Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lobster Recipes

Here are the recipes that I promised the students of my recent cooking class.

Determining Gender of a Lobster

We started the class by examining a male and a female side by side. The tail of the male is comparatively more narrow than that of the female: the sides of the female's tail flare out at almost a 45-degree angle while the sides of the male's tail are nearly vertical. The female uses the extra room under her tail to carry her eggs. Flipping the lobsters over, it is easy to check the set of swimmerets closest to the abdomen. Hers are soft and feathery, his are stiff and shell-like. I leave the obvious analogies to the reader, not that half the class didn't start spouting them out for everyone to hear.

Females are desirable for their roe which turns from deep forest green to bright red on cooking. This roe is great for coloring sauces, mayonnaises, and so forth. Females are a lot rarer than males in the market for the simple reason that we throw most females back to continue furthering the lobster population.

Cooking Lobsters

I prefer to steam lobsters in a large, covered pot with a small amount of water. Chickens and pound-and-a-quarters will take about 8 minutes of steam. Ten minutes for a pound-and-a-half lobster and about 14 minutes for a two-pounder. It's generally OK if the lobster is slightly undercooked. In almost all cases, you are going to rewarm it and finish cooking it that way. Once out of the steam, the lobster should go into an ice water bath to stop it from cooking.

If you want to cut up the lobster and cook it, say by grilling or by doing a shell-on sauté, I would still steam the lobsters about four minutes to kill them and then cut them up.

Breaking Down a Lobster

Once the lobster is cooked and chilled, pull the tail off. Stick a fork, tines curved toward the top of the tail shell, into the tail meat and lever it out in a single piece using the fork. Separate the two large claws from the abdomen. Separate the large pincher and crusher claws from the "knuckles," the two joints that attach the claws to the abdomen. Twist the movable part of the pincher and crusher claws from side-to-side and remove. Using the back of a thin-bladed knife, whack the back of the claws and with a twisting motion, open the shell with the back of your knife. Pull out the meat. Check the center of the claw meat for a piece of cartilage. Using a pair of kitchen shears, open the knuckles and pull out the meat. Continue by pulling off the swimmer legs for the stock pot and open the abdomen and clean out the sand sack and the green tomalley (which clouds stock). At this point, you have a pile of shells, the tail meat, the four pieces of knuckle meat, and the meat from the two claws.

Lobster Stock

Shells from 4 lobsters
2 carrots, cut in large pieces
2 stalks celery, cut in large pieces
1 onion, cut in large pieces
green leaves of 1 leek, cut in large pieces
1 bouquet garni of parsley stems and thyme
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 gallon water or fish fumet

Heat your oven to very hot, 450F. Add all ingredients save the water to a large roasting pan and roast in the oven, turning every few minutes, until the shells and vegetables are well roasted. Remove the shells and vegetables to a stock pot. Deglaze the roasting pan with a little water or stock and pour into the stock pot. Add the remaining water or stock. Simmer for an hour or until the stock is reduced by half. Strain. Yields two quarts.

Lobster Bisque

I use rice instead of flour to thicken the bisque. I like the flavor better and it makes the soup friendly for those with gluten sensitivity, always a prime consideration in the restaurant business.

1 quart lobster stock
2 ounces Cognac
1/2 cup rice
2 cups heavy cream
salt and white pepper to taste

Bring the lobster stock and Cognac to a rolling simmer and add the rice. Cook until the rice is done and the lobster stock reduced by a quarter. Transfer to a blender and blend until the rice is smooth. Return to the heat, add the cream, rewarm, and season to taste. Yield, about 5 cups.

Mango Vanilla Dressing

This is the dressing for the lobster and mango salad below.

1 mango, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
Zest of 1 lime
Juice of half a lime (to taste)
2 tablespoons brown sugar (to taste)
Seeds of half a vanilla bean
3/4 cup vegetable oil

Blend mango with vinegar until well puréed. Add lime zest, lime juice, brown sugar, vanilla bean and blend to mix. With blender running at high speed, drizzle in the vegetable oil. Adjust seasonings to taste. Yields 3 cups.

