Sunday, March 30, 2008

Waiter, There's Something in My Wine!

A customer brought a glass of Chardonnay up to me yesterday saying that there was something in it. Before I even looked, I was pretty certain what the culprit was. On looking at the glass, I could see that the customer was concerned about the clear crystals in the bottom of the glass. And I totally understand his concern for I had the same reaction the first time that I ever encountered them. Fortunately, I was with a very knowledgeable wine drinker who explained what they were to me.

He explained to me that the crystals are harmless tartrates, a natural byproduct of the wine making process. He went on to explain that the principle acid in grapes is called tartaric acid and during fermentation and aging, it forms potassium bitartrate (also known as cream of tartar), the potassium salt of tartaric acid. Tartrates are not fully soluble in a weak alcohol solution such as wine, so they tend to want to crystallize and sediment out, the same way that a supersaturated sugar and water solution forms rock candy.

The salt crystallizes and sediments out most readily when a wine is cold, which is the reason that you seldom encounter tartrates in red wine. Older wines also tend to throw tartrates, so their presence can be an indicator of age.

Wine makers take advantage of cold to force tartrate sedimentation. In a process called cold stabilization, they refrigerate the wine to a very low temperature (just below the freezing point of water) to force the crystallization. Then they rack the clear wine off the solids. Other wine makers deal with tartrates by filtering the wine.

Many people believe that both of these processes, filtration most especially, damage a wine, so more and more makers of fine wines are leaving their wines be. If you see tartrates in your glass, it is a good indicator that the wine has not been badly handled.

We do get a few glasses a year returned to us because they contain tartrates. Although we should not serve a glass with tartrates in it, in the low light conditions of the dining room, it can be difficult to see them. Should you encounter tartrates in your glass, you can either ignore them and leave them in the bottom of the glass or you can ask your server to decant your wine to a clean glass. But remember that tartrates are not a wine flaw and not a reason for you to refuse a wine.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Got Farmers Market?

If you've got a local farmers market, have you been this week? I just walked to our market from the restaurant and found a few goodies for tonight's menu. I've got to say that the walk due west into a stiff west wind was chilly.

From the lower left starting with the Brussels sprouts in the dish and working clockwise, we have:

Brussels sprouts that I will blanch and then sauté at the last minute in duck fat to accompany the Lapin au Vin (rabbit braised in red wine with bacon, cipollini onions, and porcini mushrooms). These small sprouts were just picked and are very sweet.

Green onions that will go in lots of things including the Farmers Market Slaw that we'll plate with our crab cakes tonight.

Daffodils that will sit on the counter to bring some cheer to that windowless box we call a kitchen.

Rapini (or broccoli raab) that when sautéed with tomatoes and garlic will sit under the turbans of flounder stuffed with scallop mousse.

Blushing Golden apples, the last half bushel remaining, that will end up in a sauté with wild mushrooms as an appetizer.

Radishes that will end up, those that I don't eat out of hand, in the Farmers Market Slaw.

Red onions that will also end up in the slaw and in the Yukon Gold potato sauté under the grilled yak.

P.S. The first thing I did before writing this post was to consult the Google oracle, to see if it could clarify which usage, farmers market, farmer's market, or farmers' market, is preferred. The first hit on "ap style guide farmers market" was this article which says farmers market is the preferred term. Now I know.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Myth of Sysiphus

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."—Albert Camus, from the final essay in Le Mythe de Sysiphe

It's been more than 25 years since I read Le Mythe de Sysiphe, but it seems most apropos to pull it off the bookshelf and have another go. Come with me as we accompany Sysiphus for a time.

Five years ago I embarked on a mission, a seemingly simple mission at the time, a seemingly trivial mission to be precise. And what was this mission? Merely to start serving tapas at my restaurant. Well, perhaps there was a more subtle mission behind the obvious one: to bring a tapas culture to our small town. It was simple conditional logic, really. If I bring tapas to my restaurant, over time, tapas culture will come to Winchester.

Tapas are ingrained in Spanish culture and you won't find a big city in the US or even some smaller ones such as Frederick, MD, without at least one tapas bar. So why not here? Why not here?

I'm sure many of you are wondering, what are these so-called tapas?

This seemingly simple question is remarkably difficult to answer. On the surface, tapas are tiny dishes that are served as bar food, primarily as after work/before dinner snacks. But below the surface lies a great deal more to do with culture and life style, which Penelope Casas has captured more eloquently than I could hope to:

"The tapas way of life is completely in tune with the Spanish character. To eat tapas-style is to eat by whim, free from rules and schedules. It is meant for those who wish to enjoy life to the fullest and who love to while away the time with friends."—Penelope Casas, from Tapas: the Little Dishes of Spain

This way of life seems to suit most chefs to a T. Many of us in the hospitality business are gregarious by nature and so it makes sense that we love to go out with groups of our friends. If we're a little boisterous, so much the better! And by occupational circumstances, most chefs are grazers for the simple reason that we rarely ever have time to sit down to a full meal. So tapas is a natural way of eating for us and one that appeals to our desire to taste a wide variety of foods and to celebrate what little free time we have with our friends. And a crawl from tapas bar to tapas bar is a great way to celebrate!

Back to my local tapas mission. It surely wasn't hard to start serving tapas at the restaurant, not much more difficult than serving any other kind of food, except that tapas are perhaps a bit more labor intensive. Still, within a week of taking the decision to serve tapas, we were up and running, serving an array of tapas every week night from 5pm until 7pm when we started to get busy for dinner. Running a full dinner menu and a tapas menu out of the same tiny kitchen is difficult at best, so we cut tapas off at 7pm to concentrate on normal dinner service.

We quickly discovered that there is no culture of going out after work in Winchester. As amazing as it might seem to some readers, if people work here in town, they leave just as soon as work is over. By 5:15, all the business parking lots around us are deserted. If people commute to work, they're still on the road between 5 and 7 and are not going out anywhere after their long drives.

Did you hear that rock rolling back to the bottom of the mountain? Poor Sysiphus.

After listening to complaints that we ended our tapas hours too early, we picked a few nights and extended them. The result? Customers wanted to eat a full dinner after 7pm and would not order tapas, even when presented the opportunity.

Two years ago, we decided to serve only tapas on Wednesday nights, to try to create an event night in town and we put a lot of marketing money behind it. Every now and again, we would draw a good crowd, but just as frequently, we'd be empty. For a time, we were seemingly grossly under- or over-prepared. In the end, we developed only a small following of customers who would come somewhat regularly, meaning about once a month.

Ultimately, we found that most customers will not sit for two or three hours and order small bites every now and again, as whim strikes. Our customers wanted to order at most three items and wanted them at once, all to themselves. It was incredibly rare to find a table that would order food to share or that would order a few tapas every 15 or 20 minutes.

