2019-02-01 / Dishing

At Your Service

Bistrozine restaurateur Joe Liu aims to please.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

It took Joe Liu one year to design, style and photograph the 36-page menu for his new Asian fusion restaurant. But what goes on his plates is only one part of the hospitality philosophy underlying Bistrozine — Liu gives as much thought to what’s underneath them.

“See this,” Liu says, holding up one of the tablemats that adorn each of his tables, contributing to what Liu hopes is fine-dining ambience. “If you get chocolate in these little holes, it won’t just wipe away.” If his servers are doing their jobs, they’ll take the extra minute to get a new mat from the kitchen. Later that night, after the servers are gone, Liu will soak them in bleach and run them through the dishwasher.

Liu, the owner of Bistrozine, doesn’t enjoy talking to the media. But he has no problem expounding on what makes a restaurant worth a return visit, restaurant hygiene included.
He divulges little about his background: Lacking formal culinary training, the avid home cook immersed himself in the New York restaurant scene as a diner (go to Szechuan Mountain House on St. Marks, he says) and an employee.

After a few years working various restaurant and customer service jobs, he packed his bags. He wanted quiet and, despite feedback from relatives who thought he was “crazy,” a restaurant of his own.  

“It’s all about living doing what you love to do,” he says. “You never know what happens tomorrow.”
An aunt in Harrisburg told him about State College, and he felt good about building a restaurant 200 feet from a Starbucks — a commercial district’s stamp of approval. Of course, that Starbucks sits on a busy Garner street corner. Bistrozine is tucked away in a spot I didn’t even realize existed, off of Calder Way.

Liu does most of the cooking, arriving at 8:30 a.m. most mornings to prepare the building blocks of his menu. Once the first course of the day is served, he tries to spend as much time as possible outside the kitchen greeting customers.

The day I visited Bistrozine, a few months before I stopped in for an interview, our server returned to our table multiple times to ask for feedback on the food. He seemed aimed to please. Only later did we realize that the server was Liu.

He honed his customer service skills back in Brooklyn, where he managed a high-end Asian fusion restaurant. Despite his media shyness, he genuinely likes talking to his customers and believes his passion for pleasing people and remembering what makes them happy earned him his career. Back in New York, you could get lo mein on nearly every corner, he says. But you wouldn’t necessarily get a server who remembered your name and your favorite cocktail.  “It’s a very simple thing,” he says. “But it’s meaningful for the customer.”

That doesn’t make it common. By his assessment, many of the restaurants he’s visited so far have poor service, and he doesn’t quite get how those same restaurants, whose servers are doing little more than delivering plates to a table, can ask for a suggested tip of 20 percent or more.

Customer service is only one part of hospitality, he says. When Liu first opened Bistrozine, he painstakingly lined the tables up one behind the other, walking around the room to ensure straight lines from any vantage point. He designed the space with an open kitchen, keeping his staff accountable and giving customers a visual reminder of the care he instills with their dining experience.

After opening this past summer, he insisted that servers turned over tables only after wiping down the surface and each side of those tablemats, even when they didn’t have chocolate splattered conspicuously down the side — “Like that,” he interjected, pointing to a server he stealthily inspected from the other side of the room.

After coming to terms with the fact that servers in State College are college students looking for extra cash as opposed to culinary greenhorns trying to break into the business, he eased up. Otherwise, he says, “No one will want to work for me.”

He trained his staff with an emphasis on presentation, a big factor in a customer’s willingness to spend $13 on an entrée or $11 on an appetizer, he says. Nearly every item has a corresponding photo in the menu that is part food magazine, part high-end brochure. “I wanted a magazine concept so people understand what they’re getting,” he says.

In this case, real life is just as good as the photo. Order the “Ocean Explosion,” a version of which Liu makes for his family, and you’ll receive tiny packages of seafood atop orderly mounds of guacamole and drizzled with sweet and spicy aioli. The photos of the desserts are tough to resist. The Avocado Affogato resembles a stylish terrarium; nestled inside were two of my favorite items, avocado and chocolate, with a third, coffee, on the side.

Other recommendations: the calamari (Upside: It’s always fresh; Downside: Because of that, it isn’t always on the menu), crispy duck rolls and the ribs sliders. The sliders feature slow-cooked baby back ribs and barbecue sauce with a kick served on, surprise, hash browns. It’s the kind of gimmick you’d find at a fast food chain but with ingredients you actually want to eat. The ability to bring your own alcohol makes it all too easy to splurge on the shareable appetizers.

Whatever you order, Liu will be on hand watching — filing away his observations and shining your placemats for use on what he hopes is your return

Avocado Affogato
2 servings
3 large or 4 small avocados
sprinkle of sugar
1 scoop vanilla ice cream
1 tsp. cocoa powder
1 shot espresso

Blend sugar with avocado. Top with vanilla ice cream and dust with cocoa powder. Serve with espresso.

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