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Fall Dining 2021: Squid, Labor, Upscale Eats & New Listings

In Culture
FRESH CATCH: Scott’s Seafood GM Sammy Reyes planned a new restaurant during the pandemic, but low squid catches weren’t part of the plan. (photo courtesy of Scott's Seafood)

FRESH CATCH: Scott’s Seafood GM Sammy Reyes planned a new restaurant during the pandemic, but low squid catches weren’t part of the plan. (photo courtesy of Scott's Seafood)

SQUID GAME

By Mike Huguenor

The pandemic has forced all of us to adapt in ways we never anticipated. At the venerable Bay Area institution Scott’s Seafood, it brought about a new identity that is quickly growing in size and scale to rival the restaurant itself: Scott’s Chowder House, a smaller, more affordable to-go style restaurant concept.

“Now our best competitor is ourselves,” says Operations Manager Robert Rivera.

While Scott’s Seafood remains a go-to spot for high-end favorites like Alaskan halibut and wild caught Maine lobster tail, the smaller, more nimble Scott’s Chowder House focuses on more affordable items that travel well, like chowders, lobster rolls and salads, as well as frozen foods to be reheated at a later date. The new direction reflects the seismic shifts that have rocked the restaurant industry over the last year and a half, including a move away from indoor dining towards delivery, to-go and fast casual.

“Sometimes, you have to adjust,” says Sammy Reyes, Scott’s General Manager in San Jose.

Thus far, the adjustment appears to have been successful. In short order, Scott’s has gone from losing its iconic South Bay location to becoming an empire.

This July, the second Scott’s Chowder House opened on the corner of Market and St. John in San Jose. A third opened in San Francisco the following month, putting the restaurant group back in its first hometown, and a food truck prowls the peninsula between. Plans for another San Francisco location are already in the works, as are additional locations in Southern California and Nevada, all of which stem from the team at the San Jose location (Scott’s in Oakland and the Sacramento area operate independently). 

The new restaurant line is the result of some creative teamwork on the part of Reyes and owner Steve Mayer.

“It was a collaboration,” Reyes says. “He had always wanted to take the Scott’s name and expand it. I was the one who created the menu.”

Reyes has been with Scott’s since 2003, and joined the San Jose staff in 2008. Then in its previous location on Park Ave, Scott’s was stately, with an air of glassy elegance. However, it’s menu was not designed for a world where people primarily order food for delivery. 

“There’s certain types of food that are definitely not to-go,” Reyes says.

He singles out the Seafood Sautee—a creamy dish of scallops, prawns and Dungeness Crab sauteed in wine, garlic and butter—as a particularly difficult dish to convey effectively via delivery.

“If you travel maybe 5-10 minutes away from here, it’s going to be ok, but if you’re traveling more than that…I don’t want to sell them that,” he says.

To adjust to the new reality, Reyes went to work focusing a menu around deliverable items that stayed true to the restaurant’s existing palette. Building on the success of its award-winning Boston clam chowder, soups became an early focus.

“The whole idea behind it is we wanted to do many different types of soups,” he says. “Who doesn’t love soups? Everybody loves soups, especially chowders.” 

The original Scott’s Seafood Grill and Bar opened in San Francisco in 1976, taking its name from its location on Scott Street in the Marina District (there is no man named “Scott” behind it all). The restaurant’s prior San Jose location on Park opened five years later in 1981, and closed last January after the whole block sold in a massive development deal with Jay Paul Co. A week later, in February 2020, Scott’s Seafood moved into the historic Twohy Building at 200 S First Street. The move came just over two weeks after the first known case of COVID-19 in the US. A few weeks after that came the county’s first lockdown order.

After an initial delay, the current Scott’s Seafood opened this July, followed by the flagship Scott’s Chowder House four months later. Though that restaurant has been successful enough to inspire multiple new locations, even opening a to-go style business during a global respiratory pandemic has presented many problems—from staffing, to training, to issues on the supply side.

“Sometimes we have to 86 things off the menu because you can’t get it,” Reyes says. “Right now, we’re having a hard time getting calamari. For some reason, there’s a huge shortage of calamari.”

That shortage is very real. As of May, only 5 million pounds of longfin squid (regularly used in dishes like calamari) had landed in the US’s east coast this year, down more than half from the 11 million pounds by that time in 2020. Though that number has since caught up a bit, 2020’s total number of landed Atlantic longfin was still down roughly 6-7 million from 2019.

