Saturday, September 28, 2013

One Blog West has Moved

As of September 2013, One Blog West has merged into the One Block West Restaurant site: now everything is all in one place. All these posts from Blogger are on the new site and more new posts as well. Please come join One Blog West at its new home.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Couple of August Dishes

Here are a couple of dishes from recent tastings: 
Steelhead and Tomato Tartare

This Steelhead Trout tartare is as simple as it looks and relies heavily on the freshness of its constituent ingredients. The tartare is cubed Steelhead belly, cubed tomato, capers, shallots, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and a touch of shichimi togarashi. Garnishes are house-made crème fraîche, salmon roe, cilantro, and more shichimi togarashi.

Duck Prosciutto, Fig, and Onion Salad
And this is a bit of fun, showcasing our recent batch of duck breast prosciutto that is now 12 weeks of age and ready to eat. On the plate is a drizzle of saba, a syrup made by boiling down grape must. Then a caramelized onion jam, fresh figs, salad burnet, micro arugula, and very thin slices of our duck prosciutto. This dish is starting to show that our minds are moving into fall, here in late August.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Dare to be Different

I remember customer wine ordering patterns a decade ago, around the turn of the century to a little after:

"I'll have a glass of Merlot." and "Please bring me a glass of Chardonnay."

Then for a short while during the summer of 2004 thanks to the movie Sideways, we couldn't give away a glass of Merlot. Miles seemingly singlehandedly put the words "Pinot Noir" on everyone's lips. The mantra was then:

"Oh, I'll have a Pinot please." Yet Chard still held sway in the white world. But by the spring of 2005, Merlot was back on top. That run wouldn't last forever, though.

Sometime in the last three or four years, customers moved on, in response to what stimuli, I don't know. Today, it's:

"I'll have a Malbec, please." and "Please bring me a Pinot Grigio."

This all strikes me as rather boring and, well, frankly, as an abdication of one's responsibility to continue to learn. Never mind that learning can be fun—seriously, how distressing is it to have to drink a glass of wine?—I always thought that it was one of the delights of growing up: learning for the sheer fun of it when nobody, not a parent or a teacher, is breathing down your neck.

We have a wine list here at the restaurant that is 70-plus in number of wines on offer by the glass (and this doesn't count many more than that by the bottle). Why is that? Because we love to learn about wines ourselves and we have fun sharing what we have learned with others.

So, know that we cringe a little bit each time you blindly call for a glass or bottle of the same old-same old.

Know that we spend a lot of time in finding really neat wines from lesser-known grapes such as Asprinio, Furmint, Robola, Melon de Bourgogne, Lagrein, Mencía, and Gamay Noir.

And know that we'd love to share them with you.

Will you dare to be different? Will you try something new?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bagel and Lox

Some dishes are just inherently fun and this is one of them, our whimsical tribute to bagels and lox.

Bagel and Lox
For the bagel component, we're using sliced and dehydrated bagels for a crisp, cracker-like effect. The lox is our own house-cured prosciutto of steelhead trout. I call it prosciutto for it is more akin to a country ham than it is to gravlax. We cure it for about a week, rather than a couple of days, and then hang it in front of a fan for another week to further desiccate it. At the end of this process, it becomes very much like a ham and like a good ham, it is intense and salty and full of umami and just a little goes a long way.

For garnishes, we have a honey-dill mustard, baby dill, tiny capers, salmon caviar, and the latest product to come from our ice cream machine: sour cream, caper, and dill ice cream. The creamy texture of this frozen sour cream is a lot of fun and is taking customers really by surprise and they're loving it.

Just having fun here with our re-imagining of a classic dish and our tribute to great delis everywhere.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sockeye, Squash, and Tomatoes

Sockeye, Squash, and Tomatoes
Fresh sockeye just flown in from Alaska sitting on a bed of yellow and zephyr squash "noodles" dressed with olives and a feta-olive dressing, topped with a salad of rehydrated tomatoes and oregano flowers.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Head Cheese

There's no denying that we love pork. In fact, pork is the only thing preventing me from eliminating meat from my diet. It is such a versatile animal and the meat is far and away the best of any animal. We go to great lengths to source awesome pork, including this year arranging with a local farmer to raise hogs just for us. Our first one came in last week and we were not about to waste a scrap of it, including the head.

Pork Head Cheese, Carrot-Dill Mustard, Cornichons
The head is covered in meat and after simmering away in a nice broth with bay leaves and peppercorns, that meat is fine, fine eating. Tony picked the meat and packed it along with diced and grilled heart for color variation (the heart is dark meat) into a terrine and then covered the meat with an aspic made from the cooking liquid.

