Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

You guys who write daily are out of your minds. I have no clue how you find the time, much less the inspiration. Even once or twice a week is challenging.

Christmas has come and gone in a flash. Both of our parents are split up and both families see extended family on the holidays - so between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it can be a little hectic. Last year we drove about 320 miles and visited six homes in about 24 hours. We omitted a few stops this year and it was much easier to handle. Today I have a second interview about a possible pastry position for a restaurant that is to open in a few weeks. Its exciting thinking about getting back into it. I have been spending most of my free time the past few days trying to clean up and organize my recipes. A few years ago I took the time to digitize everything - and needless to say I haven't kept up with it. I have been sifting through a few years worth of notes, jots, tests, experiments and ideas. Its fun to revisit things, to see how I have matured, how ideas have progressed - the evolution of my creative process. 

Dominic, lets chat about your most recent post. The first paragraph, specifically;

"On Monday we had a group in for a 5 course tasting menu and wine pairings. They confirmed the number several days prior to be 9 regular people and one vegetarian. At 5:00, about an hour before the event they confirmed the number to be 8 regular people, no vegetarian. 11 people showed up. I have no idea where the vegetarian is, likely too ill to attend."

This is a difficult one. I think that there is a certain mysterious nature to our industry, and for people who have never worked in it, there are a lot of unknown things. I have seen and experienced this  scenario a few times - and if you are in a restaurant that does not have a regular tasting menu, it can be a real drain. 

I've had people ask me, 'How do you bake bread so fast so that each table gets a fresh loaf?' The answer is - once you have made something 50,000 times - you learn how to shave some time off the process.  All joking aside - you don't bake bread to order. You bake it in the morning, or in some cases the day before, and then reheat it before it goes to a table. This basic idea applies to most things served in a restaurant. Typically you prep whatever you can in advanced and hold it for however long you can without compromising its quality, and then reheat or finish it to order. 

For example - most places aren't making their red sauce every day. A cook will think, 'This recipe will yield enough for me to get through the weekend and it will hold fine for 3 days.' Then when your spaghetti is fired, your pasta (fresh or already blanched) is dropped in (already simmering) water, your sauce is put in a fry pan and in a few minutes they are married and sent out to your table.  

The whole point I am trying to make is that as a guest, you may think things like, 'Whats the big deal if a couple extra people show up for the tasting menu' or 'Its okay if we cancel last minute, at least we're letting them know and now they don't have to cook for us!' - But the reality is if you have made a reservation for a tasting menu, and the restaurant isn't lazy (just plating tasting portions of menu items) - its fairly likely special ingredients have been ordered specifically for you and your guests, and that one or more chefs or cooks have dedicated time to prep (in advanced) your entire menu. Adding a guest or two isn't a huge deal because often chefs over prepare a bit for many reasons - this being one of them. But I think its still kind of inconsiderate. Would you show up to a dinner party with a few extra people in tow, unannounced? Would you wait until 30 minutes before dinner is served to tell your Mother you and your guests aren't coming? So why act this way towards a restaurant? 

A solution? 

Well, selling tickets is something that has been gaining a lot of popularity. Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz started it in 2011 with their restaurant Next. The basic idea is similar to buying tickets for a show...you see a calendar, with available seats and times. A two top at 7. A 4 top at 10. You can add your beverage pairing. Buy your ticket and then its confirmed. You have paid for your meal and reservation in advanced, now its all on you to show up. 

I know this is geared towards higher end places, places that do not accept walk-ins, and could conceivably lose hundreds of dollars per guest who does not show (there is, however, evidence that the system, or a variation on it can be applied to casual, a la carte restaurants). It can be a serious financial drain for these restaurants - so this solution seems to work fairly well. Kokonas has developed a system,  Tock, which is currently in a pilot phase and is scheduled to go live sometime next year. I know of 11 restaurants who are currently using the system, and several more are scheduled to sign on. You can see on Tock's web site that it is catching on... Fish & Game - in Hudson, NY - is switching over. 

I don't expect to see this in Albany any time soon. And thats okay. My only experience with a ticketing system was for Next's debut menu - Paris 1906 - which at the time was maybe the most sought after reservation in the country. Needless to say it required a lot of time hitting refresh on a crashing website. I did, however, secure a pair of tickets. 

Another solution? One thing I saw, often enough to think it was common practice, was the requirement for a credit card to hold your reservation and a cancelation policy..which generally read something like 'if you cancel with less than 24 hours notice you are subject to a fee of $X.XX' . I always thought this was totally reasonable - and I know the system is in place with sites like opentable - which seems like it is finally starting to catch on in this area. 

Anyway...Im glad that your guests actually showed and you weren't damaged financially or emotionally (Its fun doing tastings! It sucks when they get taken away!).

Now on to Daniel. In regards to your '3 Reasons Not To Trust Dunkin Donuts' post. I've got to say I love whenever anyone smears Dunkin Donuts. Its not a 'go to the little guys' thing for me - which generally I support and encourage - its just a deep rooted hatred for that steaming heap. (In my youth I had fun coming up with nicknames for shitty chains - Dunkin Donuts is known to me as Funkin Blonuts - though my personal favorite is Yak in the Box). Anyway - all I want to say about this post is of course you shouldn't trust Dunkin Donuts. Of course its shit. I think - or hope - that most people recognize it for what it is. And its popularity is due mostly to its convenience. I can name probably a dozen intersections or stretches of roads where you don't need to turn left - going in either direction - to get your sugar and/or caffeine fix from Dunkin Donuts. Not turning left carries a LOT of weight for me whenever I am driving. 

