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The first few weeks of January, when the echoes of the last holiday party have faded to silence, can be a slow time for restaurants. Fortunately for local restaurateurs, Corvallis Culinary Week is right around the corner.

“It definitely helps with cash flow because we do get a lot of people in here,” said Conor Claffey-Koller, executive chef for Big River and 101. “The whole idea is to get people in here who may not have been in before and open their eyes to what we do.”

The fourth annual Culinary Week starts this Sunday, with nine Corvallis eateries featuring $10 specials to tempt the tastebuds of local diners.

Big River will be back in the mix this year, Claffey-Koller said. He still hasn’t settled on the menu yet but is leaning toward a risotto dish with braised pork belly.

“It’s uncured, unsmoked bacon,” he said. “If you like bacon, there’s no reason you wouldn’t like it.”

101, which has been a part of every previous Culinary Week, will offer a sampler plate of three “small bites.”

It can be a challenge to devise a $10 special that will satisfy a picky palate without going overboard on food costs, but Claffey-Koller said that doesn’t mean he’s going to skimp.

“A customer coming in and spending the $10 should feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.”

For a new restaurant like Terminus, which opened in the old Michael’s Landing space in July, Culinary Week can be a great way to build up a customer base, head chef Hamid Serdani said.

“I’m hoping I can get a lot of people to come and taste something completely different,” he said.

Serdani, who grew up in Algeria, has designed the menu at Terminus around Northwest ingredients and Mediterranean flavors. For his Culinary Week offering, he’s planning a Chicken Tajine Nicoise — slow-cooked chicken in a coconut-saffron sauce, served with fennel and other vegetables on a fresh-baked tart.

The reel ’em in and hook ’em strategy worked well for Serdani in 2009, when he worked at Le Bistro during the first edition of Culinary Week.

“We were packed every night,” he said. “And then a lot of people came back.”

But it’s not just about driving repeat business with a cheap and yummy special, said executive chef Mitch Rosenbaum of Del Alma, which opened in September 2010 and held its first Culinary Week last January.

It’s also about making bank.

“It was structured so the meals would be cost-effective but satisfying and hearty,” he said. “Also I think there was a fair amount of up-selling that countered the $10 option.”

Most people who order the chef’s plate wind up buying drinks as well, Rosenbaum noted, and some diners opt to skip the special and order from the regular menu.

“We still sold a lot of filet mignon last year on Culinary Week,” he said.

But steak lovers may think twice this year when they see Rosenbaum’s three $10 options: shrimp creole with cheddar-jalapeno grits, braised pork in espresso-hazelnut mole or vegetable coconut curry with pistachio basmati rice.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald