Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tuesday's Teaser

Tom says:
We're nearing the end of construction and it's going to be a Big Push this week to wrap it all up. Today I have no fewer than four trade crews in the space. The electricians are just about finished, the plumbers are making their first appearance to begin rough work, the carpenters are putting final touches on the banquettes, and Mike's prepping the bar floor for tile. That's a lot of crew in not a lot of space. I'm hoping everyone plays well together. Just because there's no room for me in the space doesn't mean my to-do list is any shorter.

Onto today's menu teaser: Goat Cheese Croquettes.

In my opinion, a great salad has four essential ingredients: fresh quality greens, a fruit, a nut and a cheese.

We are fortunate here in New Hampshire to be able to source great local goat cheeses from some wonderful farms as well as some of the best spring mesclun lettuce mixes I've worked with. Local lettuce mixes are always a treat as they vary slightly in composition throughout the season. That natural variety is what keeps salads fresh and interesting. The nut in this salad is toasted pistachio, the fruit is sun-dried cranberry and it's dressed with a champagne vinaigrette.

Goat cheese croquette is a fancy way of saying fried cheese, a guilty pleasure who among us hasn't indulged in at one time or another. Ground pistachios are one component of the croquette's unique breading, adding flavor and texture where you least expect it.

When using mesclun lettuce mixes, I keep dressings simple to honor the delicate nature of the leaves. Good olive oil. High-quality acid (vinegar, citrus, etc.). Salt and pepper. You really don't need anything more than that.

What I need more of though, is time. It's off to meet the plumbers and get on with the day. Besides, if I say anything more about this salad and Maureen's going to want it for dinner tonight.

Monday, February 26, 2007

East Greets West

Maureen says:
Life doesn't stop because you're opening a restaurant. Not exactly a newsflash, I know, but a reality nonetheless that I sometimes find completely and utterly annoying. Like last week, when five minutes before we had to leave for a Very Important Meeting, we heard the ominous sound of running water that could only be a burst pipe.

Other life stuff of as late includes a tenant giving notice that he was breaking his lease for personal reasons. Having a vacancy at this time of year is less than ideal. I mean, come on: how many people are looking for a place to live in the middle of winter? And where, exactly, were Tom and I going to find the time to show the unit to anyone who was?

Situations like this, I am learning, tend to sort themselves, but only if you don't lose your head. This is when being overly busy becomes your ally. With so much to do and only so many hours in a day, even my predilection toward worry and overthinking have to take a number. And when the number came up for this particular worry, it proved moot. We had a new tenant in the form of Tom's cousin, Nate, who's embarking on his own adventure by trading the West Coast for the East for a while.

Nate worked for Tom when we lived in California and now he'll work for Tom (and me) again at Z. We're happy to have him, lucky to have him and we have the added bonus of a visit from Tom's Aunt Jackie who made the cross-country trek with him. They arrived yesterday afternoon and already things seem easier. Family's good that way. Great that way, actually.

Me, I'm hoping that this trend of things sorting themselves, retaining my head and not ever having to truly panic continues. Cause the calendar? I'm tired of it mocking us, taunting us and generally behaving as if it were the almighty and sole ruler of the universe.

Don't forget, if you'd like to be among the first to know when Z opens, send an email to newsletter@zfoodanddrink.com with the word subscribe in the body or subject line. We'll add you the list for the opening announcement, the launch of Z's formal Web site, and our post-opening newsletter.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Devil is in the Details

Tom says:
I've long championed the idea that the difference you make when undertaking a task, providing a service or delivering product is found in the details. I still believe that, but what I'm learning as a first-time restaurant owner in the startup phase is that the devil is in those same details. At least with respect to material goods.

You'd think it would have been the big decisions that overwhelmed and exhausted me. Things like hiring a chef, renovating the dining room and choosing a point-of-service system that meets our opening needs but can accommodate growth. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

Big decisions often center on products or services that are time-sensitive and mission critical. You don't over-think them because you can't. The clock's ticking, so you go with your gut and 10 times out of 10, your gut doesn't let you down. With those decisions out of the way, you can focus on those little things that mean a lot.

