Friday, July 1, 2011

2011: July 1st

This is the July 1st edition of my twice-monthly series on what is happening here at One Block West and the next edition in the year-long saga of my restaurant. The prior (June 15th) post is here and you can find the entire series here.

June has proven to be a pretty good month for us, one of the best ever, in terms of sales. This is in stark contrast to April and May, which were some of the worst months ever. This seems to be the new normal: higher highs and lower lows—the roller coaster is not flattening out to the predictability of the mid- and late-2000s. To say the least, it is a challenge a minute in this kind of business environment to staff correctly and produce enough food, without incurring unnecessary labor costs and without wasting food.

I use the terms April, May, and June somewhat loosely. We, like many restaurants, don't do monthly accounting. We have 13 4-week "months" in our year. Because as much as 60% of our weekly revenue occurs on the weekend, it is vital for us to have the same number of weekends in each month, for month-to-month comparisons to be valid. Imagine comparing a June with four weekends to one with five weekends: the revenue run rate could actually be identical but the June with five weekends would appear to be 20% higher than one with four weekends. So when I'm talking about a fantastic June above, I'm really talking about month 6 that ended June 18th. We're already two weeks into our July (month 7) as I write this. A little restaurant trivia for those of you who care.

I just learned yesterday that my produce company is imposing a minimum order amount and this is not very good news for me, which I suspect is why my sales rep was in the restaurant yesterday giving me the bad news in person. Good on him for that. Most people would have hidden behind the anonymity of a telephone call or an email. I appreciate that he took the time to deliver the news in person. He, like all good sales guys, recognizes that my relationship is not with the produce company but with him. He always stands by me and this makes the third company that I have followed him to. Were he to switch horses now as a result of this minimum being imposed by his management, I'd switch too.

By now, I guess most readers know that I get the bulk of my ingredients locally especially in our growing season and I only use the produce company to fill in things when necessary. Who grows lemons in our climate? Nobody and with good reason and yet lemons are vital to a restaurant of our caliber, so we depend on the produce company for them and like ingredients. I can't do without a produce company as much as I'd like to.

Naturally, in the winter, meeting this new minimum order amount will not pose too much of a challenge. But now in the summer, when everything comes locally, I know that it is going to be a royal pain in the ass to meet the minimum. But that said, most companies that deliver have minimums to cover the trucks, drivers, fuel, and insurance, and the produce company has to run their business as they see fit and I will either adapt to it, move to another vendor, or the minimum will backfire. It may cause such grief in their customer base and in their sales force, that the minimum magically and quietly goes away. And, I guarantee nobody was saying a word about a minimum during the worst of the winters of 2009 and 2010; sales reps were begging for orders of any size. Time will tell.

And now a word about a few menu items. Every chef puts dishes on the menu with some expectation about how they are going to sell. There are some dishes that are near and dear to the chef's heart that he puts on just to make a statement about who he is, but in his heart he knows that the dish isn't going to sell. And when customers latch onto that dish and it starts really moving, he's perplexed. And he's equally perplexed when he puts a dish on that he knows is going to move only to find that that dish is DOA for some unfathomable reason.

So many things go into making a dish sell (or not): trendiness of ingredients, perceived comfort level of the dish, familiarity of ingredients, pricing both absolute and relative to the rest of the menu, where the dish is placed on the menu, ease of pronunciation of the dish, and how the dish is described, just to name a few that pop instantly into my mind.

Dishes that sell against all my expectations include our Baby Beet Salad with Candied Walnuts and Goat Cheese and our now infamous Squash Cakes (more on them below). I never expected these dishes to sell well, but they do. Seriously, who eats beets and squash except under duress and more importantly, who pays to eat them? I'm not knocking these dishes by the way; they are terrific. I just never anticipated customers would give them a try. Tuesday night, the first night of the squash cakes on the menu for the summer, they outsold all other dishes.

But this past week, I've had two outright flops. We did a take-off of Vichyssoise (chilled cream of leek and potato soup) flavored with slab bacon and called it Chilled Cream of Leek, Potato and Bacon Soup. It was incredibly delicious, but we couldn't give it away. I'm not sure what the problem was but I think it had to do with the bacon or with the temperature of the soup. We sell plenty of warm leek and potato soup, so go figure.

And then the big crash and burn of the week: Buffalo and Bacon Sliders. It's warm, it's summer, and we're headed into the 4th of July holiday weekend. What better time to have a little fun with some upscale burgers? I made some delicious burgers by grinding bison shoulder and bacon with some other seasonings and shaped them into 2.5-ounce sliders and put them on challah slider buns to make them easy to handle. They were slap-your-mother good! (As the crew can tell you). Despite being the lowest priced main course, they didn't move. So much for bacon making everything better!

If I had to hazard a guess about the sliders, I would say that their failure to sell is a perception problem. We are an upper end fine dining restaurant and we have always had problems selling sandwiches (at one time we had the most killer Cuban sandwich on our lunch menu), burgers, pies, ribs, and other cuisine that people deem lowbrow, no matter how good. But then how do you explain that we sold the living hell out of choucroute garni this past winter? If that big sloppy mess of sauerkraut, Riesling, smoked pork, sausages, and pork belly isn't lowbrow peasant food, I don't know what is. I guess it seems more exotic than bison burgers.

