Sameh Wadi is leaning back in a chair at his five-year-old restaurant World Street Kitchen wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo from his adjacent gourmet ice cream shop, Milkjam. He’s more relaxed than he’s been in years, with a smart new buzz cut and a palpable sense of relief to be spending full days back at the restaurant. Lately he’s tinkering with fancy sundaes, which is “by far” his favorite thing to do.
“I have to make sure my people are good,” he says, motioning to his staff. “I burned myself out by trapping myself into this lifestyle.”
He’s talking about the recent closing of his 10-year-old restaurant Saffron, a culmination of his dream to bring the flavors of his native Middle East to the Midwest. After the emotional closing, he embarked on a 40-day tour of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, where he says he got his center back, and an enthusiasm for new ventures.
One of those is his involvement in revamping the eight-year-old steak, seafood, and nightclub Seven, which was dogged last year with the financial misdeeds of former owner David Koch. Wadi’s former Saffron landlord Ken Sherman purchased the building with his partner Ro Shirole with the idea to lease it out to someone new. But soon they decided to keep the restaurant open as an amenity to downtown.
“It’s been open eight years,” Wadi explains. “They had to be doing something right.”
Sherman called Wadi and told him about the plans.
“He took a chance on a 23-year-old kid,” says Wadi of Sherman’s decision to lease Saffron to him all those many years ago. So he says his decision to accept the challenge of becoming Seven’s new culinary director is first and foremost a favor to his former landlord.
Again, Wadi’s making sure his people are good.
But he’s also excited to be playing around with American flavors again, something he hasn’t been able to do in many years, with Saffron and World Street Kitchen’s global perspectives.
“The closest thing I’ve come to American flavors are at Milkjam with Oreos and peanut butter.”
His plans for the place are picking up where Sherman and Shirole have already begun, by buying top-quality beef and instituting a dry-aged meat program.
“That right there showed me they were serious, because that isn’t cheap. You have all this time, money, and effort hung up in the product.”
He envisions perfectly executed steaks with a little salt and nothing else, creamy mashed potatoes with plenty of butter, and basically all of the indicators of a great American steakhouse, but a bit more modern.
This project is only the beginning for Wadi. He says he’s on the verge of lots of other things, none of which he’s ready to talk about except to say that he’s not going to re-open Saffron in another location, which he had initially considered doing. He decided he’d already accomplished everything he needed to at that one-of-a-kind place, and he started reflecting on what it felt like to be truly excited again, the way he was in the early days of his career. If he can’t be excited about it, he’s not doing it.
“It’s not fair to my staff,” he repeats. “These guys and gals are everything to me. They’re like my family.” (Indeed, his business partner Saed Wadi is his older brother and has been the business side of all of the restaurants since the first day. Now it’s Saed’s turn for a break, with a two-month trip to the Middle East.)
Since Sameh began his eating tour around Southeast Asia, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that he was going to open a restaurant reflecting the flavors of that part of the world, so I ask him:
“Are you going to open an Asian restaurant?”
He only shrugs, hands in the air.
“You didn’t say no,” I say.
“And I didn’t say yes,” he replies.
“All I can tell you is that I’m doing a lot of really cool shit.”
Wadi has no firm timeline on his takeover or the reopening at Seven, but he says he will let us know when he has a menu in place.
700 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis