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.

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