Darn, I just finished writing the last posting from October 15th and here it is, November already! Welcome to the November 1st posting about all things One Block West, the latest in the year-long, twice-monthly series.
The first week of this period, heading into the weekend of Saturday the 22nd was crazy! The week started off slow enough, but we could feel it building momentum all week long heading into the prime leaf-peeping weekend of the year. I spent all of Monday and Tuesday just trying to dig out from all the paperwork that didn't get done the week before because we were so busy.
Tuesday and Wednesday we prepped like crazy for a private dinner for the local chapter of Accademia di Cucina Italiana on Thursday the 20th. This group, dedicated to preserving and promoting Italian cuisine, holds several themed dinners each year at restaurants all over the world. All the chapters hold their Ecumenical Dinner, the highlight dinner of their year, at restaurants at roughly the same time of year. Each dinner has the same theme; this year the theme was fruit and cuisine.
If you know anything about modern Italian cuisine, you know that fruit has very little place at the Italian table, with the exception of the traditional bowl of fruit and the occasional fruit dessert. Savory cuisine using fruit is rare. Worse still, the timing of this dinner at the end of October does not coincide with the availability of many of the most interesting fruits. And so it was quite painful to come up with a worthy menu featuring fruit, but it was equally a pain for all the chefs all over the world who were doing the same thing I was. In the end, I arrived at a menu that pleased me, although I overheard one self-important attendee exclaim for all to hear that he was underwhelmed with the menu. I did the best I could on the quite restricted budget that the group gave me.
I loved the antipasti: goat cheese-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped grilled figs; crostini topped with caramelized onions, melted Gorgonzola, and fresh fig jam; and grilled focaccia topped with sausage and grape “olivada.” Olivada is the Italian equivalent of tapenade (or vice-versa) and we modeled the red grape version on the cherry version we did so successfully this past spring. I love the sweet-tart aspect of this delicious condiment.
Our secondo was a porcini, roasted grape, and walnut risotto which we made with verjus instead of wine. It was very difficult to balance the acidity of the verjus with the sweetness of the grapes, which roasting only enhances. In the end, I think we did pretty well.
The primo was a whole loin of Berkshire pork stuffed (roulade style) with macerated dried fruits and porcini mushrooms. I went heavy on the cherries in the stuffing because I wanted to pull out the very cherry aspects of the Tuscan Sangiovese-Syrah blend that we served with the pork. On the side were sautéed local cavolo nero and a mostarda, Cremona-style. Rather than domestic pork, I wanted to serve wild boar at this course, but that would have blown the entire dinner budget.
When I serve vegetables at an Italian dinner, I always cringe. As an American, I have the American taste for cooked but slightly crunchy vegetables. [For the record, I like my vegetables more cooked rather than less cooked.] Except in very modern Italian restaurants, there's no such thing as crunchy vegetables. Still, I let my taste guide me and served the cavolo just wilted and sautéed briefly in olive oil with garlic.
For dessert, our guests finished with an orange crostata, cooked upside down very similar to a tarte Tatin, but made with a polenta genoise batter. I developed this recipe many years ago using blood oranges (not in season until December) and it is always a hit.
And so the dinner on the 20th was the crowning glory to an otherwise miserable day in the restaurant business. Last edition, I mentioned that the 13th was a day from hell. The 20th nearly went down in the books as another. I came in around 6:30am on the morning of the 20th to complete all my taxes (sales, meals, Federal withholding, state withholding, and unemployment). It's always a pleasure to do this; one of the highlights of my month. If you didn't read that last statement with dripping sarcasm, go back and do it again and keep doing it until you get it right.
The first thing I did was to pay my meals tax, the easiest of the five taxes to compute. I generated the QuickBooks report stating my tax liability and went to cut the check for the amount due, which was in excess of $87,000! WTF! I started poking around and then I remembered that a couple weeks earlier, I had performed some database maintenance. Intuit sent out a newsletter that recommended tweaking the database for performance. Containing nearly ten years of data, my database needs some performance tweaks. So I followed their advice...and got screwed.
Poking around on the forums, I could see Intuit techs recommending to never do what I did and yet the bastards sent out a newsletter advising us customers to do exactly that. In the end, it took an hour of my day that didn't contain a spare hour to figure out how to make the reversing journal entries to fix Intuit's stupidity.
So you can imagine my frame of mind when one of the front of the house employees came to tell me that we had run out of table cloths. Now, a restaurant just doesn't magically run out of table cloths. They go out on tables one by one and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the pile of clean ones is shrinking and to take corrective action before it becomes a crisis. And there went another half an hour of my day while I scheduled an emergency delivery.
Going into a busy lunch and dinner, our dishwasher was out again, so I had to get a fill-in guy, one whose speed is not the greatest. For a multi-course wine dinner with tons of wine glasses in use, speed is requisite. Add more stress to an already stressful day. Topping this, I went to pull a bottle of one of the wines that we were serving at the dinner to make sure that I noted the correct vintage on the menu. I saw only two bottles on the shelf. More was supposed to come in with the delivery we got first thing in the morning, but it did not. Arrgghhh! Scrambling, I found another wine in stock to substitute, a much more expensive wine. I could hear the meager profit on the Italian dinner tinkling down the drain.
So just to top off the night, I tasted the risotto just as the antipasti were going out the kitchen door and I found that it was totally overcooked: one of the line cooks had par-cooked the base earlier that afternoon and had failed to cool it adequately, so it kept on cooking into mush. You have never seen three guys scrambling so fast to pull off risotto on the fly—they work at a sedate pace on Iron Chef compared to what we were doing. Oh and just to keep the day interesting, the rest of the restaurant was fully booked all night and we had to juggle tables left and right to send out the 25 plates for the Italian dinner amongst all the others.
Friday the 21st was super busy, but it seemed like a slow night when compared to Saturday the 22nd. On Saturday, the first ticket hit the kitchen at 5:14 and the last entrée left the kitchen just after 10:00. And in between, we cooked as fast as we could all night long. Exhausted just does not begin to describe it. When the young servers and line cooks are dragging along slump shouldered, well, use your imagination about the state of the chef. I honestly cannot tell you one thing about dinner service on the 22nd: it was and will always be a total blur. I vaguely recall that we did a 9-course Chef's Tasting that evening, but can't even conjure up one dish that we served. It was that busy.
I had great plans for pesto the week following. Beth and I had already talked and she was going to pull all her basil on Monday the 24th to bring to me so I could convert it to pesto, some for her, some for us. Likewise, I was going to cut all my basil and add it to the pile. No such luck. We got a snap frost Saturday night/Sunday morning. I first noticed it when I took the dogs out first thing Sunday morning, a little frost on the low spots in the yard. I kind of got this sick feeling in my gut and didn't want to walk around the corner to look at my garden, but I did anyway. Sure enough, the basil was limp and black. And not even the hint of a frost warning from the weather people!
Such is the natural progression of the seasons, I suppose. The turning of the seasons is now well evident in the market. On the 25th, Beth brought celery root to the market, joining sweet potatoes, collards, celery, komatsuna, several new varieties of apples, and daikon, all harbingers of winter. I haven't given in and bought sweet potatoes or parsnips yet. We're going to have those vegetables with us for a very long haul and while I am eager for my first taste of both, I know that I will be sick of them before very long. I bought the last tomatoes and the last summer squash of the year on the 29th and that is something of a miracle. Many years they don't last that long.
Business slowed dramatically the week after the 22nd, the last leaf-peeping weekend of the year, so it turned out. In a continuation of the trend during recent weeks, we had more dishwasher woes—our long-time dishwasher continued to be late and started to escalate interpersonal problems with other employees—so I interviewed and hired a new one who cannot start until November 8th. And our dish machine was leaving spots all over the glassware because of a broken rinse agent line.
This week also saw a hatchet job review on Yelp, a one-line, one-star review that states in essence "everything sucks at One Block West." Yelpers will ignore it because it is so ludicrous and devoid of content, but still, unless it was a drunk comment by one of my competitors, somebody had a bad experience with us and there is nothing I can do to make sure it never happens again, because I have nothing to work with.
Can you believe there was snow in the forecast for last weekend? Snow? In October? While the fall foliage is still beautiful? As I have mentioned over and over, the dreaded S-word in the forecast is enough to kill business dead in its tracks. Sure enough, we had no business on either Thursday or Friday leading into the Saturday storm.
Saturday was a different story however. I drove in to work in a couple of inches of mush, but with no difficulty and we opened right on time. The only exception to this was our dishwasher who called at 9:30 saying that he couldn't get to work. I hadn't yet notified him of his termination, keeping him on in the interim until the new dishwasher started on the 8th, but that phone call put a quick end to his 5-year career with us. A dishwasher who does a fantastic job with the dishes and who is quick but who cannot come to work is no kind of dishwasher at all. It is sad that we had to part this way after five years, but his personal life was starting to disrupt our business.
During the morning, we had the power go out several times, to the point where I turned off the computer to keep it from crashing and rebooting. But come 11:00am, our power was on steadily. I could see from comments other business owners were making on Facebook that working power was a precious commodity that morning. Trees, still laden with leaves, were snapping all over town, bringing down power lines. Somehow, we dodged the major bullet and as soon as we opened, people started coming in to get warm. And to drink. We sold more wine for lunch than we do during a lot of dinners.
Before I get into dinner, I do have to give props to the local ABC store which was open despite no power. They couldn't retrieve our order off their voicemail but were very accommodating when we sent an employee to see if he could get some liquor for Saturday night service. We called ahead but with no power, they had no phone. They suspended all the usual ordering BS and helped us get enough stuff on the spot to open for dinner. I know what a giant pain in the ass it is for them to process transactions manually and then to go back and enter them into their system after power was restored, so my my hat is off to them for helping us out.
Our dinner reservation book hovered right where it had been all week: almost empty. We would lose a table because of the weather only to have someone call again to reserve a table, but going into dinner at 5:00, there was no net change in the book. It looked to be a slow, miserable night, a fitting ending to a slow, miserable week. And anticipating this, I ordered very lightly for the weekend and we prepped only minimally. There is no sense in buying or prepping what you cannot sell.
Nothing really happened on Saturday night until about 6:30 when the phone started ringing for reservations later in the evening. At about this time, our already booked tables started coming in and then all of a sudden, the servers were starting to hustle a bit. It wasn't a huge crowd, but it was a lot busier than we expected and we started running out of things by 7:00. Customers were most understanding and the vibe in the dining room was great. To top it off, we sold more big ticket wines that night than we usually do in a month. Sales were great despite the weather. What looked like a money-loser week turned out to be OK. Whew!
Now that business has slowed, renovation of the bar continues and is nearing completion. With the exception of some minor trim, the bar is entirely painted. Very soon now we'll have it back in service, hopefully by the November 15th posting. Until then, I hope you eat and drink well.