Tuesday, December 27, 2011

OBW Company Christmas Dinner

We closed early on Friday night the 23rd to all sit down to Christmas dinner together. Although we are often together, the whole crew sits down to dinner together once a year. The planning started a couple weeks out with me canvassing the crew about what they wanted to eat.

We all still had visions of last year's dinner dancing in our heads: ossobuco of pork, risotto milanese, and kick-ass collard greens braised with smoked turkey necks. You can see from last year's menu what we like to eat: hearty braised comfort food with no frou-frou. Keep your lobsters and caviar, bring on the braised meat.

Everyone except me would have been satisfied with the same menu as last year; I always want to do something different. This year, after much soul searching, it finally came to me while watching the Food Network; this would be the year for porchetta, that crackling piggy delight of Italian heritage. Add some gnocchi with pancetta and black truffles and a reprising of the braised collard greens and the menu was set.

Wild Boar-Stuffed Porchetta

Porchetta is a stuffed pork roast that probably originated in central Italy. Often you will see a whole pig stuffed and spit-roasted. Here we imitate that with pork belly that I prepped by butterflying it and curing it for 48 hours with ground fennel, ground coriander, salt, and sugar.

After rinsing the cured belly, I covered it with a wild boar forcemeat flavored with orange zest, black olive purée, ground fennel, and minced garlic. You see the belly here rolled and tied, ready for the oven, and then once it is cooked, all crispy and brown.

Potato Gnocchi with Black Truffles and Pancetta

I took this opportunity to show Tony and Travis how to make traditional potato gnocchi, without eggs. Anyone can add eggs and make gnocchi. It takes some practice to make gnocchi without eggs and the practice is worth it. With eggs, you get lumps. Without eggs, you get light pillows of goodness.

Tony, peeling the potatoes for the gnocchi. Travis in the background. We generally don't serve potatoes at the restaurant and when we do, they are not the russets that make the best gnocchi. You may notice the retail bag of tiny russets that I had to run out to the grocery store to fetch.

Travis, ricing the potatoes.

Gnocchi on the hoof, awaiting their turn in the pot of simmering water.

The finished product, mixed with butter and truffles and pancetta, topped with grated cheese, and baked.

Collard Greens Braised with Smoked Pork Neck

Friday, December 16, 2011

Chef's Tasting

Here are the photos from last night's Chef's Table. We used our customers as guinea pigs in a sense: we were auditioning new dishes for the main dinner menu. In most cases, this is the first time we've tried these dishes. Some may go on to feature on the main menu, some may get tweaked and tried again, and at least one will be relegated to the bit-bin here on the blog.

Dueling Pork Belly. You may have noticed a theme to recent Chef's Tasting menus: pork belly. In our quest to convert people to the Pork Belly Legion™, we seem to be serving it everywhere. Here, we have two quick one-biters for our amuse course.

The first (closest) is the way we have been featuring pork belly on the main dinner menu since we first started experimenting with this combination back in November for another tasting. Sitting on a mound of grits is the pork belly, which is drizzled with local hickory bark syrup, and topped with what we are calling a red grape "olivada" after the Italian condiment of the same name. It consists of red grapes, olives, capers, anchovies, lemon juice, oregano, and olive oil.

The second presentation (the farthest away) is a classic Vietnamese treatment of pork belly, but one we've never featured here at the restaurant. I braised the pork belly in a sauce that I made from caramel, fish sauce, black pepper, and shallots. You see the pork belly sitting on a mound of grits, topped with more of the braising caramel sauce, and topped with a cilantro leaf.

Seared Sea Scallop. This dish is the result of us having baby Shanghai bok choy, lop cheung (Chinese sausage), and pickled mustard greens in the cooler and trying to find a way to use them. Coupled with this, Matt just delivered us a huge bunch of chicken feet when he last brought us rabbits, so we had a big batch of super good chicken stock in the cooler as well. Soup was a natural thought given this bunch of ingredients, but we decided to change the form and do the old soup in the wonton trick. In the photo, you see a soup-filled wonton down and a quarter of a baby bok choy, cilantro leaves, pickled mustard greens, green onions, and lop cheung coins over, with a scallop topping the feast.

What you don't see is a tiny bit of the fish sauce caramel from the pork belly underneath the wonton. When the guest cuts into the wonton, the ginger-flavored chicken stock spews forth, mixes with the caramel, and fills the bowl with a delicious soup broth. It worked as intended, but the guests seemed non-plussed by the dish: they didn't seem to know how to eat it. Not knowing how I should eat something has never stopped me from trying, but then I am not most people, and that is why we test some of these dishes at the Chef's Table before launching them in the main dining room. This dish, as good as it looked and smelled and as fun as it appeared to us to be, will probably never make it to the dining room.

Wild Mushrooms on Celery Root Latke. There is nothing earth shattering here, just plain old-fashioned deliciousness. In recent weeks, we have really taken a liking to celery root paired with wild mushrooms and this is that pairing's latest incarnation. The chanterelle mushrooms (the last of the season before we switch to hedgehogs for the winter) are finished old-school, with veal demiglace and heavy cream. Classic French habits die hard in old chefs!

Roasted Red Drum. This is a test use of Tony's puttanesca-style lentils. I am a big fan of lentils with fish; the pairing just works for me. And pasta puttanesca, with it's bold seasonings, just may be my all-time favorite pasta dish. Here you see the lentils flavored with olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, basil, and crushed red pepper flakes under a piece of drum that has been rubbed with olive oil, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, and garlic, and then roasted. This is headed for the dinner menu this weekend. It will probably perplex customers, but I love the pairing and the plate presentation is clean and inviting.

Jerked Veal with Sweet Potato Spätzle. And now for something completely different and a dish that will never go any further than this. We've been serving a classic schnitzel with spätzle on the dinner menu this week. Tony had the idea of taking that dish and doing a Caribbean riff on it. The veal cutlets were rubbed and marinated with our house-made jerk paste then grilled, sliced, and stacked Lincoln Log-style. On top of this stack you see a cranberry salsa made from cranberries, lime, jerk paste, allspice, and cilantro. The salsa was pretty good and may be something we would try again. Next to this you see the sweet potato spätzle, browned with brunoise of sweet potato, and finished with a touch of grated ginger, lime zest, and allspice. I was unhappy with the presentation and the Caribbean flavors just didn't add anything to the dish; they weren't bad, but if they don't add anything, why are they there?

Caramel Apple Butterscotch Bread Pudding. What? This doesn't look like a bread pudding? Well, it is. These small local Blushing Golden apples are hollowed out and then baked with the bread pudding inside. Sauced with house-made dulce de leche, crème anglaise, and a touch of maple syrup, this dish was a fun way to finish dinner.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011: December 15th

The is the 24th and final posting of the series about One Block West Restaurant during 2011. It's been a year of a lot of changes for the better at the restaurant and I have greatly enjoyed writing about what has happened. I will follow up on or about December 31st with an index to the series and a few notes summarizing the year, but this it for the series. I hope that you have enjoyed reading along.

After a great run this fall, business has come to a screeching halt. Although I should be used to it after nine full years at this restaurant, the nearly instantaneous cessation of business after Thanksgiving this year surprised me. The first weekend in December is always miserable for two reasons. First, the travelers that we depend on for the bulk of our weekend business are spending the weekend at home because they were on the road the weekend before for Thanksgiving. And second, any potential local business is obliterated by the local holiday house tour. The second weekend is hardly any better. Collectively, the first two weeks of December are historically two of the worst weeks of the year, and so they have been this year.

Because of the dearth of customers, it has been a real struggle to sell the food we have prepped. Even though we know it is a slow time, we have to be prepared to have a busy night at any time and that means prepping more food than we think we have good reason to believe that we will sell. As I mentioned in the last posting, unpredictable is the new normal. And after a slow weekend on the 9th and 10th, we got bombed out of nowhere on Tuesday the 13th. We were barely staffed and barely prepped for more business than we did the entire weekend before.

But the overall slow time has let me get things done in my office that I haven't had time for in at least four months. For example, I have been through a lot of old paperwork and shredded and recycled anything not necessary to preserve. I've sent several massive bags of shredded documents to recycling in the last couple of weeks. And, I am already starting to close 2011, getting a jump on this heinous annual chore.

I keep three years of files on site: the current working set in one file cabinet, last year's in another, and the prior year in file boxes. Each year, another set of files gets moved to offsite storage. This year, I have already moved the 2009 files offsite and removed the 2010 files from the backup file cabinet and boxed them for onsite storage. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't keep this much documentation on site, but certain agencies, ABC in particular, require that we keep two years of documentation on premise.

This month, as I have paid the final bill for each vendor in 2011, I moved the 2011 file from the current vendor filing cabinet to the backup file cabinet. At the end of this process toward the third week of January, the current vendor filing cabinet will contain only active 2012 files.

I have noted with some satisfaction that over the years, the amount of paper that I am storing has grown smaller and smaller each year as more and more vendors switch to paperless billing. Killing fewer trees each year is a good thing.

