Thursday, October 27, 2011

2011: October 15th

Welcome to the October 15th edition of my twice-monthly series on One Block West Restaurant during 2011. This is the 20th posting of the 24-part series. I have to admit that I am sitting here writing this long after the 15th of October based on notes I kept over the past couple of weeks. I apologize for not getting this out in timely fashion, but we have been at the peak of our crazy fall leaf-peeping season and there have barely been enough hours in the day to get prepped for dinner service. There surely have not been spare hours to write and I have been running on the verge of exhaustion for weeks.

During this season, we're like bears gorging on all the food we can find to put on fat to carry us through the lean months. Because of Thanksgiving, November is a lean month and soon enough, we'll be staring at each other wishing we had something to do other than scrub the kitchen. December will bring a burst of holiday parties (we hope; the past few years have seen companies flee from having parties). Then come January, February, and March—the starving time for us and many restaurants. But enough looking forward to the dreaded months and on with the tale of the bounty of October.

While there is a big Catholic church here, Winchester has never struck me as being a big Catholic town. Still, we can almost always count on fish being the big seller on Friday nights with meat and grilled items dominating sales on Saturday night. So I was pretty perplexed to start off this two-week period with an all-meat Friday night followed by an all-seafood Saturday night.

For me, selling all the meat purchased for Saturday night on Friday night is scary for two reasons. If Saturday is a typical meat night, there won't be enough meat to satisfy customers. And if Friday's fish doesn't sell on Saturday, the fish is not going to hold until we reopen on Tuesday. No worries this time. Saturday, October 1st saw nothing but seafood sales. Whew!

The week leading up to and the weekend of the 8th is a blur. This is not unusual because generally during October we are running at almost double our normal volume. But what is unusual is that the 8th saw us host two birthday parties simultaneously, while the rest of the house was packed. I have got to say that the evening of the 8th went extremely smoothly—both our front and back of the house teams are very professional and handled it well.

During the week leading up to the 8th, my partner Ann's birthday, we put a lot of work into designing and executing the menu for her birthday party. This year our instructions were "Around the World in 8 Courses," sparkling wine first course, red wine for the remaining courses, savory dessert course, and all courses to be comfort food. And she gave us a list of the eight countries. I've been cooking a long, long time now and have cooked a lot of food from all over the world, so this wasn't the challenge that it might seem. The hardest part was nailing down which country would have the starter course paired with sparkling wine and which would have the savory dessert course paired with Port. After that, the menu was straightforward.

The day before the dinner, I knew Ann would be stopping by after lunch when the guys and I would be sitting down to walk through our prep lists. And knowing that she had been asking (in vain, I might add) about the menu for days, I put together a totally bogus menu complete with prep notes on the side of it. Just for grins, I included baklava as the dessert course because I know she hates sticky sweet desserts. And that fake menu might have happened to have been nonchalantly placed on the table where she might view it. And Nosy Nelly that she is, she asked if she could look at it. It was funny to watch the contortions on her face especially as she got to the baklava course. She was getting torqued just reading the menu! Ann, honey, don't ever play poker! You have more tells than Carter's has liver pills.

I hear that she was pleasantly shocked to see the following menu upon the table when she arrived:

USA: Lobster and Truffle Macaroni and Cheese; Lobster Jus
Thailand: Roasted Duck Noodle “Soup”
Argentina: Arroz con Pollo Argentine Style
Spain: Piquillo Stuffed with Patatas Bravas-Chorizo Mash
Morocco: Lamb Kefta Briouat; Chizu
Italy: Gnocchi con Sugo di Cinghiale
France: Yellow-Eye Bean Cassoulet with House-Cured Duck Confit
Greece: Lemon-Pistachio Halvas Cake; Fresh Figs; Candied Walnuts; Port Reduction

And on top of this 8-course dinner, my friend Dennis had a party for his 30th birthday for about 25 of his family and friends. Saturday the 8th was memorable for being the day that I spent 17 hours working in the restaurant kitchen. Long days I am used to, but 17-hour ones are few and far between. Those extra couple of hours mean the difference between highly fatigued and absolutely crushed. Kids, if you think that a 10- or even 12-hour day is long, don't ever think about getting into the restaurant business. Those are short days for us.