Another post I would like to call attention to is, 'Small, Cheap, & Unique.' Its no secret that in the past, I have had a lot of resentment for this area - its something that I think a lot of people who grow up around here harbor. It gets worse the older you get and the more well travelled you are. Now, with that being said, this past year J & I have taken some action to leave. The trip we went on, that I keep not talking about, was specifically to find someplace new to call home. Somewhere that does have the things we love and look for. Over the summer we did a lot of soul searching, and tried to make the most of what we have available to us here. What did I learn? That its not so bad here. The first time it hit me like a hammer was wandering through the old growth forest at Lisha Kill Nature Preserve. I had rode my bicycle past this area probably hundreds of times and never noticed it. It was all a matter of opening my eyes and letting my guard down. Heres this place, that is really quite spectacular, and one of many - that is literally just a few minutes from my house. And in 28 years I had never noticed it. 

So for the remainder of my time in this area, which is probably going to be one year, I am going to try and be more open to things. I will seek things out, I will give things a chance, and while I will certainly be critical - I will also be fair. I think I will start with your list.

A choppy video from Lisha Kill

Now - I never got the chance to visit Shwe Mandalay, and I am a little bummed about that. My cousin turned me onto Burmese food in the summer of 2009. She was visiting from San Francisco and brought a fermented tea leaf salad (or more accurately, the ingredients for one) for me to try. A few weeks later I was in San Francisco with her and in a week we ate at no less than half a dozen Burmese restaurants. Yamo and Burma Superstar have since been regular stops for me any time I am in San Francisco. I'm sad that they have closed, and even more so that I didn't get a chance to stop in.

As for the rest of your list - I have actually been to every place except Persian Bite, and frankly my feelings on all of them are not the same as yours. But I am going to give every single one another chance. More than anything, I want to support these small business owners who have taken the risk to do something they love - something I am way too big of a coward to do myself. But I believe that any kitchen can have an off day - I've experienced them at Michelin Starred restaurants (maybe I'll write about Tru someday) - and everywhere deserves at the very least a second chance. I appreciate that you took the time to recommend specific things - which I will also consider when I visit. From here out - whenever I go to one of these places I will write about it and be sure to let you know what I think. Thank you for what you do to support people and places like those on your list. 


  1. Daily blogging isn't always easy. I'm able to do it because I don't require that much sleep. Mostly it happens late at night, and has pretty much taken the place of television, movies and video games.

    There's almost never a shortage of things to write about. If I look at my list of stories I want to write (yes, I keep a list... it is in the cloud), there are at least sixty different posts waiting in the wings. Honestly, none of them may ever get written, because new stories come up all the time.

    Occasionally I think about dedicating more time to the blog and posting multiple stories per day. But that would be madness. Right now, the blog is an engine for ideas but not an end unto itself. I'm not entirely sure where it will go, but I know it's heading in the right direction.

    I am curious to learn more about your negative experiences at those five local restaurants I featured in "Small, Cheap & Unique." To be clear, I'm prioritizing food over ambiance and service. Also I have a different standard for inexpensive restaurants. Where I might expect every dish to be delicious at a truly great starred restaurant, I'll rave about a cheap place if they make just one exceptional dish. Getting the soup dumplings at Taiwan Noodle is a bad idea. Getting the tamales at La Mexicana is a bad idea. The bhatura at Parivar just isn't any good.

    However, it is the gems that make them worthwhile. And even then, if you are just returning from the SF Mission, I'd wait a couple of months before heading into La Mex. Food cannot and should not be removed from its context. These are dishes and cuisines being served in a small desolate corner of upstate NY, and they get bonus points for the chutzpah.

    1. Well said Daniel!!!

    2. Daniel - I wrote a rather long reply here and then clicked 'sign out' rather than 'publish' - something I have done more than once before. Now I am too annoyed to type up such a long response.

      You can see my last post for an explanation about Ala Shanghai

      Taiwan Noodle - when I went the beef noodle soup had weak broth, shitty beef (that wasn't shank) and no pickled mustard greens or Chinese sauerkraut. Considering beef noodles prevalence in Taiwanese culture - its a dish they should nail.

      La Mexicana - I want this place to be good more than any other. I at the majority of my meals at taquerias when I lived in Chicago - and J&I ate Mexican frequently, all over the country on our trip this Fall. When I went I tried one of every taco and a torta - and everything was bland, boring, just...flat. If I keep it in context - its better than anywhere else around here - but lets say it was in SF or Chicago or...anywhere. I wouldn't eat there NOT because there is better Mexican available - but simply because the food sucks. I crave Mexican probably more than any other food, so I suspect we will go here first (we actually almost went a few times already...and unfortunately tried the new place in Peter Harris Plaza in Latham because it was closer to us....and WOW IT WAS BAD) ...and I hope, REALLY hope, they have improved. Im glad you recommended a Torta - J&I really fell in love with them on our trip. The best we found was at a food truck in Portland, run by a bunch of white hippies. Better than Xoco, Torta Gorda...better than anywhere. We did find very good Cemitas in Chicago though, which had probably the best Al Pastor I have ever had. Maybe someday I will make you a Torta..

      Parivar - I really dont remember this place enough to say anything. All I know is that I haven't gone back. We went to a wonderful chaat house in Oakland and Im excited to try this place again.

      As for Persian Bite & Tara - Im looking forward to trying both for the first time!

    3. Oh and, as for writing daily - the creative process isn't what I struggle with. Its the actual act. Often times I sit down to write and...nothing comes out. Or its so forced that its just...terrible.