Thursday, April 16, 2009


When the Circus Came to Town

I love the restaurant business. I hate the restaurant business.

Why am I putting the emphasis on the business part of that statement? During these perilous economic times, everyone is trying to manage their business as efficiently as possible. Did you know that in fine-dining or “white tablecloth” restaurants--average profit is just around 4%? Some restaurants sales are down 10-20% from a year ago. The Sea Grill restaurant located just across the street from my restaurant, Pacific Grill, closed for good 2 weeks ago. Even Quiznos and Starbucks in our downtown neighborhood closed recently.

[photo: food orders unspooling onto the floor from the Printer]

4 % is a pretty slim margin. You are trying to hold onto just 4 cents for every dollar that comes through your front door! The single biggest cost in a restaurant is labor.
You might wonder what it takes to run a restaurant like Pacific Grill where we employ over 70 full and part time employees. I am happy to say we haven’t (yet) had to lay-off a single person.

How can you help us restaurateurs survive?

The other night we started with just 27 reservations on the book. It felt like it was going to be a slow Thursday night. Our manager made some decisions to run with a leaner crew that night. He didn’t call in a second Host for the front door. He scheduled two fewer waiters for the dining room, and we went with just one bartender. The extra dishwasher was sent home, the extra line cook wasn’t scheduled and so on. ….

Then all hell broke loose.

We were mobbed with early diners headed to the Britney Spears “Circus” concert at the Tacoma Dome. We ended up doing 240 dinners that night.

I have talked about this before in an effort to get the word out, but it would sure be nice if a bigger proportion of those 240 diners would call ahead and make reservations.

How does that help me as a restaurant-owner?

I have no desire to give bad service. I want there to be an appropriate amount of staff to take care of our clients. If you have too many waiters on the floor, and it is a slow night—the waiters don’t make enough money in tips. When a crush of people arrive, a server can be inundated with 4 tables seated all at once. It takes time to talk about the menu, get cocktails ordered, explain what wine might be best with the entrées ordered. Then all those orders have to be entered into the computer so the kitchen can get started cooking. The computer was spitting out so many orders so fast I could barely keep up.

Meanwhile the 3 other neglected tables are glaring at the Server. The Bartender is slammed with so many cocktails to make at once that she cannot get drinks made fast enough. The kitchen gets buried. The tables say “we are on our way to the concert, and please rush our meal”. But they ordered the chicken (which is raw and hasn’t been cooked yet) and will take at least a half-hour to prepare. After the meals the dishwasher is buried with too many plates and silverware to wash, that we don’t have china to plate a salad or there aren’t enough cocktail forks ready…and the dominoes continue to fall.

Now don’t get me wrong-- I love it when people drop in for Happy Hour and dine with us spur-of-the-moment.

But think about it this way—do you ever drop in on your friends for dinner without calling first? Or what if you invite 8 friends for dinner, you shop and prepare, set a beautiful table, and then 10 times the number you invited—80 people—show up! Would that put a little stress on you the Host or Hostess? Would you have enough food to feed 72 extra people? Would you have enough china on which to serve the food? Would it take the same amount of time to clean up after? I would venture a guess that your party would be a disaster.

What if you were throwing a wedding at a hotel and 27 people RSVP’d—but 270 showed up? The hotel would not have scheduled enough banquet servers, the room would not be big enough to hold the guests, and there would not be enough food to feed your group.

I have learned in my time here as a restaurant owner to usually quadruple the amount of reservations to guesstimate the number of diners that will actually show up for dinner.

We have to order fish the night before it is delivered. So after work Wednesday night, we call the fish purveyor and tell them how much fish to deliver for Thursday’s business.

It is a crap-shoot.

Hmmmm we only have 27 reservations so maybe we will do around 120 people”. If you over-order too much wild King salmon, expensive Maine Lobster, Alaskan scallops, live oysters, clams & mussels—and they spoil, it is going to negatively affect your Food Cost and eat into that narrow 4% margin, and you are not going to be in business very long.

So we tend to order conservatively.

We want to efficiently schedule waiters so they can make a decent living. I cannot afford to over-staff a dining room just hoping customers will show-up. I cannot afford to have 2 dishwashers with nothing to do, or extra line cooks waiting to sauté that expensive first-of-the-season fresh halibut.

We depend on our reservations to forecast how busy we will be. But it is like gazing into a crystal ball.

That 27 turned into 240 when the circus came to town.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Crudo of Scallops

A really popular dish that you are seeing popping up all over the United States on menus right now is crudo.

Italian for raw—crudo is a fusion dish —similar to Japanese sashimi, but with Italian/Mediterranean flavors instead of Japanese.

Recently I showed you a crudo of raw ahi tuna with Summer black truffles.

Today we are featuring a crudo of thinly sliced raw scallops with extra-virgin olive oil, lime juice, cracked pepper, slivered mint & cilantro—and sprinkled with vanilla salt. [Sea salt that has been infused with a scraped Tahitian vanilla pod].

The unusual combination of flavors against the buttery richness of the raw scallops is delicious.

Like our flatbreads, the crudo changes frequently, so this particular version may not be on the menu the next time you visit Pacific Grill.

Flatbread with Lamb Meatballs

A particularly delicious flatbread we have been featuring this week at Pacific Grill is our house-made lamb meatballs, creamy goat cheese, blistered grape tomatoes, fresh herbs, and red onion.

It is a great starter, and the fluted tart pan in which they are served makes for a great presentation. And is easy to throw together—and a great attention getter—at your next party.

Our flatbread dough is similar to pizza dough, but we don't knead the dough--we just throw it together and stir it until it forms a sticky mass. We then retard it over night in the walk-in to develop the flavor, then assemble the tarts the next day, before baking them off to order.

HINT: You don't want to put too much flour in this dough or it will make the crust tough and not crispy.

Put whatever toppings you want onto the dough just like you would a pizza. And bake it in a blazing hot oven for around 10 minutes or until the top of the crust is brown around the edges and the cheese is bubbly and browning.

After you finish baking the flatbread push the removable bottom out of the pan and cut the pizza right on the pan into about 8 equal sized pieces. Then drop the pre-cut flatbread back into the tart pan, drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of chopped Italian parsley just before serving. If the flatbread needs it you can stick it back into the oven a minute or two or under the broiler to give the cheese more color—but watch it like a hawk cause it will burn fast!

Oh and by the way—our flatbreads sell-out quickly and change every few days—so don't expect this particular flatbread on your next visit to Pacific Grill.

Tomato Confit

A new dish we have been featuring is Chef Ian's Tomato "Confit".

As you may know confit is a French word meaning "preserved" and usually is used to describe a slow cooking technique whereby a tough cut of fowl such as a duck leg or goose was cooked slowly in its own fat, and then sealed in this fat to protect it from decomposing, and could be cellared before refrigeration was invented, for many months without spoiling.

Confit can also be seen in the word confiture which tranlates as a preserve in the sense of a jam or jelly is preserved with extra sugar added to protect it also from spoilage.

Ian takes Roma tomatoes and cuts them in half and tosses them in olive oil, herbs and chopped garlic. Then he puts them in the oven over-night with just the pilot light left on. This allows the tomato to be cooked for ten or more hours, slowly enhancing the tomatoes sugars and making the tomato even more tomatoey.
The he takes some fresh Dungeness crabmeat and stuffs the preserved tomato, serving it on a frilly bed of spring greens, and surrounding the plate with a spring vinagrette made from extra-virgin olive oil and cooked rhubarb with citrus, and a little shaved reggiano over the top.

Red Flame Salad

A while back I wanted to come up with a salad that would work with wine.

As most of you know--salads and vinaigrettes can be a real wine buster--the residual vinegar remaining in your mouth and tongue ruins the wine's balance, and making the wine seem overly acidic and undrinkable.

I came up with a roasted grape salad, using the grape's own juices collected after roasting and making a mild grape vinaigrette and scraping a vanilla pod also into the vinaigrette for added richness and buttery-ness to try and mimic a flavor profile found in wine.

The acid in the grapes after roasting were tamed and enriched, and the grape flavor enhanced, but still had enough acid to make the vinaigrette not too cloying.

