Friday, April 15, 2011

2011: April 15th

It's late on the fifteenth as I sit here writing this, the April 15th installment of the twice-monthly series documenting the year 2011 at the restaurant. The previous post was on April 1st. Thanks for reading along.

Happy Tax Day! I just paid my first quarter taxes for 2011 and the balance on what I owe from 2010, how about you? For us self-employed individuals, there is no payroll deduction of taxes, so it always seems to come as a shock to my system when I have to mail that quarterly check to the Feds.

I wish I could report otherwise, but our business like that of most restaurants that I know has been very slow this April as it is every April. Looking at the restaurant business from the outside, you would assume that business would be increasing with the good weather in April, but on the contrary, it is one of the slowest months of the year. At the beginning of the month, the NCAA basketball tournament distracts customers and then taxes distract customers until after they are complete at mid-month. After that, the Apple Blossom Festival hits town and totally kills our business, but more on that in the May 1st installment in a couple of weeks.

At the beginning of the month, we attended the barrel tasting at Glen Manor Vineyards south of Front Royal where our good friends Jeff and Kelly White make outstanding wine. After tasting in barrel, I can confidently say that the 2010s are delicious and easily the best vintage ever in Virginia, way better than the phenomenal 2007 vintage. For those who escaped the May frost in 2010 and set fruit, the drought stress from the hottest summer on record yielded amazing fruit. I am looking forward to 2012 and beyond as these great wines hit the market.

On the way down to Glen Manor, we stopped at Old House Parts in Front Royal and scored three window sashes for a divider screen to separate the server station from the dining room, part of the ongoing renovation of the restaurant. Having restored an old Victorian house in a former life, I have a special fondness for recycled building materials and am happy to incorporate those into the restaurant. All the stuff coming out of the restaurant that is salvageable is going to Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, to help them out. We recycle everything at the restaurant, so why not building materials?

Our specialty goods supplier had its first food show in 10 years and we attended it on the 5th. They carry so many thousands of items in inventory that it is nearly impossible to get a handle on what they do carry. Although it was a huge scramble for me to get the restaurant open, fly down to the show, hurry through, and fly back to the restaurant, it was great to meet a lot of the vendors and not only see, but taste a lot of their wares. If there were no other reason to drive/fly the hour into Springfield, at least I confirmed my suspicions about our brand of chocolate.

Our chocolate company was acquired about a year ago by a big multi-national conglomerate and I have been concerned that the chocolate we have been receiving is a) not the same product it was when we first selected it and b) of decreased quality. Tasting through five different brands of chocolate absolutely confirmed for me that we are switching chocolate brands on the next re-order. My policy of never settling for second best in terms of our raw ingredients has always done well for me. I will always switch to get better quality, as long as I can keep the price at a level where customers can afford it.

I also got samples of a new risotto rice to try. I am excited to blind taste this rice against our current brand. Then I have to find out what the new rice costs, if it proves to be as good as I think it is going to be. I'm almost scared to ask.

Another standout for me at the show was the product line from OLLI Salumeria Americana from Richmond. We are already using their guanciale and based on how good it is, I had very high expectations about their prosciutto which I had never tasted before the show. I was unprepared to be blown away by their prosciutto. Great job guys!

One of the cool things about this business is that from time to time, really interesting people show up at the restaurant unannounced trying to sell us really good stuff. The first of this month, a tiny gentleman in plain dress walked into restaurant and offered me samples of his cheese. Turns out that he is John Esh of Goot Essa in Pennsylvania and his Alpen Käse is excellent. It now features on our cheese list and probably would not have had John not taken the effort to introduce himself and his product to me. Win, win.

Our new menu covers arrived on the 8th, a week ahead of schedule. How nice is it to get something ahead of schedule? If you've been to the restaurant, you have seen our old book-like menu covers with our logo on the front cover. After three ceiling collapses in the past three years, many of them were destroyed by water flooding down from the apartments above. And those that the water didn't destroy were ruined by customers who folded the covers back on themselves, ripping the spine. People who wouldn't dream of destroying their own hardback books by maltreating them apparently had no qualms about destroying our menu covers. At $45 apiece, it ripped at my being each time I would look out into the dining room to see someone else abusing the menus.

Knowing the propensity for customers to abuse our menu covers drove me to get rid of the elegant folding covers in favor of single page cover with the menu on one side and the by-the-glass wine list on the other. They still look great and are way less expensive. The only downside is that customers cannot close their menus to signal us that they are ready to order, not much of a drawback at all. If anything, it will force the servers to pay just a little bit more attention to the customers and their body language and that cannot be bad.

Speaking of bad, right at the first of the month, the back of the restaurant started smelling bad, like there was a dead rat somewhere. We got the landlord involved to check the apartments upstairs and the basement and when he got to the basement, it was full of waste water. We systematically checked all the drain lines and found that the sprayer sink in front of our dish machine was dumping straight into the basement. Special. After a consultation with the plumber, we're getting all the drain lines in the kitchen redone. Life in old buildings: love it, hate it.

On April the 8th, the first morels of the year made their appearance as an appetizer on our nightly menus, heralding the switch from winter to spring mushrooms. The annual parade of local foragers coming in the front door with bags of mushrooms has started! Since last fall, we have been running both hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms on our nightly menus. In many years, trumpets and hedgehogs end a month before morels start, forcing us to scramble with lesser, but still very good mushrooms, such as yellowfoot chanterelles. By the 12th, we had run through all the black trumpets in the cooler and the morels moved from the appetizer slot to a wild mushroom entrée slot. Morels will be with us for a few weeks before we make the summer transition to fresh porcini and chanterelles.

On the 13th, I taught my final cooking class of the current series. This class was on cooking an Easter Dinner, just in time for the big day next Sunday. I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching these classes and Michelle and I will schedule more later on in the year, but first, I need a little break. Prepping for these classes is very intense and takes me away from restaurant operations for about six hours.

As mentioned in the past several postings in this series, renovation of the restaurant is underway. At the first of the month, our new batch of chairs arrived and we proceeded to rip out some of the bulky booths and replace them with chairs. Just this simple change has really opened up the space. I've been painting, patching walls, and doing little things here and there as I had time.

Yesterday and today, I tackled the first big project, building the divider screen between the front server station and the dining room. The screen is a wooden frame that holds the recycled window sashes that I mentioned earlier. A few hours priming wood, a few hours on the chop saw and with the nail gun, and a couple more hours with paint brush in hand and the deed is done. We're still getting used to the new look, but customers are really making positive comments.

Last posting, I included a copy of our April Fool's menu with the goofy dish names and prices multiplied by 10. Just this evening, I got a confessional note from a would-be customer who cancelled her reservations that evening because she pulled the menu up on her phone on the way to the restaurant and saw the "outrageous" prices not realizing it was a joke. Win some; lose some.

Tonight was the first night of the two-day wine festival here in downtown Winchester, an event that is really pretty good for business. This year, however, it seemed to degenerate into a young people's drunkfest (basically a very large postwork Friday night happy hour) and it didn't do much for our Friday night book compared to years past. Our Saturday book looks great however and it seems that a lot more of our potential clientele are planning to come out from Northern Virginia, weather willing. Given the forecast, mass cancellations will not surprise me. Expecting large crowds, I have a ton of food on hand and I am on pins and needles hoping that we can sell it all. The weather gods seem to be against us.

Finally, next month's installment of this series, the May 1st posting, will be a few days late. I will be in St. Martin on the beach, rum drink in hand, the week before flying back on May 1st. I promise to regale you with the tale of why we close during what should be a very good week for us. Until then, eat, drink, and live well.

Friday, April 1, 2011

2011: April 1st

Thanks for tuning in to this bi-weekly installment of the series on life at One Block West in the year 2011. This is the April 1st edition and it's been a really busy time since the March 15th edition.

We started off with a South African wine dinner on the 17th followed by a 9-course Chef's Tasting on the 18th. The two back-to-back special menus had us jamming non-stop for three days. By the weekend, I was dead man walking, but was very happy with the way the two dinners came off. The South African dinner was a lot of fun for us. None of the crew has ever been to South Africa, so we were a bit at a loss for menu ideas, but we were able to connect with some chefs in South Africa and with some embassy staffers here in DC to pick their brains for ideas. I had hoped to pilfer ideas by looking at South African high-end restaurant menus on the web, but I found that a frustrating process because their menus look a lot like our nightly menus, except that they are at the end of summer now and featured fresh tomatoes everywhere. Bastards!

The nine-course tasting the following night, Friday, was a huge effort on the part of all the crew. Once you start doing the math—each course had six or seven components—you realize that we cooked a lot of food. I hit the kitchen around 7:30am to make this dinner come off by 6:30pm. This dinner was an exercise in playing with techniques—separating a salad dressing and serving the acid part cold as a granita and the fat component hot—which taught us quite a lot. You never learn anything if you don't push boundaries. Needless to say, I was beat on Saturday morning and had to drag myself to work.

By contrast on the 24th, we did another Chef's Tasting that was seemingly effortless. Because of the way our week went, we did not have time to do any advance planning on the menu, so we started on the morning of the 24th. The late start forced us into a menu that didn't require a lot of advanced prep and that was a good thing. We were able to put on a really elegant menu without killing ourselves. Tastings should run this way every time!

In between these two sets of tasting, the 20th arrived. This is a time of dread for many small businesspeople in Virginia, myself included. Sales tax collected the prior month is due on the 20th. And when we collect sales tax on your dinner, we also collect a local meals tax that goes to our town. This tax is also due on the 20th. While I am at it, I might as well compute and remit the Virginia withholding taxes, which are not due until the 25th, but I like to get all the pain out of the way at one time. Federal withholdings are deposited each pay period by EFT and they actually the easiest of all the taxes to pay. All told, I spend an hour dealing with taxes each 20th. If you could see how my day typically unfolds, you would see that finding an uninterrupted hour to do anything doesn't happen very often.

The renovation of the restaurant continues apace, though that pace is much slower than I would like. At the current pace, it looks to me like we'll be at it for another two months, but we have made great progress already and already it looks like a different restaurant. Over the past two weeks, we have patched a lot of walls in preparation for painting, ordered chargers for the tables, put new candle holders on the tables, installed a new sound system, hung new window treatments, and finally, we have started painting. What a huge difference paint makes!

As part of the renovation, I had thought to try to find a piece of sculpture to hang on the back wall, as a focal point for guests as they enter the restaurant. I had heard some good things about a local artist who had just done a show at a local gallery and who had recently participated in a local charity event. Given the hours that I work, going to galleries and charity events is not an option, so I haven't seen this guys' work. I called the gallery and got his phone number and arranged for him to come look at the space where I wanted the sculpture installed. I was amused by the conversation, a perfect example of salesmanship gone wrong, which ran thus:

Him: "What are you looking for?"

Me: "A found-art, three-dimensional sculpture for this space, something that will be a focal point and that says 'food and drink.'"

Him: "What about animals or fish?" Me: "No, wine bottles, old silverware, old cookware, something that says food and drink."

Him: "What about a crab?" Me: "Do you have a portfolio I can look at? I've never seen your work before and I'd like to see that you are the right guy for the job."

Him: "No, I didn't bring it with me. Besides, each piece is different and yours will be different too."

Me: "Is it on-line? We can go take a look at it now."

Him: "No, it's not on-line. How much do you want to spend?"

Me: "I've never bought a sculpture before so I have no idea what it will cost. What's a ballpark range?"

Him: "It depends on what you want."

Me: "OK, so how do we proceed from here?"

Him: "If you provide me a sketch of what you want, I can build it."

Can you imagine me saying to my tasting customers, "If you write out a menu for me, I will cook it for you."? Nuts. This guy lost the job from the get-go. What artist trying to get a commission arrives without a portfolio? Seriously.

Alsoover the past couple of weeks, I'm working on a web site update. Our site is very tired and old-fashioned and like a lot of old sites, has grown by accretion. It's time to go back to the drawing board and simplify. Rather than do it all myself this time (the current site looks like a DIY hack), I have engaged a designer friend to put together the basic site from a design that we did a couple of years back. I will still handle all the content. Looking forward, I believe this means that this blog will no longer be hosted on blogger, but will become part and parcel of the restaurant web site. Stay tuned.

I mentioned back in January that I had an interview with a writer for the National Culinary Review about kale. The article was just published; writer Laura Taxel did a fine job talking about the underutilized kales.

More signs of spring are everywhere. We had a glorious two-week run of rockfish when it was both plentiful and cheap, direct from the Chesapeake. But within two weeks, all the local fishermen had exhausted their tags and the price jumped from $7 to $10 and now $15 per pound. Our microgreens guy has returned after turning off the heat in his greenhouse for the winter. Cabbages that overwintered are looking gorgeous now at the farmers market. New items at the market: microradishes, arugula, wild watercress. Things are looking up, but morels are still not in yet. I cannot wait for them any longer. I want my morels!

Finally, given that it is April Fools' Day. I want to leave you with a copy of tonight's dinner menu. I have no idea how customers will react. I am sure that most will chuckle a bit and I am equally sure that I will piss someone off.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Greens, Egg, and Ham $80
Frisée with Crispy Prosciutto and Bacon Lardons Topped with a Poached Egg

A Clockwork Orange $80
Mediterranean Salad of Oranges, Almonds, Feta, and Microgreens

Monster Mâche $80
Mâche, Hazelnut, and Goat Cheese Salad

Scalloped Potatoes* $100
Prosciutto-Wrapped Sea Scallops on Potato-Bacon Chowder

Shrimpy Sausage $80
Shrimp and Chorizo Skewer; Pimentón Sauce; Roasted Red Pepper Salad

On a Roll $80
White Bean, Sun-Dried Tomato & Pesto Bruschetta; Herb Oil; Shaved Pecorino

There’s a Hare in my Soup $80
Cream of Rabbit Soup with Local Vegetables

Mussel Bound $90
Baked Gratin of Prince Edward Island Mussels, White Sauce, Chorizo, and Roasted Red Peppers

Leaning Tower of Pizza $100
Napoleon of Mini Flatbreads with Caramelized Onions, House-Cured Duck Confit and Gorgonzola

How Boaring! $90
House-Made Terrine of Wild Boar Flavored with Cranberries and Porcini Mushrooms


Pasta la Vista $250
Black Trumpet and Hedgehog Mushrooms with Pancetta, Wide Egg Noodles, Spinach, and Cream

Where’s the Beef? $200
Bread, Sautéed Shiitakes, and Roasted Poblanos Set in a Savory Sweet Potato Custard

Crabbie Patties $260
Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes; Farmers Market Slaw

Half-Baked Tuna* $420
Yellowfin Tuna Served Medium Rare; Herb and Caper Bud Sauce; Red Russian Kale

Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat* $260
Roasted Shad Roe; Rapini; Lemon, Bacon, and Caper Sauce

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish $240
Red Snapper with Smoked Bluefish Cream; Local Chinese Broccoli

Yam on the Lam $220
Local Lamb and Vegetables in Gravy Topped with Sweet Potato Purée and Baked

You Jerk! $220
Jamaican-Style Jerked Oxtail on Creamy Polenta

Fowl Play: Holy Mole! $200
Chicken in Classic Peanut Mole (Mole de Cacahuate); Rice and Beans

Minuet Steak* $330
Filet Mignon; Local Chinese Broccoli; Roasted Fingerling Potatoes; Stout-Bacon Sauce

Until next time, when I hope I can speak glowingly of this years' morel crop.