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The Hard Way: Menus

May 8, 2013

Running even an unspectacular restaurant is hard work. But the places that rise to the top of the industry do it by going the extra mile. Instead of cutting corners, they add thoughtful touches. Instead of doing things the easy way, they do it the hard way. And in the end, it’s the hard way that makes them better.

There are so many examples of how this plays out in practice. And some of these themes have already been touched upon at one point or another in the history of the FLB. However, yesterday on Table Hopping there was a discussion about how often would you like to see the menu change at your favorite restaurant.

Steve Barnes acknowledged that his favorite local spots tend to change their menu quarterly. To his credit, Steve pushed for monthly changing menus, but allowed the restaurants an out citing workload, expense, printing and training.

Still, he got it wrong.

If we are talking about the realm of ideals, the only answer is daily. But I could also accept a weekly menu with some daily adjustments to it. To explain this position, let me ask you a couple of questions.

What’s the shelf life of a just picked ear of corn still warm from the sun of the fields? How long is the growing season for the magnificent Pink Pearl variety of apple?

The best restaurants assemble their offerings from the finest ingredients they can gather. Not all of them are available in quantities that will last a week. Others are seasonal offerings that are not around for a full month. And as is the case with corn, some of these ingredients are significantly less magnificent on day two.

Spring menus, at least up in Albany, are printed even before spring has sprung. And sure, restaurants can secure a constant supply of asparagus through their produce brokers from across the country and around the world. But I challenge the notion that it’s of the same quality as the first tender shoots that are whisked from the local farm as soon as they are large enough to fit in a pan.

Menus should be written daily to take advantage of the constant changing availability of truly great ingredients. To relegate these items to a select group of daily specials means a restaurant is satisfied with stocking the rest of their menu with everyday items from their distributors.

And that may be fine. Customers in our McDonald’s culture may appreciate the consistency. But it’s cutting corners and shouldn’t be anyone’s ideal scenario.

This is an impossible task, you might say.

No. No, it is not. And you don’t have to be Alice Waters or Thomas Keller to pull it off either. Take Passionfish, for an example. It’s a modest restaurant in the town of Pacific Grove. It’s nice, but not formal. And it’s only open for dinner. But every morning the chef goes to see what fish are available. And every day he sources local, sustainable produce. Then he writes the menu.

Yes, there are things that appear almost every day during a particular season. Just because one writes the menu every day doesn’t mean the restaurant feels like a different place every time you go. The style is the same. The techniques of the kitchen get recycled using slightly different ingredients. But even in corn season you may miss out on the corn fritters if you have a late reservation. Tough noogies.

So the menu isn’t some glossy affair. The last time Mrs. Fussy and I were there it was a handwritten sheet that had been photocopied.

But in fancier restaurants I’ve been to, the daily menu is printed out on a high quality paper stock and inserted into an elegant binder. The printing costs are miniscule. Especially because the nature of these menus limits the day’s offerings to one or two pages at the absolute most.

This is a form of dining that has yet to truly emerge in the Capital District. But this is what it means for food to be good. And without more voices clamoring for its arrival, those of us who seek it out will either have to make it ourselves or travel.

Given that we’re surrounded by great farms, it’s a little embarrassing that nobody is doing it.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Michaeline permalink
    May 8, 2013 10:05 am

    I think changing a menu seasonally is sufficient .No reason for overkill .

  2. May 8, 2013 10:06 am

    Would the special of the day and the soup du jour count as changing the menu daily?

  3. May 8, 2013 10:39 am

    I think it’s a great concept and it works well in large cities like NY, Paris or SF – they’re cities with daily markets with fresh produce but it might be hard to pull off in this area. It might work if a restaurant teamed up with a few local farms, but still, for daily delivery or retrieval of the fresh items, it’s a lot of work.

    Until we have our own Reading Terminal or Pike’s Place Market, this might be a stretch…but it is nice to dream.

    • Jessica R permalink
      May 8, 2013 11:44 am

      I believe that restaurants can go to the M-W-F Wholesale Farmers Market in Menands. So, gettting the latest produce from farmers during the week shouldn’t be an issue.

      Now that we have fin, there can be true “Daily Fish Specials” based on the most recent catch. Daniel is apparently hoarding/developing a list of restaurants sourcing from fin now. Aren’t you Daniel?

