Saturday, January 31, 2009

Black Gold

As soon as I unlocked the front door to the restaurant this morning, I was greeted by the most remarkable and very welcome scent of black truffles. We put a couple pounds of truffles in the cooler late last night and they donated their inimitable fragrance to the restaurant.

The photo to the right shows a bowl of black truffles (Tuber melanosporum). I have no idea what we are going to do with them yet (tonight's Chef's Table will see some). Because of their pungency and price (you're looking at several hundred dollars worth), we use them very sparingly.

Many chefs shave them wantonly over all kinds of dishes in a kind of more-is-better, gilding-the-lily (the Bard actually wrote "paint the lily," but this is a food blog, not an English blog) approach, but I have always felt that truffles require a neutral foil to bring out their best qualities.

For me, truffles do not get any better than when showcased on top of a risotto, a warm potato salad, or on an omelette or scrambled eggs. Chicken serves the same neutral role when served en demi-deuil (in half mourning), with truffles under the breast skin. And scallops can do the same when prepared in black tie à la Daniel Boulud.

What I will do with my truffles, only time will tell. If you'd like to sample some, call me and let's do it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

On Guns and Restaurants

I must confess that I don't pay political issues much mind—sure, the Virginia restaurant lobby keeps me well apprised of the doings in Richmond, but I give most things political scant notice. I have a restaurant to run and that is two-and-a-half full-time jobs.

But wanted or not, sometimes politics intrude into my life. Just yesterday, the local TV station sent a reporter by to interview me about guns and restaurants. Not wanting to miss any face time on TV, I had to say something. ;)

The reporter's visit reminded me that our silly season is back. Yes friends, once again, it's time for the annual wrangle in the Commonwealth of Virginia between the legislature and the governor over concealed carry of handguns in establishments licensed by the Virginia ABC, that is, restaurants and bars.

It is currently illegal to carry a concealed weapon (not just a handgun) in such establishments and last year, the legislature voted to make it legal. The governor shot this down [pun intended] and the legislature didn't have enough muscle to override the veto. This year is looking very déjà vu.

I own a gun and I admit that I love shooting poor defenseless skeet, not that I am any good at it and not that I get out to shoot more than a couple of times a year. I don't belong to the NRA. I'm not a rabid second amendment type: it is clear to me that a private citizen has no legitimate need to possess an AK, machine gun, etc.

And, if the government does take away your right to possess an AK, it's not the beginning of that mythical slippery slope that sees the government further infringing your second amendment rights.

That said, I think I stand pretty much where the average American does on this issue.

Now back to the brouhaha in Richmond. Open carry is already permitted in Virginia: you can legally openly carry a weapon into restaurants and bars. To my mind, concealed carry is not terribly different from open carry, so the proposed legislation is largely symbolic—yea or nay, it isn't really going to make a huge difference. My understanding of the proposed legislation is that the carrier has to declare the weapon and may not consume alcohol, which makes it absolutely no different from open carry.

The gun control lefties don't want concealed carry in the worst way and the second amendment righties want it in the worst way and the rest of us in the middle are asking, "Don't we have bigger issues that our legislators should be tackling?"

Regardless of your position on this legislation, you have to admit that adding guns to an alcohol-fueled environment is not a great idea. In fact, it's a terrible idea.

Individual business owners in Virginia, regardless of the prevailing carry law, are free to permit or prohibit weapons in their establishments. Because mixing alcohol and weapons is a terrible idea, I prohibit all weapons—not just guns—open or concealed, except for those carried by peace officers performing their duties.

Bottom line, I leave my gun at home when I come to the restaurant. I expect you to do the same. Regardless of the law, a restaurant is no place for a gun.

This is my reaction to the reporter showing up at my restaurant yesterday and my explanation of the no weapons policy at my restaurant. Be forewarned: we are not going to debate gun control issues on my restaurant blog. Take it elsewhere.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sick and Tired....

It's the end of January and like the end of every January, I am absolutely sick and tired of paperwork. This is the month when the business runs me and not vice versa.

It's not enough to have to close the month of December, our fourth quarter, and our fiscal year at one time, is it? No, I also have to clear out the old files and update all my spreadsheets for the new year, all at the same time.

