Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
It’s been three months, but Vince Viola still springs awake in the middle of the night, wondering.
What signs did he miss? How could the entire crisis have been averted?
As the executive chef at Bryn Mawr’s Yangming Restaurant, Viola has good reason to need sleep aids, even after $500,000 in renovations to the Main Line culinary landmark has transformed the eatery’s interior and scrubbed away any remnant of the health violations that forced it to close last August. In the span of less than a week, Yangming went from one of the area’s top dining destinations to a punch line. Viola—who was on vacation when the news broke—remains hurt by the incident, despite a new beginning.
“It was horrible,” says Viola, who’s been with Yangming since it opened in 1991. “Even now, I’ll sleep three or four hours and wake up, thinking about what we could’ve done.”
It seems completely understandable for his subconscious to revisit Yangming’s travails. But as he sits at a table in the restaurant with owner Michael Wei and general manager Alan Huynh, Viola’s mind is fixed on the future and how the team can rebuild its customer base.
Before last summer’s shutdown, the restaurant was predictably busy, with a crowded bar area and a packed reservation schedule. Repeat customers filled tables, happily downing its mixture of Asian and Continental dishes. Since the Oct. 27 reopening, business has increased steadily, but the days of waiting for 45 minutes—even with a reservation—are over for now. “You talk to people in this business, and it’s about gaining one customer at a time,” Viola says. “That’s so true. I hoped we’d get back quicker, but we’re getting there.”
Radnor Township health officials shut down Yangming this past August after customers found roaches in their food. A further investigation uncovered more insects, moldy food containers, and a sewage system filled with cooking grease. At the time, the restaurant’s front window listed “Gross Facility & Equipment Sanitation” and “Insect/Rodent Infestation” as reasons for the closure.
Wei realized that Yangming couldn’t survive a prolonged shuttering. As it was, 65 days was no short-term interlude. But it could’ve been worse. One look at the revamped space provides an indication of just how much was accomplished in two months. Working with a design firm from New York and local contractors, Wei and his team effected a complete restart.
There’s new carpeting throughout the dining area. The wallpaper has been replaced, as have the window treatments. There are new banquettes along the wall and new chairs. Even the etchings on the windows are fresh. Every wooden beam was stripped, sanded and restained, this time with a darker brown hue. Some of the art is different, and Wei is waiting for a shipment of vivid orange napkins to complement Yangming’s white tablecloths. “Everybody did a tremendous job in such a short amount of time,” says Wei.
SECOND CHANCES: Yangming owner Michael Wei at his newly opened restaurant//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
About five feet inside the Yangming kitchen stands a table with an enormous tray that’s filled with an avalanche of snow peas. A man sits before it, dutifully snapping off stems and tails. He’s starting at the bottom of the restaurant business.
Not far away, another aspiring chef is dipping fortune cookies into chocolate sauce. When performing the mundane tasks, it’s always better to work with the sweet stuff. Yangming has two kitchens—one devoted to Asian dishes, the other for more traditional American and European cuisine. Both are spotless and filled with areas that include recently installed chunks of drywall and ceiling. Much of the equipment remains the same from before the shutdown, as does the floor.
Wei and Huynh lead on, pointing out improvements and changes, not at all worried about an inquisitive eye or a barrage of questions. The basement, which was of particular concern to inspectors last summer, is also pristine. It’s important to have a sharp dining room, but the kitchen and storage areas—though never seen by diners—comprise the engine of a restaurant, and they’d better be hyper-sanitary.
Those working in the kitchen are unfazed by visitors. Anybody who has wanted the cook’s tour since Yangming reopened has been granted one. Most of the staff worked at the restaurant before its shutdown, and Wei and Huynh consider the returning staff a clear indication of Yangming’s strong soul and the commitment between its management and workforce.
“The hardest part of the entire thing was keeping all of our loyal employees with us,” Wei says. “We have a wonderful team, and some of the people have been here since we opened. Most of the people were able to keep their jobs. They’re looking at the future.”
And that’s the mantra at Yangming. The restaurant may not be rebounding as quickly as its team would like, but it is squarely facing forward. And it’s doing so dish by dish, as Viola promises, and by teaming up with others in the culinary community to create events that seek to reestablish Yangming as a premier destination for gastronomes.
In mid-January, Yangming hosted its first “chef’s table.” Eleven different kitchen denizens convened at the restaurant to try a collection of appetizers, entrées and desserts. The event lasted four-and-a-half hours, and Viola believes everybody had a good time. It was a great way to reintroduce Yangming to the area’s food cognoscenti and a chance to show that the same quality that had earned it several awards in the past remains.
Two weeks later, chefs Patrick and Terence Feury and Kenny Huang from Berwyn’s Nectar visited Yangming to host a benefit for Kicks4Chris, a Huntingdon Valley charity that provides funds for cancer research. Wei owns Nectar, along with CinCin in Chestnut Hill. Each course was paired with a different whiskey, and the 95 people in attendance appeared to enjoy themselves considerably. “All of the food and whiskey was local,” says Viola.
While much of the rest of the Main Line cocooned during the late-January snowstorm, Viola and a skeleton crew made sure Yangming remained open for business, even when the U.S. Postal Service packed it in. There was a robust takeout business that day, as patrons walked from nearby apartments and homes. “We even did 16 dinners that day,” Viola says, clearly proud of the effort.
That’s how it is at Yangming these days. If people want to come out of the cold for a meal, the crew is ready. As old friends return to a favorite haunt, Wei and his team will welcome them and remind them of what it was that drew them in the past. In early February, he sent an email expressing his optimism. He’s done looking back, and Yangming has paid its debt. It is now time for a new dawn. “It is Chinese New Year time, a time when we focus on the future,” Wei wrote. “For me, the future is bright.”
As customers return, Wei and the rest are eager to prove that their setback was not a knockout. “We’re lucky that old friends have come back to us,” Wei says. “It’s heartwarming—and they’re giving us positive reviews.”
And maybe helping everyone sleep a little more soundly.