Whether you live in Los Angeles, New York, or even overseas in the UK, there's a chance you've heard about Red Medicine. It's the group venture backed by Adam Fleischman of Umami, executed on the regular by chef Jordan Kahn and FOH partner Noah Ellis. You've heard of this Wilshire Boulevard non-traditional Vietnamese eatery because it's the restaurant that famously snapped a photo of LA Times Restaurant Critic S. Irene Virbila before ousting her from the eatery, and disseminating the image to press. Everybody heard about it. Everybody had an opinion. How does such an incident impact business one year later? Eater caught up with Ellis to chat harsh reviews, lessons learned, and the current state of Red Medicine.
How did Red Medicine come together? Jordan [Kahn] and I worked together for Michael Mina starting in San Francisco and worked through a few openings on the road. We became friends and after XIV, I kept travelling, but we hung out together while I was in LA and tossed around ideas. After a bit more than a year, we started really putting together some hard ideas. He met Adam [Fleischman], and introduced us, and then it started moving really quickly from there.
How was the build? Ugly. We made a lot of mistakes when we took over this space and throughout the build-out process hence the delays.
What did you learn? The lesson we took away (which Jordan and I knew from the beginning, but it was hammered home) is that you do things correctly the first time and save time and money. Penny-wise and pound-foolish is not the way to open a restaurant (or do anything, for that matter).
What were you thinking about in terms of design? I'm more of a function over form guy. We worked with Charisse Cardenas, who put together the design, and was awesome. As long as it made sense functionally, I knew that between her and Jordan, it would be great. They had their collective vision for the space. There was some butting of heads with all of us, as will happen during a personal project, but I think the final product is awesome.
What was the menu testing process like? Pretty limited. We opened Test Kitchen and ended up doing two series there, so that helped. By the time the kitchen was permitted, we had our opening scheduled in less than a week, so it happened on the fly during training, the end of construction, and right after opening.
Of course we have to discuss the SIV outing. Can you tell us your story behind that again? Sure, what's one more time? Beyond the fact that her understanding of the current dining scene is questionable at best, she beat up on Jordan's desserts at XIV in a manner that wasn't measured (and does so in a number of her reviews). She said that his dessert might have been one of the worst desserts she's ever tasted -- regardless whether it's good or bad, or if you like it or not, that's like saying something is "inedible." A rock is inedible. A piece of low-grade commercial pie that's been sitting out at room temperature in a diner for three weeks might be one of the worst desserts you've ever tasted. Let's be real here. Anyways, we decided about a year before we opened that we wouldn't serve her, but as preemptive proof, we'd take a photo and post it. A lot of people thought that we didn't have a table, and after we'd kept her waiting, we panicked and took the picture. That's absurd. We had to keep them (and a bunch of other tables that night) waiting because people were opening Christmas presents at tables, and our turn time was bad. Her group was standing in such a way that I couldn't get a good picture (you only get one chance), and the second they moved, I took it and the rest is history.
Do you think her outing affected other local critics' decision to review the restaurant? I guess either way it doesn't really matter -- it's their job to review restaurants, and they can't skip over restaurants that people are talking about or they run the risk of not being relevant.
Looking back on the outing one year later, do you think you made the right decision? If you could rewind time, would you do things differently? I honestly don't know. By the numbers, my thought is that we wouldn't have gotten a great review. I think at that point, we were MAYBE an OK restaurant at best. If we'd gotten a mediocre review, the end result would be worse. The press from a good review would have lasted for a few weeks, but that's about it. We got a lot of publicity from this, for better or worse. I can't say if I'd do it again, but I definitely would have been more clear with our thoughts on the matter at the time -- we were brand new, intensely busy, dealing with flooding in the restaurant from all the rain, and then on top of it, we had a ton of attention (our website received 1.6 million unique visitors that week and crashed -- which is incredible given that this happened on Tuesday, and Friday and Saturday were Christmas Eve and Day), so we didn't have the time to put together a well written response and handle all of the criticism we were getting. It brought a lot of haters out of the woodwork, which I think is hysterical. I bet you hit your quota on page-views from all of the comments. By the way, to those of you who are reading this and enraged, please continue leaving anonymous comments on all the Eater posts -- that shit makes my day. Maybe I can get a piece of the ad revenue?
How do you think that incident has affected the restaurant over the past year? Within three months, it wasn't a big deal. Some guests asked about it or made the hilarious sarcastic joke: "I'm a food critic, are you going to kick me out?" That dwindled pretty quickly though.
After opening, did Jordan make any changes to the menu? He's been changing the menu consistently, one or two items at a time since we opened. A few months in, we made the plates larger and changed the structure of the menu, as a way to respond to how our guests were interacting with the restaurant.
Has the neighborhood embraced the restaurant? The residential neighborhood has to some extent at the bar. I don't know that you could eat in the dining room four nights a week, but we get a lot of regulars who walk over a few times each week. The restaurant neighborhood definitely has -- Bazaar, Bouchon, CUT, Spago, Mastro's, Jinya, and staff from a ton of other restaurants nearby come in frequently after work.
Six months in, what changed? Nothing right at six months, it's been an evolution. One of the nice things with this restaurant - as opposed to other groups we've worked for - is that we don't have this pendulum-style management of the restaurant where we get a complaint, a bad review, or whatever, and then completely change something, then when it doesn't work a week or two later, or it's not cost effective, immediately change it back. We look at the numbers, the responses, and what we believe the concept should be, and make a calculated decision. Once we make the decision, we stick by it for a pre-determined length of time, before analyzing it to decide to keep it.
Why did you decide to discontinue lunch service?The business levels at lunch were completely unpredictable. To be profitable, we had to run pretty lean, but then we'd get popped and provide a bad experience. That's no way to operate. At the time we were only doing full dinner five nights a week, so we decided to devote that effort to dinner, where we could better predict what was going to happen through reservations. It ended up being a great move and we get to come in to work later, which is great when you close at 2AM.
Does it seem like it's been a year? Depends on the day. Sometimes it feels like it's been three months, sometimes like it's been ten years. Are we still on Deathwatch from when we opened? How about when we stopped serving lunch?
What's the must order dish of the moment? I'm loving the winter peas, the amberjack, and the carrots. Jordan has a way with vegetables that complements the style of the restaurant.
What's on tap for the future? Tough to say. We're really hitting our stride here now. I think there are other things that we each are doing or want to do, but for now, Red Medicine is the focus.
·All One Year In Coverage [~ELA~]
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