Execution Issues Trip Jezebel

Second Austin eatery eliminated from Best New Restaurant

Jezebel's deconstructed Bananas Foster (courtesy of bravotv.com)

Wednesday night's episode of Bravo's Best New Restaurant featured a battle of restaurants with unique service concepts – the quirky American dim-sum at the Church Key in West Hollywood and Austin's Restaurant Jezebel where chef Parind Vora promises couture cuisine based on interviews with individual diners. It didn't quite work out that way.

Each week during the series, host Tom Colicchio chooses two new restaurants with elements in common and subjects them to the same three tests – a pressure test with a full dining room, secret visits from diners with hidden cameras, and a head-to-head dinner service battle in one of Colicchio's own New York eateries. At the end of the hour, Colicchio announces which restaurant will move on the the semi-final round of eight contestants. This week's competitors were defined by their distinctive service models and could hardly have been more different.

The Church Key

This currently trendy Hollywood eatery serves new American cuisine in a Chinese dim sum format with a rotating list of 16-24 dishes served from carts, as well as a 16 item à la carte menu of small plates. The food is complemented by innovative adult beverages presented by servers dressed as flight attendants pushing retro airline beverage carts. Though chef-owner Steven Fretz and general manager Joey Sabato run a very tight ship, their dining room took on a circus atmosphere during the pressure test. What with dim-sum carts, beverage carts, and trays of food circling the room all at the same time, there was little time to eat or chat over dinner when both the staff and the diners neglected to heed the “dim-done” cards on each table.

The pressure test judges appeared to enjoy everything they ate at the Church Key, and even though Colicchio's voice-over attempted to build tension into the situation, it was clear the food and the unique service format had impressed them. However, Fretz and Sabato were completely caught off guard when the hidden camera revealed a server refusing a diner's request for a substitution, blaming the policy on the kitchen without even bothering to ask the chef. They were aghast and assured Colicchio that problem would be corrected and they would retrain the staff on the use of the “dim-done” cards.

Restaurant Jezebel

This is just about the only dining establishment in Austin where men are required to wear a dinner jacket and it is the only place we know of where the chef claims to customize each diner's plate based an interview done by maître d'. The chic little spot rarely seats 30 diners in an evening, so seating 30 diners at the same time undermined the menu-less approach and made it impossible for maître d and sommelier Mark Smith to do the kind of detailed interviews that are an integral component to the designer meal concept. Judges and other diners remarked about the fact that entire tables were being served the same dishes and there were questions about discrepancies in menu descriptions - a couple of mushrooms on a plate did not constitute mushroom ragout.

Chef Vora's kitchen also had problems with execution so that some of the diners received food that was only room temperature or cold. Unfortunately, these foods' temperature problems persisted during the mystery diner visits and once again, there were questions about just how customized the meals actually were when diners at the same table received the same dishes. Chef Vora told Colicchio that the Jezebel website had been changed to now explain that each table could expect to receive a customized meal.

The Finale

Both restaurant teams claimed to have made adjustments before the dinner service battle in New York and both chefs were shown sweating with nerves and exertion. The only criticism Colicchio and the judges were able to muster about the Church Key was that chef Fretz took the safe route, serving only signature dishes rather than breaking new ground. However, it was clear his team made the best impression. Food temperature problems plagued chef Vora and his team in every dish that made the show's final edit. The impact of his innovative foie gras ice cream was undermined by a too-soft texture that deteriorated even more with the addition of a warm syrup to the dessert plates. Tom Colicchio said that while he was glad to see there were chefs like Vora pushing the edge of the culinary envelope, he would have to award the win to chef Fretz and his technical expertise.

Post Finale Update:

Rumors about the fate of Restaurant Jezebel have been swirling ever since the Cirrus Logic building management posted the large, contiguous bar space for rent last month. Yesterday, the partnership that operates the two Grove Wine Bar & Kitchen outlets confirmed they've leased the space at 600 W. Sixth for their third location. After the Best New Restaurant episode on Wednesday night, chef Vora confirmed to me that he'll close Jezebel after dinner service on Valentine's Day and actively pursue the development of one, and possibly two, new restaurants in nearby Lockhart. He and his team were just back from an appearance at ChefDance at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and he was pleased about being invited to ChefDance in Los Angeles this year, as well. He also described some international catering jobs on the horizon and the potential to reopen Jezebel in Austin at some future date.

Be sure to watch Best New Restaurant next week when Barlata Tapas Bar chef-owner Daniel Olivella and wife Vanessa Jerez wage battle against another couple of married restaurateurs. Wednesday, Feb.11 at 9pm.

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Restaurant Jezebel, Bravo TV, Best New Restaurrant, Tom Collichio, The Church Key, Steven Fretz, Joey Sabato, Parind Vora, Mark Smith, ChefDance, Sundance Film FestivalBarlata Tapas Bar, Daniel Olivella, Vanessa Jerez, Cirrus Logic, The Grove Wine Bar & Kitchen

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