Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011: October 1st

After walking the dogs in the gusty rainy cold this morning and driving to work, my hands are cold all the way down in the knuckle joints. It's pretty toasty back here in my office right next to the ice maker which is roaring and putting out lots and lots of hot air. I'll warm up soon enough, but the chill, my days which have been starting in the dark for a few weeks now, and the first blush of orange color on the maple trees remind me that fall is really, truly here. There is no denying now that October is upon us.

Hi everyone and welcome to the October first posting from One Block West Restaurant, a twice-monthly update on what is happening at the restaurant in 2011. The entire series can be found here. I feel like the world has speeded up in the past few weeks; it seems only yesterday that I just posted and here I am doing it all over again. This is what happens when business picks up: things become a blur here with one day blending right into the next.

Just after I published the September 15th posting, I found out through the grapevine that our local Taste of the Town had been held. Not only were we not in attendance, we didn't get invited. I'm not really upset by this: we had a nice calm evening here at the restaurant instead of having to prep a lot of food and schlep our stuff out somewhere under less than ideal circumstances. But it makes me wonder what kind of event it really was when the top-ranked restaurant in the area wasn't invited. My customers seemed unaware that the event was held as well. General lack of planning I'd say.

On Tuesday the 20th, we launched our brand new fall lunch menu, a menu that has changed fairly drastically. The middle of September turned unusually chilly and that drove us to launch the new menu with its emphasis on comfort foods earlier than we had planned. The entire process took about a month, which is really quick considering all the pieces that go into changing a menu.

We started from the old menu, ruthlessly striking out any dish that didn't sell well enough. That saw the demise of some great dishes; but how great is a dish if nobody buys it? After this, we started looking at ingredients and when we found an ingredient that was used only for a single dish or one that was going bad before we could use it all, we either reformulated the dish or struck it off the menu.

Then with the help of our customers on Facebook, we brainstormed a bunch of new dishes. Then we took a hard look at each of those dishes to see if they were feasible to make with the equipment in our kitchen and to see how many new ingredients the dish would require us to have on hand. Dishes that cause us to bring on new ingredients don't often make the menu: we have very limited space on our line to store them.

We spent a day or two developing and testing recipes. For example, although we might wing a batch of roasted red pepper bisque the first time, we want it to taste the same way for each subsequent batch. So we record the ingredients and the process that we use in our recipe binder and then we tweak that recipe until we are happy.

And I spent considerable time sourcing new ingredients. For example, the grilled cheese sandwich to accompany the roasted red pepper bisque required a new cheese. Although we have something on the order of 20 cheeses in house at any given time to support our menu and our cheese plates, we didn't have a melting cheese suitable for grilled cheese for the simple reason that most melting cheeses are generally not distinctive table cheeses worthy of a cheese plate. I said most. You would not kick the melting cheese that I found off your cheese plate; you'd probably ask for more.

My task in sourcing the cheese was daunting. From among the thousands of cheeses my suppliers have on offer, I had to find one that is distinctive and delicious in flavor, that melts well, that comes in sizes we can handle (10 pounds or under), whose name is pronounceable by most Americans, whose name would help sell the sandwich and help underscore its uniqueness, and finally, that is economical enough to put on the menu at a price that is attractive to our diners.

After sorting through hundreds of cheeses, kicking out the blues, the goats, and the real stinkers, I came down to a very short list. And sight unseen, I felt like I hit a home run with the cheese I had ranked as most likely to work, Valfino from Roth Käse of Wisconsin. It has a beautiful golden paste like a great alpine cheese, nice beefy aroma from the washed rind, buttery flavor, first place award from the American Cheese Society, affordable, great name, and melts so well. But customers would judge. And they did. I never had a chance to ask about the cheese when doing table visits; customers were gushing about how good the cheese was before I could ask. Home runs don't happen often but they're a beautiful thing when they do.

The cast of the new lunch menu definitely takes its cue from the season. Butternut squash, pumpkin, wild mushrooms permeate the list. And the food forms are comforting: grilled cheese, bisque, risotto, ravioli. The dinner menu changes every night, so the seasonal transitions are gradual. Butternut squash appears at the farmers market and so it goes on the dinner menu. My seafood broker calls to tell me softshells are in each April, and so they go on the menu.

