Secrets to Dining Out Portion Control: Q & A With Tria Wine & Cheese Bar

Editor’s note: My interview with Tria partner Michael McCaulley was fascinating.  Because of the amount of quality information, this Q&A will be posted in two installments, with part two, discussing the best wine for weight-loss, posting tomorrow.

Why would I, someone who has a gluten allergy and dedicated my life to helping women lose weight by redesigning their lives, venture into a wine and cheese bar? For starters, Tria, one of Philly’s most popular and recognized cafés, has 100% whole grain, gluten-free crackers to accompany their cheese. Secondly, living well includes restaurants. Eating out can be relaxing and fun—two necessary qualities to a well-designed life.

A missing piece in the weight-loss conversation is the “how.” The “what” of calorie or carbs doesn’t mean implementing this knowledge when dining out or sitting on your couch, exhausted and emotional at 9 p.m. Focusing on the emotional satisfaction from food, from life, is 80% of the weight-loss story.

When deciding on a dining experience, you are selecting someone to serve you.  Are you going to spend your well-earned money and free time being served a pleasurable or ho-hum experience? Choosing a pleasurable meal, one that engages all of the senses, has built in portion control because it satisfies the emotions, the reasons we turn to food.  The emotional IQ of a meal starts with quality ingredients, great service and beautiful food.

Tria accomplishes all of these. Their sophisticated wine service has earned them two James Beard Awards nominations and their food is sourced from local dairies and farms. The result? A taste bud renaissance.  I recently sat down with Mike McCaulley, partner of Tria to deconstruct their magic.

Q. What is the inspiration behind Tria?

A. The restaurant concept came post-French revolution. When all the well-educated, highly trained chefs had no aristocracy to cook for, they started cooking for the public. For the first time, everyday people could be treated like a king or queen for the evening. It was a democratic revolution, culinary style.

Tria wanted to keep that spirit alive. Maintain the royalty quality but make the atmosphere comfortable. We start with the food quality in order to avoid over-salting and flavoring, which clutters the plate. Our design is simple and clean, not too much sauce or spice because the food flavors for us. Everything on the plate must be meaningful. When the food looks elegant, it’s more appetizing.

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Chilled asparagus with pecorino pepato, lemon oil, and hazelnuts.When in season, Tria uses Jersey asparagus.

 Next, there’s no pressure to order five courses or the bottled water. You can get an appetizer or a salad or a drink, or all three. We are here to serve exactly what our guests want. And when they are comfortable, the conversation flows.  And we are all about the conversation. That is what gives food its meaning.

Q. I ask my clients to notice when they go out to eat with company they enjoy if they naturally eat less. The answer is usually yes, without effort. I’ve noticed the design here is simple, clean and warm no TV, the music is playing softly and the service is seamless. This seems to invite conversation. Was that intentional?

A.Very. The service and space is designed to be simple and clean. The most intrusive thing is the “Employees must wash hands” sign, which is a legal requirement. This simplicity promotes conversation, with food and drink as the medium. You don’t see it, but conversation is built into our business model. It brings people back. Great aesthetics calm and place our guests at ease versus on guard.

In regards to service, it’s an extension of human interaction; great service is an extension of having a great time. If a server isn’t anticipating your needs, it could stop a good conversation. We spend significant time training our staff to not make a fuss. So for example, recognizing the water needs to be refilled before a guest asks as to not interrupt the flow of their conversation. Bad service interrupts what is natural.

Q. Lately, many people desire quality versus quantity. Local and organic are en vogue and fingers crossed, here to stay. How does this translate at Tria?

A. For us, everything stems from flavor. When we first opened, you could only find economically feasible great flavor by importing from Italy; the local distribution was inconsistent and pricey. Yet because of more consumer demand in the last two years, we have more local options and farmers will now deliver because it’s worth their effort.

These days, the quality flavor happens to come from local and organic farms.  In general, when you are working face to face with a farmer versus a company, you know they care because this isn’t just a job, it’s their art. Lots of the small farms we work with don’t want to pay to be certified organic. Yet because we know them, talk with them face to face, we know they are farming organic and sustainably because the trust and flavor are there.

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Maximuck’s Farms heirloom tomato salad with arugula, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar. Located in Bucks County, Maximuck’s grows heirloom cherry tomatoes exclusively for Tria. The mozzarella is locally made by Claudio’s in the Italian market.

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(left to right) Cherry Grove Toma from Cherry Grove Farm in New Jersey with apricot mustard. This raw cow’s milk cheese has a deep washed rind and is certified organic. Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farms grass-fed Moses sleeper cheese with ginger strawberries. 

Q. I love that you have a seasonal menu because usually the best nutrition is one that is in concert with the natural environment. What is your favorite item on the menu right now?

A. I love the honey paprika cured lomo. It’s a Spanish pork tenderloin cured in paprika, apple cider, mustard seed, chill pepper and pickled with raisins topped with organic cilantro

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This dish is incredible and one of my favorites 

I also love the truffle egg toast. It has that “craveability” factor. When you think about a place and crave a dish, this is it for me at Tria. It’s toasted brioche with truffle oil, local arugula, a farm fresh egg, and melted fontina cheese. When the nights get chiller, it’s a great breakfast for dinner.

Q. I noticed your cheeses change too.  While I’m mostly dairy free, I do enjoy an occasional high-quality cheese night out. Why do the cheeses change?

A. Cheese is a seasonal food. Animals, like people, eat differently during the seasons. In the winter, cows eat hay compared to grass during the spring, summer and fall. Cheese made from spring milk is more nuanced and flavorful   In the Alpines, animals eat different fauna and flowers based on the temperature. For example, to stay cool in the summer, animals will eat at a higher altitude. A lighter cheese usually means winter cow milk—less beta-carotene where a darker cheese usually indicates spring cow milk with more beta-carotene. Food is really an adventure and it’s important to pay attention to detect the subtleties.

The remainder of this Q & A , along with the simple recipe for the flavorful apricot mustard shown above, posts tomorrow.