And here you see the end result. As fine a piece of porky goodness as you could ever want. Customers loved it. We loved it more. Charcuterie: the reason I will never be a vegetarian!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ten Tips from Living with a Chef

I really do like to cook at home, not that I am there very often to do it. Many of you, I am certain, will find that odd, a busman's holiday of sorts, no doubt. But I do. Cooking at home is very, very different than is cooking in a restaurant. At home, I come up with an idea, get all the ingredients together, and prepare the meal from start to finish, the proverbial soup to nuts, just like both of you reading this that still cook at home. At work, we spend all day preparing food to be ready to cook. Then we try to chill for a few minutes. And then we spend the next several hours assembling dishes and doing the final cooking, a very disjointed process that is nothing like what happens at home.

So I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen at home doing what it is that got me into the foodservice business in the first place and that which I do very little of at work. As the king of the hill at work, how often do I really chop onions, mince garlic, and all the other little tasks that I do each time I am in my home kitchen?

I got to wondering what parts of work rub off on what I do in my home kitchen and because I am too close to the subject, I asked my wife Ann for a list of ten things that she has learned from me about cooking in our years together, things that she would like to pass on to others. She says:

1. For a great sear on anything, get your pan screaming hot.

2. When cooking shrimp, don't keep turning them over and over. Cook them once on each side, just like any fish.

3. To halve a whole bunch of grape tomatoes at once, place the tomatoes on the cutting board and put your hand over all the tomatoes and slice through with a serrated knife, between your hand and the cutting board.

4. Never be intimated to cook for a chef—they will eat anything—especially if they don't have to cook it! However, they WILL make fun of all your small cans and containers of food and your SMALL cooking utensils and say, quite obnoxiously, "Aww, they're so cute!" [guilty as charged]

5. Combine sweet flavors with salty ones and spicy ones. Don't be afraid to try any combination. I now use a lot more sea salt in my brownies and oatmeal cookies than the original recipes call for.

6. When cooking pasta, reserve some of the starchy cooking water to use in the pasta sauce. The starch helps make sauces creamy.

7. Use leftover fish bones, lobster shells, chicken parts etc. to make stocks for soups. Roast them all first ( I know...right?!?! Who knew?).

8. Presentation is EVERYTHING—even when making simple scrambled eggs!!

9. If the product you start with is awesome, cooking it in olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper is generally the way to go.

10. One is not allowed to eat/buy a fruit or vegetable unless it's in season.

And there you have it. Don't forget number 4 above. I'm available!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer of Ice Cream

This summer we have been playing a lot with ice creams in all their forms: sorbet, gelato, frozen yogurt, and ice cream. We are using them a lot for our nightly tasting menus, mainly as components in savory dishes but also as digestifs or intermezzos.

For savory applications, first came a coconut-wasabi sorbet that we served with scallop seviche, scallop crudo, and salmon tartare, to much applause from guests. Then came a pickled beet sorbet that garnished a deconstructed chłodnik. And we're working on a sour cream, chive, and caper ice cream to garnish gravlax with.

The sky seems to be the limit with intermezzo sorbets as palate cleansers. Our mojito (lime, mint, and rum) sorbet has been extremely popular not only as a palate cleanser, but as a garnish for our bar drink called the Mojito Fizz. We're currently (pun intended) featuring a Campari and red currant sorbet as an entremets.

And then we have whole series of fruit gelatos and ice creams designed specifically for the end of the meal, such as the one pictured below: roasted strawberry, rhubarb, and balsamic vinegar gelato. In a similar vein, we've done roasted peach and apricot ice cream and blackberry-lime gelato. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the jackfruit-coconut sorbet that we made for our lactose intolerant guests.

Roasted Strawberry-Rhubarb-Balsamic Vinegar Gelato
What new flavors will we dream up? Nobody knows for certain.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Insalata Caprese: a Food Nazi's Take

Most of you reading this post will be familiar with the classic summer salad called Insalata Caprese and won't need a reminder that it is the quintessence of summer.

An Insalata Caprese from the Summer of 2012
This classic salad says a lot about me, the way I cook, and the way I approach food. For better or for worse. Customers (my wife even) call me a Food Nazi especially when it comes to this salad. My dictionary says a Nazi is "a harshly domineering, dictatorial, or intolerant person." I'm going to own most of this.

When it comes to ingredients that I eat and that I serve to my customers, I am totally intolerant of all that is bad. Bad quality, bad flavor, bad technique, and so forth. But then, I like to think that this is why people come to dine at One Block West. Because it absolutely matters to me what I serve and what you eat. If that makes me a Nazi, so be it. This does not embarrass me. In fact, I wish more of us cared.

What sets me off on this mini-rant is that seemingly every restaurant in town has Insalata Caprese on the menu right now and has for months. Are you kidding? Field-ripened tomatoes are still some weeks away yet, even now in mid-July. These restaurants, including many who should know better, are doing this why? Because we let them. Worse, we abet them. We order the gross crap that they call Insalata Caprese and we reward them financially for doing it.

Are we so far removed from our farms that we do not know that we have awesome tomatoes only during August and September (in our part of the world; you may have a different season where you live)? Are our standards so lax that we accept rubber mozzarella made in an unnamed factory some weeks or months ago?

