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January 12, 2009 at 11:21 AM

Caffe Vita’s Mike McConnell: patron saint — of Cremant?

Mike McConnell has his fingers in a lot of pies. He’s the founder of Caffe Vita (now with five retail locations), the visionary behind Via Tribunali (his fourth pizzeria opened last month in Fremont) and a partner at Pike Street Fish Fry (around the corner from the flagship cafe and roasting plant on Capitol Hill). Mike’s the man intent on reviving Belltown’s late lamented Crocodile, where a fifth Via Trib will be part of the blueprint — if and when the club reopens in March (keep your fingers crossed, the city isn’t making it easy). And in a culinary coup de grace, he’s now the owner of Madrona’s French bistro, Cremant.

C’est what?

Stepping away from a management meeting this weekend while still feeling the effects of jetlag and illness contracted during a coffee-buying trip to Guatemala, McConnell addressed the rumors I’d long been hearing, that Cremant’s chef/owner, Scott Emerick and his wife, Tanya, had been looking to sell their restaurant. In September, he offered to buy the place, quietly taking ownership of the bistro that made a huge splash when it debuted in 2006 after much anticipation. “I love the restaurant,” said McConnell, who notes, “I didn’t want to see a good thing go away.”

Restaurants everywhere should be so lucky to have a patron-turned-saint with the drive, the staff and — most importantly — the bucks to take over and do what needs to be done to try to keep a young business afloat during an economic implosion.

“We have a pretty-good management team and we were able to turn things around,” says McConnell, who has brought in chef Brendan McGill, now running the bistro’s kitchen. McGill’s resume includes stops at il Bistro and Harvest Vine. He’s recently returned from a six-month sojourn in Europe and was introduced to Cremant’s kitchen by Emerick, whom he worked with until year’s end — when Cremant’s founding-chef left his kitchen in McGill’s hands and his restaurant in the hands of the McConnell’s management team. Other transitions are in the offing, said McConnell, including changes to the physical space as well as the menu.

“Cremant will be going through an aesthetic upgrade. We’re working with [landlord and designer] Roy McMakin. We want to warm the place up, create a more casual feel in the back” — with a new bar menu — yet “maintain the integrity of the place.” A place, he insists, that’s “moving in a very good direction.”

As for the Emericks, I’ve still waiting to hear back from them regarding their future plans, but I was glad to hear they spent the New Year holiday in Las Vegas. Owning a restaurant is a gamble, as they’ll certainly tell you, but their friend the coffee kingpin isn’t worried about his recent throw of the dice. “As long as I’m involved, Cremant should stay open,” said McConnell. “I’m very committed, and it’s important to me that it survives and is successful.”

UPDATE: The Emericks are pleading the Fifth until certain negotiations stemming from the sale of the restaurant are worked out in their entirety. I’ll keep you posted when I know more.

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