When Chef Marcus Paslay moved back to Fort Worth, Texas, last year, after nearly a decade cooking in esteemed kitchens around the country, he knew he was planning a bit of a culinary revolution.
"For a long time, Fort Worth has been known as a meat-and-potatoes town and certainly a lot of high-quality steakhouses," Chef Paslay says, "but if you wanted a nice meal, you had to go to a steakhouse."
His restaurant, Clay Pigeon Food and Drink, is anything but. The scratch-driven cuisine at the year-old restaurant is seasonally inspired, and food ranges from mussels and flatbreads to the braised pork shank. The 1,000-bottle wine list and made-in-house cuisine have garnered fans looking for something new in town, which Clay Pigeon gladly provides, with its daily-rotating menus and seasonal sourcing.
"Our relationship with the locals is the success story here," Chef Paslay says. "It's become a locals' restaurant for this neighborhood. Being able to get to know these people on a first-name basis and knowing what they like to eat and drink has been a lot of fun. And I think it's made us a better restaurant, as servers and as cooks, from top to bottom."
Clay Pigeon represents Chef Paslay's first restaurant as a chef/owner. He's worked in the kitchens of Four Seasons Vail in Colorado, Canlis in Seattle, and Rough Creek Lodge in Glen Rose, Texas, among others, but opening his own restaurant has always been a dream.
He says the food landscape in Fort Worth began evolving about five years ago, and more so in the last couple of years, as restaurants that provided farm-inspired dining moved in. To that end, Chef Paslay and his executive sous chef, Peter Kreidler, are in constant conversations with their purveyors to craft their market-driven cuisine.
The two collaborate on new menu items and ideas, and if an ingredient is at a good value and a high quality, they buy it and find a place for it on the menu. Everything at Clay Pigeon is made in-house, from breads, ice creams, and pasta to charcuterie and bacon.
"I think that's a unique thing for this town right now," Chef Paslay says.
Sales are pretty evenly divided between food and beverage, and food costs run about 33 percent. "That is good for us, because we're dealing with a lot of high-end, quality products that cost a lot,” Chef Paslay explains. “But the advantage we have is we can change our menu, so we're not married to any one ingredient. If the price goes through the roof, we’re not going to run, say, asparagus through the wintertime; it doesn’t make sense from a seasonality standpoint or a cost standpoint.
"So, that’s how we’re able to get the quality of product that we get and run the food cost percentage that we do, the freedom of the menu change.”
Pairing with Clay Pigeon's cuisine is a seasonal beverage program with locally sourced spirits and a wine lover's dream, a list proffering more than 1,000 bottles. Daniel Fitzgerald, the general manager and sommelier, selects the wines and knows the list so well, he can make immediate recommendations to guests. This keeps the list from being too daunting for guests to approach, Chef Paslay says.
"That's a table-side conversation that a lot of our servers are equipped with the knowledge to handle," he says. "Daniel can also go to the table and figure out what they've liked in the past, what their flavor profile is, what price range they're in. And as well as he knows the list, he can right there in his head dwindle it down to a few options. It's a real interactive way to provide knowledge, but let guests make their own choices at the same time."
The biggest challenge in the first year was getting the word out about the eatery that is both off the beaten path and so different from the town's usual offerings. Once word of mouth spread, though, Chef Paslay says guests were flowing in, and he attributes the restaurant’s success to the neighborhood’s fervor.
"At the end of the day, it's all about hospitality. It's all about how the person who's in your restaurant feels, while they're there and after they leave. If we're better prepared for each person, they're going to have a better experience. So, the more we get to know them and the more we get to know about them, the better job we can do for them while they're here."
By Sonya Chudgar