Lobster and Mango Salad

This is a really simple salad that we serve in a ring mold.

1 cup lobster meat, diced
1 cup mango, diced
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 stalk celery, in small dice
1/2 cup mango vanilla dressing (above)
salt and pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients. Add dressing as necessary to bind the salad and season to taste. Plate using a ring mold and garnish with baby greens.

Lobster Cakes

1 pound lobster meat, diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced
2 teaspoons tarragon, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch white pepper
1/2 cup (or more) panko
1/2 cup (or more) mayonnaise

Mix all ingredients well. If too wet to form into cakes, add more panko. If too dry, add a little more mayo. Let stand 20 minutes. Form into four cakes. Fry in a skillet on both sides. Yields four 4-ounce cakes.

Lobster Américaine

Here is my version of the French classic. Lobster Américaine is generally served with rice.

olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 leek, cleaned and chopped
shells of two lobsters
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 shallots, in fine dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 ounces Cognac
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup diced tomatoes
2 stalks tarragon
1 bay leaf
1 quart lobster stock
reserved meat from two lobsters
2 tablespoons sweet butter

On high flame, film a large sautoir with olive oil and add the onion, carrot, celery, leek, and lobster shells. Cook on high heat, stirring frequently, 6-8 minutes or until the vegetables are nicely browned. Clear away a spot on the bottom of the pan and add the tomato paste. Let the tomato paste caramelize for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic, and shallots and cook until the garlic is fragrant.

Deglaze the pan with the Cognac and white wine, scraping up all the bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, herbs, and lobster stock. Simmer for 20 minutes. Pass through a strainer and reserve the stock. Return to a small pan on medium flame. Reduce to about one and a half cups of liquid, add the lobster meat to rewarm, and swirl in the butter off the flame. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Friday, March 18, 2011


If South Africa has a national dish, it might well be bobotie, a ground (mince) meat pie, subtly flavored and topped with an egg custard as you see below.

Many diners at our South African wine dinner last evening requested the recipe for my bobotie and so here is the basic idea. Two things to remember: we made at least 10 times the following recipe and while I wrote a basic formula to cook by, in the end, we adjusted the seasoning to our liking by taste and not by formula. Of course, that is true for every dish we make and should be no surprise to anyone who cooks.


vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground lamb
1 tart apple (we used Yorks), peeled and diced
2 ounces hearty French bread in small pieces, soaked in heavy cream
2 tablespoons Madras-style curry powder
1 teaspoon coriander, ground
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, roughly ground
1/2 teaspoon allspice, ground
1/4 cup golden raisins (sultanas)
1/4 cup dried apricots, diced
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
zest and juice of one lemon
1 egg
2 bay leaves

for topping:

1 cup heavy cream
2 eggs

Heat your oven to medium, about 350F. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet on high flame and film it with vegetable oil. Sauté the onions until just starting to brown around the edges, three to four minutes. Reserve the onions in a large mixing bowl. Next, sweat the garlic and ginger for a couple of minutes and reserve to the mixing bowl. Add the ground meats to the pan, breaking it up thoroughly. When browned, drain off the fat, and add the meat to the mixing bowl.

Squeeze any excess cream from the bread and add the bread along with the apple, spices, almonds, and dried fruit to the meat and onions. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Add the egg and mix very well.

Pack the meat mixture into a well oiled small casserole dish and tuck the bay leaves into the top of the meat. Bake until firm and set, about 40-45 minutes, then remove the bay. Mix the egg and heavy cream and pour on top of the meat mixture. You may need more egg and cream mixture to cover the meat depending on the size of your casserole. Return to the oven and bake until golden and puffed. Let cool for at least 45 minutes so that you can slice it for serving.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2011: March 15th

Running. Running. Constantly running. That's what it feels like right now. Since the last post in this twice-monthly series about the restaurant in 2011, it seems as though I have been running constantly. The three big time sinks right now are largely self-inflicted: teaching cooking classes, renovating the restaurant, and hosting special dinners.

My cooking classes are in full swing now and that takes a huge chunk out of the day on which I teach. Right now, I'm doing a class about every week to ten days and that is about all I can manage. So far in this series, I've taught one class on root vegetables coupled with a knife skills seminar and another on lobsters. In Sunday's lobster class, I showed students how to tell males from females (important if you want the roe to color sauces etc.), how to cook and break down lobsters, how to make basic lobster salads, lobster cakes, and then we did a traditional américaine. I love teaching these classes and being able to work closely with students, but the extra work load is tough to manage.

Meanwhile, the renovation of the restaurant is occupying a lot of my time. In the past two weeks, we have chosen new colors for the walls and ceiling and that is driving a lot of other changes: table linens, candle holders, window treatments, menu covers, and so forth. Ann and I attended an industry tradeshow over in Maryland last week where we got a lot of good ideas and were able to purchase some of the things that we needed to complete the renovation. These purchases will all arrive over the next few weeks.

Already we have reconfigured a few tables and moved some things around. We are liking the changes especially in that we have a lot more flexibility in the dining room now to seat larger parties. And the tables have new white linens in place of the old burgundy ones. This coupled with the removal of the ponderous old window treatments has really brightened the dining room.

Lots more changes are underway including a new sound system which I will install as soon as I have a spare couple of hours. Frankly, with the dinners we have this week, I don't see the sound system getting installed until we close on Sunday. And we started prepping walls for painting today. There are going to be a painful few days when our walls look like they have the measles from the spackling before the paint goes on. We're attacking it section by section. So yeah, things will look a little funky for a while, but ultimately, they're going to look great.

In many ways dealing with all the details of this renovation is similar to the chaos of opening a new restaurant, albeit without the major buildout issues and with a functional kitchen in place.

Finally, special dinners are taking the rest of my time. We've ranged the gamut from a private party for 60 on the 28th to Thursday's wine dinner featuring wines and food from South Africa to a couple of 9-course Chef's Tastings and the usual 6-course Thursday night Chef's Table. That's a lot of special menus to oversee and it is keeping me busy. And it is really forcing me to be creative. I don't like to repeat dishes for tastings and I don't like to put dishes on the tasting menus that are available in the main dining room.

Signs of spring are all around now. Besides a few beautiful days in the 60s (and the odd snow shower), bulbs, mint, and chives are all making their push for the sky. Shad roe has made its usual vernal appearance on our menu and rockfish (striped bass) are running in the Chesapeake, bringing prices way down. And of course Daylight Savings Time is upon us. That means that more and more people will start to come out to dinner because it is light later and that translates to a longer day for me. It's the normal seasonal flow of things and I'm used to it in general, but each year, it takes a few days to getting used to working a longer day.

And that's about it for the first two weeks of March. Tune in at the first of April to see what progress we have made in renovating the restaurant and what's new on our menus.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chef's Table

Here are more photos from a recent Chef's Table. We had some fun with these dishes. As always, they are a result of collaboration among the cooks and me. In creating these menus, everyone throws in ideas and we see what sticks. Usually some hybrids happen and for the better.

Cucumber Summer Roll. We were kicking around amuse ideas and somehow got onto summer rolls when Tony offered the idea of using cucumber instead of rice paper. I ultimately changed this course from an Asian-inspired one to a more European-flavored one, to bring it in line with the rest of the menu. Inside the roll is cucumber, carrot, parsley stems, and court bouillon-poached shrimp bound with a mayonnaise flavored with lemon zest, dill, and capers. Crunchy with big flavor, yet very refreshing, everything a good amuse should be.

Rockfish. We've been on a fish-in-broth kick for a few tasting menus now (because we love the idea of half soup, half entrée) and so we came quite naturally to rockfish (the local name for striped bass, this from the Chesapeake Bay) with wild mushrooms and a Surry sausage jus. Sometime in the middle of the night before the tasting, I hit me to put the fish on a base of parsnip crème caramel to add some sweetness and richness to the dish. (Don't ask me why I decided this or even how, I don't have a clue. Like most of my food ideas, it just appeared in my brain). The caramel is very dark so it is not very sweet and there is no sugar in the custard. The flavors worked very well and I think the guests were intrigued with the it-looks-like-dessert-but-its-a-fish-dish aspect.

Breakfast. This is just the kind of dish that tickles a lot of chefs and brings out the kid in us. Who doesn't love breakfast for dinner? We've had a version of this dish on the dinner menu for about a week and apparently our customers don't love breakfast for dinner! It seems de rigueur in these parts to order a salad before dinner rather than something that we have put our creative energy into. Sigh. You see down on the plate a pimentón sauce and Virginia maple syrup (yes, we make damn fine maple syrup in Virginia too) and on top of that a napoleon of parsnip latkes and grilled rounds of Alan Benton's country sausage, all topped with a poached quail egg and a dribble of hollandaise: Eggs Benedict gone miniature.

Nest Egg. This dish is the merger of two other ideas, one a Carolina Gold and Sea Island red pea hoppin' john risotto and the other a polenta ball stuffed with oxtail ragù. We ended up stuffing the oxtail into the risotto and forming it into eggs, serving it on a nest of chiffonaded romaine, a nod to the Lenten season. I'm sure this must have been fun to eat, cracking through the crisp panko crust to get at the silky risotto and the liquid ragù.

Shepherd's Pie. What to do with a lamb saddle? Answering that question is how we arrived at this dish. I think it was Tony's idea to stuff it with all the mirepoix and seasoning that we usually put into shepherd's pie. While we were reinterpreting the classic, we decided to put the mash (in this case, parsnip and celery root) on the bottom, down on the plate, to hold the rounds of lamb loin roulade. I boned the saddle such that the tenderloin and the top loin (both sides of the T-bone) were intact and rolled it so that the top loin wrapped the tenderloin, the rare part you see in the center. Quite successful. Travis' stuffing was dynamite.

Apricot Tart. Bad Ed! Bad Chef! This dessert was way too big for a tasting. But I really couldn't help myself. The tart crust is shortbread, heavy on cornstarch so that it is light and crisp. This is topped with lemon curd, light on sugar so that it remains tart, and moistened dried apricots. In the background, you see a phyllo cup with vanilla bean ice cream. Crème anglaise over everything. Too much! I promise I will try harder to come up with smaller dessert courses in the future (not really!).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Root Vegetable Recipes

One Block West is a seasonal restaurant and so our menu changes daily in response to what we find at the market and what our growers bring us. And what we get in the winter is root vegetables, lots and lots of root vegetables. And so we have become quite skilled at incorporating them into our menu, even into desserts such as Parsnip Crème Brûlée and Almond, Cranberry, and Sweet Potato Florentines. In wanting to pass along my love for root vegetables, I chose that as the topic for my first class of my new series of cooking classes. Here then are the recipes from my recent Root Vegetables class. I hope that you find them useful. If something is unclear, feel free to post a comment or send me a direct email and I will clarify it.

Céleri Rémoulade. This is my take on the French classic. Often in France, cooks grind the celery root with a Mouli, which gives a very soft and flaccid feel to the dish. I prefer to julienne the celery root which gives it a lot more texture. This salad is best prepared several hours ahead of time or even the day before to give the celery root a chance to soften. I love this slaw as a garnish for pulled pork. I love the mustardy quality of this dressing; feel free to modify to your taste.

2 pounds celery root, peeled and julienned
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Make the dressing by whisking the egg, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt together. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking, making a loose mayonnaise. Add the celery root and toss well. Adjust to taste. You could certainly add some fresh herbs to this for both color and flavor.

Parsnip Latkes. We make so many latkes at the restaurant. They make great bases on which to display other foods and more importantly, who doesn't love a good latke? Parsnips are our favorite right now, but we make latkes from almost all root vegetables including potatoes, carrots, celery root, and sweet potatoes. Hint: if you're using sweet potatoes, use a lower flame. The sugar in the potatoes wants to burn before the latke is cooked.

4 large parsnips
1/2 small onion
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons flour
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch black pepper
canola oil

Peel the parsnips and grate them using the coarse side of a box grater into a large bowl. Unlike potatoes, you do not need to squeeze the water out of the parsnips. Grate the onion into the bowl. Add the parsley, flour, egg, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Heat a sauté pan over medium high heat and film with oil. Drop a bit of the parsnip mixture into your pan and flatten into a pancake. A heaping tablespoon yields silver dollar size latkes; three tablespoons yields a 4-inch latke. Cook until golden brown on the bottom and flip. Finish cooking and remove to paper toweling. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Eat one and congratulate yourself on a job well done!

Turnip Bacon Purée. I don't understand why people frown on turnips so much. They're sweet and they're excellent anywhere from raw to puréed. I developed this dish as a silky accompaniment to roast heirloom pork. The sweetness of the turnips and the smokiness of the slab bacon meld deliciously with pork.

4 ounces slab bacon, in small dice
1 pound small turnips, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons heavy cream, optional
salt and pepper

Start cooking the diced bacon in a small sauce pan over medium flame to render some bacon grease, but do not cook the bacon through. Turn up the flame and add the turnips. Brown the turnips slightly. Then cover with water, reduce the flame to medium, and cook until the turnips are soft. Transfer to the food processor and purée. Add heavy cream if you like for richness (I did not do this in the class as I am lactose intolerant) and season to taste.

Fennel Orange Salad. I figure a lot of people have seen fennel in the grocery store and have no clue what to do with it. I wanted to show how friendly and easy this vegetable is. This salad combines oranges, fennel, roasted olives, and a touch of feta cheese.

1 large fennel bulb, julienned
2 tablespoons fennel greens, finely sliced
zest of one orange
3 seedless oranges, sectioned
1/2 cup roasted olives (recipe follows)
1/4 cup feta cheese crumbles
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste. I covered how to section citrus fruit some years ago. See this post if you are unfamiliar with how to do it.

Roasted Olives

1/2 cup mixed olives, pitted
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pinch red pepper flakes
4-5 fresh rosemary needles, minced
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 pinch black pepper

Toss all ingredients and place on a sheet tray. Heat in a hot oven (400F) until sizzling, about 10 minutes. You can also do this on the stove top over a low flame (which is what I did in the class).

Bourbon Flambéed Sweet Potato Hash. This is a quick and fun take on hash that is wonderful with game and it sure wouldn't be bad for Thanksgiving either.

4 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 medium sweet potato, about a pound, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ounce bourbon
1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries
1/2 cup toasted pecans
salt and pepper to taste

Heat a sauté pan over high heat and add the bacon and sweet potatoes. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring to keep from sticking. Add the onions and cook until translucent 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the bourbon and let it burn off. Check a sweet potato for doneness. If it needs to cook a bit more, add a couple tablespoons of water to the pan to help the sweet potatoe steam. When the sweet potatoes are done, add the cranberries and pecans, mix well and season to taste.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Seyval Blanc

Note: this is an article that I have migrated from It was orginally published in March 2008. I have updated it slightly.

Call it the Rodney Dangerfield of wine grapes. Although one of the most successfully grown grape varieties in the Eastern US, Ontario, and the UK today, Seyval Blanc is a grape that commands little respect, even among wine cognoscenti. Part of the issue is that it is a hybrid grape, a cross between an Old World wine grape (Vitis vinifera) and a native American grape (V. labrusca). V. labrusca rarely makes good wine and its hybrids are held in contempt by a large part of the wine growing and consuming world. Moreover, because it contains non-vinifera genes, Seyval Blanc does not meet the European Union standards for "quality wine" and therefore cannot be marketed in Europe proper.

Ironically, the grape came from Europe. French hybridizer Seyve-Villard (Bertille Seyve and Victor Villard) produced the Seyval cross in the early 20th century from hybrids Seibel 5656 and Seibel 4986, also known as Rayon d'Or. The most successful of Seyve-Villard's hybrids, Seyval Blanc is officially known as Seyve-Villard 5276. Many such hybrids were produced in response to the outbreak in Europe of an American pest, phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, a root louse), in an effort to create resistant vines by crossing resistant American grapes with so called noble or Old World grapes.

Despite the issues with the EU, the grape is gaining a growing following especially in colder, shorter growing season areas because it buds early, grows vigorously, ripens early, yields large clusters of medium-sized green berries, and is fairly resistant to low temperatures and to disease. Seyval Blanc produces wines of good acidity and in more northern climates, such as Ontario and the UK, the wines are crisp and exhibit hints of grapefruit. Some have likened these wines to those of Chablis. In our warmer climate here in Virginia, where the grapes can ripen longer, the wines are often fuller and a bit softer, and better to my taste.

Seyval is not without its challenges, however. For the grower, if the grapes are not extremely ripe, the acidity can get out of hand producing nearly undrinkable wine. And, its vigorous nature requires growers to remove canopy (to focus the plant on producing fruit rather than leaves and to allow the sun to reach and ripen the fruit) and to remove fruit in the vineyard (to help concentrate flavor in the remaining fruit). And care is needed to pick the grapes at maximum ripeness, but before they begin to rot, which is Seyval's habit.

Making wine from Seyval requires care as well. Seyval is not successful if fermented with the skins on, so the juice must be separated from the skins before fermentation. To preserve the fruity components, it helps to ferment the wine slowly at cool temperatures. Once the wine is fermented, the clear wine must be taken off the sediment (a process called racking) or the wine can develop undesirable flavors and odors. Although some producers age their wines in oak, I find that a wine that has seen nothing but stainless steel to be much more desirable.

With care, Seyval gives a finished wine that is crisp and dry with firm acidity, and hints of green apple, grapefruit, grass, hay, and sometimes honeydew melon. Think Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is generally light in body, moving to a medium body in warmer climates, with a greenish cast, sometimes going to a straw color.

Wines with higher acidity are very good food matches as the acidity both cleanses and refreshes the palate. Seyval Blanc is no exception: it works with the same foods as Gavi, Sancerre, Albariño, and crisp classic Sauvignon Blanc (not a tropical New Zealand one). While I often pair our local Linden Seyval with white fish, shellfish, and appetizers, it seems to be the one wine that I constantly recommend with our crab cakes.

I hope that you will try a Seyval in the near future, both to experience something new and to taste what could prove to be one of the most promising wines that we make in Virginia.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2011: March 1st

Thanks for reading along in my journey to record what happens during a year at my restaurant. I post on the first and fifteenth of the month and you can find the entire series using the 2011 tag. This is the post for the period from February 16th to March 1st, 2011.

Spring is definitely coming and I am really excited! I can tell because it is no longer dark when we open for dinner at 5pm and the sun is riding higher in our south-facing windows as it makes its trip from left to right across the dining room. And I can tell because Beth has supplied us with the first gai lan (Chinese broccoli) and rapini of the year. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is, after having worked with little other than root vegetables—no matter how delicious—all winter, to finally, finally, finally have something beautiful and green to work with. And out on the deck, our chives and Sweet Williams are up, teasing us with memories of the beautiful blossoms that went onto our plates last year. I posted a photo of the chives earlier today, so excited was I to finally see some tangible evidence of spring.

Yet another sign of spring is that Yellow Perch are starting their spawning runs from the Chesapeake Bay up into the creeks. We put the perch on the menu this weekend and because they are so small, we had to serve them headed and gutted, on the backbone. Customers in general hate the idea of bones in fish and so the perch haven't sold well. It's a shame really because not only are these little local fish very tasty, but they have better flavor and texture when cooked on the bone. The local fishery seems to be well managed and to help keep it that way, I always insist on getting the whole fish with their tags to ensure that they have been legally harvested. No harvest tag, no buy.

After having our worst month ever in the history of the restaurant in January, business was up significantly over last year in February, probably as a result of the unseasonably warm and nice weather and lack of snow. It really is quite amazing how much impact weather has on this business.

After talking about the need for revamping the lunch menu for at least the last couple of updates, we finally got around to it. We killed one pasta dish because it was not selling. Although it was a staff favorite, customers did not order it. We have two hypotheses, the first being that it had a red sauce and customers go to Italian restaurants if they want red sauce. The second hypothesis is that it was just too healthy in comparison to the other pastas that are loaded with cream. Although customers say they want to eat healthy, we can see from our sales numbers that they gravitate to the less healthy dishes, given a choice.

But bottom line, who knows why this pasta didn't sell? In this business, you get used to it. Things that you expect to sell do not, and dishes you think will be sleepers sometimes take off. Still, we like to do the post mortem on failed dishes to help us understand where our menu needs to go.

And we reformulated two dishes in this menu revision. We have had a Grilled Portabella Sandwich on the menu for years, and although its devotees rave about how much they like it, it never has sold well enough to justify its place on the menu. We are guessing that the word "sandwich" is the deal killer. There are at least ten sandwich shops within two blocks of the restaurant and customers likely do not come here for sandwiches. So all the things that used to go into a sandwich—grilled portabellas, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, arugula, and goat cheese—now go into a salad.

The other dish we revised was our fish tacos, which are loved by everyone who orders them. And even though we do sell a lot, we noticed that nobody was eating the corn tortillas on which we served the fish: we, and I suspect most restaurants, check what goes into the trash cans. So we did an informal dining room survey. Half say they don't like corn tortillas and half say that tacos are too messy to eat. So, we have reformulated the dish as a fish taco salad in which the tortillas are cut into strips and deep fried. That should eliminate both objections. Time will tell.

Now that the spring cleaning is done on the menu, we are working on both the wine list and the dining room. It is wine portfolio tasting season for the next 8-10 weeks. All our distributors will be holding big tastings so that we restaurants can gather ideas for our winelists. Most restaurants refurbish their wine lists to bring on summer patio wines in the May time frame and we're no exception. I know of 8 of these tastings over the next few weeks and I will probably attend four or five. Other vendors do the same thing. This time of year there are numerous kitchenware, tabletop, and food shows, all competing for our time. Although they can be a pain to attend, they are valuable events at which to see new ideas.

And speaking of new ideas, the dining room is getting a makeover. It has already started, in fact, with a bit of reorganization and removal of clutter. Although the changes are already very noticeable, they are nothing compared to what the end result will be in a few months. We will make the changes as we go, without closing. The dining room is already less ponderous and a good bit lighter in feeling. It really is amazing what just a few small tweaks can do. The current decor is about five years old; it is high time for a change. I'm really looking forward to the makeover. It will feel like a totally different restaurant.

My cooking classes start tomorrow and I am looking forward to teaching them. I relish any excuse to get out of the restaurant (the classes are being held in a friend's catering kitchen) and I love to work with people on cooking. More news on the classes in my next post on the 15th. Until then, thanks once again for reading along.


From the flower pot on our deck, the first chives of the season, a fitting photo for the first day of March.