November has historically been a very slow month at the restaurant as people gear down from leaf-peeping season and gear up for the holiday season. This year, November has struck with a vengeance, I am sorry to say. Business had been cranking like crazy for months and over one weekend, it just stopped cold. Ouch!
Welcome to the November 15th posting about a year in the life of One Block West Restaurant. You can find the entire series here. We expect that November will be slow, but not as slow as it has been in the last two weeks. First, we had the unexpected snow over the last weekend of October that put a damper on visits from out-of-town guests, our bread-and-butter clients. Second, the time change from daylight to standard time played a big role.
Why the time change plays a big role is not clear; it just is. It's probably something psychological: when you come home in the dark after work and you get warm and comfortable at home, it is a pretty big step to go back out in the dark and cold for dinner. After a couple of weeks of this, people will get used to it and start coming back out, especially when they get tired of dining at home. But in a couple of weeks, it will be Thanksgiving and that presents its own set of problems for us at the restaurant.
The weeks before and after Thanksgiving are dead. People are worrying about what they will serve for Thanksgiving or worrying about their waistlines in advance of the big feast day. After Thanksgiving, people are too sated to want to go out or are worried about their waistlines post big feast day. In all, November is a bummer of a month in the restaurant business, at least in this part of the world where November is also synonymous with long stretches of cloudy rainy days.
November also sees a ton of cash flowing out to deal with the yearly renewals and taxes: business and worker's comp insurance, restaurant permit from the Health Department, ABC license, business license, and personal property tax. The negative cash flow in November is almost enough to make a restaurant owner sick to the stomach.
But the slowdown in business has some upside in that we can get things down that we have been putting off all fall. Now that it has been slow enough to get more work done on the restaurant, the renovation has really gained momentum. The bar is back in service after several months of having been a temporary storage room for the construction equipment. It is now entirely painted except the floor, which will happen just as soon as the concrete patches cure fully. And it is redecorated with a new sitting area. Besides the floor paint, all that is wanting is the new bar stools which should ship the week before Christmas, if the manufacturer stays on schedule.
In addition, the bare walls in the dining room and bar are bare no longer. I hung a bunch of metalwork sculptures on the walls on Sunday the 13th and Monday the 14th. These are a night-and-day departure from the prints and paintings we had on the wall previously. They are very modern and a bit edgy and I think they set a great tone for the food that customers will eat: the dining room is comfortable, but with a slight edge, just like my food. I am very pleased with the result and customers are loving it as well. Gone, gone, gone is the very old, heavy dining room with its scarlet walls and heavy drapes and old lady feel. Good riddance!
I need to give a big shout-out to my love Ann for all her help and hand-holding and guidance through the redecorating process. She has a wonderful eye, not only for furnishings, but especially for color schemes. If you need help, let me know; she is quite the interior decorator and will be happy to consult with you.
The extra free time is also letting me work through revising the wine list. Each week, it is a constant struggle to stay on top of our inventory, comparing wines on the shelf against invoices and the three wine lists to make sure that everything stays in sync and to catch any vintage or price changes. In recent weeks, we have run through a lot of wines that must come off the list, in particular rosés and 2010 whites. Both will come back in the spring as new vintages, but for the time being, there is no more 2010 to be had.
In addition, I am taking advantage of holiday price reductions to beef up parts of our list, creating a bit more work for myself. And I am taking a hard look a Willamette Pinots right now. 2010 saw a short crop because of spring frosts and birds at harvest and this coupled with a ton of other problems mean that I am going to have to be highly selective in my purchases to find good wine at affordable prices. And 2011 by most accounts is going to be about as crappy as our 2011 in Virginia. That said, I am buying heavily on 2009s with an eye to perhaps skipping 2010 or 2011. 2009 is one of those good value years simply because those-who-rate-wines have declared it a mediocre vintage, holding prices down. Great winemakers made great wines in 2009 and I am buying them at reasonable prices.
All this is by way of saying that managing a wine program like ours is pretty much a full time job. How I wish I could afford a sommelier to manage the program for me!
And now for something completely different. We have a problem table, but then, so do most restaurants. Our story is—I am certain—no different than that of many restaurants: there is a particular group of customers who come here to have a miserable time and then complain to anyone who will listen about how bad things are. Each time they come in, they have horrible things to say about the décor, the food, the prices, and most particularly, the service. They amuse themselves by running the servers ragged fetching this and that for them. It's a control game: they obviously have some issues in their lives that cause them to treat the servers like serfs. And on top of it all, they tip horribly, always well shy of 10%.
To make things worse, they post bad reviews of the restaurant on various electronic forums. They come to mind because they have been in twice in recent weeks. Our problem is that we have to deal with them, their grumblings, and their vile postings to the world about how bad things are here. Their problem is that they have run out of servers to abuse: they are known to all our servers by sight now and if they think that they had bad service before.... If you are a server and you have a table of perpetual malcontents who don't tip, where would that table be on your priority list? You want another loaf of bread? Yeah, good luck with that.
We have a Chef-for-a-Day program here at the restaurant that is a very popular Christmas gift for our customers. We sell a certificate that allows a guest to come work with us in our kitchen for a day and learn tricks of the trade, to see behind the scenes, and to hang with us during service. We have had several guest chefs in in recent weeks because most of these certificates expire at the end of the year. It's a lot of fun for our guests and we enjoy showing them some of what happens behind the scenes and working with them on various skills and techniques. Note, I said "some" of what happens behind the scenes. What really happens behind the scenes is only on a need-to-know basis!
In the past couple of weeks, we have done several Chef's Tastings including a memorable one on the 10th. Customers who want a unique dining experience often engage us to create a custom tasting menu just for them. These menus are typically seven to nine courses and feature dishes that do not appear on the nightly menu. We enjoy the creative aspect of these dinners, but they are an awful lot of work simply because nearly everything on the menu has to be prepared from scratch.
The customers on the 10th asked me to do a 7-course Indian dinner, which is highly unusual. Why not just go to an Indian restaurant for an Indian dinner? Because they wanted my take on fusing Indian technique and spices with our local products. It proved to be a great teaching exercise for the crew; none of them have ever done any Indian food before. Me, I've been cooking Indian food at home for 20+ years so I know my way around the basics of the cuisine, but still it was a great creative exercise and in the end, I really liked four of the courses enough to want to remember them.
Of these, the crew and guest favorite was called Tandoori Chicken Pizza. I made and grilled naan and smeared them with a sweet ginger pickle that took me about 6 hours to cook down. I made a big batch of tandoori paste and marinated chicken breasts in this, then roasted them. The ginger pickle was topped with sliced chicken, masala-scented spinach, and a drizzle of raita. Then into the oven and voilà: awesome Indian fusion food.
The next dish that I really liked was what I called “Baigan Bharta.” Baigan bharta is a long-cooked eggplant curry. I was able to find several tiny eggplants—the last of the year—at the farmers market and just barely roasted them so that we could scoop them out, stuff them with the baigan bharta, and re-bake them in the style of twice-baked potatoes.
I really enjoyed doing my take on lamb vindaloo, for which I made a classic vinegary vindaloo paste that I mixed with some yogurt to tame the spice, which could have overpowered the accompanying wine. I boned out a saddle of lamb and rubbed each of the loins with a masala that I made specifically for the lamb. At service, I grilled the loins to rare, let them rest, sliced them, and then tossed them in a bit of vindaloo sauce and served them in a puff pastry napoleon. As elegant and beautiful as this dish was, it managed to combine the flavor of the classic vindaloo with the succulent quality of perfectly cooked lamb, definitely the best lamb vindaloo I have ever eaten.
The final dish that struck me as worth remembering was the final course of the dinner, the dessert course. I made a quasi-traditional carrot halwa of grated baby carrots and coconut milk and cooked it down so that I could pack it into molds. Then we made a big batch of chai from black tea and spices, heavy on the black pepper, and turned that into a granita. Plating the dessert involved unmolding the halwa on a plate and topping it with a quenelle of the chai granita and garnishing with a cardamom crème anglaise. I thought this was a successful fusion of a classic Indian sweet with French and Italian technique.
Just to make this dinner even more memorable, I got a call from the client late the night before asking me if she could bring her vegetarian daughter to the dinner as a last minute addition. Because of the circumstances, there was no way that I could turn her down. But holy cow! I spent the morning of the dinner scrambling to make vegetarian versions of each of the meat courses. Just to top this off, we had a film crew in that morning for several hours shooting footage for a new TV commercial for the restaurant. I kept having to run back and forth from the kitchen where I was dealing with prep for the tasting menu and the dining room and bar to deal with filming issues. Quite the morning, I assure you.
And if you've been reading along in recent postings, our dishwasher woes continue, both hardware- and personnel-wise. In the last update, you will recall that I fired my long-time dishwasher for his inability to get to work. The first week of November, we used a fill-in dishwasher while waiting for the new one to start on the 8th. Fill-in dishwashers are OK for a shift or two, but by the end of a week, they always start slacking and doing half-ass work. Now that our new dishwasher has arrived, it is a slow process to teach him where everything goes. Each day, we wander around the kitchen looking for this and that: same story each time we change dishwasher. On top of this, he has had several racks of glassware returned to him by the servers for rewashing. Hopefully, this problem has been corrected.
Other than that, mechanical issues continue to plague us. Last Friday and Saturday were a pain in the rear because the sanitizer alarm kept going off. Dish machines like ours use a chemical sanitizer (expensive bleach, basically) to ensure that dishes come out of the machine in a sanitary condition. There is an audible alarm that alerts the operator if the machine runs out of sanitizer. Unfortunately, due to the corrosive nature of the sanitizer solution, it is wont to eat up tubing, hoses, and seals. And one of the hoses to the sanitizer had cracked and so the machine wasn't able to create enough vacuum to suck sanitizer into the machine. We were able to deal with the sanitation issue by pouring sanitizer manually into the machine with each load, but there was nothing we could do but listen to the damned alarm sound all night long.
That's about it for the pre-Thanksgiving tale for the restaurant. As much as I hate the Thanksgiving season at the restaurant, I love Thanksgiving at home—it's easily my favorite holiday. So, thanks for reading along and to you and your family, I bid you Happy Thanksgiving!