That shortage is possibly traceable to another shortage. In June, Seafood Source reported that a shortage in labor—as well as an increase in the cost of transportation and packaging—had driven up the price on items like squid, crab and North Atlantic lobster by as much as 100%

In Reyes’s experience, one item in particular jumped even more than that. 

“Dungeness crab,” he says. “Dungeness crab went from being $20 a pound, to being $75 a pound.”

In addition to the occasional item getting 86’ed, the result of it all is some notably fluctuating prices. Many items at Scott’s are sold “AQ,” or market price. These days, that price is less than stable. 

“Every day, the market and the prices are changing. Depending on the price, we have to adjust ours,” Reyes says.

Roberto Rivera, who oversees much behind the scenes at Scott’s, says the whole day-to-day approach to running a restaurant has changed as well.

“People’s expectations changed dramatically,” he says. “It isn’t just taking the food and making it to go, it’s changing all the operations and services and adjusting to the new model.”

The biggest one of those adjustments is by now a familiar one: the sudden generational gap between those accustomed to the previous way of doing things, and those raised in a new world filled with a multitude of new apps, technologies and social conventions.

“You have to take care of that, to make the service good and fulfil the customers’ expectations,” 

Rivera says. “It’s a challenge. But my point of view is: we’re going to be really good for people.”

 

HELP WANTED

By Katie Lauer

 

Where did the thousands of chefs, line cooks and servers buzzing around Silicon Valley’s corporate kitchens go after the pandemic closed campuses 19 months ago?

Los Gatos restaurateur Alex Hult doesn’t know, adding yet another thorn in his side working in an industry plagued by constant hiring, training and turnover. 

Hult, founder and CEO of Flights restaurants, has reimagined his Bay Area operations with more tech-driven service and boosted wages in the meantime, but he says unaffordable child care, health care and overall costs of living have driven his industry’s workers both physically out of Silicon Valley and into better paying fields. Some restaurant workers shared anecdotes about spoiled younger folks without any drive, while others just aren’t looking to keep grinding in front of a hot stove all day for cheap.

But those aren’t dilemmas with Hult’s crew working at the fifth Flights location in Las Vegas, who he says are able to comfortably work five days across from the Bellagio fountain and pay their mortgages, since its opening in July 2019.

On top of that issue, the former hockey player-turned-foodie has to somehow balance his books while paying double for shipments of food, hours of people’s time and culinary tools while not increasing menu prices so much that he loses diners.

“It’s basically survival trying to get through,” Hult says. “The market is out of whack right now, and I don’t know if it’s going to ever normalize. This is all going to start a cycle downwards, I think. It’s pretty alarming.”

“HELP WANTED” signs are pasted in windows and headlines decrying worker shortages are inescapable, but restaurant owners and managers say a “death spiral” ecosystem behind the scenes of restaurants will take more than wooing staff through their doors with higher wages.

Hult predicts even decades-old restaurants will start going out of business once the government’s PPP loans, revitalization funds and tax credits that have subsidized a “blood line” for the industry fizzle out. He should know; he took over the former Mountain Charley’s venue as a partner in Immersive: Los Gatos. 

Hult says increasing minimum wages is a must so his employees can survive, but without another functioning business model in place, Hult says too much blame has been focused on restaurants not paying workers enough. 

“I would love to pay all my employees $30 or $40 an hour, but then they wouldn’t have a job six months later,” Hult says. “I also don’t want them to have to work two jobs for five or six days a week, sleep a few hours and come back and do it again. That’s not a life—that’s not sustainable.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 280,000 positions were added to the leisure and hospitality sector in March, but its unemployment rate remained around 13%. Data show that there are millions of empty job openings without enough job seekers to fill them.

That’s why Saad Malik, a biomedical engineering student at San Jose State University and waiter at a Bay Area pizza joint, says he and his colleagues feel like they have more authority to decide if a job is worth it—from covering hectic shifts for flaky coworkers and sacrificing dignity being accosted by obnoxious customers, to risking increased exposure to getting Covid-19. Being understaffed in a pizza shop isn’t as extreme as what people are experiencing in Amazon warehouses or Kellog’s cereal manufacturing plants, the 19-year-old says, but the stressful aspects of the job should still be addressed.

