Hospitality @ Home: Kale Salad

shaved brussels sprouts
kale salad ingredients
the beginnings of a beautiful salad

Let us take a moment to consider Kale. That humble, sweet green with the bitter bite that has the texture of an innertube when not prepared correctly.  You can’t swing a salad spinner around Los Angeles these days without hitting a restaurant with a Kale Salad on the menu.  I am ever hopeful, but alas, have been burned many times by the sub-par kale salad.

Until I encountered the amazing version at Food Lab in Silverlake.  I had read about it on Yelp!, Twitter, Facebook, everywhere, and when I met a friend there for lunch a couple weeks ago, I knew I had to have it. Studded with almonds, shallots, brussels sprouts and romano cheese, this salad is my new obsession.

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Restaurant 101: The Price Hike

Even business newspapers must have food critics, I suppose. In order to make it newsy and fitting for his publication, Ryan Sutton, the food critic for Bloomberg News, gives his writing a financial spin. Whatever doesn’t fit in his columns at Bloomberg provides fodder for his blogs The Price Hike, and The Bad Deal.
I appreciate his foot-work, and research; it definitely takes time and discipline. I whole-heartedly applaud his insights on The Bad Deal. I’d love to see a cross-blog examination of the impact bad deals can have on restaurants, sometime in the future.
In his writings on The Price Hike, Sutton suggests one thing at the foundation of his arguments, however, that I find to be absolutely not true:
He assumes that restaurants are all trying to gouge or mislead guests.
In the six years I have managed restaurants, I have never seen this to be the case. Is it possible that there are restaurants that behave this way? Sure. But certainly the uber-chic restaurants that Sutton takes to task are not harboring restaurateurs  who gleefully rub their hands together and laugh about sticking it to their guests.
Many food critics have never worked in a restaurant. Which is fine—you don’t need to work in a restaurant to develop a palate. But when you want to build your career on critiquing restaurant operations? Then the dearth of experience can have an impact. 
 The WSE point-by-point analysis of Mr. Sutton’s “ten rules for better pricing,” after the jump.  
  1. Adopt “Real Cost” Pricing: “Call up The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and a receptionist will tell you “the price of dinner is $405 per couple after tax & tip but before wine.” 
Personally, I think restaurants would run more efficiently if we did this. From a service perspective, however, some guests really hate it when you bring up pricing over the phone. For every guest that appreciates it, there is another guest that will snap “What? You don’t think I can afford it?”
  1. Include Prices for Online Wine Menus.
The reason that many restaurants don’t publish full wine lists or prices online is because they change so frequently. Almost every week there is a new vintage of a standby bottle, something is on backorder from the vendor, less popular bottles fall off the list to be replaced by something new and exciting. The amount of data entry required to keep an online list accurate would be a full time job for someone. Most restaurants would rather have the information on the website be accurate.  If we can’t keep certain information updated, we tend not to include it. We are always willing to fax or email you a copy of the current wine list, though. 
  1. Increase Prices at Regular Intervals.
For smaller, single owner operations, this can be improbable. Menu prices are arrived at by an algorithm involving the cost of the food, cost of labor, overhead, and then a sliver left over for profit. 
Items also need to be priced in such a way that they actually seem like a value to guests, otherwise they won’t get ordered, and will go to waste in your walk-in refrigerator. Which will cost you more money in the long run. 
Sure, we could charge $50 for the ribeye steak, to ensure that our costs are more than covered, and buffered against future inflation. But who will order that steak when they know they can buy the same ribeye from their local butcher for $18?
And if the cost of the steaks you purchase goes up by $1 pound, do you wait until the pre-determined date to change the menu price and lose that profit in the meantime? When restaurants can make this work, great. But if drought conditions in the Midwest wipe out grain supplies, and drive up the cost of flour, even stalwarts will raise their prices ‘off-schedule.’ 
At such bastions of fine dining as Per Se, the practice of raising prices at regular intervals probably developed more out of operational efficiency than anything else. The goodwill aspect of it is a fringe benefit. It’s also worth noting that Per Se is the sort of restaurant that diners budget trips around, so it makes sense for them to be very mindful of how frequently they raise their prices.
4. Announce Prices During Reservations Process. Again, some guests love this, and just as many people find it repulsive.  Since the rules of etiquette state that the discussion of money is impolite, the only safe way to proceed is to pursue the graceful approach, and only bring up cost when someone asks. 
       
Unless, as mentioned below, you are talking about the market price of menu items and    specials once the diners are seated. Then you are merely reciting additions to the menu, which in no way can be interpreted by anyone as an insinuation that a guest cannot afford the venue. 
5.     Include Prices on Online Food Menus: “I have no idea how much dinner at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Midtown will cost because there are no online prices on the Four Seasons website, on the Robuchon website, on Opentable.com or on Menupages.com” 
There could be several reasons for this. Super high-end places will have items and preparations that change frequently. The seasonal vegetables that are served with the sea-trout can change daily based on what is best at the farmer’s market, the cost of certain items might edge up or down.
If a restaurant is highly conscious of sustainability, the even the fish they have available to use can change weekly, or daily.
If the chef cannot get sustainably caught mahi-mahi, he will change the dish to Hawaiian Ono on the fly. These changes could require an update of the website nearly every day.  And, as Sutton so accurately points out, it is not just the restaurant’s own site that would need to be updated– there are several aggregating  sites that need to be looped in.
Or, it is possible that the chef/owner simply does not wish to make this information easily available to his competitors.
 
But again, most restaurants are happy to fax or email a menu to you if you ask. You don’t even need to mention that cost is your concern– you can tell us you would like a copy for allergy-related information.
  1. Publish Market Prices: “Don’t embarrass me when I have to inquire about the cost publicly at the table and I learn that I can’t afford it.” 
Market prices aren’t on the menu because they really do change frequently. Unless the restaurant is printing menus every day (which has sustainability & cost issues), it is impossible to print this accurately.  In a fine dining restaurant, however, the server should mention the market prices of those items when they recite the daily specials, precisely to save anyone from needing to ask.
  1. Give Advance Notice: “Sure, there are good business reasons not to give advance notice of price hikes (i.e. skewing demand at “sale” prices), but from a consumer perspective, advance notice is PRETTY COOL.”  
This is not always possible. And half your target audience will read the news and think it’s pandering and cheesy.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to do this, I just think that Mr. Sutton is over-estimating it’s impact.
  1. Get Ahead of the Inflation Curve: Food prices will go up for the rest of our lives. We get it. So think like an economist and raise your steaks $15 bucks now and get ahead of the inflation curve, instead of hiking them by $2-$5 every few months…”
This sounds vaguely unethical. Try explaining a policy like this at a table. To a guest.
How could they think that you are doing anything but gouging them? This point seems a little half-baked. 
I have fielded plenty of suggestions from diners over the years. No one has ever complained about prices changing by “$2-$5 dollars every few months.”
  1. No Jigsaw Puzzle Pairing Prices: As I note in my column, would you walk into a restaurant and order a beverage pairing without food? Of course not. That’s why Le Bernardin deserves credit for listing the paired tasting at $330, instead of $190 food and $140 for wine. Other restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, which lists its wine pairings separately (as a $145 supplement to the $195 menu) should adopt Le Bernardin’s more transparent policy.”
This is the spirit of a la carte. Guests can build their own adventure from the menu offerings. They can enjoy the pre-fixe menu with or without the wine pairings. As a critic for a major paper, Mr. Sutton has the luxury of dining at fine establishments on a regular basis.  At least a third of the other diners in the room with him on a given night are here to celebrate the kind of milestones (birthdays, anniversaries, promotions) that they have budgeted for. This night out at a high-end restaurant will last them for 9 months to a year.
Why embarrass those diners by forcing them to ask what the cost of the menu would be without the wine pairings? I also believe that the separate pricing of the food and wine pairing is an attempt to be more transparent.
  1. Build Service Charge Into Prices
This point is only marginally different from the first point about ‘real cost pricing.’ But who wants to a read a list of  9 points when we are so comfortable with lists of 10….?
Operationally and service-wise, though, I support making this change. It is difficult to do, because staff are accustomed to having the opportunity to make more than 15% on each table. Some guests also balk at this because they like the control of voting with their dollar. They don’t want to be forced to pay the equivalent of 18% gratuity if they feel they received 10% service. This is a highly contentious conversation within the hospitality industry, the nuances of which will fill an entire future post on this blog.
But on this one point, Sutton and I agree.

Share Plate: Q & A with Kevin from Kevineats.com

 

Kevin, enjoying a glass of Krug with chef M. Voltaggio

If you consider yourself a gastronome in Southern California and you are not reading kevineats.com, then you should start now.


