The phone rings once, three times, five, and then Charlie Master answers. "Brix. Happy Monday."
This would be an incredibly annoying way for anyone to answer the phone -- shades of that "case of the Mondays" scene from Office Space -- if Charlie didn't sound so sincere. He really means "Happy Monday": half a request to have one, half a statement that it is one.
In the background are the sounds of a house getting ready for service -- the tinkle of silver, raised voices, the music turned up enough that I can hear it over the desk phone, but not quite enough that I can pick out the song. "Hey, Charlie," I say. "It's Jason from Westword."
"So what's going on?"
Zero hour, I say. Review time. Although Charlie and I know each other -- we met through his parents, Mel and Jane Master, after I reviewed Mel's Restaurant & Bar last year -- I'd already managed to sneak in and out of Brix twice without being picked out of the crowd. Once was a few weeks after the restaurant opened this past February. The other was just days before, I tell him.
"Really," Charlie says, maybe a little shocked. And I say, yeah, really. I am, if nothing else, one serious James Bond motherfucker.
Charlie doesn't ask about the review. He doesn't get all freaky like some restaurant owners do, giving me the oh-no-what'd-you-think routine or flying right into the bad week/chef just quit/Mom's in the hospital excuses. He doesn't have to. He knows he has a good house. He's spent his entire life -- both professional and personal, like from the day he was born -- in very good houses, surrounded by some of the world's heaviest food-world big shots, so he knows good from bad, from mediocre. Whatever judgments he has about his own place are juried against memories of Alice and Jeremiah at Chez Panisse; Waxman at Jams; Puck, Bocuse and Keller at the French Laundry; against the litany of his parents' restaurants -- Mel's, Top Hat, Jams (again) -- and the restaurants of everyone they know, a list that includes, well, everyone.
So the opinion of some frantic podunk scribbler doesn't matter much when weighed against the voices already in Charlie's head. Still, had I hated Brix -- had I found it false, lame, plastic, if the kitchen had been asleep at the switch or the staff treated me poorly -- this would have been a tougher call. Tough because I know Charlie, and through his father get regular updates on "the Boy" (Mel always laughs when he says that) and how the Boy's restaurant is coming along. I tell Charlie that judging from my two anonymous meals there, Brix seems to be coming along very well, indeed, and say I'll stop by later.
Great, Charlie says. It's been a long time, and Mondays -- even happy Mondays -- are slow.
You have the whitest teeth I've ever come across... That's what it says, scrawled in thick, black marker low on the yellow post in the front dining room and bar of the space that used to be Aquarela and now is anything but. The post is meant for graffiti, and it's covered with the names, one-liners and men's-room humor of patrons inspired by cheap drinks and good company. There are hearts and initials, pictures, pub wisdom and toasts ripe with Irish melancholy -- May the roof above us never fall in and the friends gathered below never fall out; Here's to the kisses I've missed and the misses I've kissed. But the teeth line always gives me the best laugh.
For a supposedly slow Monday, Brix is busy. Brix is almost always busy, with clientele demographics heavily weighted toward girl and pretty, the front bar and back dining room regularly at (or beyond) capacity. So Charlie is up and down, greeting and seating, answering phones, checking on the kitchen, popping out for twenty minutes to pick up an order of cheeses from The Truffle. In his absence, I eat. The baked goat cheese comes in a shallow white dish, baked hard and hot so that the oils squeezed out of the cheese have mixed with the oils of the garlic and the fruity sweetness of a few slices of sun-dried tomato laid on the bottom of the dish. When I dip into it with spears of toasted baguette, the hot goat cheese clings to the bread. The tastes smooth out in my mouth, mixing with spit and all those natural human juices for some very personal applied chemistry.
Over the past four months, this dish has seen a series of changes -- more garlic, less garlic, then more again; fewer tomatoes, then just the couple hidden under the cheese like the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. The tinkering's done by Charlie in conjunction with his cook, Alessandro Sosa, Mel's former sous chef, with an eye not to cost, or to maximizing interaction and potential customer satisfaction (that's far too schoolbook), but just to making it right. To making every dish taste the way it wants to.
That's the way this kitchen works. It's more craft than art -- which is fine, because craft gives us a lot of good things. Functional Swedish living-room furniture, for example. And working plumbing. There's nothing wrong with craft when it's done with pride and consideration for the final product. So Brix doesn't have a chef in the back; it has a cook. Which is better.
"With a chef, you get an ego, you know?" Charlie says. "Something that can overwhelm the..." He waves a hand at the bar with its broken-up wine-case paneling, the cork-lined mirrors, the TV tuned to AMC (not sports, not news), the comfortable, pillowed, church-pew booths, his wave indicating both the place and the feel of the place.
And he's right, of course, since more often than not today, it's the chefs who make news, not the kitchens where those chefs work. Brix goes against that trend, is vigorously anti- establishment in a way that can only be pulled off by someone who's been a part of the establishment long enough to know which soft spots to put the boot to. The punk-rock aesthetic deliberately sets Brix apart from the stuffy, fine-dining, bistros-that-aren't scene. The stereo's playing rap music and one-hit wonders of the '80s, the napkins are red-stripe dishwasher's towels, and the menu is comfort-food simple without being comfort-food pap. Garlic hummus with grilled pita, and homemade potato chips with homemade bleu-cheese sauce for snacking; a composed bacon-and-egg salad that's Spanish and country French and ingeniously New American copycat all at the same time. There's duck shepherd's pie with shredded Muscovy breast meat in a simple, thin tomato sauce (more like a jus, almost a stock), covered with whipped potatoes, topped with cheese and served with the plain purity of something that might have come out of your grandmother's kitchen fifty years ago. These days, a dish like this tastes almost too base to be restaurant food -- a sad comment on the industry, not Brix.
