Wednesday, June 15, 2011

2011: June 15th

Hi everyone and welcome to the next post in my twice monthly series about doings at One Block West. The previous edition is here. For those of you wondering why the blog is so text heavy recently, when previously it has been chock full of pictures, the explanation is simple. While on vacation the first of May, my 15-year old Nikon digital took a direct hit of salt spray and that was all she wrote. Money to replace the camera is non-existent, so no pictures.

The first two weeks of June were moderately busy as usual. Historically, the last couple weeks of May and the first weeks of June are pretty good ones for us. Then, June just muddles along with all the high school graduations and comings and goings to the beach keeping traffic down. A big flurry of wedding anniversaries keeps it from being all out slow as is August, but as we head into the fourth of July weekend, business usually enters the summer doldrums phase.

Being now a week away from the start of summer, we can really start to see the shift in the markets. While summer produce such as squash and peppers is still a ways away (and tomatoes are just a dream), moving off the menu now are spring stalwarts strawberries, asparagus, soft shell crabs, and leeks.

I hate to see leeks go, but next winter and spring's leeks are in the ground now and the leeks planted this time last year are harvested. Leeks are a staple in our cooler for mirepoix, the mix of chopped vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, and leeks) that goes into many, many dishes. I am always surprised that more home cooks don't use leeks; I'm not sure what a professional restaurant kitchen would do without them or shallots, which also seem to be non-existent in home kitchens. We're going to have to switch to California leeks for the summer until we get a few locally harvested baby leeks in the fall.

Our big rush of soft shells is done now but we will have a few periodically throughout the summer and into early fall. The first flush happens when the water warms enough for the crabs to come up out of the mud and get on with life. The females start shedding almost immediately so that they can mate: a sook (female) cannot couple with a jimmy (male) when she has a hard shell. After this first big rush of soft shells, the crabs will shed several more times during the summer, giving a few every now and then for the menu, as long as the water stays warm. We can have a few soft shells into October in warm years.

At long last, the sweet cherries are here! We got our first bag of cherries on June the 11th this year. I bought just enough for the crew to snack on and snack on them we did. I love the sweet-tart sugar-acid balance of fresh sweet cherries and there's nothing better to do with them than eat them out of hand. They're a miserable pain to pit, cooking them doesn't improve them, and as I was complaining in the June 1st post, customers won't order them anyway. So, as excited as I am to have cherries in the market, I won't be wasting labor and money on buying them for our menu. That is truly a sad statement if you think about it.

Along with sweet cherries, there are also red raspberries in the market now and by the end of the week, black raspberries and blueberries will join them. Cucumbers and English peas have hit the market, along with a trickle of sugar snaps and snow peas. We're looking forward to peaches in the very near future; certainly before I write again. Beets have moved from a trickle to broad availability in the last two weeks and one of our growers has finally started bringing us cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale) again. Things are looking up!

Renovation of the restaurant has slowed to a crawl, because business has picked up a bit with the nice weather and because I am just coming off a wicked two-day bout with the flu. Sadly, there are no sick days for small business owners; I really could have used a day off. Even with these slowdowns, the ceiling is within about three hours of being painted, which means after all these weeks, it is just about done. And done with painting a drop ceiling is a good thing. There may be nothing worse to paint.

After a couple months of stability on our wine list, we've added a few new wines to the list in the past couple of weeks (and dropped a couple). We are very selective about what we add these days, not really because of the economy (well, yeah, that 500-lb gorilla is always lurking about) but because our list is fairly mature (that is, where we want it to be) and storage is an issue for us.

When we add a wine, it needs to be a good value for what it is, it needs to be well made, and it needs to play well with my food. Some customers complain that California is under-represented on our list. It is and intentionally so. In general, California wines are not good values (real estate is too expensive in many areas) and the grapes get too ripe making wines that fight my food rather than harmonize with it. And we live in Virginia and source our ingredients from Virginia, so our wine list give preference to the best of Virginia.

We've just added an Alexander Valley Cabernet, a Healdsburg Zinfandel, and a couple of Willamette Pinots. If you know your wine regions, you will recognize that these are all cooler climate wines. Cooler climate wines tend to have less alcohol, more restrained fruit, and higher acidity, all of which tend to make for better food wines.

