“In cooking, as in all arts, simplicity is the sign of perfection"

-Curnonsky

PASTICHE BISTRO & WINE BAR
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Pastiche at the Metro
411 East Mason Street

Pastiche Brown Deer
4313 West River Lane

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Musings of a Chef

 

Half-Price Appetizers 
December 22, 2012

Over the last couple of years, every now and again, I've approached Angela or one of the other people whose opinions I trust, with the idea of either discontinuing half-price appetizers or restricting it to the bar only. Until this season, I've always been talked out of it. Now, though, I believe it's time to change.

In the beginning, half-price appetizers and glass wine specials were part of a strategy to bring people in and acquaint them with the restaurant. After that, it became more of a thank-you to the core group of neighbors and regulars who frequent Pastiche on if not a daily basis then at least several times per week.

In all humility, I think it's safe to say that people are aware of the restaurant after almost three years, and so that part of the program, as successful as it has been, has also pretty much run it's course. Now, we're getting groups of people who make reservations for half-price appetizers because it's a great deal, then they eat their fill and either leave when the happy hour is over or continue to sit at the table and socialize while others are waiting to sit down and eat. Of course, I have no one to blame for this but myself, because I set it up that way knowing full well that someday I'd have to change it.

Looking at the big picture, though, I know that the restaurant just wouldn't be the same without our happy-hour gang, and that they really are good customers who deserve our appreciation. Simply restricting it to the bar seems to be the best solution, especially for our people who book tables for 6:00 and 6:30.

There are collateral benefits as well. As lunch business has continued to evolve and grow, people are eating later and lingering longer, creating a real squeeze in the kitchen to get the line turned over for dinner service. We'll be able to keep up on appetizers better- now, for example, even if we begin the evening with ten or twelve onion tarts (which take Angela an hour or two to make each day), a busy happy hour can almost wipe us out, forcing us to 86 them to our dinner patrons. All these things will smooth out service, and create a much nicer experience for our customers.

...and for those people who want a little snack and a nice glass of wine, we have the Pastiche Wines shop upstairs. Sample any or all of the wines we feature each day, relax and order a cheese plate or charcuterie sampler- both are excellent to share. If you'd like to wait for a seat at the bar, we'll send someone up to let you know when one opens up. It's been a good run, but at this point, it just seems like the right thing to do.

If I don't see you over the next week or so, have a great holiday and don't eat too much good food! -m.

 

It's hard to believe Christmas is just a few days away 
December 18, 2012

I haven’t done any shopping, once again, so I guess everyone gets a bottle of wine and a gift card… No one complained the last two years, so I guess that’ll do all right.

This is the time of year when I try to step back a little bit, look at the business with a critical eye, and try to assess what we’re doing well and what we need to improve on.

The things I’m happiest about are the growth of lunch since Andrew has taken responsibility for it (and the improvement in our beer program, which is also his responsibility), and the introduction and popularity of Tapas Tuesday, which is where we showcase Rachael’s skills and creativity.

We’ve had growth in the service staff as well. Frank and Nick have trained to wait tables and tend bar, and have been gaining confidence and capability steadily as the year has progressed. Though we lost a few really good people, we managed to recruit wonderful replacements like Jerome, Bill, Phil and Jess. I’m very happy with the enthusiasm and energy they’ve brought to Pastiche, and our customers have embraced them as well.

In the Bistro, customers have pointed out that it would be nice to have a few pricier bottles on our list, and last month I decided to test the water by adding a couple of nice bottles in the over $50.00 category. We’ve sold through a case of one and a half case of the other, so I guess they were right. I’m hesitant to go much deeper than a few bottles, but willing to move a little bit in that direction if that’s what people are asking for.

Looking upstairs, we’ve started doing parties in the private dining room, with good feedback. The wine shop has done well with tastings and classes, developing a good client base along the way. Cindy has stocked it with a lot of really great wines, most in the lower price range so they can be enjoyed regularly. We’ve taken a look at just when most of our sales are occurring, and have talked about the possibility of changing the shop hours to more closely follow the sales patterns. If we can do that, the efficiency gained will make it possible to keep the prices at a minimum, bring in additional wines, and still serve our customers well. We’ve built the shop around interesting wines at a fair price, and while we’ll never compete with the big boys in some ways, we can give the best in personal attention, order almost anything you can imagine and have it here in a matter of days. Cindy has the connections and knowledge that only come from years in the wine business, traveling to the wine-producing regions of the world and meeting with the winemakers and importers. Between the two of us, we can put our knowledge of food and wine together like no one else in Milwaukee. That’s what makes us different, and where we make up for our small size.

