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Bistro Bows In

Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

(continued from page 3)

THE CONCEPT

Now that the oven is paid for, it begins to drive the concept. "A neighborhood restaurant," Aziz says, "where the bar is a great place to hang out, and there's all this activity with the oven." It works for him as a marketable idea because it's cutting-edge yet what will be served in the dining room is upscale comfort food, such as pot pies and whipped potatoes.

By late February, the project has solidified enough for Aziz to present it to Lanni. Aziz knows that Aqua was Lanni's favorite Las Vegas restaurant even before MGM owned the Bellagio. Still, Aziz has no idea how he'll react to the giant oven, or to Chi's design. Chi has flown in to present the concept to Lanni, whom he doesn't know. Chi's a master at using his sketches and his words to make nebulous ideas come alive, but sometimes outsiders get lost amid his enthusiasm.

Instead, Lanni gets swept up in the narrative. The details, including a bar that's designed so the bottles are freestanding yet virtually unseen, reveal a concept with real depth. "The intrigue of the little booths as you come in on the right, like private railroad cars," Lanni remembers. "That exciting oven in the dining area. I felt it was all extremely inventive." At the end of the presentation, Lanni tells Aziz and his team to go ahead.

Aziz needs a name to pull the concept together. So far, that name is Amusé. They envision terrific canapés at the bar. "Gorgeous canapés, like coming into someone's home," Mina says. "You sit down to this great bread, and some things you can share. A French feel."

Except that Lanni and Blau don't want a French restaurant. "A French restaurant sends a different message, especially to a gaming clientele," Lanni tells them. Instead of huge checks, the MGM needs repeat business. The goal is 180 covers on a good night, up from the 70 or 80 of Gatsby's.

At this point, there are five restaurants evolving in five different heads. During the proposal to Lanni, Chi had stressed the neighborhood concept. He referenced New York neighborhoods such as his own, but Mina is spiritually and geographically a San Franciscan. He proposes thinking about a San Francisco name. Union Square is taken by Danny Meyer, but Pacific Heights? Presidio?

In early March, Aziz circulates a list with three names: Nob Hill, Presidio and Pacific Heights. Chi pushes for Nob Hill. "Two words dictate the whole design," he says. "One is playful, the other elegant. We are selling a culture. We are selling a spirit." His argument is persuasive; the name is chosen by acclimation. Only Lanni shrugs.

"I think 90 percent of the people who come in have no idea Nob Hill means San Francisco," he says. "But to me, the restaurant can be called Joe's Place, as long as the food is good enough."


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