On Sunday the 12th, Tony and I did a 90-minute demonstration at the Virginia Herb Festival at Sunflower Cottage near Front Royal where we cooked Soft Shell Crabs with Cucumber-Yogurt-Dill Salad, Chicken with Prosciutto and Sage, Summer Rolls with Nuoc Cham, Sockeye Salmon with Herb Mayonnaise and Asparagus, and Strawberries with Riesling and Lemon Balm. Hopefully the attendees took away some ideas about how they can incorporate culinary herbs in simple dishes that they can cook. In spite of a tent covering us and in spite of the fact that we work in a blazing hot kitchen all day, it was just miserably hot. When I got home, I weighed four pounds less than when I left. That's a half a gallon of water!

As soon as we were done there, we headed down to Linden Vineyards just east in Linden, VA to meet with Jim Law to select wines for our upcoming wine dinner with him on the 23rd. We chose some really nice wines, a couple of which are not generally available to the public, to feature at the dinner which has been sold out for weeks. These were not the best circumstances under which to taste—I had just been broiled for 90 minutes, hadn't eaten a thing all day, and was daydreaming about a shower! Still, I think we should be able to carry the dinner off pretty well. Jim's wines are so good that we want them to star, so we work hard to make the food play the second fiddle supporting role, to push it into the background. It's slightly different than our usual food-first modus operandi.

Thanks for reading along. I'll return to writing after I take a week-long hiatus to plan and execute the menu for the Linden wine dinner on the 23rd. You'll hear all about that in my July 1st posting. Until then, good eating!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

2011: June 1st

Are you kidding me? It's the first of June already and time for another blog post about the restaurant?!? This post continues the twice-monthly series documenting One Block West Restaurant in 2011. The May 15th post is here.

Rain, rain, rain! It's hard to imagine now that it has been blisteringly hot for a few days that we had so much rain in May that I thought we were all going to turn into ducks. The rain and high gas prices the third week of May had business at a standstill. Once the rain let up and gas came down the week before Memorial Day, we got clobbered with four huge nights out of five. This is the roller coaster nature of the restaurant business, requiring a lot of flexibility on our part to adjust to no business one week and silly amounts of business the next. After nine years at this location, I'm used to it.

In the past two weeks, it has been easy to note the change in seasons: morels which were abundant in early May are suddenly very expensive at the tail end of their local season; soft shell crabs have made their way onto our menu for the first time, now that they have dropped to an affordable level; strawberries and English peas are in the house; and the first King Mackerel of the season has arrived, now that they are migrating.

I bought a gorgeous King Mackerel when they first hit the market because I love mackerel and because I wanted to have some myself. To sell the remainder of the fish after I had my little snack would be a bonus. When it came in, I started showing the guys how to break down a whole mackerel. As soon as I opened the belly, I saw two foot-long roe sacks: what an extraordinary chef bonus! In our kitchen, fish roe never hits the menu: it gets consumed in the kitchen.

Our chef snack that afternoon consisted of roe that we roasted with pancetta, lemon and capers; the head with its luscious cheek meat that we poached in fish fumet; and the fatty belly flaps that I lightly grilled. Outstanding! You cannot pay money for a meal like that. At least for an afternoon, we were kings of the culinary world.

As predicted, we couldn't give this outstanding buttery fish away no matter how hard the servers pushed it. Americans as a rule are highly wary of any oily fish. We finally got a very late table of Spaniards who jumped all over it and bought the majority of this culinary delight.

These folks made a reservation right at our closing time and then showed up forty minutes late, after calling us frequently and telling us they would arrive in five minutes. The dining room was empty for a half an hour before they arrived and we were all ready to go home. Naturally, they sat and talked for 20 minutes before they ordered, took their time passing bowls of mussels around the table, and genuinely enjoyed themselves. After dinner, they sat for forty minutes after their check was on the table. I know that they are accustomed to late dinners in Spain, but this was pushing the limits of our hospitality. If you're ever in a restaurant late night and you look around and see that you are the only table, it's time to go. The restaurant crew will smile and assure you that it's fine to sit there, but know that it is time to go.

