Thursday, September 15, 2011

2011: September 15th

It's hard to believe that there are only six posts left after this one in this year-long series of twice-monthly postings on what happened during the year 2011 at One Block West restaurant. Sitting out on the deck working on my menu in the late afternoons in the midst of a shower of golden falling leaves, I am reminded that summer is behind us now.

This summer wasn't a bad one in terms of business; up over last summer. Of course, business couldn't be much worse than it was last summer. I'm pleased to say that our month 9 (the two weeks on either side of labor day) was well up over the same month last year and was the best month 9 we have ever had. That said, month 9 is always one of the slowest of the year because of back to school, back to college, and all the last-minute vacations around Labor Day. If you've been reading along this whole series, you will remember that we use 13 4-week accounting months in our year so that we can compare the same 4-week period each year, hence month 9.

Our month 9 was up in spite of the nearly week-long rain from tropical storm Lee. For three days, our dining room was empty. But while that was bad for us, it was just awful for our winemaker friends who really don't want any significant rain during harvest season. Rain dilutes the fruit which then yields dilute wine (we'll skip the discussion on chaptalization and on saignage in this post) and promotes rot. Wineries in our area got between 3.5" and 8" of rain from Lee; no no bueno.

The slow rainy time gave the crew and me lots of time to focus on our Duck Dinner on the 10th, a private dinner arranged by a group of friends to whom we served 5 courses of duck. I love doing these dinners because duck is such a versatile red meat. It can substitute for almost any other red meat including beef or pork. These multi-course dinners force me to break the duck into parts (rather than roasting them whole) which is a very good thing. The huge muscular legs need a long slow braise to bring them to unctuousness while the breast (particularly that of the Moulard breed that we use) wants to be grilled or roasted to medium rare to bring out its almost steak-like quality. Roasting a duck whole is a sure way to undercook the legs and overcook the breast.

The menu:

Terrine de Fois Gras on Savory French Toast with Asian Pear Confit

Baby Greens with Asian Pear, Duck Cracklings, Duck Confit Threads and Duck Fat Vinaigrette

Duck Posole: Duck Leg and Hominy Stew

Cassoulet of Local Bird Egg Beans, Duck Confit, and Smoked Duck Sausage Topped with Grilled Breast of Moulard Duck, Garnished with Armagnac-Poached Prunes

Duck Egg Crème Brûlée Flavored with Lemongrass and Thai Basil

In addition, the slow time gave me time to focus on the new lunch fall lunch menu, which promises to be the first major overhaul of that menu in about three years. We're looking at launching the menu on either the 20th or the 27th. We're still sourcing ingredients, tweaking recipes, and costing the plates. Once that is complete and we have all the necessary inventory in house, we will launch the new menu. The servers have also been involved in the menu development process as much for their input and insight as for their training on the new menu. Things just work so much better when the whole crew is on the same page.

I am a huge fan of all things local and I go out of my way to source as much for the restaurant locally as I can. These past two weeks have really taken some of the wind out of my local sails, so to speak. First, a local farmer approached me about his beef. Although lots of local farmers can supply beef, what is unusual about his operation is that he has a herd big enough to supply restaurants AND he is selling cuts, not carcasses, in restaurant-sized quantities. I was super excited to be able to buy local beef where heretofore this really wasn't an option.

The first batch of short ribs came in and we braised them as we always do, to make a gravy out of the braising liquid and to serve the almost falling apart ribs over polenta. Ribs usually take about 4 hours to braise. After 5, these were still tough and even after 9 hours, they were tough and stringy to the point where I couldn't serve them. I donated them to the local rescue mission.

The conversation in which I told the farmer about his beef was difficult for both of us. Like most people, I don't like to deliver bad news and like most people, he doesn't want to hear bad news. But in an effort to help him grow, I owed it to him to lay it on the line. And I did, gently and politely. He was extremely apologetic and we are going to continue to try to make the relationship work, but damn, I wish this story had turned out so differently. I'm not sure which of us is more disappointed.

The second thing to shake my confidence in local goods was a blind tasting that we did on the 10th of Virginia Cabernet Francs, of which I have already written in a prior blog post. Bottom line: four of the seven Francs had severe technical flaws and the other three were just OK, but not OK enough for any of the tasters to want a glass to drink. Usually after these blind tastings, each taster will pour a glass of his favorite to drink. We opted for a bottle of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon instead. Sad, sad, sad.

Moreover, during this period our microgreen supplier threatened to stop bringing us product, again. He's done this once before. For small farmers, getting products to market is a real challenge and it takes commitment, not only to make the deliveries, but to continue to deliver even when things get difficult. Things are often difficult when you are just starting out in a new business and trying to grow your client base. Initially, because you are new, things go great as people try you out. But then, business dips as you find out who your loyal customers are, and you have to redouble your efforts to build from that base. Same thing happens in the restaurant business as well. Our microgreen supplier doesn't seem inclined to commit to that.

It's a shame really because he grows an excellent product and because I have no other local supplier of microgreens. It's also a shame because as his client base expands, I could be a reference account, someone other chefs could call to hear good things about his product. But now, I may have no choice except to say that while his product is unimpeachable, he is unreliable. And nobody in this business needs an unreliable supplier.

Yet another local farmer called me this week with great plans to get into the pastured poultry business and grass-fed beef business. While I wish him well, I don't have high hopes. I have heard this story all too many times in the past. Farming is a tough, tough, tough business. I shared with him that we have almost no use for chickens, no matter how good. We are a high-end fine dining restaurant and customers who cook chicken at home as their primary protein source are not about to order chicken when they come out for a special dinner.

This past week we took delivery of more rabbits from another local supplier. I was sitting out on the deck last Friday morning shelling a half a bushel of bird egg beans for the cassoulet for the Saturday night duck dinner. In the hour that I was shelling beans, one refrigerated truck after another from all the big institutional food distributors rolled by going to all the other restaurants down the alley. And then my guy rolls up in a beat old truck with a cooler in the back, full of local rabbits and chicken feet for chicken stock. The juxtaposition of fresh beans, local proteins, and a beater truck against refrigerated tractor trailers of frozen and canned goods struck me as somewhat pathetic, especially since some of these restaurants claim to be using fresh and local goods.

On Sunday the 11th, I went by the restaurant before noon to pick up a batch of mini gorgonzola cheese cakes that I am supplying to Linden Vineyards for their tasting room, with an eye towards delivering them before their first cellar tasting at noon. It was not to be. We suffered our fourth ceiling collapse from water damage from the upstairs apartments, the fourth in two years. This was only a minor collapse in that we lost 3 or 4 ceiling tiles, but the thing that irritated me is that I just spent six months renovating the dining room only to have this happen.

In total disgust, I called the landlord at home and asked to have the mess fixed. Then I walked out and fumed all the way down to Linden. Half a bottle of gorgeous Petit Verdot 2006 helped reframe my mind, but when I arrived back at the restaurant at 4pm, some of the mess had been cleared, but water was leaking faster than ever. I could see this from outside: water was flowing down the front of the building. I called the landlord's son, the one who phoned me earlier in the afternoon to say that all was well, and unfortunately I had to get pretty forceful to convince him that the problem had grown worse and that it was unacceptable to wait for the plumber on Monday. Later that evening they did get it repaired and they did get the ceiling replaced and repainted by our opening hour on Tuesday, but I am still not happy.

Finally, I got some down time yesterday to type up some of our recipes. We actually do have recipes for some things that we make frequently for the purpose of ensuring consistency from one batch to another and for training new employees. But a lot of them are hand scrawled in a tattered old folder. It felt good to get these typed up and placed into a 3-ring binder. The restaurant business does not afford a lot of time to do simple housekeeping like this, yet it has to get done.

And that is the story from OBW. I'm looking forward to our upcoming wine dinner with Barrel 27 Winery of Paso Robles, CA on the 29th and I'm sure that will feature prominently in the October 1st posting. Until then, eat and drink well.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Virginia Cabernet Franc

I had my faith in the Virginia winemaking community shaken pretty severely this past Saturday night when several of us sat down to a blind tasting of seven Virginia Cabernet Francs. The tasters reaction tells the tale: after tasting blind, not one of us wanted a glass of any of the Francs to drink. We opened a bottle of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Technical flaws abounded. One was so contaminated with Brettanomyces that it was undrinkable. Three were overripe fruit bombs with no backing acid or tannins; the grape varietal was indiscernible. One was so tannic we wondered if it was destemmed at all. Two had a nose bereft of fruit, but with hints of latex rubber.