Our standards must be compromised. What else can account for our letting restaurants foist junk off on us?

Think about this glory of summer. It is a dish where the chef has no place to hide. If the ingredients are not the best, then it all fails. When the ingredients are amazing, the result is ambrosial and greater than the sum of the parts. Warm, never refrigerated tomatoes of deep flavor and mouth watering acidity. Tender basil so perfumed that the kitchen smells of an herb garden. Mozzarella so tender and warm, just having been stretched. Sea salt. Cracked pepper. And green herbaceous unfiltered extra virgin olive oil that tastes of freshly pressed olives.

And when I have all these ingredients at their peak, then this dish goes on the menu and only then. It's a short four- to six-week run for sure, but it is a heavenly time indeed. When you see this dish on my menu, you should order it, if only because you know the stars have all aligned. That time is coming and I can barely contain myself, like the bear waiting to gorge on the salmon spawn that will surely start at any time now.

And you must know that as much joy as this salad brings me each year during its fleeting appearance, it also brings me much sadness. I become sad because so very few people order the salad after I have gone to the trouble to ripen each tomato just so, after I have picked the best basil, and after the cooks have stretched the nightly batch of mozzarella.

Why is that, do you reckon? There are several reasons, but it comes back to the question I asked earlier. Are we so lax as to accept inferior versions of this salad? Yes we are. And as a result, inferior versions of this salad have become ubiquitous and that ubiquity fosters contempt: "Not another Insalata Caprese!"

I care deeply about this salad as I do everything I cook, eat, and serve. I care to the point of being called a Food Nazi. And I wonder if my caring really matters to anyone other than me.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Deconstructed Chłodnik

Chłodnik is a Polish cold beet soup along the lines of a cold borscht (борщ) that comes to my mind each year when the first beets arrive just as the weather is turning miserably hot and humid. You can see the shockingly pink soup in all its glory in this post, garnished with hard-boiled egg, dill, and diced beets.

In very recent days, we have done a deconstructed version of this soup for our nightly Chef's Whim tasting menu, a version that customers have raved about.

Traditional chłodnik (where "traditional" means "what my grandmother used to make" and varies quite naturally from person to person) is roughly made from beets, sour pickles, cucumbers, dill, and some form of tart dairy product, such as buttermilk. That said, it's a soup and I'm certain that very few cooks follow a formal recipe and each batch will contain whatever ingredients are at hand.

Deconstructed Chłodnik: Dill Pickle Soup with Pickled Beet Sorbet

For our tasting, we pulled the soup and the beets apart. Our soup is Greek yogurt, cornichons, cornichon brine, water, cucumber, dill, and just enough honey to tame the vinegar and yogurt. Once it comes out of the blender, it almost tastes like a refreshing dill pickle soup.

The beets we roasted, pickled for 48 hours, and blended very fine with the pickling liquid and then put in the ice cream machine to make a sorbet.

Final plate up is the yogurt soup base down in the bowl, then we scatter around chopped cornichons, chopped hard-boiled egg, dill fronds, and smoked sablefish. In the very center, we place a quenelle of the pickled beet sorbet and top that with a cucumber-tasting borage flower from my garden.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spring Tasting

Finally, after a long, long winter, we finally have some spring ingredients to feature in a tasting! This tasting features mint, ramps, green garlic, and asparagus.

Tilefish Mojito Seviche

Tilefile Mojito Seviche. Finally we have some fresh mint to work with and this is an experiment in making it work in a savory application. The seviche contains diced tilefish, brunoise of red onion and jalapeño, green onions, grape tomato, cilantro, mint, lime zest, red pepper flakes, and lime juice. The glass, we rimmed in Hawaiian black sea salt, and the garnishes are lime, mint, and a scoop of mojito sorbet (lime, mint, simple syrup).

Smoked Bluefish
Smoked Bluefish. Bluefish, like most oily fish, takes to brine and smoke, well, like a fish takes to water. And smoky fish loves mild, creamy cheeses. So it didn't take too much to put together a crostino topped with lemon-black pepper goat cheese, ramp pesto, and smoked blue fish. And then pair it with a napoleon of cucumber and smoked bluefish-cream cheese mousse. A little lemon oil brings some citrus brightness to the plate.

Rabbit, Asparagus, and Green Garlic
Rabbit, Asparagus, and Green Garlic. I love green garlic in risotto, ditto asparagus. Here the risotto has both green garlic and asparagus stems. The asparagus tips are grilled for a smoky char that will help the dish pair with a Pinot Noir. On top is a bit of our pulled rabbit wrapped in prosciutto.