We're in search of the perfect candle lamp for the tabletops; a menu cover that aligns with our concept and is sized for our menu sheets; a treatment for the front window that's functional and eye catching; bread baskets and salt-and-pepper shakers; staff uniforms. The list goes on, the possibilities seem endless, and if we're not careful the devil's going to catch us in a weak moment and bust the budget.

It's common for financial planners to have clients take a week and document every purchase they make so they can see what spending habits have a negative impact on their savings power. What that practice reveals has more to do with purchases made out of habit (daily latte), on impulse (the four-dollar magazine at the grocery check-out), or without thought (single-use bottles of water) than major living expenses. It's the details of your life where money seems to disappear most.

Similarly, multipy a menu cover that's reasonably-priced at $3.50ea by the 100 pieces you need, but oh--wait. A hundred pieces only takes care of dinner. What about lunch? Dessert? The wine list?

I was talking this over with my friends at CS Fishery and we all agreed that it's right about now that you finally start to compromise. It's right about now that you let go of a little bit of your vision and do the best you can with the (little) resources you have. It's right about now that your finite cash and your infinite details make friends. You can always go back and upgrade later once your revenue is coming in.

Not sweating the small stuff is counter to my personality, but you know what? It actually feels okay to say, "Once some revenue is coming in, we can go back and upgrade A, B or C." It feels okay because there are dozens of other details that comprise superior service that don't cost you a thing and those will be with us from the minute we open the doors. The question is, will YOU be with us that minute too?

If you'd like to be among the first to know Z 's opening date, send an email to newsletter@zfoodanddrink.com with the word subscribe in the body or subject line. We'll add you to the list for the opening announcement, the launch of Z's formal Web site, and our post-opening newsletter.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cuppa Cuppa

Maureen says:
I want to thank everyone who's sent emails or commented here on the blog. Your interest, support and good wishes are very often what spurs us on when our stress levels threaten to reach the danger zone. I also want to assure those of you who have expressed concern over my increase in coffee consumption that going from 20oz to 40oz daily has less to do with exhaustion than it does with the aces coffee roaster who held a tasting on site at Z.

Amherst, NH's A&E Custom Coffee Roastery holds the distinction of being the first certified organic coffee roaster in the state. Obtaining organic certification is a complicated process and something we, as consumers, don't often think about. I'll forego a lengthy explanation and attempt--probably poorly--to reduce it to its essence: every bag of coffee that A&E roasts can be traced back to the farm where the plants were grown and every step along that path, from farm to roastery, must also be certified organic. (If I'm wrong, I'm sure Emeran will correct me).

We already knew that liked A&E's business practices, so it was really a matter of taste that was going to inform our decision for a coffee vendor. Emeran, A&E's owner, brought a variety of coffee-regional roasts that would help train our palates to distinguish among qualities like brightness, body and finish--not unlike wine. Following the tasting, she sent additional (generous) samples to the house and it's at those which I've been pointing the finger of blame for my new 40oz-a-day habit (I'm partial to the Kenyan and Nicaraguan blends). If we weren't planning to use them for Z, you know I'd be signing up for their home-delivery program.

Emeran also sent several loose teas and with these I've fallen completely and desperately in love. I love my tea and have the supply at home to prove it, but ever since I tried her Indian Chai and Blueberry I'm not sure my old favorites stand up anymore (I'm rethinking our decision to go with Choice Organics).

So much in love am I with these two particular teas that last weekend I made Tom take a drive to A&E. I knew the cafe would be closing for a week to complete its relocation to the Carriage Depot complex on Route 101A (it reopens for business on February 26th) and I didn't want to run out. I can't remember the last time I panicked in the face of running out of anything. Well, except maybe money. But then we bought a restaurant and I got over that too.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Whet Tuesday

Tom says:
The sidebar to the right provides a general overview of what Seriously Fun Food is at its essence. Aside from our opening date--still tentative as of this writing--the question on everyone's mind seems to be: Yeah, okay, but what's on the menu?

It's Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, but here at the blog, it's Whet Tuesday. As in we're going whet New England's appetite with a select preview of an item off Z's menu. In the weeks leading up to the opening, these previews will continue to pop up here and there on the blog.

