Tuesday, January 02, 2007

As the restaurant turns

Anyone who has ever dabbled into the restaurant business knows it’s a dog-eat-dog industry that’s more prone to chewing up newcomers and spitting them out broke and penniless. In order to make it, one needs a quick wit, an iron-cast stomach and pockets as deep as a list of clientele.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to learn two of the Spa City’s top eateries were shuttered by the close of 2006, despite having stalwart reputations and general success over the past decade.

The first to fall was Michael and Pattie Lenza’s 43 Phila Bistro, an eponymous name for its location on an avenue clustered with restaurants. For years, the Lenza’s restaurant offered the only haute cuisine in the city proper, as the yuppies traveling north from the Big Apple began demanding the same high-octane dishes boasted at Siro’s over the summer.

The bistro won awards, drew acclaim and became a destination for the wealthy during race season. And with good reason too. After Michael Lenza put Fourty-Three on the map, Executive Chef John Winnek brought it to the next level with a quality rolling menu and a stable of capable, quality underlings to his kitchen.

The restaurant seemed in good shape in 2001, as the Lenzas began aggressively expanding their kitchen. They built an extension on the side and renovated the building’s second floor with the idea of expanding their business into catering. They also started serving food at the McGregor Links Country Club.

But apparently, the summer traffic into Phila slowed fairly precipitously over the past few years. The country club operation was scrapped one year after it started. Then over the summer, the Lenzas put the restaurant on the market. Several months later, they were closing the doors for good after 13 years in business, something that shocked even the regulars. Word on the street was that the business had become an income drain and the family was nearing bankruptcy.

Not much more than a couple blocks away, another popular restaurant called it quits. Mino Kawaguchi closed the door to Mino’s Sushi House on Caroline Street last month, ending his reign as Saratoga’s sushi king. He came to the United States about 25 years ago and owned eight restaurants in Greenwich Village, Albany and California before settling in Saratoga Springs to open the city’s first sushi restaurant.

And ask any sushi aficionado, Mino was the best gig downtown. Over the years, several others tried unsuccessfully to compete with Kawaguchi, who built an impressive and eclectic clientele. Even recently, there were rumblings that Mino was planning to expand the business in the building by adding a hibachi grill upstairs.

But apparently, business dropped as the much larger Sushi Thai Garden opened on Phila Street. As recently as October, the business had tax liens imposed on it, with more than $9,000 of unpaid taxes. Mino apparently opted for closing his Saratoga restaurant in favor of keeping another location across the street from the Colonie Mall. Another one bites the dust.

Update: Mino told the Post Star he intends to reopen in a few months at a new location, perhaps in the ghetto-turned-art-district of Beekman Street. Kudos, Mino. Stay with us a bit longer. There's nothing that beats a pull of hot saki and a Saratoga Roll.

Then there’s the peculiar case of David Zecchini, who apparently has more money that god. Or at least enough money to throw stacks of hundred-dollar bills at god. That’s the impression the owner of Chianti il Ristorante gives with his constant retooling among his three -yes that’s three -upscale Italian-fare eateries.

After spending eight successful years and countless cash at transforming a dilapidated Long John Silvers into a Euro-paradise, Zecchini is pulling up stakes for a space in Sonny Bonacio’s new building, located exactly a half-mile away from Forno Bistro at the old Firehouse on Broadway and Mare Ristorante at the former location of the Metro.

True, moving a business closer to the Broadway action is always a good plan to make the register ring. But when you own two other restaurants just a scant few blocks away from one another, it seems a bit superfluous to bring in a third. Zecchini is also the fellow who put thousands of dollars into transforming the Metro into Luna Lounge, only to tear all his improvements out three years later to create Mare.

Word on the street is that he’s blind-stinking crazy.

But perhaps crazy is what it takes to make it in this cut-throat business, where one season can mean the difference between success and a spot on the bankruptcy rolls.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alas, I never got to dine in 43 Phila Bistro, but I did check it out every Friday and Saturday nite this summer while pedalling my cyclecab thru Lena Alley. It was always packed when I stuck my head to the window (probably much to the patrons' disgust!). And the jazz was cool and mellow, sometimes with a 14-year-old on drums.

The menu was a bit out of my price range and I don't think there were any vegetarian entrees featured (a requirement for me).

