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.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

February Tasting

It's been a very long time since I posted anything here, since before the holidays. The holidays are a struggle in themselves and then comes January. Slow month for sure, but filled with paperwork trying to close the prior year, get W-2s to the employees, and get our taxes done. And then starts all the planning for Valentine's Day, which just having passed is giving me the luxury of a little free time to post some photos. So, we've done lots of tastings in the interim, but had no time to blog about them.

And then, it's just smack in the middle of winter with no exciting produce or products to stimulate our creativity. I really don't have anything more to say about parsnips right now, you know?

We didn't do a good job with portion sizes here. This was way too much food for a seven-course dinner, but then in our defense, it was freezing out and we were serving comfort food, stuff that we always seem to serve too much of.

Clam Imperial
Clam Imperial. One good thing about winter is that we seem to get really sweet and tasty clams, when the clammers can get out. And when the ground is not too frozen, we can dig some leeks to go with those clams. Clams in a rich béchamel with smoky Surry sausage and leeks is a wonderful thing, as comforting as the best chowder, only richer and more sinful.

Char with Caramelized Fennel
Char with Caramelized Fennel. We lucked into some really nice fennel and the char was merely the vehicle for serving the sinfully unctuous braised and caramelized fennel. Served with a round of fennel and orange butter.

Mushrooms and Grits
Mushrooms and Grits. Nothing more comforting in my book than crispy mushrooms on a pile of warm, creamy grits. This dish has hedgehogs, bluets, and both white and brown clamshells (aka beech mushrooms).

Ballotine of Rabbit and Boar
Ballotine of Rabbit and Boar. Our rabbit guy walked in the door with five rabbits the afternoon of this tasting, so I boned out an entire loin with flaps and stuffed it with a sausage that I made from wild boar, blanched strips of carrots, and blanched rapini stems. In another season I would have used haricots verts or asparagus, but being February, the only thing long, skinny, and green that I could find was the tender stems of some baby rapini from a local greenhouse. I might have wrapped this ballotine in crépine/caul fat, but I didn't have any, so I used prosciutto. Served with a little cavolo nero.

Piccadillo Dulce of Lamb Shank
Picadillo Dulce of Lamb Shank. This was actually a dish built around the pimentón aïoli that you see on the plate. In the south of France, they would call this mayonnaise a rouille (rust). I like the smoky flavor that comes from the smoked peppers in the pimentón. I had a lamb shank in the cooler that was just aching to become a sweet and sour dish, flavored with olives, almonds, golden raisins, garlic, sweet red and yellow peppers, onions, poblano peppers, pimentón, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, and Sherry vinegar. You also see a smoky chickpea salad with roasted red pepper and raw red onion, dressed with olive oil, Sherry vinegar, and more pimentón.

Smoked Duck, Sweet Potatoes, and Beluga Lentils
Smoked Duck with Sweet Potatoes and Beluga Lentils. This is a dish that I conceived as a one-biter on top of a water biscuit for a local winery to pair with their newly released Syrah. And so I upsized it and served it with Syrah for our tasting. The particular Syrahs that I paired with this have an earthiness that I echoed in the sweet potatoes but more so in the lentils. The lentils have bacon in them and they, along with the smoked Moulard breast, help enhance the smoky quality of the wine. To pull out the inherent pepperiness of the Syrah grape, I used a syrup of Tasmanian pepper.

Cranberry-Apricot Fregotto with Maple-Glazed Pork Belly
Cranberry-Apricot Fregotto with Maple-Glazed Pork Belly. This dish aims for an almost savory finish, though we may have got carried away with the maple syrup on the candied pork belly. The fregotto, a neologism of my own concoction from fregola and risotto, indicating fregola sarda cooked in the style of a risotto, is quite tart and bright, having been cooked with unsweetened cranberry purée. We sweetened it a touch at service by adding dried apricots, dried cranberries, and a touch of maple syrup.