Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chef's Tasting

Here are photos from a series of recent tastings. These dishes pretty clearly reflect what is in the farmers market currently. I really like how we were able to incorporate root vegetables in so many dishes. It happened organically as a function of what we have on hand (and on the brain) now rather than as an exercise in making a menu around root vegetables. Organically formed menus tend to be the best and I really like this menu for that very reason.

Squash Cake. Cake of grated yellow and green squashes long-cooked with cream and formed into cakes, garnished with tomato vinaigrette, tzatziki, pesto, and a pecorino tuile. I bought every last squash that Beth had about two weeks ago and we have been keeping them in the cooler and eking them out, trying desperately to hang on to a little bit of summer. We've never had summer squash this late into the year and it is really thanks to the crappy crop we had during the summer that Gene planted a second, late crop of which this is the very bitter end.

Cauliflower Mushrooms with Guanciale and Broccoli. No brainer, really, in that Joe just sent us a 15-pound cauliflower mushroom. With its delightfully woodsy scent, this mushroom is a real crowd pleaser and its resemblance to egg noodles often influences how we prepare it: today, very simply with some Jowciale (smoked hog jowl from our friends at Edwards) and tiny broccoli florets.

Napoleon of Seared Sea Scallops and Parsnip-Leek Latkes. This send up of scallop chowder features crispy sweet parsnip-leek latkes, a warm bacon-inflected leek and potato soup, cubes of roasted butternut squash, puffed wild rice (more addictive than crack) and mâche. After much experimentation, we have found that parsnip latkes benefit from 25% potato, to help them hold together and fry more crisply without burning.

Pork & Grits. In our mission to convert the world to the Pork Belly Legion™, it seems that no tasting menu can omit at least one pork belly course. Here you see our house-cured pork belly fried to a crispy turn atop creamy Anson Mills grits coarse grits with a splash of local hickory bark syrup and a red grape “olivada.” The olivada is a condiment that we made for a big Italian-themed dinner back in October, a condiment that we liked so much that we keep on making it. It is son of the Cherry Tapenade that I created back in the spring and consists of red grapes, olives, capers, anchovies, lemon juice, oregano, and olive oil.

More Pork. Seriously, what to follow pork belly but more pork? This dish was inspired by an incredibly beautiful savoy cabbage that I scored at the market and what you see is the answer to the question, "How shall we honor this beautiful cabbage?" What you see is a most non-traditional cabbage roll, stuffed with pulled pork shank and raw turnip julienne, then coated in Dijon mustard and rolled in panko and fried. It sits in a pool of pork gravy from braising the shanks and is garnished with a few chanterelles. I like to think of this as a very Western reimagining of a spring roll.

Grilled Five-Spice Venison Loin. This dish screams late fall to me. You see a five spice-rubbed grilled loin of venison with butternut cream, a root vegetable hash, maple syrup, and a fresh fig compote made with the last of this year's figs. The star of this dish is not the venison but rather the humble hash, made from cubes of guanciale, parsnips, celery root, butternut squash, and fingerling potato along with dried cranberries and onions, all flambéed in bourbon. This hash is insanely good!

Maple-Butternut Flan with Milk Chocolate Cremoso. What does a non-sweet eating chef use for dessert when there's precious little fruit about? Root veg, of course! Here you see a killer flan made of butternut purée, maple syrup, and cinnamon. The garnishes are a rich fudgy curl of milk chocolate cremoso (stolen shamelessly from pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith via Michael Schwartz, a chef whom I have never met, but who is clearly a fellow spirit), maple syrup, crème anglaise, gianduia (chocolate-hazelnut) powder, and a wicked good sunflower seed brittle that I made with sea salt and smoky pimentón.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2011: November 15th

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!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

2011: November 1st

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.