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Mystic - The Flood Tide restaurant served a different kind of dinner last week to a small handpicked group being watched by cameras and under the critical eye of a celebrity chef.
Chef Robert Irvine stopped everything and said, "I'm shutting this down," as Flood Tide executive chef Bob Tripp tells it.
"That's when the Flood Tide-bashing started," Tripp says, with a smile.
The Mystic restaurant underwent both the pain and renewal that comes with makeover reality TV when the Food Network came to town to shoot its a new show, "Restaurant: Impossible." The show, which likely won't debut until 2011, aims to transform struggling restaurants in just two days with $10,000.
"It's a pretty demeaning experience," Tripp says, but he's not upset about it.
"It's not as bad as they made it out to be," he notes.
But now that the cameras are gone, Tripp and his team are left to adjust to the aesthetic and culinary changes, both good and, well, let's just say Tripp will "let you decide."
The dining room has been brightened with color - red Gerbera daisies in the center of each white tablecloth and the custom mahogany woodwork around the open kitchen has been painted in alternating blocks of mustard and coral red.
Lights are covered in fishnets, a large fish skeleton sculpture hangs by the entrance to the room and a nautical map has been replaced by blackboards with boat sketches.
But the carpets are still the same and in need of replacement, as are the older wooden chairs and other furniture. The lower dining room wasn't touched.
The restaurant, meanwhile, has been re-branded as "The Wood Grill at Flood Tide," a nod to its woodfired brick oven.
Flood Tide's previous menu was a little more classic, with entrees such as surf and turf and filet mignon and, Tripp says, focused on presentation, which meant meals might take a little longer to be served. Staffers would pipe the mashed potatoes from a pastry bag and top it with a gaufrette, a latticed potato chip. Some dishes were served table-side, such as Caesar salad and Chateaubriand, which called for flamed brandy and was carved in front of the customer.
But the new menu has been taken out of its stuffy, plastic jacket and features both modern fonts and fare. It focuses more on flavor, simplicity and local ingredients, such as an appetizer of fried green tomatoes in a cranberry brown butter, feta cheese and balsamic reduction ($7). Flatbreads include a duck and beef carpaccio, apple mascarpone, tomato and herb salad ($17), and entrees feature wood-grilled and oven-roasted fish and meat entrees, ranging from $20 to $29.
The prices are meant to be more affordable than before, Tripp says.
During the grand opening, the show's producers hid microphones in bread baskets and captured customers' reactions. They served 250 people that night, almost twice what they'd serve on a normal busy night.
The makeover was very scripted, Tripp says, in the sense that the staff was assembled and asked to display various emotions (scared, angry, eye-rolling), but there are "ways of bringing out reality." He and his sous chef, Dave Moore, worked 45 hours in three days.
"We might as well have opened from scratch," says Tripp, who has worked at the restaurant on and off since 1989, back in its heyday.
He talks about when the Flood Tide was one of the area's premier restaurants with pride, winning awards for brunch, desserts and continental cuisine. He left in 1999 and says "things started slipping a bit." He came back from 2001 to 2005, and agreed to return again in June 2009.
Tripp knew changes had to be made, and, in a poor economy, says the call from the Food Network was finally the spark to do it.
"We had to appeal to a broader customer base and be a freestanding restaurant - not just cater to the inn," he says.
And though Tripp has reservations about some of the changes, he hopes to "pick up where (the show) left off."
The staff is enthusiastic and energized, he says. "The opening was a great success," he adds. "That part is definitely going to come out in the show."