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Posts Tagged ‘Chef Alison Barshak’

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These days you can’t turn on the radio or TV without hearing someone talking about change. I love change – I find it exhilarating. But, the truth is, for most people, change is hard. I’m not talking about politics here – I’m talking about a change at the restaurant.

 

 

For the first four years, Alison at Blue Bell was a BYOB (bring your own bottle). Then, we got a liquor license and started to offer a small, food-friendly list of beers and wines. Even though we still allowed people to bring their own bottle, some people didn’t relish the change. Others loved it. They liked the freedom from lugging their own liquor and the lamented that fact that there was no “grown up bar” in the region.

 

With Alison two, we’re taking the next step in our evolution. You can’t bring your own bottle to Alison two. You don’t need to. We have a full bar with mixed drinks, wines, beers and its own menu of great bar food. We serve classic cocktails with a twist. To make the bar extra special, Beverage Director Tom Pittakas and his crew squeeze orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime juices daily. They make their own grenadine, muddle fresh mint, basil and lavender. Make hibiscus-infused rum for our Jamaica Daiquiri and brandied cherries for our French 75. Tom even makes his own ginger beer right here on the premises. It has a Caribbean taste that makes his Dark & Storm really gingery & bright!

 

Tom took one look at our basement and commandeered a closet that was supposed to be for dry storage. He declared it the wine cellar, ordered shelves and put them together himself. He built a 1,000-bottle wine cellar that includes a great list with a wide range of prices and selections. We have whites from $24 to $67 a bottle and reds from $21 to $206, including a beautiful $40 Pinot Noir. Over time, we’ll continue to expand the wine cellar. If you prefer to order wine by the glass, you’ll be happy to hear about our 16-bottle cruvinet. It allows us to serve 8 white and 8 red wines by the glass, half glass or taste. Having so many wines by the glass means that you can start with a white wine with your Ginger Fried Squid, Mango Slaw, Wasabi Drizzle then switch to red to go with your Painted Hills Ribeye and Maytag Blue Cheese Fritters. We’re happy to help you match just the right wine to your meal. And, we serve all our wines in oversized crystal glasses.

 

Beer drinkers are enjoying our beer list, which focuses on beers from small-batch breweries. Our Curieux from Allagash Brewery in Portland, Maine is a Belgian style brew triple barrel aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels. Our Pliny the Elder and Damnation beers from Russian River Brewing Company in Sonoma County are also intriguing.

 

We have a terrific bar menu that will constantly evolve. The Tuna Slider, House Made Takewan Salad, Ginger Aioli is already a favorite. Other highlights include Charmoula Rubbed Lamb Loin Chop, Cucumber Mint Relish, Chick Pea Puree; and A2 Frites (hand-cut fries with bacon and onions and homemade ketchup). The bar menu is distinct from the restaurant menu and we offer it in the bar, lounge and living room. The bar is not just an “add on” but an integral part of the experience we offer. And, Tom is already working on bringing in vintners and brewers for wine and beer dinners and other special events in the restaurant.

 

No, we’re no longer a BYOB. But, I hope that’s a change you’ll grow to embrace. Tom is very passionate about what he does. He loves to talk with people about beer and wine, make pairing recommendations and encourage people to try new things. I’ll drink to that. Hope you will too.

 

 

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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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A lot of things that appear to be easy are really complex. Like the restaurant reservation system. We’ve been doing it manually at Alison at Blue Bell for the past 5+ years. Occasionally we have someone waiting for a table, but I think for the most part we have it down to a science.

 

 

Now that we’re trying to design the reservation system at Alison two, I realize how complex it is. I was apprehensive about using the Open Table  system for reservations because I didn’t want to lose control. But, after going through the training, we’re all really excited about it and looking forward to using it.

 

Before we even get to that point, a lot of work still needs to be done. The system requires exact floor plans with all of the tables and chairs. We have the architectural drawings showing the tables and chairs – but those have changed throughout the construction process. Everything gets adjusted as you go along.

 

In one area, we had to lower the ceiling, which lowered the vents, which shifted a light fixture, which shifted table placement since no one can sit with their back to a sconce. In another area, the feeling of the room changed once we added carpet and drywall. So, we decided that four deuces (tables for 2) would feel better than two four-tops (tables for 4).  We thought about how much personal space people would need and what the traffic patterns would be. Lots of things happen between putting the plan on paper and the final construction of the room when you’re actually standing in the space. Rooms shrink and grow.

 
 

Next, each table needs a number so we can identify it. And, each seat gets a position number. At Alison at Blue Bell , for example, the outside table numbers are in the 40s. So if the mussels are going to table 43 position 1. We immediately know we’re going to an outside table and who is getting the dish.

 At Alison two, each room will have a different set of numbers – so it is immediately recognizable – and each table configuration will have a different number too. The iron transom from the gates that formerly guarded 58 Park Avenue — the East German Consulate in New York City — will flank one table. Naturally, we’ll call that table 58.

 

 

Once we’ve figured out the number of tables and chairs and numbered them, we have to work on a reservation template. How many people can be seated on any given night? That depends upon how long the dining experience takes. And that depends upon so many factors — the time of day, is it lunch or dinner, are the guests celebrating a special event, how many courses will people typically order? Having a bar is another whole new experience. It changes everything. Will people want to linger over cocktails? Will they relax at the bar or in the living room before going to their table or hang out there afterwards? 

 

We’ve been doing that at Alison at Blue Bell for 5-1/2 yrs and have a handle on it – this all new. The concept is the same but we’re working with a whole different equation. We have to consider so many things. We need to work through it and be flexible. Fortunately, I have a resident expert to help me figure that out – Erica Cantley. I met Erica in NYC when she was head reservationist at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel and then the first female maitre d’ at his DB Bistro Moderne. I feel lucky to have her as a friend and consultant to make sure front of the house operations go as smoothly as possible.

 

We’re running as fast as we can. The china and glasses arrived. The wine lockers were just delivered. The bar top and hands-free kitchen sinks were all installed. Meanwhile, Alison at Blue Bell  is still open. Just like a basketball game, everything seems to be happening in the last two minutes. Stay in touch.

 

 

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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.

Measuring

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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