Monday, August 29, 2011

Mystery Basket Dinner

This past Sunday we held a Mystery Basket dinner at our house for some of our customers as a way of thanking them for their business. We drew names from all those who had entered at the restaurant and each winner brought three ingredients that were unknown to me. When everyone arrived and had a glass of wine, we unveiled all the ingredients. And here is the sum of what everyone brought; I contributed the hickory bark syrup just for grins.

pom pom mushrooms
bison sausage
Walla Walla onions
haloumi cheese
red peppers
barilotti pasta
baby bok choy
pink lady apples
hickory bark syrup
puff pastry
Dubliner cheese
Italian sausage

As you can see from this list of ingredients, we had quite a crazy melange of foodstuffs from which to concoct a menu. As we were unveiling the ingredients, I was already triaging the foods in my mind, trying to figure out what went where. The quantities of some foods dictated how we would have to use them. The little block of haloumi wasn't going to go too far.

The bulgur suggested a tabouleh, the puff pastry a pizza, and the barilotti a pasta, naturally. That left the sweetbreads and the haloumi for appetizers. The menu we ended up with was:

Saganaki: Pan-Seared Haloumi with Sautéed Garlic and Lemon Juice. This is a simple dish to make. Slice the haloumi and place in a hot frying pan with a touch of olive oil. Brown on both sides and remove to a plate. Add chopped garlic to the pan and brown slightly. Deglaze with the juice of a lemon and pour over the cheese.

Sweetbreads with Pom Pom Mushrooms and Baby Bok Choy. Sweetbreads are delicious and pretty easy to prepare. I showed everyone how to poach them, then how to remove the membranes and veins. Once they were cooled, we tossed them in seasoned Wondra and seared them well in a skillet. Then we slabbed the pom pom mushrooms and seared them and after that, we wilted the baby bok choy in a good quantity of olive oil and garlic. We arranged all these goodies on a platter and dug in. I had never worked with farmed pom pom mushrooms before, only the wild form that I have known as lion's mane. The mushrooms had a slight crab-like flavor, very mild and subtle. Image courtesy of Mike Hoffmaster.

Tabouleh with Pomegranates, Pink Lady Apples, Beets, and Rhubarb. This was the sleeper dish of the evening and my catch-all for all the red-colored ingredients for which we had no other use and it was the one dish that I cooked myself. I don't think anybody didn't have seconds of this tabouleh: it was that good. I started by cooking the bulgur, some fancy organic long-cooking kind that took a lot of persuasion in the microwave to get cooked, and by roasting the beets in foil in the oven, the single best way to handle beets that I know.

Everyone got a kick out of my beating the hell out of the pomegranate with a wooden spoon to get the seeds out; the whole thing was seeded and ready to eat in 30 seconds. I marinated raw rhubarb in a lot of hickory bark syrup to tame its rampant acidity, then threw it in with the pomegranate seeds, diced apples, and diced beets, to which I added a lot of lemon juice, chopped Italian parsley from my garden, minced garlic, and extra virgin olive oil. I mixed it all and the whole thing turned scarlet and after correcting the seasoning, it was truly delicious.

Do note that rhubarb contains oxalic acid, which in large quantities can be toxic. Most of the oxalic acid is confined to the leaves, which is why they are not eaten. Cooking neutralizes the oxalic acid and many texts suggest to always cook rhubarb, but it can be quite delicious when eaten raw.

Puff Pastry Pizza with Buffalo Sausage, Caramelized Onions, Cherry Tomatoes, and Dubliner Cheese. Everybody was in a pizza kind of mood, so I rolled out the puff pastry on a sheet tray, built a rim around it with a second layer of puff, docked the bottom, and pre-baked it to about half done. Next it got a good layer of caramelized onions, buffalo sausage, halved tiny tomatoes, and a topping of Dubliner cheese for good measure. What's not to like?

Barilotti with Spicy Italian Sausage, Onions, Tomatoes, Red Peppers, and Basil. I'd never seen this cut before, barilotti, little barrels, but I like it. I'm a big fan of short pasta cuts and this reminds me of cavatelli, also a very favorite cut. These little barrels are the perfect shape for a sausage pasta because they have the perfect nooks in which sausage bits can hide. All the ingredients were sautéed in turn with copious amounts of garlic and fresh basil, then tossed with the hot pasta, some pasta cooking water, and a big handful of grated pecorino romano. Awesome!