Pork and Ramps
Pork and Ramps. I bet you didn't know that I stood there and cleaned ramps for three $%#^&! hours the other day. The tops I made into a classic sopa de ajo (roasted garlic soup with bread, pimentón, and a splash of cream) and the greens Tony made into a classic cream of greens soup. These two soups are yin-yanged on the plate and garnished with grilled ramps and chorizo oil. I made some pork scraps into an awesome chorizo and this is what is in the beggars purse.

Carrots and Ginger
Carrots and Ginger. We still don't have any fruit to work with for desserts so we are still playing games with winter storage vegetables. This is a carrot and ginger upside down cake. The cake is made with polenta to give it some tooth. Crème anglaise, lemon cream cheese, crystallized ginger, and maple syrup-candied carrot comprise the garnishes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Chef's Tasting

Friends came by recently for a tasting and here is what they ate. Although it wasn't intentional, there's a bit of an egg theme going on here, with quail, duck, and goose eggs featured. It's just a good thing that the birds are laying again!

Salmon Three Ways
Salmon Three Ways. We were just looking for something bright and fresh to start the meal with and we just happen to have some beautiful salmon on hand now. I made a quasi tartare sauce with cornichons, capers, dill, and finely minced gravlax that I topped with a nice piece of fatty belly and then that with a brined, pepper-crusted, and smoked piece of salmon.

Duck and Maitake Mushroom Frittata
Duck and Maitake Mushroom Frittata. We made a simple frittata of duck confit, maitake mushrooms, and duck eggs and then paired it with a daikon and cucumber kimchee, to have something bright to offset the richness of the frittata. This dish sounded fine on paper, but it seems an incomplete thought to me.

Breakfast. There have been many breakfast variations on our tasting menus over the years, because it is just such a damned good dish. This version was designed to show off my latest sausage: ground pork shoulder, Mangalitsa pork belly, and prune purée. The maple syrup is now local from Gene Nowak at Mayfair Farm.

Rabbit Loin with Fennel-Chestnut Sauce

Rabbit Loin. This dish doesn't look all that bright, but I guarantee it was the best dish of the meal. The loin is rolled in fennel pollen before seeing the grill for just long enough to mark it up. Rabbit and fennel is a sublime combination and this sauce that I created last week with caramelized fennel and chestnuts is simply amazing. Note the rabbit loin cooked only to medium; that's how you have to do it.

Lamb Sausage, Moroccan Carrot Slaw, Chickpea Cake
Lamb Sausage. I like the vibrant spices and flavors from northern Africa and tried to bring them together here on a plate. The herbaceous and garlicky lamb sausage is mixed with a carrot slaw made from a fiery harissa and julienned carrots. I made this harissa rather heavier with caraway and fennel than I usually do. The chickpea cake is flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and some of the preserved lemons that we put up last fall.

"Duck à l'Orange"
Duck à l'Orange. When we break down ducks, legs for confit and breasts for grilling or roasting, we collect the so-called breast tenders, the little muscle that sits atop the breast bone beneath the breast itself. These we pounded out and schnitzled in a crust of panko and five-spice powder. Garnished with orange brown butter, orange suprêmes, and a little salad of micro arugula and tiny mint leaves from our bed outside the restaurant.

Chocolate Peanut Cake, Cayenne Peanut Brittle, Goose Egg Anglaise
Chocolate-Peanut Cake. This is merely chocolate ganache, peanut butter, and goose eggs baked in a water bath until somewhat set, then gently rewarmed so that the center is very gooey and nearly runny. Garnishes are a goose egg crème anglaise, cassis jam, and a peanut brittle that I have made with a lot of salt (salty caramel, yum!) and cayenne pepper. Surprise!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Silere Merino Lamb

One of the great aspects of my job is that I get to try a lot of new products, often long before they become available to other chefs. And this suits my restless, exploring nature to a T. Three weeks ago, I got a care package of a new lamb product to try. The lamb, styled Silere Alpine Origin Merino, is a premium quality product just about to make its way to the US from the mountains at the southern end of the South Island of New Zealand.

I was really looking forward to trying it; most of my experience is with our local sheep. I have worked with all manner of local Suffolks, Southdowns, Katahdins, and crosses, but never with Merino before. And the fact that Merino is known primarily as a wool sheep also piqued my professional curiosity.

If you remember your Latin (don't chefs study Latin? ;), silere is the verb "to be silent," evocative of the quiet alpine locations whence these sheep come. According to the marketing literature: "Their alpine environment and foraging lifestyle means that Merino mature more slowly and are naturally leaner than other breeds of sheep. Silere alpine origin merino can be taken through to 18-months of age, which allows for more natural development. This results in the fine grain, appealing density and clean palate that are characteristic of Silere alpine origin merino."

This all whetted my appetite to dig into the lamb and put it through the paces. My package contained very neatly trimmed spare ribs, a boneless leg, and so-called leg fillets, long boneless strips of steak from the leg. These neatly sealed packages are cute; I'm used to working with whole carcasses!

