For openers, pay attention to the details


May 12, 1991|By ROB KASPER

When you open a restaurant, you sweat the small stuff.

That is what I discovered the other day when I went to lunch with Lenny Kaplan and Ed Dopkin, operators of the Pavilion, the new restaurant at the Hackerman House, the Walters Art Gallery's Museum of Asian Art. It was the second day of operation for the 130-seat, lunch-only restaurant.

Before I got there, I had a vision of what eating lunch with the owners of a new restaurant would be like. I thought we would all sit around like royalty, feasting, discussing the sweet life and being fawned over.

That was pretty much what the experience was like for me. I sat in a big airy room. I polished off a remarkable squid appetizer which I dipped in a peppery dipping sauce. I moved on to a satisfying grilled chicken and spinach salad.

Unlike so many salads in my past, this one actually tasted like food, not green filler. I even thought the iced tea was exceptional. As for fawning, the waiter gave me a second glass of iced tea before my first one was completely drained.

My tab, which included a slab of New York cheesecake and coffee, came to about $20. Not cheap, but after all this was not mere grub, this was cuisine.

But while I was reveling, my dining companions were worrying. I looked around the room and saw people enjoying their lunch. Kaplan and Dopkin looked around the room and saw details that needed attention.

When Dopkin finished up some shrimp and pasta, Kaplan immediately leaned over the table and asked, "What did you think of the size of portion? I just moved it up an ounce to six ounces." After some consultation, Dopkin agreed it was the right size.

Earlier, Dopkin had looked up and seen some customers gingerly negotiating the sweeping stairs that lead down into the restaurant. "We should put some signs up there that let people know there is an elevator they could use," Dopkin said. "Some people won't ask."

And then there was the question of what the restaurant space used to be. Some of the waiters were telling customers it used to be a street, others said it was garden. "It was a garden of the Hackerman House," Kaplan told curious customers being seated a nearby table.

He and Dopkin agreed that they had to lean on Robert P. Bergman, director of the Walters, to write a one-page history of the site. Then they could give the restaurant staff the official history.

Then the coffee wasn't hot. Or so Kaplan said. He saw the problem before I tasted the coffee. When he didn't see steam coming out of the fancy metal pots that the coffee was poured from, he knew there was trouble. He sent the waiter back to get some steaming stuff.

Moreover, Kaplan knew the source of the problem. It was the fancy pot. The coffee was brewed in an urn; then, as a grace note, it was poured into a fancy metal pots where it sat around and cooled off.

Kaplan and Dopkin told each other they would fix the coffee problem. And while they were at it, they would fix the coffee pot. It leaked when it poured.

Kaplan and Dopkin are veterans of the food-service business. For the past 10 years Dopkin's family operated the Catering People, an enterprise that last fall merged with Kaplan's Classic Catering operation. The combined operation, called Classic Catering People, has its commissary in Owings Mills.

And by their own informal count, Kaplan and his wife, Gail, have opened eight other restaurants in Baltimore over the years. They opened three restaurants in the Belvedere Hotel: the John Eager Howard Room, the Owl Bar, the 13th Floor. They opened the old 3900 (North Charles) restaurant, the new Pimlico restaurant, the Other Place in Pikesville, a restaurant in the Oregon Ridge

Dinner Theater and the Polo Grill in the Colonnade.

So my lunch companions knew that as restaurant openings go, this one was pretty smooth. Even though the dishwasher had already broken once, and was working on an hour-to-hour basis.

They felt that they had a good location. And that even though the kitchen was small -- it used to be the ground floor of a carriage house -- it was keeping up with the demands of a 130-seat, lunch-only restaurant. (Open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays.) And they felt that with a kitchen in the museum and a commissary in Owings Mills, they were in terrific position to cater big parties at the Walters.

But try as they might to think "big picture," they couldn't keep their eyes off the details.

At the end of lunch Gail Kaplan sat down at the table to chat with me. I noticed she was looking over my shoulder. Suddenly, in mid-sentence she stopped, pulled out a pen and pad and started to write a note to herself.

"Gail! Don't worry," said Dopkin, who already knew what offending detail she had spotted. "The glass racks, right?" said Dopkin, referring to some plastic racks that had been parked under the stairs. Such "unsightly" racks should not been seen by the customers. They should be kept in the kitchen. Everybody at the table knew that.

But there was no room in the kitchen for racks. Dopkin said he would find the racks a new, hidden home.

Lunch ended. Everyone smiled and said goodbye. Dopkin and Ms. Kaplan went off to check about a catering job. Lenny Kaplan said he was going to play golf. But he felt the urge to move a few tables. Just a few inches. So they looked just right.

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