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.

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