Service With a Song
It's a typical workday, and you have thousands of tasks ahead. You've just come out of a meeting, dozens of clients are waiting for you, and before you can take care of anything, your co-workers are signaling that it's time for you to do that special part of your job, the one that requires those unique skills that got you hired in the first place. So you stand up tall, clear your throat and begin: "The hills are alive, with the sound of music..."
Now you know what it's like to work at Bravo! Ristorante.
As if waiting tables weren't difficult enough -- answering questions about the menu, taking orders, bringing plates, whisking plates away -- servers at this upscale, contemporary Italian eatery in the Adam's Mark Hotel are also required to sing show tunes, opera pieces and, of course, "Happy Birthday," which they perform in a unique way involving their own tune and lots of streamers. Since they also handle the same number of tables as the average server in your average non-musical restaurant, it's comforting to hear that they earn a larger hourly wage for their vocal expertise -- and even more comforting to know they're making a living doing what they enjoy most.
"It was tough at first," says singer-server Kristen Brown. "It's like trying to do any two jobs at once. I had a rough time being competent as a server and making my brain focus on that part of the job, which involves a lot of mental organization and intense concentration, and then switching to a completely different part of my brain, the creative part that just lets go and sings. And then you have to be very organized to make sure your food isn't going to sit there while you're finishing up a song. But singing is what I was meant to do, and this supplements my income from the singing group I belong to."
All of the dinner servers at Bravo! -- there's no singing at lunch, although there's usually a piano player -- are professional singers. The servers keep tabs on each other through the evening, and the minute all of them have a break, they come together for a song. "We never get a breather, really, the way you might in a regular restaurant job," Brown explains. "When we have that rare moment when everyone's been served and it's really a matter of going back around to make sure there's nothing else needed, that's when most servers would run to the ladies' room or chat with other servers. But that's when we sing."
Their singing is wonderful. Although the room has good acoustics and we could have chatted over the music without much problem, we found that we wanted to listen. You're simply not going to hear "Your feets too big, don't want ya, 'cause your feets too big" while you munch on calamari anywhere else in town.
The music would fall on deaf ears, though, if the rest of the Bravo! dining experience weren't also worthy of note. The dining room is open and spacious -- the singers can move easily between the tables -- and decorated in classic hotel-restaurant style: inoffensive, muted tones; billowy, floor-length draperies; a grand piano and formal furniture that isn't so stuffy you can't relax. The tidy kitchen is open to the dining area, and a large, glassed-in wine cellar adds an extra touch of class.
The menu fits perfectly with the setting, offering few surprises beyond very reasonable prices, considering the entertainment factor. But while Bravo! is not the place for innovative or off-the-beaten-path Italian fare, the dishes we tried were well executed and appealingly flavored. Executive chef Doug Ganz grew up on Long Island, where he started working in Italian restaurants at the age of fourteen, and he's cooked in Florida, Amsterdam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and, most recently, the Swan at the Inverness Hotel in Englewood. He has a real eye for detail and presentation, along with an affinity for bold flavors, and they both show to good advantage at Bravo! For example, Ganz's palate-catching antipasto platter -- garnished with fresh raspberries and blueberries -- included portabello slices that had been marinated until the spongy mushrooms absorbed both sweet and sour flavors; lightly seared, rare tuna slices rimmed with a dusting of ground fennel and drizzled with both basil-based and lemon-flavored aiolis; juicy, ripe chunks of honeydew wrapped in straight-from-Parma prosciutto; fresh, hand-selected, oil-slicked arugula leaves; bruschetta topped with diced romas, plenty of garlic and olive oil, and fresh basil; and fresh mozzarella that was heaven paired with thinly sliced soppresata, a ginger-scented, pork-based Basilicata sausage that tastes like salami with class.
The cheese plate, or formaggi misti, was another grazer's paradise, with well-chosen Parmigiano-Reggiano, young goat cheese and Cacio d'Roma, a mild-flavored semi-hard cheese that was perfect with the jumbo water crackers provided. The only thing on the plate that wasn't in tip-top shape was the Gorgonzola, which was drier than it should have been. At first I thought the cheese might be the firmer, naturale style -- as opposed to the sweeter, softer dolce -- but its flat flavor suggested that it was American-made rather than Italian and had simply been cut ahead of time.
The calamari fritti, though, was straight from Genoa: gently coated pieces of squid that were light on grease and strong on flavor. Served with a faintly spicy, slightly chunky marinara for dipping, an order was more than enough to satisfy three or four as a starter. (Another of the servers' responsibilities is doling out portions of the dishes being shared.) The insalata Cesare boasted the slightly bitter element of endive and radicchio added to the romaine, along with olives for extra saltiness and Gorgonzola-topped crostini for more texture and salt; the dressing was a well-balanced blend of garlic, anchovies, oil and vinegar. The crema d'aglio e cipolle was an even more impressive balancing act: The soup counted roasted garlic and onions as its main components, and they'd been puréed and enriched with cream until the toasty garlic taste was muted but still very much a presence. Swirled around the soup's center was an herb-packed oil that added a bright, fresh flavor to the mix.
In keeping with the true spirit of Italian cooking, Chef Ganz likes to add fresh elements to his dishes, and the ravioli burro e salvia, the scaloppine piccata and the abbachio al forno all benefited from the extra flavor imparted by top-notch produce. Nearly caramelized oven-roasted tomatoes and asparagus injected some sweetness and a faint acidity into the ravioli dish; they served to neutralize the richness of the cheese-stuffed pasta drenched in a stunning, sage-infused brown butter. A smattering of diced romas helped soak up a caper-studded, lemon-kissed butter sauce that was delicious on the fork-tender, well-pounded veal piccata and even better on the angel-hair pasta, cooked an impeccable al dente. And the abbachio, a rack of Colorado lamb that arrived a flawless rare, came sided with fresh arugula that had been drizzled with truffle oil -- too lightly, I'd say -- as well as a rosemary-flecked ragout of white beans and romas that offset the meat's intensity.
The only dud in an otherwise fine meal was the fettuccine carbonara, which was simply too dry. The flavor came close to that of the classic recipe, and I thought the sheep's-milk Pecorino was a bold move on Ganz's part, because it's one of the saltiest grating cheeses. But while he somehow kept the dish from becoming a salt lick, he didn't have the right proportions of egg, cheese and pancetta to prevent the thick pasta from soaking up all the liquid and leaving behind gummy, bacon-salty cheese. Had the sauce been more moist, though, this dish would have been a star.
Bravo! isn't the first spot in town you'd think of dropping by for pizza, but the kitchen was in complete harmony there, too, and sommelier Maxence Ariza even stopped by to see if we needed help picking out the perfect bottle of wine for our two pies. Although Ariza's knowledge was impressive, making a decision seemed beyond us, and we settled on beer instead. It turned out to be a wise choice, because we wouldn't have wanted anything to distract from the jazzy pizza alla pancetta, its crispy, crackly crust topped by caramelized onions, goat cheese, portabellos and pancetta. The result was a charming combination of sweet, rich, earthy and salty -- like a big, fancy hors d'oeuvre on a homemade Ritz cracker. The kitchen did well with our simpler pizza, too; the marinara's semi-chunkiness worked well with the thin crust, and its mild spiciness played off the fresh mozzarella.
Encore! At Bravo!, the singer-servers deserve a standing ovation. And the restaurant should get a round of applause, too.
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