Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 2000s - A Personal Food Journey Through the Decade

Happy New Decade! I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1998, so while I spent the last year and one half of the 90s in LA, the 00s were really my LA decade. For the previous ten years, I'd been roaming. Through the course of the 1990s, which was the decade of my 20s, I lived in seven different states, went to two different schools and held three different full-time jobs and countless part time, summer and temp gigs. It was a transient time, and while I ate some great foods in great places, I never got settled in one place and got to develop a real familiarity with it, and I tended to eat on the run, seeking out the best I could find wherever I was, from New York to New Orleans and many places in between.

The 00s were different. The decade of my 30s was more settled; I lived entirely in LA, and really got a chance to dig deep into the city and into various food obsessions that I developed. Oh, and unlike the 90s, I had steady jobs the entire decade, which helps with the economics and all. It was the decade that I was able to develop true obsessions with chocolate, cheese and whiskey and do some serious home cooking.

So, feeling reflective on this New Year's Eve, I thought I'd review a few of my personal food memories of the 00s.


2000: I got a copy of Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer and began my journey on the road to cheese obsession.

2001: Driving home from work, I heard an NPR story about a website called Chowhound that sounded right up my ally. I logged on the next day and my food life changed forever.

2002: I moved from Park La Brea to Koreatown, one of LA's culinary hubs. I also made the first of many pilgrimages to Langer's to worship at the altar of pastrami (how did it take me that long?).

2003: I took my first trip to the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese (Sea Harbor), something I now do several times per month. After being a casual Scotch drinker (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan) for many years, I had my first sip of Lagavulin and developed a taste for smoke. Scotch displaces Tequila as my drink of choice.

2004: Highland Park Bicentenary blows my mind and sends me into a flavor tailspin. From thence, a full scale single malt obsession was born.

2005: I tasted my first George T. Stagg and took the same dive into American whiskey. With Julia Childs' help (no, not Mastering the Art, the more user-friendly The Way to Cook), I became more ambitious with my cooking and started venturing out into the world of French cooking.

2007: I started this blog and reached a new level of food obsession but also joined a thriving community of on-line food and drink appreciators.

2008: I bought a whetstone and started sharpening my own knives, adding another level of obsession to make the sharpest blades.

From May to 2007 to now, I blogged the whole way, so it's all right here, from doughnuts to dim sum, from pupus to pupusas, from Kentucky to Scotland, and everywhere in between.

Happy New Year and here's to a tasty teens.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Year in Review

Continuing my year end observations, here is a brief wrap up of the year in whiskey.

The year of our whiskey 2009 was the year of big peat. Actually, Bruichladdich Octomore and Ardbeg Supernova were released in 2009, but they took until early 2010 to make it to our shores, and the year ended with Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which I will review sometime in early '10.

In LA, it was the year of festivals, with the first ever WhiskyLive LA as well as the returning Scotch Whisky Extravaganza. Hosting both events, Santa Monica became the whiskey tasting capital of the Southland.

In American whiskey, it was a year of special releases, including Jefferson Presidential Select, a new Stitzel-Weller Van Winkle and regular new releases from Old Forester, Woodford Reserve and, of course, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For me, though, it was my first year of serious dusty hunting.

For Whiskey Wednesday, we spent more time on Irish Whiskey than we had in the past, but less on Japanese. And being a recession year, we spent a fair amount of time on cheap booze and even cheaper booze. Don't worry, we'll definitely look at some Japanese whiskies in '10.

My biggest whiskey accomplishment of the year was probably putting together my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands. I feel confident in saying that nowhere else on the internet is there as complete (and constantly updated) list of American distilleries (both micro and macro), brands and independent bottlers. The list got some nice mentions from internet whiskey luminaries like Dr. Whisky and Ralfy, which I very much appreciated.

Now, let us raise a glass to a great 2010!

Cheers and Sku will see you in the new year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year in Review

With the close of another year, I look back on the food and drink gone buy. Here are a few of my favorite memories and some observations.

