Finally, an interesting development in the business of casual all-day cafés: sometimes, they get turned into something else completely.
— Angelica Frey
What is a restaurant owner to do when one of their businesses isn’t performing? If you walk down Brooklyn’s own restaurant row on Smith Street, the typical answer can be found in the rows empty storefronts formerly occupied by restaurants: close. But when Alex Raij and Eder Montero, of El Quinto Pino, Txikito and La Vara fame, realized that their Brooklyn-based café and casual spot Tekoá, despite its star-quality Turkish breakfast, wasn’t worth the effort, they decided to turn it into something else, a fish-centric full-service restaurant named Saint Julivert Fisherie.
“I believe in that corner. I think it’s one of the most charming blocks in Brooklyn and I believe in the customers that we have in the community,” Alex Raij told Skift Table a couple of weeks after the opening of Saint Julivert Fisherie, its name derivied from the sprig of parsley restaurant owners in Spain gift to the miniature statue of St. Pancras they keep in their establishments for good luck. “I love having a coffee shop to go to, I just don’t like being the owner of it,” she continued.
The two-year-old café in Cobble Hill, which closed its doors last April, was not a joy-filled project: it was difficult to staff, for instance — Rajj felt like she couldn’t support the kitchen staff — and she had the feeling “of just being an employer instead of an actor manifesting something.” More specifically, what Raij could not come to terms with was that Tekoa was not a scalable coffee shop. At the same time, she couldn’t be there pulling every espresso every day, because she had three more full-service establishments to manage. “There are places that do it beautifully but they’re incredibly intimate, and you have to be there every day,“ she said. “If you want to have a coffee shop, you have to outsource everything or have ten coffee shops.”
Physically, the coffee bar area was also overbearing, and detrimental to the food menu, which largely consisted of gourmet sandwiches and salads. “Everybody was talking about the food there but nobody was eating the food because of it,” she said.
A couple of weeks into opening Saint Julivert, Raij spoke with enthusiasm about her newest project. “It’s a small restaurant but when it’s full it has a really nice vibe, and for some reason we’ve been able to very organically open up, which is something I really appreciate: that way that food does not suffer the way it would if you went from 0 to 100,” Raij said. “We make little gestures every day to improve the dishes: we have a sense of what people are liking and they just don’t like.”
The menu is fish-centric, with a good balance between raw and cooked dishes. While Raij’s previous restaurants La Vara, Txikito and El Quinto Pino have specific geographic and historical references — Moorish/Jewish influences in Spanish cuisine, Basque traditions and a pan-Spanish menu respectively —Saint Julivert’s influences are, at first glance, far and wide. “I want it, so they must want it,” is the rationale with which Raij composed the menu. For instance, as a consumer, she appreciates having a choice of dishes that are thoughtful, tasty, leaner and cleaner. “I’ve never believed that just because you get rich food it can’t taste clean,” she explained, noting that she finds ‘heavy’ elaborate meals almost offensive. “Rich food is a matter of technical expertise, not of how much butter you’re using.”
The cohesiveness of the menu, despite not being apparent at first glance, lies in Raij’s choice of products that are as local and as sustainable as they can be. She meets with the impact coordinator of the James Beard Foundation to better educate herself on guidelines regarding local food. “It’s a difficult thing to do because no fish is really sustainable,” she admitted.
She adds and subtracts items at whim and at will, mainly depending on the availability of the products. “Yesterday we had prawns because they were available; today we’re making risotto with conch and clams because they are available,” she told us as an example. “One of my favorite things in the world, other than cooking, is writing menus,” she said “Because it’s a document, it’s a place where you can really show a lot of sensitivity to your customers, creating something cohesive.”