I mentioned last posting that I spent considerable time on the telephone with an examiner from the Virginia Employment Commission because the dishwasher I fired in October filed for unemployment. I mentioned that my track record with the VEC has only been about 50-50 in the past. Their decision arrived this week in a letter stating that our former dishwasher has been denied unemployment benefits because he had a well-documented history of tardiness and absence from work and because he admitted to the same. I don't wish the guy ill will but I do have a problem with people filing for unemployment when they were fired for not bothering to come to work.

Special event menus always seem to sneak up on me and catch me unprepared. Once again this year, the New Year's Eve menu planning got away from me. I like to have the menu done by the first of December when we open the book for New Year's reservations, but this year, it was the 7th before I published it. After a few calls from customers wanting to know what was on the menu, I finally took off early on the night of the sixth and spent 2-1/2 hours working through the menu with Ann. At least half the ideas on the menu are hers—she remembers dishes that I have cooked that have long escaped my mind. Hell, I can't remember what we served at last week's Chef's Table.

The long and short of it is that we started booking reservations for New Year's Eve on the 7th this year. That morning, I came in, typed up the two menus, published them to the web site with pricing, updated the web site to promote the menus, and decided on seatings and put together a seating chart.

You may recall from the very first posting in this series that last year, we did two seatings two hours and fifteen minutes apart and still had some tables that took longer than that, creating a bit of a traffic jam at the beginning of the second seating as new guests arrived and had nowhere to sit. So this year, I spaced the seatings two and a half hours apart with seatings at 6:00 and 8:30. You might think this is early for New Year's Eve and it is: our customers are not a late partying crowd. They come here to eat before going wherever they are going to ring in the new year.

And this year after a lot of thought on my part, we are returning to a prix fixe menu after a couple of years of not having a special menu, just offering our standard à la carte dinner menu. I think people are ready to celebrate this year; I know I am. And the prix fixe menu is not the only change this year. Even when we did a prix fixe menu in the past, we had about four choices for each course. This year, I have done something entirely different in creating two separate menus, a standard one and a vegetarian one, neither with choices. This is probably going to put off some people and I'm OK with that. My goal this year is to serve customers who are coming to the restaurant to have One Block West food, not customers who are going out to order the filet mignon that they can get at any other decent restaurant. This will be my 10th New Year's Eve dinner service at One Block West and this year, I'm doing it on my own terms.

After sitting in a warehouse in Hagerstown for five days, our new bar stools finally arrived, in the pouring rain. It seems that every time we have to offload furniture or equipment from a trailer, it is pouring rain. With the arrival of the bar stools and the hanging of purse hooks on the bar, the bar renovation is now complete. It's been a long time coming and I am very pleased with the results.

This past week, we were faced with a new twist on the old credit card scam. A guy called at lunch time with a NYC area code and said he was visiting from out of town and wanted to order some food for the rest of the week and have it delivered. But, he didn't know what days we are open or what is on our menu. When informed that we do not deliver, he wanted to order lunch and dinner to-go for the remainder of the week, despite the fact that our dinner menu changes nightly and we have no clue what we're serving for dinner three days hence. The server told him to go look at the lunch menu on the web site and call back with a specific order for today. Good thinking on her part. He never did.

The word for this past two-week period is "short." As in, we got shorted a bunch of stuff that we ordered. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to order something, such as a case of portabella mushrooms, only to find that it mysteriously never made it onto the truck? And it's doubly frustrating if that causes you to not be able to serve a dish on your menu.

And this happens all the time with wine and beer. With more than 70 wines by the glass, we just don't sell much beer, but the beer we sell is from a small microbrewery that has seen phenomenal growth and demand for its product. And they have just moved from their old brewery to a brand new bigger one and in the process, we got shorted on the stout we ordered. Goes with the territory, I suppose. Wine is even worse, coming and going, changing vintages and prices without warning. Despite our best intentions, there is always going to be a wine or two on the list that we just don't have.

A case in point: we have a shiraz that is very popular and is prone to be out of stock for months on end, so we buy large quantities to see us through from container to container arriving from Australia. We were getting low a couple of weeks back, so I called my sales rep and inquired when the next container was arriving and if they had enough in stock to carry us until then. I was told that the next container arrives in January and yes, they had plenty in stock to cover our re-orders between now and then. So we reordered last week and—of course, you've already guessed the outcome—no shiraz. Despite our best intentions at managing our distributors, they can foil just about any plans we might have. "Roll with the punches" is my mantra.

And this past week, Travis tendered his resignation to move to, coincidentally, Hagerstown. This has been coming for a long time and I had expected him to leave the first of the year anyway to go to culinary school, so I have been bringing along a new line cook as a backup. So, we are going into the new year with a new cook. So goes the restaurant business. I'm not sure what Travis' plans are—there aren't any culinary schools near Hagerstown—but I thank him for his service here and I wish him the best in the future.

Speaking of line cooks, one of my former cooks surprised me with a visit at lunch last week. I am very pleased to see that he has matured considerably and is now cooking at The Greenbrier in a very respectable kitchen. One Block West alumni are now in good kitchens around the country; one is a sous chef at a very fine dining place; several are working their way up in big kitchens; and a couple are executive chefs in their own right. It is gratifying to see that they have gone on to do good things with their lives and in their professions. It is my hope that each of them goes on to be a better chef than I am.

We also did a photo shoot with Around the Panhandle magazine and I spent a considerable amount of time doing an interview with a writer for that magazine, which is distributed primarily in the three counties just north of us, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties in WV. The restaurant is supposed to be featured in the upcoming January edition. Photoshoots are always difficult for us, especially for magazines because of their long lead times. Our menu is seasonal and what is seasonal for a photoshoot today is not seasonal eight or twelve weeks down the road when the magazine is published. But I've been coping with this problem for years, given that I write articles for food magazines and am always working a season or so ahead.

Those of you who have been reading along through this series will remember that I had problems with my microgreen supplier. He only supplied product in the warm months and then it became too much for him to deliver to me. Back in the fall, we switched to another supplier whose product was not as good and was more expensive. And after about four weeks of working with her, she wanted to almost double her prices. Given that she was already priced above market and the quality was not quite there, I told her that I wouldn't be ordering any more product from her, which may have been her goal. She knew I wasn't happy with her standard product or her weak justification, "All my other chefs are happy with the product." I am not most other chefs and I won't use any product that isn't first class, so I just severed the relationship before it got any worse. She can go on supplying her other chefs and I will move along elsewhere.

And finally, the company Christmas Dinner is on my mind. Or rather the menu is on my mind. What to serve to a very jaded bunch of restaurant employees? You can keep your lobsters, caviar, and foie gras—we see it all the time. The initial word on everyone's lips was "braised." We all want non-fussy comfort food and we want meat, meat cooked low and slow for a very, very long time.

Last year I cooked ossobuco of pork, risotto milanese, and collard greens braised with smoked turkey necks. And I shucked a box of Cavendish Cup oysters from Malpeque, Prince Edward Island. The oysters were briny and fabulous, the osso was so tender and delicious, and it sure is hard to beat a classic like risotto milanese, but I did. Those collard greens are the thing that everyone remembers vividly and were the first dish to go.

I made them for my then-dishwasher who grew up in North Carolina where greens are a way of life. He hadn't had greens in forever and was constantly asking me to make collards for him. And I did, finally, for Christmas. Quoth he, "These are better than my grandma made." Rule number one of the restaurant business: never set yourself up for a comparison with grandma, because she wins every time. Rule number two: if you're going toe-to-toe with grandma, you better knock her out. I knocked her out.

So how to top this? This year I want to do something different and I have gone around and around about sundry braised meats, but there is just no getting around the fact that the pig is king. No meat is as succulent or as flavorful. And as I was struggling with reprising the braised pork shanks, I happened across a late night show on the Food Network that mentioned porchetta. It was a Bart Simpson "Doh!" kind of moment. And then Ann mentioned gnocchi and I was off to the races. And so, I am going to serve a sinfully unctuous porchetta (cured, rolled, and stuffed pork belly roasted for 8-10 hours), potato gnocchi with black truffles and pancetta, and yes, Grandma Williams, collard greens slowly braised with smoked pork necks.

As I wrap up this series about the restaurant, which has caused me to focus on the blog in the last year (as opposed to the web site, the newsletter, the Twitter feed, or Facebook), I have been looking for something to drive me to keep moving the blog forward. It occured to me this week that we have a new international grocery here in Winchester and although I am familiar with thousands of ingredients and although we have hundreds in our pantry, in a troll through the store last weekend, I saw dozens that I have never worked with. So, for 2012, the crew and I are going to be playing with two new ingredients each week. Stay tuned for our experiments with alien-to-us foodstuffs in the new year.

I leave you with the delightful vision of our staff Christmas dinner, a sense of anticipation (hopefully) for the new series of postings in 2012, and thank you very sincerely for reading along with me this year and wish you the merriest of Christmases or whatever holiday you celebrate.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Here it is December the 10th and it's not only been very cold for early December recently, we've had two snows already and yet the roses in front of the restaurant are into their third bloom of the year, showing no signs of slowing down. The pink and red roses peaked 3-4 days ago so they are a little past their prime for photography, but the yellows are just hitting their stride, especially the Peace-like one just below.

