so it goes

The look on Mary Reynold’s face when I told her our almost famous executive chef Michelle was leaving Beleza shortly after we opened was an amusing combination of shock, disappointment and dread…

“Riccardo,  you know this is not good…”

…so it goes…

I read all Vonnegut’s novels in college, but that quote form Slaughterhouse Five stuck with me; existentialism pure enough for a bumper sticker.

….and so it goes again… after being open two months at Escorpion,  we are sitting at the bar high tops trying our new executive Jose Rego’s menu. For Dana and me, it’s the second night of tasting, while our dining companions Selden and Paul are newbies.

We walk in and are greeted by the MF Sushi boys, looking like Asian mafia in their designer duds. They really enjoyed their dinner, and are especially happy about a new dish we are trying tonight, giant prawns in mojo sauce. It’s a good sign, ‘cause the boys know their fish.

They are leaving, but agree to taste one more dish. So Joe brings out the first ceviche: tilapia. Funny choice to feed to a couple of fish snobs;you’d be hard pressed to find a less prestigious fish.

Chris Kinjo focusing and Dana Armour lookin suave

Chris: “Tilapia-hah-you’re getting away with murder.”

Alex kinjo in action

Alex: “You eat fish, but you don’t feel like you’re eating fish.”

Not bad, not bad at all.

We taste it and are just as impressed, the acidity is mild, flavors are balanced; everyone agrees it needs a bit more heat, but we disagree on salt. Selden is alone in finding the dish undersalted . There are just a few bits of fish left, so I will make the final call.  I re-taste a couple  then add a few grains of sea salt to the last two. Give Ms. Selden credit for her palate: the dish was ever-so-slightly undersalted. A strange occurrence considering Joe’s nickname at Sotto Sotto was Saltfingers Rego.

Hamachi with pineapple and grated freeze-dried corn

We move on to Hamachi with pineapple and grated freeze-dried corn. Excellent combination.  I want to try the corn whole, not grated, but my idea is shot down by the rest of the group while I go back to the kitchen to get it, and give up without trying it. Dana believes the pineapple should be cut smaller. Both fish and fruit are a ¼-inch dice, and when you bite into it the pineapple tends to be the first flavor on your palate, masking the delicate flesh on the fish.  I like cutting the fruit and fish the same size, but I give in to his suggestion after eating several more bites. It seems like the pineapple shows itself more on each bite, going from complementary to overpowering in a few bites. Otherwise it could be that Dana’s suggestion made me notice something that had slipped by me. In any case, the pineapple will be changed to 1/8-inch  dice, and we move on to hot food.

The prawns in mojo look great with their red heads and jet black eyes staring at you and we dig in, these being the dish that Chris enjoyed so much. Everyone loves their prawns except for me.

Mojo Prawns

“Are the prawns tough?”

“No.”

“Mine is excellent.”

“Tender.”

Those damn Madagascar whole prawns: I served them for a wine dinner at Sotto Sotto years back and half of them turned to mush after cooking. Now your choice is to apologize and look like an incompetent moron or ignore it and have 30 people talk about how you are an incompetent moron… choices…choices… We’ll keep the sauce, and change the shrimp to a more consistent product.

We continue through another eight courses: mussels with chorizo and shrimp broth; braised octopus with posole; shrimp enchiladas; trout a la talla; fried whole red snapper;

Fried red snapper

oysters with tomato-mezcal water; corvina wrapped in banana leaf with moqueca sauce and  barbecue shrimp tacos. As the tasting goes on our suggestions are quicker and the conversation strays to more amusing topics. One dish is eliminated for difficulty of execution, two will get a change of protein and one is perfect, the rest will get tweaked. We have until August 8, the launch date of the new menu, to refine all the details .

I have had many tastings like this throughout the years, as they are the industry standard job interview. I consider a tasting successful if the dishes are 10 percent memorable, 30 percent really good, 30 percent  good, and 30 percent edible, with nothing being improperly cooked. I have known and worked with Joe for 10 years now, and have never seen him cook like this. This was the most successful food tasting I have had the pleasure to experience. Truly impressive. Joe has been dealing with difficult personal issues recently, and told me that this has helped him focus on his food. Inspiration often comes out of suffering.

…so it goes…

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words and knives

When I woke up last Thursday morning, I knew it was going to be a bad day.   I’ve developed  a sixth sense in the past few years. A look at the morning emails began to validate my fears.

While having lunch with my trusty lunch companion Dana, I received a phone call from AJC dining critic John Kessler, who was inquiring about the new pizza oven at Fritti. Having eaten there twice since its installation, he was not happy with our product and was going to blog about it.

Yep, bad day…no doubt.

I was taken back by this.  John reviewed Sotto Sotto 12 years ago when we opened. He has been eating at my restaurants ever since. He has interviewed me on several occasions. I have always respected his opinion, especially since he expanded my cooking knowledge by introducing me to the concept of Umami: a fundamental flavor component I had never heard of.

The new oven has been a great success. The wood consumption is 1/3 of what it used to be, saving money and greenhouse emissions. I’ve been happy with the vast majority of the 90 or so pizzas I have tried. I’ve not heard of any customer complaints, directly or from servers. Yelp, open table, and reward network ratings are very good. Sales are up 12% over last year, and that was already a great year.

John tells me he ate the pizza twice and found it exceedingly soft in structure, without a wisp of crispness, “like sandwich bread.” I began to ask questions about his experience. Both times he ate the pizza it was in the early part of the evening…mmmm….could be an issue with the dough, likely under or over-proofing.

During a discussion that to an outsider had to sound like a married couple arguing about sleeping with the neighbor, Massimo, the pizzaiolo, assures me that he has paid a lot of attention to the proofing of the dough, “I do not why he no liked the pizza, maybe he just not like the way I make pizza”…

Looks like we’re not going to figure this out today, so I call John back and explain to him that I have no idea why the pizza was too soft. Either a user error on our part and it did not come out how it should or, like Massimo said, “you just no like the way we make it.” The only way to truly find out would be for us to eat one together and figure it out. John understandably denies my request, but promises to come back and try it again.

I guess you can’t win them all…

I walk into Escorpion the next day and notice Christiane Lauterbach at the bar chatting amicably with mixologist Adam Fox. I say hello and Christiane muses in her classic French accent: ” ho ho ho,  I see you are debating pizza with John…he, he, he, you are a one man debate team Riccardo…” Christiane has never been a fan of Fritti, and I remember having to keep my opening pizzaiolo Salvatore, from running out into the dining room and arguing with her ten years ago. “I want to know what she know about pizza. If she know about pizza, I say ok, u know about pizza, u can tell me about pizza… I make pizza since I was 12 years old, my grandfather make pizza, my father make pizza….”  ” Yo, just go back to the oven and shut up would you…”

I click to the blog and stare in horror. Likely because of the noise in the restaurant at the time of our conversation, John somehow interpreted my ‘user error’ comment as me telling him he was in error, that he did not know what he was talking about. He feels dissed as any dissatisfied customer who, after lodging a complaint, got attitude instead of reassurance. To his side come the readers that sympathize. In their eyes I’m the restaurant owner that is insensitive to his customers. They will keep driving, they wish I would go out of business, “go back to where you came from!”

What happened?  My theory is this:

In this computer age, a user error is usually committed by the end user, the computer user. When I mentioned user error, John assumed I was referring to him, the end “user”. Had I said ” we either made a mistake and did not make the pizza properly or “you just no like the pizza,” this could have been avoided.

Lesson learned: “Choose your words carefully, for words are sharper than knives.”

Ouch!

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