Spare Ribs, Boneless Leg, Leg Filets
The first thing that I noticed is how pink this lamb is when compared to any other lamb. Looking at the spare ribs in the lower left of the picture above, you can see how pink they are, looking more like pork than lamb.

Silere Merino (left) v. Australian (right)
And comparing two legs, the Silere Merino on the left in the picture above and an Australian leg that I purchased at Costco, several things are evident. First, the Silere leg is small compared to the Australian leg. You can certainly see the lighter shade of pink, almost pork pink, in the New Zealand leg, but you may have to click on the photo to see the grain differences in the meat. The meat of the Aussie leg is very stringy and grainy compared to the very smooth Silere leg. I would have loved to compare to a local lamb, but our lambs are just dropping now and they won't get to market weight before summer.

Oven-Ready Spare Ribs

 Balsamic-Braised Lamb Spare Ribs

The first cut we tackled was the spare ribs, because in our kitchen, we're ribs kind of guys. This recipe yields 8 appetizer portions or four dinner-sized portions.

8 pieces spare ribs
salt and pepper
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh sage
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup white wine

Lightly season the spareribs and place in a braising pan with the remaining ingredients. Add water as necessary to come up about a third of the way on the ribs. Cover tightly and cook in slow oven until the ribs are fork tender, but not falling apart. Two hours is generally sufficient for a small pan of ribs like this. Larger pans will naturally take significantly longer.

Balsamic-Braised, Grilled Lamb Spare Ribs on Risotto Milanese
For restaurant service, we remove the ribs from the braising liquid and chill them until they are firm, generally overnight. We strain and chill the braising liquid so that we can lift the congealed fat right off the top. Then we reduce the braising liquid to make a sauce and adjust the seasoning as necessary. The ribs that you see here have been marked up on the grill and then heated all the way through in a slow oven. We are plating them with a classic saffron risotto milanese, a spoonful of the sauce, and some fresh fava beans.

We sampled several customers on this dish and with the exception of one, they all loved it and clamored for more. The one that didn't like it complained about the fat cap on the ribs; it seems to me that she wouldn't have liked any ribs. This is a very polite way of saying what I was really thinking. ;)

Next up, we delved into the leg, seaming it out, and marinating it with a touch of olive oil, garlic, pimentón, and oregano. We lightly grilled the leg and served it over an Israeli couscous flavored with red, yellow, and orange peppers, poblano peppers, artichoke hearts, grape tomatoes, green onions, garlic, and finished in the style of risotto with grated pecorino romano and some pimentón aïoli. I know what you're thinking. You're right too! This is a damned fabulous dish!

Grilled Leg of Lamb on Israeli Couscous
The first thing that I noticed is that you have to be very careful when grilling this Silere leg meat. It is so lean that it needs to be cooked rather less than more; you need to treat it like venison or elk, the rarer the better. Just like these other super low fat proteins, the more you heat them, the more shrink you're going to get. Plan your portion sizes accordingly.

We tasted the Silere leg against the Aussie leg in the kitchen, and then sampled them in the dining room. The texture of the Silere is very fine and as a result, the meat is extremely tender. The flavor is very mild. Customers liked all the samples. Those who are not big lamb fans preferred the very mild Silere and those who love the gaminess of lamb preferred the Aussie lamb. Everyone liked the texture of the Silere lamb better.

Yiouvetsi Mise en Place
At home on a Sunday, my day off, I decided to do a classic Greek braise on some of the leg fillets (also called leg tenders), arni yiouvetsi, named after the clay pot in which the dish is traditionally cooked. As you can see below, my clay pot is nothing but a roasting pan.

Over the years, I have arrived at a very simple yiouvetsi that really appeals to me. I cube and sear lamb and remove it from the pan. Then I add onions and brown them just a bit. Back into the pan goes the lamb along with tomatoes and their juice, oregano, lemon juice, and everything gets covered with water and brought to a boil. After the lamb braises to tenderness, I add orzo and put it back in the oven until the orzo is plumped. Then I like to strew some feta about the top and lightly brown it.

Arni Yiouvetsi, Hot out of the Oven
The feta is my own touch and I do it because it pleases me: most lamb yiouvetsi is served with a hard grating cheese that is sprinkled on the dish at the table. Sometimes I sprinkle a little ground cinnamon on the meat before browning it: I did this time; sometimes I add (a lot of) garlic: I did not this time. I deglazed the pan with a little white wine this time too, not something I always do. To me, this is not a dish to be cooked with red wine, though many do, but it is clearly a dish to be served with a big red wine.

Delicious Comfort Food!
I generally prefer to make yiouvetsi with shoulder because the shoulder has more fat than does the leg and yields a more tender result. When using leg like this, keep the cooking time to a minimum: bring the liquid to a boil and add the orzo and bake just until the orzo is done.

