Timelines: Boston's Ken Oringer on closing Clio and expanding Uni
December 3, 2015
When it comes to dining out, Boston doesn’t look the way it used to.
There are more subway-tiled, Edison-bulbed spots than tablecloths in town, while lines snake around the block for artisanal bagels and fried chicken sandwiches. The increased accessibility is exciting for many, but for a longtime city stalwart, it can be tough to feel relevant.
In just a couple of years, partly in response to a swiftly changing dining scene, and partly due to the simple passage of time, a large handful of Boston’s time-honored upscale spots—Hamersley’s Bistro, Upstairs on the Square, Rendezvous, Chez Henri, Pigalle, and Radius—all closed their doors. So when chef Ken Oringer recently announced that at the end of the year he’d close his 19-year-old Back Bay flagship, Clio—all so he can transition it into an extension of his subterranean sashimi lounge, Uni—it felt like a natural extension of a general trend.
It sort of is, but it also sort of isn’t. In this case, Clio’s shift to Uni feels like less of a coda, and more of a natural evolution of Oringer’s modus operandi as a restaurateur and chef—which is, in short, to embrace change. “It comes to a point where you say you know what? It’s time,” he says. Not that it’s easy. “The run to the finish line is sometimes more emotional than it should be... I’d rather pull off that band-aid and move on,” he says.
Though this may be his most dramatic change to date, it’s hardly the first time that Oringer has shaken things up. Here, he reflects on the importance of staying creative—and learning how not to be a total control freak.
Before opening Clio, Oringer, a New Jersey native, worked at Boston’s Marquis de Lafayette under a young Jean Georges Vongerichten; Al Forno in Providence; New York’s River Café under David Burke; and Silks in San Francisco. In 1997, he returned to Boston to open Clio as part of the Eliot Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.
I was ready to open my own restaurant. I had done New York, I looked into Chicago and D.C., and I didn’t love them. I said, “You know what? Boston is not too bad—it’s starting to change, getting younger, there are all the universities, all of the international diners. It could be the time to do something a little bit different.”
Times were way different back then—I didn’t know shit from shinola about this town. It was a long time ago, 1997. Boston was kind of a rustic dining city back then. Every restaurant was a spinoff of Olives, or a spinoff of Jody [Adams], or a spinoff of Lydia [Shire]. I wanted to do something that wasn’t as rustic or wood-oven or grill-focused. I wanted to do something along the lines of Paris-meets-San Francisco-meets New York—fine-dining but contemporary, without attitude or tuxedoed servers and all of that bullshit.
Clio opened with an à la carte menu, a tasting menu, three cooks in the kitchen, and no pastry chef.
From that first week, we were like “Holy fuck, we are not equipped for this.” We thought we would be doing 60-70 covers a night—we were doing 100. It was a freaking shitshow. It was crazy. We were booked for years. It was just survival mode for a long time. It took a while to be able to have a core team that could really keep up with the volume. This was much more stressful than any other opening that I’ve been involved in—in a new town, with new people, a small kitchen, and a small restaurant.
When we first opened, everyone was complaining about portion sizes—we were serving five and six ounces of protein, whereas Hamersley’s Bistro and Olives were doing 12 ounces. People were giving us flack. I would explain that this is meant to be an appetizer, entree, and dessert, and you can still get some action if you want to when you get home. There’s more to dining than just stuffing yourself.
Around four years in, Oringer began to tinker with molecular gastronomy. After spending time in Spain with Ferran Adria of el Bulli (he even sent a stage to work there, the first ever from America to work at el Bulli, he says), the menu began to showcase his curiosity.
At that time our food started to go even more contemporary—for lack of a better term, a bit more molecular. I was there [in Spain] for a period of about three weeks. This was before anyone knew that el Bulli was. They didn’t have their third star. Their lab was in the aquarium where Ferran’s wife worked.
We [had been] open a couple of years, and people trusted us—they came in knowing they would eat things kind of differently. Maybe there would be oxtail served with hanger steak and bone marrow, or argan oil with calamari. We eased into it a little bit—we would use foams for instance, still playing within combinations we knew would work. Even if people were like, “What the fuck is this?” it still tasted good. With hot gelees and stuff like that, same thing. We moved it into our repertoire of cuisine, and it didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
It’s funny—nowadays so many young cooks are into that shit. Me, I’m totally out of it. I don’t need any more tapioca maltodextrin and alginates. I don’t need any of that crap anymore. I want to come up with things that are a little more creative than relying on things that have already been invented.