I couldn't even rest the next day because I had to do my annual cooking demonstration at Arborfest at Blandy Farm, the State Arboretum of Virginia, just east of Winchester. Although my demonstration was only an hour, it took nearly six hours out of my day, my only day off a week, to plan, pack, travel, set up, demo, tear down, travel, unpack, and get home. This is not a fair trade-off for demoing in front of a dozen people. Last year there were upwards of 100. This year, a dozen. Not worth my time doesn't even begin to describe my feelings at giving up a precious day off. What Ann had to say about it cannot be printed.

I did get some down time on Monday the 10th, however. Although Monday is my day at the restaurant to get stuff done (accounting, repairs, busy work, etc.) without the intrusion of customers and the phone ringing off the hook, I decided to take this Monday off to go have a mini family reunion at my aunt's out in Wild Wonderful. Lunch was fantastic: fried chicken livers, turnips, collards, spoonbread, and so forth! I haven't had a mess of fried chicken livers in decades. They were so awesome! I kept snagging them as my aunt Susan would pull them out of the frying pan. Props to her! Are you intimidated at the thought of inviting a chef to dinner? Don't be. We eat anything and everything and are ecstatic that we didn't have to cook it!

Despite the rest on Monday, all the paperwork that didn't get done came back to haunt me during the week as we were jamming towards the Balloon Festival weekend, traditionally our biggest weekend of the year. Each year, the Balloon Festival at Long Branch, just east of town, draws thousands of people to the Valley and as one of the top restaurants in the Valley, we get inundated with customers. As luck would have it, our front of house manager took this weekend off to be best man in a wedding, so we were down a really good person for the weekend.

Leading into the big Balloon Festival weekend, Thursday the 13th was another day from hell in the restaurant business. Days from hell come along every so often and when they do, they're memorable. It started innocently enough, with Travis and me chatting in my office in the early morning about the night's menu. As we were discussing what to do with the bucket full of butternut squash bells (the seed cavities), we both heard water coming from upstairs and not a little water either, a veritable flood.

A hot water supply line to one of the upstairs sinks burst and the water had nowhere to go but down, through the freshly painted ceiling in the bar. The landlord's lackeys got the water turned off and we got the bar cleaned up and some of the damaged ceiling tiles removed, but we were without water for 90 minutes while we were trying to prep for lunch. Ever tried to cook without water?

In the midst of cleaning up the mess, we received a delivery from our specialty goods supplier. This delivery didn't help my mood one iota. In fairness, my sales rep emailed me the night before to let me know that we would be short a pasta because of issues with the manufacturer. And he called me first thing to say that a cheese I needed for my cheese plates was going to be short. And then the driver arrived with the cheese for our grilled cheese sandwiches—totally rotten, squishing around inside a plastic bag, a molten, disgusting, black and green mess. I just about went ballistic at that point. This supplier has always done right by me over a decade of doing business and I know that this trifecta was an anomaly, but still, I was left scrambling and I don't like it. I know we will take heat from some customers because of this. This just goes to show how dependent restaurants are on their supply chains.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the lunch server showed up and it wasn't the one that was scheduled. The normally scheduled server's boyfriend died suddenly during the night and we were all left coping with that. To top off the staffing issues, our dishwasher did not show up and we got slammed for lunch. Dirty dishes were piled everywhere, limiting the space that we needed for prepping what was looking like a busy dinner service. I finally got a fill-in dishwasher, but he didn't arrive until 6pm, an hour after dinner service started. The cooks and I were washing dishes when we should have been prepping for dinner.

Something ridiculous happened during lunch. We had a big party that I believe might have been a bridesmaid's luncheon. One of the mothers ordered a Greek salad and it was duly delivered to the table. When I got a break between tickets, I went to the table to see how they were doing. I hadn't even opened my mouth when this woman stood up and started shaking her finger at me and screaming, "These olives have pits! I sell food for a living and you should buy pitted black olives, not these things!" I was just in the mood to tell her to fuck off, but thankfully I mastered myself and went back to the kitchen in silent anger.

I really do want to know what company this rude woman sells for, if only to make sure that I never buy a thing from them. Seriously, if you sell food for a living and you don't have the tact to address issues in private, I hope you're getting a good draw because your commissions can't be very good. Oh and one other thing, lady [the first draft had a slightly longer word here], for your horiatiki in Greece, they rarely pit the olives for you either. Get over yourself.

The tale of this day is like a late night Ronco commercial: "But wait, there's more!" We supply gorgonzola cheesecakes to Linden Vineyards to pair with their dessert wines for their special cellar tastings. I had been expecting them to reorder for several days and when I hadn't heard from them, I started making a batch of batter that morning just to stay ahead of the curve. Sure enough, no sooner than I put the first batch of cheesecakes in the oven, they called asking when they were going to get cheesecakes. Miscommunication of the first order and probably my fault! They booked a reservation for dinner so that they could pick up cheesecakes afterwards in preparation for a busy weekend at the winery. No pressure! I baked cheesecakes all afternoon and through dinner service and managed to send them home with a credible supply. You try getting slammed for dinner service and baking batch after batch of time-critical cakes at the same time!

Dinner was slammed from the moment we opened the doors. The phone rang all day with people trying to get in. Everyone decided that Thursday the 13th was the day that they needed to eat with us. We had to schedule our reservation book very carefully because we were down a server (the one whose boyfriend died) and because we had a big party coming in at 7:00. It's a careful dance to get big parties seated and get their orders into the kitchen without affecting the flow of the entire restaurant.

Around 6:00 this party called saying that they were going to be 30 minutes late and asked if it was OK. At the last minute with no ability to rebook their tables, what are we supposed to answer? "No, you can't come because you are going to screw up everything for everyone." A table that represents 20% of my dining room is like the 500-lb gorilla; it can come in any time it wants to and there is not a damned thing I can do about it except grin and bear it and know that it is going to f-up everything for everyone.

This big table took me to task the next day via email for a variety of service faults and issues with the food. While some of the issues I will stand up and take the heat for, a lot of the blame rests with the big party for showing up 30 minutes late. You can't explain to a customer that it really is his fault; you just have to man up and take it and know that under the circumstances, no other restaurant could or would have handled it any better. This business takes broad shoulders and a flame-retardant suit. A cape and superhero powers don't hurt either.

Happy, happy, happy was I to climb in bed and put this day behind me. And exhausted was I the next day as we prepped non-stop all day to get ready for dinner service. My body is used to two big nights a week, Friday and Saturday, and yet, we had already had two huge nights, Tuesday and Thursday. We get through our weekends largely on the adrenaline rush of being slammed. When you are already dog-tired, there is nothing so painful as dealing with 8-10 hours of prep work with no adrenaline rush.

In the last month, we have seen something very unusual for Winchester. We have been slammed with walk-ins after 8pm on Fridays. This has historically been a town that stops dining around 8pm and to have a big rush between 8 and 10pm makes us feel like we are in a big city. This is nothing for DC or NYC, but I assure you that after almost 10 years in this location, it is quite unprecedented for this area. I sure hope the trend continues.

Finally, I'll wrap this up on a humorous note. We got a call asking to book a table and we booked it. And then the customer started asking for directions, whereupon it became clear to both parties that the caller was trying mistakenly to book a table at a restaurant in Winchester, Hampshire, southwest of London. This has happened several times before with customers booking over the Internet, but never via telephone. I haven't a clue how you dial internationally using the access code for the US and not realize that you are not dialing England. No clue at all.

Thanks for reading along and stay tuned for next month's edition when we recount the highlights of leaf peeping season. Saturday the 22nd was a doozy. Until then, eat and drink well.

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.