Montclair’s reputed restaurant renaissance runs on high energy
By Lou Fancher
Beyond standard “location is everything” explanations for what some say is Montclair’s restaurant renaissance rumbles an unmistakable element: high-octane energy. From Italian Colors’ 25 years offering customer comfort and traditional and beyond-the-pasta-bowl Italian cuisine; to Perle Wine Bar’s meticulously curated menu and beverages; to the flowery, festive atmosphere and spicy dishes that perform gustatory handsprings off sizzling plates at Daughter Thai, diverse Montclair establishments represent refreshing, surprising foodie playgrounds ripe for exploration.
Will the restaurants last beyond the present moment? Everyone loves answers to a mystery, so which factors late in 2018 best indicate a positive future? By what means will Italian Colors owners Alan and Dee Carlson continue to operate an establishment launched in 1993? Among other newcomers, what factors suggest longevity for Perle founders chef Rob Lam and sommelier Marcus Garcia or the trio behind Daughter Thai, Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang, Ling Chatterjee and Kim Gamble?
Customers served chef Alan Carlson’s artful, tiered Green Scarves Lasagne or tender Veal Scallopini prepared with a soft hand that allows it to finish cooking on the plate would never expect no-bake cheesecake to be the foundation. Born in Japan, raised in Virginia and moving with his family to Michigan, Carlson in seventh grade was forced to sign up for home economics.
“All the wood and auto shop classes were full when my dad got transferred. We made cheesecake: cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, sugar, graham cracker crust; put it in the fridge for an hour. It turned out great. I thought that was cool.”
Employed while a teen at $1.85 an hour as a dishwasher at a Greek diner in Detroit, Carlson was bumped up the ladder when a cook didn’t show up for a graveyard shift. “At 1:30 in the morning all the drunks came in. They saw I didn’t know how to flip eggs and ordered up a storm of them.”
Carlson, ever the improviser, covered the eggs with a handy lid and basted them. More than a humorous anecdote, wife Dee Carlson insists it’s indicative of what has Italian Colors packed daily with regulars and young, new customers.
“Alan’s learned modernist techniques, taking his classically trained cooking to new levels with sous vide, pickling, all the new methods. He signed up for a Monday night cooking class, put his head down and did it.”
If his head is ever down, Carlson remains vigilantly attuned to customers and staff. He knows signature menu items must never change, while introducing innovative dishes often featuring seafood or locally sourced ingredients to attract the 50 percent customer base seeking surprise or “something other than meat and potatoes.”
Because many Latinx families by tradition celebrate Christmas the evening of Dec. 24, Italian Colors is always closed that day. “We walk away from a lot of money, but it’s more important for them to have their holiday,” says Carlson. “The first half of my life I worked those family time days. I don’t want that to happen to them.”
Likewise, Perle Wine Bar’s Garcia points to staff as key to their success. Opened in August 2017, streamlined operations and personnel have created “great staff chemistry” and a lively, neighborly atmosphere in which “high-end food that doesn’t try too hard” is highlighted. Skillfully designed dishes paired with the right wines are stress relievers, he suggests. “You take time to be in the moment, to remember the last time you had the wine, the importance of weather to a vintage, or to recognize a sustainable ingredient. You notice the nuances.”
Sharing his enthusiasm, dreams and passions is what Garcia says is most rewarding. As is discovering that customers in Montclair appreciate an expansive wine selection, chef Lam’s quality cuisine that includes items like fresh oysters and abalone and the recent addition of a happy hour. “It’s important to stay energized, to remember customers’ favorite cocktails or dishes.”
Energy is in full supply a block away at Daughter Thai. Chef/owner Saengsawang co-owns four restaurants and dispenses enthusiasm for his homeland’s southern Thai, spicy, turmeric- and cumin-infused cuisine. Speaking like a fast-moving turbine, he says, “Customers love our fried chicken, spicy pork bellies and sizzling plates. I cook with chili, garlic, basil leaves, intense spices. I want to make every moment for customers warm because it’s what I missed so much while living in San Francisco.”
Saengsawang, 36, a parent with his wife of a five-month-old daughter, moved a few years ago to Lafayette. He admits the dining picture he had of Montclair and the East Bay was of a staid, stuck-in-time area that was incorrect.
“I was holding a memory of 15 years ago, but right away, people wanted something new. We don’t have enough space for everyone who comes. It breaks my heart, but it’s a good problem to have.”
If lines are sometimes long enough they must suggest people return another day, the owners find ways to thank the community. Frequent donations to Montclair schools and nonprofits, showcasing local music talent like Italian Colors’ guitarist Mike Wollenberg or a chef dashing out to purchase ingredients for a requested dish not on the regular menu are not unusual. Ultimately, geographic footprint, food quality and strong service will shade long-term success. But to find the true color and heart of a restaurant, look to the owner or chef — backed by a cherished team — operating at full throttle.