By contrast, the lunch menu changes only a few times a year. And so in cooking the same lunch menu for weeks at a time, we build up this great yearning sense of anticipation for the seasonal changes and when they happen, sometimes they happen in a drastic fashion, almost cathartically. And so it did this time. The fall lunch menu bears scant resemblance to its predecessor. Our yearning for fall foods is sated now, but given that the cycle is both natural and inexorable, we'll soon start jonesing for fresh asparagus, shad roe, and baby lettuces, all things that spring brings to the table. This constant anticipation is what keeps this grueling business fresh for me—there's always something new around the corner and I can't wait to see what it is, get my hands on it, and cook it!

One seasonal change that I dislike is that once the weather cools off, seafood sales stop almost dead in their tracks. We sold 50% less seafood in September than in August and last night, Friday night September 30th, the typical Fish-on-Friday night, we couldn't give seafood away. In accordance, I buy less highly perishable fish this time of year and I really cut back on the number of fish offerings on the menu. There is no sense in trying to sell something that customers do not want. Yet, there are still a few customers who love seafood and know that it is one of the areas in which our kitchen excels, a few who still order it. But this time of year every year, I have to listen to some smartie in the dining room say stupid stuff such as "Why don't you have a good selection of fish? What's the matter? Are you going out of business?" Yes, people often say things in public at a restaurant that they wouldn't say to their friends. Why is that?

And now to the more mundane. In the past two weeks, contractors have performed two semi-annual preventative maintenance chores for us. First our hood cleaning company came in and pressure washed the hood, the grease baffles, and the ductwork from the fan on the roof all the way down to the kitchen. It is vital to remove greasy residue before it becomes a fire hazard. And just after this, our fire suppression vendor came in and performed preventative maintenance on the fire suppression system mounted in the hood above all of our cooking equipment. This was our semi-annual checkup to make sure that if we should have a fire, that the suppression system would activate and spray down the equipment with a smothering blanket of foam.

I started repainting the bar in a continuation of renovating the restaurant, but business has really picked up and that is slowing me down. I can only really do work between lunch and dinner, but if we are busy enough that I have to be in the kitchen helping the line cooks to prep, painting doesn't get done. It's good to be busy and no complaints on that front, but it will be equally good to get the bar back in service.

Here's a question for you. Our online reservation form asks if the customer wants us to confirm the reservation via telephone or via email. If a customer specifies email, we email a confirmation to him. So why then does he turn around and call us to find out if we have booked his table before bothering to read his email? Just asking. I understand if you miss the confirmation because it got hijacked by your spam filter, but if you don't even look for the confirmation, I don't get that at all.

In the past two weeks, I've been sitting out on the deck while doing my menu planning, taking advantage of the cooler weather. It's high migration season for both Monarch butterflies and Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and we've had no shortage of either. The Monarchs are attracted to sweet perfume of our fall-blooming native clematis (Clematis virginiana) which covers the back wall of the deck and some of the front screen behind the roses. At one point, I was counting Monarchs by the tens as they touched down on the clematis vines on their way south. The hummingbirds seem very attracted to the lantanas in the window boxes and to some of the verbenas, all of which are in full bloom now. I'm seeing multiple hummingbirds every day now and have since late August. In fact, we're seeing so many of the little creatures that we have delayed ripping out the lantanas and replacing them with pansies, so as not to remove what appears to be a welcome food source.

On Friday the 23rd, the fluorescent light in my windowless office went kaput. Ever try to type menus in the dark or otherwise run a business in the dark? Naturally, it had to happen at the busiest time of week when I just didn't have time to worry about it. And equally naturally, it couldn't have been something simple such as a bogus switch or a bad tube, both of which I have replacements for. And even more naturally, I had just taken all my electrical tools and parts back home after using them in the renovation of the dining room. It just had to be a bad ballast, which takes more time (especially in the dark) to replace.

Being the good Boy Scout, I have a couple spare ballasts in stock for emergencies. But no, the spare ballasts were too big to fit in the existing fixture. So early on Sunday on my one day off a week I had to go to Home Depot to get a new ballast. Surprise! The Department of Energy has banned T12 (inch and a half tube diameter) ballasts. Awesome! I had to buy a new T8 (one inch tube diameter) fixture and all new tubes. Now I have to stock two different tube sizes. Thank you DOE! It's not such a horrible thing; I'm just grumbling. T8s are much more energy efficient than T12s and that's a good thing, though payback is about 6 years out. In the course of remodeling the dining room, I did switch out the incandescent bulbs for CFLs which have an equally long if not longer recapture period. In any case, we are trying to be as green as we can be. Still, hanging and wiring a light fixture in the dark is a pain in the rear!

Tuesday the 27th was pure bedlam. Two of our servers were on vacation, one in Florida and the other at Myrtle Beach, taking advantage of a long Sunday to Wednesday break. Naturally I should have anticipated being down two people that we would be slammed. And we were. Out of nowhere, Tuesday night was busier than the preceeding busy Friday. And we were seriously understaffed. But we got the job done and most customers were extremely understanding of our plight. Still, there was one table that got its nose out of joint, but not a thing we could do about that except apologize.

A good bit of the last two weeks has been consumed with a political issue. The Winchester City Council is considering a proposal to raise the meals tax from 5% to 7%, for a total of 12% tax added to your restaurant bill when combined with the 5% state sales tax. The 2% increase would theoretically be earmarked for the school system as an additional source of funding. Naturally, the local restaurateurs (and a lot of other people in the city) are up in arms about increasing taxes, especially one that we feel is unfairly punitive to our business segment, but mostly because we feel we're being taxed enough as it is.

As a small businessman, I dislike this revenue generation tactic intensely. I have a budget and I have a revenue stream and I constantly have to adjust my expenses to meet not only the budget, but the actual revenue. So it really pisses me off that the School Board does not have to do the same thing. They will couch it in sweet sounding sound bites about it being in the best interest of our children, but I call bullshit. School Board, City Council, act like you're running a real business and quit taxing us to solve your lack of resolve and willpower to make hard decisions.

And finally, we capped off a successful two-week period with our September wine dinner on the 29th, a dinner featuring the wines of Paso Robles Rhône Ranger Barrel 27 winery. I generally select more subtle wines for wine dinners, but it was really a lot of fun for a change to create some big, big food to compete with big, big wines. For those of you who care, here's the menu:

Honeydew Soup with Thai Basil and Black Pepper; Prosciutto-Wrapped Grissino
Honeydew Gelée on Cucumber with Honey-Lime Greek Yogurt and Crispy Prosciutto
Grilled and Marinated Honeydew Wrapped in Prosciutto
2009 High on the Hog White (Grenache Blanc and Viognier)

Wild Boar Terrine with Pancetta and Pistachios
Cornichon; Honey Mustard
2007 Right Hand Man Syrah

Bison Short Ribs
Porcini Risotto; Bison Gravy
2007 Bull by the Horns (Petit Verdot, Syrah, Tempranillo)

Steuben Yellow Eye Bean Cassoulet with House-Cured Pork Confit and Saucisse de Toulouse
Crispy House-Cured Pork Belly
2007 Head Honcho Syrah

Chocolate Fig Clafoutis
Nutella Powder
2008 Hand over Fist (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre)

And now that October is here, our silly season has officially begun. The next several weekends will be loco with all the tourists coming out to enjoy the fall weather, the gorgeous scenery of this beautiful valley that we call home, and the hopefully spectacular leaves. Please come and join the party, but remember, for the next month, weekend reservations are essential.


  1. Wowza, another amazing, world-revealing post.

    Regarding why people call rather than check their email to confirm reservations---it's all about smart phones. Especially while waiting in line or doing something attention-intensive like driving, it's easier to hands-free call than type away to check email.

  2. If you can't simply one-click "E-mail" to check your emails on your smart phone while waiting in line, you need a better smart phone...or a better service.