Strawberries started about the 20th of the month and came into full swing the last week of May. It has always been a struggle to sell this most glorious of fruits (as well as any fruits). When we ask customers if they want fruit dessert options on the menu, we get a resounding affirmative response. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, they don't order fruit desserts as a rule. They get waylaid by the high sugar and high fat concoctions (can you say "flourless chocolate torte?") on the dessert menu or they perceive fruit desserts as too lowbrow or something that they can do at home (never mind that most will not).

In fact, in berry and fruit season, we take a regular pummeling from amateur restaurant reviewers for doing simple fruit desserts that they "could have done at home for a lot cheaper." In spite of this, I'm still holding true to my conviction to present the best of what is at the market and to not screw it up by doing too much with it. So, if that means the best thing on my dessert card is a bowl of super-ripe, never refrigerated strawberries with splash of cream, so be it! I'll take the lumps for not being creative enough.

Given the predilection of customers to order anything but fruit desserts, I am very pleased that strawberries are selling better this year than ever before. We are selling them in old school shortcakes, where the shortcake is a sweetened biscuit dough, just like my grandmother used to make. In years past, I have used a wonderful polenta cake that I devised, but customers would routinely take me to task, "It's wonderful, but it's not a strawberry shortcake." So this year, it's old fashioned shortcake and it is selling quite briskly compared to prior years.

Last week, we were visited by the French class at the local middle school, the school that my youngest daughter attends, though she isn't in the French class. Working in the restaurant business, I insisted that she learn Spanish, Spanglish being the lingua franca of the restaurant kitchen. Though I speak pretty fluent French, which really helps me with classical dishes, wines, and technical culinary terms, I am hard pressed at times to communicate with all the Latinos on whom I depend every day.

Back to the French class, which came for a three-course lunch of classic bistro food such as terrine maison, coq au vin, lentils and sausages, and crème brûlée. Because of a snafu with the public school system's mail server, I did not find out that they wanted to come on the day of our Glen Manor wine dinner until a couple of days beforehand. At this point, the class had got permission to miss school that day and made all their preparations and I couldn't say no, as much as I wanted to.

So they arrived on a day when we were ultra-busy prepping for our wine dinner, on a day when we had an office party for lunch and a big retirement party, and naturally, it was the day that everybody in town decided that One Block West was the destination for lunch. Thank you everybody! The revenue boost was incredible, but do you think you could have picked a worse time for us? I'm joking naturally. ;)

We had a full crew on early that day because we knew we were going to be busy, but it wasn't enough to handle the at-capacity dining room the way that we are accustomed to. The servers were flying about as fast as humanly possible, trying to balance the needs of all the tables and it did not help to have 25 schoolchildren in the house wanting refill after refill after refill of their sodas.

Coming out of this lunch, the servers had about ten minutes to sit and eat lunch themselves before having to reset the dining room for our wine dinner. And for us in the kitchen, we were behind schedule by a good two hours after having been unexpectedly slammed for lunch. Bottom line, we were all good and exhausted going into our big wine dinner, not a great situation. There was a lot of coffee, Red Bull, and Rock Star being gulped down. We were all a big quivering hypercaffeinated mess come the start of the wine dinner.

And this was on top of a busy week. Tuesday night, quite inexplicably, we did more business—almost all walk-ins—than we did the previous Friday and Saturday combined. The bulk of the crew was already on overtime by Thursday at the start of the wine dinner. I think we carried the wine dinner off with aplomb though and I am very proud of the crew for sucking it up and getting the job done. Topping off the week, Friday and Saturday were huge nights and we were constantly prepping just to stay afloat.

On top of all this, I had a Memorial Day cookout for 20 people at my house on Sunday for which I had to prep on Saturday. By Saturday afternoon, I was so exhausted that I was doing stupid stuff like cutting myself with a knife for the first time in years. At home late Saturday night after closing, I sat down with Ann and had a glass of wine. By the time I was done, I was talking gibberish like I had been drinking for days.

On Memorial Day after a late night Sunday night at our cookout, I got to the restaurant at 5:30 in the morning and worked until 10:30, compressing my usual 8- or 9-hour Monday into five hours, the thought being that I could relax and take Memorial Day easy at the house, maybe get a few chores done. No luck. I slept most of Memorial Day away and am still exhausted today as I write this. It is clear to me that I am no longer 20 years old, or even 30, or even 40. I took a physical beating last week the likes of which I have not felt in years. Even the 20-something line cooks were exhausted. They are not kidding when they say that the restaurant business is a young man's game.

Because we have been so busy recently, between-shift renovations have slowed way down. I finally made up my mind about the size and location of the windows that I wanted to cut in from the dining room into the bar and I actually got one of the two openings cut into the drywall. Naturally, there are five electrical circuits in this opening that I have to reroute. This will have to wait until I have time to get to the hardware store for electrical supplies.

And now for a quick warning to other business owners. After a quiet last few months, the IP relay scammers are back at it. We have gotten several calls this week purportedly from deaf people wanting to purchase weird things such as "200 chicken dinners" despite the fact that we have no such thing on our menu.

The IP relay system, set up pursuant to ADA to give deaf people equal access to telephony, lets a deaf person at a computer converse with a hearing person at a telephone. The "caller" at the computer types in what he wants to say and an operator reads that message to the recipient via telephone. The operator, without interfering in any way, types the verbal responses from the recipient back to the originating caller. It goes back and forth like this until the call is complete.

There are a few things here for a scammer to love. First, the service is essentially anonymous: the IP address of the scammer is known, but those are easy enough to spoof and once the IP address heads overseas, there's no practical way to find and prosecute the scammer. Second, it's F-R-E-E. The FCC pays the relay company (MCI, Sprint, AT&T) to provide this service that is required by law (so there's no incentive on the carriers' part to stop a lucrative service). Yep, international calls to the US from Nigeria are free and we taxpayers foot the bill. Third, the relay through an operator can help disguise that most of the scammers don't speak English worth a damn. And finally, the criminals use our willingness to help the disabled against us.

The scam as it pertains to a restaurant (I have two friends who have fallen prey to this, alas) goes thus. The caller asks for some absurd number of items (200 chicken dinners, 1000 sandwiches, 300 chicken Caesar salads) and is not at all concerned with the price. The caller either provides a stolen credit card number or mails a forged money order.

The scammer can get money out of this in several ways. One is to have the restaurant charge the stolen credit card in advance and then at the last minute, cancel the order requesting a refund not to the stolen card but to a valid card that the scammer owns or a refund by money order. Once the banks find out that the original card was stolen, the restaurant is out the money for both the fraudulent charge and the amount refunded to the criminal.

Another variation is that the scammer will send a bad money order for a large amount more than the charge for the food or will ask the restaurant to add a lot more money to the food charged to the credit card. This extra amount of money is a fee payable to the person that is to pick up and deliver the food. The scammer asks the unwitting restaurant to forward the fee by check or money order to the delivery person, an agent of the scammer. In this way, once the banks wise up, the restaurant is out the amount of the charge or money order and the delivery fee. And if the restaurant has gone to the effort to prep and package the food, all these costs are lost when nobody shows up to claim the food.

I have instructed my staff to either transfer such calls to me or if I am busy to simply say that we cannot fill such an order. If I have time, I will play along until I get the credit card number so that I can report it stolen. If I have a lot of time, I will tell the scammer that the credit card did not authorize and I will keep going in this manner until I get as many credit card numbers as the scammer is willing to divulge.

And while I feel bad for people who have been scammed like this, I feel really, really bad for the relay operators who have to endure this and be on the line while an obvious scam is happening, especially when they have little to no recourse and work for companies that don't care, that just want to get paid.

Finally, we celebrated two 50th wedding anniversaries with two great couples in the last two weeks. They and their families were a lot of fun and we are very gratified that they chose to celebrate with us! Congratulations to them on this amazing accomplishment!

So, it's been a busy latter half of May by and large and I hope that business continues to boom post-Memorial Day. Thanks for reading along and I will be back at the keyboard again on June 15th.