And this caused us no end of difficulties. We would serve all the tapas ordered at one time family style, with as many tapas on a single plate as would fit comfortably, simply because our tables are not big enough for bunches of small plates. Family style service went over like a lead balloon, for the simple reason that people are very territorial about their food.

For example, when a table of four would order four orders of scallops, we would put all four scallops on a single plate. I cannot count the number of times that someone at the table would pull the entire plate of scallops to himself and eat all of them. Then the table would be screaming at the server that she only brought one order of scallops rather than the four that they ordered. Once the server explained the situation, the table would grouse about our tiny portion sizes. You can surely imagine the impact this had on our servers' tips.

Sysiphus trudges back to the bottom to start pushing again.

The poor servers were constantly dealing with irate customers because "my food is on *his* plate," when in fact, there were several communal plates on the table. It always amazes me to watch people at a communal table who grab a plate from the center and pull it up close to them and shield it with both elbows down on either side of it, like a hawk shielding her fresh kill with her wings. Sadly, territoriality and tapas do not mix.

Besides this awkwardness for the service staff, we were damned by portion size. For better or worse, Winchester, Virginia, lies smack in the heart of the Land of the Golden Trough, where all you can eat is a way of life, a sport almost.

Over the years, we found that customers were predisposed to order only three tapas from the menu regardless of the size of the tapas, probably out of reflex from years of ordering an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. When we started tapas, we were doing traditional one- or two-bite tapas.

Customers, after ordering the requisite three tapas, would still be pretty hungry as you can well imagine. Rather than order more food, they would grumpily ask for the bill, pay it huffily, and depart quickly to go tell the world what tiny portions we served. It mattered not that their bills were minuscule in comparison to a standard dinner bill.

Inexorably Sysiphus trudges on, knowing the darkness to more fully appreciate the light when he sees it.

After a few weeks of being bad-mouthed around town, we started gradually increasing the portion size (and the price) until at the end of 2007 we were no longer doing tapas at all, but rather half-sized entrées with full garnishes. As a result, in the kitchen we were doing all the work of a full entrée, but for only one third the money. And the planning for the garnishes and plating took all the joy and spontaneity from tapas service.

Even more disheartening was that each Wednesday night, an average of two tables would get up and walk out without ordering, after looking at the menu. On more than one occasion I heard "I don't want this tapas shit," as disgruntled would-be patrons exited stage left.

We continued to suffer these walk-outs even after we included traditional entrées on our tapas night menus, a lesson that we learned early on was necessary to appease a large segment of our clientele. Moreover, the actual walk-outs were on top of the customers who refused to book a table on the phone once they discovered that we were offering tapas.

Now Sysiphus takes a hard look at the rock, laying in a gully at his feet.

To cap off our tapas experience, we looked at our books, which were very clear. We were still drawing the same number of customers as before we started tapas, but our ticket averages were off by 30% on tapas nights. The expected extra customers never showed up to compensate for the lower checks.

Clearly a marketing person would look at the equation of more labor, more disgruntled customers, fewer reservations, more walk-outs, and less money and arrive at the conclusion that the product offered was not demanded by the market. But Sysiphus is not a marketing person, is he?

And here we, like Camus, leave Sysiphus at the bottom of the mountain, where finds himself weary and his back sore. Will he summon the strength to start pushing the rock towards the summit once again?

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Thursday is a strange day in our business, one of contrasts. It's our hump day, the third day of our five-day work week, and in terms of customer volume, our slowest. Today, with it raining, we largely expect to be empty.

The slow customer volume lulls me into thinking that I can relax a bit on Thursday mornings, because all the major paperwork for the week (closing the prior week, payroll, bill and check runs, and inventories) has been completed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

In contrast to the lack of customer volume, however, the delivery volume is at its highest point of the week. It makes sense, too. We take the vast majority of our deliveries on Thursday to get ready for the mayhem that are Fridays and Saturdays, our money days.

This morning already we have taken deliveries from one wine vendor, a local beer distributor, our specialty grocer (bearing goodies such as dried cherries, maple syrup, chocolate, tea, sun-dried tomatoes, and porcini mushrooms, among a lot of others), our baker, and our micro-green grower.

It takes a lot of effort for us to check in all these goods, write checks for those that are COD (wine and beer in Virginia are COD by law), and put everything away. This morning, it's been a steady process for us, unlike some days when we have vendors lined up four deep wanting to make deliveries.

It's days like those that make me want to schedule delivery windows for my vendors. But unlike Costco, I need my vendors more than they need me: I can't afford any ill will, especially with the drivers who can make or break my day. Anyway, today hasn't been one of those days, thank goodness.

Wine deliveries are always a pain for us, because we really have to scrutinize the merchandise, the invoice, and our order sheets. We have to really look carefully at the merchandise because so many wineries pack different wines in the same box and those boxes are inevitably warehoused next to each other at the distributor. Mispicks are all too common.

The invoice and order sheets have to match, not only for what was ordered, but for vintage and price. Distributors have totally different price structures depending on geographical territory and quantity ordered. I'm surprised that we don't see more pricing anomalies than we do. Any change in vintage or price has big ramifications for our wine lists, but that's a whole other topic of discussion.

This afternoon we expect deliveries from two more wine vendors, our weekly pickup at the ABC store, and FedEx will be here at least twice, once with our weekly shipment of wild mushrooms from Oregon and once with our game and meat deliveries from New York and Philadelphia. I'm expecting foie gras, veal, bison, and whatever else it is that I have ordered that I don't remember right now.

On top of this, our restaurant goods supplier will be here with chemicals for the dish machine, disposables such as paper towels, hopefully some new coffee cups, and some miscellaneous goods (such as tongs and storage containers) for the kitchen.

So, while Thursdays are deceptively slow from a customer perspective, they are pretty busy days for us here at the restaurant.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Marcona Almonds

Marcona almonds are not something with which I was acquainted much more than six or seven years ago: they've only become available and somewhat reasonably priced in the last few years, at least here in Virginia. I have no doubt that they've been available in New York for longer than that.

Recently at $10-$15 a pound and sure to increase because of the bashing the Euro is handing the dollar, Marconas are not cheap, but I guarantee that once you taste one, you'll agree with me that they are the crack cocaine of almonds. One tiny taste is addictive. I'm at a loss to explain why they are so good, but they are. Marconas look different as you can see in the photo: they're flatter and more disk- or heart-shaped rather than classically almond-shaped.