    • Sarah M. permalink
      May 8, 2013 12:40 pm

      The excuses that Cap Region diners will make for area restaurants never fail to amaze me. Really? You need to be in New York or Paris to have daily access to fresh food? It must be all the small, locally owned farms within their city limits, right? Nothing like that around Albany…

      This isn’t a hobbyhorse of mine, but I could immediately think of three restaurants in Austin (which, as AOA loves to remind us, is sooooo similar to Albany) where the menu changes daily.

      We have farmers’ markets just as frequently/infrequently as the Albany area. Like DB pointed out in the first graf, it’s about desire. The opportunities are everywhere.

      • May 8, 2013 1:44 pm

        I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m just thinking that the lengths a chef would need to travel to access our minimal resources, it would be time consuming and difficult to make profitable. You can’t buy in bulk for this type of situation and choices for daily, fresh options are limited (i.e. not a lot of competition driving down daily market prices) which makes it a pretty costly endeavor.

        I think another key component is talent. We have some decent chefs in our area but I wonder if they have the creativity, vision and energy to do this on a daily basis.

        Don’t mistake me, I’d be first in line at this type of restaurant. I was just trying to look at some of the factors as to why we don’t already have one in place.

      • Sarah M. permalink
        May 8, 2013 2:54 pm

        Actually, you can buy in bulk, and fairly easily. There are already local restaurants that have incredible partnerships with local farms… it’s the difference of taking what’s fresh rather than putting in a regular order.

        You’ll get no argument from me on the talent portion. I think that’s actually the issue, rather than access.

      • Jessica R permalink
        May 9, 2013 1:30 pm

        Did you check out the link I put in my reply?
        “I’m just thinking that the lengths a chef would need to travel” – To Menands. 10-15 mins from Albany and Troy
        “You can’t buy in bulk for this type of situation” – Yes you can. That is the purpose of the WHOLESALE portion of the Menands market – it is only available to restaurants and institutions (The Veggie Mobile shops there). It is not a normal Farmer’s Market.

  4. May 8, 2013 10:40 am

    There’s a middle course, which is a menu which accommodates both old standbys and daily specials. That’s what very many Cap District restaurants do, of course, except that they don’t do it very well. The “special” is what ever is on special at Sysco, or a rotation of standard items that are mixed up to keep things interesting.

    Instead, the chef should put together a few daily offerings which are a stretch both for him/her and for the diner, based on seasonal fresh ingredients but also new food trends or a seasonal theme (I had a pleasant meal at a NYC restaurant recently which was offering a choucroute menu because it just seemed like a great way to get warm on snowy days). But the standards that bring diners back should be maintained.

    And if you’re a middle of the road red sauce place or chop house in the Cap district, not changing the menu because you don’t want to go to the trouble of an extra trip to Kinko’s is ignoring the elephant in the room. People aren’t coming to you for innovation or variety but for a predictable dining experience. Still, you can toss in a few specials and everybody will be happy.

  5. May 8, 2013 11:44 am

    The Local in Saratoga is a classic example of “gastro” pub that prided itself on its menu when it opened, but has made few changes to the menu in the 5+ years it’s been open. There is a year-round Saturday farmer’s market, and a twice weekly market May-November. They are not huge place, and have recently seen a sharp increase in competition in their sweet spot (Henry St Tap Room, Merry Monk, Druthers, etc.). Why they haven’t made an effort to have more interesting specials based on local ingredients is beyond me.

    On the other end, The Wishing Well has more or less maintained what one might call an “iconic” menu loaded with old-school staples like steak au poivre, surf-and-turf, shrimp cocktail, etc. However, Bob Lee the owner has hired two chefs in the past few years that are fantastic and let them define not only the nightly specials, but also push the boundaries with “dark dinners” and interesting wine tastings.To me this balances the region’s need for “I want what I ate 4 years ago” and those wanting fresh, seasonal, and local menus.

  6. May 8, 2013 1:07 pm

    I wouldn’t eat at a place where the entire menu changes completely every day — there’s no way to plan that way, no way to decide ahead of time if the food looks good or how many calories I’ll need to budget for it. Change a few things, sure, or change seasonally, or weekly, but if you overhaul the whole thing every day, customers have no idea what to expect when they get there, which isn’t helpful at all. Places like Comfort Kitchen actually walk the middle road quite well — shop at the farmers’ market and offer seasonal specials, change the menu seasonally, but keep a few standbys so people know what to expect if they’re planning their meals ahead.

