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Blue Apron 4
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Blue Apron 2White-bean gazpacho.
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Blue Apron 3Pan-seared sea scallops.
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Blue Apron 4Irish cream cheesecake.
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Scott SwisherChef/owner Scott Switzer holds a full-experience-dining philosophy for his restaurant%u2019s operation.
Scott Switzer, who opened Blue Apron Restaurant in Salem last year, combines classical French culinary training with a dedication to “everything working together” for his diners.
We’ve been talking for half an hour and you’ve barely mentioned the food. What kind of chef are you?”
I was talking to Scott Switzer, the chef and owner of Blue Apron Restaurant on Main Street in Downtown Salem. We were sitting in the adjoining Red Rooster Bar (something of a bantam rooster; the cozy bar is set up in a narrow shopfront next door to the main restaurant, just wide enough for three stools), and I had just realized that this Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and restaurateur was focusing pretty heavily on the restaurateur angle.
I’ve met a number of chefs who never seem to see anything beyond their passion for great food, but Switzer seems to take a big-picture approach. He stresses his focus on having all the different departments in the restaurant work together smoothly in order to give his guests a seamless experience.
“Our word for it is ‘choreography.’ When you’re sitting there as a customer and you know that your server is in the weeds, and the hostess isn’t helping out, or it just feels weird, it’s over. There’s no recovery from that. We can bail it out from the kitchen, and maybe they’ll give you a pass.”
But, Switzer says, it’s much better to have everything working together. “When things are on, your guests are happy, and you know that everything is just awesome, it’s just a big sense of feeling good about what you’re doing.”
My wife and I had paid a visit the previous Friday, and had seen first-hand the dance that Switzer’s choreography produces. Open since December of 2010, Blue Apron boasts a well-trained, but warmly non-stuffy front-of-the-house staff that does an admirable job of blending attentive, knowledgeable and professional service with the kind of heart and soul that makes you feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home.
We arrived a bit before our 8:30 reservation (I have no idea where our manners were; we were both raised in the South and therefore know better than to do anything so gauche as to show up for dinner early), and the host showed us into the bar. Though the trio of stools was occupied, the cheerful bartender quickly mixed us up a champagne cocktail and a Hemingway (a sort of a reboot of a crushed ice daiquiri served in a stainless steel martini glass), and the folks at the bar didn’t seem to mind my boardinghouse reach.
Though the Red Rooster Bar is small, seating maybe nine people, it’s an attractive room, with exposed brick and a table in the front window for people-watching. We were just settling in and having fun eavesdropping on the happy conversations surrounding us when the host returned to let us know our table was ready.
More of Switzer’s dance was in evidence in the dining room, which was full to the rafters with energetic and happy-looking diners (always a good sign). Our server gave us enough time to get to know the menu, and then waltzed over to our table.
“Can I answer any questions about the menu?”
“Pull up a chair,” I answered, “I’ve got plenty.”
She was a good sport, giving us plenty of information without making us feel like goobers for not knowing what words like “gremolata,” “noisette,” or “orecchiette” meant.*
* In order: A lemon zest and herb condiment; another word for hazelnut; a floppy, disc-shaped pasta.
Despite having a few terms that I had never come across and a broad array of foods with origins in many lands, the menu was strangely unpretentious. A single page, there was no real demarcation between appetizers, salads, soups or entrees. If you preferred to start with a smaller portion of the seared rare hamachi, moving on to a big old plate of mussels for your main course, it’s all up for grabs. And nothing on the menu, regardless of portion, rings in at more than $26, which was a pleasant surprise.
Notwithstanding my wife’s debilitating addiction to lobster bisque, she got herself under control and decided to order the Roasted Garlic & White Bean Soup. Though it had a strong garlic presence, there wasn’t so much that it became overwhelming, and the earthy flavors of the beans, spinach and tomatoes (along with something delightfully smoky – ham or bacon? The gruyere cheese? Our overexcited imaginations?) did that dance that good food does and added up to more than the sum of their parts. We felt like it evoked a hearty French peasant food, though neither of us can ever remember having met a French peasant, hearty or otherwise.
“I could have this soup every day for the rest of my life,” she told me.
I, on the other hand, got hooked in by the White Gazpacho. I mean, can such things be? This soup had a more delicate flavor, which was nicely accompanied by two shrimp floating in a yin-and-yang formation, tangy shredded artichokes, and a small thicket of mâche.
We followed this course up with small orders of Seared Sea Scallops and Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Huge and sweet, the scallops came plated with a sharp citrus beurre blanc and chunked roasted beets. This dish inspired my wife to say, “Wow, those are beets? What a pleasant surprise!” I believe that this is the first time in the history of language that those words have ever been uttered in that combination.
Sad to say, we weren’t quite as knocked out by the foie gras. This is a very occasional guilty pleasure of ours, so we were looking forward to enjoying it, but something about the flavor that searing brought out just didn’t strike our palates right. That said, everything else on the plate – blueberry gastrique, wafer-thin crepes, pecans and shitake mushrooms – was excellent.
And here comes dinner! My wife’s Slow-Roasted Breast of Duck was delicious (I know this because I stole some, as I always do when she orders duck.) Cooked to order and served on a bed of stone-ground grits with white cheddar, herbs and butter-braised cabbage. I took advantage of Friday’s weekly special and ordered the Slow-Roasted Heritage Breed Pork Ribeye. Thick, juicy and well-seasoned.
Coincidentally, my entrée came served over grits as well. We felt like a couple of Yankees trying to win a Southern primary.
By the time we’d finished, the crowd had begun to thin out. From standing room only when we had arrived, it was now down to us and a party of four – two couples laughing their way through after-dinner drinks. We were thinking about getting out of the staff’s hair as they worked to wind things down, but dessert proved to be too big a temptation. She got a rich Irish-cream cheesecake, topped with fresh whipped cream and mixed berries on top of a chocolate graham cracker crust, and I went for the apple cobbler, served with pecans and vanilla ice cream in a piping hot ramekin. Both of us wound up preferring the other’s, so we traded. Dessert diplomacy, you’ve got to love it.
Speaking with Switzer those few days later, I’ll admit that I was a lot more enthusiastic about talking about the food than about his views on nurturing his staff or how well business is going now that he’s got a full fiscal year under his belt. But his zeal for giving his guests a smooth and pleasant experience throughout their visit was mesmerizing, and over and over I heard echoes of our meal. I finally got him to warm up to the topic of his menu (it wasn’t really that hard, he’s obviously in love with cuisine), and he told me that he liked to base his menus on classical French cuisine, because it’s the basic building block of how he was trained as a chef.
Hearing him say that reminded me of what he’d told me at the outset of our conversation – that he liked to think of the various components of his restaurant operating together in that choreographed dance. With its blend of excellent conception, preparation and presentation, Switzer’s food combines quality and humility in a way that keeps it in perfect step with the rest of his operation.
Blue Apron Restaurant and Red Rooster Bar
210 East Main Street, Salem
540-375-0055; Reservations recommended