For a crouton I love grilled bread. I took a variety of cheeses and blended them with a bit of white wine and garlic and pureed it in the food processor, then thickly slavered the cheese onto the grilled bread and toasted the cheese in the oven until gooey and caramelized.

This combination of flavors was delicious with the wine--and curiously--with either a red or a white.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Pacific Grill Events Center

Pacific Grill adds a jewel to its empire

Gordon Naccarato, owner of Pacific Grill restaurant in downtown Tacoma, recently opened an event center on Pacific Avenue inside the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel. This meeting room in the complex offers a view of iconic downtown buildings like Union Station.

Lui Kit Wong The News Tribune

Gordon Naccarato’s downtown neighbors continue to drop like flies drowning in hot soup. But the hometown chef continues to cook up one success after another.

His latest hit? Tacoma’s newest and classiest event space: Pacific Grill Events Center, a $2 million build out of the ground floor inside the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel.

Meanwhile, across South 15th Street in the Rainier Pacific Bank Building, Mackay Restaurant Group closed its highly touted Sea Grill Restaurant on Sunday.

Last week, Quiznos shuttered its sandwich shop in the former Schoenfeld’s furniture building across Pacific Avenue. Last month, the UPS Brown Store closed its branch inside the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center. And Starbucks abandoned its space next to Sea Grill last October.

The neighborhood surrounding the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center hasn’t progressed according to plan.

You can blame it on the economy. Or you can blame it on the City of Tacoma’s $85 million convention center’s failure to attract enough out-of-town events to spin out dollars into the pockets of nearby merchants.

Among the 24 events booked there this month, you’ll find 17 local events, including three weddings and two church services.

But you won’t hear Naccarato complaining. Much. His team, headed by general manager Chip Venzone, has booked more than 75 events in their new center in less than a month.

“Everyone’s feeling (the bad economy) a bit, but we haven’t seemed to suffer as much as some others,” Naccarato said during an interview in the largest of his new event spaces. The Pacific Ballroom, with its molded cream glass chandeliers and dark paneling, can host groups up to 250 – or divide into two smaller rooms.

Across a grand entrance hallway that features a wall-size gas fireplace, you can also book the quainter Commerce Room with its big-screen TV for groups up to 56.

When I broke the news in January 2005 about Naccarato’s plans for this block of Pacific Avenue, he had a different idea for the same space. In addition to Pacific Grill, Naccarato planned to open a second restaurant, Mariel, named after his adult daughter. The urban bistro would have served small plates, intended for sharing, complete with an upscale wine bar featuring a Cruvinet to dispense wine by the glass.

It never happened.
Colliers International shopped the vacant space for the Hollander Hotel Group, which owns the Marriott, but could never find a taker. Then came the 2007 Christmas season. Naccarato recorded roughly $100,000 in business lost from groups he turned away due to lack of space.

“I’m glad I didn’t do Mariel,” he said. “In retrospect, with the economy going the way it went, it wouldn’t have worked.”

But Pacific Grill has worked enough that the spin-off into event space – where groups can order many of the same menu items – makes economic sense now. How has Naccarato done it while others have failed?

He credits multiple revenue streams – regular restaurant patrons, hotel guests who drop in for a meal, room service to hotel guests, a new boxed-meal catering service, a new contract to provide boxed food for area Forza Coffee Co. shops and, now, the event space.

Kitchen Staff preparing Box Lunches LUI KIT WONG/THE NEWS TRIBUNE

He also founded Pacific Grill with 30 mostly local investors who help draw friends and family.
Or, maybe, Naccarato simply has a golden touch. He’s the son of Stan “Mr. Tacoma” Naccarato – the influential, longstanding fan of Destiny City sports, business and community spirit.

When Gordon Naccarato left for law school in Los Angeles, he eventually dropped torts for tarts.

Food & Wine magazine named him one of the 10 Best New Chefs in the United States in 1988.

Here’s another clue, a Gordon Naccarato quote three months before Pacific Grill opened: “Lots of restaurants define the city they’re in. That’s what I want this to be. Like the city’s been distilled into what the restaurant is.”

Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785