Saturday, October 27, 2007

Come to my Restaurant.....because you've got to eat!!!

I pulled this piece off my MSN homepage a few days ago. I found it quite interesting and wanted to share my thoughts. I've paraphrased the article to fit it in this post.

Is eating out cheaper than cooking?
By Christan Science Monitor

By the time he's driven to the farmers market, bought the organic veggies and spent an hour cooking a meal for himself and his wife, Mark Chernesky figures he's spent $30.

That's why recently, after fighting rush hour, the Atlanta multimedia coordinator dashed in to Figo, a pasta place, for hand-stuffed ravioli slathered with puttanesca sauce. "I'll get out of here for $17 plus tip," he said.

Crunch the numbers, and across America the refrain is the same: Eating out is the new eating in. Even with wages stagnant, time-strapped workers are abandoning the family kitchen in droves.

Restaurateurs are absorbing rising food and gas costs to keep menu prices low.

For the first time this year, American restaurants will bring in above a half-trillion dollars in total sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. The U.S. has about 925,000 restaurants, and at least 8,000 are added each year.

"The restaurant industry has become more essential to consumer daily lifestyles than at any point in history," said Hudson Riehle, the restaurant association's senior vice president of research.

The biggest reason for the shift in her lifestyle: grocery-store prices. Just the other day, she paid $8 for a package of chicken wings and was shocked that they cost so much.

Despite all the money Americans spend on eating out, restaurants' profit margins are below 5%, the National Restaurant Association says. A dearth of new cooks and waiters has meant the end of many eateries. But cutthroat competition among restaurants has helped them produce good food at low prices, experts say.

"Restaurants aren't winning on their sophistication of pricing -- they're winning on their ability to deliver value," said Mark Bergen, a pricing specialist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "Simply put, restaurants are more efficient than you are."

Restaurant food costs went up more than 5% from the previous year in 2003 and 2004. Yet entrees stayed at much the same prices.

There are definatly two ways for me to examine this article. Once from the perspective of the restaurant, secondly as your average consumer. As an average consumer, with knowledge of food prices based on my job experiances, I am blown away by the markup on food, especially non-perishable food at the supermarket. I don’t like to shop at the supermarket because it irks me just how high the markups can go. Prices on meat and fish are doubled at least. Most non-perishable or dry goods are marked up on the order of 10X. At a restaurant on the other hand I understand the depth and scope of what goes into a meals pricing. I am happy to have a server, bartender, cooks, dishwashers, dishes, flatware, glasses, a bevy of condiments and beverages waiting at my beacon.

Why doesn’t everyone just go out to eat? I think there will be a considerable shift in the near future towards dining out. The prices of food aren’t going to reverse and go down. Food isn’t going to become less perishable. People aren’t going to find more free time, and energy to cook for themselves. Over the past hundred years there are a lot of house chores that have been outsourced. For instance, auto repair, you could go to the auto parts store, buy the parts, educate yourself in car repair, and finally fix your car yourself. You don’t though, you take it to someone with parts, and tools, and education that you lack. In the future we will think the same way about food. You might have the opportunity to visit a grocery store, buy perishable food, learn how to cook, find the time and hopefully an equipped kitchen to work in where you can make dinner. Or you will go to a restaurant just as simply put as taking your car to a professional shop.

The less and less people cook for themselves, the better we off we are in the restaurant. I am not talking about cooking as in entertaining a dinner party, nor is the restaurant I refer to fine dining. Rather cooking and eating revolve around acquiring calories. How will the restaurant keep prices manageable? I think that restaurants hold an inventory of both food and equipment that is far superior to that of any home kitchen. As this division continues to widen it will become more and more economical for people to dine out. The more people that dine out will directly affect the restaurants bottom line, and as we say in the business, sales cure all ills.