Did I mention annual reports to ABC about alcohol sales and purchases, final reports to the states of Virginia and Wild Wonderful about withholding taxes, keeping Uncle happy with his share of forms, W-2s, new W-4s, etc.

And you accountants out there, you like this??? You really do, don't you? You're twisted, you know.

And to top it off, this is the time of year when insurance companies love to audit the books to make sure that we're not hiding payroll for lower workman's comp premiums and to make sure that we're doing all we can to keep them from paying out a dime.

Just yesterday, I had to spend the afternoon with an insurance suit answering such wonderful questions as:

What is your drug testing policy? [This is a restaurant, dude. What do you think it is? Many employees test them often.]

Do you have yellow pylons to notify customers of a wet floor? [No, we have a mop.]

Why doesn't your Ansul system (fire suppression system) have an inspection tag on it? [I don't know; here's the 800 number for my contractor. Please feel free to call them and ask.]

Anyway, I am sick and tired of all this crap and I just want to get in the kitchen and do what I do best: cook and create. The poor folks who booked a tasting for this weekend have no idea just how sick and tired I am and just how lucky they are going to be to get me when I am cooking pissed off. It just could be their lucky day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mekong Catfish?

I stumbled on a little blurb today about a North American value-add (that is, prebreaded filets, coconut shrimp, etc.) seafood distributor moving into the Pangasius market. The what market? I thought I was up on the latest seafood trends, but either I missed this one or it's just coming to America. I see that a lot of Europeans already know about this fish, judging from the number of posts in both Finnish and German.

Pangasius is a rather large genus of fish in the catfish family. Of the many, many species, apparently the money species and the next Tilapia for aquaculture is P. hypopthalamus, the Mekong Catfish or Iridescent Shark. Apparently these fish tolerate very crowded conditions, grow rapidly to market size in 6 months, and are acceptably white and mild in flavor.

It's already the number one farmed species in Vietnam, so I expect that we'll be seeing it on the market here soon. (Or not. What's wrong with our Channel Cats?) Just remember you heard it here first. ;)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Where Have All the Good Eaters Gone?

I'm feeling really happy about getting slammed last night for the first time in months, but also feeling a little depressed at the same time. This past week, I put a lot of effort into designing dishes that you can't get just anywhere else, but customers largely ignored those dishes this weekend, going for safer options, things that they already know that they like. Where's the spirit of dining adventure?

Food Arts publishes a semi-regular column called "Hits and Flops" which details chefs' dishes that really took off and those that really didn't. Here's my weekend list of those that went nowhere.

Terrine of Local Lamb Flavored with Pistachios, Dried Cranberries, and Marsala

It's no secret that I love to make charcuterie and this terrine was particularly nice, studded with veal tongue, and enriched with rabbit liver. And the plate doesn't look too bad either, does it?

Gravlax of Steelhead Trout on Scottish Oat Cake with Sour Cream Drizzle and Capers

I had an extra side of Steelhead, so I decided to do it gravlax-style, cured with white pepper, dill, sugar, and salt. And it turned out great: the texture is finer and silkier than Salmon. Thinking back to foods that I like to eat with a glass of Scotch, I just had to make a Scottish oat cake to go under the rosette of Steelhead.

Grilled, Teriyaki-Glazed King Oyster Mushrooms

These big meaty King Oysters were just calling out to me, "Grill Me!" So, I did, and with sushi and more specifically unagi on the brain, I made a teriyaki glaze for these mushrooms. So good!

Mâche and Persimmon Salad with Goat Cheese and Toasted Hazelnuts

This is quite possibly one of the most striking salads that I have designed (though I can see it in the spring time with Johnny Jump Ups mixed in with the mâche). It's also extremely tasty, but way too weird for local tastes.

Prosciutto-Wrapped, Goat Cheese-Stuffed Loin of Rabbit

This dish was really slow to move, but we finally sold through it last night. You like goat cheese and chicken breasts don't you? You love ham on everything. Then why not the same treatment for rabbit? As delicious as it was striking on the plate, this dish was a tough sell with customers. The legs went into the gratin that accompanied the loin. Everyone who ate this dish loved it, but it deserves to sell better.