Long-time readers know that Z offers reinterpretations of classic fare that has become part of the American dinner table's vernacular. Some of the dishes we'll preview here are ones I've spent my career developing. Others riff on meals I've eaten during my travels. And still others pay homage to the family recipe archives.

Today we're previewing one of Z's starters. Its composition is influenced heavily by growing up in California's Central Valley and the ways in which my mother infused our lives with the area's rich, agricultural bounty. You've all eaten this combination at one time or another, whether you want to admit it or not because, let's be honest: who doesn't love chicken fingers and fries?

Really, if this dish weren't already fun, it wouldn't be on the thousands of menus it is. So how does Z make its Crispy Chicken Seriously Fun?

By going back to my roots.

Where we lived in the Central Valley, nut tree groves defined the landscape and nuts of all kinds were a constant in our house. Anti-junk food to a fault, my mother always pointed us toward a bowl of of them when we wanted a snack (still in their shells of course, as heaven forbid she make it easy for us). It's just my humble opinion, but a house with a nuts will never be a home.

Anyway, nuts, in general, were common for us. Macadamia nuts, specifically, were not. Due to their relative cost in the 70s, it was only around the holidays that these beauties showed up and, as a result, my mother rationed them like so many coins knowing full well I'd eat through the can in an hour if left unsupervised. But it was only when I started work for a Boston-area caterer a few years ago that I learned how versatile macadamias could be and what a fantastic breading they make for chicken.

Then there's my mother's jam. Of all the canning and jamming and preserving my mother does--apples, cherries, peaches, plums, etc.--what she does with apricots can only be described as world class. Preserves this perfect don't respond well to lots of tinkering, but by mixing in a little of this and a little of that, I created a sweet-and-sour fruity goodness of a dipping sauce that you might just want to eat with a spoon.

Okay, so sweet potatoes are native to Central America and not the Central Valley (these tubers can be traced back 10,000 years in Peru but only appeared in the United States around the 16th century), but you can't argue with their taste, texture or nutritional value. Z's sweet potato fries are cut shoestring style which makes them all the better to share with your dining companions...

...or not. You may decide you want to keep them all for yourself.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday Dinner

Tom says:
We took a break from the restaurant today to cook Sunday dinner for Maureen's parents down in Massachusetts. Sunday dinner is something Maureen and I both grew up having. In today's over-scheduled world, though, this is a meal, that for most of us, exists only in fond memory--nostalgia even--except on the rare holiday that ends the weekend.

Z will serve lunch Mon-Fri only, but dinner every night of the week. On Sundays we plan to open a bit earlier and offer our own interpretation of Sunday Dinner: a fixed price, multi-course menu where items except for the entree choice are served family style. Because today's world is overscheduled. Because dining options are limited on Sundays. Because, as Maureen likes to say, if it weren't for Sunday Dinner, I might have been any number of things in this world instead of a chef/restaurateur.

Gazpacho? Check. Cheese straws? Check. Prime rib in the oven? Roasting away. My grandparents are arriving in an hour and I still need to set the table and arrange the centerpiece of roses from the garden.

“Mom!” I yell, “Jacki won’t leave me alone and get out of the way!” Jacki is my sister, younger by two years. It is four o'clock on a late-summer afternoon in 1978. I am 11 years old and in the final stages of preparing for my first Sunday Dinner party, what my family now calls my debut into the world of all things culinary. The menu?

Hors d’ouevres:
Cheddar cheese straws
Insalata de Arroz (rice salad)

Caesar Salad (prepared table side in the old-school style with raw eggs)

Roasted bone-in Prime Rib of Beef
Twice-baked Potatoes
Steamed Asparagus

Chocolate Cream Pie (my grandfather’s favorite)

My mother brought out her wedding china, the good silver. Is it any wonder I fell in love with every aspect of entertaining at such a young age?

My mother wasn't just your classic stay-at-home mom. She was the enigmatic product of an upper middle class upbringing and the earthy-crunchy movement that seemingly defined 1970s California. She made everything and still makes most things today from scratch--bread, yogurt, granola and jam--and she always used local, natural ingredients. Cookies? Never store bought. Cakes from the bakery were for people who were unmotivated. Looking back on this now, it's unbelievable to me that I used to complain about having hot muffins or fresh-fruit turnovers at breakfast while my friends had PopTarts. She even taught cooking classes to the neighborhood kids.