Wine Menu

Like everything else since the opening of Wonder Bar the wine list has made some dramatic improvements. The list has doubled in size, and almost every bottle is available as a glass pour. The menu is driven by very reasonably priced mostly California wines that have been picked for their uniqueness in this market. While our customer base my not yet trust us to uncover some tasty unique wines, they are just gonna have to take a leap of faith.

After tasting almost half the list this past week I feel very inspired to think about the interaction between my food and the wine menu. While beer, and most unfortunately domestic ‘light’ beers rule the world, I think they are crap to drink during a meal. In my opinion every wine instantly becomes more approachable when taken as part of a meal. During this interaction the experience of the wine is intertwined with the food so that every sip of wine creates a new flavor experience with the food, and vice verse. The new wine menu has brought together very tasty wine, yet very food friendly wine as well.

The Michael Pozzan, Russian River Chardonnay is the nicest of the three Chardonnay on the list. This wine is quite wholesome, yet crisp and sweet. Three other white varietals are offered, all bringing their expected profiles.

We tasted two Pinot. While the Muirwood Pinot Noir from California has a deep, rounded, full flavor that is hearty enough to just sit and chew on a single glass, the more earthy French Col des Vents Rouge is lighter and wanting to share the spotlight with a few small plates.

The two higher end Cabernet that we offer are quite contrasting. The Napa Valley Contrada is available by the glass and will quench your thirst for a glass of Cab if that is what your looking for. This wine is a study of the stereotypical Cabernet. On the other hand, another offering from Napa Valley, Vinifera is one giant step up. This wine has a very nice balance with just enough tannin to liven up your lips. There are notes of wood, fig, and brown sugar in perfect harmony. While we offer Vinifera only by the bottle, it is a bottle that works equally well before, during and after a meal.

While Wonder Bar is by no means transitoning into a wine bar I hope this expansion of the wine menu shows our commitment to providing a quality dinning experience. Every serious restaurant has a serious food and wine menu, and this is where we stand. The Wonder Bar is a great place to come and have dinner.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Weekly Specials

Duck Leg Confit, Truffle-Soy Greens,
and Christmas Ale Poached Pear
Orange-Miso glazed Wild Sea Bass,
Thai style Udon Noodles

Here are my pears cooling. I didn't like the level of ale flavor they absorbed so I reduced the beer they cooked in with extra honey and cinnamon. Since Great Lakes themselves uses honey and cinnamon as favor components of the ale I didn't feel like I changed the flavor, rather enhanced them.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Poll Results

I’m quite happy with the results of his poll. It seems 80% of the respones came because of "Independent Perspective" or "Visit Similar Places." There are a lot of reasons for a chef like myself to blog about his career above and beyond just his current place of employment. We usually have an interesting take on how the world turns, and enjoy sharing our unique perspective of things. This is one reason we can share recopies and all end up with a different final result. We also relish our independence, and the ability this career affords to bounce around from job to job and this is not look down upon. Independently similar if that makes much sense. If these are the reasons people are visiting my blog, and this is in fact what the poll says, then I’m quite pleased with my work here.

I first started this blog theoretically as an extension of my resume. I caught the blogger bug and things grew bigger and faster than I expected, but I did my best to keep the focus of the blog on me, and what I was doing. For a long time I kept my place of employment completely separate from this blog in an effort to keep a completely independent voice. Since I have become one with the Wonder Bar, it is easy for me to reveal myself as the chef there and assume sole responsibility for the food there. I’ll take it, good, bad, or ugly, it’s my gig. All the while I’ve not let any associations I’ve acquired at WB to silence my independent perspective. By no means do I want this space to be advertisement for WB, but we are so closely intertwined it may appear that way at times.

I’m glad that I can attract and or retain readers who have similar experiences or visit similar places as I do. I posted some reviews in the past, and found the response to be somewhat mixed to say the least. The overwhelming response was a, “who are you to judge?” I have always been honest though, and that goes a long way. I’ve been a critique of places, dishes, and events, but I did it with honesty. If the recipient of these critiques is as resourceful as I am, they would appreciate the truth in my opinion and work towards improving. I want to write more about some of my experiences in other restaurants, but I just haven’t the time to wander around like I used to.

