RN74, which opened in the Millennium Tower just south of San Francisco’s financial district earlier this year, is the culmination of a food and wine adventure that took Rajat Parr from Paris and Burgundy and even Tunbridge Wells in Kent, south-east England, to northern California. Tunbridge Wells may seem a surprising inclusion but 36-year-old Parr explains: “I had decided to become a chef when I went there in 1993 to visit my uncle, and he was the first person to introduce me to wine. It was an experience that changed my life.”
Parr spent the next three years training as a chef, but no sooner had he finished his studies at the Culinary Institute of America than he switched sides. In a move that is perhaps more common in the US than elsewhere, he began on the lowest rung of the waiter’s ladder at Rubicon, the San Francisco restaurant that was renowned for its wine list, then compiled by sommelier Larry Stone, whom Parr regards as his mentor.
Nine years ago, Parr dreamed of running his own wine bar and started to write a business plan for it. The subsequent dotcom downturn dashed his plans but the name, RN74, was now lodged in his consciousness. “I’m a Burgundy fan,” Parr says, “and as I began to study wine I realised that most of the wine from the Loire or Bordeaux was transported by boat, but Burgundy was landlocked. RN74 was the name of the major road that leads out of the area, although it has now been changed to D974.”
The Calcutta-born Parr eventually became wine director for chef Michael Mina, whose 15 restaurants now stretch from San Francisco to Washington DC, but as Parr’s concept developed, he realised that he would need to adapt his plan and open a restaurant with a wine bar attached in order to generate the food sales necessary to survive, particularly at lunchtime.
As he waited in Paris’s Gare de Lyon for a train to Burgundy, the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place. “I was sitting there watching the board with the train destinations turn over and wondered how we could duplicate this. It occurred to me that we could substitute the place names with the wines on our list. This now runs the full length of one wall, and at the far end is a shorter board where we list our bin ends.”
Other elements of the restaurant’s design have been carefully thought through. The receptionist’s desk is by the front door to welcome guests, but also allows whoever is working there a clear view of the dining room and bar. Even on the busy night I visited, the noise level was not high because strips of material had been hung across the ceiling to muffle sound. The menu’s typeface was big enough to read easily, even after the lights were dimmed. The lavatories were distinctive, with their own sound system playing music from French films including Amélie and Jules et Jim. Parr was quick to pass credit for many of these details to AvroKo, the New York design company to whom he had first shown his photos of Burgundian vineyards for inspiration.
RN74’s proximity to office-workers means that the chef Jason Berthold has created very different menus: lunch – where many spend no more than 45 minutes – and a more elaborate dinner menu, along with food to be served at the bar. But he does adhere to Parr’s rule that there should be only one ingredient on the plate – “deliciousness” was the word he used – “and nothing crazy, no foams or powders”. This was exemplified in a sautéed pork belly with clams; Maine scallops with sugar snap peas, tomatoes and pear; duck with barley and shiitake mushrooms; and an elegant dessert of perfect peaches, blackberries and crisp cubes of toasted brioche.
Berthold is helped by the fact that the bountiful farmers’ market at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza operates three days a week, a few blocks away. Parr admits that the emphasis on fruit and light desserts had met with some criticism from diners more used to a heavy injection of sugar at this stage in the meal, but he refuses to allow this to change his approach.
His decision to remove all bottles of Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir that are over 14 per cent alcohol from his list is one that, I hope, will be followed by many other restaurateurs. RN74 is a joint venture that cost $4.5m between Parr, Mina and Wilf Jaeger, a generous Bay Area wine collector who has provided the older bottles from his cellar as the basis for the restaurant’s stunning wine list.
Over lunch, Parr recalled the speech he had given to all his staff before they opened for business. “I had prepared something quite formal but when I saw the restaurant and realised that this was the fruition of what I had wanted for so long, I threw my speech away and just said, ‘Let’s make people happy – then we’ll be happy’.”
RN74, Millennium Tower, 301 Mission Street, San Francisco, tel: +1415-5437474
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