Dinner, however, is where my mother excelled and Sunday Dinner was her crown jewel. The leftovers from that dinner generated another 2-3 dinners that carried us through the first half of the week. Sunday's roast leg of lamb was curried with rice on Monday and turned into Scotch Barley Soup on Tuesday. Strangely enough, as good as Sunday dinner was, I always looked forward to these 'leftover meals' and it's the creativity she applied here that most strongly influences my menu recipes today.

That first dinner party wasn't exactly a success. Instead of a teaspoon of dry mustard in the rice salad, I used a tablespoon, but everyone, even my sister, overlooked the mistake (obviously I didn't and still don't seeing as I can recall the exact error almost 30 years later). But the Sunday Dinner I cooked yesterday--NY strip loin roast, sauteed brussel sprouts with maple-cured bacon, and pan-fried red bliss and yukon gold potatoes--that was a success. Maureen's mother said that one of the best parts about it was that she didn't have to make it. If that's your feeling about Sunday Dinner as well, then soon enough you'll be able to have our favorite meal of the week with us at Z. We, of course, look forward to serving you.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Some Side Effects of Opening a Restaurant

Maureen says:

You Stop Eating Out. You're broke, you're exhausted and most restaurants are closed by the time you get around to eating, if that time ever comes at all. Besides, any place you could go, you won't relax anyway. You'll be too busy guessing what font the menu is printed in, gauging the space between tables and debating the merits of providing individual specials sheets or having servers recite them instead of enjoying your meal. Probably you're going to be doing something like that anyway, so you might as well do it at home over a nice bowl of cereal.

You Lose Your Will to Live. Okay, you still want to live, it's just that when you finally call it a day, the will to do nothing but sit on your ass comes pretty close to trumping everything else, with the only reason to get up off the couch being to get another glass of wine. The solution is to keep the bottle with you, preferably within easy reach. If it's been a particularly trying day, bring a backup bottle. It's likely you're wearing the wine opener on a chain around your neck by now anyway.

No Matter How Much Laundry You Do, There Are Always Two Loads Waiting to Be Done. Who knew? While some of the volume can be attributed to the seasonal need to dress in layers, mostly it's the dirt. This polymathic business partner of mine not performs general contractor duties, but quite often, acts as a contractor himself and comes home filthy, sometimes to the point of disgust. So much for the energy-conserving practice of getting two wearings out of various items of clothing.

You Look Forward to Trips to Certain Box Stores. For things like toilet paper, cat litter, laundry detergent, Method household cleaners, dish soap, shampoo, razor cartridges and garbage bags. I never knew parting with a couple of C-notes at the home of the bull's eye would fill me with such joy, but it does. If I'm spending that much money there at once, it means I don't have to go back for another three months.

Your Listening Skills Improve. You're not only in want of break in living/breathing/talking about your endeavor, you need one. Consequently, you listen to the goings on in the lives of friends and family with heightened interest. I mean really listen. Not the sort of pretend listening where you're really just waiting for a break in conversation so you can jump in with the next thing you want to say. Active listening. And you realize that everyone's got their own version opening a restaurant happening in their lives. And okay, whatever--kumbaya--we're all in this crazy thing called life together, marching to our personal drum beats and making our own kind of music. So you put down your wine glass, get up off your ass and do the damned laundry. You write a blog post. You call it a night.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I'm in the Mood for Love...err...Light

Tom says:
The electrical crew has finished the rough installation and the materials stacked in the dining room are slowly being moved to the areas where they'll be put to use. Our designer Ariel and I are finally able to identify see places where we can add the extra details needed to pull the full look-and-feel of Z together.

These details are the kinds of things I never noticed in restaurants until I began thinking about opening my one of my own. Over the last few years I've paid less attention to the food (terrible, I know) and focused instead on dining room configuration. It used to be that when I went out to eat that the only details I absorbed were related to the food I'd eaten. I could go on for hours about ingredients, flavor profiles, technique and presentation, but not so much about how the restaurant actually looked. That's all changed.