It wasn't a good year for tomatoes or grapes or squash or a lot of things, but apparently, 2011 has been a terrific year for roses. Mine have had the best year ever. They're a good bit of work, but they are spectacular!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Polenta 101

Why do so many people have an entirely nonsensical approach to making polenta (or grits or mealie pap or cornmeal mush or mămăligă or whatever you call it in your culture)? Why? Why, each time I have a new cook start working for me, do I have to unlearn him of bad habits? Why are recipes from Food Network, Washington Post, and the New York Times (respectable institutions all) just so nuts?

This comes to mind because I just stumbled upon these words of wisdom in The Virginia Housewife from 1824 which shows that somewhere along the line, somebody had common sense:

When along the way did we forget to mix the cornmeal into cold water to prevent it from lumping so that we didn't have to stand over the hot pot whisking constantly and vigorously while slowly dribbling the meal into the boiling water?

Cooks everywhere, if you don't know this technique, here is my Christmas gift to you.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Quince and Dried Cherry Strudel

Quince and Dried Cherry Strudel. Diced quinces and dried cherries cooked in syrup with a cinnamon stick; gianduia; gianduia powder; quince syrup; maple syrup; crème anglaise; pimentón-sea salt sunflower seed brittle.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

2011: December 1st

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! I certainly did and I was really happy to have a day off to spend with friends and family; what a great break away from the restaurant, if only for a day! Days off come rarely in this business and I cherish them. Welcome everyone to the December 1st update from One Block West Restaurant. It hasn't seemed like a full year since I started doing these twice monthly posts, but here I am sitting down to write the 23rd and next to last installment. Wow, has this year flown by!

Thanksgiving opens the holiday season and naturally causes a lull in business. For example, Wednesday night before Thanksgiving saw zero diners grace our doors. Getting blanked is highly unusual and is usually reserved for when it is snowing heavily. Those times are predictable and I will open the business by myself to save labor costs, but we had the full Wednesday night crew on that night, staring at each other and playing cards. I do believe that we will close the Wednesday before Thanksgiving next year.

Still Thanksgiving week was not all doom and gloom. Business the weekend after Thanksgiving seems to be a predictor for how people are feeling and I am happy to say that we are back up to 2007 levels. Not back to the glory days of 2005 and 2006, but back to the year when business started its long slow slide for the toilet. Despite the lousy start to the week, it finished fairly strong and that is promising.

Even though the general business trend this year is up over the past couple of years, business is, if anything, much more volatile than ever before. That is to say that the highs are higher and the lows are lower than I can ever remember. I've never known such a time when we have had so few customers one night to be followed with so many the very next night. This is making staffing and prepping damn near impossible. Years ago, I used to have a very good feel for how many customers we would do on a given night. Today, I have no clue. Unpredictable is the new normal as we head into the holiday party season.

I wrote that last sentence rather hopefully. I hope we have some holiday parties this year, but so far, none are booked and nobody's calling either, just like the last three years. Several years ago, 5 and 6 companies would be competing for the same time slots for parties and we would do double our normal monthly business in December.

The holidays always cause me anguish in trying to balance the need of the business to bring in money (and in the past few years, to survive) versus my employees' desires to have time off to spend with their families. And count me in on that too: I want time off as well! 2011 is especially bad because Christmas Eve, a day that we are normally closed, falls on a Saturday, our biggest revenue day of the week.

Christmas Eve is normally a horrendously slow and painful day in the restaurant business here in Winchester and so we gladly close. But with it being a Saturday this year, what to do? After much anguish and considering that 2011 has left us in a reasonable cash position heading into the dreaded dead months, I have decided to close as a gift to my staff and to myself. Naturally, immediately upon taking that decision, we have turned away reservations for a quarter of the dining room. And so it goes. There are never any right answers.

There's not too much more to say about this two week period because it has been so slow. We started off with a bang, with several back-to-back tastings that kept us busy in the kitchen. At least all these tastings gave us something to focus on during a slow time. They create a lot of work in the kitchen for the simple reason that in general nothing on the tasting menu appears on the nightly dinner menu, and so the entire tasting menu must be prepped from scratch. And they keep the front of house staff hopping during service because there is a new wine to be served with each course and new silverware to go on the table with each course. And of course, the servers are frequently in the kitchen communicating with us about timing and pacing of the courses. It's a lot of work for everyone, but we enjoy it. Here are some photos if you like.

Friday night after Thanksgiving saw more traffic on that particular night than in years, but it was a night when people who rarely go out to dinner, especially at fine restaurants, descended en masse on restaurants, very much like Valentine's Day. As a result, we had more food sent back on that one night than in the entire month of November. It happens. It can be a little (OK, a lot) irritating to have perfectly good food sent back, but what are you going to do? Make these customers happy once a year and they will go tell all their friends that they have been to your restaurant, giving you great exposure, and they will come back next year at the same time and spend more money.

Moreover, that evening we were doubly blessed with tables from urban areas such as Washington, DC and Westchester County, NY that had very superior attitudes, sending subtle signals designed to let us know that we are second class citizens, inferior provincial beings, out here in Podunk, VA. With these kinds of tables, it is a no-win situation. When the table starts with the idea that because we are in Nowhere, VA, the food cannot be as good as it is back home, the evening is guaranteed to be miserable for us, especially the front of house staff who bear the brunt of the superior attitudes. Some of these tables do come around by the end of the evening, but those that do not, they are a pain in the rear to the bitter end.

And speaking of pains in the rear, I spent 25 minutes out of my busy day yesterday on the phone with my dear friends at the Virginia Employment Commission because the dishwasher that I wrote about firing in the last posting has filed—quite unsurprisingly—for unemployment benefits. Despite the fact that during the interview the ex-dishwasher corroborated everything that I stated about his failure to come to work and his subsequent termination and despite the fact that he copped a serious attitude with the VEC examiner, it is my experience that it is only 50-50 that his claim for benefits will be denied.

In talking with other business owners, my experience is not unusual. Even in what appear to be open-and-shut cases, the VEC seems prone to award benefits. And we business owners don't like this, because we get taxed in proportion to the amount of benefits that get paid out. I suspect, on no particular evidence, that the VEC has a mandate to take it out of businesses' hides because otherwise, many of the unemployed would end up on the welfare roles, taking money not from businesses but from the general fund. Just saying.

And finally, an update on the renovation. The bar floor is now painted and the bar update is complete save for the bar stools, which the manufacturer now says will ship today, December 1st. And what do you know? I just got an email that the chairs have been transferred to an LTL carrier for delivery to the restaurant. Currently they are en route from Grand Rapids, so I expect them in about a week or so, the vagaries of LTL trucking being what they are.

The next edition will be the final, the 24th, in this series. I hope you will join me then as I wrap up 2011 and its highs and lows. And now, off to worry about our New Year's Eve menu and prep for the Chef's Table this evening. Thanks for reading along. Until next time, eat and drink well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chef's Tasting

Here are photos from a series of recent tastings. These dishes pretty clearly reflect what is in the farmers market currently. I really like how we were able to incorporate root vegetables in so many dishes. It happened organically as a function of what we have on hand (and on the brain) now rather than as an exercise in making a menu around root vegetables. Organically formed menus tend to be the best and I really like this menu for that very reason.

Squash Cake. Cake of grated yellow and green squashes long-cooked with cream and formed into cakes, garnished with tomato vinaigrette, tzatziki, pesto, and a pecorino tuile. I bought every last squash that Beth had about two weeks ago and we have been keeping them in the cooler and eking them out, trying desperately to hang on to a little bit of summer. We've never had summer squash this late into the year and it is really thanks to the crappy crop we had during the summer that Gene planted a second, late crop of which this is the very bitter end.

Cauliflower Mushrooms with Guanciale and Broccoli. No brainer, really, in that Joe just sent us a 15-pound cauliflower mushroom. With its delightfully woodsy scent, this mushroom is a real crowd pleaser and its resemblance to egg noodles often influences how we prepare it: today, very simply with some Jowciale (smoked hog jowl from our friends at Edwards) and tiny broccoli florets.

Napoleon of Seared Sea Scallops and Parsnip-Leek Latkes. This send up of scallop chowder features crispy sweet parsnip-leek latkes, a warm bacon-inflected leek and potato soup, cubes of roasted butternut squash, puffed wild rice (more addictive than crack) and mâche. After much experimentation, we have found that parsnip latkes benefit from 25% potato, to help them hold together and fry more crisply without burning.

Pork & Grits. In our mission to convert the world to the Pork Belly Legion™, it seems that no tasting menu can omit at least one pork belly course. Here you see our house-cured pork belly fried to a crispy turn atop creamy Anson Mills grits coarse grits with a splash of local hickory bark syrup and a red grape “olivada.” The olivada is a condiment that we made for a big Italian-themed dinner back in October, a condiment that we liked so much that we keep on making it. It is son of the Cherry Tapenade that I created back in the spring and consists of red grapes, olives, capers, anchovies, lemon juice, oregano, and olive oil.

