by Paula M. Riley
When Chip Roman opened Mica in 2011 he had recently received a huge honor: His Blackfish Restaurant in Conshohocken was named No. 1 of the “50 Best Places to Eat Right Now” by Philadelphia Magazine. He had beat out Center City restaurants and notable chefs, including Marc Vetri and Jean-Marie Lacroix.
Calls were coming from restaurants around the country, along with requests for interviews from local and national television shows and much acclaim.
Since so many of his customers at Blackfish came from Chestnut Hill, it was a “no-brainer” to open a restaurant on Germantown Avenue, just as the business corridor was undergoing a renaissance with the arrival of new shops and restaurants and the promise of more coming.
He admitted that he remains surprised 18 months later that the majority of his customers still come from outside the Chestnut Hill area.
“We really want Mica to be a place that people in this community can enjoy,” Roman said. “People walk by and I hear them saying, ‘Oh that’s the expensive place.’ They don’t realize we have appetizers for $7 and entrees for $25.”
Breaking the perception that Mica is within the same price range as other area restaurants is a tough one. Since the restaurant’s inception, Roman has tried various approaches to appeal to the Chestnut Hill community. It began with a prix fixe menu with three or four course offerings for one flat amount.
Patrons raved about the food, but some were not comfortable with the prix fixe menu, so Mica made some changes.
“We modified the way the menu was presented so we could offer a more familiar approach to our customers,” Roman said. The menu was laid out in more of an a la carte fashion, and the chef’s table and tastings menu remained as options for patrons.
“Our tastings are so popular at Blackfish,” Roman said. “We can’t figure out why people in Chestnut Hill wouldn’t want a four-course tasting for $45.”
These tastings are focused around one key ingredient, such as lobster, venison, lamb or scallops presented in four unique and interesting ways.
“We take something familiar and present it differently – it’s about trusting us and having fun with the experience,” Roman said.
When diners relinquish control, a completely unique experience unfolds. Getting them in the door, however, can be challenging.
When Roman leased the Mica property, the free parking lot situated behind the building had a huge appeal. Since the inception of the parking kiosks however, he has seen a drop in weekend traffic. On a recent Friday night, he stood on the deck and counted just five cars in the large lot.
Much of his business is reservation-based, and his staff always reminds customers of the parking situation. Many customers still receive tickets, however, and Roman, like other local business owners, has paid for many of his customers’ fines.
“I got an email from a diner that told me he had the best meal at Mica with a perfect wine pairing, but all he will remember about the experience is the $26 parking ticket both he and his companions got on their cars – how do you fight that”? he asked
After taking a call for a reservation from a guest coming in from New York City, Roman said Mica was “doing well.”
“Our tables are pretty full most nights, but still not with that many locals,” Roman added. “We really want this to be a place that locals bring their families to get the best experience.”
The idea of bringing a family to Mica is not one many Hillers consider, Roman explained.
“People probably have no idea that I have eight high chairs in the basement of Mica,” he said. “We’ve hardly used them, but we want to and we can.”
Those high chairs did come out when Mica started serving brunch earlier this year. From February through June, the restaurant hosted a very popular brunch. Sundays were crowded and locals were coming, but abruptly in June the traffic stopped and Mica ended brunch.
A father of four young children, Roman understands the challenges that dining with children can sometimes present.
“I know how to make food appealing to kids, and I know that kids need to get served first,” he said.
Beginning in November, Roman will yet again make an adjustment to Mica that he hopes appeals to locals and their families. He will be open five days a week for lunch. He hopes this is a way for locals and their families to become more comfortable with Mica.
The new lunch menu will include soups, salads such as Russian kale Caesar, warm frisee and organic chicken, salmon and beef burgers, as well as entrees such as grilled skirt steak and sweet potato ravioli and more. As he always does, Roman will work with the seasons, constantly offering the freshest and most interesting ingredients.
Roman promises that lunch, like his dinner options, will be the “pinnacle of Chestnut Hill, but they are not going to break the bank.” The high quality and exceptional ingredients will remain in his lunch dishes.
“Chicken can be just as good as lobster if it’s done right,” he added.
He is hopeful that as he embraces another phase in the evolution of Mica, his restaurant will be the community place he had planned when he first opened Mica’s doors. Until then, he plans to be flexible and true to his passion for creating an experience his customers enjoy.
“Ultimately,” Roman said, “it’s about making sure people leave happy.”
For reservations, go to www.opentable.com or call 267-335-3912.