Just where have all the good eaters gone?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Plethora of Pleurotus

A few cases of goodies arrived from Oregon this week from our mushroom supplier and included were two cases of what seemed to be Pleurotus mushrooms, but one of which was of a form that I had never seen before. [Aside: yes, I often ask my suppliers to send me whatever they think is best. I like surprises. I'll modify the menu to accommodate whatever arrives.]

These mushrooms are so unusual in form that I called out to Oregon to find out what they are called. My dealer assured me that these are a variety of Pleurotus eryngii and that he is calling them King Oyster mushrooms.

I know from experience that the Pleurotus family, which includes the much loved and common supermarket Oyster mushroom (P. ostreatus), is highly edible and equally variable in form. Many strains have been selected over the years such that you can regularly find Oysters in pink, blue, white, grey, and nearly black. So, I'm not really surprised to see Eryngii variants.

The other case was of a mushroom that I have known as a Royal Trumpet and that is in fact what my dealer is calling this particular Eryngii variant. Other names that I have heard for this particular cultivar include King Oyster, King Eryngii, Eringii, Trumpet Royale (trademarked), King Trumpet (also trademarked), and Cardoncello in Italian.

All these mushrooms are much larger than the common Oyster and they are all characterized by having particularly phallic stems topped by a tiny (if any) cap. They are very neutral in flavor, similar in that regard to fresh Porcini, and I find some of them to have a potato-like flavor. They all have sweet, firm flesh that responds extremely well to grilling or a hard sear in a skillet. They are not called "Poor Man's Porcini" for no reason, being similar to fresh Porcini at a fraction of the price.

There is another species of Oyster mushroom that I am looking forward to working with and that is the Abalone (or Elf) mushroom (P. cystidiosus), named for its resemblance to abalone when crusted and fried. I am looking forward to making that judgement for myself.

If you see any of these pleurotes at your market, by all means take them home and see what you can do with them. If you're wondering what I'm going to do with mine, I don't yet know, but come on down to the restaurant and find out.

Fresh Blood

Those of us who have been in kitchens a long time and especially those of us who have been confined by the four walls of the same kitchen for years tend to become very jaded. It's just really tough to bring excitement and enthusiasm to the kitchen day after day, which is in part why I change the menu daily and why I am always bringing new ingredients into the kitchen, ones that we've never worked with before.

It also helps to have fresh blood in the kitchen. This week we were fortunate to have two young cooks in our kitchen, one visiting during her break between culinary schools and one testing for a cook's position with us. Fresh blood helps remind us that things that we do daily and that are actually quite boring for us, such as making risotto, are still new and exciting to others. It helps us reach back and remember the first few times we made risotto (rather than the first few times this week).

I want to thank our culinary student Carlyn, shown at right here finishing the garnish on a couple of fall salads, for spending time with us and for working my station last evening. It was so slow that she and our sous chef ran the show and I went home and cooked dinner for my family, a real treat if there ever were one. I cannot remember the last Friday that I was at home.

Carlyn, good luck to you in cooking school in Florence (we all envy you the opportunity) and when you're back, I expect both an appetizer and an entrée contribution for our menu! As they say in Florence, "In bocca al lupo!"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mr. Delaware

In standing around telling war stories to the staff last night, none of whom have been with me for the entire tenure of the restaurant, though some are close, I remembered an encounter in the very early days of the restaurant with a diner and his wife from Delaware. I'll never forget this guy because he was mad as, well, a wet blue hen and just dead wrong too.

Dinner went pleasantly enough and the server and I had an amiable enough chat with the couple who were on summer vacation and chose to stop in our town and dine at our restaurant on the last night before making the short drive back home to Delaware in the morning.

The problem started shortly after the presentation of the bill to the customer. He looked at the bill for several minutes and I could see the wheels spinning in his head. At lot of customers want an explanation of their bill, even though it is all spelled out on the check, so the server went over to the table and asked if she could help with the bill.

