Everything changed in November of last year for Amber and John Roelle.
"Forrest hadn't shown up. We thought he was running late ..." John says. "That was when (Thunderbolt Police) Chief Merriman came here and told us he wanted to talk to us. That was when he told us that Forrest had been shot and killed at his house.
"It took the wind out of our sails. It kind of threw everything for a loop."
The shooting of Forrest Ison, executive chef of Brasserie 529, grabbed headlines for a while, then faded away from the public eye. Of course, for Amber and John, they were dealing with the loss of not only a very close friend, but also their right-hand man in the kitchen of their restaurant on Liberty Street in downtown Savannah.
"Him dying just took the wind out of our sails," John says. "He and I were doing the menus together. I had my ideas; he had his. He really stepped up and took charge."
They found a way to push forward, but that only lasted a few more months. They shut down in June.
"Nothing was the same. Everyone's demeanor changed. It slowed us down a lot," he says.
The restaurant, for its part, was doing well. The food at Brasserie was good, the clientele a steady diet of locals. They had a following.
Sometimes though, when the energy isn't there, those bad vibes have a way of feeding off themselves until there isn't anything you can do about it anymore.
Once the decision was made, they literally closed up shop. They locked the door and didn't return to the building they owned for quite a bit of time.
"We traveled a little bit. Went to Maine and to Connecticut," Amber says. "We got to see some family we hadn't been able to see in a while. We thought about not opening again, but then knew, really, we had to. We weren't just going to give up."
That summer road trip probably contained a good bit of conversation about what was going to happen next. They had been in Savannah for 10 years, so leaving here wasn't an option. Concepts were discussed, visions and new ideas. The ultimate goal was to make what they had more approachable to the general public.
"We had become a special occasion destination," John tells me. Amber agrees completely.
"We didn't want to own a fine dining place. It just ended up being fine dining and more," she says. "This is more us."
The "this" she talks about is their new Liberty Street Grill. Same location as 529 (that would be 529 Liberty St.) Same brick building exterior. Same six-seat bar.
There was no dramatic facelift, but what they have done looks fantastic.
"We changed some lighting to make it more comfortable," she says. "We removed the brass we had everywhere and eliminated the white tablecloths. It's more vibrant and neighborhood."
I have to agree. They've added two televisions, one on each side of the bar.
"You'll only find sports on these," John says.
They've added a beautiful outdoor seating and eating area that looks out on Liberty Street with every intention of taking advantage of foot traffic.
"Liberty Street is starting to boom," Amber says. "Smith Brothers going in next door will help a lot."
Not to mention a good bit of residential development along and near Crawford Square across the street.
"We have a great support system. We have people who love to eat here but we wanted something with more of a neighborhood feel," she says.
"Somewhere you would go on your night off?" I ask.
"Exactly," Amber says.
There is now one menu. Same menu from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week. The focus is on doing more of what Savannah is looking for. Yes, they still have duck leg confit and sweetbreads on their menu, but they have added a ton of sandwiches, including two different burgers.
"They were always the most popular," Amber says.
There's a lobster roll and several different fish dishes. There are also a number of salads on this menu. How'd they get here?
"She told me what we were doing and I said OK," John says with a laugh. Seared scallops and a 14-ounce Delmonico steak seared in duck fat round up the higher end of the menu.
This menu will work for Savannah. The Roelles know what they are doing. Formally trained at Johnson and Wales (he as a chef, she in front of the house), they can do well with this concept. They've hit the mark with a more approachable space, and the menu at a glance looks like it's a good one. We have no reason to believe the food won't be good, even if John seems most excited about the chicken wings sauce recipe one of his employees came up with.
"It's Texas Pete with some strange seasoning and Country Crock," he says with a laugh. "But it's actually very good and everyone loves it."
You probably will, as well.
Time away usually helps most people gain a clearer perspective on where they are and what they are doing. This "break" was forced upon the Roelles, really by tragedy. You can still see that heartbreak in their eyes when you bring up the loss of their friend. That feeling will very likely never go away.
They are, however, re-energized and ready to make another go of it in what could very well be a new kind of downtown destination restaurant.
See you on TV,