Marcona is a cultivar of almond (Prunus dulcis 'Marcona') that is grown along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, from Málaga to Tarragona. The hard-shelled, sweet almonds bloom in February and the harvest comes in from late August to September. The almonds are shelled and peeled, at which point, the confectioners take their traditional cut of the crop to be ground and mixed with honey in a nougat called turrón. The new crop almonds destined to be eaten out of hand are lightly fried in olive or sunflower oil, which is how we get them.

Although I have classified this post in the nuts category because almonds are used culinarily as nuts, you do realize that an almond is not a nut at all, don't you? It's the kernel inside the pit of the almond fruit.

Marcona season starts in the fall after harvest and runs until the vendors sell out. You can get them from many specialty groceries including La Tienda.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What Does a Chef Eat on His Night Off?

This question and its cousin "Do you cook at home?" are perpetual FAQs in the dining room. The answer is that while I would love to avoid cooking on my nights off, with two hungry daughters to feed, cooking is inevitable.

On the two nights a week that I am home, dinner is a very simple affair, something that can be made and served in fifteen minutes or so, especially on Monday nights when I have been at the restaurant since 7:30am and am beat, and I am greeted at the door with "Dad, what's for supper?" The literal translation of this is "I'm a starving teenager and I want to eat now."

I do slightly, but only slightly, more elaborate dishes on Sundays when I have a chance to plan more and I can prep a little bit here and there all day long to get ready. Still, more elaborate is fairly trivial compared to what we make at the restaurant.

Not only am I tired of cooking on the weekends, I simply don't want to eat the food that I cook at the restaurant. I think a lot of chefs crave home cooking, because we don't get that much of it. One downside of our occupation is that nobody voluntarily cooks for us, thinking that their food is not good enough to serve to us!

At home, the most common things that I cook are frittatas, pasta, couscous, composed salads, and soups. Large hunks of animal protein are scarce at our house.

I'm trying to get my kids to eat better, which means more fresh vegetables and lower fat. I'm trying subtly to prepare them for when they go off to college by showing them easy, low-cost dishes that fit into a busy schedule. Whether they pick up on these lessons or not, who can say? I love it when they can help me out, but with homework and all that, I don't see a whole lot of them in the kitchen at home.

What I have found is that interactive foods seem to interest them more than other foods. Anything that has to be wrapped in a wrapper such as a tortilla, lettuce leaf, or rice paper seems to go over well. Also going over well are things such as composed salads where they are free to take what they want in whatever quantities they want.

Here's a "recipe" from last night. The quotation marks indicate that this is just an idea and there are no exact quantities; use your own judgement. The idea behind this salad is that it is fun to wrap in lettuce leaves like little burritos. You should feel free to add whatever raw vegetables you happen to like and whatever lean protein that you like. I try to use nuts as an additional protein source to let me cut back on the animal protein.

Tomato, Cucumber, and Canadian Bacon Salad

1 dry pint grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 English/European/burpless cucumber, cubed
4 oz Canadian bacon, diced
1/2 c Marcona almonds
1 T extra virgin olive oil
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Bibb lettuce leaves

Cut up the tomatoes, cucumbers and Canadian bacon and toss in a bowl with the oil and lemon juice. Season to taste. Line a large plate or small platter with lettuce leaves. Place the salad in the center.

Canadian bacon is often called back bacon and is not true bacon at all. It is pork loin that has been cured. Loin is one of the leanest pork cuts of all. Feel free to subsitute any leftover roasted meat, grilled chicken, poached or grilled shrimp, calamari, cubed seared tuna, smoked chicken or turkey, etc.

Marcona almonds are the most amazing disk-shaped nuts from Spain. I'll write more about them in another post. Substitute any nut you like.

On another occasion I might substitute smoked turkey for the Canadian bacon and add blanched asparagus and feta cheese. Or I might add some fresh oregano, pepperoncini, and olives. The thing to note about all these salads is that they take five minutes to prepare, they are low fat, and my girls like rolling them up in lettuce leaves or rice paper.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Capsicum Confusion

I've written extensively on the restaurant web site and in the monthly newsletter about chiles, taxonomy, and terminology. This interests me because I am a student of food and food history, because I am trying to understand what chiles are actually being called for in some of my Spanish language cookbooks from Mexico, and because I often need to communicate with Spanish speaking cooks and order takers at my produce company. But what I've just written really constitutes some fat, juicy rationalizations to obscure my addiction.

Friends, I must confess that I am a chile head. I eat more chile in a standard day than some people eat in a lifetime. I eat food so spicy that it shocks some of my Indian friends. My Thai friends call me the Fire-Breathing Farang. I do appreciate the chiles for their flavor and the spice and I don't eat them for the shock value or as some show of machismo: I truly love the things.

But I digress fairly far from today's topic. My daughters and I went to our favorite Mexican restaurant for lunch today (doesn't everyone eat tacos for Easter?), Perlita's on Weems Lane ( is their site which is not yet built at this writing), where their Pescado al Mojo de Ajo (whole Tilapia in garlic paste) is amazingly good. Did I also mention that I can rarely get enough ajo? My personal tastes, when I am not cooking for the restaurant, run to huge flavors.

I have been asking for some time for some salsa with muscle; the vinegar labelled Cholula on the tables is not getting the job done. Today I ordered fish tacos and asked for salsa muy picante to go with it. When my tacos came to the table, they came with a salsa that I had never seen before. I could smell the chipotle as it approached the table: always a good thing for a chile head. Looking at the brick red sauce, it looked like the adobo from a can of chipotles with tomatillo. And that's exactly what it tasted like.

When our usual server (who also helps prep the food) spied my empty salsa dish and came to ask me if I'd like more, I asked her if the sauce was adobo de chipotle y tomatillos and she replied, "No. Moritas y tomatillos." That got me thinking, because I know chipotle when I see and taste it (I use it all the time at the restaurant). I've asked this server for chipotles before and have been rewarded with nice fat ones in adobo, so I started wondering why she insisted on calling what was in this sauce moritas. My kitchen Spanish is not good enough to get into the conversation that I want to have, so next time I am in, I will ask her to show me a morita. Sadly, I was not alert enough today to think to ask her.

What I know about the situation is this. We're both talking about smoked Jalapeños, the chile that is named after the Veracruzana town of Jalapa. When the chile ripens to deep red and is smoked it becomes the chipotle and we most frequently encounter it pickled in an adobo of tomato sauce, vinegar, and other herbs and spices depending on brand. I use the small San Marcos cans at home and the industrial sized Embasa cans at work.

I've been studying chiles enough to know that green Jalapeños are called cuaresmeños in some places in Mexico, but all the Mexican cooks I've ever had say Jalapeños and this includes cooks from Oaxaca, the City, and Veracruz. And I have seen small, darker, more oval cultivars of Jalapeños labeled moras or more commonly moritas ("small dark ones"), but generally I have seen these terms applied to those cultivars when they have been smoked. And to add more confusion, I know Oaxaqueños who call chipotles huauchinangos.

