’t ridiculous to suggest that their passion as much as their expertise is what makes their food taste so good.

More Heat

I cannot walk by the range in my kitchen when my wife is cooking without dialing up the burner. Whatever it is set at, it should always be higher. She used to put in the oil and the vegetables in the cold pan and then turn on the burner. Now she heats the pan, adds the oil and waits until it is hot. I hear it sizzle and pop, and I know dinner will be good.

Many home cooks are too tentative with temperature. Life in a restaurant is always hot; 350 is a minimum, 500 is lots of fun. Of course, there is simmering, slow cooking and baking, but most of your food benefited from a red hot skillet, grill or pot. Heat makes flavor—not only do you get that wonderful texture from a charred steak, but the marking also enhances the flavor tremendously.

Smoke in your kitchen is a good thing. Next time you ‘cook’ a chicken breast, try ‘searing’ it first: Turn the burner up and wait for the oil to almost start smoking. Drop in the chicken and listen to that sound. You’ll never go back. Just turn on the fan or open a window.

More Fat and Salt

No mystery and no secret ingredient here. Fat and salt make food taste good, and restaurants use more of it than anyone. Are you wondering what is missing from that soup you made? Is it close but something you can’t place isn’t there despite your total adherence to the recipe? It’s probably salt. Or bacon. Adding salt shouldn’t make the dish taste salty, and in the right proportion it makes every flavor in the dish taste better. Similarly, fats like butter and olive oil enhance every aspect of a dish including the texture.

There are, of course, drawbacks to overabundances of these two staples–namely, your health. I don’t want to ignore that, and eating at home is a great way to eat healthy, but good food and flavor is all about balance. You can balance out your meal with tons of fresh vegetables, high quality lean proteins, whole grains, and there should still be plenty of room for some bacon to start your stew or a little butter to add some sheen and luxury to your sauce.

Cook With Bones

The best stews and soups are often described as soulful and having a ‘depth of flavor.’ This comes from slowly building the flavors and letting them come together. The best of these start with a deep backbone of flavor that comes from rich stocks. Good restaurants make their own from veal bones, duck bones, fish, pork, you name it. That can be impractical at home—who has day after day to gently simmer bones on the stove?—but basic chicken stock is pretty simple and is a good place to start. Plus, any extra can be frozen and used to start a later dish.

If you’re not interested in making stock, then you should at least starting buying your meat with the bones in them. A bone-in chicken breast will be juicier and more flavorful than the standard boneless, skinless variety. A whole chicken roasted will be even better. The bones contribute a tremendous amount of flavor to your dishes, and they should not be ignored. Once the food is done, bones can easily be removed if you don’t want them on your plate. For instance, if your five-year-old-says, “Oh my gosh, gross!” Ahem.

Also, it is healthier to eat meat cooked this way, as the bones contribute the best nutrients to the food during the cooking process. That’s how I got my wife to start doing it.

Think About the Plate

Most home cooks spend a great deal of time with the recipes. They carefully select them, spend a ton of time assembling the ingredients and then throw their heart into making the dish. Then they toss it on the plate. Have you seen any celebrity chef without that classic image of starched white jacket, furrowed brow, narrowed eyes radiating intensity as they carefully study their dish on a plate? Hyperbole? Yeah, a little, but not entirely. Lots of time goes in to how dishes appear on a plate. What reads as appetizing on a menu should look at least as good on a plate. Think about your favorite dishes and how your face lit up when it was set in front of you. To get your guests—and maybe even your five-year-old—to do that, spend some time thinking about how you want to arrange your food. Line up the asparagus the same direction, tightly packed. Slice the pork and array the medallions around the curve of the plate. Sprinkle some fresh parsley or fresh grated Parmesan around the edges of the plate. Whatever it is, take one minute and think about how to make it look pretty on the plate. Makes all the difference, trust me.

Buy a Squeeze Bottle

Fancy plating 101: tools make the plate. You may not be able to replicate that unbelievable kumquat coulis you had downtown last week, but you can decorate your plate the same way. A simple squeeze bottle allows you to take your dinner to the next level. Even a basic balsamic vinaigrette looks cool when you try your best Jackson Pollack imitation on a bright white plate with some fresh greens.

Sear Then Roast

How did you make it so the chicken didn’t get dried out? I have gotten that question a dozen times. The trick is to use two methods: Cook the meat—and it can be any meat, even fish—in a pan or on a hot grill first, then transfer it to a hot oven. You will nail it every time.

Take the nightly staple chicken breast, for example: Season it well and heat up a stainless steel pan (better still, a cast iron skillet) with some oil. When the oil is rippling from the heat, drop in the chicken breast and leave it alone. Give it a few minutes until you can lift it up without difficulty. Flip it and throw the whole pan in a hot oven. You’ve even got a great base for a pan sauce when you are done. You’ll never go back, I promise. You can do the same with a thick steak on the grill—char it like you’re trying to burn it into coal and then flip it to get the other side. Pull it off and toss it in the oven. No more dried out meat from the grill. Even works great with burgers.

Want some more tips? Next time you have a great dish or a great time at a restaurant, ask for the chef. Then ask your question or present your quandary. If you start with a compliment or two, you will find them almost universally helpful.

Originally published on ARLnow.com