She went through the bill line by line with him and assured him that the bill was correct. Then he pointed to the penultimate line of the bill, the one just before the final total, the one labeled "ST" for sales tax. When she explained that that amount was sales tax, I could see that he was starting to get a little angry and I started heading to the table to remove the server in case it escalated, which it did.

He had me explain the sales tax rate, which is 10%, half to the Commonwealth of Virginia and half to the City of Winchester in the form of an additional meals tax. He complained that the tax rate was unfair. I agreed with him that I thought that it was a bit excessive, but that I had no choice—as custodian of the Commonwealth, I am required to collect the money and send it off to Richmond. I don't exactly relish being tax collector for the state, but it goes with the territory.

He stated, "I'm from Delaware and we don't have sales tax and I'm not paying this." I tried being nice and agreeing with him that not being used to paying sales tax, our tax must come as a shock, but that I had no choice in collecting it.

What I was really thinking is that this guy is just coming off a week on vacation outside of Delaware and given that he was about 50 years old, chances that this was his first exposure to sales tax were nil. He was just being a jackass.

I persisted in trying to persuade him to comply for another minute or so, but he kept dialing up the volume and getting more and more angry. Finally, I had enough of this customer acting like a five-year old and I had other things to do, so I said to him, "Sir, you have two choices. You can either hand me that credit card and I will charge it for the full amount of your meal including the sales tax or I can call the police and they can take you to a judge and you can have your chance to prove to him that the Commonwealth's sales tax is unfair."

I actually had to call across the dining room to ask the server to bring me the telephone before he handed me his credit card in a big huff.

Judging by the lack of tip that he left, I guess they don't tip in Delaware either.

Mr. Delaware, wherever you are, thanks for the memories and the chuckles every time that I think of you, and, oh yeah...good luck with that crusade to rid the world of sales tax.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mystery Vegetable

Years ago, when I lived in the DC metro area (Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA), and when I traveled to the left coast at least twice a month, I used to frequent oriental groceries. Each time I would go to a store, I would bring home something that I had never seen or used or eaten before and figure out what to do with it.

I was such a habitué at a market in Annandale, VA (you longtime DC denizens surely remember Kam Sen market; now some other market) that the Chinese grandmothers would ask me what to do with certain foodstuffs.

Somewhere along the line, I stumbled on big tubs of various vegetables, preserved in salt and chile pepper. It was great to be able to buy the exacty quantity of various mustards, radishes, and turnips that I needed for my dishes. By comparing the Chinese characters on the labels on the tubs and those on various cans, I came to realize that many of these same items were also available in cans and small crocks.

This was years before the labels featured pictures of the contents as does the photo above. My only clue was to look for the cans labeled in German Präserviertes Gemüse, which translates as Preserved Vegetable in English. After years of playing with seeds from oriental markets, I now know that what's in the can is known in English as Chinese Thick-Stemmed Mustard and while it has very tasty mustard greens when young, its real beauty shines forth once the stem starts to bulge and it is harvested and salted.

I just love this stuff. I am reminded of it today because my daughter brought home four ravenous teenage girlfriends last evening, quite conveniently at 6:30pm. I had to scramble for dinner and with very little in the fridge, I went for the always crowd-pleasing fried rice. I just love the little salty, spicy bits of this mustard in my fried rice and so apparently did the my guests, if they tasted anything at all while inhaling dinner.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Murphy and the Restaurant Business

Here's a little off-the-cuff humor that restaurateurs who have been in the trenches will fully appreciate. Would-be restaurateurs may not understand this, but they should or they should stay out of the trenches. The rest of you, well, perhaps you will come away with a better understanding that the restaurant business is crazy, unscriptable, unpredictable, and requires immense flexibility and critical problem solving skills. Oh, and don't let the whining fool you. The restaurant business, despite all this, is an immensely rewarding one and most of us wouldn't do anything else.

Without further ado, I present Mr. Murphy in action:

If you have two parties of 12 booked half an hour apart, they will arrive at the same time.

If you have only four orders of a special left, three servers will submit a total of six orders for them simultaneously.

If you keep the 86 board (where we write quantities left of items that we are running out of) up to date, the servers won't read it.

If you forget to update the 86 board and leave incorrect information on it from the previous shift, the servers will memorize it.