But surprisingly, what I didn't taste was a lot of green fruit. This is a welcome change from prior tastings in which green vegetal flavors predominated. But then, 2008 and 2009 were pretty decent vintages for reds in Virginia. And hopefully we have learned that Franc's crop has got to be restricted.

I hear people state frequently that Cabernet Franc is Virginia's red grape. It is almost a mantra for some of these people. What I do know about the grape is that it is relatively easy to grow, tolerates a cooler climate, ripens early, and crops heavily. Are these people mistaking something that grows easily in Virginia for something that makes good wine?

While our samples did not include a couple of the best Cabernet Francs in the state, it did represent some well known wineries that should have made good wine. And that is scary.

After ten years of seriously tasting Virginia wines, if I had to pick a grape that could become a signature for this state, it would be Petit Verdot. But I wonder. If we can't make good Franc, why would we make good PV?

Winemakers, are you listening? I'm trying to be a cheerleader for the industry with my wine list and its focus on Virginia. But you have to give me something to work with.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Spanish Roulette—Padrón Peppers

For years, I have loved padrón peppers, originally from the town of the same name in Galicia in far northwestern Spain. I've eaten these delicious treats at a few select tapas bars over the years, but padrón peppers are still really hard to find in the US. We are lucky to have a couple of growers here in Virginia and a couple more on the east coast from whom we can source them each summer. As you can see from the photo, they are small green fairly nondescript peppers.
The reason they are so highly prized as a tapa is that when fried in a little olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt as in the photo below, they are absolutely delicious. But there's a catch. You play Spanish roulette with these peppers: most are mild as they can be while some are pleasantly spicy (but not quite as spicy as a jalapeño). I've found that the older (i.e., larger) and more drought-stressed the peppers are, the spicier they are. This batch seems to be running about 20% spicy and 80% mild.
They're worth growing at home if you can find seeds and if you ever see them on a restaurant menu, worth eating.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

2011: September 1st

Earthquakes and hurricanes, oh my! Welcome to the September first installment of my year-long twice-monthly update on the restaurant. Let me start by saying what a crazy ride the last 16 days have been! Despite my praising the restaurant gods for the strong business in the previous installment, they took revenge on us in this 15-day period, launching first an earthquake and then a hurricane at us. Read on for more details.

On the 18th, we held our annual Harvest Dinner, which we have done each year since at least 2006 to honor the hard work and excellent products of our primary produce providers, Gene and Beth Nowak of Mayfair Farm. In the early years of this dinner, I didn't tell customers that the dinner would be vegetarian, surprising some of them after the fact when I inquired whether they realized that they had eaten no meat for dinner.

In the last few years, I have advertised the event as a vegetarian dinner. Our loyal customers have come to understand that I am very creative at vegetarian menus and that they are going to have a wonderful dinner despite the lack of meat. Plus, we have a big following of vegetarian customers for whom this is their one big fancy dinner of the year. Where else in this region can you get a creative multi-course vegetarian dinner paired with great wines?

This dinner was unique for another reason as well: it may be the only dinner that I have ever done in which looking back in hindsight, I wouldn't change a single dish. My feelings about this menu are unprecedented:

Hors d’Oeuvres: Roasted Red Pepper Canapés and Grilled Vegetable Hummus Canapés

Watermelon Gazpacho with Focaccia

Cantaloupe Carpaccio: Honey- & Lime-Marinated Cantaloupe with Blackberries and Blackberry Mozzarella

Scalloped Beets with Gorgonzola and Toasted Hazelnuts

Eggplant Burrito with Queso Fresco and Salsa Fresca

Fried Peach Pie with Crystallized Ginger Cream

This has been a really tough year for vegetables, so what we had for the dinner was fairly limited, the highlights being watermelon, cantaloupe, beets, eggplants, and peaches. What we didn't have at our disposal this year was a lot: green beans, tomatoes, summer squash, potatoes, and corn. It has just been too hot and too dry for these vegetables.

This dinner really forced me to focus on delivering vegetables such as beets and eggplants that are not crowd-pleasers in a way such that they would be appealing to most diners. And it forced me to focus on using fruit in courses in which I would normally use vegetables. All in all, it was a great exercise for my creative mind and I thought each course was spectacular in its own way. And the funny thing about this menu is that I didn't sweat over it. Like all my really good menus, I just sat down and wrote it down on a piece of paper and that was it. No handwringing, no sleepless nights, just five minutes of writing out a menu and done!