After doing these three dishes with the Silere lamb, I can say that it is a much, much leaner product than I am used to and it has to be cooked more like game than traditional lamb. The grain and texture of the meat is very fine and almost silky, something that everyone who tasted it loves. The flavor is much less gamy than traditional lamb and is a hit especially with those people who are not big lamb fans. As a chef, I found that the Silere lamb lends itself to more subtle preparations because the lamb flavor does not dominate. I can treat it as pork or veal and customers love it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Northern Italian Tasting

We're generally not in the habit of having customers dictate the direction of our tasting menus, preferring instead to take the best ingredients we have on hand at the time and shape them into a menu based on our own whims. But our customer for this dinner was insistent that we do a tasting of the foods from the provinces of Northern Italy. OK. I would have gone to a Northern Italian restaurant for this, but never mind, we can cook pretty much anything.

The hardest part of this whole exercise was deciding the order of the courses; for example, would the Piemontese course be primo, a secondo, a dolce? Once we got the ordering of the courses, progressing from first courses to seafood to meat to sweets, then it was easy enough to draw inspiration from each region to fill in the details.

Chicken Liver "Crostino"
Toscana: Chicken Liver Crostino. Chicken liver crostini are some of the best known appetizers in Tuscany and since we had chicken livers on hand, we decided to do a take on this well known primo, but reinvent the form. We cooked the livers in the traditional manner with onions, sage, rosemary, capers, anchovies, and Cognac. Then we formed the liver mousse into truffles and rolled them finely powdered crostini, cocoa powder, and espresso powder. The bitter cocoa and espresso worked with the liver very nicely.

Speck Knödel/Canederli Tirolese
Alto Adige: Speck Knödel/Canederli Tirolese. We went back and forth on a soup course, but the weather by turning cold and nasty made the decision easy for us. I have always loved the bread dumpling soups of Bavaria, Austria, and the Südtirol and wanted to reprise them for this menu, to show the Germanic influences in the cuisine of Alpine Italy. I made a classic brown stock from both pork and chicken necks and then poached quenelles of knödel batter in it. The batter is white bread soaked in milk, garlic chives, sage, minced speck, and eggs.

Gambero al Prosecco
Veneto: Gambero al Prosecco. I wouldn't argue if you wanted to call this Shrimp and Grits because that is basically what it is. This is our take on the classic Venetian dish of Schie con Polenta, tiny head-on shrimp in a garlic butter sauce over creamy polenta. Making the sauce with Prosecco is a nod to the famous sparking wine of the Veneto.

Trofie al Pesto
Liguria: Trofie al Pesto. You just can't think of Liguria and Genoa without thinking of basil and that most famous of sauces, pesto. What snaps immediately into my mind is a big plate of the local pasta, trofie, in pesto sauce. Plates of pasta just don't look all that pretty on tastings, so we mixed the trofie and pesto with some ricotta and eggs and baked them in little molds so serve as a base for mussels steamed with pesto.

Grilled Trout with Fennel, Chestnuts, and Lardo
Val d’Aosta: Grilled Trout with Fennel, Chestnuts, and Lardo. Moving right up next to France and Switzerland, the next course took its cues from regional products. This dish has no basis in classic Italian cooking: it is one of my own invention, but I daresay that it would feel at home in a modern restaurant in the Val d'Aosta. We grilled trout and then served it with a sauce made from caramelized fennel, shallots, and peeled chestnuts, splashed at the last second with a touch of anisette and bound with a splash of cream. On top is a very thin sliver of house-cured lardo. This dish is a keeper and I look forward to reprising it at some future time in the main dining room.

Radicchio, Wild Mushroom, and Sausage Strudel
Friuli/Venezia Giulia: Radicchio, Wild Mushroom, and Sausage Strudel. As a student of culinary history, I am always amazed at how cuisine pays no heed to political boundaries. For example, strudel, ignoring modern country borders, can be found all over the former Austro-Hungarian empire, including the far northeast corner of Italy. We made our strudel of radicchio, wild mushrooms, and a house-made sage sausage. Although it is very tasty, radicchio goes nearly black when cooked and does not necessarily make the prettiest strudel filling.

"Osso Buco" Milanese
Lombardia: "Osso Buco" Milanese. What is more representative of the cooking of Lombardia than osso buco milanese, succulent veal shank over saffron risotto? Nothing. How do you serve it for a nine-course tasting? We like the arrancino form.

Rabbit Bolognese
Emilia Romagna: Rabbit Bolognese. Emilia Romagna, among others, has two very famous exports: prosciutto di Parma and salsa bolognese from Bologna. We decided to marry a classic salsa bolognese made of rabbit with prosciutto, by wrapping the salsa in prosciutto, to give the salsa form on the plate. It is plated with saffron aïoli and a touch of sun-dried tomato pesto.

Chestnut and Red Wine Panna Cotta
Piemonte: Chestnut and Red Wine Panna Cotta. Panna cotta is a classic dish that I associate most closely with the Piemonte. This is a two-layer panna cotta of jellified Nebbiolo wine and a chestnut cream. I have gently reheated the panna cotta so that the red wine layer has just about melted, forming a sauce à la crème caramel. Topped with candied pine nuts.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Chef's Tasting

Here's a quick synopsis of a menu that we had fun with.

