Bleu Owners Hope for Hotel Longetivity - Memphis Daily News - 11/7/2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

By Fredric Koeppel

With its spiffy updated interior and aggressive social media presence, it’s pretty clear that bleu restaurant & lounge is aiming at being the hippest and hottest drinking and dining place Downtown. The reconfigured space in The Westin Memphis Beale Street hotel was first the Daily Grill, then Sole and now bleu, with a new concept and chef (Robert Nam Cirillo) and a dose of attitude: “Something Bold. Something Neu. Something Bleu.”

Bleu is the new restaurant in The Westin Memphis Beale Street. Glenn Malone of Senate Hospitality, the restaurant’s ownership group, said bleu offers American cuisine with international influences.

Cirillo brings an extraordinary multicultural background to bleu. Born in Korea, he and his brother were adopted by a first-generation American couple, one of whom was Italian, the other Irish. Cirillo came to Memphis from Aspire Restaurant in Providence, R.I., another hotel restaurant that won Best New Restaurant and Diners Choice awards during his tenure. His menu at bleu is radically different from the previous menus at Daily Grill and Sole, emphasizing provocative combinations of ingredients – fresh oysters with Sweet Tea and Hound Dog Vodka Mignonette; Grilled Corn and Blueberry Salad; Grilled Mahi Mahi with banana, mango and bacon chutney – and selections that seem drawn from an Italian grandmother’s memory and a world-wide pantry. No meatloaf, no chicken pot pie; bleu is not that kind of restaurant.

Cirillo, 32, brought the accumulated knowledge and experience of his life and career to the Westin Beale Street, where he is not only chef at bleu but executive chef for the hotel. He described his cuisine as “American food, but America is a melting pot. It’s not Asian, it’s not Italian, it’s just American in the broadest sense. We’re very lucky to have all these cuisines to draw on.”

“We created the concept of bleu based on extensive research into what Memphians want,” said Glenn Malone, chief operating officer of the Senate Hospitality Group, a Nashville-based hotel development and consulting firm that operates The Westin Memphis Beale Street.

“Every aspect from the interior to menu revisions to the recipes was tested through surveys and tastings. We want to give people what they want. We want to respond to people. That also applies to service. We asked people what they expect from a first-class restaurant, and excellent service was one of their criteria.”

He has a point. Service at Sole, especially during its second year, often seemed unpolished, untrained and clueless.

Perhaps some history is in order. The Westin Beale Street Hotel opened in May 2007 with two restaurants, The Daily Grill, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the smaller Grill Room, a steak venue open only for dinner; the Grill Room was soon eliminated. The Daily Grill was operated by California-based Grill Concepts, which ran similar clubby American cuisine-style restaurants throughout Southern California and a few other states.

In August 2009, Senate Hospitality terminated its contact with Grill Concepts and announced that Interim LLC – owner of Interim restaurant at Mendenhall and Sanderlin – would acquire the lease on the space. In November, the restaurant re-opened as Sole Restaurant and Raw Bar.

“After the Senate people approached us, we thought the problem with Daily Grill was management,” said Ben Brock, one of the partners in Interim LLC. “There were no standards, no control. Once we got in, it took three days to clean up the kitchen. This was a forgotten restaurant.”

Malone agreed that there were problems with Daily Grill.

Chef Robert Nam Cirillo is the executive chef for the recently opened bleu restaurant & lounge at the Westin. This is the third concept to try its hand inside the Downtown hotel.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
“There’s certainly no resemblance between Daily Grill and bleu,” he said. “Grill Concepts just put that restaurant into the hotel. They ran it just like it was in a hotel anywhere.”

The distinctive development style and marketing campaign that led to the opening of bleu were designed by the local firm RedRover Sales & Marketing.

“We felt it critical to engage the community by getting their input on everything from the name selection to atmosphere and design to menu selection,” said Lori Turner-Wilson, managing partner at RedRover. “The likelihood of the community remaining loyal to the restaurant would be greater if they felt that they had substantial and meaningful input in its creation.”

Turner-Wilson called the marketing of bleu a “teaser campaign. We advertised ‘the mystery restaurant’ at Zoo Rendezvous and sent out a host of clues and teasers along the way.”

Despite the stir about bleu, “regardless, at the end of the day, you’re a restaurant in a hotel,” said Brock. Meaning that however a restaurant in a hotel tries to position itself as hip and happening, it still has to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the year, and provide room service and banquet service, and persuade townies to come in the doors, “because the people who stay in the hotel want to eat at The Rendezvous,” Brock said.

“Obviously, it’s important that a restaurant or any good business stays in touch with its customers,” said Malone. “Our take on it is that customers know what they want in an urban/hotel environment, and we’ve learned how to appeal to locals. That’s our approach and our concept.”

Cirillo’s formula for success rests on three elements: quality, consistency and service.

“As a chef,” he said, “it’s my responsibility to create appealing menus that will bring people to the restaurant. I arrived in Memphis five months ago, and I was part of the development process, the planning and everything. Many people made suggestions, and I’m professional enough to take them seriously. We’ve done a lot of training. We don’t want a restaurant that’s formal and stuffy, like a hotel restaurant back in the 80s. What we’re creating is a restaurant that’s chic, comfortable and top-notch in every way.”