I am particularly proud of the eggplant filling for the burrito; had I tasted it blind, I would have never guessed it was eggplant. To make this silky purée, I peeled and grilled eggplants to get a good char on them, then chopped them and added them to a big pan of sautéed onions, poblanos, garlic, minced cilantro stems, and cumin. After cooking for about six hours, I let the mix cool and added raw sweet corn and more chopped cilantro. The contrast of silky eggplant purée and crunchy sweet corn was phenomenal. I was likewise pleased with the other dishes: the cantaloupe carpaccio in particular may be the best salad I have ever devised.

The scarcity of many vegetables this summer is a testament to the wicked weather we had in midsummer. After the hottest July on record—remember the 104-105F temps?—how weird (and how welcome) was it to have to put on a sweater after dinner on the 22nd of August?

At about 1:45pm on Tuesday the 23rd, I was sitting at my desk catching up on a pile of paperwork delayed from the week prior because of the prep necessary for the Harvest Dinner. All of a sudden, I heard this big rumbling roar and catering platters started falling off the shelves just outside my office. Earlier in my life, I spent a lot of time in California, so I knew we were having an (a totally unexpected) earthquake. Been there, done that a bunch of times in the past, and it's really not much fun.

I started to make my way to the dining room to escort our remaining tables out of the restaurant. The floor was heaving so much that it was like trying to walk on one of the crazy carnival floors where everything is out of kilter. By the time I got to the dining room, the tremors were largely over. The only damage, some stuff to pick up and put away and a lot of frayed nerves in the dining room—it could have been a lot worse. I've seen a lot worse firsthand.

I wouldn't have thought that such a dinky earthquake would have affected our reservation book, but it did. The east coast facilities directors of a well-known retail chain were to have dinner at the restaurant on the night of the 23rd, but with the earthquake, unknown impacts from aftershocks, and the impending weekend hurricane, they decided that they should remain looking after their stores that week. Who can blame them? On top of this, we had four other tables cancel. The result: a really bad night for us. We had twice as many cancellations as customers in the dining room. And so this business goes.

On the 25th, we started being unable to process credit cards. Between scanning the last credit card of Wednesday night service and batching out (the process we go through to get paid after we add the tips to the transactions), the terminal stopped dialing out. Thursday morning, I spent 20 minutes troubleshooting the problem before I called both the telephone company and our merchant processor, the people from whom I get the terminal and its software and who authorize and process the credit cards.

I ended up spending 90 minutes on the phone with the help desk of my processor before we determined that it was either the hardware or the phone line. At 7:30am, do you know what a great feeling it is to get a live and knowledgeable human being on the phone to help with your problems? Once we determined the problem, she ordered a new terminal for me to be overnighted and set me up to process transactions via our office computer. And then, she went in and manually added all the tips to my transactions for the night before so that the servers could get paid. This is customer service and this is why it never pays to do business with fly-by-night low-cost merchant providers. This is why I will never leave my provider.

Back in the old days when the credit card terminal bit it, we had to get out the old-fashioned slider and the carbon receipts. Then when we got a replacement terminal, we would have to type in all the information from the paper copies—a serious pain in the rear. Now to be able just to process credit card transactions via a secure server over the web is fantastic. The Internet really has transformed how we do business in so many ways.

The local telephone company—the one that I pay for service—came right out the same morning and tested all the lines coming into the restaurant. All four of them had an issue that required Verizon to come out and fix. Presumably something happened on the incoming lines that fried the modem in our credit card terminal. In stark contrast to the responsiveness of the local telephone company, Verizon said that it will be up to a week before they could look at the problem. That is BS, but in point of fact, they did come out two days later and claim that nothing was wrong. After installing the new credit card terminal, we are still having problems as I write. I have escalated to Verizon management. I dislike Verizon intensely and will never willingly pay them for anything.

And now for a completely different subject. We don't sell beer at OBW: for every beer we sell, we sell hundreds and hundreds of dollars of wine. We have nothing against beer; we really like beer and we have always stocked microbrews by Troëgs because they are consistently tasty and made just up I-81 in Harrisburg, PA. But with 70-plus wines by the glass, our focus is intentionally on wine and on showcasing local Virginia wines.

In addition to the micros, we have always had one of the BudMiller light beers in the cooler too, just for the odd request, but mostly to make beer batter. The big beer distributors have always had a problem with us; we don't sell enough beer to be worth their while.