  7. May 8, 2013 2:56 pm

    I always find it interesting to have such a one sided conversation about changing Menus. I wonder how many people have actually operated their own restaurant or at least been the Chef in one. OR maybe even worked in a restaurant.
    We see and hear feedback typically from a select few, rather opinionated individuals…yet few actually have polled customers at local eateries to find out what THEY actually want from their favorite establishment.
    I, for one, hear from 100’s of customers a week, thousands every month who love consistancy. Who return for the dishes we do so well again and again. We change our special board daily according to seasonal availability, customer requests, my own desires (pork belly ;) ) and NEVER play it against whatever SYSCO or US foods has the big push on.
    Where does one strike the balance, or hit the mark for the many? I have found it is usually a vocal minority that quacks the most and represents the least. I once listened to a few loud quackers and replaced my Blue Cheese Dressing with a generic manufactured version. Holy Cow!! I HAD SO MANY PEOPLE MAD AT ME!! We switched back to our homemade dressing in less than 10 days.
    How many places that switch their menus often have stood the test of TIME? How many have remained rather constant and been around for decades? My place has been here 17 years this year, Ralphs, GrandMa’s, The Orchard all have been here longer than me…all with relatively few changes.
    So I wonder what the majority of local diners really want? Change for the sake of change is not always the best answer, I think.

  8. May 8, 2013 7:34 pm

    We officially change our entire menu 4 x a year, but our soup, salads and scones (and occasional specials) change all the time based on what’s coming in super fresh from our farmers. Sometimes a menu item (or more than one) will change because an ingredient isn’t avail. all season. We offer some repeats each season (like the Noob’s Roob in winter) because they are popular, but I think we are able respond to changing seasonal availability of ingredients quickly because we are small, chef run restaurant. I think changing the menu daily isn’t quite feasible here just yet, but if I do say so myself, we are able to react more quickly than other places because 1) only Nick is doing the cooking (+ he’s brilliant & reflexive), 2) we’re small and 3) we have taken the time to develop long-lasting relationships with multiple small, local farmers. Our spring menu still isn’t out yet because our farmers don’t have a lot to offer yet!! Just because the calendar says it’s spring, it doesn’t mean spring produce is actually available.

    If we could get daily delivery or make it to Menands every morning, you can believe Nick would have the wherewithal to produce a small daily menu. Since that’s not currently possible, we change things up as much as possible based on what our farmers have mostly regularly available per any one season. Check out our menu here: When and IF we’re able to start dinners, we’d like to do a “farmers market dinner” on Saturday nights, when everything we make is from uber-fresh ingredients, with a menu created on the fly based on what we get that day.

  9. Sue permalink
    May 8, 2013 11:43 pm

    Our menu is small, two soups, three salads, three sandwiches, and one special. It changes daily and weekly based on what we are able to barter out of the TWFM every Saturday. It’s very difficult and time consuming, which is why the menu needs to stay small. Its farm to table. It’s the way I was taught to work in Portland Maine before moving to this area. Most of my customers are confused by the constant change AND the lack of a traditional paper menu to study (I’ve given up on printing out “to go” menus, only to field calls two weeks later asking for items that have long since disappeared with the snow). I’ve worked in larger restaurants like Provence and LoPorto at the Sign of the Tree and could see how this could become an ordering nightmare. But if Sodexho at RPI is giving it the old college try, with some success, there is hope!

    • Jessica R permalink
      May 9, 2013 1:27 pm

      Sue, please introduce yourself to the group! Are you the chef at RPI, or can I come eat at your restaurant??

  10. Sue permalink
    May 9, 2013 8:43 pm

    Ooops! Susan Dunckel, chef and owner of Sweet Sues in Troy. I spent six years as the Faculty/Catering Supervisor at RPI and helped to implement and run programs there like the “Terra Cafe”. I would love to have you visit my shop, Jessica. You can catch us at the TWFM Saturdays as well.

    • Jessica R permalink
      May 9, 2013 10:47 pm

      Haha, great! I have been to Sweet Sue’s – love it! :-)

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