By Chris Mohney
Danny Lledo is chef-owner at Xiquet restaurant in Washington DC.
When we first opened Xiquet March 2020, we wanted that Michelin star. But the pandemic allowed us to develop into the format that we have today. The interesting aspect of it was because we were new, and not a lot of people knew about us, it’s not like we could get off-brand in order to make money to survive during lockdown. We went from à la carte and a tasting menu, to only doing a tasting menu of 7 to 10 courses, and now doing 14 courses. We didn’t spend any time idle.
It really allowed us to build on our experience. Before, guests started and finished in the mezzanine and in the lounge. We had 20 people in the lounge. Some people starting, some people finishing. And it was fun. It was crowded, and it was a good time. People were having cocktails, people were having after-dinner drinks to finish.
That couldn’t happen during the pandemic. People didn’t feel comfortable sitting so close to each other. It still doesn’t happen today. We had to change that experience. And when we changed it, we made it better.
And today, because of the pandemic, we’re a three-level experience where guests start at the chef’s counter with aperitivos, and then finish in the lounge in the mezzanine. Where I had 10 tables before, today I have only 6 tables.
I’m very big on after-dinner drinks. It’s like going to somebody’s house, and maybe starting in the backyard with a cocktail, but then you finish on the sofa having after-dinner drinks. That’s something that I always grew up with. You go to a 100-seat or 200-seat restaurant, and they’ll show you the drink list. Here’s all the ports, here’s all the Madeiras. But they don’t have the drinks in the lounge where they’re standing right in front of you like eye candy. There’s a saying in Spanish, “thing that I see, thing that I want.” To have the drinks there is like reading a menu visually from the actual bottles.
When it comes to fine-dining experiences, it’s all about setting—the plate and the dish, but also the environment you create for your guests. Having that lounge area at the end invites people to create their own scotch flight or their own Madeira flight.
When you build a restaurant like Xiquet, it takes a lot of resources. Not just money, but the time and other resources you need to put it together. There were a lot of moments throughout the pandemic when I never thought it was going to survive. The interesting thing, which helped us long-term, was that I told the same story. I wasn’t doing any sort of street food to build sales for the day. And because I had to stick to my guns, it made the restaurant better.
One of the things that I really understood was when a guest comes into your restaurant, it’s a privilege. Not only did they choose you, but they dined out during a pandemic. And that was a different challenge. That level of appreciation really helps, knowing that we were doing the right thing.
A lot of restaurants were closed for a good amount of time during the pandemic—from big Michelin-star operations to smaller ones. It was less expensive for them to close until they figured it all out. For me, I had my back up against a wall from day one because I own my own building. I didn’t have rent relief or things of that nature until much later when I actually didn’t need it. I had to do everything I could every day to prove that I was making my best effort to create revenue. I had to do it for my bank, but also just letting people know that we were continuing.
It used to be in October or November, we needed to do a Christmas Eve menu and New Year’s Eve menu. We had to do Restaurant Week specials. We had to do a Valentine’s Day menu and all of that three or four months beforehand. Now I have half my dining room booked for both seatings on Valentine’s Day, and I don’t even have a menu posted because people trust that this is where they want to be. People already know that they want to spend New Year’s Eve with us. People already know they want to book Valentine’s Day with us. That’s good for the business, but it’s hard for us because I have six to seven dishes right now that I want to implement on the menu. I wish I could implement them last Tuesday, but it’s going to take three or four weeks to get it in motion.
Interestingly enough, when it comes to certain dishes that we’ve done here in Xiquet which are epic, in my opinion, and memorable and creative, sometimes after everything is said and done, it takes one or two days or even a half a service, and we change it because of a guest’s reaction, or you saw the dish in the guest’s hands at the table, and you find a flaw.
For example, the rice dish that we currently have on the menu, the arrós de marina with plankton and seaweed. Now we also have uni on top of it. Before we were serving people paella, and it was amazing. It was done with applewood-smoked duck that we did in-house. It had figs, it had mushrooms, we did truffles on it, and it was beautiful.
But then we wanted to do the same thing with a rice dish, and it was like, “Something’s wrong. People are not eating it.” This is an epic dish. This is creative. The intention was always to have uni as a supplement. The idea was for it to be a vegan rice dish with seafood. But people were not responding to it because it was served in a paella pan. They were like, “Where’s the mountain of seafood?”
So within three days, I changed it to a ring of rice with seaweed on top, served on a circular plate. All of a sudden everybody loved it. The plating made all the difference in the world.
And when I actually sat down the following week and tasted the whole menu, I was like, “No, I can’t have uni as a supplement. It has to be part of the dish.” It added creaminess. For those people that want it vegetarian without the uni, sure, I’ll remove it. But the dish needed it.
For New Year’s Eve—and now it’s on our regular menu—we had squab. We thought it was really cute to have a little leg of the squab on the dish. But as soon as we took the leg off, everybody loved it. We changed that in mid-service on New Year’s Eve. I guess it boils down to—if you saw the head of a cow, would you still eat meat? Seeing a beautiful squab breast with sauce and chestnut puree and foie foam, that’s amazing. You add the little leg, it becomes too real.
If I waved my magic wand, half my menu would change right now. But it takes time. Sometimes when you’re busy, you just don’t have that time. During the pandemic, I was able to change more quickly because I wasn’t full every night. So we worked on dishes. Now, if we want to really change things, we have to close for days. That’s how we changed things in August. We had to close for two weeks when we went from 7 courses to 10 to 14.
That’s the thing at high level-productions of our caliber. There is so much intensity every day. Tuesdays are as busy as Fridays. So it’s not like there’s any time to relax, think, and develop. Those four days off in December were when I firmed up the six or seven new dishes that are going to be menu-defining. We have to implement them as soon as possible. I’m hopeful that by February we have them all implemented.