Archive for the ‘Chef Alison Barshak’ Category

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My office is stacked with boxes of boxes. Cookie boxes. And menu covers. And check presenters. How did this happen? It’s because you can’t print one of anything. Or even 100. More like 5,000.


You think I’d know this. I grew up in the printing business. My grandfather owned a printing business on Callowhill Street. My father owned a printing business. I even worked there – answering phones, proof reading and taking the train to NY to make deliveries. (Funny, I’m still commuting between Philadelphia and NYC.) Anyway, when we were little kids, my father always brought home the greatest wrapping paper and giant sheets of baseball and football cards that we’d cut apart! Maybe that’s why my brother, Eric, and our neighbor Jim Pinheiro, both went into the printing business.




Eric, Jim and James Monroe, who works for my friend Ellen Diamant at Skip Hop, created the menu covers (no more using plastic sleeves!), check presenters, gift cards, comment cards and cookie boxes. They had great advice on paper and colors. We used the color palette from Alison at Blue Bell so that it’s all part of one “family” or “look.” Like a great basic wardrobe that keeps changing and evolving.






My inspiration for how to package everything for Alison two came from shopping overseas.  Everything always comes so beautifully wrapped that the packaging is almost as fun as what you buy – almost. Whether it is a pint of raspberries at Paris’ Bon Marché, or a single chocolate from Brussels, where chocolate is displayed like jewels. At Laduree, a bakery in Paris, I ate the macaroons but saved the wrapper. I wasn’t looking for fancy packaging – but simple and clean.


I discussed my ideas with James, Eric and the folks at Fox Group and Jim at Pearl Pressman Liberty Communications Group. They were great to work with and I was delighted with what they came up with. They really paid attention to detail and were extremely accommodating. What kind of paper should we use? What ink? What colors? What weight should the paper be? What is the memory of the folded cards? Should it be coated or film laminated? They even made dummies that I could see, feel and adjust, as necessary. I felt that I was in good hands.


The cookie boxes are especially a lot of fun. I think it will make an awesome gift. It’s just the type of hostess gift I’d like to get – more than another bottle of wine – it’s one of a kind.


Well, this week we start serving lunch at Alison two  – so that’s one more box of menu covers I’ll get to move out of my office and into the restaurant. Hope it’s not too long before I can actually move around the office without jumping over and around boxes of boxes.


First two photos taken by Alison on her iphone. Gift card and A Cookie Box photos ©2008 Courtney Grant Winston.


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After months of selecting sauté pans, coordinating colors and worrying about wiring, we are finally beginning pre-season.



The next baby step is inviting friends and family to try out the restaurant. These are people who have been with us throughout our journey and are willing to work with us as we break in our new staff, equipment and processes. People who have been really, really supportive over the years and feel comfortable giving us feedback and understand what we’re trying to accomplish.  



On our second night of serving friends and family, a guest asked me why I was so nervous. She said, “this ought to be a lay up for you.” I didn’t know exactly what to say. 12 hours later, I realized that she meant a “slam dunk.” I guess it was a compliment – but I’m in new surroundings, with a new menu, new staff and new equipment – I’m not even going to attempt a lay up, let alone a slam dunk. And even though I’ve been in the restaurant business for a very long time – or maybe because I’ve been in the business a very long time – I know that there is no such thing as a slam dunk. We work hard at it every day, nothing is a given.


During this pre-season period, I’ve spotted some things that need to change. Everything from how we set the tables to where blinds are needed to block headlights from cars. And then there’s the lighting system. We can’t program the system until all the lights are in. We can’t put all the lights in until we put in the banquettes. We can’t put in the banquettes because they were measured wrong and are too big. This is exactly why we need “friends and family.” They may be coming into a new situation but are not experiencing us for the first time. They know and understand where we came from and are supportive and encouraging of our journey. They are excited to be part of the process. And that’s the point  — it’s still a process, a vision – and not yet a total experience. There are lots of gaps that are slowly being filled in and adjusted. 




We’re thrilled that everyone loves Amelia’s homemade sorbets and ice creams but the pastry area is not meant to function like an ice cream parlor. We would need a special ice cream holding cabinet to scoop 4 different flavors for one order. We’d also have to hire one person just to scoop ice cream all night. So, Amelia and I are using a solution we came up with years ago- individual “dixie cups” of ice cream. (The kind you used to get with the cardboard pull up lids.) Now when Amelia runs a batch of ice cream, she will portion some into the dixie cups and pop them into the freezer for easy turnout later. Guess what? Now we need to source and order the dixie cups.


At Alison at Blue Bell, if I needed someone, I could find him or her at a glance. At Alison two, we have lots of different spaces. I might go through the kitchen to find Tom at the same time he’s going through the dining room to find me. Or, he might be downstairs stocking the wine cellar or in the walk-in making ginger beer. Our intercom system should solve the problem  – but we learned that the intercom doesn’t work if all the phone lines are busy. We set up our phone lines the way most restaurants do – but since we don’t want a machine answering calls, we found we’ll need more lines. In the meantime, we’re using our cell phones to find each other. These are some of the wrinkles we’re trying to iron out.



The bartenders are working on timing too. We don’t use mixes – we muddle fresh herbs and spices – which takes longer to make the drinks. Of course they taste better too. But they still have to arrive promptly.

Then there’s lots of silly behind-the-scenes nuances. One guest asked for a side order of Brussels sprouts and another ordered half a drink. It took some time to figure out how to enter those in the new POS (point of sale) system so that we could communicate the requests to the bar and kitchen staff. How do you write “happy birthday” on the dessert plate if there is no rim? And, if the plate isn’t flat, how do you balance the candle? And then there’s the new tandoor oven. How do we make sure the tandoor bread is ready at the same time as the monkfish?   

Nothing is easy but making it look easy is another story. We work hard at making it look easy. Our bar is now open. It’s really exciting. We’re serving classic cocktails with a twist, beer and wine, and snacks from our bar menu. We’ll open for dinner starting October 16 and lunch on October 27.  







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Lighting is so important. It affects the whole vibe of a restaurant. I am lucky to have Courtney, a perfectionist by nature and photographer by profession, design the lighting at Alison two. He’s been shooting restaurants for a long time and lighting is key to photography. But, this is his first venture into lighting design.


At one point, we had lights in the ceiling soffits that bounced off recessed areas to provide an indirect glow throughout the restaurant. The current lights were chosen to be accent lights. But, due to a couple unexpected curve balls, the ceiling lights were nixed and the accent lights became the main source of light. So, that created some extra challenges.


Courtney’s new plan for creating the restaurant’s warm glow, included a lighting system with more than 30 different zones. This set the mood and helped focus attention in the right spots – whether illuminating the soft folds in the lush velvet curtains or highlighting the detail work in the meticulously refinished mirrors from the Plaza Hotel. Plus, it had the added benefit of keeping our electrician, Augie, busy.



Courtney really gave a lot of thought to every detail. He chose tiny iridescent blue tiles for the fireplace in the living room, the bathrooms and in front of the bar. In the bar, he lit them with tiny rope lights, making them glow. Then he turned his attention to the window between the bar and the pastry kitchen. The cutout allows all the great baking smells to drift through into the bar. But, he wanted to make sure the fluorescent kitchen lighting didn’t bleed into the bar area too. So, he ordered special incandescent lighting for the pastry kitchen and saved the traditional fluorescent lights for deeper areas of the kitchen. The light peeking out the kitchen entrance presented a similar challenge – even with the incandescent lighting. Courtney skirted this issue by using dark blue paint on as much of the inner pastry kitchen walls as the health department would allow, as well as darker gray flooring.



The next challenge was finding sconces and light fixtures that coordinated with the metalwork of our metal garden gates. We love the gates. We sourced them from an architectural salvage yard and will use them to separate the bar from the restaurant. Their distinct look really established the design motif for the fixtures.