I ate gelato and found praise worthy cups at Bulgarini in Altadena and a great affogato at Gelato Bar in Studio City

I said a sad goodbye to Fassica but found a new Ethiopian star on Fairfax at Little Ethiopia.

Why did it take me so long to go to Chung King? Now I can't stay away.

More good stuff to drink: I explored the worlds of dan cong tea and brandy.

I adopted a sense of humor.

I made cheese!

My favorite new higher end meals of the year were Animal and Bazaar, but be warned that Bazaar is like a really good magic show. The first time you go, you think it's great, but the second time, you're like, "Okay, I've seen that trick before. What else you got?"

I ate great, non-BBQ Korean food at Hanbat Shul-Lung-Tang and Seongbukdong.

I found my new favorite shen jian bao at Dean Sin World/Tastio.

And Mozza2Go opened and delivered their excellent chopped liver to my door.

All in all, a good year for food (and I even lost weight). Let's see what 2010 brings.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: William Larue Weller

The yearly release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is a cause of great joy among whiskey geeks. Each fall, Kentucky's vaunted Buffalo Trace distillery releases a new version of their George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare 17 year old, William Larue Weller Bourbons and Sazerac 18 year old and Thomas Handy rye whiskeys. All of these are great whiskeys and you can't go wrong with any of them. For three of the seven years he has been writing the Whisky Bible, Jim Murray has picked one of them as his best whiskey of the year (Stagg in 2004 and 2006 and Sazerac 18 year old rye in his latest edition).

From this fall's release, the most praise seemed to go to the William Larue Weller, and since I'd never reviewed anything from the Weller line of wheated Bourbons, I thought I would check it out.

Tasting

William Larue Weller Bourbon, Barrel Proof, 67.4% alcohol ($70-$120)

The nose is woody, wood paneling, wood polish, old library type stuff, a bit sweet smelling, definitely smells of old wheater, deep and thick. This thing has a huuuge, complex flavor that takes you by surprise: first a caramel-Bourbon sweetness coats your tongue, followed by some acid and then some strong wood; the mouthfeel is chewy. The finish lingers for quite a while. A little goes a long way. A fabulous, fabulous Bourbon, worth the praise and then some. One of the best recent release Bourbons I've had. If you can find it, get it.

A quick note on water -- while I enjoy most all my whiskeys neat, I know that some of you like a few drops of water. However, I would avoid water here as I found it to break apart the subtle and complex composition and bring out some bitterness, so if you can bear it, hold the water.

Prices vary quite a bit on the entire Antique Collection and they can be hard to find, but they are worth the effort.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Jewish Christmas

For traditional Jewish Christmas Eve dinner, we always hit something Asian. In the last few years we've done Beijing duck at the old Lu Din Gee, seven courses of beef at Vietnam Restaurant and a seafood extravaganza at Sea Harbor.

Any suggestions for a festive Asian feast for this year?

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I-5 Eats: Faster Fast Food at the El Taco Sinaloa Truck



Are you planing a holiday trip up north this season? Anyone who drives from LA to the Bay Area knows the long and culinarily depressing stretch that is I-5. From the Grapevine to the 580, there is precious little to eat close to the interstate. There are the big fast food chains, the alluring but always disappointing Harris Ranch and the hokey, substandard Apricot Tree and Anderson's Pea Soup joints. There are a few In-n-Outs on either side of the trek, but none stationed in the vast middle.

But on my last trek, we found something more. After putting some good miles down, we pulled off at the Apricot Tree exit, hoping for the possibility of finding something edible on its sad, sad menu when we saw it: a lone taco truck parked in a huge vacant lot with rows of tires lined up along the back of the lot. El Taco Sinaloa sits at the edge of the lot closest to the road alongside a table with a single bench. The clientele seemed to be a mix of locals who knew the place and Latino truck drivers.

I don't know that I've ever been so glad to see a taco truck, and a good one at that. El Taco Sinaloa offers a simple version of standard taco truck fare. The pastor taco had nicely crisped chunks of pastor, the plump bits of lengua were cubed almost to a brunoise, and the carne asada was also nice and crispy; the tortillas on the tacos were crisp and fresh and the salsa verde was citrusy and well seasoned if not too spicy.

A simple taco truck perhaps, but also some of the best I-5 exit food between LA and the Bay, and faster and cheaper than the fast food chains to boot. It will surely be my regular stop; let's hope it stays parked right there.

El Taco Sinaloa
I-5 exit 368 (Panoche Road - same exit as the Apricot Tree)
East side of the Interstate in the big lot with the tires along the back
Firebaugh, CA

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Thrill of the Hunt - Dusty Hunting



One of the primary sports of which whiskey fans partake is the dusty hunt. Don't worry, it doesn't involve hounds or horses or bugles of any sort. The dusty hunt is the practice of looking in liquor stores for old dusty bottles that have been on the shelf for many years. You can find rare, out of production whiskeys, usually marked at their original price, if you are willing to do some hunting, well quite a bit of hunting.

Now, I'm an amateur dusty hunter, and while I've found a few out of production whiskies, I can't say I've struck whiskey gold with a real rarity. One key to being a good dusty hunter is having a knowledge of whiskey history, knowing what brands have been discontinued and being able to recognize the various elements on a bottle that indicate its age. This could include the numbering on the bottom of the bottle, the presence of a tax stamp, the distillery address information, the use of metric measurements as opposed to the previous non-metric (i.e. ml vs. quart or fifth) and proof v. abv. For more advice on all of this technical stuff, check out the great series on dusty hunting over at Bourbon Dork.

The other crucial element to dusty hunting is having a sense of where to look for old bottles. You won't find dusties at a specialty spirits store. Your best bet is an old corner market with low turnover on most items, but any old liquor store can be a source of dusties. Keep in mind, though, that nine times out of ten, or maybe 99 out of 100, you won't find anything worthwhile.



The largest cache of dusties I've found so far is at Jubilee Liquors, a Koreatown shop at Third and Hobart. When I walked in, I noticed that in the far corner, there was a whole set of tax stamped dusties: Old Crow from its pre-Beam National Distillers days when it was actually a drinkable Bourbon, Old Taylor and Old Overholt rye also from the pre-Beam National Distillers, Old Forester, and Old Charter from the old Bernheim Distillery. All of these looked to be from the late '70s and early '80s. None of these were from prized distilleries like Michter's or Stitzel-Weller, but they were old Bourbons I hadn't sampled, so I picked up one of each.

The counter guy viewed me with a sort of mix of curiosity and disgust. No one ever buys those, he told me. They are really old. Lucky for me, as is often the case with dusties, I don't think they had updated the price tags, so I paid $7 to $15 for these old whiskeys from closed distilleries.

Over the next few months, I may post reviews for some of these dusty bottles. Meanwhile, if you want to try some, stop by. At my last visit, there were still bottles of all of these except the Overholt at Jubilee, along with lots of really old crap (schnapps, brandy, blended whiskey, etc.).

Happy Hunting!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday Gift Ideas: Spirits (non-whiskey)

Aside from the whiskey gift recommendations I made last week, I sampled a number of wonderful non-whiskey spirits this year that have great gift potential.


Germain-Robin XO Alambic Brandy

One of the best spirits I had all year, whiskey included, was the Germain-Robin XO. Made with pinot noir grapes, this bold, complex brandy is as good or better than any Cognac on the market. It is one of those spirits with such complexity and richness that it keeps drawing you back. It's hard to keep a bottle around for long. ($100-$115).


Carpano Antica Forumula Vermouth

Evincing a full and herbal flavor, Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth will punch up your Manhattan, but it's good enough to just sip straight. ($30)


Genevieve Genever Gin

I called it a gin for whiskey drinkers, but Anchor Distillery's Genevieve Genever Gin would also be a great gift of cocktail lovers who want something new to experiment with. It has fast become one of my favorite cocktail spirits. ($30)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Gift Ideas: Enstrom's Toffee Popcorn and Peppermint Bark

It's holiday time again and what better gift to give than the gift of sweets. I tasted Colorado based Enstrom's toffee in my toffee smackdown last holiday season, and while it was good, it was bested by our local favorite, Littlejohns.