Charlie gets the table another round of drinks. I'm drinking Carta Blanca, since the bar doesn't have Corona. And why doesn't Brix serve the champagne of Mexican pisswater? "Because everyone serves Corona," Charlie says, like that's reason enough to do it different. The bar doesn't offer Guinness or even Murphy's, either, except on St. Pat's. The house stout is Young's double chocolate, and it's good. I finish Charlie's wounded soldier just to make sure.
We talk about squash blossoms, about how it's a point of pride for Charlie that his kitchen doesn't top everything with microgreens or frisee. We talk about truffle oil and how there should be a secret team of food-service ninjas that sneak around in the dead of night stealing bottles of the stuff out of kitchens that don't deserve such a powerful culinary weapon in their arsenal. In my opinion, this would be every kitchen in town except the one at Luca d'Italia. Charlie is more forgiving.
And then he's off again, on the phone talking to another food writer, trying to get her to come have dinner with him. She declines. "She had a really beautiful accent," he says, and this sparks a story about a dinner he had with Eric Asimov, the former New York Times "$25 and Under" dining critic. "This idea of critics not getting to know people, it's ridiculous," he says. "You're in the same industry together, right? I mean, a friend can still give you a kick in the ass when you need it. Who better?" I disagree. That's why I went to such trouble to hide from Charlie on my first two visits: I was hoping he wouldn't need that kick in the ass from a friend, but was willing to give it if required. Still, I was thrilled to find it wasn't. Happy Monday.
As Charlie again bounces off to seat tables, his chair is filled by one of his staff. We talk books: A Year in Provence, The Apprentice. "You're a server, right?" I ask after a few minutes, and he nods, grins. "That's why they call me a waiter. I wait."
One of the things that makes Brix so charming to me -- and maybe somewhat off-putting to those expecting less nonchalance -- is that the place is so laid-back it can be hard to tell who's an employee, who's a partner, who's a delivery guy, who's a customer. Brix has a lot of friends-of-the-house, and people just sort of wander in and out from behind the bar, among the tables -- yet if you need anything, there's always someone there. Everyone is well-versed on everything -- wine, food, staff gossip, what have you -- and the food always arrives hot, the drinks quickly. Brix's system, which appears to be the lack of any system at all, works just fine.
The waiter who sat down doesn't know me, simply saw the seat vacated by his boss and filled it, offering his company because I hadn't brought any of my own. When we get to talking about A Cook's Tour, I order something else to eat: Moroccan chicken with shaved fennel and couscous. The chicken has been chopped off the breast, roughly grilled so that it's burnt on the outside, tender and juicy within, and plated over yellow grains of couscous that look so harmless, so innocuous on the plate until I taste them and they explode with all the brightness of raw curry, turmeric, bitter lemon and bits of chicken char.
The dish is going to change, Charlie tells me when he returns, tapping a pack of Nat Shermans, bringing another round. The kitchen's going to lose the fennel and add a ratatouille. More smart tinkering: The fennel is nice as a flavor rubbed off against the chicken, but overpowering when placed against the couscous. And Mum's Zinfandel beef stew -- a rich mess of tender beef and stew veggies in a soft gravy that I tried on one of those sneaky visits -- is being pulled entirely. Charlie loves the dish, likes the way it plays against the rest of the entrees and lends a homey, boyish touch to the menu, but it isn't selling. It'll be replaced with pork loin, marinated for a day, roasted, then cut and grilled to order. "It's good," he says, then backtracks. "It's going to be really good."
Brix's wine list is already good -- no bottle more than thirty bucks, and every label carefully chosen with both Charlie's grape smarts and his father's to draw on. This isn't cheap wine; it's good wine that happens to be inexpensive. The white-trash beer special, on the other hand, is just plain cheap: a buck seventy-five for PBR in the can. Cheap and just a little bit sleazy, the kind of deal that ought to come with its own brown paper bag (which it does) and a mesh-back Peterbilt hat (which it doesn't -- not yet). Charlie wants to add a white-trash dinner special, too -- a couple dollars for Ritz crackers and Cheez Whiz with chunks of pepperoni, something like that. "I've done so much fine dining that I just want something different. Something fun, right?" he says, and laughs.
"A lot of this," he says, "is also showing my dad that I could do this. Open my own restaurant. Make it on my own." Mel is still a major investor in Brix but that, like the menu, is changing. Charlie and his partner hope to soon buy out Dad's share. And that cutting of the apron strings will make Brix complete. Because right now, the crew -- front of the house and back, everyone on the floor, even Charlie -- give off the vibe of a very talented garage band doing it for the love of the music but still bankrolled by the lead singer's rich father. In some ways, that makes things easy. In some ways, much tougher. It makes Brix's casual rebellion ring oh-so-slightly false, since that which Charlie is working against (his history in fine dining, his history as a Master) still pays the bills and co-signs the checks.
But in a few weeks, the Boy will be all grown up. Charlie says he's thankful for all his parents have done, but it's time. He smiles, knocks back the last of another beer. He says he can't wait.
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