Avishar Barua just wants to bring you joy

Andy Downing
Avishar Barua

In order to celebrate the creativity currently being displayed by restaurants in the coronavirus era, one first has to acknowledge that these victories are relative, arriving amid mass layoffs, decreased profits and deep concerns for the health and safety of both customers and employees.

In the last five months at Service Bar, chef Avishar Barua has guided a small team through these hurdles while navigating a complete menu revamp, converting the dine-in restaurant into a carry-out only operation, in addition to introducing experiential dinners and a rotating menu of dishesposted weekly on Instagram. The experience has tested both the chef and a handful of remaining staffers (all front of the house employees and most kitchen workers were laid off in March; only salaried employees remain), beginning with the initial calculations made by Barua to determine if Service Bar could viably move forward under a takeout model.

“The first thing I did, from a business standpoint, was take out a piece of paper and write down what I pay my staff, and then this is the number we have to hit to pay the bills. And when we saw that number, we thought this was doable,” Barua said in an early August interview outside the Short North restaurant, which will likely remain closed to in-person dining pending the development of a vaccine. “We’re not trying to make a profit. Any money we make [above costs] goes to the staff or to homeless shelters. We don’t want to benefit from this situation; we just want to make it through.”

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The experience has also reframed the mindset with which Barua approaches his craft. Previously, the chef said he tended to narrow in on minutiae when assembling a dinner plate, obsessing over the sourcing of ingredients and the continual refinement of process (witnessthe painstaking, three-day undertaking required to bring the eatery’s famed fries to the plate). Nowadays, while quality remains key, Barua said he’s embraced a much simpler motivation. “Now it’s more like, if you leave here happy, then we’re happy,” he said. “Anytime I add anything more than that, it gets complicated.”

These simple pleasures were evident in one of the first “experiential” dinners assembled by the Service Bar team, which consisted of a three-course meal centered on its french fries. The dinner, designed to be eaten on-site in the Service Bar parking lot, combined fries and a trio of dipping sauces, steak frites and a macaron-like dessert that recreated the experience of dipping fries into a Frosty. 

The success of the dinner, for which patrons pre-purchased tickets, has opened up new avenues for the restaurant, allowing it to offer more time-sensitive eats that don’t lend themselves as easily to takeout. Recently, for instance, Service Bar dished up baker Kate Djupe’s fresh-from-the-oven pineapple buns on back-to-back Saturdays, which were delivered piping hot to patrons’ cars alongside an ice-cold pat of butter.

“I was at a shop in Hong Kong … and I remember there was a timer, and when I asked [the clerk], ‘What does that timer mean?’ she said, ‘Oh, when that goes off the buns will be ready,’” Barua said. “And at the five-minute mark you see everyone’s in line … because if you wait longer than 10 minutes to eat them, they’re not as good.”

A new offeringavailable for preorder today (Wednesday, Aug. 12) and again next Wednesday, Aug. 19, features a similarly time-sensitive ingredient in soft shell crab, which Barua will serve in a BLT-riffing sandwich alongside a smoked corn and miso chowder and a meal-crowning black sesame mochi cake.

While some high-end eateries have gone the other way amid COVID,assembling intricate, uber-expensive carry-out meals, Barua’s unpretentious leanings, which exhibit themselves in longstanding menu items like a Taco Bell-riffing Cheesy Brisket Crunch, also inform the experiential dinners, a term of which he’s not exactly fond (“I think a customer called it that,” he said, reverting to it when better terminology eluded him). “What’s more comforting than sitting in your car, shoving fries in your mouth hot out of a fryer?” Barua said. 

“It’s nice to see there are still ways to have those experiences,” the chef continued. “Outside of here, and even inside here, we’re constantly reminded that things are not fun right now. So it’s like, what can we do? How can we help? And so we try to bring joy, and we focus on that. There are no more dinner parties, no backyard barbecues. So let’s do what we can. Let’s create an experience and then maybe for a few minutes you don’t have to worry about that other stuff.”