It is good to know that the integrity of this blog is evident and the content is worth continuing to read. I will continue to write about my experiences with an honest independent perspective both at work, and at play on the culinary scene.

More Press

This weeks Dining Lead in the Free Times.

This piece is much more interesting than Mr. Trattner's first trip which included only luke warm polenta. I'm happy to say that we learned our lesson and as he noted, things were hot this time around.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Few New Pics

This is quite the mirage, but really due to the fact the bar is so dark that I set my camera to sunset mode which has a good 3 second shutter speed allowing me to get the rather fleeting images.

A photographer from the Free Times came in the other night to photo some of our dishes. Look for a review soon i guess.

This was a special a few weeks ago. Melon salad with feta, mint and balsamic garnished with fleur de sel and black pepper.

This salad is on our menu right now. Pickled pears, butternut squash, blue cheese all with a maple dressing an a mixture of baby spinach and arugula.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Weekly Specials

This weeks special's aren't necessarily ground breaking. There are just some basic principles behind them that I find intriguing to discuss. We have been doing weekly specials over the past few months, nothing too far from the norm, testing the waters. Basically, I decided to take the whole "specials" presentation out of the hands of the servers and present classy table notes which include the specials and a folded stock card upon which the drinks and wine are listed. I think there is one server among 6 on staff that actually eats meat, so explaining anything beyond salad is a stress for us all.

Potato gnocchi are as easy as taking some mashed potato pulp, about 4 egg yolks per large Idaho potato, and mixing about 1/4 cup flour into them; this should get you close. I don't know because every potato is different, and how long you cook it is different, and how soon you remove the skin is different so you must add the above recomanded ratios together and see if you get a ball of dough that can be rolled out, cut and boiled without dissolving. Add more flour if you can't roll it out, and if it disappears into the water add more egg yolk. Wow, big deal. Make sure to add salt and you're on your way.

Chicken potstickers are easy. Cook the chicken before you make the filling and all your worries are gone. Besides, your flavors will come together much better if you cook the meat with aromatics before wrapping it up. This way, all we have to do is crisp up the wonton skin and be on our way. Easy money.

It's been years now, and I don't know who to attribute the recipe to, but I've been making a butternut squash risotto with apple cider as the liquid for years, over the span of 3 different restaurants, and it's always a hit. I'll do the same this week but leave the rice a little runny and bake it with some cheese/bread topping. The flavor of this dish is always great. I like to grate the squash with the robo-coup so it essentially becomes a piece of squash that acts like a grain of rice or a bit of squash surrounding a grain of rice. Absolutely wonderful.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Visiting Wonder Bar

The author of my favorite local blog came to the Wonder Bar recently and wrote about her experiences for Feast online as well as her blog. If you haven't been to the Cleveland Foodie blog you are missing out. You can find her piece about the Wonder Bar here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

An Ox's Tale

Ox tail by definition is a castrated cow. In line with capon, why is it that removing the testicles of farm animals increases their flavor and culinary value? That is a question for another day. Today I want to examine ox-tail alone. I have been a huge fan of ox-tails since I first worked with them 7 years ago. As a young cook, to find a piece of meat that actually resembles a part of an animal is very exciting. While we are not sick in the head, nor ignorant of the fact that meat comes from animals, it is not very often in the modern kitchen that a piece of meat comes in and is identifiable on an animal, chicken wings aside.