So, I still don't know why my server was so insistent on using the term morita today. It could be that she thinks that it is a different chile from the Jalapeño/chipotle. It could be that she is making the distinction that she is using the small cultivar rather than the larger tipico form. And she could be saying that she used the dried form to make the salsa rather than the form in adobo, but I rather doubt this. My guess is that her can of chipotles is labeled moritas. I will attempt to find out next time I go there.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Chef's Tasting

We offer a Chef's Tasting at the restaurant, which is a multi-course dinner that showcases the best of what we have to offer that day, experimental dishes, and things that we just feel like cooking. This is a great way for the culinarily curious to sample some of the great diversity of what we do here at One Block West.

When a customer books such a tasting, I talk with them about price, dietary restrictions, likes and dislikes, wine pairings, and so forth. Then my staff and I come up with a menu of between 5- and 11-courses. The 11-course dinners take a full 3 to 4 hours. The 5-course dinners take roughly 2 hours. I wrote last week about an 11-course tasting.

As much as possible, I try to come to the table and discuss each dish as it is presented, if the customers want me to. Here's the menu from a 7-course tasting that we did tonight.

Tatsoi Salad with Golden Raisins, Toasted Almonds, and Caramelized Onion-Curry Dressing

Sea Scallops Stuffed with Black Truffles and Wrapped in Prosciutto

Jumbo Morel Stuffed with Jumbo Lump Crab

Beer Battered Walleye with Sweet Potato Gaufrettes

Tataki of Yak with Ponzu Dipping Sauce

Yiouvetsi (lamb and orzo gratin)

Dulce de Leche Ice Cream with Chocolate-Dipped Dried Pears

I think you can see that we have fun with our tasting menus: it gives us an opportunity to try things that we don't think would sell well on the standard dinner menu, but which customers should try. An excellent case in point is the Tataki of Yak, barely seared strips of yak, served cold, wrapped around fine julienne of cucumber and micro oriental greens. When dipped into the soy-citrus dipping sauce, the flavors really pop. This is a great, simple, light dish that screams "fresh!"

Friday, March 21, 2008

Rappahannock Cellars Wine Dinner

Last evening we hosted our latest monthly wine dinner featuring the wines of Rappahannock Cellars. John Hagarty from Rappahannock was our amiable host and introduced each of the five wines in our six-course dinner. Here's the menu:

Salpicón de Gambas; Stuffed Mussels
Seyval Blanc 2006

Tatsoi Salad with Toasted Almonds, White Raisins, and Sautéed Goat Cheese
Caramelized Onion and Curry Vinaigrette
Viognier Reserve 2006

Seared Tuna
Chickpeas, Olives, and Tapenade Vinaigrette
Claret 2005

Panisse with Grilled Mediterranean Vegetables
Baked Chickpea Cake with Grilled Red Peppers, Cipollini Onions, and Fennel
Cabernet Franc 2006

“French Onion Soup”
Croustade Topped with Braised Beef Shin, Caramelized Onions, and Local Gouda
Surrounded by French Onion Soup
Meritage 2005

Caramel Ice Cream with Chocolate-Dipped Dried Pear

I devised this menu blind, meaning that I had not tasted the wines before. I relied on the wines being typical of the grapes from which they were made and they were. I believe the pairings worked extremely well and customer feedback was very positive. Here are my pairing notes.

Salpicón de Gambas; Stuffed Mussels/Seyval Blanc 2006

Seyval as it is grown here in Virginia is a crisp white, a classic seafood wine. The two tapas that we served show the two opposite approaches to pairing wines with food. The salpicón was made from shrimp that we poached in court bouillion and marinated in a classic red wine vinaigrette augmented with parsley, minced cornichons, and minced capers. This pairing matches the acid of the vinaigrette to the acid of the wine. The mussels take the contrary approach. We minced steamed mussels and bound them with a béchamel flavored with mussel stock and pimentón. The richness of the cream-based béchamel gave the acid in the wine a backdrop against which to play.

Tatsoi Salad with Toasted Almonds, White Raisins, and Sautéed Goat Cheese;Caramelized Onion and Curry Vinaigrette/Viognier Reserve 2006

With this course, I was out to demonstrate that Viognier—Virginia's premier white grape—can indeed stand up to bold flavors. I was once told by a winery owner around here that I would kill her Viognier with bold flavors. I didn't. This dish is a result of asking myself the question, "Self, what kind of dish would you pair a big, fruity white with?" Among the answers was a mild curry. Given the wine's position on the menu, I decided that a salad with curry flavors might be just the thing. And it was an excellent pairing.

Tatsoi is a Brassica with dark green, spoon-shaped leaves that have a slight cabbage flavor and is an ideal green for pairing with bold flavors. I suspected that the wine had been through full malolactic fermentation (and I was right) so I added the goat cheese to give the dish a bit of acid to play against the creaminess of the wine. The dressing is made from caramelized onions, a bit of Madras curry powder, rice wine vinegar, and pure olive oil.

Seared Tuna Chickpeas, Olives, and Tapenade Vinaigrette/Claret 2005

This claret is a very light red, a blend in fact of both red and white grapes. This seems to be a common trend at local wineries as a way to induce white wine drinkers to taste reds. The result is always an inexpensive, light-bodied quaffing wine. I happen to love light-bodied reds with tuna. For myself, I will pick a Pinot Noir or Sangiovese with tuna, if I'm not drinking beer or sake. I also wanted to get people a bit out of their comfort zone by pairing red wine with fish.

The trick here was to reinforce the red theme with the accompanying chickpea salad. I think of chickpeas as red-wine food because of their earthiness and I reinforced that with olives, diced red onion, garlic, and smoky pimentón. The salad was dressed in a vinaigrette made from classic tapenade ingredients: anchovy-stuffed olives, thyme, parsley, garlic, red wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil.

Panisse with Grilled Mediterranean Vegetables: Baked Chickpea Cake with Grilled Red Peppers, Cipollini Onions, and Fennel/Cabernet Franc 2006

Cabernet Franc always speaks to me of grilled vegetables, especially red peppers and eggplant. I would have paired these vegetables with grilled leg of lamb except that our guests included several who eat no red meat. Instead, I opted to make a classic panisse: chickpea flour cooked just like polenta, spread to solidify on a sheet tray, cut into circles with a ring mold, and crisped in olive oil.

I flavored the panisse with garlic and a good bit of pimentón (what can I say? I was in a pimentón mood yesterday) to give what is a very bland starch some character. We charred the sweet red peppers on the grill, peeled and julienned them. We roasted the cipollini in the oven until just done and cut the fennel into wedges and grilled them. The fennel went into a marinade of olive oil, garlic, and herbs. Then we formed a salad by mixing all the vegetables with some of the fennel marinade and served it on top of warm circles of panisse, a nice contrast of temperatures.

“French Onion Soup:” Crouston Topped with Braised Beef Shin, Caramelized Onions, and Local Gouda Surrounded by French Onion Soup/Meritage 2005

This is a dish I thought of a couple weeks ago and we just happened to have a big red wine to pair it with at this dinner. A big Bordeaux blend needs something substantial and this re-imagining of classic onion soup is nothing if not substantial.

To start, we had our butcher in Philly cut ossobuco of beef for us, which we then braised in lots of red wine. Once the beef was cooked, the braising liquids and more red wine went into the soup pot with 20lbs of caramelized onions (eight hours it took to caramelize them) for a classic onion soup base.

To re-imagine the dish, we toasted rounds of herbed focaccia and topped them with shredded beef, caramelized onions, and slabs of local Gouda-style cheese from our friend Allen Bassler at Oak Spring Dairy. We placed these in the oven until the cheese melted and then placed them into oval gratins of the soup for service. By the time they were at the table, the crouton had absorbed the majority of the soup.

Our forthcoming wine dinners are always listed on the Events Calendar on the restaurant web site.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

What's Your Mascot?

About three years ago, a big black cat with golden eyes adopted our restaurant. I have no idea what sex it is, but I prefer to think of it as male, for it is quite large. One Block West Cat, as I have come to think of it, moved into the tiny crawl space under our deck and I see it a couple of times a week, mostly around 7:45am when I arrive or sometimes very late at night I see its eyes glowing back at me when I leave.

OBW Cat clearly is not a social creature and I've never been within 20 feet of it: one look at a human and it disappears. None of the neighbors are feeding it and certainly nobody at the restaurant is either, but it seems healthy enough. At least we don't have to worry about mice and rats around our dumpster. Or the cat pestering diners on the deck.

I've never been close enough to get a photo before: this one was taken from inside the dining room through lace sheers, which Photoshop was kind enough to remove. Every restaurant should have a mascot, don't you think?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chambourcin Anyone?

Wow, has the local Chambourcin wine been flying out the door in recent weeks! For whatever reason, customers are ordering Chambourcin in unprecented numbers. But while they are ordering a lot of it, most of them do question the wait staff about what kind of wine it is before they order it.

How to pronounce it is another frequent question. Pronouncing it correctly involves mastering two French nasal vowels that are very difficult for Americans, so we encourage people just to say "Shamber sin." It might not be correct, but it does flow off of English-speaking tongues.

Chambourcin is a hybrid of French and American grapes, named Seyve 26-205, after the famed French hybridizer who created it. The Phylloxera outbreak in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century saw breeders producing many hybrids in an effort to add Phylloxera resistance to classic French vine stock by crossing resistant American parents with noble grape parents. Phylloxera is a root louse that kills vines and for many decades wreaked havoc on European vineyards.

For much of the 20th century, hybrids such as Chambourcin were the answer to the Phylloxera problem, but in the long run, grafting noble grapes onto American rootstock proved to be the better answer. Still, some hybrids such as Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin do survive, and interestingly enough, both grapes do extremely well here in Virginia. Sadly, when Seyve died, he left no records of the parentage of Chambourcin, so its heritage remains a mystery.

Chambourcin became commercially available in 1963 and it was planted most heavily in the Nantais, the cool coastal region of the Loire river valley, where it meets the Atlantic ocean. Over the years, the French AOC, partly for reasons of both taste and xenophobia, have discouraged hybrids or even outlawed them, so what Chambourcin that remains in France is limited to legacy plantings largely in the Loire Valley. But, Chambourcin has found a following in the eastern US and Canada, with New York and Ontario among the first to plant the grape.

The vines are fairly cold hardy, but growers in New York and Ontario are finding that their winters are too cold and their growing seasons a bit short, thus the grape seems to be migrating further south into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina where its resistance to fungus is a plus in our humid climates. The growers with whom I have spoken say that the vines are vigorous and reliably high producers and the key to success is careful removal of excess fruit.

Chambourcin produces an intensely ruby-hued wine whose color is reminiscent of Syrah/Shiraz. It also has a bit of spice that speaks of Syrah as well. Although it has good tannins and acidity, both desirable characteristics, it makes an approachable wine in the same way that Merlot does.

Next time you’re in, why not try a glass of local Chambourcin? I’ve never had anyone not like it when I have recommended it. Well, there was one guy, but he wasn’t going to like any wine made in Virginia, no matter how good. We have Chambourcins from both Fabbioli Cellars and North Mountain Vineyard.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Pomelo: A Lesson in Citrus Suprêmes

This weekend a customer asked me how we prepare the orange segments in our blood orange salad, a mix of salad greens, dried cherries, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, sherry vinegar, and blood orange suprêmes. A suprême is a skinless segment of citrus fruit. I promised the customer that I would post a how-to.

For ease of photography, I bought a pomelo, which you can see in the photo is a lot larger than a blood orange. The pomelo, Citrus maxima, is the largest of citrus fruits and is a native of Southeast Asia, although the one in this photo came from California. It's also spelled pumelo, pumello, and pomello, and in the UK is called a shaddock.

Pomelos range in skin color from green to yellow, in shape from spherical to pear-shaped, and in flesh color from green to yellow to pink. The layer of pith between the skin and the flesh is extremely thick as you will see in the following photos. Pomelos are less sour than grapefruit, but you could easily mistake pomelo flesh for grapefruit flesh when eating it.

1. Slice off the stem end.
2. Flip it over and slice off the bloom end.

3. Stand the fruit on one of the cut ends. Follow the curve of the sides with your knife to remove the bulk of the rind and pith.

4. Finish trimming away the pith. Notice in the photo that this pomelo still needs a bit of trimming.

5. Slice into the fruit alongside a membrane. Cut down to the center of the fruit.

6. Slice into the segment alongside the opposite membrane.

7. Remove the suprême.
8. Remove all the remaining suprêmes in similar fashion.

9. Squeeze the juices from the membranes before you pitch them.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Recently, in talking with my waitstaff, some of whom have parents younger than me, I realized how much more conversant they are with food than I was at the same age.

I think back to 1980 when I moved back to Virginia at age 18 after my three final years of high school in Alabama. The morning after arriving at my dorm, there was a breakfast reception out front where I saw a tray full of bagels for the first time. I recognized them by their description in my new copy of Beard on Bread, of which I now own a signed first edition, and from articles that I had read in that great and then New York City-centric magazine Gourmet. In a day when bagels (albeit many of them horrible) are found in every grocery store in the land, the idea of an 18-year old encountering a bagel for the first time seems most amusing.