More Pork. Seriously, what to follow pork belly but more pork? This dish was inspired by an incredibly beautiful savoy cabbage that I scored at the market and what you see is the answer to the question, "How shall we honor this beautiful cabbage?" What you see is a most non-traditional cabbage roll, stuffed with pulled pork shank and raw turnip julienne, then coated in Dijon mustard and rolled in panko and fried. It sits in a pool of pork gravy from braising the shanks and is garnished with a few chanterelles. I like to think of this as a very Western reimagining of a spring roll.

Grilled Five-Spice Venison Loin. This dish screams late fall to me. You see a five spice-rubbed grilled loin of venison with butternut cream, a root vegetable hash, maple syrup, and a fresh fig compote made with the last of this year's figs. The star of this dish is not the venison but rather the humble hash, made from cubes of guanciale, parsnips, celery root, butternut squash, and fingerling potato along with dried cranberries and onions, all flambéed in bourbon. This hash is insanely good!

Maple-Butternut Flan with Milk Chocolate Cremoso. What does a non-sweet eating chef use for dessert when there's precious little fruit about? Root veg, of course! Here you see a killer flan made of butternut purée, maple syrup, and cinnamon. The garnishes are a rich fudgy curl of milk chocolate cremoso (stolen shamelessly from pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith via Michael Schwartz, a chef whom I have never met, but who is clearly a fellow spirit), maple syrup, crème anglaise, gianduia (chocolate-hazelnut) powder, and a wicked good sunflower seed brittle that I made with sea salt and smoky pimentón.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2011: November 15th

November has historically been a very slow month at the restaurant as people gear down from leaf-peeping season and gear up for the holiday season. This year, November has struck with a vengeance, I am sorry to say. Business had been cranking like crazy for months and over one weekend, it just stopped cold. Ouch!

Welcome to the November 15th posting about a year in the life of One Block West Restaurant. You can find the entire series here. We expect that November will be slow, but not as slow as it has been in the last two weeks. First, we had the unexpected snow over the last weekend of October that put a damper on visits from out-of-town guests, our bread-and-butter clients. Second, the time change from daylight to standard time played a big role.

Why the time change plays a big role is not clear; it just is. It's probably something psychological: when you come home in the dark after work and you get warm and comfortable at home, it is a pretty big step to go back out in the dark and cold for dinner. After a couple of weeks of this, people will get used to it and start coming back out, especially when they get tired of dining at home. But in a couple of weeks, it will be Thanksgiving and that presents its own set of problems for us at the restaurant.

The weeks before and after Thanksgiving are dead. People are worrying about what they will serve for Thanksgiving or worrying about their waistlines in advance of the big feast day. After Thanksgiving, people are too sated to want to go out or are worried about their waistlines post big feast day. In all, November is a bummer of a month in the restaurant business, at least in this part of the world where November is also synonymous with long stretches of cloudy rainy days.

November also sees a ton of cash flowing out to deal with the yearly renewals and taxes: business and worker's comp insurance, restaurant permit from the Health Department, ABC license, business license, and personal property tax. The negative cash flow in November is almost enough to make a restaurant owner sick to the stomach.

But the slowdown in business has some upside in that we can get things down that we have been putting off all fall. Now that it has been slow enough to get more work done on the restaurant, the renovation has really gained momentum. The bar is back in service after several months of having been a temporary storage room for the construction equipment. It is now entirely painted except the floor, which will happen just as soon as the concrete patches cure fully. And it is redecorated with a new sitting area. Besides the floor paint, all that is wanting is the new bar stools which should ship the week before Christmas, if the manufacturer stays on schedule.

In addition, the bare walls in the dining room and bar are bare no longer. I hung a bunch of metalwork sculptures on the walls on Sunday the 13th and Monday the 14th. These are a night-and-day departure from the prints and paintings we had on the wall previously. They are very modern and a bit edgy and I think they set a great tone for the food that customers will eat: the dining room is comfortable, but with a slight edge, just like my food. I am very pleased with the result and customers are loving it as well. Gone, gone, gone is the very old, heavy dining room with its scarlet walls and heavy drapes and old lady feel. Good riddance!

I need to give a big shout-out to my love Ann for all her help and hand-holding and guidance through the redecorating process. She has a wonderful eye, not only for furnishings, but especially for color schemes. If you need help, let me know; she is quite the interior decorator and will be happy to consult with you.

The extra free time is also letting me work through revising the wine list. Each week, it is a constant struggle to stay on top of our inventory, comparing wines on the shelf against invoices and the three wine lists to make sure that everything stays in sync and to catch any vintage or price changes. In recent weeks, we have run through a lot of wines that must come off the list, in particular rosés and 2010 whites. Both will come back in the spring as new vintages, but for the time being, there is no more 2010 to be had.

In addition, I am taking advantage of holiday price reductions to beef up parts of our list, creating a bit more work for myself. And I am taking a hard look a Willamette Pinots right now. 2010 saw a short crop because of spring frosts and birds at harvest and this coupled with a ton of other problems mean that I am going to have to be highly selective in my purchases to find good wine at affordable prices. And 2011 by most accounts is going to be about as crappy as our 2011 in Virginia. That said, I am buying heavily on 2009s with an eye to perhaps skipping 2010 or 2011. 2009 is one of those good value years simply because those-who-rate-wines have declared it a mediocre vintage, holding prices down. Great winemakers made great wines in 2009 and I am buying them at reasonable prices.

All this is by way of saying that managing a wine program like ours is pretty much a full time job. How I wish I could afford a sommelier to manage the program for me!

And now for something completely different. We have a problem table, but then, so do most restaurants. Our story is—I am certain—no different than that of many restaurants: there is a particular group of customers who come here to have a miserable time and then complain to anyone who will listen about how bad things are. Each time they come in, they have horrible things to say about the décor, the food, the prices, and most particularly, the service. They amuse themselves by running the servers ragged fetching this and that for them. It's a control game: they obviously have some issues in their lives that cause them to treat the servers like serfs. And on top of it all, they tip horribly, always well shy of 10%.

To make things worse, they post bad reviews of the restaurant on various electronic forums. They come to mind because they have been in twice in recent weeks. Our problem is that we have to deal with them, their grumblings, and their vile postings to the world about how bad things are here. Their problem is that they have run out of servers to abuse: they are known to all our servers by sight now and if they think that they had bad service before.... If you are a server and you have a table of perpetual malcontents who don't tip, where would that table be on your priority list? You want another loaf of bread? Yeah, good luck with that.

We have a Chef-for-a-Day program here at the restaurant that is a very popular Christmas gift for our customers. We sell a certificate that allows a guest to come work with us in our kitchen for a day and learn tricks of the trade, to see behind the scenes, and to hang with us during service. We have had several guest chefs in in recent weeks because most of these certificates expire at the end of the year. It's a lot of fun for our guests and we enjoy showing them some of what happens behind the scenes and working with them on various skills and techniques. Note, I said "some" of what happens behind the scenes. What really happens behind the scenes is only on a need-to-know basis!

In the past couple of weeks, we have done several Chef's Tastings including a memorable one on the 10th. Customers who want a unique dining experience often engage us to create a custom tasting menu just for them. These menus are typically seven to nine courses and feature dishes that do not appear on the nightly menu. We enjoy the creative aspect of these dinners, but they are an awful lot of work simply because nearly everything on the menu has to be prepared from scratch.

The customers on the 10th asked me to do a 7-course Indian dinner, which is highly unusual. Why not just go to an Indian restaurant for an Indian dinner? Because they wanted my take on fusing Indian technique and spices with our local products. It proved to be a great teaching exercise for the crew; none of them have ever done any Indian food before. Me, I've been cooking Indian food at home for 20+ years so I know my way around the basics of the cuisine, but still it was a great creative exercise and in the end, I really liked four of the courses enough to want to remember them.

Of these, the crew and guest favorite was called Tandoori Chicken Pizza. I made and grilled naan and smeared them with a sweet ginger pickle that took me about 6 hours to cook down. I made a big batch of tandoori paste and marinated chicken breasts in this, then roasted them. The ginger pickle was topped with sliced chicken, masala-scented spinach, and a drizzle of raita. Then into the oven and voilà: awesome Indian fusion food.

The next dish that I really liked was what I called “Baigan Bharta.” Baigan bharta is a long-cooked eggplant curry. I was able to find several tiny eggplants—the last of the year—at the farmers market and just barely roasted them so that we could scoop them out, stuff them with the baigan bharta, and re-bake them in the style of twice-baked potatoes.

I really enjoyed doing my take on lamb vindaloo, for which I made a classic vinegary vindaloo paste that I mixed with some yogurt to tame the spice, which could have overpowered the accompanying wine. I boned out a saddle of lamb and rubbed each of the loins with a masala that I made specifically for the lamb. At service, I grilled the loins to rare, let them rest, sliced them, and then tossed them in a bit of vindaloo sauce and served them in a puff pastry napoleon. As elegant and beautiful as this dish was, it managed to combine the flavor of the classic vindaloo with the succulent quality of perfectly cooked lamb, definitely the best lamb vindaloo I have ever eaten.