Ox-tails take a lot of work. The meat is intertwined with a very gelatinous material that takes a very long cook time and manual tearing to separate the meat from the bone. The tail is a direct extension of the spine, and we all understand vertebrae, so tail is most often sold in vertebrae-sized segments, about 3 inches thick. I on the other hand purchased whole tails and I can see the yield is much more efficient. I cooked my ox-tails in a mixture of apple juice, onion and garlic for 4 hours at 350 degrees; at that point I took out the thin half of the tails. I cooked the thick "butt" end of the tail for another hour. It is very important to pick the meat off the bones before they are cold. Once cold the meat, gelatinous material and bone all join together again, like a family reunion. The meat needs to be chopped up a little bit and looked over for small bones. The tail bones and gelatin that they still hold are very useful to me. I make an ox-tail stock with the picked bones. I would add veggies for flavor, but at this point we are extracting a lot of gelatin, a lot of body for the final stew. We are making something much harder than a chicken soup.

In the end I have my chopped meat, and a very thick, very gelatinous, stick-to-your-ribs stock. I think the best thing to do with something so hardy is adding something sharp, something spicy!! We take the meat, garlic, ginger and lemongrass and sautee'd them together, until a fragrance of East Asia consumes you. Then a bit of Thai style green curry. Wow, my nose is gonna explode is what you™re thinking. Then for the last half hour we add a small dice of onion, carrot, celery, and bell pepper, adjust the spice, and reserve a few bowls for ourselves. Let me tell you, if you go a restaurant and see the staff eating, this is a good thing, it means the food doesn't suck!!!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Chef's Recipe

While reading some of my favorite food sections across the nation I stumbled upon a very interesting article concerning the custody of recipes developed by a departed chef. The viewpoint and perspectives to approach this discussion are very broad. Being a chef, and one who has both blatantly copied recipes from other restaurants, as well as a chef who has created a lot of unique formulas, I have to take a stand.

A chef has his own personal repertoire, signature dishes, or approach to food. I think that each chef within himself (or herself) should have the pride and consideration to allow a departing chef to leave with his personal repertoire intact. I mean, who among us is happy just coasting along copying others' recipes???? Oh, well, when I think of it there are a lot of chefs just like this. I'll not dwell on this somewhat negative fact. The interesting point comes when a chef considers his recipes as intellectual properties where things like licensing and copyrights are considered. A recipe is only as good as the chef who wrote it. Likewise, a dish made from a recipe is not a direct reflection of the recipe, rather the chef who prepared it. If being a chef was nothing more than following a recipe, a lot more people would be successful at it.

I've left my recipes at many of my previous posts. I consider it an honor, recognition, even an ego inflating argument that they have yet to improve beyond what I accomplished while working for them. I've seen my recipes, and dishes I've created come off menus for a time and then reappear. It makes me feel good that what I did then is worth repeating now. I think that the recipe is not something that is possessed, but rather it's a tool that other cooks and chefs can look at, and use. Hopefully they are inspired to manipulate my basic guidelines into something unique.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


It is a very interesting phenomenon, the whole dining scene in Cleveland is of course, but the extreme peaks and valleys are amazing. This is my second stint working downtown, both times in the hot new area were business is almost built into the street, yet there are times the streets are empty. Luckily there are times when the streets are full as well.

It’s understandable that people want to be downtown when there is an event, sporting or otherwise, but our downtown just isn’t a destination in and of itself like other cities. Downtown is not just a physical space, but an idea, an event in and of itself. Downtown is the city center, the heart of the city, where things are always happening. Well, not exactly in Cleveland. While there are a plethora of destinations that happen to be located downtown, people aren’t coming nearly as much as they should.

We aren’t people coming downtown, specifically why do they stay away when the area is most accessible. When parking is available, bars and restaurants are open, there is no crush of a pre-event crowd, and this is when people should be flocking downtown. Instead, I’m sitting here, at the wonder bar writing this post, wondering why?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Infrequent posts

I’ve found it somewhat difficult to keep up with my work schedule and frequent posts here on my blog. Everything is going wonderfully at the Wonder Bar. My work there is what has drawn me away from the computer, not depression or delinquency.

