(page 6 of 8)5. PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD
The headquarters of Lettuce Entertain You are in a bland, one-story building along an undistinguished stretch of Sheridan Road. Melman has a corner office but can often be tracked winding his way through a maze of cubicles and into the test kitchen. He is here one morning this summer sampling menu items for his new seafood restaurant, The Big Reel in Oak Brook.
Amid his crew in chef’s whites, he sits at a table in jeans, digging his fork into each new offering while the staff take notes. The coconut fried shrimp—definitely a winner. The trio of smoked fish? Nice idea—the mesquite-smoked salmon is a keeper—but maybe all three are too much. The plate is so crowded. And what’s with the toast points? Only average, that’s what. And the seviche—the seviche is a problem. “For one thing,” says Melman, “it’s not what people picture when they think of seviche. This is more Indonesian. Let’s work on the marinade."
But speaking of seviche . . . how about . . . he snatches a pen and paper. He sketches what looks like a cake platter, then draws a second small plate on top. “Maybe a pedestal. Just seviche. And do it tableside.”
Scribble scribble go the staff pens.
“I’m very good at sculpting,” says Melman. “I love to remodel.”
That goes for the architecture of his restaurants and the food served therein and the presentation. When he opened Scoozi! on West Huron Street, the restaurant offered risotto, but who wanted to sit and wait an eternity for rice? Why not make a new batch every half-hour? he thought. Walk around with a pot. If you wanted it, you held out your plate.
For the legendary Grunts burger, he sampled 20 different mustards before settling on a Düsseldorf. For the ground beef, he experimented endlessly with the right mix of choice and sirloin.
He’s out there all the time, digging away with his fork and spoon, updating dishes, making sure his restaurants “evolve,” to use one of his favorite words. Never sit still; keep on changing. “I like to eliminate our weaknesses,” he says, “and replace them with something great.”
For our lunch at Joe’s, he was on a mission. It was time to “freshen up” the salads. Ditching the oval plates was a start. But the special seafood salad didn’t pop enough, with or without the cartilage. And the pies—well, Joe’s is famous for its pies. But pies, like salads, must march ever forward. Responding to the call for new ideas, the restaurant manager presented Melman with the chef’s latest, a lemon-scented blueberry pie under a dollop of whipped cream. “I think you’ll like this, Rich.”
Melman forks up several bites after the manager leaves. “Not bad, but the berries are too clumped. And we need to play with the crust.”
Only the whipped cream meets with his approval. “Everything else,” he says, “needs to be tweaked.”