Cabonnay's Culinary Promise

A new dining experience is almost here



Cabonnay’s Chef de Cuisine Chris Viaud sprinkles ground pistachios onto a fresh scallop dish.

If you build it, will they come? That’s the burning question when you spend millions to offer the public a unique dining experience.

Cabonnay at 55 Bridge St. in Manchester is slated to open soon — and its design is something special. Construction was still underway as of this issue’s press deadline, so use a little imagination to picture what promises to be an elegant experience: You enter the building through a three-story glass atrium. Once inside, you can either head upstairs to the bar and dining room or, if you have reservations for the chef’s table, visit the kitchen downstairs. The space is enveloped in works of art and the atmosphere is enhanced by the sound system, creating a sense that you’re not in Manchvegas anymore.

Cornelis de Jong and partner David Thompson have joined forces to bring a spectacular vision of dining to Manchester. If you ask de Jong, “Why Manchester?” he replies simply, “Why not?” Indeed, the largest city in New Hampshire has undergone a tremendous growth spurt in the past 10 years. The mill buildings are renovated, new hospitals and tech companies provide employment, and apartments and hotels are springing up, which all help the dining scene flourish.

The Foundry on Commercial Street (located in a gorgeously renovated mill) and a new Giorgio’s Ristorante & Bar location right at Exit 5 are both million-dollar-plus projects that have become downtown jewels. Why shouldn’t the Queen City have another such destination that’s even grander in concept, and that will really put Manchester on the culinary map? Adventurous diners will be spared the trip to Boston. That’s the promise.

My latest look at Cabonnay in September was a walk through the bare bones of the structure with de Jong and the Cabonnay team. De Jong is an imposing 6-foot-9 and a dapper dresser. His accent is slight, but a trained ear would detect his Dutch heritage and South African homeland. The former commercial building was undergoing a major transformation, and we stepped gingerly between detritus and dirt piles as de Jong pointed to the future bar space. As we looked up from the bottom level (soon to be the kitchen), he tells me that, once complete, as you enter the building you’ll be able to see who’s at the bar (called Bliss) through the glass walls of the atrium.

That glass vertical space will create a play of light and color that’s visible from most of the dining areas. In addition to the dining room upstairs, there will also be high-tops and tables for two on the second floor in the 34-seat Fantasy dining space. De Jong wants to separate larger dining parties, who tend to be a bit more boisterous, into their own space on the third level in the Conservatory Room. The third floor will also house the Oasis dining room for parties of eight or more, a retail shop selling wine and related party goods, plus the entrance to a rooftop deck with garden walls, which is scheduled to open in late May.

Even though the building is 11,000 square feet, says de Jong, there is only seating for 150, and each space will have its own projection system with atmospheric visuals and a unique sound experience. “I want this to be like Symphony Hall, but with food,” he says. The vision is to bring regional art to the walls and to intersperse the spacious dining area with greenery, all created with a sense of performance. He wants guests to leave feeling like they have been treated to something special, and thinking, “That was beautiful.”

courtesy photo
An architectural rendering of Cabonnay, which will be located at 55 Bridge St., right at the corner of Kosciuszko Street.

But this is just the shell that will hold “the essence of wine country.” What’s really at play here is the wholehearted effort to bring a sense of real pleasure to dining. De Jong and Thompson moved to New Hampshire several years ago, simply looking for a nice house in a nice community in which to put down roots. Their most recent address was in Chicago, and the search for a new home was countrywide. Maybe it was the tax rates or the proximity to Boston that drew them to the Granite State, but it was the love of fine dining and good wine that created the impetus to build a new restaurant near their new home. They have enjoyed fine dining around the world, but it seldom all came together for them as a great experience — stellar food and wine, pleasing surroundings and a sense that you are enjoying more than a meal. They enjoy trips to Napa Valley and the gracious hospitality of vineyard tasting rooms. It’s that sensual experience and beautiful environment they are bringing to Manchester.

The name they created, Cabonnay, is a combination of chardonnay and cabernet wines, and it’s a reflection of the original inspiration for this dining venture. Cabonnay will offer a world-class selection of wines at a reasonable price, most discovered by de Jong on his travels.

Knowing that great food is key, de Jong and the team embarked on a nationwide search for a talented chef. They found young chef Chris Viaud (he’s 25), who is willing to work with them to solidify the vision. Viaud trained at Johnson & Wales and has a sophisticated palate and an innate artistic sense for plating dishes. He’s calm; he’s cool. His dishes are a culinary journey of unexpected combinations and will focus on local sourcing.

For their pastry chef, the team found an amazing talent in Aurelien Blick, who was born and trained in France. The French apprenticeship system begins very young and he, also just 25, brings 10 years of experience in classic French pastries and innovative desserts from Le Chateaubriand in Paris, Saturne (also in Paris) and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. At the time Blick was at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in 2012, the famous restaurant had two Michelin stars and was rated as the world’s 12th best restaurant. De Jong considers finding Blick a lucky break, as the chef only recently relocated to Manchester. Blick is equally pleased to find someone that will give him the luxury of space and freedom to create memorable desserts.

Rest assured, Blick and Viaud are as passionate about the project as de Jong and Thompson. They want to be able to say at the end of the day, “We really did something.”

The architectural renderings de Jong has been poring over for the past six months are coming to life. As first-time restaurateurs, things could go awry. There is a broad continuum of service from attentive to too attentive — it’s not easy to be on point. The same goes for the perceived value of the experience. Yes, it will be expensive, but will you walk away with a great memory? The food needs to be served on time, hot, beautiful and delicious. The décor needs to be pleasing and sound levels pitch-perfect. Who wants to hear the adjoining table’s problems or the overwhelming thrum of 40 simultaneous conversations? The delicate balancing act of running a first-rate restaurant is akin to learning to conduct a symphony of all the senses. There may be a few stray notes, but orchestration will come.

The curtain is about to rise. Get ready to enjoy the performance.

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