While their toffee was competitive, Enstrom's Toffee Popcorn is unsurpassed. Imagine popcorn made with a really high quality toffee along with cashews, almonds and pecans; the toffee glues it all together in little, candy clumps. Each bite is rich and crunchy with a deep toffee flavor. This is by far the best flavored popcorn I have ever tasted. Two one pound bags go for $24.

Enstrom's also makes a peppermint cookie bark that is among the best I've had. Dark and white chocolate encase cookie bits and are sprinkled with peppermint candy. If you know someone with a hankering for peppermint, they need some of this candy. A one pound box is $19.

All of Enstrom's goodies can be purchased on-line.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Gifts

There have been some great whiskeys released this year, for both the whiskey novice and expert. Unfortunately, many of the new releases are either extremely pricey, extremely hard to find or both. I've tried to offer some more reasonable choices here along with a few splurges.


American Whiskey

William Larue Weller. The annual fall release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (consisting of George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare 17 year old and William Larue Weller Bourbons as well as Sazerac 18 year old and Thomas H. Handy rye whiskeys) is always a cause for celebration among Bourbon lovers. This year, the best reviewed of the bunch has been the Weller, a barrel strength, wheated Bourbon. My review will come later, but I can attest that this is a phenomenal whiskey, and many people who have tasted it have uttered the words "best ever." If you can still find it, it should be in the $90 range.

Jefferson Presidential Select. I reviewed this 17 year old wheater last week. It will cost you in the neighborhood of $90, but for the real Bourbon geek in your life, a sip of potion from the defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery is worth its weight in gold.

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. While Dr. Whisky disagrees, I very much enjoyed Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey, a novel whiskey which comes at a reasonable price, around $40.

Wild Turkey American Spirit. This limited release Bourbon is still on shelves but probably won't be available much longer. It goes for around $70 and gives you some solid Turkey heft and complexity.


Scotch

Bruichladdich Octomore. For the peat lover in your life, take a trip to Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, which still has a few bottles of Bruichladdich's ├╝ber-smoky Octomore. It goes for around $120.

Ardbeg. A bit cheaper but still smokin' is the new Ardbeg Corryvreckan which runs $75 to $80. I haven't tried this one yet, but an Ardbeg new release is a pretty safe bet. Corryvreckan will be replacing Ardbeg's Airigh Nam Beist, which will be gradually disappearing from shelves, so if you're a fan of "the Beast," you may want to pick up a bottle to put away. It's still around and runs around the same price.


Japanese Whisky

Suntory Hibiki. The Suntory Company is smiling on the US and sending us two new releases, the vintage 1984 Yamazaki and the 12 year old version of their popular blend Hibiki. I tasted both of these whiskies at WhiskyLive and enjoyed them both. The more expensive and more remarkable 1984 isn't available yet and will probably be quite pricey. The Hibiki has started popping up; it is a very smooth and drinkable blend that would make the perfect gift for the Scotch drinker in your life. The going price on the Hibiki seems to be around $50.


For more budget-friendly whiskey gifts, see my list of great whiskey for under $20.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Real Tea Party: Tea Habitat




Hundreds, maybe thousands of Angelenos have LA Times writer C. Thi Nguyen to thank for showing them the way to Tea Habitat. Last summer, Nguyen wrote an amazing piece about a little known tea shop in a Rancho Palos Verdes mall. Tea Habitat specializes in dan cong tea, as Nguyen describes in the article:

This is the next level of hard-core Chinese tea appreciation: dan cong oolong. You know how there's single-barrel bourbon and single-cask scotch? Well, this is single-tree tea. This means that every cup of dan cong you drink has been brewed from the leaves of one particular tea tree on the slopes of Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong. Each old dan cong tree is known, named, carefully tended and loved for its own peculiar character.