From the French Laundry &  Le Bernardin, to Ludobites 2.0 – 6.0, and into the enigmatic world of underground dining, Kevin guides you through some of the most enticing and exciting menus coming out of the best kitchens in the country. He dines the way we  all wish we could dine; showcasing each dish with photos that will make you salivate, and even-handed descriptions that let you experience an often super-hyped trend without all the propaganda.

Before you drop $900 on that dinner at Alinea or The Bazaar, or make that reservation for your anniversary at Lucques, you should experience his posts on all.


WSE: Congrats on the Saveur 2011 Best Food Blog nomination!
Kevin: Thanks. It was definitely a surprise… very unexpected.
WSE: What interests you so much about gastronomy?  
Kevin: Being able to experience food as much more than mere sustenance. I love it when food can provoke me, surprise me, challenge me, make me think, evoke a sense of time and place.

black truffle explosion from Kevin’s first visit to Alinea

WSE:  Is there a particular dish or experience that unlocked your epicurean energy?

Kevin:  Alinea, which happens to be my first blog post ever. It was back in 2006, when I was just a budding foodie. The cuisine there was so unlike anything that I’d ever eaten up to that point. It challenged my preconceived notions of what food could be, and engaged me on an intellectual, not merely gustatory level. As a result, I felt compelled to document the experience. That’s the genesis of kevinEats.

 
WSE: How do you select your next victim…. I mean, venue?  
Kevin: A steady diet of Daily Dish, Eater, Grubstreet, and Squid Ink generally keeps me abreast of the latest targets. And of course, there are a number of LA standbys that I just haven’t gotten around to. There’s no dearth of places to visit around these parts–I have to be somewhat selective.  
WSE: You seem to have a real reverence for great service and a love for food; Have you ever had absolutely terrible service while you were out somewhere? 
butter poached lobster from a visit to the French Laundry
Kevin: Service has almost always been a non-issue for me. The only exception actually happened recently at Umami Burger. I was forced to walk out of the restaurant for the first time ever after sitting at my table 40 minutes without being served. I tweeted about the debacle, and I was surprised to find out that a lot of other people shared my negative sentiments about the place as well.
WSE:  Maybe people recognize you when you go out in LA and that keeps your service level high..?
Kevin: I’ve definitely had a few people come up to me– but they are usually other diners…. I was at the opening night of Bouchon in Beverly Hills and three different people came to talk to me because they read kevineats…. as for the restaurants recognizing me, I’m sure some of them do…. its hard to miss the guy taking pictures of everything before he eats it. 
WSE: Do you think it’s impossible to be anonymous as a reviewer in the current world of twitter/facebook/blogging?
Kevin: Ideally, it should be done [anonymously]. But I don’t think that’s a possibility anymore. Everything is too connected now. 

WSE: You review places from taco trucks to Michelin starred restaurants… how do you adjust your critiques for each different venue? 
Kevin: Restaurants must be judged in the appropriate context–with respect to their peers, and with regard to what a place strives to be. That’s something that I always have to keep in mind. Certainly, I would expect more in terms of innovation, whimsy, and sense of humor at Alinea than I would from a taquería, but both places can be “5 stars” in my mind if they excel at what they each attempt to accomplish.
WSE: In some of your earlier posts, you joke about how you go out to dine with 9 or 10 of your closest friends, but your recent posts seem to feature smaller parties. What’s the ideal party size for you when you go out to review a new place?
from a recent visit to Playa
Kevin: I think part of the reason my parties look smaller now is because I stopped writing the names of each person at each dinner…. but now I like to keep it to a party of four. That allows you to try several different things on the menu… sometimes even the whole menu– as we did at Playa— and it’s easier than a really large group. I still do the big groups sometimes– at Fraiche a few months ago– but I like to do tasting menus when we do that… so everyone gets their own plate of each dish. Not everyone is a foodie or a blogger, so it can be annoying for them to wait to eat something because everyone else wants to take a picture first. 
WSE: So you go out with other bloggers?
Kevin: Yeah. Blogging can be cliquey…. 
WSE: Did the Yelp elite co-opt that aspect of the scene? 
Kevin: In some ways….it’s unfortunate, but inevitable. 
WSE: Seems like a sensitive subject….Do you Yelp?
Kevin: I got banned from Yelp, actually… for posting links to my reviews on my blog. They really prefer for you to just do everything on Yelp…. But I still check it out sometimes. Usually when I am going to a new place and I want to find the best places to park.
a crab dish from a Pheast Underground dinner
WSE: What’d you have for lunch today?
Kevin: A pretty dry burger from Fuddruckers… It was a co-worker’s last day and he picked the place. 
WSE: You don’t seem to have the greatest luck with burgers….
Kevin: I’m not really a big burger person…. but I enjoy the Father’s Office Burger. And I want to try the one at Golden State. 
WSE: What do you drink on these excursions?
Kevin: I once had a fascination with the mojito, but I’ve since moved on. I’d say that I’m trying to get more into beer now. My turning point was tasting La Chouffe for the first time. I didn’t like beer until I tasted it. It has so much complexity but it’s not too hoppy; it’s interesting but not too interesting.
WSE: What are you excited for next?
Kevin: I’m trying to get to El Bulli before it closes for good. And here in LA, I’m looking forward to Ink. to open in July.
Check Kevin out at www.kevineats.com, and vote for him (Tonight– voting closes on 5/12) for Best Food Blog on Saveur.