Courtney envisioned metal light fixtures and sconces that mirrored the shapes in the metalwork in the gates. When he couldn’t find anything quite right, he designed them himself. You’d think custom-made fixtures would be pricey – but he even figured out how to save money. He worked with Welder Michael Sedlacek. They made some sketches and even made a sample or two before settling on the right design. And in a cost-saving measure, Courtney even cut some of the metal himself.

Next, Courtney worked with an Indiana-based company to make the intense blue stained glass – choosing a particular hue and texture. Then, he worked hand-in-hand with the Abington-based Glass Artist John Gartner  to create the sconces. John helped solve a lot of the technical and logistical issues so that the sconces and pendants could work as intended.


It took some experimentation to get everything just right. The first time we hung the sconces, the light bulbs were too high a wattage and the heat cracked the glass.


We noticed that the sconces looked great from the front but not as good from the side – where the new, weaker, light bulb glowed annoyingly. So, we added additional stained glass on the sides. Interestingly in some spots, where the sconces were very close to corners and won’t catch anyone’s eye, the light from the exposed bulb actually throws an intriguing shadow that mirrors the shape from the metal gates.

We’re making minor adjustments as we install each fixture. The lighting fixtures over the bar were just mounted, although we still don’t have the right bar stools, and we’re waiting for the banquettes to arrive so we can install the rest of the lighting. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.



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One of the focal points of the private dining rooms will be a pair of mirrors that used to hang above a mantel in the Plaza Hotel. They’re each 5-1/2 feet tall by 5 feet wide. The style of the mirrors and the number of coats of paint and leafing leads us to believe they were probably part of the original décor of the grand dame hotel, which was built in 1907.

We stumbled across the mirrors in an architectural salvage shop on 24th Street in New York City. They were just leaning against a wall in between other mirrors and frames. Though the detail was clogged with nearly 100 years of paint and gold leaf. They were beautiful pieces that had been allowed to become junky – but they had such potential under the dozens of coats of paint.


We were lucky to find William Heller, a Horsham-based furniture restorer and refinisher. He had the special kind of architectural stripper needed and the skill to use it to strip away the layers of paint to reveal the original detail. 



The next stop on the journey was to Chuck O’Neill in Lafayette Hill for refinishing. First, he addressed the holes. At the Plaza, the mirrors were simply bolted to the wall above a mantel – leaving 6 or 7 holes in each frame. Chuck created molds of the frames and used them to create patches that replicated the detail. Then he painted the mirrors with homemade shellac, masked off the wood area, put primer on the detailed parts and applied sizing.


Next, the detailed parts are being covered in a thin gold leaf and the other parts are being painted with metallic gold paint. We found the ideal gold paint – called Aztec Gold. It has the right kind of glow. It has a real richness of color that works well against the bold blue of the walls and the lighting in the private dining rooms. Once the mirrors are finished we’ll post a photo. But you’ll really need to see them in person.



The meticulous restoration of these architectural gems is reflective of the care that has gone into every step of the process – from choosing plates to designing our own light fixtures. Guess that’s why it’s taking so long.






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We’ve been working on Alison two for nearly a year. It looks like we’ll be ready to open soon. Of course, we’ll keep you posted. It appears that our timing will be like the perfect storm. Alison two will open at just about the same time that Alison at Blue Bell’s lease comes up for renewal.


Alison two

Alison two

We’re taking advantage of that wonderful coincidence. When Alison two opens, we will then begin renovation on Alison at Blue Bell. The entire Blue Bell staff will move to the new restaurant in Ft. Washington to ensure a smooth opening. Alison at Blue Bell will be closed during the renovation, for approximately 3 months.


The idea is to create two distinctly different restaurants, both with excellent food and warm, friendly service. We’re excited to move forward and provide even better dining experiences for our guests. In fact, many of the changes we are making at Alison at Blue Bell are in direct responses to customer comment cards and requests.