Cleaning sweetbreads.*

Chef Mike tackles a mound of onions.*

Jimmy, zesting lemons.*

Was it my imagination or were the women outside kibbitzing while the guys did all the work?*

To be fair, Julie helped EJ a lot and Jen had a broken wrist. What about Ann? She was social directing!*

Grayce, the canine vacuum cleaner.*

And Dewi, the human vacuum cleaner.

The crew.

*Image courtesy of Mike Hoffmaster/Dennis Trimarchi.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

2011: August 15th

Knock, knock, knock on wood! As I start writing this next installment of "As the Block Turns," my twice-monthly update on the restaurant, business continues stronger than hoped for. Thank you restaurant gods!

I'm not sure what is going on, but people are going back out to eat after years of hibernating. Maybe we're starting to feel good about the economy (hmmm, unlikely) or just sick and tired of feeling sick and tired (more likely). Most of the dining seems to be spur of the moment. For example, the past couple of weekends, I have come into the restaurant at my usual 7:30am or so to get deskwork and thinkwork out of the way before employees, customers, and the phone calls, only to see a pretty dismal looking reservation book. Yet by magic, come dinner time, we are crushed!

I'm loving it and not complaining, but it really does make planning a challenge. How much food do I really need to purchase? I purchase my primary proteins days in advance of the weekend, so I really have to use my crystal ball and/or just roll the dice about quantities to order. I just usually go with gut feel that I have developed over the years. And my gut right now says order more than I would normally this time of year, so I am going with it.

Despite the increased business, we continue to ride the roller coaster. The stock market volatility is not helping at all. The first day of this recent downturn, the day that the Dow dropped 400 points, business stopped dead, both that day and the next. Fortunately, business rebounded nicely by the weekend. I am still amazed how external factors over which I have no control impact my business. Some days, I feel like I'm in a rudderless ship and we go in the direction the wind is blowing.

But those days have become fewer this summer and as an example of the recent positive trend, last Friday, the 12th of August, we had 11 tables (more than half the restaurant) seated before 6:00pm. This is totally unprecedented in my experience, for Friday nights don't generally get started until about 7:00pm, once everyone gets home from work. The kitchen was chaos from the moment we opened and then we had a lull during our normally chaotic 7:00-8:00pm hour. Then we turned all the tables again and we had another mad rush from 8:30-9:30pm. I was a hurting puppy when I finally got out of the kitchen to make table visits towards 10pm.

This is all good. Please keep it coming!

This update is a good bit late this month because of the crush of conflicting things that I have just had to do. I've had four special menus to get to clients in the last week, along with a tapas party to plan, our annual Harvest Dinner to plan, a magazine article to write, and pictures to find/take/edit for three different magazines. Look for articles to appear this fall. If this reminds you of "but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped." then we are on the same page.

I'm sad to report that it has been a spectacularly bad year for tomatoes. Many old heirlooms that we have come to love are not doing well, not ripening well or getting sun-scalded, showing stinkbug and bird damage, having large green cores, and otherwise just not producing well. The hybrid tomatoes are not ripening well either. If it weren't for the tiny varieties, we wouldn't have any tomatoes really worth eating on our menu this summer. And that kills me because I waited for 10 freaking months for tomatoes!

To compensate for that (as if there can really be compensation for lack of tomatoes), cantaloupes and blackberries are amazing this year. To celebrate them, I came up with (what I think is) a killer salad that I call Cantaloupe Carpaccio.

This is a salad of paper thin slices of cantaloupe, honey- and lime-marinated cubes of cantaloupe, blackberry coulis, blackberries, blackberry-marinated fresh mozzarella, and microgreens. The flavors are phenomenal! I count this among the very best dishes I have ever created and like most good ones, I didn't put any active thought into it. I was sitting in my chair around 3am one evening, trying to fall asleep, when the idea just appeared in my brain, seemingly out of nowhere. I sent myself a quick email to the restaurant lest I forget the idea by morning, and the rest is history.