Three Citrus Shrimp Seviche with Chipotle-Lime Cancha
Three Citrus Shrimp Seviche with Chipotle-Lime Cancha. With this dish, we are trying to will spring here. Unfortunately, it's still cold and not quite seviche weather, but a guy can dream, right? Shrimp, three colors of sweet peppers, celery, red onions, green onions, and cilantro, spiced with chipotle, garlic, and cumin, along with the zest and juice of Meyer lemons, blood oranges, and limes. The blood oranges and Meyer lemons don't have enough acidity to make me happy, so we ended up with about three times as much lime juice to get the acidity where it needs to be. The cancha is a toasted dried corn from Peru tossed in a chipotle-lime zest butter; it supplies great texture to the seviche.

Bánh Mì, Our Favorite Sandwich
Bánh Mì. I'm not kidding when I say we love these sandwiches. Thank you Vietnam for one of our most favorite chef snacks of all time! We most often make bánh mì when I have lots of meat scraps from butchering and I get in the mood to make some sausage. This sausage I made from pork belly, pork rack trimmings and cap, rabbit hearts, and rabbit livers. The seasonings are kaffir lime, fish sauce, black pepper, lots of garlic, and red chile flakes. Garnishes are a tangy slaw, nước chắm, slabs of pickling cucumber, carrot threads, and cilantro.

Allspice-Smoked Pork Terrine; "Pickle and Mustard"
Allspice-Smoked Pork Terrine; "Pickle and Mustard". Let me just say up front that I don't like this presentation at all, but we had 60 seconds to get it on the plate, photographed, and on its way to the dining room. There are two cubes of pork terrine that we skewered and smoked over allspice berries, just to see what the hell would happen. We knew the terrine would really take the smoke because it is high in pork liver content and the fat in the liver really binds the smoke. The flavor of the smoke starts a bit herbaceous (infer from that what you will) and finishes a touch floral. There was definitely a hint of je n'sais quoi. The "pickle and mustard" is a bit of a pun in that we almost always serve charcuterie with whole grain mustard and cornichons, but this time, with a pickled mustard plant.

Balsamic-Braised Merino Lamb Spareribs; Risotto Milanese; Fave
Balsamic-Braised Merino Lamb Spareribs; Risotto Milanese; Fave. We're playing with a new high altitude (above the cloud line) Merino lamb from New Zealand and putting it through the paces to see what it is best suited for. Here the spareribs are braised with balsamic vinegar, chilled, and grilled and plated atop a risotto milanese and topped with fresh fava beans. This new lamb is very silky in texture, very fine grained, and very mild.

Carrot-Ginger-Polenta Tatin with Sambuca Crème Anglaise
Carrot-Ginger-Polenta Tatin with Sambuca Crème Anglaise. Dessert is not something that a bunch of line cooks really thinks about, gives a damn about, or even, really wants to eat. So, we end up with more savory desserts without a whole lot of sugar. Somehow, Tarte Tatin popped up during menu discussions only to be followed by "we don't have any fruit" and my reminding the guys that there are lots of vegetables we can treat as fruits for this purpose. Carrots popped up, and then ginger to bring a freshness to the cake, then polenta to give it some mouthfeel, and finally Sambuca as a complementary flavor. The result: customers and cooks alike loved it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


As a tech guy (I spent nearly 20 years in the computer industry before switching horses), I have always valued automation and using software to assist me in running my business. In the best of all worlds, software applications help me leverage myself to do more with my precious hours at a lower cost. As an example, using QuickBooks saves me the cost of a part-time person to keep the daily books. So it is not surprising that I have always seen the need for electronic reservations and my restaurant was one of the first to go to on-line reservations a decade ago.

When OpenTable arrived on the scene some years later, I decided to have a look at the technology and consider scrapping my homegrown (and still to this day functional) reservation system. Alas, the technology four years ago was not at the point where it needed to be to support my restaurant.

All our hardware infrastructure is in the back office of our old building, as far as physically possible from the dining room. The OpenTable system relies on a terminal in the front of the house. And they required that the terminal be hardwired to the server in the back office. Not only would it have been very difficult to retrofit new wiring in our old building, we simply don't have any reasonable place in the dining room to put a terminal. And so, we took a pass on OpenTable.

With the advent of wireless technology came the hope that OpenTable would move with the times. And so we took another look at them last summer. The new system comprises an iPad in the front of the house talking over the wireless network to the server in the back office. It seems like a perfect and obvious solution. We took the plunge and discovered that it is not a good solution. Far from it, alas.

The technology on the iPad was bleeding edge and largely untested. From the moment we put it in production, it was crashing constantly. What OpenTable didn't tell us was that we were guinea pigs. What they didn't tell their sales rep was a lot. They let him promise us things that never worked and had never been tested.