We opened for lunch last week to rave reviews on the local chat scene. We have been noted in all three paper publication in the city, the PD, Scene, and Free Times, there links are to the left. We appeared on the tele for 4 minutes during a local morning show, and we will be noticed in the November issue of Cleveland Magazine. The word is out, and the people are coming in.

We have had a few days that consisted of a dinner crowd. People eating between 6 and 8 pm. This past Saturday we were crushed by the pre-concert Genesis crowd. We might have 60 seats, but the little wee kitchen isn’t built to cook for them all at the same time. We succeeded, and made it through only 86'n one item.

The menu changed last week, 6 items on, 5 new ones. We didn’t take one away for any reason other than we combined two previous items into one. Quite pleasantly the first new menu item ordered was the braised pork belly, sure to suffer the defeat in the end, but inspired by it’s quick purchase. We serve the pork with a Dr. Pepper glaze which is great, it is a syrup that taste just like dr. pepper, not sweeter, or stronger, just like it, and the spices there tame the fattiness of the belly.

The Thai chicken wrap is the far and away favorite sandwich for lunch. A take on the classic pad Thai. we use peanut butter and spicy jalapeno jelly as a start topped with pulled chicken, carrot slaw, scrambled eggs, and a quick char on the griddle. Fantastic, the list of ingrediants might not be so tempting, but it’s a good sandwich.

From the inner core the management team at Wonder Bar is coming together, we are challenging each other, and pushing each other in a positive direction. I hope that if any dish, or meal that I put out is not up to par someone tells me. I want to hear things like this. The freetimes claimed my polenta and potato where cold, well I’ve made changes so this will never be the case again. We are working together, 6 heads working together, on the same page, we will be successful.

If you haven’t been to the Wonder Bar, please come to eat. We are cooking in all the real senses. We are making our own stocks in little 2 gallon pots at a time. We don’t have a fryer, nothing is cooked in fat, hydrated or not, non. We are taking wholesome ingredients and turning them into something special. Sure there are plenty of places doing the same thing, but we are doing small plates so you can share, and we are preparing them in the Jazz Bar environment which is full of energy and excitement, and we are cooking until midnight, you will not find our quality food cooked till midnight anywhere in the city!!!

Poll Results are in.....

I’m looking at the poll results and I can’t believe my eyes! I’m in total agreement with the voters? I’ve really found my target audience or what? Foie Gras pulls through as the most desired luxury ingredient. I can’t agree more. Caviar I could totally live without, I’ve tasted the freshest beluga available in Cleveland, I’d pass on it if offered again. Truffles, well, being a culinary product of the 90's I’m likely to take your truffle and glaze it with my truffle oil, because, that is what we’ve come to expect from a truffle, falsely yes, but still. Lobster is maybe the most over rated, over priced seafood available. I love a good lobster salad, mayo, celery, lobster, but it’s absolutely crushed, butchered, humiliated in most restaurant applications where the final product is a shriveled up chewy piece of overpriced ocean spider.

All hail Foie Gras! I’ve written about the history and defended the techniques that make foie gras possible in the past, please use these posts as a background for my understanding of the product. I love to eat, and cook foie gras. Chicago made foie gras illegal, California has plans to make foie gras illegal, the french government has made specific appellations in efforts to not let this happen in France. 61% want foie gras, I love it. At least foie gras is safe in Cleveland. I have been on hiatus from this wonderful product for a few months, but I’m back, I can’t wait to get some in. I’ve had a lot of success with foie gras mousse using scrap pieces cut when portioning. These are rather reasonably priced, and my technique uses %100 of the foie purchased. Seared foie gras is more approachable, and lends itself to some unique accompaniments as those very tart, bitter, or even sweet items pair well with the slab of fat. Terrines and torchones don’t go over as well, but they deserve a place in every proper cooks study. A foie gras terrine, a gelle, a pickled something, and toast points...that’s a classic dish for yesterday and today.

Thank you everyone who voted. I’ve been inspired by this idea that foie gras is desirable to many people.