But even though I've been taking mental snapshots of restaurant interiors for a while now, it wasn't until I went to work for Bill Lee in California that I learned how critical lighting is in creating the mood you want to evoke for the customer. Bill was always tinkering with the lights, adjusting the positions of the floods and the table spots, trying different wattage, and seeing what effects colored bulbs, twinkle lights or rope lighting achieved in relation to his concept. I'm not talking about the obvious impact too-bright or too-dim lighting has on mood. It's more about the subtlety--something the owner will notice that you might not, but that you'll respond to naturally and unconsciously.

One of our largest renovation expenses, of course, has been our lighting and its installation. The lights that were in the space when we bought it were nice--in fact, we'll probably use some of them at home where overhead light is needed--and anyone who visited the space seemed to comment on them. Size, shape, color, the way they cast light in relation to bulb size? Not in line with our concept. So we've taken them down and replaced them with track lighting.

Track lighting fulfills several mood-enhancing objectives: they allow us to spot light each individual table in a way that's not stage bright, but on-a-pedestal bright; it also allows us to flood areas of the ceiling to showcase the craftsmanship of the tin panels; lastly, its positioning can be set to draw your eye to various design features and make them stand out.

One of the design features we'll enhance with lighting are the Pittsburgh Corning glass blocks we're using in the build out of partial walls and the bar as illustrated by this sample application photo from the company's Web site.

Back light these babies with low-voltage lighting and the effect is pretty dramatic. Between this and the other lighting schema Ariel and I designed we've achieved what I almost thought couldn't be done: ambiance that's smoldering and yet doesn't stray from the whimsy of our overall concept. We accomplished the goal of getting the most bang for our buck by spending wisely on atmospheric elements rather than being seduced by high-priced furniture and fixtures.

Maureen and I wish you all a smoldering, mood-lit Valentine's Day, Nor'easter blowing through town and all.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

They Call It 'Restaurant Recycling'

Maureen says:
Z is one of several soon-to-open restaurants featured in the February 13th edition of the Manchester Daily Express. If it's still February 13th when you're reading this and you have Adobe Acrobat installed, click here to see the article in PDF form.

Otherwise squint really, really hard at the screencap of the article below. Tom's got a knack for being either in the throes of a cold or two days without a shave when the press comes to call, but he's still got that je ne sais quois, non? I almost missed the article, though, because they misspelled Tom's surname and that's the word I search for online.

"But All Shall Be Well...

...and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

T.S. Eliot quoted this line from Julian of Norwich in the fourth of his Four Quartets, Little Gidding, and it's a relevant balm for the rash of stress and chaos spreading across our lives at the moment.

But my favorite quote from this English Mystic called Julian, the mantra if you will that's getting us through these days, is this:

"Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

We wouldn't mind a few of those miracles you hear about sometimes either. I'm just sayin'.

Oh, yeah: this is Maureen if you hadn't guessed already. Carry on.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Oh, but seriously.

You thought we were kidding?

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Destroy and Create

Tom says:
There comes a time in every renovation project where your patience or, rather, your impatience, gets the better of you and then, miraculously, all the moving parts suddenly sync with one another and the result is one very beautiful machine.

This is not that time.

Work is progressing, but it's hard to see beyond the destruction even if you understand that destruction is necessary before creation. Right now, the dining room is a holding area, which is a nice way of saying storage. Twenty-five cases of tile, nine wall sconces, four pendant lights, stacks of plywood, MDF board, 20 feet of cherry bead board that will be used for wainscoting, and 15 cases of glass blocks--basically, everything we need to finish the job is in that room. This, in turn, means that the amount of physical space we have to do the job has gotten smaller. With approximately five weeks, give or take, until we open, it looks like it will take at least that long to clear it out and clean it up.

All this is enough to make me forget sometimes why I'm doing this. But then, I had a meeting with our Chef and I remembered. It's about the food. It's about the experience I want to deliver to downtown Manchester. It's about having the guts to take everything I've learned over the last 20 years and put into play beneath an awning of my own.

When I first began thinking about opening a restaurant, I knew what kind of Chef I wanted to hire. Because I'd likely spend a significant amount of time in the kitchen at the start, the Chef should be on the younger side, energetic and dynamic; someone who'd served as sous chef for a few years and was ready for the next step of chef de cuisine. He/she would also be able to execute my vision of the restaurant's concept, could be trusted to manage the daily operations of the kitchen and be someone who had found his/her authentic culinary voice.