I met Tea Habitat proprietor Imen Shan shortly after the LA Times article came out. It turns out that she's quite a Bourbon fan, so I had her over for some Bourbon and she reciprocated by having me over for some tea (FTC Disclaimer: She did not charge me for the tasting).

Tea Habitat is not easy to find. Even with my cell phone GPS, I had to search a bit for it. It's buried under an arch across from a TJ Maxx in a rather large shopping plaza way out on the Palos Verdes peninsula. The shop itself is beautifully put together with displays of tea pots and an antique wooden Chinese tea table in the corner.

Before reading the article and having tea from Tea Habitat, I was one of those people who thought of oolong tea as an only slightly flavored water that was best for slurping down with dim sum, something to grease my gullet for all of those pork buns. Tea Habitat opened my eyes to a whole new world of flavor in Chinese tea. At Tea Habitat, I found teas that were fragrant and floral, like their popular Honey Orchid dan cong, but they also serve teas as funky and earthy as any Islay Scotch. After tasting a 1978 vintage dan cong, my partner described it as tasting like the damp soil under an old decaying log in the forest, and this was a good thing. After several batches (properly brewing dan cong involves making numerous, successive brews to taste the changes from brew to brew), the earthiness receded to reveal a sweeter, more floral tea, a mind-bending transformation. The dan cong teas are not just single tree, they are single season, so you can compare a fall 2008 to fall 2009. The varieties available are staggering. Single tree dan congs cost from $30 per ounce and up, but Tea Habitat also offers tasting flights starting at $10.



In addition to the dan cong teas, Tea Habitat sells herbal and iced tea as well as three varieties of Bee's Family raw Chinese honey: longan flower, lychee flower and the multiple flower winter honey. These are some of the best honeys I've ever tasted, with rich floral notes forward.

Ms. Chan doesn't always work the store counter, but she is an absolute pleasure to talk to and learn from and is always willing to share information about her teas.

Tea or a tea tasting from Tea Habitat would make a fabulous holiday gift. It's more than worth the trek to the outer reaches of the Palos Verdes peninsula.


Tea Habitat
21B Peninsula Center (under the archway across from TJ Maxx)
Palos Verdes, CA 90274
(310) 921-5282

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's Egg Nog Time - Evan Williams Egg Nog

As you know if you read this blog around the holidays, I love egg nog. I drink store bought egg nog and I make my own. One thing I have not generally done is buy premixed egg nogs, as they are usually sickly sweet and full of low quality booze. However, this year we are lucky enough to have Evan Williams egg nog on the market in California.

Evan Williams is a popular Bourbon from the Heaven Hill distillery. I've heard raves about their egg nog for years but until this year, I had never seen it for sale in California. Now, at last, it's showing up at reputable Southern California spirits stores like Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys and Hi Time Wine in Cosa Mesa for a very affordable $7 per bottle.

The Evan Williams nog is premixed egg nog that includes Bourbon, blended whiskey, rum and brandy. It is a pale yellow in color and has a good, creamy texture. The nog is rich and very balanced. It's sweet without being cloyingly so with just a hint of nutmeg. There is a definite dairy flavor that comes through as well.

The booze gives it a nice kick but it's not overwhelming (It weighs in at 15% alcohol). This is definitely the best of the pre-mixed nogs I've tried and the price is right. Popping open a bottle is a great way to kick off the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Jefferson Presidential Select and the Cult of Stitzel-Weller

Among Bourbon connoisseurs, there is a special reverence in tone used to discuss the Stitzel-Weller distillery, and if you announce you are serving a Bourbon containing the "juice" of the long closed plant, heads will turn. There have been many heads turning over the last few months since, for the first time possibly since the closing of the distillery, a Bourbon bottler announced it would be marketing a new Stitzel-Weller Bourbon.