With the uptick in business in early June and prepping for our annual Linden wine dinner on the 23rd, not too much got done on renovating the restaurant. The ceiling is now completely painted a deep chocolate color and looks great. Once I finish cutting the windows from the dining room to the bar and a minor bit of painting, the dining room will be complete. Unfortunately, finishing up the windows involves rerouting four electrical circuits. Fun stuff.

Speaking of the Linden dinner, we've done one every June with Jim Law ever since I can remember. This always popular dinner sold out before we could even formally announce it and long before we even started thinking about a menu. On the 12th after my demo at the Virginia Herb Festival, Ann, Tony and I went down to Linden to taste with Jim. We tasted through maybe a dozen wines to pick the five for the dinner: Rosé '09, Seyval Blanc '09, Chardonnay "Hardscrabble" '06, Petit Verdot '06, and Petit Manseng Late Harvest '07.

These are all good food wines. We went with the '09s because they are a lot more restrained and have much more acid than the '10s from the hottest summer on record. 2006 was a more restrained year and the Chard and PV have great acid, something I always look for in choosing wines for food. That acid is necessary to scour away the palate-dulling fat in foods. And the Petit Manseng, what can I say about that? This is the first time I have tasted since a barrel sample some years ago. Wow! Jim is a huge fan of Jurançon wines and it shows. His bottling is the equal of any I have ever tasted.

I was truly happy to showcase both Petit Verdot and Petit Manseng. I truly believe that those are Virginia's best grapes, red and white respectively. The conventional wisdom is that Cabernet Franc and Viognier hold those slots; I disagree.

For this year's dinner, we decided to change things up and give everyone a glass of rosé as they walked into the restaurant and start passing hors d'oeuvres about fifteen minutes before the dinner started. The plan was to open the doors at 6:30, pass hors d'oeuvres at 6:45, and then I would introduce Jim at 7:00 and disappear to the kitchen to produce the first seated course. That didn't work so well. We had several guests arrive before 6pm and the vast majority of guests were already in the house by 6:30. We hadn't even pulled the corks on the rosé by then! Oh well, flexibility is the name of our game. It all worked out great anyway, even if it didn't go as planned at the outset.

We really worked hard on the Linden menu to make it go smoothly based on lessons learned at May's Glen Manor dinner. You would think by now that I would not devise a menu that would tax us and our kitchen's physical capabilities (you can only cook what you have the equipment to cook), but I did for the Glen Manor dinner. We pulled it off, but it was a stressful night on the kitchen, something I am generally very good at avoiding. So I redoubled my efforts for the Linden dinner and everything went extraordinarily smoothly in the kitchen that evening. Note to self.

And now that the Linden dinner is done, we have leaped full bore into our next wine dinner: our quasi-infamous garlic dinner. For many years, we did a garlic dinner each summer as we are doing this year. But when the economy tanked, the garlic dinner died from want of customer enthusiasm. It's back now and we already have a good book for a dinner that was just announced yesterday after I settled on a menu the night before.

The menu for the garlic dinner is always wide open. So many dishes from so many cuisines contain garlic that there are few limits to what we might serve. And this is a food-focused dinner—that is, we're not pairing food to wine, rather we're pairing wine to a menu—so no limits there either. In the end, we threw a lot of ideas at a sheet of paper and saw what stuck. The crew is excited to be using black garlic in the dessert course, something I have wanted to do ever since tasting the rich brown sugar-molasses profile of black garlic some years ago.

These last two weeks have brought changes at the market and with our growers too. Both black raspberries and blueberries along with very early peaches are finding their way onto our dessert menu. The first of the new crop of apples, both Lodis and Transparents, are here, not that they are much good for anything, but they are fresh and local. With the summer heat, local lettuce and mesclun is way past its prime and is done. But broccoli, Tuscan black kale, cauliflower, cabbages, and Swiss chard are coming on strong.

Also, summer squash and cucumbers are coming full throttle. I'm particularly excited by the summer squash because that means that our insanely good squash cakes are back on the menu as a vegetarian main course. They are one of the best things I have ever cooked and their fans are legion. We grate green and yellow squash and cook it for three hours in heavy cream with garlic and basil, then bind the mix with pecorino romano and bread crumbs, chill it, and form it into cakes which are then pan-fried—a lot of effort, but so worth it.

Cucumbers are coming on strong and we should be able to start putting up pickles next week or so, which is a good thing because we have used all but a gallon or so of the ones we put up last year. Tomatoes are in the market now, but they're coming out of the greenhouse. No thanks. They don't develop flavor unless they are subjected to the stresses of outdoor life and those tomatoes are still some weeks away. I'll wait.

And that's a wrap on this post. Stay tuned for the July 15th edition when I'm sure I'll have more details about the upcoming Garlic Dinner. Thanks for your time.

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