If an order arrives COD, you won't be there to write the check.

If it's the week of Mother's Day, your linen company is guaranteed to short you by at least 30% on the tablecloths and napkins.

If there's a blizzard in January, your linen driver is going to bring you three times the linens that you can possibly use.

If a driver tells you he will arrive at 2:30pm, he will arrive in the middle of dinner.

If your reservation book is perfectly spaced, customers will fix that for you.

If everything is going well, the compressor on the walk-in will blow.

If two customers leave similar overcoats on the coat rack, they will inevitably go home with the wrong one (and it's always the restaurant's fault).

If you're fully booked, at least one key employee will call in "sick."

If it's cold as hell in January and you're in a cashflow crunch, half your tables will be redeeming gift certificates.

If you promise a particular wine for a customer's upcoming dinner, you will be out and so will the distributor.

If you just ran out of a wine of which you sell three bottles a year, two more tables will try to order it—tonight.

If space is very tight in the dining room, at least one couple will not want to sit at their appointed 2-top, preferring to take one of your 6-tops out of service instead.

If they book for twelve people, only 9 will show.

If you just have to have those veal racks for your wine dinner tonight, the truck will have a flat tire and be three hours late.

If it's August and you have a full house on a 103F day, your AC compressor is due to die.

If it's Saturday night and your grill or broiler is getting hammered with steak orders, time for it to go up in flames.

If you just got your whites hosed down with blood, customers want you in the dining room.

If it's 8:30pm on Valentine's Day, the dish machine is going to break.

If you have lots of room in your dining room, nobody will walk in.

If you're jammed to capacity, everybody will try to walk in.

If you're down a server, you'll be slammed.

If you sacrifice three 4-tops in your dining room to seat a 12-top, only 6 people will show and you could have seated them at the vacant 6-top.

If the customer has a food allergy, he won't tell you; he'll just send the dish back when he spots the allergen in the food.

If you create a vegetarian special, nobody will order it.

If you don't create a vegetarian special, every other table will have a vegetarian.

If you have a packed book for the first time in weeks, it will snow.

If there is one table in the dining room that has yet to be reset, the next table in the door will insist on sitting there.

If fish has been selling like hotcakes and you buy extra for this weekend to meet the demand, everyone will order meat.

I could go on forever, but I gave myself a five-minute time limit on this post. Let me finish by saying, if you had good sense, you would not own a restaurant! Here's a toast to all us crazy people lacking good sense that thrive in this chaos that we call the restaurant business!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Turn on the Global Warmer, Please!

Hey, whoever's in charge of the global warmer, could you turn it back on? Enough of this cold already. I know you Canadians and Russians and cold weather people are laughing at our idea of cold weather, but seriously, this is Virginia. If we wanted your weather, we'd come join you.

This weather is causing me two problems, well three actually, but only two are business related. Traffic, because of the weather, is at 10% of normal, which in January is already at 50% of normal. Can you say cashflow crunch? Second, our produce is getting hammered. Seventy-five percent of our produce order this morning arrived cold damaged—that's a nice way of saying frozen solid. So I guess we're scrambling for produce for today's menu. Another day; another challenge.

The third problem: my truck won't go into second gear when it's this cold. Fortunately, I live at the top of a hill, so shifting from first to third works.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"House" Wine

I got to thinking about "house wine" today.

It happens all the time that a customer will ask for a glass of "house Merlot" or "the house white" or the "house" something. And we have to gently tell the customer that we have no house wines. We've never had house wines because we have always had an extensive by-the-glass wine list that at any given time comprises 70 to 80 wines.

I take that back. Some years ago, we had a One Block West Cuvée local Chardonnay, but we let that program lapse simply because of too much stylistic variation between vintages and because the Commonwealth of Virginia forbade us for a long while from buying directly from the wine growers. The point of this program was not to have a house white, but to showcase what the local producer was doing. Too bad for both of us that it didn't work out.

Back to the dining room. I'd like to think that most customers asking for a house wine are really thinking that because we care a lot about wine that we will naturally pick tasty, inexpensive wines for house wines. But that's not the feeling I get when I overhear most customers asking for a house wine.