The final dish that struck me as worth remembering was the final course of the dinner, the dessert course. I made a quasi-traditional carrot halwa of grated baby carrots and coconut milk and cooked it down so that I could pack it into molds. Then we made a big batch of chai from black tea and spices, heavy on the black pepper, and turned that into a granita. Plating the dessert involved unmolding the halwa on a plate and topping it with a quenelle of the chai granita and garnishing with a cardamom crème anglaise. I thought this was a successful fusion of a classic Indian sweet with French and Italian technique.

Just to make this dinner even more memorable, I got a call from the client late the night before asking me if she could bring her vegetarian daughter to the dinner as a last minute addition. Because of the circumstances, there was no way that I could turn her down. But holy cow! I spent the morning of the dinner scrambling to make vegetarian versions of each of the meat courses. Just to top this off, we had a film crew in that morning for several hours shooting footage for a new TV commercial for the restaurant. I kept having to run back and forth from the kitchen where I was dealing with prep for the tasting menu and the dining room and bar to deal with filming issues. Quite the morning, I assure you.

And if you've been reading along in recent postings, our dishwasher woes continue, both hardware- and personnel-wise. In the last update, you will recall that I fired my long-time dishwasher for his inability to get to work. The first week of November, we used a fill-in dishwasher while waiting for the new one to start on the 8th. Fill-in dishwashers are OK for a shift or two, but by the end of a week, they always start slacking and doing half-ass work. Now that our new dishwasher has arrived, it is a slow process to teach him where everything goes. Each day, we wander around the kitchen looking for this and that: same story each time we change dishwasher. On top of this, he has had several racks of glassware returned to him by the servers for rewashing. Hopefully, this problem has been corrected.

Other than that, mechanical issues continue to plague us. Last Friday and Saturday were a pain in the rear because the sanitizer alarm kept going off. Dish machines like ours use a chemical sanitizer (expensive bleach, basically) to ensure that dishes come out of the machine in a sanitary condition. There is an audible alarm that alerts the operator if the machine runs out of sanitizer. Unfortunately, due to the corrosive nature of the sanitizer solution, it is wont to eat up tubing, hoses, and seals. And one of the hoses to the sanitizer had cracked and so the machine wasn't able to create enough vacuum to suck sanitizer into the machine. We were able to deal with the sanitation issue by pouring sanitizer manually into the machine with each load, but there was nothing we could do but listen to the damned alarm sound all night long.

That's about it for the pre-Thanksgiving tale for the restaurant. As much as I hate the Thanksgiving season at the restaurant, I love Thanksgiving at home—it's easily my favorite holiday. So, thanks for reading along and to you and your family, I bid you Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

2011: November 1st

Darn, I just finished writing the last posting from October 15th and here it is, November already! Welcome to the November 1st posting about all things One Block West, the latest in the year-long, twice-monthly series.

The first week of this period, heading into the weekend of Saturday the 22nd was crazy! The week started off slow enough, but we could feel it building momentum all week long heading into the prime leaf-peeping weekend of the year. I spent all of Monday and Tuesday just trying to dig out from all the paperwork that didn't get done the week before because we were so busy.

Tuesday and Wednesday we prepped like crazy for a private dinner for the local chapter of Accademia di Cucina Italiana on Thursday the 20th. This group, dedicated to preserving and promoting Italian cuisine, holds several themed dinners each year at restaurants all over the world. All the chapters hold their Ecumenical Dinner, the highlight dinner of their year, at restaurants at roughly the same time of year. Each dinner has the same theme; this year the theme was fruit and cuisine.

If you know anything about modern Italian cuisine, you know that fruit has very little place at the Italian table, with the exception of the traditional bowl of fruit and the occasional fruit dessert. Savory cuisine using fruit is rare. Worse still, the timing of this dinner at the end of October does not coincide with the availability of many of the most interesting fruits. And so it was quite painful to come up with a worthy menu featuring fruit, but it was equally a pain for all the chefs all over the world who were doing the same thing I was. In the end, I arrived at a menu that pleased me, although I overheard one self-important attendee exclaim for all to hear that he was underwhelmed with the menu. I did the best I could on the quite restricted budget that the group gave me.

I loved the antipasti: goat cheese-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped grilled figs; crostini topped with caramelized onions, melted Gorgonzola, and fresh fig jam; and grilled focaccia topped with sausage and grape “olivada.” Olivada is the Italian equivalent of tapenade (or vice-versa) and we modeled the red grape version on the cherry version we did so successfully this past spring. I love the sweet-tart aspect of this delicious condiment.

Our secondo was a porcini, roasted grape, and walnut risotto which we made with verjus instead of wine. It was very difficult to balance the acidity of the verjus with the sweetness of the grapes, which roasting only enhances. In the end, I think we did pretty well.

The primo was a whole loin of Berkshire pork stuffed (roulade style) with macerated dried fruits and porcini mushrooms. I went heavy on the cherries in the stuffing because I wanted to pull out the very cherry aspects of the Tuscan Sangiovese-Syrah blend that we served with the pork. On the side were sautéed local cavolo nero and a mostarda, Cremona-style. Rather than domestic pork, I wanted to serve wild boar at this course, but that would have blown the entire dinner budget.

When I serve vegetables at an Italian dinner, I always cringe. As an American, I have the American taste for cooked but slightly crunchy vegetables. [For the record, I like my vegetables more cooked rather than less cooked.] Except in very modern Italian restaurants, there's no such thing as crunchy vegetables. Still, I let my taste guide me and served the cavolo just wilted and sautéed briefly in olive oil with garlic.

For dessert, our guests finished with an orange crostata, cooked upside down very similar to a tarte Tatin, but made with a polenta genoise batter. I developed this recipe many years ago using blood oranges (not in season until December) and it is always a hit.

And so the dinner on the 20th was the crowning glory to an otherwise miserable day in the restaurant business. Last edition, I mentioned that the 13th was a day from hell. The 20th nearly went down in the books as another. I came in around 6:30am on the morning of the 20th to complete all my taxes (sales, meals, Federal withholding, state withholding, and unemployment). It's always a pleasure to do this; one of the highlights of my month. If you didn't read that last statement with dripping sarcasm, go back and do it again and keep doing it until you get it right.

The first thing I did was to pay my meals tax, the easiest of the five taxes to compute. I generated the QuickBooks report stating my tax liability and went to cut the check for the amount due, which was in excess of $87,000! WTF! I started poking around and then I remembered that a couple weeks earlier, I had performed some database maintenance. Intuit sent out a newsletter that recommended tweaking the database for performance. Containing nearly ten years of data, my database needs some performance tweaks. So I followed their advice...and got screwed.

Poking around on the forums, I could see Intuit techs recommending to never do what I did and yet the bastards sent out a newsletter advising us customers to do exactly that. In the end, it took an hour of my day that didn't contain a spare hour to figure out how to make the reversing journal entries to fix Intuit's stupidity.

So you can imagine my frame of mind when one of the front of the house employees came to tell me that we had run out of table cloths. Now, a restaurant just doesn't magically run out of table cloths. They go out on tables one by one and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the pile of clean ones is shrinking and to take corrective action before it becomes a crisis. And there went another half an hour of my day while I scheduled an emergency delivery.

Going into a busy lunch and dinner, our dishwasher was out again, so I had to get a fill-in guy, one whose speed is not the greatest. For a multi-course wine dinner with tons of wine glasses in use, speed is requisite. Add more stress to an already stressful day. Topping this, I went to pull a bottle of one of the wines that we were serving at the dinner to make sure that I noted the correct vintage on the menu. I saw only two bottles on the shelf. More was supposed to come in with the delivery we got first thing in the morning, but it did not. Arrgghhh! Scrambling, I found another wine in stock to substitute, a much more expensive wine. I could hear the meager profit on the Italian dinner tinkling down the drain.

So just to top off the night, I tasted the risotto just as the antipasti were going out the kitchen door and I found that it was totally overcooked: one of the line cooks had par-cooked the base earlier that afternoon and had failed to cool it adequately, so it kept on cooking into mush. You have never seen three guys scrambling so fast to pull off risotto on the fly—they work at a sedate pace on Iron Chef compared to what we were doing. Oh and just to keep the day interesting, the rest of the restaurant was fully booked all night and we had to juggle tables left and right to send out the 25 plates for the Italian dinner amongst all the others.

Friday the 21st was super busy, but it seemed like a slow night when compared to Saturday the 22nd. On Saturday, the first ticket hit the kitchen at 5:14 and the last entrée left the kitchen just after 10:00. And in between, we cooked as fast as we could all night long. Exhausted just does not begin to describe it. When the young servers and line cooks are dragging along slump shouldered, well, use your imagination about the state of the chef. I honestly cannot tell you one thing about dinner service on the 22nd: it was and will always be a total blur. I vaguely recall that we did a 9-course Chef's Tasting that evening, but can't even conjure up one dish that we served. It was that busy.

I had great plans for pesto the week following. Beth and I had already talked and she was going to pull all her basil on Monday the 24th to bring to me so I could convert it to pesto, some for her, some for us. Likewise, I was going to cut all my basil and add it to the pile. No such luck. We got a snap frost Saturday night/Sunday morning. I first noticed it when I took the dogs out first thing Sunday morning, a little frost on the low spots in the yard. I kind of got this sick feeling in my gut and didn't want to walk around the corner to look at my garden, but I did anyway. Sure enough, the basil was limp and black. And not even the hint of a frost warning from the weather people!

