Friday, February 15, 2013

Evolving the Ordinary: The First 6 Weeks

When I interviewed Mike Lata for my recent profile of The Ordinary in the Charleston City Paper, he gave me far more material than I could fit into the piece, including some inside scoop on how the format had evolved during the first few weeks of the restaurant’s being open.

“The menu was the very last thing to come together,” he told me. “There was so much work to do with the rest of the project . . . I told myself I’ll get to the menu when I get to, it, but I’ve been working on the dishes for the past two years at FIG.

“Three weeks before opening we had three menus worth of ideas, and we highlighted what we knew we could execute on. We got open with a pretty small, pretty simple menu. Each day we’ve been open, we’ve added one new thing, or tweaked one thing.”

One of the big things they tweaked is the format of the menu itself. Lata originally planned to offer a single plat du jour that changed daily and came with a salad and dessert, which would fulfill the fixed-priced “ordinary” meal concept (from which the restaurant borrowed its name) and let him keep everything else as a mix-and-match small plate grazing format.

But, a lot of diners struggled to assemble those small-bites that into their familiar pattern of dinner being an appetizer plus a soup or salad plus an entree. Not long after opening day, four larger plates were incorporated into the “Hot” section. A month later, they had been split out into a separate “Mains” section.

Lata is pragmatic about such adjustments. “An idea isn’t worth a damn if you can’t execute it,” he told me. “The most important thing is that each plate we put out is delicious.”

The prices on the menu have also received a mixed reception, and I think it’s the flip side of putting oneself into such a well-defined category. Each diner has their own set of expectations when they hear the term “oyster bar,” especially when it comes to price range.

There are plenty of worthy spots around town where you can knock back a dozen Gulf oysters and couple of beers and get out for under thirty bucks. The Ordinary isn’t one of those places. Its rates are more in line with other fine-dining establishments, which means that unless you just duck in for a bowl of fish chowder and a beer, you’re going to to shell out about the same amount of money as you would at any of the other new high-end places lining King Street.

“It’s a boutique oyster hall,” Lata admits. “We’re curating a list of very noteworthy oysters.” That means working with small regional producers who don’t have the economies of scale that the high-volume boys do. Once the oysters arrive in the kitchen, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing them, too. “We have to cull through them and make sure there’s nothing in them that isn’t ready for the half-shell,” Lata says. The ones that don’t pass muster get fried or baked or incorporated into stews.

That choosiness pays off on the ice-filled tray. Each oyster is flawless, consistent in size, and exceptionally flavorful. Each diner will have to decide for him or herself whether that’s worth paying between $2.50 and $3 per oyster.

I, for one, think the fine dining prices are worth it. As I say in the profile, my dinner at the Ordinary was the best restaurant meal I’ve had in quite some time, and it’s going to be interesting to watch how that format continues to evolve in the upcoming months as Lata, Adam Nemirow, and Brooks Reitz continue to define what it means to be a high-end Lowcountry oyster hall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that The Ordinary is fantastic. I do. The oysters are pristine & tasty, the staff is terrific, the wine list is interesting, etc, etc. BUT, the prices are a big F&%K YOU to middle-income folks. My wife and I went in, had 1 glass of wine each, ordered the 1 layer platter and 2 apps. The tab was $150.00 and we could have done it all over again and still needed something more. It's great, but it's for the rich or for those with fat expense accounts (like food writers).

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