“I feel like I don’t have any help and it causes a lot of tension,” Malik says. “It does seem like I am getting screwed over, because the pay should be a little bit more if there’s not many staff there.”

He’s not sure this mentality would’ve taken over without the pandemic laying bare wage imbalances. 

“It’s good to be selfish, because if you’re just going to settle, it’s not going to be right,” he says. “I think that’s why people are now starting to incorporate that sense of ‘my worth.’ If other people can do that, why can’t I do that, too?”

In San Pedro Square, Bob Cina is down to half the number of staff he employed at District wine, whiskey and cocktail bar before the pandemic. The culinary director and executive chef partner chuckles when talking about how restaurant gigs have always been grueling and low-paying, recalling his almost three decades working in Bay Area kitchens. 

He’s noticed that younger workers are prioritizing higher earning job opportunities in what he called a generational shift—slashing the number of servers, line staff, drivers and producers that send in applications. 

“There is so much opportunity out there that maybe they can switch occupations or look into something different,” he says. “Back when I was very young, every single person I worked with had this drive and love for cooking, and I feel like you don’t see that as much anymore. It’s sort of been over-glorified on television shows.”

Financially, Cina says the restaurant industry’s vendors are doubling prices of produce and supplies—flank steak, dairy, frying oil, Topo Chico in the glass bottles. Cina’s hands are sometimes tied to recovering costs through higher priced menus.

Cina says District is only open five days a week to maintain staffing levels, yet estimates he’s pulling his hair out one of those days. Cina’s been asking himself for years how anyone is supposed to escape and gain financial traction in the industry. At this point, he doesn’t have a clue when to expect his days to get any easier.

“It’s just a shit show all the way around,” Cina says. “We have to produce food and get plates out to people, the same way we would have to if there was a full staff. It’s difficult, but it’s like being in show business—the show must go on.”

When managers like Hult and Cina can’t hire more staff, toxic work environments are prompting the people still on payroll to consider finding new work. A September report from the nonprofit One Fair Wage and UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center reported 53% of service workers were considering leaving due to low wages, while 78% said their employment in restaurants was contingent on living wages on top of tips.

That’s the exact experience plaguing one local barista, who was hesitant to have their name printed in Metro, nervous of possible retaliation or a lost job.

They recalled shifts when managers refused breaks to “push through” peak hour customer rushes, eventually only granting 10 minutes during a 8-hour shift in order to tackle the shift’s seemingly tasks and requirements. 

“There’s too many customers, not enough staff to take care of them and then people get upset,” they said. “No one is happy about that—not the customers and not the workers. It’s exhausting, that’s not how it should be.”

The animation student is glad more people are talking about labor issues, especially when making monthly rent payments is sometimes tricky at the apartment they share with three other roommates near campus. A recent raise didn’t make much of a big difference.

“A lot of people quit their jobs, spent a lot more time with themselves and started caring more about their own well being,” they said. “Before it was like, ‘Oh well, everything’s shit but you just have to deal with it,’ and I think that’s messed up. Now people are normalizing the fact that these are basic human rights and things that you deserve to have as a worker.”

From an owner’s perspective, Hult predicts that the South Bay’s eateries that manage to keep their lights on will be the ones who can afford to pay higher wages and raise prices.

“That’s how the system gets fixed,” Hult says, “but it’s going to be on the backs of the little people, which is what I hate.”

 

DINING IS BACK

by Dan Pulcrano

From a foodie perspective, the pandemic wasn’t a complete washout. Restaurants spilled into streets and parking lots with new outdoor dining areas, bringing new carless zones to downtowns and a little bit of Paris to the valley. A party of two could experience the cuisine of the valley’s most decorated Michelin restaurant for under $200. And we became better home chefs.

While making the best of a sheltered situation, however, it was obvious that something was amiss. While our life crisis didn’t require as much sacrifice as surviving on boiled cabbage and potatoes during the bombing of London, we couldn’t go on forever eating lukewarm entrees from plastic containers. 

Luckily the civilized experience of dining with carefully arranged silverware came roaring back as enough people got their shots. And just around the time the public remembered that it was better to sip smoky cocktails out of crystal tumblers than Mason jars, the French culinary mafia started sprinkling stardust again. 

