Spicing up a slow season

Spicing up a slow season

After the frenzy of party-packed December, January can be pretty quiet in some parts of the restaurant world.

“Kind of a characteristic of Boston restaurants in January is that for the first three weeks, it’s a dust bowl,” says chef Jamie Bissonnette of KO Prime [3], which opened nearly a year ago at Boston’s Nine Zero Hotel. “It’s really slow.”

Add to that the fact that most other restaurants in KO Prime’s neighborhood are closed on Sundays, and you have one potentially quiet restaurant. To try to draw in traffic for that slowest day of the slow season, Bissonnette has planned three-course “Retro Sunday Suppers,” starting in January. The $55 prix-fixe meal is a deal at the restaurant, which has average checks in the $010-$015 range.

“We’re going to go with a lot of iconic [dishes], almost what some people would call a ‘cruise ship’ menu,” says Bissonnette, who plans such dishes as beef Wellington, veal Oscar, lobster Americaine and maybe even baked Alaska.

Bissonnette will update the classics—using mustard sabayon or mustard gel, for example, with lobster Thermidor, and substituting salers cheese for the traditional Gruyère. For his version of oysters Rockefeller, he will top spinach-wrapped poached oysters with Parmesan foam and a powdered house-made pancetta.

Ralf Kuettel, executive chef of Trestle on Tenth [4] in New York, is also reaching back in time, in his case to his Swiss childhood, to plan a January restaurant promotion, a metzgete meal for $24. Metzgete is a traditional cold-weather Swiss meal, which Kuettel describes as similar to a choucroute, which follows livestock slaughter in the fall or winter.

Kuettel’s metzgete will include blood sausage, house-made liver sausage and bratwurst, and braised pork belly, all served with sauerkraut, mashed potato, applesauce and house mustard. He says his menu is traditional except for the fact that he cannot make the blood sausages in-house because it’s too hard to find blood in New York City.

At Hank’s Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., chef Jamie Leeds has taken a different tack for boosting business in January. Instead of creating a new menu item, she offers an already popular item—oysters on the half shell—at half price, $1 each instead of $2 each. Oyster Happy Hour will run 5:30-6:30 p.m. at her two Hank’s locations for January and February. While Leeds normally showcases six or seven types of oysters in her ice bar, the promotion will include three to five selections, depending on what she can obtain in large enough quantities. By late fall, fans of last year’s Oyster Happy Hour were already calling to inquire about this year’s bivalve bargains, she says.

Leeds shucks the oysters to order and serves them on a platter with shaved ice, mignonette, lemon and oyster crackers. She estimates that the happy hour crowd is a 50-50 split between folks who come solely for the oysters and a drink and those who stay for dinner.

In the warmer months of the year, Michael Psilakis, chef-owner of Anthos in New York City, starts thinking about pickling fresh produce to capture the season’s flavors for the winter ahead. “Knowing what is and isn’t going to be available during the season allows you to forecast and take steps towards knowing that you could make something today that you’ll be able to have in the future.”

Pickling something with a short season, such as ramps, which Psilakis likes to use liberally, he says, keeps that flavor going. But his pickling predilections extend beyond just preserving out-of-season vegetables.

“It’s also a means of bringing that acidic impact that really takes away from the fattiness of the heavy foods that lend themselves to this time of the year,” he says. “It kind of breaks through fat and allows the palate to have that really kind of fresh feeling.”

Psilakis’ creations include a salad of smoked octopus tossed with preserved lemon, pickled chanterelles, pickled pearl onions and celery leaf, served atop a fennel yogurt purée for $16. He describes the dish as having a contrast of textures—“soft, lush octopus” against the crisped preserved lemon and soft yet chewy pickled mushrooms—as well as the evolution of flavors starting with smoky and ending with the clean refreshing brine of the pickled vegetables.

The post-holiday lull wraps up more quickly some places than others. For Hemingway’s Restaurant in Killington, Vermont, the heart of ski country, there may be a few quieter days at the very beginning of January, but high season really begins at Christmas. Owners Linda and Ted Fondulas plan to offer their guests, a mostly après ski crowd, a contrast to the cold slopes with a culinary trip to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean.

The festivities for a January 25 special dinner featuring foods and wines of Spain will begin with tapas. Examples: salt cod fritters, empanadas, peppers stuffed with anchovies and olives, and potato-thickened garlic soup. Next up on the menu is wild striped bass and Littleneck clams served on an aïoli-topped crouton surrounded by saffron broth. That’s followed by wood-roasted pork with Catalan-style eggplant. Dessert will be Spanish cheeses with honey and almond crisps. The three-course dinner is $75.00, excluding tip and tax, and will pair each course with a different Spanish wine. Wine expert Ken Scupp of Kobrand Corp. will be the guest speaker.

And in Toronto, January has become decidedly more exciting since 2004, when the city initiated “WinterCity,” a 14-day festival of free entertainment and arts events. There 130 restaurants, from casual eateries to fine-dining venues, are participating in the festival’s “Winterlicious,” program of special prixfixe menus. At Auberge du Pommier, the restaurant extends seating times to allow for increased traffic, which may add 200 extra guests at lunch and at dinner, compared with the usual 100 to 150 covers. For many diners, the promotion offers a chance to visit a restaurant that might otherwise be a budget-breaker.

Executive chef Jason Bangerter aims to give the Winterlicious guests “exactly the same experience” of excellent service and modern French cuisine with his three-course menu as they would get with the regular menu. The meal is $35.00 Canadian, while typical checks there average $010.00 Canadian. For example, one entrée choice for the special menu is made with Kobe beef, but instead of featuring the pricey tenderloin, Bangerter braises Kobe brisket; it’s served with Alsatian-style stewed cabbage, lentils and sauce raifort.