Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Aubrie Pick]
Decked with möbius strip light fixtures and a living wall, the Lower Haight's Maven sprouted up in the Lower Haight almost exactly one year ago with an ambitious bunch of cocktails, each one specifically tailored to a dish on the menu. Managing owners Jay Bordeleau and chef David Kurtz teamed up with former Michael Mina bartender Kate Bolton to bring this zany idea to life. They went on to notch a coveted three stars on the Bauer-ometer, and an Eater Bartender of the Year award. Bordeleau, Kurtz and Bolton recently sat down to talk about the year to come, and why Cosmos will never be on the menu.
One year in, did things turn out how you expected?
Jay Bordeleau: I would say better than expected. Being our first restaurant we went in excited and hopeful. We were well-received into the neighborhood, and even just the business and financial side worked out exceedingly well.
David Kurtz: This being our first restaurant we definitely did a lot of planning, and that really paid off.
What has surprised you most?
DK: The best surprise has been the location and the neighborhood. The neighborhood is really great. It wasn't on our flagship of locations, but it's definitely better then anything we could have planned for.
What was your first choice?
DK: We were looking more downtown area-esque. But as that search grew larger we found Lower Haight.
And why does it work here?
DK: I couldn't be more ecstatic about where we're located. The neighborhood is amazing. It lends perfectly to the concept that we've instilled. It's casual, welcoming. I think it's perfect.
JB: There is such a sense of pride and neighborhood-ness that truly exists in the Lower Haight. We've had neighbors who have lived two doors down for the past 30 years. When the Walgreens fire happened, everyone came together, there was a huge outpour of support. I love that reciprocity. The other week, Kate and I closed up shop and were walking to the local bar, Churchill. Their bartender visited us on his way to work for a bite of food. That sense of reciprocity and neighborhood-ness is surprising to me, and is super enjoyable.
Kate Bolton: We walk down the block and wave to every store owner. There's a total sense of community. David and I use to work in FiDi, so not much a neighborhood feel down there [laughs]. It's been such a great change coming from Michael Mina, in the heart of the financial district.
How did you come up with the concept for the restaurant, of pairing meals with the cocktails so perfectly?
DK: A lot of it has to do with our beverage background and our culinary background. And we didn't want to leave any of those pieces out of the puzzle.
JB: Before Maven even had a name and we we're figuring out what we wanted to do we thought, well, let's do a wine bar where everything is paired. We were out and realized that it wasn't sexy enough, it's not quite there. And we were out, having cocktails while talking about this and said, "cocktails are sexy right now. Let's do that."
When putting the menu together, which comes first, the cocktails or the food?
DK: Generally the food seasonality will shift a lot more than the booze seasonality will [laughs] so, a lot of it will come from the market. And I think also we've been trying to do cocktails first and build a dish around it. We like to play and test and push ourselves to research and try new things.
JB: It's been a learning experience for all, trying to come in with our background, mainly looking at things through a wine perspective. This dish has been paired with wine before, how can we make a cocktail fit in that similar mold? When it's fun is when there's a plate of food that's awesome and well seasoned, ready for the menu, surrounded by eleven different cocktail experiments. Learning what flavors go together, what flavors don't. Trying to pin one example off eleven different examples is really educational. Super rewarding when you hit it. And sometimes you have eleven strike outs and it's really frustrating.
Do you have a favorite combination?
DK: I would say definitely not. All of them are truly unique and every time we create something new it pushes the envelope further. It's really hard to pick a favorite.
JB: I would go for the total underdog, and I think that the best pairing that we've ever had, that was probably the least seen on the table, was the Widow's Kiss cocktail with blue cheese, black pepper, honey and thyme. The combinations were fascinating.
DK: It was also the easiest to prepare
JB: [laughs] Yeah, and we can't take credit for the cheese or the drink, but that synergy between them was one that justified that this concept works. [Kate], you have a favorite?
KB: I think one of the most surprising, one that I had such a clear vision and then when it worked it was awesome, was in the spring when we had a broccoli agnolotti on the menu. A Hometown Vixin was the cocktail which basically starred a pistachio and black pepper bourbon.
Do you read reviews?
JB: The customer's feedback in the restaurant is the most critical. And at the same time, giving way to people who are taking the time to put pen to paper and writing a review. They spent time here, they spent time writing. The Bauer review came back fabulously. We were super proud and opened a bunch of champagne that night. It was fantastic.
DK: The Chronicle Bauer review, for me, really put it in stone. That was the first major review that we had after opening. All this hard work is just starting to pay off.
KB: That one was huge. Virginia Miller wrote a piece on us before that, which was also really flattering and very complementary.
DK: There have been quite a few that I have been gracious to receive. But also, with the negative reviews, it's hard to please everybody. So we definitely take our time and reach out to every single guest that reaches out to us.
JB: And with negative reviews, figuring out what can we do, how can we be more hospitable. People complain that there are no reservations here. And we think, is that something that we want to offer? And we want to keep it casual. We're in the Lower Haight, we're just serving cocktails and food. How can we be more hospitable without offering reservations? Do what we do better, but not change it.
In Bauer's review, he wrote that if you wanted to construct a meal and have a cocktail for each, you would stumble out the door.
JB: One night one couple went through all the cocktails and all the beer and wine pairings. They didn't finish everything. They didn't think they could do dessert, but we just sent them dessert. We were like "You guys are so close. Get to the finish line!'" [laughs] They got the whole front side of the menu, 30 items - 10 food, 20 beverages. They did some good work, I was impressed.
Do people often come in and go off your pairing recommendations? Do you encourage cross mixing?
DK: We definitely do. It's a completely open concept and that goes back to the idea of keeping it causal. If they want to participate and enjoy the pairings that we've set up for them, we softly suggest it. That's definitely recommended.
JB: Something I found, when first working as a sommelier, was pair to the palette first. My mom, for example, thinks everything pairs with a Sidecar that is way too sweet. And that's what she loves. I'm not going to tell her what she should drink.
Have there been any strange requests from customers that you did not anticipate?
JB: The woman who went next door to get cranberry juice. The program and the quality is based on seasonality and bringing as much flavor to the table as we can. Squeezing for fresh juices that are in season. Cranberries happened in spring. Not in season. Cranberry juice is hard to get, or hard to make fresh anywhere. So we told the customer, "sorry we don't have cranberries, they are not in season." She leaves the restaurant, goes down to the corner store, gets packaged cranberry juice comes back in and says, "now can you make me a cosmo?"
And you made it?
JB: I pushed back a little and said that the program is trying to ensure that ingredients are organic whenever possible. No artificial sweeteners, no corn sweeteners specifically. Checked the label. Yes, the product was from South America. Yes, it's made with aspartame. Yes, there's food coloring in that. It's one of those, I would love to serve you cranberry juice. This is not cranberry juice though. She looked at me kind of befuddled. I said, let's find something you like.
KB: When people ask for a cosmo, it's like, I can't make you a cosmo, but I can make you something that you're going to like. Instead of just saying "No, I'm not going to do that, pick something else." It's much better and more comfortable for the customer and more fun for them if you say "I can't do that, but I see you're looking for something citrusy and tart. I can make something that's going to be." I wouldn't say better than your cosmo. But it is.
How did you decide what direction to go with the food menu?
DK: People always ask me what kind of food is at Maven, and it's challenging because it's quite eclectic. We always believe that whatever you like to eat and what is going to be the drink, that's the best pairing. We cook in the kitchen with the same mantra. We cook whatever we enjoy to eat.
JB: A challenge was figuring out how many items to offer. We knew we wanted a small, concise menu. When you're going out, you have a date, you don't want to be reading a menu and a tomb and a binder full of items. You want to go back to flirting with your date. That's why you're there. We assumed a four top, if they could order everything on the menu how big of a menu would that be? That was our benchmark of how small was the smallest. Beyond that, trying to keep it focused is more important that offering quantity.
Do you find that you have a lot of regulars? Is it Cheers-esque?
DK: I wouldn't go as far a Cheers. I don't think Cheers had a living wall [laughs]. But it can be a lot like that, I guess. A lot of our regular customers hang out when they come in and say hi to each other, and bring the baby by. It's pretty cool.
KB: We don't have a Norm though. Yet. [laughs].
Any VIPS or guests you've been excited to see?
KB: There's definitely been a lot of industry. Martin Cate, who owns Smuggler's Cove, came in a few months after we opened. A bartender's birthday party was here so there were a lot of bartenders in house from all over the community. And Martin, he's like the Tiki guy, asked about our hazelnut orgeat and was impressed and surprised and couldn't believe that we were making it in house. That was a big moment for me.
JM: One other surprise, and one of the Holy Crap this works, is the street appeal is awesome. we had one couple who was taking a cab from downtown to Upper Haight. They had a red light at our intersection, looked in through the windows and said, "I don't care where we are going. We want to go there. Pull over, drop us off right now." Came in, had four cocktails and were like, "this place is great." Just visiting from LA. So that surprise was fantastic.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
DK: I think a lot of it is going to be reaching out to the community and doing lots of events, community focused. Specifically in Lower Haight, but also city wide. And just honing what we do here. It's quite a unique concept. It takes a lot of care and attention.
KB: I'm in the same boat as these guys. The bar community in San Francisco is an amazing thing to be a part of and we're blessed and honored to have been given the accolades we gotten this year. So just continuing to reach out. We get asked to do a lot of fundraisers, and do speciality cocktails to these fundraising parties and just continuing to do those things. And just trying to keep serving good drinks. Staying seasonal and true to ourselves. It's good stuff.
JB: I want to write more and share more of what we're doing here. Not only should we be a connoisseur in our field, but can we share that information. I definitely want to help you drink and eat better, not just here, but everywhere.