Micah Clement and his wife, Tawny, wanted to do something special before their baby was born. So in February, they booked a reservation at Café Beautiful, 730 Mass., expecting a good night.
Their expectations were a little low.
“Overall it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Clement. “You have a window view of Mass. Street, and you can see the sunset as you dine. (The chef) serves only you, (making) it super intimate.”
Melinda Roeder is owner and sole chef at Café Beautiful, an Asian fusion, reservation-only restaurant that has shuffled through a few owners during its time in Lawrence, which spans about a decade. The most notable and longest owner was Chef Ken Suken, a classically trained professional who set the bar high.
Roeder bought the business and opened in January knowing she would have to prove herself. She has plunged herself wholly into the endeavor, holding fast to some of the more established customs, such as serving only a few people at a time, providing multiple courses and allowing dinner to stretch on for several hours.
“This is my show now, but I want to respect the traditions that were built here because there were a lot of great ones,” said Roeder.
Café Beautiful is a restaurant you learn about through word of mouth. Forgoing advertisements, Roeder operates under the assumption that if the experience is good enough, customers will convince others to come.
This assumption is not naive, as the sort of folks who flock to Café Beautiful are often foodies. That includes Clement, who has been to the restaurant three times since February and will take his sister soon, despite the somewhat hefty price tag.
Depending on the menu, the nine-course meal can run $50 to $70 or more per person.
“For what she’s doing, I think she could actually charge more, but she doesn’t,” said Clement. “You’re getting lots of courses, and every dish she brings out is just phenomenal.”
Roeder trained at Johnson County Community College’s Chef Apprenticeship. She then served as sous and executive chef at Mariscos, 4821 W. Sixth St., for three years. For a while, she operated her own catering business. But when Suken offered to sell Café Beautiful, she snatched it up, eager to fulfill a dream.
The glory of being a chef, says Roeder, is the creative control the profession lends you.
Before switching to culinary study, Roeder was an art student, taking metal smithing, jewelry making and other random studio classes. She always had a knack for cooking but had never thought of pursuing it professionally.
But after researching the chef apprenticeship for a friend, she convinced them both — herself and the friend — to attend. Once Roeder started studying the craft of cooking, things started to come together.
Roeder discovered the art of food. As a chef, she could funnel her creative energy and passion into cooking. While taste is key, some of that passion is exhibited visually.
“The presentation to me is just as important as how it tastes,” Roeder said. “Each dish … is still a piece of art. We eat with our eyes. If something looks awful, you have this feeling going into it that you’re not going to enjoy it, but if it’s the sexiest thing you’ve ever had set in front of you, you kind of want to try it.”
Carol Hurst, who lived in Japan for four years, said that when it comes to presentation, Roeder nails it.
“Everything is so beautifully presented, and the presentation sets you up for the appreciation,” said Hurst. “Each course is just fabulous. … And the wonderful thing is, you not only enjoy the food, but you enjoy and learn a lot about the people you’re with.”
The menu is a collection of Roeder’s favorite things, things people wouldn’t order or normally even see on a menu every day.
There’s the traditional Korean custard with shrimp and vegetables, the duck tataki marinated in miso and five different peppers, the spicy tuna sriracha with ginger sauce.
Roeder enjoys crafting dishes based on seasonal foods she buys locally. Everything but the fish is purchased in or around Lawrence.
Roeder serves only one table at a time, staggering reservations and blocking out 2-hour intervals for each one. She prefers small groups and maxes out at groups of 20, believing that after that, the quality of the experience is diminished.
“When you come up here, you feel like the most special person in the world because it’s you and whoever you’re with and the chef,” she said. “Everybody deserves to feel that good at dinner. We don’t get enough of it.
“We eat at such a rapid rate, in and out, and sometimes you feel pushed out by restaurants waiting to get another table. That’s not the experience you have here.”
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