Such is the natural progression of the seasons, I suppose. The turning of the seasons is now well evident in the market. On the 25th, Beth brought celery root to the market, joining sweet potatoes, collards, celery, komatsuna, several new varieties of apples, and daikon, all harbingers of winter. I haven't given in and bought sweet potatoes or parsnips yet. We're going to have those vegetables with us for a very long haul and while I am eager for my first taste of both, I know that I will be sick of them before very long. I bought the last tomatoes and the last summer squash of the year on the 29th and that is something of a miracle. Many years they don't last that long.

Business slowed dramatically the week after the 22nd, the last leaf-peeping weekend of the year, so it turned out. In a continuation of the trend during recent weeks, we had more dishwasher woes—our long-time dishwasher continued to be late and started to escalate interpersonal problems with other employees—so I interviewed and hired a new one who cannot start until November 8th. And our dish machine was leaving spots all over the glassware because of a broken rinse agent line.

This week also saw a hatchet job review on Yelp, a one-line, one-star review that states in essence "everything sucks at One Block West." Yelpers will ignore it because it is so ludicrous and devoid of content, but still, unless it was a drunk comment by one of my competitors, somebody had a bad experience with us and there is nothing I can do to make sure it never happens again, because I have nothing to work with.

Can you believe there was snow in the forecast for last weekend? Snow? In October? While the fall foliage is still beautiful? As I have mentioned over and over, the dreaded S-word in the forecast is enough to kill business dead in its tracks. Sure enough, we had no business on either Thursday or Friday leading into the Saturday storm.

Saturday was a different story however. I drove in to work in a couple of inches of mush, but with no difficulty and we opened right on time. The only exception to this was our dishwasher who called at 9:30 saying that he couldn't get to work. I hadn't yet notified him of his termination, keeping him on in the interim until the new dishwasher started on the 8th, but that phone call put a quick end to his 5-year career with us. A dishwasher who does a fantastic job with the dishes and who is quick but who cannot come to work is no kind of dishwasher at all. It is sad that we had to part this way after five years, but his personal life was starting to disrupt our business.

During the morning, we had the power go out several times, to the point where I turned off the computer to keep it from crashing and rebooting. But come 11:00am, our power was on steadily. I could see from comments other business owners were making on Facebook that working power was a precious commodity that morning. Trees, still laden with leaves, were snapping all over town, bringing down power lines. Somehow, we dodged the major bullet and as soon as we opened, people started coming in to get warm. And to drink. We sold more wine for lunch than we do during a lot of dinners.

Before I get into dinner, I do have to give props to the local ABC store which was open despite no power. They couldn't retrieve our order off their voicemail but were very accommodating when we sent an employee to see if he could get some liquor for Saturday night service. We called ahead but with no power, they had no phone. They suspended all the usual ordering BS and helped us get enough stuff on the spot to open for dinner. I know what a giant pain in the ass it is for them to process transactions manually and then to go back and enter them into their system after power was restored, so my my hat is off to them for helping us out.

Our dinner reservation book hovered right where it had been all week: almost empty. We would lose a table because of the weather only to have someone call again to reserve a table, but going into dinner at 5:00, there was no net change in the book. It looked to be a slow, miserable night, a fitting ending to a slow, miserable week. And anticipating this, I ordered very lightly for the weekend and we prepped only minimally. There is no sense in buying or prepping what you cannot sell.

Nothing really happened on Saturday night until about 6:30 when the phone started ringing for reservations later in the evening. At about this time, our already booked tables started coming in and then all of a sudden, the servers were starting to hustle a bit. It wasn't a huge crowd, but it was a lot busier than we expected and we started running out of things by 7:00. Customers were most understanding and the vibe in the dining room was great. To top it off, we sold more big ticket wines that night than we usually do in a month. Sales were great despite the weather. What looked like a money-loser week turned out to be OK. Whew!

Now that business has slowed, renovation of the bar continues and is nearing completion. With the exception of some minor trim, the bar is entirely painted. Very soon now we'll have it back in service, hopefully by the November 15th posting. Until then, I hope you eat and drink well.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

2011: October 15th

Welcome to the October 15th edition of my twice-monthly series on One Block West Restaurant during 2011. This is the 20th posting of the 24-part series. I have to admit that I am sitting here writing this long after the 15th of October based on notes I kept over the past couple of weeks. I apologize for not getting this out in timely fashion, but we have been at the peak of our crazy fall leaf-peeping season and there have barely been enough hours in the day to get prepped for dinner service. There surely have not been spare hours to write and I have been running on the verge of exhaustion for weeks.

During this season, we're like bears gorging on all the food we can find to put on fat to carry us through the lean months. Because of Thanksgiving, November is a lean month and soon enough, we'll be staring at each other wishing we had something to do other than scrub the kitchen. December will bring a burst of holiday parties (we hope; the past few years have seen companies flee from having parties). Then come January, February, and March—the starving time for us and many restaurants. But enough looking forward to the dreaded months and on with the tale of the bounty of October.

While there is a big Catholic church here, Winchester has never struck me as being a big Catholic town. Still, we can almost always count on fish being the big seller on Friday nights with meat and grilled items dominating sales on Saturday night. So I was pretty perplexed to start off this two-week period with an all-meat Friday night followed by an all-seafood Saturday night.

For me, selling all the meat purchased for Saturday night on Friday night is scary for two reasons. If Saturday is a typical meat night, there won't be enough meat to satisfy customers. And if Friday's fish doesn't sell on Saturday, the fish is not going to hold until we reopen on Tuesday. No worries this time. Saturday, October 1st saw nothing but seafood sales. Whew!

The week leading up to and the weekend of the 8th is a blur. This is not unusual because generally during October we are running at almost double our normal volume. But what is unusual is that the 8th saw us host two birthday parties simultaneously, while the rest of the house was packed. I have got to say that the evening of the 8th went extremely smoothly—both our front and back of the house teams are very professional and handled it well.

During the week leading up to the 8th, my partner Ann's birthday, we put a lot of work into designing and executing the menu for her birthday party. This year our instructions were "Around the World in 8 Courses," sparkling wine first course, red wine for the remaining courses, savory dessert course, and all courses to be comfort food. And she gave us a list of the eight countries. I've been cooking a long, long time now and have cooked a lot of food from all over the world, so this wasn't the challenge that it might seem. The hardest part was nailing down which country would have the starter course paired with sparkling wine and which would have the savory dessert course paired with Port. After that, the menu was straightforward.

The day before the dinner, I knew Ann would be stopping by after lunch when the guys and I would be sitting down to walk through our prep lists. And knowing that she had been asking (in vain, I might add) about the menu for days, I put together a totally bogus menu complete with prep notes on the side of it. Just for grins, I included baklava as the dessert course because I know she hates sticky sweet desserts. And that fake menu might have happened to have been nonchalantly placed on the table where she might view it. And Nosy Nelly that she is, she asked if she could look at it. It was funny to watch the contortions on her face especially as she got to the baklava course. She was getting torqued just reading the menu! Ann, honey, don't ever play poker! You have more tells than Carter's has liver pills.

I hear that she was pleasantly shocked to see the following menu upon the table when she arrived:

USA: Lobster and Truffle Macaroni and Cheese; Lobster Jus
Thailand: Roasted Duck Noodle “Soup”
Argentina: Arroz con Pollo Argentine Style
Spain: Piquillo Stuffed with Patatas Bravas-Chorizo Mash
Morocco: Lamb Kefta Briouat; Chizu
Italy: Gnocchi con Sugo di Cinghiale
France: Yellow-Eye Bean Cassoulet with House-Cured Duck Confit
Greece: Lemon-Pistachio Halvas Cake; Fresh Figs; Candied Walnuts; Port Reduction

And on top of this 8-course dinner, my friend Dennis had a party for his 30th birthday for about 25 of his family and friends. Saturday the 8th was memorable for being the day that I spent 17 hours working in the restaurant kitchen. Long days I am used to, but 17-hour ones are few and far between. Those extra couple of hours mean the difference between highly fatigued and absolutely crushed. Kids, if you think that a 10- or even 12-hour day is long, don't ever think about getting into the restaurant business. Those are short days for us.

I couldn't even rest the next day because I had to do my annual cooking demonstration at Arborfest at Blandy Farm, the State Arboretum of Virginia, just east of Winchester. Although my demonstration was only an hour, it took nearly six hours out of my day, my only day off a week, to plan, pack, travel, set up, demo, tear down, travel, unpack, and get home. This is not a fair trade-off for demoing in front of a dozen people. Last year there were upwards of 100. This year, a dozen. Not worth my time doesn't even begin to describe my feelings at giving up a precious day off. What Ann had to say about it cannot be printed.

I did get some down time on Monday the 10th, however. Although Monday is my day at the restaurant to get stuff done (accounting, repairs, busy work, etc.) without the intrusion of customers and the phone ringing off the hook, I decided to take this Monday off to go have a mini family reunion at my aunt's out in Wild Wonderful. Lunch was fantastic: fried chicken livers, turnips, collards, spoonbread, and so forth! I haven't had a mess of fried chicken livers in decades. They were so awesome! I kept snagging them as my aunt Susan would pull them out of the frying pan. Props to her! Are you intimidated at the thought of inviting a chef to dinner? Don't be. We eat anything and everything and are ecstatic that we didn't have to cook it!

