When I walk into Mignonette, co-owner Ryan Roman is in the middle of a wine tasting. He ropes me in and we taste a mystery Cab that starts light but makes a turn to something rich, autumnal but polite. Wine rep Juan Rochaix reveals the label, a 2008 Red Hook Winery Cabernet from Jamesport Vineyard on Long Island. Roman and his GM, Matt Dinkel, will decide upon the purchase later.
Two years ago, Ryan was on the other side of the industry: a lawyer by day and one of Miami’s most revered food bloggers by night. His dialogues on cuisine led to a fast friendship with chef Daniel Serfer, the man behind beloved Blue Collar. Before long, the two set out to open the kind of restaurant they pined for: an oyster bar and eatery that was both “plain and fancy,” as they like to put it. Mignonette was born. I sat down with Roman to see how a year inside the industry has changed him, and to finish that wine.
So, you stopped the blog, MiamiRankings.com?
Yeah, it was a conflict of interest, and a time constraint.
Had you ever worked in a restaurant before?
Never. I came at it through writing about food.
Now that you’ve seen behind the curtain, are there things that you regret writing?
I’ve always been snarky, I guess, and I think I now realize once you have something, you’re very sensitive about criticism. It’s easy to write things. When you’re on the other side, every word gets studied. I’ll admit I’m sensitive about criticism. I think longer and harder about the negative stuff. With the positive stuff, you feel happy and it’s gone in 30 minutes. The negative stuff you live with. But it’s also constructive.
How do you and co-owner/chef Daniel Serfer play off each other?
As someone who wrote about food before, and ate a lot, I have strong opinions about food and about restaurants and the role they play in communities. I approach things from the perspective of the diner, Danny approaches things from the perspective of the cook, and we meet in the middle and we talk, we fight. It’s been a fun process. It’s cool to have to defend what you think with somebody you respect and who has a great amount of knowledge about the other side of the coin.
What’s an example of that?
We’ll argue about menu items—whether they’re practical, which is sometimes something I fail to recognize, because I don’t think about how many times you have to bend down to reach into the lowboy. I’m not thinking about the machinations of the cook. I’ve become wiser on food costs—every item can’t be a loss. There are places on the menu where you want to offer great value, so people appreciate that they can come in and have South African lobster tail, stuff they couldn’t really get somewhere else at the price. Our caviar is a great example. We’re selling at $50, $80, $110 per once. Our $110 would go for $250 at another place. We thought, we’re not white tablecloth, we’re casual, so we have to be able to offer cool stuff for less. Plain and fancy—we want the juxtaposition.
What was an idea that didn’t work?
We did a cold mac and cheese with pimento cheese and a macaroni salad. I loved the dish, but people want hot mac and cheese. On the flip side, we do this house aperitif, Champagne–a little bit of Banyuls vinegar, which is a little sweeter, candied shallots, and pink pepper corns. We took all the elements of mignonette, sweetened them, made a syrup, added Champaign. People have been really positive about it.
What’s an element you didn’t realize was important until you worked here?
Continuity of staff. Every time you hire someone new it’s a learning curve. We’ve been lucky.
What has surprised you about how the restaurant has fit into the community?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we can offer some cool stuff like caviar and Champagne in a very transitional location across from a cemetery.
What is it like sitting across the street from gravestones?
They’ll never block our view.
How has Mignonette affected the area?
We’re not unique in this regard, but having groups of regulars where you begin to recognize and appreciate their habits, what they like and don’t like—it builds a relationship. That’s really cool. A lot of times you’ll come in and there are tables all around the restaurant that know each other. To me, that’s the best feeling. Restaurants can be a meeting place—if there’s a hurricane, we’re staying open.
Now that you’ve been running an oyster bar, do you still like oysters?
Oh, I still like them. It’s harder to order them in other places now. I can try so many different types here, go out in a back alley and slurp some when no one’s looking.
What has been the most beautiful oyster moment of the year?
There’s a region I realize I truly love, which is Prince Edward Island, on the east coast of Canada. The Irish Points and the Raspberry Points and the oysters that come from PEI are clean. They’ve got so much of that liqueur, that juice to them—it’s just so good to me. You get a real sense of place.
Have you done any shucking?
I am extremely bad at shucking oysters. I always tell Danny I have lawyer hands, not cook hands.