Public School 612

Allegash White on draft at Public School 612
If the American Culinary Landscape could be expressed as a music scene, New York would be Opera, with the all grand stages, high stakes, high$$$, and divas-dive-bombing-one-another associated with it.
Chicago would have to be jazz, featuring lots of improvisation on common themes; those that love it, love it, and those that don’t…. well… they don’t ‘get’ it. San Francisco would be Folk and the neo-folk resurgence (organic, sustainable, usually featuring a mandolin…).
And Los Angeles…?
Los Angeles would probably be an accumulation of One-Hit-wonders; Like a NOW! Music compilation; the biggest identifying feature of the LA scene being the constant pursuit of that most ephemeral quality… coolness.
One of the latest competitors in the LA arena is Public School 612, the new bar concept for the Daily Grill Downtown. Walking in, it feels as though this place has always been there– the floors are worn, the table tops just weathered enough, the light fixtures are wrought iron and rustic. When I was there a few days ago, there was not only a mix of neighborhood residents and office-dwellers with ties just loosened, but a few downtown restaurant people, too (chef Meehan from Cafe Pinot was at the bar, and a handful of event directors from the surrounding restos held court at a corner table).

From the t-shirt clad bar staff to the composition notebook menus, it looks cool. Almost too cool.

It would be devil-may-care chic to write your menu on a composition book, but
the PS composition book menu is not an actual composition book, it’s a cleverly designed facsimile. Dishes are presented on tissue paper printed to look like newspaper. There’s a basket of apples on the bar that never gets used for anything; they’re not muddled into a drink or used as a garnish. They just make the theme work. Which made me wonder if my wobbily table was in need of repair, or if it was intentional.
And so the restaurant ends up with a faux patina of grungy Bohemia that lacks the seasoning and substance that would make it authentic.
But there is nothing wrong with Public School.
And that’s the funny part. There is nothing wrong with Public School; every imperfection seems to have been focus grouped, cross referenced, and studied. It doesn’t feel like anything just… happened.  The definition of cool involves some level of not caring. Being earnest is not cool. Wanting to be cool, is never cool.

The Grill Concepts Group has co-opted a vibe that organically occurs in Los Feliz and Silverlake, and made it a theme. Which is soLA. But even in their theme they fall slightly short. The daiquiri listed on their cocktail menu screams to be a Hemingway daiquiri. And why have a school theme and not offer ‘american history’ and ‘european history’ beer flights?

On to the brass tacks stuff, though:
A la Father’s Office and sundry museum cafes, at Public School you order everything from the bar. So your food can find you, they hand you a number to place on your table (in photo above). I asked if they had a number 13, but the bartender thought I was joking.
Biggest hits are the fried chicken and the stout float. The cheese plate is dependable, and the sriracha ketchup & honey mustard sauces with the bag o’ fries are delicious.  The draft beers are eclectic, the staff is warm and engaging, and the food is good. It won’t knock your socks off, but that’s not really what they’re trying to do here. They are trying to be a go-to neighborhood spot that fits in with the climate of this recessionary time.
And in that, they are succeeding…. at least until that fickle mistress, Los Angeles, decides that she’s in the mood for caviar and sparkly wine again…