Lee & Michael J. Comisar
Food Arts presents the May 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Lee Comisar and MIchael J. Comisar for polishing and sustaining the highest standards of fine restaurant dining in Cincinnati, the MIdwest's gateway to the South.
The Maisonette, jewel of the Comisars' four restaurant properties, gas garnered 32 consecutive five-star ratings from the Mobil Travel Guide, and unprecedented run of excellence. Opened in 1949 and named for the old Maisonette coaxed Cincinnatians out from their cosseting clubs and special occasion Deco hotel dining rooms and into the whirl of public social life. In a city that has nurtured and appreciated music and art, The Maisonette was the first to extend the boundaries of fashion and appreciation to include fine dining. It's a function the Comisars have maintained at The Maisonette for 47 years.
Lee, 65, now semiretired, is chairman of the board of Comisar La Normandie Maisonette, Inc.—and the family's two other holdings, Chester's Road House in suburban Montgomery and Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio. Michael J. Comisar, 60, serves as president of all the properties and is still active at The Maisonette, where he works the floor at lunch. The day-to-day operation of The Maisonette rests in the hands of the brothers' sons—Lee's son Michael E., 45, and Michael J.'s son Nat, 36.
Obsessive attention to detail and customer-first credo is at the heart of The Maisonette's decade-long run. "Those two concepts are the cornerstones of the whole bloody thing," Michael J. says. "We're in the people business. Our employees and guests have feelings and needs, and we have to keep up with these."
The Comisar brothers were acutely aware that the one component The Maisonette had not been keeping up with recently was the food. Their menu, they realized, was in danger of calcifying into a pavillion-era fossil of en croute dishes and classic cliches. While the restaurant had moved two blocks down (taking its building-mate, La Normandie, with it) in 1966 and had shed its color scheme of 1960s red for softer tones during a 1988 renovation, the menu didn't get a face-lift until 1994 with the arrival of 34-year-old Jean -Robert de Cavel—formerly of the Hotel Plaza Athenee and his own La Gauloise in New York City.
"We knew changes had to be made, but we had to be careful," Michael J. says. "We travel, we read books. But when some prosperous tobacco farmer from Kentucky comes in, he wants his beef Wellington. He doesn't want to know about the cutting edge in New York or San Francisco. He couldn't care less about infusions and cuisine minceur."
The Comisars' food domain started with the deli their emigre White Russian grandfather established in Cincinnati soon after he arrived from Poland in the 1920s. Twenty years later it included a clutch of restaurants owned by the brothers' father and uncles, including The Pirate Den, Comisar's Grill, Paradise gardens, and La Normadie Steak and Chop House. Nathan died soon after his dream restaurant, The Maisonette, opened. His widow, Vallie, and Lee stepped into the breach.
When we first opened we offered spaghetti and meatballs," Lee recalls. "It took us three years to evolve into a French restaurant, with the hiring of Maurice Gorodesky as chef in 1953."
Lee, whom his brother lauds as an astute businessman, helped his mother run The Maisonette and La Normandie until Michal J. permanently came aboard in the early '60s after trying restaurants and other business stints in and out of the family business. Their mother died in 1964.
The brothers partnership has been an undeniable success, even though they stumble when asked to give reasons for it.
"I always wanted to run for political office, or apply to law school, or go to divinity school, to somehow make a difference in people's lives in a God-given short time," Michael J. Says. "I feel I'm bringing people a little joy by being an innkeeper. But never in my wildest dream did I ever think we'd get this high."