Despite the rest on Monday, all the paperwork that didn't get done came back to haunt me during the week as we were jamming towards the Balloon Festival weekend, traditionally our biggest weekend of the year. Each year, the Balloon Festival at Long Branch, just east of town, draws thousands of people to the Valley and as one of the top restaurants in the Valley, we get inundated with customers. As luck would have it, our front of house manager took this weekend off to be best man in a wedding, so we were down a really good person for the weekend.

Leading into the big Balloon Festival weekend, Thursday the 13th was another day from hell in the restaurant business. Days from hell come along every so often and when they do, they're memorable. It started innocently enough, with Travis and me chatting in my office in the early morning about the night's menu. As we were discussing what to do with the bucket full of butternut squash bells (the seed cavities), we both heard water coming from upstairs and not a little water either, a veritable flood.

A hot water supply line to one of the upstairs sinks burst and the water had nowhere to go but down, through the freshly painted ceiling in the bar. The landlord's lackeys got the water turned off and we got the bar cleaned up and some of the damaged ceiling tiles removed, but we were without water for 90 minutes while we were trying to prep for lunch. Ever tried to cook without water?

In the midst of cleaning up the mess, we received a delivery from our specialty goods supplier. This delivery didn't help my mood one iota. In fairness, my sales rep emailed me the night before to let me know that we would be short a pasta because of issues with the manufacturer. And he called me first thing to say that a cheese I needed for my cheese plates was going to be short. And then the driver arrived with the cheese for our grilled cheese sandwiches—totally rotten, squishing around inside a plastic bag, a molten, disgusting, black and green mess. I just about went ballistic at that point. This supplier has always done right by me over a decade of doing business and I know that this trifecta was an anomaly, but still, I was left scrambling and I don't like it. I know we will take heat from some customers because of this. This just goes to show how dependent restaurants are on their supply chains.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the lunch server showed up and it wasn't the one that was scheduled. The normally scheduled server's boyfriend died suddenly during the night and we were all left coping with that. To top off the staffing issues, our dishwasher did not show up and we got slammed for lunch. Dirty dishes were piled everywhere, limiting the space that we needed for prepping what was looking like a busy dinner service. I finally got a fill-in dishwasher, but he didn't arrive until 6pm, an hour after dinner service started. The cooks and I were washing dishes when we should have been prepping for dinner.

Something ridiculous happened during lunch. We had a big party that I believe might have been a bridesmaid's luncheon. One of the mothers ordered a Greek salad and it was duly delivered to the table. When I got a break between tickets, I went to the table to see how they were doing. I hadn't even opened my mouth when this woman stood up and started shaking her finger at me and screaming, "These olives have pits! I sell food for a living and you should buy pitted black olives, not these things!" I was just in the mood to tell her to fuck off, but thankfully I mastered myself and went back to the kitchen in silent anger.

I really do want to know what company this rude woman sells for, if only to make sure that I never buy a thing from them. Seriously, if you sell food for a living and you don't have the tact to address issues in private, I hope you're getting a good draw because your commissions can't be very good. Oh and one other thing, lady [the first draft had a slightly longer word here], for your horiatiki in Greece, they rarely pit the olives for you either. Get over yourself.

The tale of this day is like a late night Ronco commercial: "But wait, there's more!" We supply gorgonzola cheesecakes to Linden Vineyards to pair with their dessert wines for their special cellar tastings. I had been expecting them to reorder for several days and when I hadn't heard from them, I started making a batch of batter that morning just to stay ahead of the curve. Sure enough, no sooner than I put the first batch of cheesecakes in the oven, they called asking when they were going to get cheesecakes. Miscommunication of the first order and probably my fault! They booked a reservation for dinner so that they could pick up cheesecakes afterwards in preparation for a busy weekend at the winery. No pressure! I baked cheesecakes all afternoon and through dinner service and managed to send them home with a credible supply. You try getting slammed for dinner service and baking batch after batch of time-critical cakes at the same time!

Dinner was slammed from the moment we opened the doors. The phone rang all day with people trying to get in. Everyone decided that Thursday the 13th was the day that they needed to eat with us. We had to schedule our reservation book very carefully because we were down a server (the one whose boyfriend died) and because we had a big party coming in at 7:00. It's a careful dance to get big parties seated and get their orders into the kitchen without affecting the flow of the entire restaurant.

Around 6:00 this party called saying that they were going to be 30 minutes late and asked if it was OK. At the last minute with no ability to rebook their tables, what are we supposed to answer? "No, you can't come because you are going to screw up everything for everyone." A table that represents 20% of my dining room is like the 500-lb gorilla; it can come in any time it wants to and there is not a damned thing I can do about it except grin and bear it and know that it is going to f-up everything for everyone.

This big table took me to task the next day via email for a variety of service faults and issues with the food. While some of the issues I will stand up and take the heat for, a lot of the blame rests with the big party for showing up 30 minutes late. You can't explain to a customer that it really is his fault; you just have to man up and take it and know that under the circumstances, no other restaurant could or would have handled it any better. This business takes broad shoulders and a flame-retardant suit. A cape and superhero powers don't hurt either.

Happy, happy, happy was I to climb in bed and put this day behind me. And exhausted was I the next day as we prepped non-stop all day to get ready for dinner service. My body is used to two big nights a week, Friday and Saturday, and yet, we had already had two huge nights, Tuesday and Thursday. We get through our weekends largely on the adrenaline rush of being slammed. When you are already dog-tired, there is nothing so painful as dealing with 8-10 hours of prep work with no adrenaline rush.

In the last month, we have seen something very unusual for Winchester. We have been slammed with walk-ins after 8pm on Fridays. This has historically been a town that stops dining around 8pm and to have a big rush between 8 and 10pm makes us feel like we are in a big city. This is nothing for DC or NYC, but I assure you that after almost 10 years in this location, it is quite unprecedented for this area. I sure hope the trend continues.

Finally, I'll wrap this up on a humorous note. We got a call asking to book a table and we booked it. And then the customer started asking for directions, whereupon it became clear to both parties that the caller was trying mistakenly to book a table at a restaurant in Winchester, Hampshire, southwest of London. This has happened several times before with customers booking over the Internet, but never via telephone. I haven't a clue how you dial internationally using the access code for the US and not realize that you are not dialing England. No clue at all.

Thanks for reading along and stay tuned for next month's edition when we recount the highlights of leaf peeping season. Saturday the 22nd was a doozy. Until then, eat and drink well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011: October 1st

After walking the dogs in the gusty rainy cold this morning and driving to work, my hands are cold all the way down in the knuckle joints. It's pretty toasty back here in my office right next to the ice maker which is roaring and putting out lots and lots of hot air. I'll warm up soon enough, but the chill, my days which have been starting in the dark for a few weeks now, and the first blush of orange color on the maple trees remind me that fall is really, truly here. There is no denying now that October is upon us.

Hi everyone and welcome to the October first posting from One Block West Restaurant, a twice-monthly update on what is happening at the restaurant in 2011. The entire series can be found here. I feel like the world has speeded up in the past few weeks; it seems only yesterday that I just posted and here I am doing it all over again. This is what happens when business picks up: things become a blur here with one day blending right into the next.

Just after I published the September 15th posting, I found out through the grapevine that our local Taste of the Town had been held. Not only were we not in attendance, we didn't get invited. I'm not really upset by this: we had a nice calm evening here at the restaurant instead of having to prep a lot of food and schlep our stuff out somewhere under less than ideal circumstances. But it makes me wonder what kind of event it really was when the top-ranked restaurant in the area wasn't invited. My customers seemed unaware that the event was held as well. General lack of planning I'd say.

On Tuesday the 20th, we launched our brand new fall lunch menu, a menu that has changed fairly drastically. The middle of September turned unusually chilly and that drove us to launch the new menu with its emphasis on comfort foods earlier than we had planned. The entire process took about a month, which is really quick considering all the pieces that go into changing a menu.

We started from the old menu, ruthlessly striking out any dish that didn't sell well enough. That saw the demise of some great dishes; but how great is a dish if nobody buys it? After this, we started looking at ingredients and when we found an ingredient that was used only for a single dish or one that was going bad before we could use it all, we either reformulated the dish or struck it off the menu.

Then with the help of our customers on Facebook, we brainstormed a bunch of new dishes. Then we took a hard look at each of those dishes to see if they were feasible to make with the equipment in our kitchen and to see how many new ingredients the dish would require us to have on hand. Dishes that cause us to bring on new ingredients don't often make the menu: we have very limited space on our line to store them.

We spent a day or two developing and testing recipes. For example, although we might wing a batch of roasted red pepper bisque the first time, we want it to taste the same way for each subsequent batch. So we record the ingredients and the process that we use in our recipe binder and then we tweak that recipe until we are happy.

