Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Eve Redux

This was my 7th New Year's Eve at One Block West and it was certainly different from all the preceding ones. For starters, you guys nearly gave me a heart attack by waiting until the very last second to book. It was looking like we'd be empty. On Tuesday morning (the 30th), we only had four tables booked and customers could pick and choose the time that they would like to dine with us. By that evening however, all the prime tables were gone.

In fact, we couldn't get any work done on Tuesday for answering the phone. If you'd really like to help us out, remember that when we are serving meals is a really bad time to call us for reservations. Oh yeah, if I answer the phone when you call during meal service, that means we're really busy and that none of the front of the house staff has any time to answer the phone. While I'd love to chat about your grandchildren and your last visit to the restaurant, perhaps we could do it some other time?

By 5:00pm on New Years Eve, we were essentially fully booked and stopped taking reservations. We could have seated a lot more customers, but almost all our tables were deuces (couples). What is this, Valentine's? I've never seen a New Year's Eve when we didn't have a lot of boisterous big tops, large parties. Strange.

Another factor limiting the number of reservations we accepted is that because business has been so slow since the stock market tanked in November, we have really cut our staff back. We no longer have the staff to handle vast numbers of customers. It's a shame really because that means that we had to turn away customers that we would have otherwise been able to serve during normal economic conditions. But, it is always better to serve fewer people well than more people less well. This rule will always serve you well, as financially painful as it may seem in the short run.

Because we had no book for New Year's Eve until late on the 30th, I didn't bother, for the first time ever, to put together a special prix fixe menu. We usually do a 4- or 5-course dinner featuring a lot of luxury foods: lobster, oysters, caviar, foie gras, you get the picture. This year, we just did our normal à la carte menu.

When people book for New Year's Eve, they always ask "What are you doing?" meaning "What kind of neat stuff is going to be on the menu?" This year, I could tell just from the tone of voice on the phone that customers were asking "How much is it going to cost?" And I could sense the relief on the other end of the line when I said that we were doing our standard dinner menu. I even asked one woman if I had given her the correct response, to which she replied, "Oh, yes! We don't have a lot of money to spend this year!"

One thing I hadn't planned on was the weather. During the course of the day, unbeknownst to me because I was buried in the kitchen all day prepping, a massive cold front swept through giving us ambient temperatures in the teens with 20- and 30-knot winds blowing snow horizontally. Not knowing this, I prepped an average quantity of delicious Leek, Parsnip, and Potato Soup (I snuck [yes, I know the past participle is 'sneaked' but that sounds so stupid] in some smoked sea salt for a touch of je ne sais quoi) to serve as a first course. We blew through all the soup in the first four tables and scrambled to make a Champagne Asparagus soup on the fly during the middle of service as a replacement.

It was so cold that in the kitchen, I had to hold the beurre blanc for the flounder next to the grill to keep it from solidifying. Beurre blanc is a wine and butter sauce that uses the milk solids in the butter to emulsify (thicken) the sauce. In the summer, we cannot keep a beurre blanc anywhere near the range or it will separate and be ruined. You may have guessed by now that we have neither heat nor air conditioning in the kitchen.

Looking back, I wonder why I just didn't do a four-item menu consisting of soup or salad, flounder or filet mignon. Those items account for the bulk of our sales for the evening. I know that our Fall Salad is a winner because it has been on the menu for many weeks, really unusual because our menu changes every single day. But customers cannot get enough of this salad of Asian Pear, Butternut Squash, and Cajun-Spiced Pecans with an Apple Cider Vinaigrette. And so it was last night: more than half the appetizer orders were for this salad.

I really put a lot of effort into designing really neat dishes, such as Prosciutto of Salmon, for the menu and sometimes, such as right now, I wish people would get out of the soup or salad and a steak frame of mind. Or to put it differently: why are customers paying me for dishes that they could get anywhere? Granted my ingredients are the best and we execute well, but shouldn't they be paying to see what I can do that separates me as a chef from the rest of the pack? Oh well, whatever pays the bills.

The evening went extremely smoothly except for the aforementioned soup crisis, a minor grill fire (nothing really, the flames never got above 14 inches high), and that we ran out of cut filets in the middle of the evening and I had to do my 90-second beef tenderloin dress out drill.

The mellow pace of the evening let me make one early reconnoiter of the dining room and a late one. I really enjoyed meeting many new customers and seeing some long time customers again for the first time in a long time. The last customers left around 10:30 pm and a good solid hour of breaking down the dining room had us out around 11:30. And so, I was at a New Year's Eve party in plenty of time to actually see in the new year. That's unprecedented in the last seven years, but I kind of liked it for a change.

Happy New Year to you!

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