Selby’s of Atherton and Redwood City’s Sushi Shin captured first time Michelin stars and San Jose’s Adega recovered the one that was shorn in 2018. Chef David Costa’s ambitious menu celebrated summer’s end with deep dives into wild mushrooms and shaved truffles.

At three-star Manresa, the staff once again emerged from the kitchen like performers from behind a stage curtain to present art-glazed ceramics and flowers dancing on salads. And exciting additions to the culinary scene like Jeffrey Stout’s BE.STÉAK.Ă and Flowers Saratoga ensured that destination dining in the  South Bay will continue to grow.

Just starting to be discovered is Ty Blana’s Epernay Bistro, which somehow managed to sneak 6000 bottles of wine into a small brick-walled building on Los Gatos’ Main Street and capture a Wine Spectator award just three weeks after opening.  With a 47-page single-spaced wine list and a deeper bubbly selection than many Manhattan champagne bars, the French bistro opened in May and the reservation wait has finally eased a bit.

The 30-year-old former Nintendo exec came to Silicon Valley via a Thomas Keller restaurant in Napa. Blana, who’s chef, owner and sommelier, says he’s heading back to the kitchen to craft a new menu. Emblematic of a new, hard working generation of chefs, Epernay is among the emerging signs that the post-pandemic dining scene is still in its infancy and will bring a new era of dining experiences to the valley’s dining enthusiasts.

 

 

LISTINGS – NEW RESTAURANTS

by

Katie Lauer

Steve Palopoli

Mike Huguenor

 

Taste of Persia

This new spot on Tully quickly got notice from local foodies looking for something different—a Persian place that specializes in sandwiches. You can still get a kebab, but in sandwich form (if that’s too jarring, you can still get a kabob plate, as well). The other offerings range from traditional—the Olvieh is a kind of potato-salad sandwich—to a range of steak sandwiches that cross and blur any specific identity. Never forget the house sauce. (SP)

2011 Tully Rd., San Jose. 408-493-5978. tasteofpersian.com

 

Kokodek

For true foodies, KFC only stands for one thing: Korean Fried Chicken. It’s been trending for years, but just when it seems like it might go out of style, somebody comes back with a new crispier and even more flavorful take. Kokodek has quickly earned a following in San Jose for packing a punch with green onion mustard, honey nut and soy garlic—and, of course, sweet and sour—flavors. The small but eclectic menu also features a whole fried Cornish hen, Oden Soup, Spicy Rice Cake and more. (SP)

385 Kiely Boulevard, San Jose. 669-307-1005. kokodekchicken.com

 

One Fish Raw Bar

193 E Campbell Ave, Campbell

Has Campbell dining gone glam? It’s not just the Pruneyard that’s pulling in Michelin-level talent now that One Fish Raw Bar has opened downtown. Chef Trent Lidgey, who first made his mark at San Francisco’s two-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn before wowing at Lexington House in Los Gatos, is already drawing raves the seafood creations at his new Campbell Avenue venture. The constantly cycling menu is letting Lidgey indulge some of the passions he could only hint at in LG; from a popular lobster roll to an Asian take on Hamachi to $175 Osetra caviar, the offerings are the ultimate chef’s choice. (SP)

193 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell, 408-540-7418. onefishcampbell.com

 

Shihlin

2855 Stevens Creek Blvd, Santa Clara

Usually when you see long lines at Valley Fair, it’s because Kendall and Kylie Jenner are at PacSun, or Hot Topic is dropping its new Hex Girls collection. But these days it’s likely because Taiwanese street food has come to the mall. As Valley Fair’s billion-dollar-plus expansion continues to roll out, it seems to have hit the jackpot with Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks, a chain modeled on Taipei’s Shihlin Night Market that has wowed the Bay Area with the authenticity (and sheer deliciousness) of its menu. The jewel in its crown is the XXL Chicken, which is marinated and fried to a crisp. There’s also Oyster Mee Sua, rice boxes and more to choose from, as Shihlin takes over the world, one plum-powder-dusted fry at a time. (SP)

2855 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara, 669-270-1688. shihlinca.com 

 