Closed in 1991, the Stitzel-Weller distillery has developed what can only be described as a cult following among Bourbon lovers. Located in Shively, Kentucky, a distillery-rich suburb of Louisville, the distillery was founded just after prohibition and made what in Bourbon parlance is known as a "wheater" or "wheated Bourbon." According to the federal regulations governing spirits, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. Most Bourbons use a higher percentage of corn than is required and then use rye as a secondary grain to add flavor, along with some barley. Rye is what gives Bourbon its spicy kick. Stitzel-Weller, however, used wheat instead of rye as its secondary grain, giving their Bourbons a smoother, gentler taste, often with citrus notes.

Stitzel-Weller's biggest brands were Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller. After the distillery closed, as is common in the world of Bourbon, it sold off the brand names. Old Fitzgerald is now produced by the Heaven Hill distillery and W.L. Weller by Buffalo Trace; both are still made using wheated bourbon recipes. Buffalo Trace has also teamed up with Julian Van Winkle III, the grandson of Stitzel-Weller founder Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle, to make a series of wheated Bourbon under the Van Winkle label.

Julian Van Winkle has confirmed rumors that he still has stocks of Stitzel-Weller Bourbon that go into the older versions of the Van Winkle line, but none of those Bourbons, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve series, are marketed as Stitzel-Weller Bourbon, and there is no official disclosure of whether the older versions (20 and 23 year old Bourbons) are purely from old Stitzel-Weller stocks or are blended with Buffalo Trace Bourbons. In any case, those old stocks won't last forever and eventually, Van Winkle Bourbons will be made wholly with more recently distilled whiskey.

Stitzel-Weller became big news again in the world of Bourbon this summer when Bourbon bottler McLain and Kyne announced that it would be issuing a new expression of its Jefferson Reserve line of Bourbons -- the Jefferson Presidential Select, a 17 year old Stitzel-Weller Bourbon. Speculation was rampant as to how McLain and Kyne acquired the Stitzel-Weller juice. Some suggested that they may have purchased it from drinks giant Diageo which was the last owner of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, but only McLain and Kyne know for sure.

The release of a new Bourbon marketed as Stitzel-Weller Bourbon is unusual in the world of American whiskey. Unlike the world of Scotch, in which there are regular new releases of rare, old whiskies from closed distilleries, it is unusual to see new Bourbon releases from closed distilleries. One of the only other such Bourbons currently on the market is A.H. Hirsch from the old Michter's distillery in Pennsylvania.

The announcement also gives the new crop of younger Bourbon lovers a rare glimpse into the flavors of Bourbons past. Stitzel-Weller closed at the tail end of a whiskey market downturn which saw many distilleries, in Scotland and the United States, close their doors. Less than ten years later, a spirits revival would begin. Most of the new afficionados who have come to Bourbon during this revival either weren't of drinking age or simply weren't drinking Bourbon when Stitzel-Weller was producing. To these drinkers, the McLain and Kyne bottling is manna from the heavens, something many of them have heard about but that they never believed they would taste.

No one seems to know exactly how much Stitzel-Weller Bourbon is still resting in barrels in ancient warehouses, but if the Jefferson Reserve bottling sells well, then the world of Bourbon just might see an extended last hurrah of a distillery that closed nearly twenty years ago.


Tasting

Jefferson's Presidential Select, 17 years old, 47% alcohol ($85-90).

The nose is alive and singing on this one. I smell sweet, caramelized fruit, pastries and the smell you get when you first open a can of passover coconut macaroons. The flavor is rich and clean. You can tell it's an aged wheater, but it doesn't have the chewy, oakiness you would expect in a 17 year old Bourbon. It's less layered and complex than I might have imagined, going more for a clear, clean Bourbon flavor. This is a Bourbon that knows what it wants to be, sweet but not overly so, woody but not overly so, very well balanced in every respect, including a solid finish.

A great Bourbon and a chance to taste history. Is it expensive? I suppose, but nowhere near what you would pay to taste whisky from a closed distillery in Scotland. This would make a great holiday gift for any Bourbon loving friends or family.