I believe we've got that Chef. Until we issue a formal press release announcing the hire, we'll refer to him simply as Chef. He came to us via high recommendation from a friend in the business, has worked as a sous at a local spot I hold in high regard, and most importantly, he aced the tasting--nailed the concept, showed off his technical skills and demonstrated the ambition to make his voice heard. It's a voice worth hearing is all I have to say.

So he and I sat down last night for the first time since he accepted our offer and we talked opening game plans and expectations. It was also the first time in weeks and maybe even months that I got to talk solely about the food, the belief system behind the concept, and the narrative or story I want the menu to tell. I got to talk about cooking techniques. I got to talk about ingredients. I got to talk about creating.

And it was good.

For a brief moment, the stress and adrenaline subsided and I forgot all about the drywall we tore down to string the wiring for the wall sconces the thin film of dust that coats everything (including me when I come home at the end of the day), and the mountain of materials waiting to be used that seems insurmountable.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Since We Last Blogged (a break down of the last five days)

Maureen says:

Problems bank fraud policies have caused versus prevented: 3

Instances where I said the F-word in a conversation...with my mother: 2

Chefs hired: 1

Business cards printed: 1,000

Menu layouts approved: 2

Personal guarantees signed and notarized to waive exorbitant deposit fees: 2

Tax returns filed: 4

Solicitations to provide credit-card processing machines: 17

Life/business partners with water-on-the-knee: 1

Ounces of coffee I used to drink daily: 16

Ounces of coffee I drink daily now: 40

New coffees tasted in the search for a supplier: 3

Times the phrase "I'm tired," has been uttered in our house: 13

Personal emails and phone calls I owe: 11

Days since my appetite up and left: 2

Nights waking up in blind panic: 3

Stitches I've knitted in attempts to maintain sanity: 3,776

Realizations that we're fortunate to be doing what we're doing despite the aforementioned exhaustion, panic and a loose grip on sanity: countless

Monday, February 5, 2007

When Given the Choice...

...between blogging or eating/sleeping, we are going to choose the latter. Watch this space for more updates over the next two days.

M & T

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Resource Allocation

Tom says:
Now that the check for big-ticket items have been cut and we're close to hiring our management team, I'm becoming intimately acquainted with the concept of resource allocation.

Yesterday, I listened to a pitch from a security company whose product line ran anywhere from $2,000-25,000. At the essence of the pitch was fear: if we're leaning toward the low end of the range, then we're setting ourselves up for disaster.

This kind of decision requires a risk/reward analysis. Does a state-of-the-art video surveillance system that's tied into the POS system really pay for itself with the amount of shrinkage it reduces? Is your only choice to spend a ton of money now or lose that same amount slowly over time?

Or, is there another way? The research I've done says that following good cash-handling procedures and vigilant awareness reduces your risk of an external security breach by making you a less desirable target for theft and a little deterrence can go a long way toward achieving that. What remains is that if a thief really wants to steal from you, they'll find a way. Your goal is to deter them just enough not to make it worth their while.

That same research also says that you're most at risk for an internal security breach. In a restaurant, that can mean bartenders over-pouring drinks, bartenders and servers not charging properly for items, an excessive number of voided items on order slips, cooks and cleaning crews walking product out the back door, customers walking away from the bar on a busy night and not paying their bill.

Here, I believe, is where you have to make a philosophical choice: invest heavily in surveillance equipment that engenders a environment of fear and distrust or apply old-fashioned methods like strict inventory controls, hiring and training of competent and ethical staff and treat them with respect as integral parts of the team. The latter creates a working environment that's built on respect, empowers staff and allows them to invest themselves in the success of the restaurant. If you create that, then anyone who may be inclined to engage in dishonest practices will be less so. But if you create an environment where staff feels unappreciated and/or slighted and you make it easier to justify an over pour here, a voided item there.

A certain amount of shrinkage happens no matter what you do. So, you weigh the risks and rewards of paying now or paying later and hope you make the right decision. Pretty much like everything else in life.