And in a day when my small town of 24,000 people boasts at least six sushi bars (albeit most of them also horrible), it is hard to imagine that Americans didn't eat raw fish when I was growing up. I was 25 before I ever lived anywhere where sushi was served. And it took me four beers to get up the nerve for the first bite, which is a shame, for it was true love at first bite and I have spent untold fortunes on sushi since then. Now my thirteen-year old daughter often accompanies me to my favorite of the local sushi bars.

Finally, my first encounter with Indian food wasn't until I was nearly thirty. In a day when most of my waitstaff could probably rattle off the Hindi names of their favorite dishes, that seems absurd. My children have been eating Indian food since birth.

Even if ubiquity of all these foods may have led to some mediocrity, we are blessed to live in an age in which even our children are exposed to foods that we never saw until adulthood. It may be a smaller world, but then, that's no so bad, is it?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Just Cook

I love it when customers ask me to "just cook," to create a special menu just for them. Last night customers gave me an unlimited budget and total free rein: "we eat everything." Here then is their 11-course dinner with photos. I apologize that I am no photographer. How I got to be 46 years old with no digital camera skills is another story, but I learned a lot about photographing food and about Photoshop in this crash course. Old dog learning new tricks.

Minced Thai Chicken with Thai Basil Pesto in Thom Kha Coconut Soup

I love Thai food and have been cooking it for over 20 years. I like to reinvent and reinterpret dishes in the standard Thai repertoire, as in this dish which takes parts from Drunken Noodles, Larb Gai (minced chicken in fish sauce) and Gai Thom Kha (coconut and galanga soup with chicken). The highly seasoned soup reduced to a sauce consistency is plated down in the well of the plate, with a deep-fried round of sen yai (rice noodle) over that, and a mound of larb on top of that. Garnishes are a quenelle of Thai basil pesto, a Thai basil leaf, and chiffonade of kaffir lime leaf.

Wild Mushroom Salad with Country Ham and Crab; Ham Aspic

I wanted to stuff a big morel with a mousse of country ham and crab, but we're just a few weeks early for morels—I'll save that dish for some of my April menus. This is a "salad" of fresh sautéed yellowfoot chanterelles from Oregon with bits of country ham and jumbo lump crab. The aspic to the left is what is left from cooking down the hock from my Thanksgiving ham for about six hours—intense hammy goodness. Micro-arugula completes the dish.

Mussel Stuffed with Chorizo

Stuffed mussels are a common tapa; this version takes off on our steamed mussels with chorizo that we serve from time to time as an appetizer. I started by rendering some microdice of chorizo in a bit of olive oil. Then I used the colored and flavored oil and mussel steaming juices to make a béchamel. I mixed a bit of béchamel with chopped steamed mussels and the rendered chorizo, then stuffed empty mussel shells with that mix. I napped the top of the mussels in more béchamel, topped the béchamel with breadcrumbs, and browned the breadcrumbs in the oven. Chorizo can overwhelm many flavors, but I was surprised how complementary the mussel and chorizo flavors were together.

Tuna Sandwich: Tuna Sashimi in Disguise

This is one of those tongue in cheek dishes that I like to do when I get the chance. I split a tea sandwich-sized block of #1 tuna in three layers horizontally and then seared the outer two layers to just barely color them. These two outer layers become the "bread." I spread the lower slice with a wasabi paste and placed the totally raw center layer on it. Then I spread that with a miso paste and placed the top layer back on the "sandwich." A quick bias cut finished the illusion. The garnishes are outstanding shiroshoyu (white soy) and seaweed salad.

Braised Skate Cheek with Broccolini and Pancetta

Skate cheeks may be my most favorite seafood ever. We cannot get them very often, but when we do, they sell like hotcakes because they are so fantastic. We dredged the skate in flour and seared both sides. Into the pan went garlic, pancetta, and crushed red pepper flakes. Then we hit the pan with a good shot of white wine, sufficient in quantity to finish the skate by quick braising in the oven. When done, we added blanched broccolini, a tablespoon of butter, and rewarmed it on the stovetop, swirling the pan to bind the sauce with the butter.

Ossobuco of Quail on Carolina Gold Rice Risotto

While not a true ossobuco in the sense that the bone is not cut, this quail "shank" is braised and served in the same manner as traditional ossobuco, lamb shanks, and so forth. Its genesis was in a tableside conversation with a customer who inquired how many kinds of ossobuco and shanks we normally prepare in a year. The customer was eating a quail appetizer at the time. I started listing the ones that we do regularly (bison, venison, beef, veal, lamb, pork, etc.) and then spying the quail, I ventured, "I could probably do ossobuco of quail as well."

Here it is sitting on a bed of risotto that I made from Carolina Gold rice, an heirloom rice from Anson Mills. The risotto is colored with saffron in the classic Milanese tradition and garnished with microdice of pancetta and the immature peas from inside sugar snaps (mange-touts).

Rack of Rabbit; Braised Brussels Sprouts Petals; Virginia Corn Cake; Rabbit Demiglace

I love rabbit. It reminds me of being a kid and eating at my grandmother's house. She always knew that my favorite meal was "fried" (really, smothered) rabbit trapped on her farm, turnip salad (what we in the South call braised turnip greens) from her garden, and crackling corn pone (a hand-shaped baked football of white corn meal, hot water, bacon grease, and crackling—the crispy bits of skin and fat leftover from rendering lard). This dish is my tribute to her.

Here I have reprised that meal with a corn pancake made from local corn meal down on the plate, blanched Brussels sprouts petals finished in bacon grease over, the medium-rare rabbit rack on top of that, and a demiglace made from all the rabbit trimmings and offal (except the liver, which I grilled and ate myself).

Piquillo Pepper Stuffed with Picadillo Dulce of Virginia Lamb; Pimentón Sauce

The customer for whom I cooked this tasting had tasted my lamb piccadillo dulce (sweet and sour lamb) stuffed in piquillo peppers at a prior dinner and asked me to reprise the dish. When she tasted it before, we sat the stuffed pepper on top of a chorizo potato cake.

To reinvent the dish, I decided to invert it a bit. I cut two disks of piquillo and sandwiched them around a layer of finely minced picadillo in a mold. Then I froze the whole thing and enrobed it in a layer of pimentón-flavored mash. Next I blitzed chorizo and panko in the Robot-Coupe and breaded the cakes. After browning the cakes in a pan, I warmed them through in the oven and topped them with pimentón sauce and a mousse of goat cheese. Kudos to Virginia Lamb in Berryville for a world-class product.

