Dreams Fulfilled

There is a certain glamour about the restaurant business. People pay you, the owner, to be the consummate host. You dream of serving great food and creating a pleasant environment — a place that people want to come back to again and again. For some, it remains just a dream.

Every year new restaurants are opened by daring dreamers putting their assets on the line. Their success depends on getting most of elements right and a bit of serendipity. Even in hard economic times good restaurants seem to succeed.

Franchise restaurants follow a proven formula — with the right location, good help and the right color paint and wall décor they do all right. Their food quality is lower on the food chain of requirements. Just look at Bugaboo Creek. A few talking moose heads seem to distract people from the awful food on their plates.

But the restaurant dreamer is concerned about the quality of the food. Most often his name is above the door and the cuisine is a reflection of his taste and his background. Ultimately it determines his success.

Elie Elfata had worked in kitchens since he was 13 and eventually found himself managing at Unwine’d in Manchester from 2002 to 2006. His wife Rachel was also managing there. Working under Scot Kinney they fine-tuned their knowledge of the restaurant business and learned a good deal about wines.

Tim Sluski was chef at Unwine’d during a period of that time. The three knew they wanted to spread their wings. Sluski went on to Baldwin’s On Elm and, after that closed, he moved over to Michael Buckley’s trio of restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Elfatas continued to plan and save for a place of their own.

Elie, who went back to his native Lebanon two years ago, was pleasantly surprised by the renaissance of nightlife and the dining scene after the war. Restaurants were beautiful, inviting places with lots of greenery and outside seating. This was exactly what he wanted.

When Elie returned he had the inspiration for his own place. He would use the international scene in Lebanon as a model. Four years ago Elie and Rachel started purchasing artificial greenery and stowing it in the basement. The seeds had been sown, but getting financing for a first restaurant is tough.

Elfata found the banks wouldn’t buy into his dream, or business plan, because he had no track record. He continued to save. Eventually they found a location in Salzburg Square that had been home to several restaurants in succession, the last being Devan’s. Elfata gave old friend Tim Sluski a call and started to fit out the interior. They would do it on their own.

To make the former Devan’s inviting, the Elfatas went with a chic theme of black and white — very simple, but powerful. They saved money here and there by building the bar themselves, creating unique tables and seating areas of their own design. With the mood set and the menu planned, they opened the restaurant in November 2006.

Now hip international music plays over the speakers. The lights are low. Stark white dinnerware plays in sharp contrast to the black table linens, floors and walls. Elie and Rachel Elfata have created their “Eden.”

The menu is a combination of Elfata’s dreams and Chef Sluski’s vision. After working on menus for others, Sluski finally has a chance to develop his own personal style. Not so much “taking” from others, but honing his own technique and learning from others’ mistakes or omissions. Starting work in kitchens when he was just 13, he already has 20 years’ experience. His inspiration — from Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters — and his passion for food will take him to his own distinct destiny.

Elfata and Sluski wanted the menu to feature interesting food in small portions.

As a diner himself, he prefers being able to graze a menu, rather than making a commitment to one entrée. Not only is there an array of appetizers on the menu, but the entrée list comes in two sizes — perfect for sampling or sharing several items.

Items range from duck confit in spring rolls to rack of New Zealand lamb crusted with pecans, graham crackers and molasses. The short ribs, appetizer or entrée portion, are braised in espresso and Guinness. Sluski will continue to work the menu seasonally as the year progresses.

Both Elie and Rachel used their experience at Unwine’d to develop an interesting wine list. Knowing the labyrinth created by the State Liquor Commission gave them a head start here. The wine list is short but includes something for everyone. Twelve whites and 20 reds give a bit of depth, plus a reserve list of finer wines is being developed.

Rachel tends bar several evenings a week in addition to running her own day spa, Pink Sapphire, in Manchester.

Does Elfata have any tips for those contemplating opening their very own restaurant? He says “if you believe this is what you want to do, just do it. The business plan and getting everything together is the worse part. The rest is just hard work.” NH

Eden Restaurant and Lounge, 292 Rte. 101, Salzburg Square, Amherst, (603) 249-3336. Open every day for dinner at 4:30 p.m. except Sunday.