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. 

Fresh chickpeas


Fresh chickpeas are a pretty harbinger of spring.

Fresh chickpeas are a pretty harbinger of spring.

Isn’t it nice when you discover an unexpected treat in the middle of an otherwise mundane day? That’s what happened when I swung by Marina Farms market to pick up a few items. Now, Marina Farms is a gem of a local corner market, tucked away in a bland corner of Del Rey, an LA neighborhood that’s not Playa del Rey, not Marina del Rey, ’cause it’s a bit inland. So it’s just plain old Del Rey. The market is chock-full of an eclectic assortment of fresh, regional produce, bulk nonperishables, and speciality items. In one trip, you can pick up a bag of farro, guacamole-flavored Mexican tortilla snacks, fresh fava beans, sherry vinegar, and a freshly made chicken empanada as a snack. And the prices are terrific.

I was trolling past the bins of fresh mushrooms when my eyes fell on fresh chickpeas. This struck me as a rare and wonderful find. Well, rare to me, since I think fresh chickpeas are become more widely available, much the way fava beans have in recent years. Still, it was a treat to me, so I filled a bag with a couple of handfuls of the fuzzy green pods.

But what to do with them? The fresh chickpeas were familiar, yet…not. Their inch-long pods are peach-fuzzy and papery. Each houses one pea. Occasionally you’ll find two in a pod, but for the most part chickpeas cop an exclusive attitude. Unlike English peas or fava beans, chickpeas are reluctant to share their digs. The pods are delicate and airy–they sometimes make a satisfying pop when you open them.

This pod is mine!

This pod is mine!

Inside, the peas are a lovely, pale green. On her blog, Heidi Swanson accurate describes them as looking like little brains. Yes, like little green Martian brains.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Since they’re fresh, they don’t need soaking or the long-ass cooking time of their dried cousins. After doing some research, I decided that steaming was the way to go. Indeed, it works beautifully. The chickpeas retain their shape, and cooking enhances their emerald hue. They have a lovely, delicate, nutty, vegetal, and slightly sweet quality that begs for simple treatment, like this easy spread.

Sign of spring: Chickpea Spread

Sign of spring: Chickpea Spread

Chickpea Spread

OK, since I only picked up a couple of handfuls of fresh chickpeas, this has a small yield, but you can double the recipe. I used a pressure cooker to steam the chickpeas, since I appear to obsessed with my pressure cooker of late. You can steam them in a regular saucepan in about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve this spread with crackers or crusty bread.

3/4 cup shelled fresh chickpeas (about 6 ounces unshelled)

1 garlic clove

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano cheese

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

1. Fill the pan of a pressure cooker with water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a boil. Place chickpeas in a steamer basket; add steamer basket to cooker. Lock on lid, and bring to high pressure over high heat. Reduce heat, and cook 5 minutes. Release pressure using automatic pressure release OR transfer cooker to sink and run cool water over the rim. Carefully open the cooker, pointing the lid away from you. Drain chickpeas. Rinse with cool water; drain thoroughly.

2. Add garlic clove to work bowl of a mini food processor; process until minced. Add chickpeas, process until chopped. Add olive oil, cheese, and lemon juice; process until fairly smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Yield: about 3/4 cup.