It seems to me that most people are saying, "Bring me a glass of whatever is cheapest; I don't care whether it goes with my meal or not." The corollary would be to ask your server to bring the cheapest dish on the menu to you, that you don't care what it is or how it is prepared. "Could I have the house meat please?"

I know that there are customers who order house wine simply to avoid the "trouble" of looking through the wine list and making a decision. And I certainly understand that there are times when each of us is just too tired to want to make another decision after a hard day. If this is the case, just order the wine that I have paired with your dish of choice on the menu or ask your server or me to select a wine for you.

So, tired of making decisions I understand. But, what I don't understand is why these same people will sift through the menu and ask questions about the food, its preparation, and its provenance, but would then just ask for any old wine to drink.

I guess it's the idea that wine is not worthy of the same consideration as food that bothers me a little. We put a lot of effort into our food and into building our wine list to complement that food and we'd like to think that customers put a little effort into choosing wine to go with it.

I'm not knocking house wines or those restaurants that serve them or those customers that order them. I have to confess that in France, I have ordered "un pichet de rouge" on many occasions. And I don't think that "house wine" is a dirty word or anything like that. I am just posting this so that everyone knows why we don't have house wine.

In building my wine list, I've put my effort into building an outstanding by-the-glass list so that everyone at the table can get a wine that pairs well with each course. And house wine just flies in the face of this effort.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Petit Chablis

It's that time of year and I'm thinking about the Chablis in France. Cold weather and January are synonymous with Chablis in my mind, this being the off season for wine makers and the time of year that I used to go on buying trips in a former life before the restaurant business.

After flying all night Saturday night to France and negotiating the rental car process in Paris, the first stop would be the village of Chablis, a pleasant enough less than 2-hour drive out the A6. In fact, it's just enough time to become ragingly hungry and arrive for the Sunday morning market.

Chablis will always be a magical place for me, being forever linked with going to the Sunday market to buy some briny Arcachon and Belon oysters, a bottle of grand cru Chablis, and driving up into the Vaudésir vineyard overlooking the town and the Serein, and embracing the cold wind of January while sitting in the vineyard eating the oysters and drinking the Chablis for breakfast.

Racy Chablis right in the grand cru vineyard just seems to be the perfect pairing for oysters. The perfection of the pairing comes from the high acid Chardonnay (some old timers in Chablis still call Chardonnay Beaunois, the grape from Beaune, much further south in the Bourgogne proper) made in the Chablis. The acidity comes not only from the calcareous soils, but from the northerly lattitude that keeps the grapes from overripening: only the Champagne is further north in France. And a lack of oak and lack of malolactic fermentation certainly help where oysters are concerned.

When people think of Chablis, they tend to think of only three appellations: Chablis Grand Cru, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis; they forget (or don't know about) Petit Chablis, the fourth appellation. On the quality scale, vineyards designated as Petit Chablis produce wines that have been historically on the low end. This doesn't necessarily mean bad. What it means in these budget conscious times is inexpensive. A rock solid Petit Chablis from a top producer can be a lot better and a whole lot less expensive than a Chablis or Premier Cru from a lesser producer.

We don't have any Petit Chablis on the restaurant wine list; selling any kind of Chablis at all in our market is difficult. But, if you happen across it at a wine shop or on a restaurant wine list, you might just have found a racy Chardonnay at a good price, a solid value wine.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fines Herbes

Why a post defining something that you can just look up in Wikipedia? Because I am not satisfied with any definition that I can find. The classic French herb mixture called fines herbes ("feen zairb") is not something that can be fully defined as a short list of four herbs, finely minced. And far too many so-called references on the web and in print, including scholarly dictionaries, rush to give their idea of which four herbs comprise fines herbes and many of these authorities' lists are at odds with each other.

What these lists fail to address is the spirit behind fines herbes. Fines herbes are those herbs that in traditional French cooking pair well with seafood, poultry, and other delicately flavored dishes. These are herbs that are finely minced and added at the last minute before service to add both grace and a lightness (I particularly like the French words for this concept: légèreté, délicatesse, grâce).

