Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wine and Vinegar

I was surfing the web in a spare moment this morning and stumbled upon this old myth (from a very respectable source, alas):

Try to avoid having vinegar in your salad dressing since vinegar destroys the flavor of wine.

In response, I'm just going to ask a few questions:

1. Ever been to France?
2. Do the French eat a salad often at dinner?
3. What do they dress their salads with?
4. What do they drink with their salads?

Don't pay any heed to this old nonsense. Just keep on drinking wine with your dinner.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

2011: May 15th

It's May 15th and that means it's time for another installment of As the Block Turns. Just Kidding. Another installment of my twice monthly series on what is happening at One Block West during the course of 2011. The previous installment is here.

Tuesday May 3rd is a day that we dread every year. Actually, it's not the 3rd so much as it is the first day back after being closed for our annual holiday. Sunday night after flying back into Dulles and all day Monday, I was busy placing orders for every manner of perishable item: produce, wild mushrooms, seafood, and meat.

On Monday, I did a little busy work in the kitchen while taking a break from driving my desk (dealing with the hundreds of emails that came in while we were away, the 10 pounds of mail that got delivered, etc.) just doing some basic set up so that we could hit the kitchen running on Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday the 3rd, I was in the kitchen prepping by 7am and Travis joined me a bit after 8 and Tony got in around 11. In an all out blitz, we finally got lunch set up to go at 12:15. Fortunately, our first table did not arrive until 12:30. After lunch it was an all out marathon to get dinner prepped. Although we opened at 5pm, we were not set until 6pm. And our menu was pretty bare bones that night.

Our annual vacation behind us means that the month of April is now closed and we can look at the results. We got hammered by the weather and gas prices. April was one of the rainiest ever and with gas prices spiking to $4 per gallon, with the exception of a couple of nights, business came to a standstill for us and restaurants all over.

One of the exceptional nights was Saturday May 7th, a night that we look forward to every year. It's trifecta weekend: proms, graduation, and Mother's Day all rolled into one. We were solidly busy from open to close, just the way we like it.

The night went really well for us with the exception of one table. We took a reservation for a late 8-top which subsequently became a later 11-top. A table with 11 people at it represents 20% of my dining room capacity. I always feel very nervous about taking these tables because they take so much of my dining room and historically have such a high no-show rate. And to generalize a bit further, if such a table does show up, it will be with a lot fewer people than the number reserved.

And sure enough, at 6:45 this table called pushing their 8pm reservation back a half an hour to 8:30, at which point I predicted to our front of the house manager that they were going to no-show or cancel. Then they called back to push back another hour to 9:30pm, a half an hour after we usually close. Then they called back to move to Sunday; we're not open on Sundays, not even Mother's Day. Finally they called and cancelled and left us with 20% of the dining room sitting empty. We could have filled those tables with a lot more than 11 people; we turned so many people away that evening.

Thanks to these louts, nobody will be able to book a table here for more than six people without giving us a credit card number. If they cancel within 24 hours or no-show, we're going to charge them. Way to go you idiots, ruining it for everyone!

We opened the seating on our deck on May the 3rd, the first day back after our vacation. So far the weather has not cooperated and very few people have sat outside. Soon though, the deck will be in full swing. It's nice to sit out there in the shade of the umbrellas, surrounded by all our flowers and herbs, in the shade of the large tree in the corner of the deck, and watch the birds flit about everywhere.

Our roses are now in full bud, the native clematis that lines the deck fence is screaming skyward by leaps and bounds, and the mint has exploded: mojito anyone? We skipped the early season pansies in the window boxes and went straight for the hot weather plants that can withstand the brutal conditions of our south-facing window boxes: dracaena, lantana, and portulaca.

The blood sorrel and chervil that we grow in the shade of the deck have overwintered and are now up and we are using them for garnish each day. The chervil has been going into a fabulous carrot risotto. Our chives are in full bloom and they made a fantastic garnish for cream of ramp soup.

On Tuesday the 10th, I found myself at the farmers market and running out of green vegetables, especially for the farmers market slaw that accompanies our crab cakes. I bought the last two bunches of gai lan, Chinese broccoli: it's getting too hot for it. And I bought the last of the cabbages stored over the winter.

The arugula was done last week: again, it's getting too warm for it. We have plenty of asparagus and spinach right now, but other than that, it is slim pickings until the peas come on in a couple of weeks. Eating locally and seasonally forces us to scramble a few weeks of the year and we are at a scrambling point. Good thing that the mesclun is terrific now; I imagine a lot of dishes will be coming with mesclun.

And updating the ongoing saga of renovating the restaurant: the dining room walls and trim are all painted now, with the exception of the back wall that adjoins the bar. The thought there is to open up part of that wall between the dining room and the bar, but I'm still going back and forth in my mind about what exactly to do. It really is one of those things I would like to be comfortable with before I start demolition!

Now that asparagus is in full swing, I am looking forward to strawberries. In fact, I have promised them on the menu for our upcoming wine dinner with Glen Manor Vineyards on the 26th, so they better be ripe by then! Beth is currently estimating berries by the 20th, so I think we'll be in good shape.

Tomorrow afternoon I am off to Arlington to the portfolio tasting of one of our wine distributors. This is always a good opportunity to meet people who are passionate about the wines they make, catch up with friends rarely seen, and refresh my palate. How many opportunities do you get in a year to taste Arneis, Garganega, Vermentino, and Falanghina in one afternoon? After the tasting, we'll hole up somewhere during happy hour to avoid rush hour traffic. How bad can that be?

Until the first of June, thanks for reading along.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

2011: May 1st

This is the May 1st installment of my twice-monthly series documenting a year in the life of my restaurant. The previous installment mentioned that this one would necessarily be late in getting posted for the simple reason that we always close this time of year for vacation. And so it is late, but better late than never.

This two-week period started off in crazy fashion with torrential rain on Saturday, April 16th. I knew just driving to work that the rain would not help our business and sure enough by 9am the phone started ringing. People weren't calling to book tables, just the opposite—they were calling to cancel on account of the rain. On the weekends, we depend on customers driving out from Northern Virginia, DC, and Baltimore and if it is raining, they are likely to stay home. And so it was this particular weekend.

While all this spring rain has not been great for customers, it has been great for two things: asparagus and morels. We have lots and lots of both. Currently we are serving the two together in a cream sauce with pancetta, shallots, thyme, and strozzapretti pasta. The kitchen smells amazing each time we cook one of these dishes. There is something fundamentally awesome about morels and cream!

The renovations of the restaurant are moving along and now we are just starting to paint the dining room, which is the first change that is getting regulars to notice that we really are renovating. Many people have not really noticed the total changeout of the table tops, the reorganization of the dining room, changes in lighting, new window treatments, new plants or any of the more subtle changes. But now the regulars cannot help but notice the dining room going from a vivid scarlet color to a warm tan. All the comments so far are very positive, with the exception of one guy who is not amused that his favorite table lost the bulky bench seats in favor of chairs. So be it. He'll grouse for a minute but it won't stop him from coming in.

Speaking of grousing, amongst all the positive reviews we received this week on the web, we got a pretty miserable one that complained (in part) about the ceiling, which admittedly looks a little like a patchwork quilt as we are replacing old damaged ceiling tiles in preparation for painting the ceiling a rich chocolate color. Obviously, this person did not want to see that the ceiling is in the process of renovation.

But any amateur restaurant review that leads off grousing about portion size and then takes the décor to task without mentioning how the food tastes is all about one thing: price. Our prices are higher than this woman wanted to pay. So rather than just state that, she had to spew venom about everything else. We're used to it by now. We just hope that people stumbling across her review will recognize the comments for what they really are and weigh them against the preponderance of highly positive comments left by others.

We were closed for our annual holiday the last week of the month and it was a scramble just to get ready to go on vacation. A lot of paperwork has to be accelerated or delayed, plants have to be watered more heavily than usual, mail has to be stopped, all our digital media updated, refrigerators have to be cleaned out and unplugged so that they will defrost, and so forth. It's just like going on vacation at your house only on a larger scale.

It's always terribly difficult to manage the menu just before closing for a week. We don't want to waste food by having it spoil while we are away and we don't want to run out during the final dinner service before we leave. So we plan proteins that can be frozen without compromising quality while we are away, or proteins that we can prep little by little as we need them, or proteins that are not terribly expensive. We end up eating a big staff meal before we leave, sending food home with employees, or donating it to another restaurant down the block.

We close on account of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, the celebration of the local apple industry, an industry that is struggling against imports from China. This year was the 84th festival. Although it was a bigger deal in decades past when it drew US Presidents and major celebrities, it is still a big deal with Val Kilmer headlining last year. According to various estimates, attendance is between 200,000 and 400,000 people, all of whom descend on our little town of 24,000 people.

You would think with that many people in town needing to eat that it would be a boon time for the restaurant. So we thought the first couple of years toughing out the festival, but we were sadly wrong. The entire week, we didn't make enough money to cover even a day's expenses.

As you might imagine, logistics are a nightmare with this many people in town. Just getting around is difficult. This coupled with the fact that we are inside the parade route means that vehicles cannot get through the barricades on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the only nights during the week that we hope to turn a profit. The other nights of the week are unprofitable to breakeven.

Our downtown pedestrian mall is lined with out-of-towners hawking all manner of junk food: fried onions, corn dogs, funnel cakes and the like. And so that food draws droves of people seeking junk food and not high-end dining. Those people that do make it over to our alley a block west off the pedestrian mall are largely tanked on cheap beer, stuffed with fried junk, and seeking a place to use the bathroom. Our restaurant becomes a 2400-square foot public toilet.

Rather than deal with all this, we just close up shop for a week and give everyone a chance for some down time. For my part, I went to St. Martin, the so-called culinary capital of the Caribbean. I've got to say that we produce better food at One Block West than at any of the high-end places at which we dined down there. Poor bastards have everything shipped in from overseas, mainly France. There is no local agriculture. We have it pretty good right here in the lovely Shenandoah Valley!

My big regret in leaving town was missing the barrel tasting at Linden Vineyards. and being unable to provide food to pair with the barrel samples. I just love pairing food with Jim's wine. Oh well, maybe the calendar will line up better next year so that I can make it.

And that's it for the very abbreviated May 1st update. Thanks for reading and I hope you will stay tuned for the May 15th edition.