So Many Dishes, So Little Time

Sometimes I think my menu isn’t big enough. There are hundreds, thousands of recipes I’d like to try but I’ve inadvertently developed a menu that people like. There are a handful of plates people would be sad to see go, though you shouldn’t get too comfortable.

the office view
the office view

It started years ago with the steak and mahi sandwiches we used to do at Casa Isleña. They were delicious. We scrapped those along with lunch because we needed to focus on dinner. I cut churrasco from the menu after we moved to La Copa Llena since everyone has churrasco in this town and I wanted a nicer cut of steak anyway. The drunken brownie was always a hit too, but what about a mousse or cake or blahblahblah? We said farewell (if only temporarily) because we wanted to try new things, learn new techniques, and I have a short attention span.

I get restless. I want to make everything.

That’s where a menu gets in the way. I suppose a restaurant has to have something a customer expects every time they come visit. While I care about what customers think, I just want to be weird, change it up constantly. Some days I wish I had a small chalkboard up on the wall with the eight things we offered for the evening like that cool little French spot I went to in 2009. It becomes a poem.

A couple of summers ago I rewrote the menu every week. Small plates, bigger plates, desserts. Summer here is slow enough that I can get away with playing around like that. Dinner was only served Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, then brunch on Sundays. It worked out pretty great. I played on a theme, a region. We worked with farmers and fishermen. I still work closely with them but on a much larger scale now. That summer I could focus on feeding about a hundred people a weekend, averaging 30 to 40 people a night, give or take.

Next week La Copa Llena is going seven days. I’m happy with the menu as it is but I’d like to make some changes. It’s at this teetering point where it’s small enough to be flexible, yet too big to keep me from making specials. Part of that is because I print new menus with the new changes a multiple times a week. Anything I’m out of is deleted, anything I feel like adding I’ll throw on. Sometimes the temporary placeholders stay on the menu. A couple of weeks ago I braised kale in chicken stock with garlic and red pepper flakes, finished it with butter, rested it on a grilled baguette, topped it off with a sunny-side egg. It was temporary because we ran out of something and I had a lot of extra baguette. It turned out awesome so it’s still there, a little rustic gem.

The menu is constantly evolving. Not so much because I’m inconsistent or bored or can’t make up my mind. I just want everyone to try new things, to share, to indulge. These are my shared experiments with you. Perhaps you are my guinea pigs, test subjects for an erratic mind.

And now that we’re going seven days, having a consistent menu is easier for the staff and me, but who wants easy? We’re here because we like a challenge.

I plan on sticking around this summer. I may be able to get away with changing the menu on the regular, but this time I’ll focus more on themes. Anyone who has eaten our food knows that there’s no real categorizing it. I’ve described my food as a travel journal, a map of where I’ve been, the restaurants I’ve visited, the ones I’ve worked. Ex-girlfriends, childhood memories, dreams of traveling the world. It’s all very personal. My brother is a painter and I think he reminded me of why I’m still in Puerto Rico. I’ve got this canvas, this big fucking canvas, and I can pretty much do whatever I want with it. Sometimes you might see red, you wash down the spice with a good beer or mimosa. Some days I might be green, light, refreshing, bouncy like tarragon. Today? Crêpes with caramelized banana, ice cream, cinnamon (tomorrow will be panna cotta with salted caramel).

last week's menu
last week’s menu

Anyway, this summer. Maybe one week will be Mediterranean, including, but not limited to, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon. Another week could be Southeast Asia. The next one France. Southwest United States. Korea. Mexico. Central America. Peru. India. Cambodia. Thailand. I guess I already incorporate some of these places in my recipes, but I think I can train up better this summer when it’s all separate, focussed.

This brings me to another idea I’ve thought about for a long time. I’d like to start teaching. Cooking classes. Once a week in La Copa Llena’s kitchen (an impossible feat at Casa Isleña, my new kitchen is now five times the size) I would like to teach people basic techniques. Easy recipes, move on to advanced stuff, celebrate with a family dinner. It’s all food. It’s only cooking. Sometimes people just need a little push to create an excellent meal at home. I can ramble on more about the gratification of cooking at home, but I don’t have the authority. When I cook at home, it’s ramen with an egg dropped in it. A bowl of cereal. A quesadilla if I’m lucky.

But I know, and I know you know, and I know you know that I know that there are few things out there more satisfying than the smell of fresh bread in the oven. A collection of pickles on your wall or in the pantry. The redolence of boiling chicken bones with mirapoix, thyme, and bay leaves that leave your mouth watering and windows steamy. Hands slick with butter and sugar. Slicing a perfectly roasted leg of lamb stuffed with butter and baguette and garlic and herbs after it has rested the proper amount of time. And then the look on your lover’s face. The yummy sounds your friends make. Your parents’ gratefulness, perhaps forgiveness for the decades they’ve fed you, raised you, prepared you for the moment when you must take care of them.

It’s a pain in the ass, but sometimes it’s worth the burns and cuts, the sweat and tears. Somehow we wake up everyday, do it again, in the hopes that we get better, learn something new, and perhaps pass some of the that knowledge along.

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3 Replies to “So Many Dishes, So Little Time”

  1. Last week I had the opportunity to eat at the Boulders, a spa run by the Waldorf Astoria people. The lunch menu had maybe 14 items, including salads. I ordered a “Thai Chicken Pizza.” This was a pizza on flatbread served next to a pile of rather plain shredded cabbage. Didn’t taste Thai at all, but like cheese on flatbread. I get the idea, but it failed. I’ve never heard of cheese or flatbread in a Thai meal. My mistake.

  2. Had dinner at La Copa Llena tonight. very good. Loved the different mojitos. I had the pork stew. my companion had the wahoo with coconut milk rice. Also had granita as dessert. Only thing I’d suggest is a bit of bread served along side the stew. Other than that, perfect. Thanks for a great evening!

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