I am generally doing paperwork in my windowless office in the far back of the restaurant most days until lunch gets started, so there are a lot of days when I have no idea what is going on out front. One day last week, I came out to the dining room just before noon to see both an empty dining room and a large truck parked in the alley outside the restaurant, obstructing the street. Looking further down the street, I saw that this was a city work crew and they had barricaded the entire street.

One Block West is in the middle of a landlocked city block on a one-way alley and there is exactly one way into the restaurant and one way out. If the way in is blocked, we have no business. I have had a running battle with the city and utility companies for years not to block the street during business hours. The utility companies are pretty easy to run off. They usually think they can pull a quickie and not file for a street closure permit with the police, so one call to the cops and they have no choice but to leave. Of course, in the hour it takes to get the cops on scene and to convince the utility company that it must leave, the damage to my business is done.

Naturally, the city is exempt from having to pull street closure permits. And equally naturally, they don't give a damn about impact on the local businesses that generate the tax revenue that allows them to operate. Imagine if I ran my business the way that the City of Winchester does. I'd be gone in weeks.

It does no good to abuse the workers: they, like most of us, are just doing what we have to do to put food on the table. But it doesn't hurt to remind them that we are in the same boat: if you can't work, you can't feed your kids; if the road is blocked at lunch, I can't feed mine. They are generally somewhat sympathetic to this approach and will at least call someone in management. And that's what happened this time. The crew that was doing the sewer work was really nice and called in a supervisor within five minutes. And I suggested a compromise in relocating the barricade that would allow them to work and cars to get by enough to get to the restaurant. The supervisor was extremely gracious and moved the barricade and this encounter went fairly positively compared to some in the past.

Just as soon as I had finished talking with the supervisor and arranging the compromise, who should walk into the restaurant for lunch but the new city manager? Poor timing! He was seated at the window table with a perfect view of the obstruction and I'm afraid he got a whole lot more than lunch as I vented my frustration his direction.

One of the key behind the scenes people at any restaurant is the dishwasher. Without a constant stream of clean dishes, no restaurant that does any volume of business could survive. Thus, the dishwasher is critical, as I have been reminded in the past couple of weeks as our normal dishwasher took his kids to the beach for a well-earned summer vacation. We are fortunate to have a really good dishwasher because working with most fill-in dishwashers sucks. The beach week was no fun: our fill-in guy thought that 90% clean is good enough. By the way, the dishwasher is a person. The dish machine is the big metal box that the dishwasher loads and unloads all night long.

And a final tidbit before I wrap up. We were one of the very first restaurants to take reservations on the Internet and so I have seen the Internet reservation trend from the beginning. In the early years, about 10% of our reservations came from the ether. We hit the 50-50 mark early in 2010. And now, nearly 75% of our long-term (tables booked more than 24 hours in advance) come in via the web. Like many restaurants, we accept requests on the web, but a person actually has to look at the request and make sure that we have room in the dining room at the requested hour. Then we contact the requester to either confirm the reservation or to negotiate a different time or date.

We ask the would-be customer whether we should confirm the reservation via phone or email and almost everyone selects email. So we send the email confirming the time and date of the reservation. And here is where it gets a little funny. Recently, we have had a bunch of people calling the restaurant to ask if we booked the request that they submitted over the web. When we say that we sent a confirmation email to them, the response has been, "Oh, I haven't looked at my email yet." Huh?

Finally, the dining room renovation, with the exception of a little painting and redecorating, is complete. Hallelujah! Come see!

Until next month, thanks for reading along!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Honey-Lime Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta with Blackberries

I have a Chef's Tasting tonight and I developed this recipe for it. I was searching for something small, light, and refreshing enough to serve at the end of a 9-course menu, not an easy feat by any stretch. It takes full advantage of the ultra-delicious blackberries that are in full swing right now.

Panna cotta, which means cooked cream in Italian, seems lighter than most custard desserts such as crème caramel or flan because it is usually made from lower fat dairy products and because it contains no eggs. It is set with gelatin. Panna cotta is really a misnomer: the cream is never cooked; it is merely heated to facilitate melting the gelatin.

