Lists are my sanity. Making them, seeking them, referring back to them as often as I can, crossing them off, and repeating the process over again. If you live by them (particularly those of the silent badgering To Do variety) just as much as I do, you’d understand how essential they are for processing a multitude of things at once. On my desk right now is a shopping list of groceries that hadn’t made the day’s delivery, a list of phone calls and emails to return, a list of pros and cons (of a deeply personal matter that needn’t be divulged here), a list of places visited and remembered in Paris this past Labor Day, a list of neglected lists from previous weeks (ranked of course by priority), a list of goals for Ruxbin written in shorthand, and a crumpled up prep list Eddy must have left behind at some point.
But lists are also my repose. There is nothing I enjoy greater than combing through somebody’s cherished book list, playlist, or bucket list. While there is hardly any time for watching movies these days, I still like to check the box office list from time to time to see the weekend gross. There is something very gratifying about making your way down a list. The cognitive leg work of sorting things out has already been done, leaving you with the easy option to relate or dissociate.
Which brings me to a rather momentous list that’s recently touched our lives here at Ruxbin. The abridged version is that we were fortunate enough to experience the “popular new kid” phase last summer when we first opened our doors, as evidenced by the frequency of nights we’d run out of tables. And luckily, our passage into the “old news” bit wasn’t so painful, as we were still filling capacity with ease on most nights. But the “hottest newest” effect was in truth beginning to wear off midsummer. At first, we’d reason that we were experiencing slow season in Chicago just like everybody else. Who would want to be cooped up inside on a warm summer night anyway? Summertime is numbered in this city, and if we weren’t ourselves tied to running a restaurant we’d be at the lake with our coolers too. But to be honest, the dip in covers had some of us a little concerned.
In a surprising turn of events a mere week after addressing this eventual slowdown, we were named 5th Best New Restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit in their highly regarded restaurant issue. I imagine most consider these rankings and Top Ten lists arbitrary to some degree. Especially because opinions are by definition subjective. But when the opinion belongs to a trusted and well-traveled gourmet who carries a great deal of influence in the industry, it dares to cross over into something more than just an opinion. We’ve certainly had noteworthy mentions in the press before, but nothing as bold as “Number 5 in the Country”. Something about this label imparted a new sense of validation at Ruxbin for what we do each service and all the hours surrounding it. And after the initial wave of excitement, it began to pose some serious inner-reflective questions which had me feeling the need to form some sort of construct to understand the meaning behind it all.
This past fall break, we were lucky enough to book a table at Le Chateaubriand, the highest ranked restaurant in Paris and 9th in the world according to Pellegrino’s 2011 list. I was anticipating the meal of my life. And as each course presented itself to us, I found myself scrutinizing a little more and indulging a little less. It was as though the weight of this “Number 9″ had me stranded in a jungle of critiques. There were palate-rousing flavors [a roasted chicken so replete with almond extract, a pairing so odd that it stripped away any sense of familiarity I ever had to chicken] and textures I have never experienced before [duck heart coated in seeds and having every bit of an organ-like texture you’d imagine an organ to be]. I tried creatures that will haunt me forever [salty barnacles resembling the claw of a sea dragon which juiced with each bite and had minuscule mussels latched tightly to its skin]. There was shock factor [a raw mushroom opulently covered in rich dark chocolate with nothing more than a sprig of mint] and moments of sheer appreciation [a refreshing ceviche with pickling juice and peach, and an array of herbs piled atop a floral scented ice cream]. It wasn’t until Eddy cut the circuit of critiques at the table by raising a pretty straight-forward question that we realized our gaffe. It wasn’t whether or not we liked the barnacles or chocolate covered mushroom, as that would be debatable. He simply asked if we were having a good time. And to that our answer was a resounding yes.
What I learned most from that five course dinner at Le Chateaubriand and how it relates to us at Ruxbin is that there really is no universal check-list of criteria. What makes a good restaurant for one person could be if the food has challenged them or not, and for somebody else it might be the level of service received. For Bon Appetit editor Andrew Knowlton, I think the determining factor was whether or not a restaurant afforded him a good and memorable experience. As sited straight from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, “an interesting experience in a simple establishment, where exceptional innovation was discovered, could be judged better than a more opulent meal from a widely feted restaurant team.” When Mr. Knowlton recognized something special about Ruxbin, it was reaffirming and humbling for all of us. In our hearts, we knew we had a good thing going. A restaurant that, above all things, cultivates sincerity in both the food we cook and the service we give. But to see it recognized on a very national scale is a privilege that we know we cannot take lightly.
We had the opportunity to share a round of drinks with Mr. Knowlton a couple nights ago, and we thanked him for the recognition. He responded by thanking us for a great meal, one that he apparently hadn’t forgotten in over four months’ time, as he recounted with fondness our bouillabaisse-like mussels, the crispy eggplant salad with golden beet batons, and how warm and inviting our staff was. Naturally, all this comes with more pressure to do more and be better. But if you were to ask what it means to be number 5, my answer would be simple. We try our best to ensure our guests have a good time, and perhaps they will leave with a happy rivet in the memory of the dinner they’ve just been served.