When Bistro 491, one of the area’s fine dining landmarks, closed in May, Augusta’s foodies were understandably disappointed. But disappointment quickly turned to anticipation as word spread that owner Todd Schafer wasn’t just closing up shop, he was making way for a new concept restaurant at the same Surrey Center location.
“We’re having a soft opening for friends and family on Dec. 10 and 11,” Schafer said as IT-types were installing computer screens and contractors were putting the finishing touches on the newly renovated space. “We may be open on Dec. 12, it just depends. But we’ll definitely be open before the holidays.”
The new establishment is called Abel Brown, an oyster bar and coastal restaurant named after a sea shanty about a sailor trying to sleep with a maiden.
“I wanted something that was nautical, but not overt,” he said. “Not the Shipwreck or the Anchor or anything like that.”
Complementing the subtlety of the name is the decor, which shies away from peg legged sailors with parrots on their shoulders in favor of a clean, mid-century modern look with nautical accents, like the brass lights, which came from a shipyard in Galveston, Texas.
“They’re the real deal,” he said, laughing. “They weigh about 10 pounds a piece.”
With Eames chairs, walnut tables, rust colored banquettes and tile that’s the color of a vintage automobile, it’s a far cry from the solemn darkness of Bistro 491.
“It’s almost like we’re doing the exact opposite,” Schafer said. “We had brown walls and brown carpet and now we have light wood floors and white walls.”
He’s also added booths and has seating on the side, separating the area in order to give people more privacy.
Though Bistro 491 remained open, Schafer left town in 2009 when his wife, a cardiologist, received a fellowship at Wake Forrest University. He returned in 2012, but mostly stayed away from the restaurant while he concentrated on raising his small children.
“We first opened the Bistro in 1999, so we did it for 15 years, which is a long time for a restaurant,” he said. “We saw our customers come in young, and our customers were still our customers, but older. We’re trying to make it more appealing to a younger demographic.”
Appealing to younger diners doesn’t mean skimping on the quality, however.
“We’re still going to use the same good ingredients and the same purveyors,” he said. “It’s all still going to be made from scratch.”
Those fresh ingredients have been in Schafer’s arsenal since the beginning, when he pretty much invented Augusta’s farm-to-table dining scene.
“I started that Blue Clay farm over in North Augusta,” he said. “I got the funding, did all the legwork, hired the farmer and everything. We didn’t do it to make money, we did it to have access to good, fresh produce.”
He also supported a neighborhood gardener by purchasing 500 pounds of tomatoes from him every summer.
“Whatever he had, we were buying,” he said.
With Abel Brown, he plans to continue that same attention to detail by using fish caught as nearby as possible. Redfish, snapper – whatever is fresh and available, he’ll buy it in small amounts to keep overhead low and the ingredients as fresh as possible.
“People say they like Gulf oysters, but they like them because they’re steamed, or they like them because they bake them or they’re fried,” he said. “But on the half shell, you don’t really want to eat those oysters. The company we use in Boston doesn’t sell any oysters that are caught below Long Island Sound, so they’re from cold water and they’re tasty.”
Cooking with seafood, especially such fresh seafood, comes with its own set of challenges, but Schafer plans to turn those challenges into advantages.
“If I’m ordering seven or eight or 10 pounds of something and selling it out in one day and the next day I have something completely different, it keeps us motivated and the staff will be more immersed in what we’re doing, which is good,” he said. “We changed the menu in the old place seasonally and sometimes more, but now we’re talking about changing it maybe 200 times a year.”
Though the food will be southern, Schafer said longtime customers can still expect the same sense of culinary flair they enjoyed at the Bistro.
“I can’t escape the way I was trained,” he said. “I was French trained, so that influence is going to be there – I can’t get away from it. But southern food is a blend of a lot of different cultures, so being able to do that will be fun.”
With entree prices in the $18-$22 range, Abel Brown will be a little more economical than the Bistro was, and though he’d like to add a Southern Sunday brunch after he gets his Sunday license at the first of the year, for the time being the hours will be Monday-Saturday.
Saying he thrives on the chaos and loves how things can be crazy in the back while the customers don’t know anything’s wrong, Schafer seems rejuvenated after his time away.
“I’m really looking forward to working again,” he said. “It’s fun to be able to teach and lead a team of individuals that are motivated, and I think we’ve put together a pretty good team.”