Lastly, I think we’ve benefitted tremendously this year from the positive energy of our customers. I knew the first year or so was going to be rough. People always flock to the new places, and are very vocal about it when they don’t like them. We had our share, of course, and I knew from experience that it was just a temporary thing, that they wouldn’t return, and that they’d probably tell their friends who wouldn’t bother to come and be disappointed. As time went by, the people who got what we were doing and liked it kept coming back, telling their like-minded friends, and enabling our business to grow to what it is today.

Now approaching the end of our third year, I can go out in our dining room and see a great mix of familiar faces and new friends. The people who criticized us for not having high chairs, children’s menus, outdoor dining, fish fries or brunch have disappeared, replaced with others who are coming in for a nice cassoulet and a bottle of Cotes du Rhone. Angela, of course, still runs the dining room. It’s a difficult and often thankless job; she’s the person people seem to take it out on when they’ve had a bad day or can’t get what they want. If they could just once have the experience of running four tight turns on a busy night, I believe they’d be a little nicer. I’m happy that she’s there and amazed at her ability to keep up with everything. I couldn’t.

All in all, it’s been a great year. For all the things we’ve accomplished, I’m grateful to the staff. For the fact that we’re still there, cooking every day, I’m grateful to our customers and neighbors. There’s still a lot I want to do, and still many ways we can improve, but looking back over this year, I couldn’t be happier. –m.

 

Is there such a thing as "too much golf"?
November 7, 2012

As the wear and tear of almost two years of working double shifts was getting to me, I decided to let Andrew assume lunch duties and make it his own. He’s done well enough for me to feel comfortable in coming in “around noon” every day; leaving me my mornings free to do other things. I purchased a golf pass in May, and began playing my way around the Milwaukee County courses weekday mornings before heading in to more serious business at the restaurant.

Golf has been important to me for as long as I can remember. My dad taught me when I was young, and love for the game has remained something we’ve had in common all these years. Because of our family situation, I think that most of what we know about each other has been learned on the golf course (for example, as a teacher and a Marine, he’s naturally a traditionalist and a stickler for the Rules of Golf; as a chef and a Paratrooper, I am also a traditionalist but have a general disdain for rules of any type).
Anyway, once I learned the fundamentals of the swing, rules and etiquette, I was free to play by myself or with my friends at Lincoln Park, which is a short 9-hole course near our home in Glendale. Growing up, I caddied at Tripoli C.C., played Mondays, and eventually got a job at a driving range picking up balls at night in exchange for $1.00 an hour and all the balls I wanted to hit (and then, of course, pick up). I played in high school for a year, then after graduation played on the team at MATC (yes, the tech schools have their own conference).

I gave the game up for close to twenty years; between the Army, raising a family and building a career there was just no time and little desire to play. Picking it up again at The Legend, I rediscovered many things that I’d loved about the game, and got into it with renewed energy and ambition. Leaving that job to open Pastiche made me put the clubs away again, but now they’re back in my car, hopefully for a while.

To me, golf has always been where I go to get away from everything else. The natural beauty of the course, the challenge of playing, and the camaraderie of the people I meet make it one of the best ways I can think of to spend my free time. I’ve played almost all of the County courses, and met some very interesting and cool people in the process. I’ve lost a little weight, my blood pressure is down, my attitude is better, and I’ve made some friends. I’ve had good days and better days, and learned that the secret to enjoying the game (and indeed, life) is to not keep score- just play shot to shot and enjoy where it takes me.

Having said all that, I guess my answer to the question is this; as long as it doesn’t interfere with the truly important things in life, there’s no such thing as “too much golf”.

 

It’s nice to have off on the Fourth of July
July 4, 2012

...for most of my career, I worked in Country Clubs, where it was always a big day for golf, buffets and, in the old days, fireworks.