Honey-Lime Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta with Blackberries

12 sheets gelatin
2 cups milk
2/3 cup honey
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
2 cups Greek yogurt
zest of two limes
16 4-ounce custard molds
blackberries, honey, and lime juice for garnish

I have to say that I love sheet gelatin and I despise powdered gelatin. Once you've seen how easy sheet gelatin is to work with, you'll never go back. I use Gelita Silver; it works every time. If you use powdered gelatin, you'll have to figure out the conversion. I think it is four sheets to the standard gelatin packet.

Cover the gelatin sheets in cold water and let them soften, about ten minutes will do. I never time it because by the time I have everything else assembled, the gelatin is ready to use.

Mix the honey and milk in a pan and warm it. It does not have to be super hot to melt the gelatin. Meanwhile, mix the cream, sour cream, yogurt, and lime zest in a bowl.

Squeeze the excess water out of the gelatin and stir into the warm milk. It should melt immediately. Let the milk cool for a few minutes.

Pour the milk-gelatin mixture into the yogurt mixture and stir well, but try to avoid introducing air bubbles to the mixture.

Spray the custard molds (I use disposable aluminum ones) with pan spray. Fill the molds and transfer to a refrigerator until set, about 4 hours should do.

To serve, run a knife around the edge of the mold and invert on a plate. If this doesn't do the trick, warm the panna cotta in a water bath for a few seconds and it should slide right out. Top with fresh blackberries mixed with honey and a squeeze of lime juice.

Monday, August 1, 2011

2011: August 1st

And here we go with the August 1st update, the next in the series of twice-monthly posts about the restaurant during 2011.

The primary topic on my mind right now is the heat. Can you believe all these wickedly hot days in July? Each time the forecast is for near 100-degree weather, the result is the same for us: empty dining room. As far as traffic in the dining room goes, we might as well have a blizzard as 100+ temps; the result is identical. Honestly, I don't blame people for wanting to hole up in the air conditioning at home when it gets this nasty out.

While dining out, most people probably never think of the effect of temperature on the restaurant kitchen. Our exhaust fans move a lot of air out of the kitchen and to keep them from totally emptying all the conditioned air out of the dining room, there is another fan blowing outside air back into the kitchen to balance the air flow. This so-called make-up air is whatever temperature it is outside.

While it is wonderful in the winter to have 20-degree make-up air coming into the kitchen, 100-degree make-up air this time of year only means that the ambient temperature in the kitchen is around 110F-120F. This is the time of year when the whole crew sits outside on the deck under the umbrellas in the 100-degree weather to cool off, as perverse as that seems. It was profoundly absurd on Friday the 22nd that we were sitting outside on the deck looking at the thermometer that read 104F and thinking that it was so much cooler outside than in the kitchen.

Currently, I'm spending a lot of time working with and evaluating social media platforms and there are so many out there that it is driving me nuts. I cannot wait for shake-out in that market. It already takes me significant hours a week to stay on top of our web site, this blog, our Facebook page, our TripAdvisor account, our Yelp account, our Urbanspoon account, and our Twitter feed. Now Google wants to play in the market? Hmmm. I'll wait a while to see what happens there. I finally took the plunge and joined Foursquare and to my surprise, we already had a significant number of check-ins by customers. Just another thing to keep an eye on, even though the interface is very clunky and to my mind, not ready for prime time.

On the 21st, we held our July wine dinner (we hold a dinner each month generally on the third Thursday) and this month the theme was garlic, by popular request. We had a great time and I really did enjoy putting together this menu. I believe I made believers out of all those who were skeptical about using garlic in dessert.

Crostini with Goat Cheese, Roasted Garlic, and Chives
Crostini with Cream Cheese and Garlic-Chive Blossom Pesto

Sopa de Ajo with Grilled Garlic Focaccia

Arugula, Garlic & Ricotta “Spanakopita” with Garlic Tzatziki

Lumaconi (Snail Shell Pasta) stuffed with Ricotta, Garlic Butter, Parsley, and Escargots

Garlic-Rubbed Pork Belly with Garlic Fried Rice, Pea Shoots, Pickled Garlic & Pork Goodness Sauce

Éclair with Espresso Black Garlic Pastry Cream, Chocolate Black Garlic
Ganache, and Salt-Roasted Sunflower Seeds

As the summer progresses along, we're finally starting to see more good things at the market and in turn on our menu. On July 26th I felt like I hit the jackpot at the market, scoring the first red peppers, bird egg beans, and dragon tongue beans of the year. The bird eggs we cooked with poblanos, onions, and bacon and they made a nice base for lamb chops. The dragon tongues, which have a deep green bean flavor, ended up bias-cut and sautéed as a side dish for various fishes.

