C’est La Vie

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Posted March 25, 2009 by LAURIE BARKER JAMES in Eats

The Vault’s Jean Michele Sakouhi isn’t fretting the hard times.

Restaurateur Jean Michele Sakouhi is characteristically Gallic about the current economic climate. The French are known to take all kinds of news — good, bad, or in between — with a shrug.

eats_1The native of Dijon, France, opened The Vault Mediterranean restaurant in The Tower last May. The spring start was a calculated gamble. Sakouhi hoped that word of mouth from downtown clients would translate into fall holiday bookings. But after a slow summer, Fort Worth caught the economic flu plaguing the rest of the country, and the Vault has felt the chill. “In a recession,” he said, “the first thing people cut back on is dining out.”

The restaurant also had its share of personnel turnover. Executive chef Gabe Ochoa was let go over the summer for purely business-related reasons, according to Sakouhi. The Vault has kept soldiering on, due in part to Sakouhi’s solid business plan and a group of silent partners whom he credits with “keeping the restaurant successful.”

Sakouhi has opened and sold five other restaurant/bar concepts in North Texas. The Vault, he said, is the culmination of all his ideas over the past two decades.

His career as a restaurateur began when he was a teenager. Apprenticing in several French and Swiss restaurants, Sakouhi learned all aspects of the business, from the front of the house to the kitchen. After a stint in the French Air Force, Sakouhi became a lawyer. He eventually came to the United States, married a Georgia gal, and worked in Houston as an attorney for the oil and gas industry. It was lucrative, but Sakouhi dreamt of building his own restaurant.

First he had to learn the cultural differences in American eating versus French gastronomy. In France, people linger over their meals. “I had never seen a drive-through until I came to America,” he said.

Sakouhi opened and operated La Touraine in the West End in Dallas in 1989 before selling it a couple of years later. There was another restaurant, Tramontana in Preston Center, which was sold during the divorce from his first wife. By the late 1990s, his third restaurant, Le Paris Bistrot, had become acknowledged by Dallas foodies as a place to get true French cuisine. The gig was so successful that Sakouhi opened a wine/martini bar next door, named Severine’s after his second wife.

Sakouhi learned about the loyalty Fort Worth foodies have for their restaurants when he took over The Balcony in 2000. Although he couldn’t save the once-elegant restaurant — it closed in 2002 — he appreciated the faithfulness of the clientele. “In Fort Worth, people are more interested in the food,” he said. “In Dallas, people eat at places to see and be seen.”

Around 2004, Sakouhi had entered into negotiations to open a new location of Paris Bistrot, in The Tower, the centrally located high-rise of condominiums and street-level restaurants that in its former incarnation as the Bank One Tower had survived tornado damage. The deal never got done, partly because the space was too big to fit Sakouhi’s idea of a “bistro” or intimate dining space. The downtown location was nonetheless appealing. Planning The Vault took a little more than two years. Just before it opened, Sakouhi found out he had prostate cancer and started treatment. He’s doing fine, he said.

And the picture for his restaurant is looking brighter. The Vault retained its lunch service in a time when a lot of other new restaurants stopped theirs. Chef Victor Garcia, who formerly worked for Sakouhi at Le Paris Bistrot, now runs the kitchen, which makes Sakouhi both happy and confident. “I would put Victor up against any French chef in the area,” Sakouhi said.

Business in the downstairs V Lounge has picked up dramatically over the past several months, even without happy-hour prices. The V Lounge now features music Wednesday through Saturday evenings. And then there’s Sakouhi’s wine cellar. Originally, he wanted a 1,200-bottle wine list but had no space to keep the bottles. Sakouhi pared his list down to fewer than 500. “The clientele we have are very knowledgeable about wine,” he said.

Earlier this year, Sakouhi expanded the restaurant to include a small downstairs meeting room/wine cellar just off the V Lounge. The space, formerly occupied by a dry cleaner, provided him room to seat 40 people and to store a few more bottles of wine. “In the long run, I think it’s worked out,” he said. “Although I think we’re still like the ‘hidden spot’ for dining.”

The Vault’s status as a secret hideaway might be in doubt. The restaurant had 275 tables throughout Valentine’s Day. Sakouhi says it was the restaurant’s busiest day ever and perhaps a sign that his vision is being recognized. “Trendy will always change,” he said. “A restaurant that tries to be trendy is only successful until the next trendy restaurant comes along.” l


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