I didn’t really mind working; I like cookouts, and the employees were permitted to look up at the members’ fireworks and enjoy them as well. At Tripoli, my crew and I used to relocate lounge chairs from the pool deck up to a relatively flat spot on the roof of the clubhouse, along with coolers of beer and margaritas. When the fireworks started, we’d climb up the air conditioners, onto the roof and, exhausted and thirsty, enjoy the fireworks in style. It was a great feeling.

To get the real feeling for the Fourth of July, though, I had to spend it in another country. In ’85, I was in the Army, and my battalion had been assigned to peacekeeping duties with the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai desert. Because we were one of thirteen different nation’s contingents, working for the United Nations, we weren’t permitted to fly the US flag at our base camp or desert observation posts. After being out in the desert for six weeks, my squad had been rotated back to the main base camp for a few days until our next assignment came up, and the Fourth of July happened to fall during one of those days.

Apparently not wanting to waste a minute of that day, the Commander got everyone from our Battalion that was in the camp up at about two am, had a formation, and told us that he wanted to run a marathon to start his holiday. Anyone who joined him and finished would be given the rest of the day off to do whatever they pleased, while the rest of the troops would be assigned to details and training. Of course, we all ran with the Colonel.

Arriving back at the camp just as the sun was breaking over the horizon, he pulled an American flag out of his duffle bag, and with help from the Sergeant Major, unfolded it, attached it to the flagpole and defiantly ran it all the way up to the top. He had The Star Spangled Banner on a cassette, and played it on somebody’s boom box. By that time, some of the troops from the other contingents were hanging around the periphery, checking out the action. There must’ve been about a hundred or so paratroopers standing there at attention, sweating and exhausted, with tears rolling down their cheeks. No one from the UN or anywhere else would’ve dreamed to ask for that flag to be taken down.

I don’t think any of us will ever forget that Fourth of July. Just a moment in time almost thirty years ago that still brings tears every time I hear the Star Spangled Banner.

Of course, we spent the rest of that day getting blind drunk, playing volleyball, and listening to loud rock n’ roll. We even had a bonfire that night, and I got volunteered to cook some steaks and chickens that someone had relocated from the mess hall… almost like home.

Have a safe and happy Fourth! –m.

 

Asher came back today.
May 21, 2012

...it was good to see him sitting in the restaurant again after a long winter of being away; and he looked great. The last time I’d seen him, he was in chemo after being diagnosed with bone cancer. He’d lost a lot of weight and a lot of hair. He was having a tough time eating his lunch and probably just as tough a time keeping it down.

Asher is definitely a guy you’d notice in a small restaurant: ex-Israeli Special Forces, and roughly the size of an Airstream trailer. Engaging and friendly, with intelligent eyes and the deep smile of someone who really appreciates what he’s got in life, it affected me deeply to see how he had dealt with such a devastating disease and recovered to the point where, save for a deep scar on his right leg, you’d have a hard time noticing any difference. He’s post-cancer now, and I congratulate him both on his recovery and on the return of his appetite.

All of us at the restaurant are so happy to see you back, Asher, and wish you and your wife many more years of happiness and health.

On another note, we had a small fire last night in back of the restaurant. It was never even really much of a fire, barely enough to toast a marshmallow; mostly just some smoldering and smoke thought to have been caused by a discarded cigarette butt that a gust of wind blew into a small crack between the building and the concrete outside of the back door. The Milwaukee Fire Department was on the scene in minutes, and stayed until they were sure it was extinguished. There was some superficial damage, but nothing that would keep us from being open for business as usual. Our heartfelt thanks go out to the MFD, to all of our friends who called and emailed to ask if we needed anything, and to our customers who had their dinners interrupted and, amazingly, took it all in stride. You’re the best.

It was a little hectic, and even though it looked bad, it could’ve been a whole lot worse…
But in the big scheme of things, nothing today could have made me happier than to see an old friend come in for lunch. –m.

