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Shot of Za Za pizza

September 26, 2009

iphone 109


Everything tastes better here…

September 19, 2009

I will provide better commentary at a later date but here are some photos from my ongoing trip in Santa Barbara County. 

Santa Barbara at dusk

Santa Barbara at dusk


Really good sushi at Arigato.

Really good sushi at Arigato.


Santa Ynez Valley

Santa Ynez Valley


California 162


Foxen Vineyard tasting shack.  Really good Pinot and Chardonnay.

Foxen Vineyard tasting shack. Really good Pinot and Chardonnay.

It’s all about the margins..

September 12, 2009
Chateau Mouton

Chateau Mouton

I might have mentioned this before but restaurants operate on very thin margins when it comes to food.  Most casual dining restaurants are good to make 10% on food sales.  By comparison, Microsoft has operating margins in the 30+% range and Goldman Sachs is anywhere from 30-40% depending on the markets.  Most businesses maintain 20-30% operating margins.  So, how the crap do restaurants stay afloat?  Booze.  Wine, especially, is marked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-400%.  So, let’s say, for example, a restaurant can purchase a bottle of pinot grigio for $11 (a fairly common price for wholesale), the restaurant will turn around and charge somewhere in the neighborhood of $11-12 per glass for that wine.  Wine bottles average about 4 glasses per bottle.  Meaning, in one glass you can pay for a bottle of wine.  So, if you ever wonder why restaurants have corking fees or push alcohol when you begin the meal, there is your reason.  It keeps them in business.  So drink up! 

The Mouton sold for $1000/bottle at Gramercy Tavern.  My guess is that the restaurant purchased this bottle for $250-300. 

Food inventory:

Imagine having to predict dining patterns, 6 or 7 days in advance, where any number of variables (weather, social events, competition, etc…) can alter previous data points.  Each week the chefs have to purchase inventory for the week (some perishables will be purchased the day before) and, given those thin margins, it’s important that food inventory does not go to waste.  It’s a weekly, sometimes daily, exercise that determines whether the restaurant is profitable for the day.  Too much tuna for the day’s entrée and you might wind up throwing out several pounds of very expensive supply.  Last night at Za Za, we had an unexpected influx of diners and, more importantly, they flocked to the shrimp pasta entrée.  By 8:30, we had run out the shrimp and that is an opportunity cost of unknown quantity.  It happens in every restaurant but you try to avoid disappointing customers as it leaves a poor impression if you find yourself running out of favored dishes.  Despite the shrimp issue, the night turned out great as all the pizza was sold, pasta was cleaned out and most importantly, every customer was fed.  My only regret is not having enough leftovers to sample. 

I plan to learn some baking recipes and salad vinaigrettes on Sunday so I’ll make sure to share what I learn.  Read more…

Political Point

September 10, 2009

Republicans are acting like nincompoops!!  I’m not in favor of single-payer health insurance but I think a small government option is completely reasonable.  Right-wingers are making all Republicans, which I’m not one of, look like idiots.  Argue your points with some truthful facts and legitimate ideas and you might win back some of the independent-minded centrists.  This is rational thinking.  Christ!  I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

Hot & Hot Fish Club – 6/10

September 9, 2009

Hot & Hot has great potential but never seems to deliver consistently on their efforts. They have some items on the menu that are just amazing and they do those select things really well. And then you try a fish entrée or, in my case, the pork trio and you are left wondering where the talent went that cooked those amazing sweetbreads or your dates seared trigger fish. My latest visit started off with a really well crafted appetizer of sautéed sweetbreads (thymus glands) over a bed of vegetables. Sweetbreads were slightly creamy in the middle with a great mild sauce covering them and the vegetables. Fantastic dish! I then spotted the pork trio, 3 different cuts of pork served in 3 different ways, one of which was pork belly. Pork belly is just amazing if you cook it properly and it’s actually pretty hard to dry out with all that delicious fat. Unfortunately, the chef overcooked the pork belly, the pork shoulder was tough and the third piece of pork was cooked well. 1 out of 3 isn’t great score. It was disappointing that the meal did not finish as spectacular as it started. Hot & Hot has been a staple in the Birmingham restaurant scene for years and should have worked out a kitchen with more steady results.

With all that said, most cities would be thrilled to have Hot & Hot as a restaurant choice and Birmingham is no different. You will still have some amazing food and it’s important to know what to order. The shrimp and grits are famous at Hot & Hot and while I think butter is used to excess in the grits, most people really enjoy them. The heirloom tomato salad, when it’s in season, is a stunning appetizer.

Unfortunately, the restaurant hasn’t been consistent enough to put it in the same class as Café DuPont and Highland’s Bar & Grill but it certainly sits in the top 10 for restaurants in the city. If you go, sit at the chef’s table, it’s a treat to watch the cooks at work.

Seared fish over risotto and peas

The infamous shrimp and grits

Fried green tomatoes in a chilled tomato gazpacho

Living on less

September 6, 2009

I have a good friend that recently moved to another state, without a job, and not a lot of savings but enough to get by on.  After talking to her recently, it occurred to me how expensive my lifestyle has become and how much of it is completely unnecessary.  Almost 70% of my current income is tied up in fixed expenses!  That’s just crazy-pants Johnson.  The economic recession and uncertainty with jobs has caused a lot of people to reassess their lifestyles and make adjustments.  I think our society is overdue for a shift towards more fiscal responsibility.  As I’m able to, I plan to adjust the expenses in my life down to a more reasonable level.  Something for us all to reflect on. 

Changing subjects:

Is it just me or has Food Network become a complete joke?  What happened to the old cooking shows with actual chefs?  From what I can tell, Bobby Flay is the only chef left on the channel.  And he’s not all that impressive to me.  I swear the guy puts honey in everything.  If only I got the Bravo channel so I could watch Top Chef.  That show actually features quality chefs, doing some good work.  At least I have Bourdain…


Scallops at Jean Georges

Scallops at Jean Georges


 Another fine example of me not living on less…dinner at Jean Georges.   I will have to make sacrifices in other areas. 

Weekend Off and Santa Barbara

September 5, 2009

Za Za is closed for the Labor Day holiday weekend which means my Friday and Sunday will be much less exciting but also less tiring. I’m amazed at how chefs work 70-80 hours each week. I work a 5 hour shift and I’m beat. Plus I’m not cooking.

Courtesy of Catherine Hartman

I will be heading out to Santa Barbara in a couple weeks for my weekly job and plan to do some investigating of the restaurants and wineries. I’m quite curious about the food scene in the area. I know San Francisco is a great restaurant city with a broad mix of cuisines and discerning diners. I don’t have as good of a feel for the quality of food in Santa Barbara and cities below SF. I am stereotyping here but I imagine a lot of Mexican influenced restaurants featuring local produce and fish (fish tacos in abundance). I hope to discover some really good regional food. Knowing California’s religious zeal for the locavore movement, I will probably not be disappointed. As it stands now, I will be having dinner at Bouchon on my first night in SB. (Side note: When I was first told of the restaurant, I immediately thought Thomas Kellar was involved. Sadly, he is not.) On the up side, I’m told by locals that this is one of the better restaurants in the city. Documenting the meal will be difficult as my guests that evening will be business so photographing plates will probably not go over well.

Touring the local wineries will also be on the docket for the weekend. Now, I’m a bit of a Negative Ned when it comes to California wines. I rarely find one that I like. The Chardonnay’s taste awful; Sauvignon Blancs are too acidic or lack much depth. I’ve had a few good Pinot Noir’s but on the whole I’ve not been real impressed with the wines I’ve tried. France, to me, produces the best white wines, that I’ve found, but I hope to discover some really great smaller vineyards doing good work. My challenge will be choosing the right wineries, seeing as I have no knowledge of the wines produced in the area. The only one I recognize is Firestone and I flat out hate the wines I’ve tried from the Firestone brand. Don’t let me down Santa Barbara.