Saturday, July 16, 2011

2011: July 15th

It's after dinner service on Friday July 15th and I'm sitting down for a marathon session to jam out this next edition in my ongoing series about the restaurant. Usually I write down little snippets as we go through the two-week period about which I am writing, but not this time. Here goes all stream of consciousness.

Wine corkage fees seem to be the hot topic these days. The two-week period opened with an interview with one of the local newspapers about wine corkage and ended with an interview and photoshoot with the other one this morning. Virginia ABC had heretofore pronounced that it was illegal for customers to bring their own wine into restaurants possessing an ABC license. Personally, I think they were badly misinterpreting the Code of Virginia and that their stance would have never held up under court scrutiny. The Commonwealth has no desire to see its golden goose enmired in litigation that could ultimately slay the goose, though our current governor is all for privatizing ABC (the legislature is not). However, the legislature, finally seeing the light, has reversed that long-held policy effective the first of July and in addition has allowed restaurants to charge a fee to customers wishing to bring in their own wine.

Years ago, before ABC got militant about the corkage issue, we used to let guests bring special bottles to the restaurant. But then they issued us a cease and desist letter threatening revocation of our license and we stopped. Now we can start again, but letting customers bring wine into a restaurant is a double-edged sword for restaurateurs. On the one hand, we want to be accommodating and obliging hosts, but on the other, wine sales greatly subsidize food sales. That is, if everyone brought his own wine to a restaurant, we would have to raise our food prices greatly to bring in the same revenue. And it's not that we are getting rich as an industry; most of us are scraping by on the thinnest of margins.

While I'm not wildly crazy about people bringing in wines, I do have a sincere wish to let people bring in wines that are special to them. If you bought a wine on your honeymoon and now you want to open it for your 10th anniversary, why not? If you have three old vintages of Château Palmer for which you want me to create a tasting menu, why not? If you bought a bottle of cheap Pinot Grigio on closeout and you want to bring it just so that you don't have to pay my price for Pinot Grigio, I have a problem with that.

We will charge a fee to open a customer bottle not only to help defray the lost revenue, but equally as importantly to help with the costs of our stemware. Our crystal stemware is very expensive and a glass lasts about 3-4 weeks in service before it chips or breaks and must be replaced. On top of that we have electrical, water, sewer, and dish chemical costs of washing the glassware and the manual labor of polishing it. Our fee will be determined on a case by case basis, but we do not want to be punitive for customers that really do want to bring a special bottle.

The basic etiquette for bringing a bottle of wine into a restaurant is:

  1. Call ahead to find out what is permitted and what the costs are.

  2. Only request to bring a bottle that is meaningful to you and not something that is close or remotely close to what the restaurant sells.

  3. If possible, restaurants always appreciate if you purchase some wine from them in addition to the wine you bring.

  4. Make sure that you tip your server for wine service.

Where has all the good lunch gone? Customers abandoned us for lunch in the last two weeks and I assume it is the same everywhere. This business slows dramatically anyway after the July 4th holiday and stays down until well after everyone has gotten their post-Labor Day vacations out of their systems. But still, lunch has been unusually slow even for July. Go figure. This business is always a roller coaster.

Surprise! Thursday was our day to get our rectal exam from the health inspector. In the past, this event has been more painful than in recent years: I like our current inspector a lot. She is pleasant, professional, and really seems to see the big picture. Despite this, the inspection still causes a great deal of high blood pressure. When it is all said and done though, it is good to receive affirmation that we are still being good stewards of the public health.

July always signals the beginning of our pickling season. As fruits become ripe, we pickle them for use later in the year. The first pickles this year were spicy green beans. Soon to come will be cucumbers and peaches and I am going to score some okra tomorrow at the market. I'm waiting for cucumbers to start bearing a little more heavily so that we can get a bushel or two at a better price.

The market has finally turned the corner to summer fruits and vegetables in the past couple of weeks. In addition to beans, we have lots of peaches, corn, blackberries, apples, beets, eggplants, broccoli, and cauliflower along with a few green peppers, but no red ones yet. Raspberries are gone until the fall, but plums and pluots are doing fine. No apricots this year; the trees didn't crop.

And finally yesterday, a long-awaited event happened: in the front door came a cooler full of fresh, local rabbits. I have been working on a source for local rabbits for years and finally, the first dozen arrived yesterday and they are beautiful, so much nicer than the ones I had been sourcing. The first six of these rabbits went on the dinner menu tonight (and did not sell). Rabbit is hit or miss. At times it flies off the menu faster than we can keep up with and at other times, it's a dog. Hopefully it will start moving on Saturday night.

Speaking of local meats, we get our lamb locally, a whole lamb roughly every two weeks. One came in Thursday and it's clear we're having issues with the slaughterhouse again. I give them a cut sheet telling them exactly how I want the carcass broken down and it was clear on first inspection that this last lamb wasn't even close. Unless it is for a special occasion, I ask for the saddles (the loin) to be sawn into loin chops (little T-bones). I got a whole saddle. I generally ask for the shoulders to be cut into kebabs and the rest of the forequarters (neck, shanks, breast) to be ground for our terrines and meatballs. I got whole forequarters; there was no offal to be found, and so forth.

This reminds me of the lamb that we received at the beginning of July from a different slaughterhouse and it must have been a crazy looking creature. It had four hind legs, but only two front legs. No heart or liver, but four testicles and 12 tongues. A six-legged, four-balled wonder with 12 tongues and no heart! There's a joke in there somewhere.

As for the ongoing saga of the dining room renovation, things are starting to move along again after a few weeks of progress at a snail's pace. I finally brought to the restaurant all the tools and parts necessary to relocate the electrical circuits that ran where I wanted to put the pass through windows between the dining room and the bar. The first window is nearing completion with the second one partially done. Hopefully they will both be done by the first of August.

I finally got a new camera (and am still taking largely useless photos with it as I learn the ins and outs of modern digital cameras) so you can see some of the dining room progress. In the photo above, you can see the new color scheme: cream on the walls, chocolate on the ceiling and booth backs, and caramel trim. If you're familiar with the restaurant, you'll notice how much lighter it is, how much less heavy it is with the clunky booths gone, and how many more plants there are. In the photo to the right, you can see the new divider screen between the dining room and the front server station.

My day today (now yesterday I realize as I look at the clock) opened at 7:15 am at my desk doing taxes (it is/was the 15th after all). Then, remember the lamb that came in essentially whole? After taxes, I spent three hours in the kitchen this morning breaking down the entire lamb, six rabbits, a beef tenderloin, 10 pounds of sockeye salmon, and 10 pounds of grey tile fish. That was a workout. On top of this, we did a 9-course tasting menu this evening (photos to be published soon) that had me and the guys scrambling all through lunch and this afternoon to bring off. Needless to say, I'm beat now, but that's nothing unusual for a Friday night in the restaurant business.

We just need to get through dinner tomorrow and then we can focus our full attention on the garlic dinner that is coming up next Thursday. That will be a tale for the next edition. I thank you for reading along and I hope to see you in the restaurant soon.

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