 

Opera Man lives in my neighborhood.
May 11, 2012

When the weather turns nice and my windows are open, I can hear him walking up and back along the parkway, singing arias, in Italian, at the top of his voice. He’s as much a harbinger of spring as the first ramps and morels; his voice is strong and he hits the high hard notes with more than enough enthusiasm to make up for an occasional lapse in precision. I don’t know his name, but for the one or two moments he’s within earshot each day he makes our neighborhood a little more musical. He shares his voice and love of opera with all of us, and when I hear him coming, I turn down the TV and listen… then he fades away and life goes on.

The morels this year weren’t plentiful, but most of the ones I was able to get were pretty nice. Jim, our mushroom foraging friend whose first appearance is also a true sign of spring, has been all over but the pickings have been slim. He’s a fascinating guy, a collector of interesting and unusual things, each of which has it’s own story, which he’ll share with us if we ask. He pops in out of the blue, usually with a couple of red Sendik’s bags stuffed with beautiful mushrooms, and tells us about his travels to get them. He’s usually only there for ten minutes or so, then he pops back out and we don’t see him again until next time the weather changes.

Because we like to change things up at the restaurant every so often, we’re going to be introducing something new in June- Tapas Tuesdays. Of course, it’s not a new idea; nothing ever really is. It’s got a nice ring to it, though, and since Tuesdays are usually our least busy night (and therefore the night that Angela and I try to take off), I’ve given Rachael the responsibility of working on the menus and figuring the logistics out. She’s always up for a challenge, so, after a few hours of talking about it and a lot of ideas and notes, we’re just about set to go.

You can expect most of the regular dinner menu to be absent, because there would just never be enough room on the hot line to be able to do that plus a selection of between 18-24 different tapas. We’ll keep two or three appetizers (yes, they’ll be half price from 4-6), two or three salads and entrees, and all of Angela’s desserts. Prices for tapas will range between $4-$12, and the tapas themselves will be a mixture of traditional and modern Spanish (think Patatas Bravas, Frittata, etc.) alongside more creative, seasonally-inspired dishes that we can make with more local products and things we have banging around the cooler after a long weekend (Warm Morel Flan, Risotto Cakes, Soft-Shell Crab, Bolzano Charcuterie, etc.).

I think it’ll be a lot of fun. It’s always good to be able to stretch a little when you work in a restaurant like ours that has certain parameters. For me, it’s also very rewarding to be able to allow someone like Rachael to take on something that will enable her to grow by challenging her creativity and organizational skills. I’ll be around, for sure, at least in the beginning, if for no other reason than to nosh and help out. But then, we’ll be back to our nights off, heading out to our friends’ restaurants to enjoy their great food. It’s going to be a good summer. –m.

 

We finally got to Braise.
May 4, 2012

I was very anxious to check it out, and to see what David's been up to. We went there early on a Tuesday evening, and were warmly greeted, seated and given menus. Drinks in hand, given a quick tour of the kitchen, then returned to our table for dinner.

Everything was excellent. Well presented, with nice, true flavors and pairing really well with our wines. We enjoyed ourselves tremendously, and when we paid the bill and left, both felt that we'd had a terrific dinner, that the prices were very reasonable, and that we were comfortably full but still had room to walk down to The Noble for an after-dinner drink.

When I related our experience to someone days later, he told me that was good to hear because he'd heard mixed reviews of the restaurant. It turned out that by "reviews", he meant internet chatter. Glancing at one of the popular sites showed several comments that seemed to indicate that people had been disappointed because their expectations were unrealistically high to begin with. Most of what I read related in no way to the experience that Angela and I had that evening. Internet review sites are based on the notion that everyone is entitled to their opinion, which from a certain point of view is a worthwhile thing, but in practice falls short because the people who make a habit of it often have little idea what they're talking about and/or let their personal biases color their "reviews".

What David is doing with Braise Restaurant is not only quite ambitious and complex, it's also only one facet of his whole operation. The level of commitment and energy it takes to do what he does is remarkable to someone like me.

Wisconsin is by no means a food desert, but when I think of how limited I'd feel, for example, if I had to eliminate seafood from my cooking because it comes from the Coasts, I can begin to appreciate how difficult it must be for someone to run a restaurant and provide a broad selection of high-quality dishes that will make people happy and want to return, using virtually nothing but locally-produced ingredients.

David uses his considerable talent, imagination and skills every day to come up with interesting and flavorful food to serve in his restaurant. Not only that, he's spent a great deal of time finding where to get those ingredients from, establishing relationships with those who grow and produce them. I find a lot to admire in that.

