In anticipation of a long, hot and unprofitable summer, Aries, the fine dining flagship of chef Scott Tycer's restaurant group, closed its doors a few weeks ago. A lower-priced restaurant called Pic, also run by Tycer, has just opened in the same space at 4315 Montrose.
The change comes as a shock to many Houston food lovers. Tycer received a lot of accolades at Aries. In 2003, he appeared on the cover of Food & Wine as one of America's top ten new chefs. Aries received the Best Restaurant title in the Houston Press Best of Houston issue of 2004. It was a restaurant that people took seriously.
I called Tycer up and asked him what happened.
"Aries was suffering from a lack of business and a lack of my attention," he said. "Aries never made a penny -- it broke even except for the Super Bowl year. We paid the salaries, paid the bills, but in its sixth year it wasn't getting the customers it was getting before. My people started cutting corners; they didn't care. My talent pool was watered down -- nobody was coming in eager to do the work. Everything was becoming a joke. I just simplified my life. I'm hoping Pic is going to be more profitable, but it's a different commitment, too. It will free me up. I want to do a cafe concept. But I also made the mistake of not providing myself a good quality of life. It was the source of pressure between my wife and me."
"Where did your customers go?" I asked him. "What does this say about the Houston fine dining scene?"
"Houstonians have so many different options -- so many choices," Tycer explained. "They go where the new interesting room is -- Gravitas is a nice space -- it attracts a fickle crowd. Bistro Moderne -- how long does it take to burn out a restaurant like that? You're looking at a $3.5 million build-out. The current shelf life of a Houston restaurant is five years."
"Are you going reopen Aries somewhere else?"
"Maybe, if we find the right space," Tycer said. "It would work better in a smaller space and with a more expensive build-out. Aries would have been a great restaurant at 50 seats instead of 70; the square footage kills you when it's empty. After we opened Gravitas, I re-examined the whole thing. I took the average ticket at Gravitas and compared it to Aries, and I saw that Aries was much higher."
"What was the average ticket?"
"The Gravitas average ticket is at about $42. Aries was in the $80s -- it was a wine restaurant. But you can't sell red wine in the summer in Houston. I tried to switch to a different system in the summer -- smaller dishes -- but it didn't work."
"What's the price point at Pic?"
"I aimed for an average dinner ticket of around $32."
"That's less than half of the dinner tab at Aries -- closer to a third. Why such a drastic drop?"
"I examined who our clientele was at Aries -- and it was Memorial and River Oaks people. The neighborhood people weren't coming in anymore -- the faces Monica [Pope] and I used to share. I felt like we niched ourselves as a fine dining restaurant in the middle of Montrose. I looked at Marco [Wiles], he opened a pizzeria [Dolce Vita], and it took off. And here I was still trying to do advanced French techniques at Aries, and it wasn't going anywhere. But for a lower price point, the location of Aries was perfect. Now I want to do something the neighborhood wants: something cheaper with great quality."
"So what's Pic serving?"
"Pic is an ingredient-forward restaurant -- I buy great free-range chickens, brine them, rub them with Hungarian smoked paprika [pimentn] and roast them," Tycer said. "We sell simple appetizers -- raclette [melted Swiss cheese] with fig jam and arugula, light refreshing gazpacho with sea salt. I am not going to overcompose. I was putting myself out there instead of the ingredients. Now, at a lower price point, we are putting the ingredients out there. At lunch we do smoothies and juices. We're offering healthier stuff -- putting it in the forefront."
"From foie gras to health food?" I asked. "What's that all about?"
"I did a week in Washington State at this place with a bunch of freaky vegetarians. Lots of juice and healthy stuff. I detoxed my body. For the first time in years I woke up with an erection every morning."
"You sure you want to say that in print?"
"Sure," he said.
"So are you a health nut now?"
"No, I'm back to my usual routine of three espressos in the morning and wine at night."
"You're doing hamburgers at Pic?"
"Yeah, but I'll tell you what -- the first time somebody calls me a hamburger man, I may reopen Aries. I find the fine dining craft more what I want to be known for."
"Hey, I'm a hamburger man and proud of it. So what are you putting on your burger?"
"It's real simple. We grill an eight-ounce Certified Angus beef patty, put foraged mushrooms -- you know, the best noncultivated mushrooms we can buy -- on top, some Vidalia or Texas sweet onion slices, and then melt provolone over it. We serve it on a real sourdough bun we bake over at Kraftsmen bakery."
"French fries in cones?"
"No, no french fries. Roasted potatoes."
"And what have you got to drink?"
"Well, we have this watermelon smoothie that I love. We put black tapioca balls in it -- you know, like you get in bubble tea, so they look like the watermelon seeds. And then we put a collar of Midori around the top to look like the rind."
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"Anything with rum?"
"Yeah, I'm finally getting into cocktails. I know I'm a little late."
"What's your best cocktail?"
"You know, there used to be fig orchards in the Fourth and Fifth Ward back in the day. Figs were huge in Houston. So we're making our own fig liqueur and then mixing it with Gosling's rum and ginger beer. It's called a fig tree."