Friday, April 27, 2001
Last night we were in the mood for some soul-pleasing comfort food, so Colleen and I hit Smoke Daddy Bar-B-Q on Division Street. Except for the flashing neon "WOW!" sign above the door, from the outside it looks like no more than an unassuming hole in the wall. And from the inside, the pretention meter barely moves a tic, with well-worn booths on one side and a bar lined with regulars on the other.
I can see us operating a place like Smoke Daddy. It's comfortable. It's reasonably priced. It even provides good, free music. And the cooks there serve up some of the best-tasting fries this side of the Daily Bar and Grill, located over in my 'hood. (The standard side dish -- in this case, fries -- is another great way to define ourselves.)
What I particularly like about Smoke Daddy is its layout: Half of the space -- and this place couldn't be larger than 20 feet wide by 50 feet long -- is dedicated to table dining, and the other half is dedicated to eating/drinking at the bar. It's the latter half that I'm fond of. Countertop dining has advantages attractive to both owner and customer, namely space efficiency. It would also encourage regularity, because forcing customers to take up a whole table might discourage solo visits -- and solo visits are key for the regular diner.
At Kan Zaman last week, a customer asked the waiter where the owner was. "He's gone fishing, up in Wisconsin. Come back next week and we'll have fish specials."
It was neat to hear, just the sort of thing I like about small restaurants. I get the feeling Charlie Trotter doesn't summon his lieutenants to say, "Hold my calls: I'm gonna go shoot us a bear!" (I also get the feeling that Trotter's such a priss, he couldn't hunt himself a celery stalk.)
Whether we're gone fishing or not, I look forward to being the kind of restaurant where customers ask about us if we're not around.
Wednesday, April 25, 2001
I had asked Sandy to post his impressive cooking flow chart, and I'm glad he did so with such thoroughness.
This aspect of restaurant management boggles me. How do they do it? I had enough trouble at lunch today getting my stir fry, rice and salad ready at the same time (I failed). This was one meal for one person. And despite having four plates to fill at his dinner party, Sandy had it just as easy: Everybody was eating the same thing, and he had several days to prepare his kitchen and put on his gameface. But when a table of six orders six different entrees, with six different salads and 12 different sides, how does a chef get everything done on schedule? I can't fathom how someone can juggle so much -- space, time, food, tools, people and heat -- without turning to heavy narcotics. Then again, apparently many do.
I should note also that, yes, Sandy is a very good chef. Any friends reading this would be wise to cash in ASAP. And any strangers reading this would be wise to get on his Christmas list with similar haste. Here is his application form.
As a solution to the annual holiday gift-giving dilemma, last year I distributed home-made gift certificates to all of my freinds. They read: "This coupon entitles the bearer to 1 homecooked meal by Master Chef Sandor." It was personal, it was a chance to flex my burgeoning cooking skills, and it was an opportunity to spend quality time with my friends -- all wrapped up in one present. It was the smartest gift I'd even given.
Sadly, most giftees found calling the host up to invite themselves over for dinner too imposing, and so far -- keep in mind it's been four months already -- only three people out of a group of at least 25 have redeemed their coupons. It's disappointing, but I'll admit that the flaw is partly in the design of the gift, so I'll have to tinker with the concept for the next holiday season.
The good news is that I've cooked some kick-ass grub for each of those three meals. For Amanda, I whipped together some polenta with sauteed veggies. For Colleen, I made a sweet and sour pork chop dish out of a first-timer cookbook I own. And for Christine and Scott, who came over this past Saturday, I hosted my very first honest-to-god, wine-and-candles-and-cloth napkins-and-everything sit-down dinner party.
The menu was as follows: We started with a simple salad, with some mandarin oranges tossed in for sweetness. The main dish was a roasted pork tenderloin, spiced with thyme, and served with an apples, prunes and onion marmalade. As a side, I served mashed sweet potatoes from The New Joy of Cooking, which contained ginger and cinammon and walnuts and a splash of orange juice. And for dessert, we ate a very sweet, very tart, very very tasty apple-rhubarb crisp.
And, boy oh boy, the cooking gods were smiling on me.
Everyone, myself included, was bowled over by the quality of the food. That it was not only edible, but desirable, is promising news for my cooking skills and the future of this restaurant. But it was hardly the most impressive feat of the evening. Two hours before my guests arrived, I had a kitchen full of ingredients and four dishes to create. They would have be prepared concurrently, and they all had to be finished cooking at precisely the right time, lest they cool whilst sitting on the kitchen counter awaiting consumption. And on top of that, I somehow had to fit in time for me to sit down and eat with my guests.
Even though I had help, it was too big of a task to trust to instinct. Maybe when I'm a seasoned gourmet, I'll have the pattern of cooking meals ingrained in my head, but it wasn't going to happen Saturday. To alleviate some of the pressue, I created a schedule that detailed when each step in the dish-creating process would have be completed in order for the dish to be delivered on time. And it was a good thing that I did, because we constantly found ourselves checking the schedule, making sure we weren't forgetting to put something in the oven, or worse yet, take something out. So reliant on the schedule was I that I even had to specify a few minutes for a shave and clothes change.
It was a tricky test, but it worked, and it's driven home an important point: Making dinner for four, let alone a dining room full of hungry, impatient patrons, not only takes mastery of the skillet, but of the clock. I'd love to take a peek into the kitchen of a large restaurant and see how they manage making all those dishes at the same time. We definitely shouldn't attempt it ourselves without first-hand experience. And until we get that, I guess we really only have one choice.
Who's up for dinner at my place?
Tuesday, April 24, 2001
YANI: Caravan. (So exciting, so inviting.)
Or, if we wish to be known for our flan and kuchen: Dessert Caravan.
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