Years ago as a young man, like the current experts, I used to be certain what the correct four herbs were; however, the older I get, the more things tend to gray, not only my hair. In reality, each chef has a preferred number, combination, and ratio of fines herbes. Although four herbs are traditional, some chefs use more and some use less. Herbs that are more or less traditional are parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon, thyme, dill, and other similar (that is, delicately flavored) herbs.

My favorite combination is parsley, chervil, chives, and very young dill, in equal proportion. I think that chervil gives enough anise flavor to the mix without adding the oft heavy handed tarragon. [Aside: tarragon never was on my list of "delicate" herbs—it is a culinary beast capable of slaying many dishes.] Very young dill is just the ticket for me. But naturally my mix varies depending on what I am cooking, what herbs I have on hand, and what season it is.

What you can infer from my list above is that assertive herbs such as rosemary and oregano do not belong in fines herbes, nor does cilantro which is highly alien in classic French cuisine. Could lemon balm or lemon verbena be a part of my fines herbes mix? That's a definite yes. What about bay? No, it's very pungent. Basil, no, I think not.

I hope you are starting to recognize the picture that I am trying to draw for you. Fines herbes is about fresh, tender, delicately flavored herbs that work well with mild dishes such as poultry, seafood, eggs, clear or cream soups, and salads, added at just the last moment for a touch of freshness and lightness. You would be served well to remember this and forget about the canonical list, which does not exist and probably never did.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What's This Wondra?

Are you among the legions who have never heard of Wondra? It's been around since 1963, slightly less than all my life, and I use it all the time. At demonstrations or on TV when I say that I am dredging something in Wondra, I get questions (or in the case of TV, emails) asking what this Wondra is.

Wondra is a granulated flour from General Mills, the folks that bring you Gold Medal flours. General Mills markets it as a "quick mixing" flour for thickening sauces with fewer lumps.

More technically, Wondra is pregelatinized granules made of smaller, low protein wheat and malted barley flour particles. Pregelatinization involves steaming the flour and then drying it, so that it is essentially precooked. Being low in protein and already precooked, Wondra combines in hot or cold sauces more readily and is less prone to forming lumps.

Lump free sauces are all well and good, except that in the restaurant business, we rarely thicken sauces with flour of any kind. But, we do use a lot of Wondra, at least at my restaurant. We use it because those tiny, consistently sized granules create really nice flour crusts on food. And the granules really help in limiting the dust that we get from normal flour, plus they also stick a lot less to our fingers when we are dredging foods.

So there you have it, a product designed for one purpose, but highly useful for a very different purpose. Wondra is available at a supermarket near you.

Still want to know more about pregelatinization of starches? Go dig up a copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, 2nd edition. It makes for some rollicking bedtime reading. ;)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Am I Allowed to Chuckle?

Friends, if I chuckle a little bit at you, will you chuckle along with me?

[Aside: every time I poke a bit of fun at something that happened in the dining room, some small-minded person accuses me of all kinds of evil things. I get the most obnoxious hate emails you can imagine, just for pointing out human foibles. If that's your mindset, could you just please click on over to somebody else's blog?]

Again, I ask you, if I chuckle a little bit at you, will you chuckle along with me?

This weekend I got asked several times about the hedgehog that I was sautéeing with black trumpet mushrooms. At first, I thought customers were pulling my leg, but no, most were quite serious.

The menu read:

Wild Hedgehog and Black Trumpet Mushrooms Baked Under Brie
Fresh from our Forager in Oregon, Wild Mushrooms Sautéed with Shallots and Thyme, Baked under Brie Cheese

Seriously, that's hedgehog mushrooms and black trumpet mushrooms. I'm not picking on your lack of knowledge of wild mushrooms, really I'm not, but surely you have to see the humor in the unintended consequences of writing in a language that parses ambiguously!

I've since re-ordered the words as "Wild Black Trumpet and Hedgehog Mushrooms" and although this doesn't resolve the ambiguity of the English, hopefully this will help clarify my intention. LOL.