The original Miller distributor in town was great and we had no problems getting Lite. Then they sold out to a big northern Virginia distributor that made it clear that they didn't want to do business with us, so we left for the local Budweiser distributor who was super accommodating with us. This past year, they too sold out to a big distributor who just couldn't seem to service our account. They missed delivery dates and kept trying to deliver in the middle of dinner when I wasn't free to just run to the office to cut a check. It was all too easy to see how valuable a customer we were to them. I use the past tense because I just pulled the plug on them and all American light category beers.

As one of the cooks said, if we don't stock them, maybe customers will try a beer that actually has flavor. As I say, if we don't stock white zinfandel, why should we stock light American beer? So, now we are searching for another beer to add to our mix. Change is constant in the restaurant business.

Speaking of change, we just switched to new coffee cups. And the change was not nearly as simple as you would imagine: buy new cups, wash them, put them in use. These new cups are significantly larger than the old ones which proved to be too fragile and too expensive to replace. Our former coffee cups did double duty as soup cups for lunch, but the new cups are as large as our old soup bowls. So we had to rethink our lunch soup strategy and then our coffee pricing. These cups were causing our cream usage to go way up and as you know, cream is really expensive. So we had to bump our coffee prices just a bit. The new saucers are offset so that the cup sits off to one side affording us the room to put a small biscotto on the plate with the cup of coffee at least as some compensation for having to raise prices. And then, the new cups wouldn't fit where the old ones did, so we had to find a new place to store them. And finally, we had to reprint the lunch menus with the soup revisions. So many consequences from one simple change!

Speaking of storing things, years ago I thought that a fine dining restaurant should try to be all things to all people, and so I bought all five common kinds of sweetener for our table tops: white, brown, yellow, blue, and pink. And I have seen over the years that we have reordered white, brown, and yellow, but never blue or pink. Accordingly I have let the blue run out and the pink is on its way out. We get the odd complaint that we don't have the blue sweetener, but it's rare. Removing these two items from inventory frees up the space for two cases in dry storage. And this amount of space is a precious commodity that I can surely use for other things.

On Saturday the 27th, I did a tomato and garlic demonstration at the Tomato and Garlic TasteFest at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Despite the cloudy breezy conditions, there were a good 150-200 spectators for my demo and everyone seemed pretty good natured about huddling under the tent as it rained, fallout from Hurricane Irene. Everything was so much better organized this year and I even had a microphone this year which made life so much better for me and the audience.

I made fresh mozzarella and an insalata caprese from that, the pasta/fish sauce that I call Ed's (caramelized garlic, tomatoes, artichokes, capers, and basil), and my new favorite appetizer, the PLT, a pork belly, lettuce, and tomato sandwich on focaccia. I have noticed that people in this area are really scared of pork belly, thinking that it is tripe or intestines or other offal rather than the uncured side meat (bacon) that it really is. A couple of whiffs of the frying pork belly and a small taste later and I converted dozens of people to the pork belly legion! The dining room was full of people at lunch that day asking for pork belly sandwiches—not on the menu anywhere—and we were happy to comply. Pork belly is surely a gift from the food gods.

And this nice lunch crowd was our bright spot of the weekend as Hurricane Irene plowed up the coast. No matter that all we got was a little breeze and barely any rain, the damage was done. Each time a hurricane is forecast anywhere in our vicinity, the weather people might as well forecast a blizzard for the impact is the same: no business as people panic and scurry to the store for emergency supplies and glue themselves to the television watching the weather just like the rubberneckers at a traffic accident.

We were fortunate to lose only two nights of business. The last hurricane that came through we lost a full week and my heart goes out to those folks down on the coast who have lost a whole lot more than me. Some even lost their entire businesses. So sad; I know how hard they have worked.

Finally, as a per[qk] for our customers, we hold a random drawing randomly to select customers to attend a Mystery Basket dinner at my house. Each guest brings three ingredients. When all are assembled, we have a grand unveiling of the ingredients and we start to cooking, making a menu from all the ingredients. This past Sunday was the latest such dinner and we all had a blast. It's kind of like the Food Network show Chopped, but I've been doing it for more than a decade, long before anyone every dreamed up Chopped.

And, that's about it for this edition. Stay tuned for the 15th when I will have more information about our forthcoming dinner on the 29th with Barrel 27 Winery of Paso Robles, CA.