Dough Zone Dumpling House

19600 Vallco Pkwy Suite 130, Cupertino

How do you like your dumplings? Pan-fried, steamed, boiled or cooked at home? Pop over to Cupertino to pop open bamboo steamers of traditional Chinese comfort foods at Dough Zone Dumpling House. At the small Seattle chain’s first South Bay location, snag an order of the “xiao long bao” soup dumplings or “q-bao” pan-fried buns—dishes packed with pork, crab meat and aspic for a punch of juicy flavor. Other traditional bites include sweet and sour cucumber salad, marinated pig ears, mango pancakes and their signature peppercorn “dan dan” noodles, which are a crispy, spicy and “numbing” Szechuan specialty. (KL)

19600 Vallco Pkwy Suite 130, Cupertino. 408-882-1999. doughzonedumplinghouse.com

 

Shephard & Sims

15970 Los Gatos Blvd, Los Gatos

Local restaurateurs James and Angelique Stump have brought their vision of eating well back to Los Gatos: a high-end menu of seasonal foods the duo like and want to eat any given day, except Monday and Tuesday. Start munching on crunchy and tart pickled fried green tomatoes before dining on a $10 chuck and brisket burger with bacon onion jam, homemade bread and butter pickles and awesome sauce—dubbed the best in California by one Yelper. What about a marinated half chicken? Maybe duck with croquettes and peaches for $32? Dollop a bit of caviar on top, just for fun. (KL)

15970 Los Gatos Blvd., Los Gatos. 408-414-5312. sandslosgatos.com

 

Shosha 

141 S Murphy Ave, Sunnyvale

Amber India has long ruled North Indian-style fine dining in the South Bay, but Navleen Jaggi of Shosha is aiming to change that. From the ambience to the menu, Shosa’s name—Punjabi for “show off—fits it perfectly. If you’re tired of the crispy cauliflower craze, Shosha offers some truly inventive appetizers (Alu Tuk Pops, Amritsari Fish Popcorn) to warm you up for top-shelf takes on Butter Chicken (including a vegetarian Butter Paneer version), Chicken Tikka Masala and Smoky Baingan Bharta. (SP) 

141 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale, 510-378-3775. shosarestaurant.com

 

Flowers

14577 Big Basin Way, Saratoga

Angelo Heropoulous has had success with restaurants around the South Bay, but he seems to have fallen especially hard for Saratoga in 2019 when he opened Hero Ranch Kitchen on the hallowed dining ground once home to Sent Sovi on Big Basin Way. Within a year—and amidst the pandemic—he was opening HRK’s sister restaurant Flowers right next door. Heropoulous’ new endeavor is even more upscale, with possibly the most chic vibe on the street. The cocktails—from the Omani Gimlet to the Cantarito to the Japanese whiskey, green-tea soda and apricot alchemy known as the Hidden Fortress—are remarkable, while the menu slides from Peri Peri Chicken Lollipops and Octopus Carpaccio all the way up to 7oz. Wagyu Filet and 38oz. Tomahawk Steak. 

14577 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, 408-647-2242. Flowerssaratoga.com

 

 

Sam and Curry

1751 N 1st St #40, San Jose

Sam and Curry is a new take on Indian food people are comparing to an “Indian Chipotle.” Funded by the same investors behind the quickly-multiplying Ike’s Sandwiches chain, Sam and Curry is defined by customization, letting each customer make their own perfect to-go meal with Indian burritos, tacos, salad and rice bowls packed with delicious meats and chutneys, freshly made roti and yoghurts to cool it down—or jalapenos to kick it up a notch. With most entrees clocking in around $10, Sam & Curry is also one of the more affordable new options around. (MH)

1751 N 1st St. #40, San Jose. 669-242-7956. samandcurry.com 

 

Bloom

202 Saratoga Ave, Santa Clara

Bloom is a roadside diner turned “upscale,” where Reza Manion, a Santa Clara native and kin of Sara’s Kitchen,  serves up “America’s favorite” brunch classics. Whether ordering the chicken and waffles, croissant french toast or one of the range of “benes”—a fancy name for eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, bacon avocado, Spanish chorizo and veggies—there’s a menu item to satisfy sweet and savory cravings alike. Dive into deep fried chile verde chilaquiles con huevos, corned beef hash or a French ham and cheese “croque madame” sammy. The $15 to $24 meals and specialty cocktails are steep but hearty. (KL)

202 Saratoga Ave., Santa Clara. 408-345-2667. bloomeatery.com

 

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