Restaurant recession specials


Restaurants are creating value-driven menus to woo diners and fill empty tables.

Restaurants are creating value-driven menus to woo diners and fill empty tables.

By now, we all know the recession has hit the restaurant business. The effects are especially hard in recession-ravaged cities like New York and Las Vegas, but eateries all over are struggling. The NPD Group, a market research firm, offered a grim forecast earlier this month, noting that restaurant business started dipping in the middle of 2008 and that 2009 will be a very tough year.

“Now we face a much tougher marketplace, much greater uncertainty, and a very tight hold on our pocketbooks,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and author of the report, commenting on the current climate.  “Restaurant customers are being bombarded with great offers; they can carefully choose how and where to spend their food dollars. Much of the challenge for operators this year will be having a good understanding of what their customers want.”

Bad news if you own a restaurant, but good news for value-seeking customers.

My mate and I are typical of a lot of people these days. We’re eating in most nights and eating out a lot less than we used to. When we do venture out, it’s on a pretty modest scale–lunch from Tito’s Tacos (the best taco stand in LA, really), for example. And when we dine higher up on the restaurant food chain, we’re pretty demanding. We expect great food, excellent value, and cheerful service. We’re also less willing to cut restaurants much slack if they stumble on any of those factors.

That said, I’ve really enjoyed my recent restaurant forays and believe it’s worth eating out. Here’s how I’m getting the most mileage from restaurant meals:

Opt for a prix fixe menu. Many restaurants, from casual spots to fine-dining establishments, are offering high-value multicourse menus. One example: Border Grill in Santa Monica currently has an awesome 3-course, $18 prix fixe lunch menu with lots of options. I love variety and often have difficulty choosing from the restaurant’s terrific menu, so this bargain seems tailor-made for me. My lunch started with a green corn tamale, followed by a trio of different tacos (chicken, fish, and potato rajas), topped off by chocolate bread pudding. Delightful, and worth every penny.

Let restaurant meals inspire  your home cooking. Last night, I had dinner with friends at Frank Stitt’s wonderful Bottega Cafe in Birmingham, AL. (He’s up for a James Beard Award this year, and I’m rooting for him!) We shared an appetizer of farro salad with fresh peas, beets, and ricotta salata cheese. It was wonderful, fresh, and certainly something I could replicate at home. Only I’d use fresh chickpeas, which have captured my culinary imagination lately. 

Share. More people are splitting entrees these days, and you can do the same with a round of appetizers to share at the table for more variety.

Ask for a doggy bag. Hold your head high and tell the server to bag up the leftovers. You’re paying for the food, so you should get the most mileage out of it. Even items like leftover rice can be spun into a home supper of stir-fried rice the next night. 

Farro, the king of grains?



Golden grains: farro

The pharoahs apparently ate farro, also known as emmer, and the grain fueled Caesar’s armies on their conquests. And now the this ancient foodstuff has become chic again, turning up in gourmet groceries and on high-end restaurant menus.

But there’s some confusion surrounding farro, so I read Heidi Julavits’ “The Way We Eat” column, “Grain Exchange,” about farro in Sunday’s New York Times, with particular interest. The Italian grain has been much on my mind lately, and the source of some confusion. When I worked on staff at a national food magazine, we routinely referred to spelt as an appropriate substitute. Even The Cook’s Thesaurus, a source that is typcially reliable, agrees.

Farro was the star among whole grains at the recent Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in California. Joyce Goldstein, author of Mediterranean Fresh and other cookbooks, extolled its virtues during a cooking demonstration. Farro is a highly nutritious whole grain, which we all need to enjoy more of, with a wonderful nutty flavor and chewy bite. It’s versatile, too; it can stand in for barley or rice in many dishes. (It would be great in the Mushroom Casserole recently featured on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks blog.)  I figured Joyce could settle the farro/spelt issue:

Is farro interchangeable with spelt? 

“No,” said Joyce. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that spelt is not an acceptable substitute for farro.

Spelt is a different beast, culinarily speaking. Farro is a relatively quick-cooking grain–it takes anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes of simmering, depending on the brand and how al dente you like it. Spelt takes several hours to cook. Farro has a nutty flavor and appealingly chewy bite and takes well to other flavors. Spelt can taste like cardboard. Farro is emmer wheat; spelt is…not. If you can’t find farro, some experts say barley is a better substitute than spelt.

After the conference, I was sold on farro’s flavor and nutritional value. But the stuff isn’t easy to come by, so I was particularly glad to find a bag of farro at in a store at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. The marketplace is ground zero of all things local, sustainable, seasonal, and twee, which means I find it irresistible.

One cup of dry farro yields 2 cups of cooked grain.

Turns out, farro is the culinary equivalent of crack. The stuff is cultivated in the golden fields of Tuscany, which automatically ups the ante. A 1-pound bag of Tenuta Castello Farro, packaged in a charming, Old Worldy linen sack was $7.50 (not bad, actually, as I later discovered you can pay as much as 9 bucks for it elsewhere). Sold! (Along with a bar of Vosges’ Mo’s Bacon Chocolate–um, also $7.50–damn that shit is good!)

Farro and White Bean Salad

Beans and grains are a classic combination, and I thought a Spanish-style sherry vinaigrette would work well here. (The vinaigrette is also nice on a romaine salad with shaved Manchego cheese.) Toasting the farro enhances its nutty flavor. You can add all manner of other fixings to this salad–grilled shrimp or chicken, chunks of broiled lamb, feta cheese, olives, cucumbers, red bell pepper, etc. You can make the salad up to a day ahead and refrigerate to allow the flavors to develop; it’s best served at room temperature.

1 cup farro

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 1/2 cups water

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups cooked dried Great Northern or other white beans OR an equal amount of drained and rinsed canned beans

1/2 cup chopped seeded Roma tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Sherry Vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper


Farro and White Bean Salad

Farro and White Bean Salad

1. Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil. Add farro; cook 5 minutes or until toasted (the farro will have a toasty aroma), stirring frequently. The grains will pop as they toast.

2. While the farro toasts, bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt.

3. When the farro is toasted, remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the boiling water. Return to heat, reduce heat, cover and simmer 45 minutes or until farro is done (al dente). Drain any remaining liquid. 

4. Combine the farro, beans, tomato, and parsley in a large bowl. Combine the vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Combine vinaigrette to farro mixture; toss to coat. Yield: 4 cups (serving size: 3/4 cup).