By Jamie Swinnerton
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The dinner-party vibe carries through to the menu, with small plates meant for sharing among friends. Tables might start with some of those meats and a plate of almonds, made delicate through pan-frying and dusted with paprika, before moving into supple, seared diver scallops, crispy with toasted breadcrumbs. Or they'll create their own mini steak frites, pairing thin wisps of shoestring potatoes with slices of juicy, grilled hanger steak, swimming in a rich porcini mushroom sauce. Or they'll indulge in a soft, creamy foie gras torchon paired with apple honey and balance it with a vegetable, like the cauliflower, lightly breaded and fried and accompanied by zingy saffron yogurt.
"When we're out for dinner," says sous chef Lee, "we like bites of everything, not too much of anything, and no regrets for not picking the right thing."
"There's flexibility in informality," adds Soifer. "We're trying to expand palates by making things approachable. When you don't have to commit to an entree-sized portion, you're more inclined to take a risk. And when you're not locked into courses, you're more likely to revisit something you like." That's how they can coax diners into ordering bacalao, dried and salted cod drizzled with olive oil. Or a server might suggest a backtrack, following fried chicken wings with a little dish of olives marinated with preserved lemon.
And then there are the dishes Soifer creates on the spot, using leftovers. The chicharrones, for instance. This tactic is a recipe for keeping food costs down while still using unique, top-notch ingredients. To obtain those, Soifer has worked his connections, forged through several years of cooking at the Kitchen and running the Meadowlark Farm Dinners, which take diners to local farms to meet the growers and enjoy meals made from ingredients harvested that day. Because he's a friend of the farmers, he's able to execute little deals with Cure Farms, which supplies a variety of produce throughout the growing season, and John Long, whose heirloom pork is in such high demand that he rarely takes on new customers. And since Soifer doesn't discount purveyors that might give him even a tiny bit of something great, he works with suppliers ignored by most restaurants. One of those is the Flatirons Neighborhood Farm, an urban Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) outlet that offers produce from the gardens of local homeowners.
Soifer tries to keep things as local as he can. "You're getting picky when you're complaining that farms only deliver three times a week," he says, "but you can taste the difference between the warm tomato straight from the vine and the one that's been in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. There's no comparison."
By carefully scrutinizing costs, the chef has actually elevated his food. Soifer uses his pennies to pack a punch, serving up a delicious spicy scallion with just a pinch of fleur de sel, or a perfect radish accompanied by tapenade. "We're lucky," he says. "We're working with local growers who don't have a minimum order. We can get three bunches of onions and nothing more. That lets us expand our offerings because we're not slaves to a distribution center, which keeps our food costs lower." Lucky, but also smart.
The same deliberate thought goes into the beverage program, with Kirkpatrick carefully considering the menu, tasting food with the wine and beer reps to help them better understand his needs, and sending samples back to the kitchen to see what the crew thinks before he buys. He looks locally to build his bar inventory, working relationships with brewers and distillers, and also making bitters and infusing spirits in-house. And for anything to make the list, there has to be a compelling reason. "We bought a rum because it made a specific cocktail exactly right," he explains. "We had a connection to several of the beers. And we bought the grappa because the little Italian lady who made it was so cool."
All of this attention to detail provides conversational fodder during dinner. When a guest asks about a wine pairing, he hears the tale of the producer. When a new diner asks about his sopressata, Soifer describes how he started curing meat. When a drinker mentions the bar, Kirkpatrick gets to tell him how he rounded off the corners right after Lee smacked into one of them.
But a meal at Cafe Aion does its own talking, telling the story of how four first-time restaurant owners have managed to create something special from nothing.