Alison at Blue Bell will be revamped from top to bottom — from replacing the carpeting and painting to restructuring the tiny kitchen. And, in what is expected to be a popular move – the restaurant’s electrical system will be updated so that it can accept credit cards and online reservations through Open Table.


When it reopens, the menu at Alison at Blue Bell will lean more toward Mediterranean fare, Chef Anthony Bonett’s forte. (Chef Bill Lewis and I are collaborating on international fare at Alison two.) And, the small, food-friendly wine list and selection of small-batch beer from regional breweries developed by General Manager Tom Pittakas, will be expanded. 


We’re almost there and as the last few things are falling into place, keep an eye on this blog. We’ll keep you posted. Now is the time to hurry on in and enjoy the waning days of summer with us before the renovations begin.




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Over the 4th of July weekend I took a quick trip to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. While I was eating bonbons with my college roommate, Doug Waltman, the job supervisor, and Larry Brown, the general contractor, and their crews, were hard at work. They sheet rocked the entire restaurant.





When I got home, the restaurant didn’t look like a science experiment anymore. It felt good and looked great. But, once you couldn’t see through the walls from one end of the restaurant to the other, there was major shrinkage.







We picked Aura Paint because it has truer, richer hues. But, instead of picking one of their stock colors, we created a color we called “gem.” Aura paint is amazing, and even washable, but it is not easy to mix. The folks at our local paint store finally came up with the right recipe for our “gem” – here’s one of the ingredients being added. Then, when we went to pick it up – we found out the paint expert with the recipe was on vacation.

One of the ingredients in "gem"


That’s not the only frustration. We picked out over-sized tiles for the bathrooms. But, old buildings often come with challenges that we like to call “charm.” The floors are uneven so putting down the tile proved to be a bit dicey. We had to rip up the floors and wet-bed the bathroom floor to create a level foundation for the tiles.  

Creating a level foundation

Creating a level foundation


We’re also having problems with the height of the ceiling in the kitchen. We don’t have room for the hood. So, we had to rip up the floor of the office on the second floor. Although the back part of the building (where the  kitchen is) is new construction and I was the first lease signed the landlord decided to put up the ceilings before the hoods could be installed. That is not SOP in new kitchen  construction – making it excruciatingly difficult, incredibly frustrating and more expensive.


The tile for the bathroom walls and front of the bar arrived. I thought I’d save the $80 delivery fee and pick it up myself – they’re right around the corner in Conshohocken. How much could a couple of boxes of tile weigh? 660 lbs – that’s a little too much for me! Anyway, it was the wrong tile and we had to order more. So now I have 660 lbs of extra tile. A friend suggested I sell it on ebay  but I want to be in the food business – not the construction business. If you’re in the market for some tile, let me know.


On a bright note, the staff is starting to dream of moving in. Tom took one look at the dry storage room in the basement and immediately claimed it as his own. Forget dry storage. Now it’s a wine cellar. Tom’s done such an incredible job with just one shelf for wine at Alison at Blue Bell.  I can only imagine what he’ll do with a whole room. Plus, I figured if we arm wrestled over it that he would win.


Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

Amelia got her first look at the bakery since the walls went up. Here we are checking out the blueprints for the pastry kitchen and walking through one of the sunny dining rooms. Next time you see her, through the window into the pastry kitchen, she’s likely to be covered in flour.


Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

Alison Barshak & Amelia Dietrich

The material that we special-ordered from Japan for the chairs was finished. Came to New York to be inspected, shipped to the chair company in Miami and then to China to be constructed. I was hoping to pick it up and drop it off myself but after the tile situation I decided to let someone else do the air travel — especially with the new one-bag rule.


The customers at Alison at Blue Bell  keep asking me when Alison two is going to open. I keep telling them that we’ll be able to wear white shoes to the opening. Then I realized that I don’t even own any white shoes. We’re getting close now. Time to buy some white shoes.





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