For example, the iPad was pretty useful for seeing the dining room and telling when tables would turn, but it couldn't take reservations. What? That's right; the iPad app was incapable of taking reservations: it would crash or the performance would be so bad that we couldn't take the reservation in real time. When the phone would ring and we needed to take a reservation, someone had to go from the front of the house all the way to the back office and record the reservation on the server. And for this OpenTable wanted a fee?

Worse still is that we were on the phone and email with OpenTable customer support almost from the moment we deployed the system and nobody could or would take responsibility for our account and help us make the system work for us. After nearly three weeks of non-responsiveness despite nearly daily communication with OpenTable, I finally asked the sales rep to take his system back. I thought I was going to get a standing ovation from the front of the house staff, who hated every second of the experience.

Nearly a week after the hardware went back and our account was closed, a product manager finally emailed to find out what maybe they could do to help us in a future product. This is the old barn door getting shut long after the horses left for greener pastures, but very symptomatic of a corporate culture gone wrong. Another telling symptom: OpenTable doesn't have a published phone number for their corporate offices. A customer needing management intervention does not have the option of trying to call one of the executives at OpenTable for some assistance in resolving a problem. Is this arrogance or ignorance? Does it matter?

The story does not end here. The final insult was that despite our returning all their hardware and closing our account with clear documentation that the product delivered was not the product sold, OpenTable hit me with $2600 of early termination fees. Fortunately, I had the foresight to put these on my Amex card and so it was easy enough to dispute the charges. But this seems symptomatic of a company that does not know what it is doing.

And so now those of you who have been asking why we are not on OpenTable and have no plans to ever be, now you know why. Arrogance, incompetence, and worse, a total disregard for the customer who pays their very large fees. Sound like a company you want to do business with? I thought not.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Chef's Tasting

And now post-Valentine's Day, we start a whole series of tastings. Winter is seriously the most challenging time to do tastings as the showy summer fruits and vegetables are absent. We had fun with this menu making do with what we had on hand.

Smoked Salmon "Latke"
Smoked Salmon "Latke". Tony came up with the idea of inverting the smoked salmon and the potato, putting whipped potatoes on top of a thin pancake of shredded smoked salmon, capers, and dill. A twist on your mom's salmon croquettes.

Potted Rabbit
Potted Rabbit. We're blessed to have plenty of rabbits on hand and sometimes when we have too many, we conserve the rabbit by curing it and slow-poaching it in duck fat, then shredding the meat, seasoning it, and mixing it with the highly reduced braising liquid and more fat, then sealing it in a container under a layer of fat. Sound like rillettes? It is.

Hedgehog Mushrooms on Goat Grits
Hedgehog Mushrooms on Goat Grits. Recently, I've been on a kick of enriching my grits with goat cheese, especially to serve with a high acid red wine. On top is a mix of hedgehog mushrooms, roasted sweet potatoes, and spinach.

Sweetbreads. There may be no finer meat to eat than sweetbreads, these from our friends Bill and Holly at Martin's Angus Beef, our regular beef supplier. After poaching in court bouillon, being pressed overnight, and then cleaned, these labor-intensive nuggets have been hard-seared in pancetta oil after being tossed in Wondra and then finished with a splash each of heavy cream and veal glace. Did I mention a bit of black truffles as well? The green is cavolo nero.

Pork Pâté en Croûte
Pork Pâté en Croûte. I made a freaking awesome pork terrine earlier this week from pork shoulder, pork belly, and pork liver and I wanted to serve it for my tastings this week. But I didn't want to do the cold first course kind of thing with it because it has been so cold this week. Tony came up with the idea of wrapping the slices in pastry and then at some later point, we had made this awesome tart apricot chutney that was just hanging out waiting to be used, and so it went inside as well. Served with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette to help tame the unctuousness of the terrine and the pastry.

Wild Boar Bobotie
Wild Boar Bobotie. I'm just going to say it right here and right now: feral wild boar is wild for a reason; it's barely worth eating. Domestic pork is so, so, so much tastier, fatter, and easier to work with. These big feral bastards from Texas are lean, stringy, chewy, and taste much more like beef than pork. Your idea of a good time? Not mine. So what can you do with it? Mostly, we grind it and add a hell of a lot of fat. And then we try to figure out what to do with pounds and pounds of ground boar. And bobotie, the unofficial national dish of South Africa, is a great way to use ground meat. More commonly made from lamb and/or beef, bobotie is an Indian-spiced mince pie topped with an egg custard. This one contains golden raisins, diced apricots, and diced apple.

Lime Curd Parfait
Lime Curd Parfait. With most of our dessert wines, something light and citrusy is called for, if we are not doing a savory profile dessert. Lime whip, lime curd, crème anglaise, and shortbread crumbles make this a tart and light finish to a heavy winter menu.