Fan of Grilled Yak; Fregola Sarda Flan; Sour Cherry Demiglace

For the final savory course, I marinated a top loin of yak in herbs and garlic, then grilled it lightly and sliced it thinly. The yak strip is sitting on a flan of fregola sarda—a toasted pasta from Sardinia that resembles toasted Israeli couscous. I boiled the fregola and then baked it in an unflavored custard. The dish is garnished with sour cherry demiglace; the cherries are a segue into the next course, the first of two dessert courses.

Cherry Triptych: Deep-Fried Dried Cherries, Cherry Honey, Double Chocolate-Covered Brandied Cherries

Whenever possible, I like to present trios of dishes on the same plate, probably a result of old school thème et variations that my French profs beat into me in college.

Here we have on the left deep-fried cherries. Frying plumps them and caramelizes them a bit; they are addictive. In the back are three brandied griottines, wild cherries from France, enrobed in first white and then dark chocolate, and in the right forefront, a chocolate cup filled with cherry honey made from local honey (the hive is about two blocks from the restaurant). The cherry honey can either be poured over the fried cherries or consumed as a shooter.

Chocolate Trio: Three-Chocolate Bark with Marcona Almonds and Pink Sea Salt, Chocolate Macaroon Bar, Mexican Chocolate Soup

Back to the trio theme, I unleashed my inner Jackson Pollock on the three-chocolate bark, proving (with all due respect to Mr. Pollock and his family) that anyone can do it. The bark is made from a layer of dark and milk chocolate somewhat blended with a palette knife, with white, milk, and dark chocolate drizzled over. The bark is strewn with Marcona almonds and pink sea salt for flavor.

The chocolate macaroon bar is my take on a Mounds bar and the Mexican choclate soup is that amazing intersection of milk chocolate, heavy cream, ancho chile powder, and ground canella (Mexican cinnamon). I wish the chocolate macaroon bar looked neater, but it is simply too hot in my restaurant kitchen to do fiddly confectionery work.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Of Roses and Spring

Yesterday was one of the prettiest days we've had yet this year, just over 60 degrees. I took advantage of the nice weather to prune the roses around the deck. Even though the NatureScapes crew takes care of the plants, pruning the roses is a task that I reserve for myself. It's not that I told the crew that the roses are my thing, it just happened that way years ago and it's grown to something approaching tradition.

It's my annual spring ritual of renewal and my chance to reflect on my roses. Without the leaves, I get to see what a good or poor job I did in pruning last year and I get the chance to make corrections and to guide the roses along for the coming year. I always feel some remorse in cutting out one of the big canes that has bloomed so beautifully for so many years, but I keep reminding myself that it will be OK—after all, that's why I brought along all those young canes: as replacements for the old ones to reinvigorate the plants.

Pruning has its meditative qualities and I understand why Jim Law at Linden Vineyards has told me, "I really don't mind pruning; it gives me a chance to get organized for the coming year." Still, while I was pruning, I kept thinking how behind I am—surely all my friends have their vineyards pruned by now—and that I should have finished pruning a month ago.

And then my thoughts turned to the mint that is just peeking up through the mulch under the roses while its bedmate the chives are not yet to be seen. I am anticipating their cheerful lavender blooms already even though I know that we still have two more months to go before our frost date. And glancing at the rosemary, I am encouraged that perhaps it has overwintered, surely a longshot in our climate.

This nice weather makes me want to get my herbs in and going, but it won't do any good just yet. We're sure to have a good spell of nasty weather before we get to our safe growing season. But still, I can look forward to the new and annual herbs that Tricia and I have discussed for our beds and planters this year: Thai basil, opal basil, chervil, lemon verbena, dill, and tarragon. Oh how I want an omelette aux fines herbes right now!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Does Spelling Matter?

I have a friend who travels frequently and sends me menus from cutting edge restaurants the world over. I just got a packet yesterday and I was amazed that no glaring spelling errors jumped off the pages. This may be a first.

It seems to me that there are very few restaurants that check their spelling meticulously. What does this say about a restaurant? Is it the menu equivalent of dirty restrooms? I'm not sure. [I'm just waiting for the raft of comments about the typos in my menus, living in a glass house as I do. ;]

Here are a few examples from the first three menus in my menus folder:

Oyster with Licorise [licorice] Jelly
Madeira Marchard [marchand] de Vin
Fresh Horseradish Crème Fraichê [fraîche]
Raddichio [radicchio] and Fennel Slaw

The older I get and the more languages to which I am exposed, the less sure I am of my spelling in any language. And the more I come to appreciate that life is about communication, not perfection in spelling. Still, I use my spelling checker and food dictionaries religiously. Why? Because, what does poor spelling say about a restaurant?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Steuben Yellow Eye Beans

I love shell beans and of the scores of varieties that I have tried, one of the few that I keep coming back to is an old heirloom variety called Steuben Yellow Eye, a white bean with a caramel eye. I've also heard these beans called Calypso, Butterscotch Calypso, Molasses Face, and Maine Yellow Eye.

These beans are probably the bean of Boston baked bean fame, but I'm not a huge fan of that sweet preparation. I mostly use these beans with Tuscan flavors under lamb, in soup, and more frequently, blended as the basis for a dal or a white bean purée. The primary reason that I keep coming back to these beans is that they have great texture and a wonderfully mellow flavor.

If you run across some of these beans, soak them overnight and then cook until tender with a standard mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery and a bouquet garni of bay, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Remove the bouquet and blitz the beans in the food processor until smooth. Reheat the purée over a medium flame adding water as necessary and season to taste with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and fresh herbs including parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

Customers at the restaurant absolutely love this dish which we call "Refried Beans with Style."

Mea Culpa

Ever been in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation? It happens to us all the time here at the restaurant.

A case in point, I happened to meet some of our customers at a restaurant trade show today. These customers had come in last week and for people in the business, left a 15% tip, which is our signal to the server that there are major problems. Many of us routinely tip 25% and more simply because we know how hard serving is.

I took advantage of the chance meeting to ask what the problem with service was and was told the server was very slow to approach the table. I happened to be in the dining room and saw the table in question and they were engrossed in conversation for a long time. The fault here lies entirely with me. I have trained the service staff not to interrupt a conversation at a table.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Almond Brown Sugar Croissant French Toast

Like most of my "recipes," there is a story behind this one. One Valentine's I got invited to the local radio station to cook a romantic breakfast for three couples live in the studio during the morning drive. It was a last minute kind of thing—well, I probably agreed to the gig far enough in advance, but the restaurant business has a way of making you deal with things at the last minute—and I thought of doing an upscale French toast.