Around the same time that Oringer got acquainted with sodium alginate and spherification, he became more obsessed with the Asian styles of cooking he first learned from Vongerichten at the Marquis de Lafayette.
At some point we had eight raw fish dishes alone on the menu. That was starting to set the tone for what would soon become Uni.
Uni, back then, was a little lounge waiting area for Clio. At that point, I had been to Asia a million times and I took another trip to Japan and I said, alright, I’m ready to do something really crazy and have a white guy from New Jersey open a really funky sashimi bar. I wanted to do a Japanese-style restaurant where everything was innovative and we were printing menus every day, and it pulled me out of the kitchen three days a week, down in my element, creating and using this raw fish coming from all around the world. That started me on thinking in terms of, there is more to life than just fine dining. With Uni, I wanted to create what was a party but still very serious about their food.
Beyond showcasing his obsession with sashimi, Uni, which opened in 2002, gave Oringer the chance to take a step back from the Clio kitchen, and reevaluate the work culture that he had established there. It allowed him to focus on developing—and keeping—great talent.
After being open for close to four years, I thought, “Man, I need to get out of the kitchen before I kill myself.” I was pretty much a tyrant back in those days. The intensity was just not healthy. I probably went over 10 years without a chef de cuisine. I was that much of a control freak. For a long time, it was hard for me to ask other people’s opinions [when] they were kind of new to the game. It was a matter of maturing and realizing that not everyone would be the best chef in the world, but they could still bring great ideas to the table. Someone might not be a good cook, but they understand how to set up a station well and get things to be a little more functional.
I did have some amazing, amazing people. What has probably been our legacy of this restaurant is at least 20 guys who worked here have gone on to get stars and Beard awards all over the country and the world. [Speaking of: Clio is showcasing a slew of distinguished alumni in an elaborate sendoff dinner taking place on December 15.]
In 2011, Oringer decided to renovate both Clio and Uni, which gave Clio a much larger bar area and Uni a sleek, wood-paneled new look. Shortly after, Uni and the Clio bar area started serving late-night ramen and Japanese bar food, which drew an entirely new crowd of young, noodle-hungry diners (who, three years later, will still wait upwards of two hours for tonkotsu ramen and pork buns).
I had wanted to do [ramen] for years. I wanted hip-hop, and I wanted it to be loud, with students and foodies and whatever. The first Uni was so Clio-esque in design, even with the sushi bar, it didn’t have that Japanese look—I wanted it to feel like an underground bar in Tokyo.
With the late night menu providing a more accessible price point for diners, Oringer, along with Uni chef Tony Messina, got rid of some of the original’s more casual touches and pushed a more high-end sashimi experience during dinner hours. In the years that followed, Oringer spread his time between Clio and his now several other restaurants, including a new Toro in New York. But Clio always remained his home base.
Clio is still…it’s my baby. It’s where my home office is. No matter what, before we opened up New York, I was still at Clio pretty much every day. I would start here and get everybody moving, shoot the shit with Jamie [Bissonnette] and work on menu development at Coppa, and then come back at 5 p.m. and work service over here.
After spending more time in Japan and wanting a showcase restaurant for Uni chef Tony Messina, Oringer finally decided that he wanted to close Clio and fully turn the entire space into one big Uni—one that, for the first time, will actually be able to serve rice with its fish (!).
We didn’t really have to change anything with Clio. We had a great year last year, way above the year before. I went to Japan in the springtime, and I came back and said, “Man, it would be so nice to do a little bit more with Uni.”
Tony has been doing such an amazing job and I wanted to bring him into a more prominent role, and see what we could do without the space constraints. We are going to keep the original Uni as is, and we will have a sushi bar in the back of the main bar also. This will allow us also to finally bring a little sushi into the equation, to start doing some nigiri and creative nigiri and maki.
I love change, I love changing things. It would have been fun to get to 25 years. It’s going to be a real shock to my system, because I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years here. I’ve been thinking and cooking this way my whole career—contemporary French food. It’s going to be tough, looking at old menus and pictures. I decided deep inside of me that I’m not going to give up this creative side of my brain because we are changing direction of a restaurant.
You can’t pull that away from me.