Grazing: On aging and eating at Violette and Octane Grant Park

Are baby boomers keeping the restaurant industry afloat?

It’s Friday evening and I’m seated at a circular table at Violette with four friends. A man is tickling the ivories, playing old melodies. At the neighboring table a somewhat inebriated man with a veritable bouffant of white hair starts raging at high volume about “the damn liberals.” It seems they want to impoverish him.

Two days later, I’m at Octane Coffee in Grant Park, sitting alone, bent over my Kindle amid countless highly caffeinated and tipsy customers mainly under 40, if not 30. I’ve been there 90 minutes, waiting for Guy Wong’s pop-up ramen dinner, served Sundays at 6 p.m. A sad-faced woman leaps to her feet, spreads her arms and screams, “I’m leaving! If you want one, come give me a hug!” The room goes silent. A man does the honors. The woman turns and flees. Oh to be young and cockamamy instead of senile, like the ass at Violette.

It was the subject of age that led me to the two restaurants. NPD, a market research firm, recently reported that baby boomers and seniors (roughly those born after 1950) are keeping the restaurant industry afloat. Those younger than 50 have steadily decreased their dining out since 2008.

I found the claim surprising because most of the places I dine seem full of people well under 50. Restaurants that hybridize fast food and so-called casual fare are a major trend, especially among the under-40 set. Even Ford Fry’s clientele looks 40ish to me. Maybe Botox has created a mass illusion.

Violette, which features bistro cuisine, definitely attracts an older crowd. Its original chef-owner, Guy Luck, opened it in a nearby former bank building in 1988. The cuisine was classic French and Alsatian. I can never think of the place without recalling its singing server. Yes, she sang the entire time she waited on customers, not even taking a break when she flew to the kitchen.

The restaurant moved to its present location on Clairmont Road in 1995. It remains a relaxing environment with those circular tables, all but extinct elsewhere, and acoustics that allow for real conversation. It also has a huge banquet room and an enclosed patio. You’d never sense the size, sitting in the main dining room.

Luck died in 2003 and — to my palate — the food lost its soulful quality. I had not visited in maybe five years when I lunched and dined there recently. The mid-priced food shocked me, it was so good. Credit goes to Christophe Micou, 43, who was trained by Paul Bocuse and became executive chef at Violette three years ago. He was joined by sous chef Justin White, 23, less than a year ago. A recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, White worked as sous chef for Thomas Keller at Bouchon and as chef de partie at the French Laundry.

I asked White in an email if he agreed that the crowd at Violette is mainly boomers. “I can tell you,” he wrote diplomatically, “that we enjoy visits from many guests of a more distinguished age during our lunch service, though more of a variety of customers usually come for dinner.”

Yep, lunch was mainly women “of a distinguished age,” and while there was a greater cross-section at dinner, it was still mainly boomers. The reason is not complicated. People have grown up with the restaurant. “I can tell you that I was very adamant about making major changes when I first arrived,” White wrote, “but I quickly learned that we have many regulars who come and expect things a certain way. So, I’ve instilled small changes, including the addition of a mushroom-and thyme-infused pearl couscous, while keeping myself open to the desires of our customers.”

The best dish I sampled during my two visits was slices of duck breast roasted in a classic blend of coriander, cloves, and anise. What made the dish for me was the dark sauce on which it sat. White describes it well: “Our espresso reduction combines elements that I particularly enjoy — coffee and chocolate, with the aromatic and defined flavors of a sweet red wine.” Imagine a Frenchified mole.

The rest of the menu is other classic dishes such as coq au vin (my lunch choice), beef bourguignon, quiche Lorraine, onion soup, escargots, chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese, a crispy filet of trout, and steaks with a choice of sauces, like classic peppercorn. All of these made it to my lunch and dinner tables and all earned raves.

It felt good to be old at Violette.

Octane, the coffeehouse that is also home to the Little Tart Bake Shop, has garnered raves from me and everyone else. The crowd is young countercultural capitalists, yin to the yang of my hippie youth. The important thing is that everyone — from the staff to the clientele — is as sweet as the meringue I devoured there.

They are also undoubtedly more patient than the decrepit. For them, the long wait for a bowl of ramen flies by faster than youth itself. It’s a process. At 5 p.m., you can get a guaranteed seat if you’re among the first 40 or so to arrive. Stand in line for a number. Then stand in line at the cash register. The remaining folks, and there were many, line up in the hall outside, hoping they too will be served. The time factor caused a couple of friends to blow off dinner with me.

It’s sad to be old and alone at Octane.

But Wong’s ramen banishes all such feeling. I chose the beef — tomato broth with chunks of rib-eye steak, a shoyu egg, and fat carrots, redolent of star anise, cilantro, and cinnamon (like my duck at Violette!). There was another with a soy broth and pork belly. I also gnawed on sweet, twice-fried Korean chicken wings, scattered with toasted sesame seeds, served with countervailing, sour pickle bits. The food is intended as a preview to the new restaurant, Ton Ton, Wong is planning for Old Fourth Ward.

The platitude that “age is just a state of mind” always makes me laugh. Tell it to my gym-wrecked rotator cuff. But, hey, Jesus heals the ailing and invites you into heaven. Yeah. Think of these chefs as Jesus. Age matters little when paradise is at hand.

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