The locovore movement has been around for a while now, but is fairly recent to Wisconsin. I first ran across it in Madison at L' Etoile several years ago, and my cooking has certainly been influenced by it in many ways. Odessa Piper was at the vanguard, but others like Jan Kelly and David have picked it up in Milwaukee and are running with it.

I'll say it once more- this style of cooking requires a great deal of skill and experience, and the discipline to restrict yourself and confine your creativity to certain parameters that your peers don't always appreciate. Of course, if we don't always appreciate it, I suppose it's a stretch to expect the general dining public to do so.

If you go to Braise, keep in mind that this guy is not cooking with the best ingredients that money can buy- he's cooking with the best ingredients he can procure locally. The level of logistical organization that requires is amazing... His dishes may or may not hit the mark on any given day because of things way beyond his control, such as the weather, or a farm truck breaking down. From what I saw, he's succeeding on every level.

Having realistic expectations is so important when going out to eat. Try to keep the big picture in mind. Appreciate how much work went into the dish that's in front of you, and if you think you can do better, then get yourself over to the Farmer's Market and give it a try. To do what these guys do takes incredible drive and talent, and the skills that come with years of experience and hard work.

In the end, I'd say take the things you read on the internet with an appropriate grain of salt. If you instead spend that same amount of time educating yourself a little bit on what this style of cooking is all about, I'll bet you come away with a much better appreciation of how good it really is. -m.

 

It'd been a long day
March 4, 2012

Angela and Rachael were in Napa taking a wine class, so I'd been working a little harder to pick up the slack. Now it was late, so I called my produce and fish orders in and headed back downstairs to close up for the night. I put my jacket on. When I stuck my hand in my pocket to get my keys out I heard the familiar clinking of the tags on the collar and realized that I was going home to a house without a dog for the first time in over a decade. In the still of the empty restaurant, it hit me pretty hard.

Just that morning, after a second near-sleepless night in a row, I'd had to take my Border Collie, Mick, to the vet to be put down. He was old, his health had been failing over the last six months or so, and we both knew it was time. Now he was gone, and I was going to have to learn to get used to the quiet.

Now, anything that can be said about dogs has already been said, by people better at it than me, so I'll just leave it at this- he was a good dog. The best. I'll miss him dearly. I'll always be very grateful for knowing him and for the good chunk of our lives that we spent together.

It's been a month now, more or less, and even though I still look in the front window as I roll out of the driveway each morning, and hurry inside to let him out when I get home every night, I realize it's just out of habit and I smile a little. Bittersweet. Life goes on.

Work goes on, too. Winter is warming up into Spring. My friend Jan at Meritage has been nominated for the very prestigious "Best Chef- Midwest" award from the James Beard Foundation. She deserves it, as anyone who's eaten at her restaurant knows. I hope she wins, and if she does, that she'll still let me sit next to her at Thanksgiving Dinner... At least the level of discourse will be a little higher. She can tell me about that, and I can tell her about making a Croque Monsieur with John McGivern (that was really pretty fun)...

With Spring only a few weeks away, I've started looking forward to seeing some new things on the menu. I'm not too sure right now, but probably a mix of old and new. Rachael and the crew have been doing a really good job, and I've let go and relaxed my grip. A little bit. In some ways. Ok, well maybe not that much, but at least enough to feel like I can stretch out a little. I've finally revamped the lunch menu, which was admittedly overdue because I've been going back and forth about whether or not I want to continue to serve lunch. It's hard to do a good job because we never know if we're going to be busy or slow. There's no rhyme or reason to it, which is very frustrating. We just have to keep guessing and doing the best we can.

That's the restaurant business.

This morning, I went to work at nine to dismantle and scrub the ovens and cooking range, and to clean off the inner, hard to reach parts of the hood fan. Places where the grease and caustic chemicals drip down on your hair and, if you're not careful, eyes. I was pretty deep into it when Mario and his friend came in to finish up the plumbing and electrical wiring for the Combi-Oven. His friend was talking to me and wondering why I was the one who came in early on a Sunday morning to do all that nasty deep cleaning. I own the restaurant, so why don't I have someone else come in and do it, he asked. Because no one will do it as well as I want it done, and because I'll have to pay them to not do it as well as I want it done. That's pretty much it. I hope some day that will change, but until then, I can get it. I finished up just about the time Angela needed to get into the ovens, and then went upstairs to the office to pay bills.

