"We're giving the guests a chance to have a world-class culinary experience after seeing world-class art, whether it be by a cocktail or a butternut squash sorbet."
When Saul Bolton opened his namesake restaurant on Smith Street in 1999, he didn't expect to become a Brooklyn institution home to one of the borough's three Michelin stars. Yet fourteen years later he's now the head of two other spots—The Vanderbilt and Red Gravy—and he held that star seven years running until recently, when he closed his doors and moved his staff to the Brooklyn Museum, reopening Saul in a completely renovated space.
The doors officially opened October 19th, with lunch and dinner of Saul classics up and running and a counter café menu coming soon. Bolton still owns the building on Smith Street, which will eventually house a new undeveloped project, and unfortunately Michelin stars don't transfer. But for now he's got his hands full welcoming old patrons and forming new relationships—with locals, tourists, and the art itself.
Your building on Smith Street was home for 14 years. Were you planning on renovating or moving before this opportunity came up? We weren't planning to close, but the offer for the museum sort of came out of nowhere. Unbeknownst to us the Brooklyn Museum was interested in us for a long time, and then Restaurant Associates proposed Saul because we're "so Brooklyn." I've lived in Brooklyn longer than I've lived anywhere in my life, 18 years. I've raised my children here and very much feel like part of the community. Many of the members of the board of the museum were already regular Saul customers, so it was immediately thought that we'd be the perfect fit.
There's been a lot of community investment in this part of Brooklyn, and when the opportunity arose it seemed exciting. Of course there's a certain bit of risk in it, too. Across the river Danny Meyer is a whole different universe; I'm still a little guy coming into an institution like The Modern. But the possibility of it being the place where I could spend another 14 years really appeals. Logistically, the restaurant group has given us a lot of support to bring the spirit of Saul into the museum. I can't thank them enough for that.
Your space has expanded somewhat dramatically. Is there anything happening now that wasn't possible before? The kitchen is much larger so, for example, now we have an area where the pastry can be put together carefully, whereas at the old Saul pastry was very much a part of the salad station where it gets hot (and we had no air conditioning)! So it's less difficult, logistically speaking. And we have some equipment that we've always wanted like a convi oven—a convection oven that can steam—that everybody loves. And a pacojet ice cream maker, which I could never justify enough for my wife to get one.
Can we see the changes on our plates? There's nothing necessarily you couldn't eat before, but the execution of it is a little less difficult. Like before when we made ice cream we would have to have an entire batch done around noon so it could freeze for a couple of hours, whereas with the pacojet we can now make four portions at a time with the perfect consistency, ready to roll. We're splitting hairs a little bit. Maybe it's more exciting for us!
That's fair, too! But on the other hand, has the move presented any problems? We're still getting used to it. There were definitely a couple of nights recently we'd look at each other and go, "Man, at the old space we'd be able to do the same covers with two fewer people." The food is the same but it just seems more difficult at times. But I liken it to a dance partner; if you've been dancing with the same person for a long time you've got a chemistry, and a new dance partner may be technically incredible, but it's not natural yet. So I think it's just a case of getting used to it. In the long run it's going to be much better than the old Saul, but the quality of the food, for an opening, is excellent. The execution has been awesome.
How are your new surroundings taken into consideration? We haven't had the chance to go through the exhibitions as a team to be influenced by them yet, but in the future as exhibitions come and go we will do things geared specifically towards them. But the wonderful thing now from the food standpoint is that customers can see and experience fantastic art and then come and eat and have food that's executed with great love. We're giving the guests a chance to have a world-class culinary experience after seeing world-class art, whether it be a cocktail or a butternut squash sorbet.
How are guests different? All my old customers are back, driving out here, and then we're close to Prospect Heights and Park Slope, so there's the old contingent. And we've had plenty of new customers from across the street coming in. It's unique, and something that's going to take a prolonged effort to build new relationships and sustain the old ones. I'm aided greatly by my team members in the front of the house who are great with people. Customers remember them and have great relationships with them and vice versa.
It feels significant. It will be a great accomplishment if we can come into the museum, open it up to lunch and dinner, transition the café, smooth things out, and are able to come out and stick our heads up out of the water in January or February and go, "Wow, I can't believe we did this. This is crazy." It's a cool thing.