We should have squash blooms on the menu now and should have had them for weeks, yet we do not. There is a blight that causes dramatic wilting and sudden death in curcurbits (squashes, melons, and cucumbers) called Phytophthora blight. It has struck hard at Beth and Gene's to the point where they barely have any squash. Ricottta-stuffed squash blooms are a big part of our Sunday and Monday summer dinners at our house, but we are on our fourth planting of squash this summer with no hope in sight of blooms. Phytopthora has killed every one of our plants before they could reach six inches high. But some good news: Beth sent me an email this morning saying she had picked a paltry two dozen blooms for our menu tomorrow night.

It is a tradition here at the restaurant that we only serve fresh mozzarella when we have adequate supplies of really good tomatoes. To celebrate those amazing tomatoes, we make fresh mozzarella each day at 4pm as long as the tomatoes last. I see a lot of customers skipping right over the Insalata Caprese on the menu, likely because it appears on the menus of way too many restaurants who make it out of season and without regard for the quality of ingredients. With only mozzarella, tomatoes, olive oil, and basil for ingredients, there is nowhere to hide. The ingredients must be impeccable and ours are. If you have never had mozzarella still warm from the water bath and oozing whey down your chin, you have missed out on a lot.

Speaking of memorable impeccable ingredients, those of you who frequent the restaurant know that wild mushrooms are a signature of ours; I cannot remember the last time we did not have wild mushrooms in some form on the menu. This spring, we ran morels a lot of different ways, but the one that we ultimately settled on for the duration was morels with strozzapreti pasta, pancetta, local English peas, and a splash of cream. This dish sold like crazy: some nights as much as 50% of the dishes going out were morels.

When morels ended, we rolled into chanterelles. Because of the great sales of the morel dish, I just replaced the morels with chanterelles in the same dish, except that I removed the cream and replaced it with a simple butter sauce. While cream brings out the awesome deep flavor of morels, it doesn't do anything for chanterelles, so why add it?

This new chanterelle dish bombed straight away. We were selling one or two a night, not enough to make it worth buying all those expensive chanterelles. It seems to me that while in this market, morels will move a dish, chanterelles are relatively unknown and don't help move a dish. So a few nights ago, I scrapped the pasta and reformulated the dish as sautéed chanterelles on porcini risotto and immediately it started flying again. I guess the dish needed the familiar risotto to help it sell. This is one of the benefits of changing my menu every day: I have the flexibility to reformulate dishes to help them sell or even delete them altogether or if a dish is selling really well, leave it on the menu as long as I want to.

And what's this strozzapreti I referred to earlier? It's a medium long fairly weighty pasta with an S-shaped cross section, fairly irregular in shape and size. As for the name which means "priest stranglers" in Italian, there are as many stories about its origin as there are people who make the pasta. I like it because it's a neat looking, substantial pasta with good bite. I have always been a big fan of the thicker cuts, leaving the long thin pastas and the fresh pastas to others. Plus I like to serve a cut that most Americans don't readily recognize (hence our standard lunch pasta is gemelli).

The 28th must have been interview day here at One Block West. I had three phone calls from a newspaper reporter, a food blogger, and a food magazine almost back to back. That took an unexpected hour and fifteen minutes out of my day. Still, it always pays to be nice to the media: free advertising is free advertising.

Finally, an update on the renovation. One of the two windows is through from the dining room to the bar and the final coat of drywall mud needs a light sanding before priming and painting: hopefully today or early tomorrow. Then it is on to the final window and the dining room should be complete.

Thanks for reading along and be sure to come back on the 15th to read about our upcoming Harvest Dinner on the 18th.