It's not all hard work, though. Next April, Angela and I are going to host a trip to France. It's going to be a river cruise, and we're setting up a few special opportunities including one to hang out with Nico and Roxanne Derni at their olive farm in Salon de Provence. Nico is a chef who used to work at Brynwood Country Club and later owned The Elm Grove Inn. He and Roxanne retired to France and bought an olive grove. They set up producing small quantities of wonderful olive oil and have been very successful in their "retirement". The trip is being organized by Lorrie Zinda at Viking Travel, and we're going to be inserting a link on our website to hers, where people will be able to keep up-to-date on all the details as things progress. I've always been into history, and to be able to spend some time with Angela in places like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Beaune and Paris is really something for me to look forward to.

In the meantime, though, I'm just going to keep my head down, work hard, and do the best I can every day. If I do, and if I deserve it, maybe another good dog will come across my path. -m.

 

The year ended with a bang
January 17, 2012

I knew we'd be busy, but even I couldn't imagine how crazy it would get toward the end. Lunch and dinner at full-tilt, with us doing everything we could just to keep up.

We're back to normal now, and with the upcoming election craziness looming large on the horizon, looking forward to the next ten or eleven months of people wanting to get away from their televisions and go out for a relaxing dinner...

The wine shop is doing well. We're starting to get a nice customer base, and are holding our inaugural tasting (toasting if you want, as it's Champagne and sparkling wines) on the 21st from 4-7pm. Stop by and have a glass- we have some pretty interesting bubbles and ciders.

I've been talking to Lorrie Zinda, who represents Viking Travel and is a good and frequent customer at the restaurant, about organizing a river cruise in France next Spring (2013). As I understand it, we'd be traveling South to North, starting around Provence and ending in Paris, with lots of stops for food and wine along the way. She's making it sound pretty tempting, and I'm pretty sure we're going to figure out a way to do it. There's a lot of planning, and plenty of time between now and then, but if you're interested in joining us, drop a line or let me know next time you're in the restaurant, and I'll keep you posted as things develop.

In the kitchen, Rachael has taken the Sous Chef's job and made it her own, and I'm confident that we'll be able to take the food to an even higher level with her help. She and Angela are taking a little trip out to Napa in a couple of weeks, to attend a class at the CIA Greystone and also eat and drink their way up and down the valley. It's their well-deserved reward for working so hard the last couple of years and I'm sure our friends at the wineries will make sure they don't miss a thing!

During the time they're gone, I'll be participating (teaming up with DJ Jordan) in 88.9 Radio Milwaukee's Sound Bites event. Check out their website for details; it sounds like a great time and I'm really looking forward to it.

We're also pretty stoked about getting a fancy new oven. Alto-Shaam is a local manufacturer of foodservice cooking equipment, and I have a long and well-documented history of wrecking their products. They've decided to take advantage of that ability, and are going to install one of their newest prototype Combi-Ovens for us to field-test in the upcoming months. Not too many people outside of the industry know about Alto-Shaam, but they are a company that we can truly be proud of having in Wisconsin. Their ovens are state-of-the-art, and are found in the best kitchens all over the World. I'm eagerly awaiting the chance to get to know this new one, and the versatility it'll provide us with has already got me thinking up ideas for things to feature on the Spring menu.

Anyway, I think I'm going to wrap this up now and go out and shovel my driveway. It's been so nice to have a quiet morning at home with my dog and a pot of coffee, far from the chaos of the restaurant. I've wanted to write for a long time now, but just haven't been able to get it together. Things came out with a bit of a sharp edge, or just not really the way I wanted to say them. I was a little crispy from working too much, and dealing with too many people. The service industry can take it's toll on your general view of humanity, and some things are better left in the kitchen. Sooner or later I'll get in the right (as opposed to righteous) frame of mind, and talk about a few things that I want to get out there. For now, this is ok. The wheels are starting to turn again, and it feels good. -m.

 

 

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