My introduction to Sam Genkov was through a dish of thickly cut gnocchi luxuriating in rich Gorgonzola cream, crunchy toasted walnuts and a sweet accent of caramelized pears. This was at his Bravi Ristorante, a fixture of the St. Lawrence Market area for the past twenty years. Then, along came Genkov’s Modus Ristorante. Tucked into the corner of King and York streets, this has been a consistent favourite of the suits by day, and a trusted companion for theatre goers and the after work crowd seeking sophistication, an unrivaled wine menu, and quality dishes to satisfy their cravings. How does Modus maintain such an ardently loyal clientele? How does it thrive without even being open on weekends? The answer is, in part, due to Genkov’s understanding of the value of service, and his determination to provide and maintain that tradition in a restaurant dining scene trending toward semi-fast casual.
How do you define service?
SG: “Service demands professionalism, attentiveness, and our understanding of what guests should be enjoying. A nice dining room dictates the kind of service that will follow. We aim to live up to that. Wine should be poured. Water should be replenished. Plates should be cleared at a certain time, and simultaneously. Food should be going out at the same time. The kitchen must be well organized. Linen, nice wine glasses and polished silverware must be set properly, and silver wear must be re-set properly before the soup or steak arrives. And there should also be reasonable pricing, too.”
How do you maintain that level of service?
SG: “The culture creates the service. Now, more and more, restaurants have gone casual. The demand for service is not as high as it used to be. There are more expectations with linen and fine finishes. As you walk into Modus, you look at the dining room and you know it’s going to be something warm and special that will demand more from the staff. When someone applies for a job here, it’s because they want to learn. You have to want to know what good service is. You have to insist on service and knowledge of food. The people I hire for the front of the house have a very strong presence. The number one thing for me is that they know the food; know how it’s served, and how we do it. It’s easy enough to just recite the menu, but if they don’t have the actual understanding of it, that’s no good to me. I need them to know how to talk to our clients and know all the ingredients and tastes of the food on the menu. We organize tastings for the staff. We cook; we show the ingredients, and all the little details that everyone should know. We need the front of the house to know what the back of the house is doing. And we also want the back of the house to know what it takes to serve a client. Every employee here has to know everyone’s job.”
“We try to make as much in-house as we can. Pistachio and mint crusted burrata with poached lobster claw is very popular, and when you like a dish you always come back for it. We have many repeat customers, and that enables daily specials, but they have all come to expect a certain quality of service to match the menu. The first dish we ever put on the menu, and we keep, is the spaghetti with smoked mozzarella-stuffed meatballs. This is an intensely flavoured dish that needs a wine with more punch to it. I would pair it with a super Tuscan or Chianti—a Brunello would be perfect. We have over two hundred fifty wines. Seventy percent of them are based on familiarity and consistency, and the rest are there to introduce our guests to something new. We also have a variety of decanters for them. The waiters must understand the importance of having knowledge in all of this to give to our customers.”
What are the most integral aspects of service?
SG: “Knowledge of what you have in your hands. If you don’t really know what you’re serving, you diminish yourself to a delivery person. The importance of being able to talk about food and wine is part of the service. Understanding etiquette and the proper way of placing dishes and silverware on the table is part of it, too. The classic manner, and pride in what you’re doing has been and will be around forever. Guests want to be made interested in the wine and the food by the waiter, and if you can’t make a recommendation, you’re basically just a delivery person. I want my guests to love the food and to feel special. You can’t change every time the wind blows. Trends change all the time, but you know what you know; you love what you love: and you have to stick to it. For us, that classic care for guests is very important; it’s special. It’s about respecting the food and the wine, and it’s about respecting our customers.”
Modus Ristorante, 145 King St W, 416-861-9977
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.