And I spent considerable time sourcing new ingredients. For example, the grilled cheese sandwich to accompany the roasted red pepper bisque required a new cheese. Although we have something on the order of 20 cheeses in house at any given time to support our menu and our cheese plates, we didn't have a melting cheese suitable for grilled cheese for the simple reason that most melting cheeses are generally not distinctive table cheeses worthy of a cheese plate. I said most. You would not kick the melting cheese that I found off your cheese plate; you'd probably ask for more.

My task in sourcing the cheese was daunting. From among the thousands of cheeses my suppliers have on offer, I had to find one that is distinctive and delicious in flavor, that melts well, that comes in sizes we can handle (10 pounds or under), whose name is pronounceable by most Americans, whose name would help sell the sandwich and help underscore its uniqueness, and finally, that is economical enough to put on the menu at a price that is attractive to our diners.

After sorting through hundreds of cheeses, kicking out the blues, the goats, and the real stinkers, I came down to a very short list. And sight unseen, I felt like I hit a home run with the cheese I had ranked as most likely to work, Valfino from Roth Käse of Wisconsin. It has a beautiful golden paste like a great alpine cheese, nice beefy aroma from the washed rind, buttery flavor, first place award from the American Cheese Society, affordable, great name, and melts so well. But customers would judge. And they did. I never had a chance to ask about the cheese when doing table visits; customers were gushing about how good the cheese was before I could ask. Home runs don't happen often but they're a beautiful thing when they do.

The cast of the new lunch menu definitely takes its cue from the season. Butternut squash, pumpkin, wild mushrooms permeate the list. And the food forms are comforting: grilled cheese, bisque, risotto, ravioli. The dinner menu changes every night, so the seasonal transitions are gradual. Butternut squash appears at the farmers market and so it goes on the dinner menu. My seafood broker calls to tell me softshells are in each April, and so they go on the menu.

By contrast, the lunch menu changes only a few times a year. And so in cooking the same lunch menu for weeks at a time, we build up this great yearning sense of anticipation for the seasonal changes and when they happen, sometimes they happen in a drastic fashion, almost cathartically. And so it did this time. The fall lunch menu bears scant resemblance to its predecessor. Our yearning for fall foods is sated now, but given that the cycle is both natural and inexorable, we'll soon start jonesing for fresh asparagus, shad roe, and baby lettuces, all things that spring brings to the table. This constant anticipation is what keeps this grueling business fresh for me—there's always something new around the corner and I can't wait to see what it is, get my hands on it, and cook it!

One seasonal change that I dislike is that once the weather cools off, seafood sales stop almost dead in their tracks. We sold 50% less seafood in September than in August and last night, Friday night September 30th, the typical Fish-on-Friday night, we couldn't give seafood away. In accordance, I buy less highly perishable fish this time of year and I really cut back on the number of fish offerings on the menu. There is no sense in trying to sell something that customers do not want. Yet, there are still a few customers who love seafood and know that it is one of the areas in which our kitchen excels, a few who still order it. But this time of year every year, I have to listen to some smartie in the dining room say stupid stuff such as "Why don't you have a good selection of fish? What's the matter? Are you going out of business?" Yes, people often say things in public at a restaurant that they wouldn't say to their friends. Why is that?

And now to the more mundane. In the past two weeks, contractors have performed two semi-annual preventative maintenance chores for us. First our hood cleaning company came in and pressure washed the hood, the grease baffles, and the ductwork from the fan on the roof all the way down to the kitchen. It is vital to remove greasy residue before it becomes a fire hazard. And just after this, our fire suppression vendor came in and performed preventative maintenance on the fire suppression system mounted in the hood above all of our cooking equipment. This was our semi-annual checkup to make sure that if we should have a fire, that the suppression system would activate and spray down the equipment with a smothering blanket of foam.

I started repainting the bar in a continuation of renovating the restaurant, but business has really picked up and that is slowing me down. I can only really do work between lunch and dinner, but if we are busy enough that I have to be in the kitchen helping the line cooks to prep, painting doesn't get done. It's good to be busy and no complaints on that front, but it will be equally good to get the bar back in service.

Here's a question for you. Our online reservation form asks if the customer wants us to confirm the reservation via telephone or via email. If a customer specifies email, we email a confirmation to him. So why then does he turn around and call us to find out if we have booked his table before bothering to read his email? Just asking. I understand if you miss the confirmation because it got hijacked by your spam filter, but if you don't even look for the confirmation, I don't get that at all.

In the past two weeks, I've been sitting out on the deck while doing my menu planning, taking advantage of the cooler weather. It's high migration season for both Monarch butterflies and Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and we've had no shortage of either. The Monarchs are attracted to sweet perfume of our fall-blooming native clematis (Clematis virginiana) which covers the back wall of the deck and some of the front screen behind the roses. At one point, I was counting Monarchs by the tens as they touched down on the clematis vines on their way south. The hummingbirds seem very attracted to the lantanas in the window boxes and to some of the verbenas, all of which are in full bloom now. I'm seeing multiple hummingbirds every day now and have since late August. In fact, we're seeing so many of the little creatures that we have delayed ripping out the lantanas and replacing them with pansies, so as not to remove what appears to be a welcome food source.

On Friday the 23rd, the fluorescent light in my windowless office went kaput. Ever try to type menus in the dark or otherwise run a business in the dark? Naturally, it had to happen at the busiest time of week when I just didn't have time to worry about it. And equally naturally, it couldn't have been something simple such as a bogus switch or a bad tube, both of which I have replacements for. And even more naturally, I had just taken all my electrical tools and parts back home after using them in the renovation of the dining room. It just had to be a bad ballast, which takes more time (especially in the dark) to replace.

Being the good Boy Scout, I have a couple spare ballasts in stock for emergencies. But no, the spare ballasts were too big to fit in the existing fixture. So early on Sunday on my one day off a week I had to go to Home Depot to get a new ballast. Surprise! The Department of Energy has banned T12 (inch and a half tube diameter) ballasts. Awesome! I had to buy a new T8 (one inch tube diameter) fixture and all new tubes. Now I have to stock two different tube sizes. Thank you DOE! It's not such a horrible thing; I'm just grumbling. T8s are much more energy efficient than T12s and that's a good thing, though payback is about 6 years out. In the course of remodeling the dining room, I did switch out the incandescent bulbs for CFLs which have an equally long if not longer recapture period. In any case, we are trying to be as green as we can be. Still, hanging and wiring a light fixture in the dark is a pain in the rear!

Tuesday the 27th was pure bedlam. Two of our servers were on vacation, one in Florida and the other at Myrtle Beach, taking advantage of a long Sunday to Wednesday break. Naturally I should have anticipated being down two people that we would be slammed. And we were. Out of nowhere, Tuesday night was busier than the preceeding busy Friday. And we were seriously understaffed. But we got the job done and most customers were extremely understanding of our plight. Still, there was one table that got its nose out of joint, but not a thing we could do about that except apologize.

A good bit of the last two weeks has been consumed with a political issue. The Winchester City Council is considering a proposal to raise the meals tax from 5% to 7%, for a total of 12% tax added to your restaurant bill when combined with the 5% state sales tax. The 2% increase would theoretically be earmarked for the school system as an additional source of funding. Naturally, the local restaurateurs (and a lot of other people in the city) are up in arms about increasing taxes, especially one that we feel is unfairly punitive to our business segment, but mostly because we feel we're being taxed enough as it is.

As a small businessman, I dislike this revenue generation tactic intensely. I have a budget and I have a revenue stream and I constantly have to adjust my expenses to meet not only the budget, but the actual revenue. So it really pisses me off that the School Board does not have to do the same thing. They will couch it in sweet sounding sound bites about it being in the best interest of our children, but I call bullshit. School Board, City Council, act like you're running a real business and quit taxing us to solve your lack of resolve and willpower to make hard decisions.

And finally, we capped off a successful two-week period with our September wine dinner on the 29th, a dinner featuring the wines of Paso Robles Rhône Ranger Barrel 27 winery. I generally select more subtle wines for wine dinners, but it was really a lot of fun for a change to create some big, big food to compete with big, big wines. For those of you who care, here's the menu:

Honeydew Soup with Thai Basil and Black Pepper; Prosciutto-Wrapped Grissino
Honeydew Gelée on Cucumber with Honey-Lime Greek Yogurt and Crispy Prosciutto
Grilled and Marinated Honeydew Wrapped in Prosciutto
2009 High on the Hog White (Grenache Blanc and Viognier)

Wild Boar Terrine with Pancetta and Pistachios
Cornichon; Honey Mustard
2007 Right Hand Man Syrah

Bison Short Ribs
Porcini Risotto; Bison Gravy
2007 Bull by the Horns (Petit Verdot, Syrah, Tempranillo)

Steuben Yellow Eye Bean Cassoulet with House-Cured Pork Confit and Saucisse de Toulouse
Crispy House-Cured Pork Belly
2007 Head Honcho Syrah

Chocolate Fig Clafoutis
Nutella Powder
2008 Hand over Fist (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre)

And now that October is here, our silly season has officially begun. The next several weekends will be loco with all the tourists coming out to enjoy the fall weather, the gorgeous scenery of this beautiful valley that we call home, and the hopefully spectacular leaves. Please come and join the party, but remember, for the next month, weekend reservations are essential.