On the other hand, I often ate at Mino's, opting for a dinner comprising a sampling of his fine vegetarian appetizers and sushi. Mino-san even hosted a great Saratoga Vegetarian Society prix-fixe feast for about 15 of us a couple of years back. With all the remodeling and plans for a pan-Asia eatery in the works, I, too, am a bit shocked that he is closing his doors. I hope we'll see him and his cuisine in another venue in the future.

But the saddest news for me today in the world of dining/eating out in this area is the closing of Bizbee's. This quaint establishment is the only place serving good food that I and my neighbors in the Maple Middle School area could actually walk to in under 30 minutes. I could also ride the bike there as many of my friends from Parkhurst Road did throughout the summer. And they were a member of Bicycle Benefits program of Saratoga Healthy Transportation Network, offering a 15% discount to cyclists sporting a BB sticker on their helmets. This was the quintessential neighborhood hangout, serving great waffles (with 100% REAL maple syrup) and other breakfast/lunch items. A dozen cuts above Sarge's, and even better than either Country Corner Cafe, IMHO. But more than the food, I weep for the loss of the neighborhood eatery.

Along the same lines is the "interpretation" by Building Inspector Biffer that Nunzio's at the Pink Store on Clinton has changed it's character since it was grandfathered in even though it was out of building code for the UR-2 Zone. Thank goodness some members on the Zoning Board of Appeals (particularly Matt Veitch and Eric Schreck) had the gumption and guts to stand up against Biffer and recognize the value to the local neighborhood and community that Nunzio's affords! BI Biffer and the dissenters on the ZBA claimed that the Pink Store changed to an out-of-code use when they (Biffer and Chri Mathiesen) chose to use a compositional definition of grocery store/convenience store/deli/restaurant rather than a functional definition of a neighborhood gathering place. That's like saying electric cars aren't cars because they don't have pistons and spark plugs. We need to keep the Nunzio's and Chiacone's and Pepper's and Spring Street Markets right in the areas zoned Residential because they foster walk-in business not only for adults but for the teens and even pre-teens who can actually walk or bike there instead of needing to be schlepped around in a 2-ton SUV by mommy or daddy.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, this was in today's Post-Star:
Local restaurants, bistros doing the location shuffle

Published on 1/10/2007


SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A college professor once told Dawn Oesch that one out of every two new restaurants fail.

Oesch, president of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association, opened a gourmet chocolate store, The Candy Gram, in 1998 on Washington Street and has herself seen restaurants come and go.

"But most of these restaurants never failed -- like 43 Phila (Bistro)," she said. "It was open for several years, they had a good run and the owners wanted to do something else."

The Lenza family last month closed 43 Phila, known for elegance and fine dining, and has not announced plans to reopen at another spot.

Three other local restaurants have closed or will soon close their current locations, but their owners say they have not failed either, but are relocating.

The sign for Mino's Sushi House on Caroline Street came down and holiday wrapping paper covered the restaurant's windows in December. Owner Mino Kawaguchi said he plans to reopen a traditional, New York City-style Japanese restaurant as early as March.

"I'm just moving to a different location," he said. "I'm not 100 percent sure where, yet, maybe Beekman Street."

Kawaguchi opened the sushi restaurant 11 years ago at 47 Caroline St. The 47 Caroline building is currently being renovated, he said. Kawaguchi also owns Mino Sushi and Thai Restaurant in Colonie.

Restaurateur David Zecchini will move his Il Chianti Ristorante to the new The Lofts on Division Street.

"It's going to be on the ground floor and it's going to be gorgeous," Zecchini said. "I like creating something new -- I get tired, I get bored. Chianti needs excitement ... It is going to be a masterpiece."

Zecchini transformed a former Long John Silver's restaurant on South Broadway into Chianti, a fine Italian restaurant, almost a decade ago. He also owns Forno Bistro at 541 Broadway and Mare Ristorante at 17 Maple Ave., which opened in 2006.

The new Chianti location will be a block from Broadway and will open in November or December.

Scallions Restaurant on Broadway will move to 44 Lake Ave., across from the spot where a 128-room Hampton Inn will be built. The restaurant's current location is owned by the Fox family and located in the same building as N Fox Jewelers. The jewelry store is planning to expand.

The new Scallions Restaurant is scheduled to open early this year.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spoke with Mino yesterday. He says he will be back in Saratoga hopefully in March and plans on keeping his new place open in Colonie.

He shared with me some of his ideas for a new menu and it looks exciting. He also mentioned that he plans on adding live scallop to the menu!

1:43 PM  

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