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Corner Deli Transformed into an Upscale Eatery

July 11, 2002

They met at culinary school, married and opened a restaurant.

Chef Louis Nickells and chef Susan Scheffler's dreams have come about as a result of hard work. Their new restaurant, Nickells & Scheffler, opened last month after several weeks of cleaning, painting and installing new floors.

The two chefs met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Scheffler was one year ahead of Nickells. She graduated and went to work for the Bethesda Marriott. Coincidentally Nickells did his internship there, and they got to know each other. They maintained a long-distance relationship while he finished his last year at the Institute and she stayed in Bethesda.

They were married that summer and went on to work for other establishments.

"We decided that we had it with corporate America and started looking for a place," said Scheffler. "Most students who graduate from the Institute have a dream of opening their own restaurant."

As is the case with most things in life, things aren't always as easy as they seem. When they found this location at King and Henry, Nickells was working for Aramark and was located at the Pentagon. On Sept. 7, 2001, they signed a letter of intent with former owner and landlord John Lozinyak. On Sept. 10, Nickells gave notice, and on Sept. 11, "The world changed forever."

Due to some negotiation hang-ups, Nickells and Scheffler's deal wasn't completed until the end of March. They were both unemployed for six months.

"I was naive and thought that things would go much quicker," said Nickells.

SO FAR THE RESTAURANT is drawing praise from locals. Joel Leonard, who set up the restaurant's Web site, www.nickells-scheffler.com., said "The roast beef is amazing. I grew up in Texas, and I know beef." He can also attest to the quality of the beef tenderloin, and he likes the macaroons.

Sue Montgomery works at Trojan Antiques and said, "The first day I came in, I was so delighted." She saw a big change in the place from when it used to be King Henry Corner Deli. Because of Nickells and Scheffler's efforts, the whole restaurant has a nice, fresh look, including the back room, which many people don't even know about.

If they haven't eaten lunch or breakfast back there, diners may just be lured to one of the dozen or so tables when Nickells and Scheffler present one of their wine dinners. They've applied for their ABC license, and although they aren't usually open for dinner, the wine dinners will be special events that they will offer periodically.

"We'll have white tablecloths and china when we have the wine dinners," said Nickells. The back room will also be available for private parties, and they will do catering. Melissa Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., educator for the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, has already booked Nickells & Scheffler for an event in September where they kick off the school year. They'll have a variety of sandwiches and cookies — a picnic on the lawn. Kirkpatrick's been to the new restaurant several times and said, "The cookies are wonderful."

WHILE CATERING AND PRIVATE DINNERS are something that the owners are planning to provide, the crux of their business right now is breakfast and lunch. Don't expect eggs over easy. Breakfast options include herb and cheese frittata on a bagel or popover, apple smoked bacon, daily baked muffins and scones, bagels with cream cheese, mini streusel coffee cake, French vanilla yogurt parfaits with homemade granola, and fresh fruit salad.

It's an upscale menu, and one of the items that Nickells is excited about is their crispy panini potatoes with thyme. He makes these with the same panini maker he uses to make grilled panini sandwiches for lunch — grilled chicken breast with brie, tomatoes and basil; three cheese with cheddar, provolone and havarti with dill; and ham with cheddar and N&S chutney. That's not all — cold sandwiches are made with your choice of meat, cheese, bread and condiments. They also serve salads and soups.

Nickells said, "The gazpacho is flying out the door." He plans to keep serving that throughout the summer. He was also trying a chilled strawberry fruit soup.

"I tried serving hot soup the first week we were open, but it was too warm. The cold soups are doing much better," said Nickells. He said that they roast all their own meats, they don't use any preprocessed meats. They are responsive to suggestions. One customer mentioned that she like iced coffee, and the next day they started serving it.

"Gourmet to Go," or dinners by the pound, is a large part of the new business. Kind of like a mini Sutton Place Gourmet, customers can select from a variety of dishes and salads to take home for a ready-made dinner.

"THIS IS WHERE we really expect to grow the business," said Nickells. Changing the menu every two weeks, they offer items such as barbecued flank steak, roasted chicken Cajun-style, grilled leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary, grilled center-cut boneless pork chops stuffed with mushroom caviar, grilled chicken breasts with fresh thyme and white wine, salmon with parsley pesto, barbecue shrimp kabobs, two-cheese macaroni gratin, asparagus with wasabi mayo, orzo with grilled vegetables, red bliss potato salad, marinated grilled vegetables with herbs, and fresh fruit salad with ginger and lime.

Montgomery has tried several of these items and really enjoyed the grilled beef tenderloin marinated in red wine and herbs, which was on the menu a few weeks ago. "Oh, my goodness," was how she described the beef. She also said that the macaroni was even good cold; she was stuck in traffic and ate it before she had a chance to heat it up.

"I have something different every day," she said. "I'm working through the menu."

Scheffler said that they try to use organic ingredients as much as possible. They also offer several vegetarian selections.

Don't think that it's all healthy. Scheffler mixes up some tempting desserts, including Amaretto creme brulee, rustic strawberry tarts, mini carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, chocolate chunk cookies, coconut macaroons and espresso brownies.

These selections are also changed every couple of weeks, but Scheffler said that she kept the cookies on the menu because they were so popular.

The couple has moved to Old Town to be closer to the restaurant. They have two cooking apprentice students from a local high school, Peter Daskal and Reshi Singh, helping out for the summer.

"It's hard work, but the neighbors and shop owners have been wonderful," said Scheffler. "They’ve been so welcoming."

<bci>Nickells & Scheffler is located at 1028 King St. and can be reached at 703-549-5545. It is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-7 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. They are closed on Sundays. Visit their Web site for weekly menus.