Monday, January 5, 2009


I often refer to mirepoix ("meer pwah") in my posts. This term from classic French cuisine refers to a small dice of aromatic vegetables for flavoring dishes. When I write "5# mirepoix" on the prep list, our cooks know this is short-hand for "five pounds of onions, carrots, and celery in 3/8" (1 cm) dice in the ratio 2 parts onion to one part each carrot and celery." The 2:1:1 ratio is fairly classic, but many chefs would want a mirepoix in equal parts of each ingredient.

Now were I to write "5# trinity" on my prep list, I would be talking about five pounds of mirepoix of the Cajun holy trinity: onions, peppers, and celery, again with a 2:1:1 ratio.

And if I wanted some other vegetables, I would write something similar to "5# mirepoix of butternut squash, turnips, parsnips, celery root, and rutabaga." The prep cooks would give me equal parts of each unless I specified otherwise.

While I'm on the subject, a similar preparation is the brunoise, 1/8" (3mm) dice of similar vegetables. Brunoise ("bru nwahz") is almost always cut for show (for final garnish that is) so the emphasis is on consistently perfect, identically sized cubes of vegetables.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Feeling Good

It's one of those rare days off for me when I feel pretty content about the quality of our food and the state of our kitchen. We did two back to back Chef's Tastings Friday and Saturday night and the food that we did for both tastings was spectacular, in concept, in flavor, in harmony with the wine pairings, and visually on the plate. Each dish could have starred in a photo in Art Culinaire.

I should have taken photos, but we were on a roll this weekend and I dared not interrupt the flow for fear that by taking photos, I would have ruined the moment, not unlike the observer effect in particle physics.

Although we were working from a printed menu, we still hadn't decided many of the key things about the dishes, including plating, until the point of execution on the line. In a way, as a chef, if you are flexible and can tolerate uncertainty, this is a very liberating way to cook for it lets spontaneity come center stage. In fact, it requires spontaneity.

I touched on this briefly in my conversation with one of the guests on his way out of the restaurant. He wondered something to the effect that if we had carried off such a wonderful meal with just a few days to plan it, what could we have done with six months advance notice? I told him that much planning could very well have ruined things. Sometimes, it is best just to cook on instinct and overplanning is the bane of all things instinctual.

I'm also feeling really good because this is how I like to cook and how I would like to cook every night. Ultimately, I would like to present customers with a parade of jewel box preparations of exquisite composition and flavor. Maybe there's hope for that yet, but I see a lot more crab cakes and filets mignons in my near future. I don't want to rain on my own parade, so let me post this now while I am still feeling good about what it is that I have chosen to do for a living.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beluga Lentils

In December, we served a lot of beluga lentils, mainly with grilled Steelhead Trout. You can see a photo of how we plated the trout in the Chipotle-Glazed Coho Salmon blogpost from October; the black disk under the salmon is beluga lentils. Many, many customers tasted beluga lentils for the first time in December and discovered for themselves why we chefs love them so: they have a wonderful texture and a round, earthy flavor that serves well as a neutral foil for other foods.

Customers naturally wanted to know two things. Why are they called beluga? Where do I get them?

The first question is easy. As you can see, belugas are just another form of cultivated lentil (Lens culinaris) that happen to be tiny, black, spherical, and shiny; terms that also describe beluga caviar, after which the lentils are named.

The second question is tough. I can buy these lentils, like all my lentils, in large quantities from any number of wholesalers. But where can you get them in retail quantities? That, I'm not sure. Perhaps our readers know.

If you happen on some, cooking them is easy. Cover them in water and cook them for 15-20 minutes until they are soft enough for your taste. I always add a bay leaf and some mirepoix to my lentils. We often finish the cooked lentils at service with sautéed shallots and a touch of butter, perhaps a bit of pancetta if we are not doing a vegetarian dish.

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!

2009 Wish List

Each year, I make a list of foods, ingredients, techniques, and regions that I want to focus on for the coming year. It's my way of pushing myself to continually grow as a chef. Because I have no time to get out and sample other cuisines, I have to bring the ingredients into my kitchen to absorb them into my repertoire.

pumpkin seed oil
clay pot cooking
screw pine/pandanus
banana flowers
fresh wasabi
Jonah/rock/peekytoe crab
long pepper
argan oil
pressure cooking