Why I thought of French toast, I'll never know for we don't stock any kind of bread that's really conducive to French toast: sandwiches are simply not a part of our repertoire. Looking around the kitchen, however, I spied some stale croissants from a catering gig earlier that week sitting in the pastry station next to the bottle of almond gel (almond extract in gel form that is common in professional kitchens).

It didn't take a big leap from those two items on the counter to the phrase Almond Brown Sugar Croissant French Toast on the draft menu. In the radio studio, I served fresh strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier and a Vanilla Bean Crème Anglaise over the French toast.

And a word of warning: I don't actually use recipes and this is just an approximation of what I would do were I to make the dish again. Treat this "recipe" like the Pirate's Code—"the code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules"—and you'll do just fine.

Almond Brown Sugar Croissant French Toast

2 c heavy cream
2 eggs
1/4 c brown sugar
1 t almond extract
4 croissants, preferably a little stale
clarified butter

Mix the cream, eggs, sugar, and almond extract. Slice the croissants in half and soak in the cream mix. Cook in a sauté pan with clarified butter until browned on both sides. Remove and keep warm while cooking the remaining croissants. Spoon strawberries between two halves of the croissants and top with crème anglaise.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Menu Layout: Best of Intentions

There's a lot of information around about menu design—they call it menu engineering—to drive sales of the items you want to sell and to generate the revenue that you need for your restaurant. I don't really worry about this in my menu design: I'm much more focused on conveying clearly to our customers what it is that we are offering.

We just went through an 8-week process—yes, it really does take that long to push out a new menu, but that's a subject for another article—of simplifying our lunch menu. And we ended up with a very nice and much improved menu, but also with some unintended consequences that are pretty funny in retrospect.

It all came to a head yesterday morning, when one of the cooks came into my office to apprise me of a seemingly hilarious situation: a guest was reading the menu out loud to her father and started telling him of "Ed's sandwich, that you can get with chicken or shrimp." What you're missing here is that Ed's is not a sandwich at all, but a pasta as you can see in the image above.

When I went to the server station to check in with the server, she mentioned a couple of other customers being surprised by being served a pasta instead of a sandwich. At this point, something clicked in my mind and I understood the issue: the vertical space that I left between categories apparently wasn't enough of a visual separator, especially with the category label centered vertically with all the items in the category.

The correction was straightforward: vertically align the category label with the first item in the category. To reinforce the bounds of the category, I inserted a vertical line with the end result as you see. The result: no more Ed's sandwiches with shrimp. Chalk this up to "Who knew?"

Saturday, March 8, 2008

What, do we *NEED* a reservation?

When we ask you if you have a reservation and you don't have one, please don’t look around the dining room at the obviously empty tables, roll your eyes, and ask us in your best sarcastic you-must-be-the-stupidest-moron-on-this-planet voice, “What, do we need one?”

We are professionals and we are not asking just to annoy you or to put you in your place. Believe it or not, we don't know if you booked and want to find out because:

  • You might have requested a specific table.

  • You might have had flowers delivered and we need to get them to you.

  • You might have requested a special menu or special dish.

  • You might have a special dietary need that we discussed when booking.

  • You might leave something behind and if we know who you are, we can get it back to you.

  • We might just be filling all our tables over the next 30 minutes and we might be tight on space even though it doesn’t look like it right this minute.

  • We might just want to know your name so that we can address you by it.

So, next time you go into a restaurant without a reservation and are asked if you have one, please just answer "No, we don't." Or better yet, volunteer the information before we have to ask.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Of Spring and Groundhogs—Shad Roe

That damned ground hog up in Pennsylvania truly hogs the media spotlight, yet knows nothing about spring when compared to the shad! Each year, American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) start their annual migrations from saltwater up the freshwater rivers along the East Coast to spawn. It may feel like the middle of winter, but there is no clearer sign of spring’s appearance than the first sets of shad roe—shad egg sacs—in the market.

Shad roe come in sets of two crescent-shaped sacs of eggs that many people describe as disgusting looking. Ranging in color from pale beige to crimson depending on the diet of the shad, they’re certainly not the most beautiful things on earth, but they are far from disgusting, especially to taste. Shad roe have a mild, almost nutty flavor with a hint of fish. Some customers have compared it to liver, but shad roe is unlike any liver that I have ever tasted.

I’m a Virginia boy through and through and as the Chesapeake Bay and its estuaries constitute the largest domestic shad fishery, I grew up eating shad and its roe, and when we couldn’t get shad roe, herring roe and scrambled eggs would suffice nicely. I certainly don’t remember eating shad roe for the first time and until I was out of college, I never knew that people disliked it. In college at the University of Virginia, I used to make special trips to the C&O Restaurant in the spring, just to feast on shad roe.

I’ve since learned that shad roe is one of those polarizing dishes: either you fall into the lover or the hater camp. There appears to be no middle ground, although many of those who claim to hate it simply don’t have the nerve to try it. Which phases us shad roe lovers not in the least: it simply leaves more for us!

I’ve never seen shad roe on the market any earlier than this year, when we started serving them February 12. For me and other devotees, cooking the first shad roe of the year is a rite of spring. My ritual always involves rendering some bacon and finishing the dish with white wine, lemon juice, and capers. Over the years, I have moved completely away from pan-frying the roe to roasting them in the oven. The sacs don’t burst and so the presentation is much nicer.

I think I know what I’m going to fix myself for lunch today! Owning a restaurant does have its benefits!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Homage to the Sweet Potato

Running a seasonal restaurant can be really difficult in winter, especially late winter as it is now, because it's way too early for spring greens and because we're at the tail end of our storage vegetables from last fall. Recent forays to the farmer's market have yielded a bit of arugula, green onions, storage onions, winter squash, Brussels sprouts, leeks, potatoes, storage apples, and sweet potatoes—scant pickings compared to later this year.

This is truly the time of year that taxes our creativity the most. And my PM sous chef is a pretty creative guy. I give him props for his Sweet Potato Hash which is now firmly ensconced in my own personal repertoire. He makes this dish differently each time and so do I, but here is the general gist of what is a huge crowd pleaser here at the restaurant.

Sweet Potato Hash

1 T vegetable oil
1/2 lb slab bacon, rind off, in 3/8" dice
1 large sweet potato, in 3/8" dice
1 red onion, in 3/8" dice
1 c dried, sweetened cranberries
1 shot Bourbon (we use Maker's Mark or Wild Turkey)
salt and pepper to taste

Film the bottom of a large sauté pan with the oil and cook the bacon until half rendered. Add the sweet potato and cook half way. Add the onion and cranberries and cook for two to three minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the Bourbon. Cover and let cook, stirring every few minutes, until done. Season with salt and pepper. This is also good using a mix of half sweet potato and russet potato. Create your own version by adding herbs and garlic. Have fun!