Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: What do I know?

I was deeply flattered this week when John Hansell, publisher of Malt Advocate, chose my post to lead off his series of guest bloggers on his blog, What Does John Know. John's blog is one of the most influential in the whiskey industry, and I was humbled to be a part of it. As you can see, the post engendered a fair amount of discussion (over 70 comments and counting) from well known bloggers, retailers and even distillers. My goal was to spark discussion, so mission accomplished, and thanks to John for giving me a soap box.

If you haven't read it already, check it out.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Leave the Cannoli: Vito's Cannoli

I've long enjoyed the New York style pizza at Vito's on La Cienega. Their white pie, with its creamy clouds of ricotta, is one of the best pizzas in LA. Their other pies are also good, though their tomato sauce is a bit on the sweet side for me.

Recently, I ate in at Vito's and ordered a cannoli. Given how good their ricotta is on the white pie, I figured this would be a winner. I was right. The filling was fluffy and sweet and the cookie was crisp. A dusting of sugar and cinnamon makes it complete (and none of those objectionable green sprinkles). It's everything you want in a cannoli. Next time you go to Vito's, order dessert.

Vito's Pizza
846 North La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(310) 652-6859

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Has Chowhound Jumped the Shark?

Over the last few years, it seems that the once great website's posts and influence are dwindling which forces me to explore the question, has Chowhound jumped the shark?

What is Chowhound?

Founded in 1997 by New York food critic and trombonist Jim Leff, Chowhound should rightly go down in history as one of the most important food websites of all time, and possibly the most important food media source of any type in the first decade of the 21st Century. Before there was Yelp or even the concept of a food blog, Chowhound was the main source for on-line food reviews and discussion.

I joined Chowhound back in 2001 and over the next five years it was a thriving community of like minded food-lovers intent on hunting down the very best of everything in every corner of the globe.

Why Chowhound was Great

During its heyday, Chowhound exemplified the best aspects of internet media. It was a free flowing, democratic community where valuable information was exchanged on a daily basis. Want to know the best Korean BBQ in the Valley? Someone on Chowhound just visited every single Korean place north of the 101. Need to know if Patina is worth the hype? Ask the Hounds, they will know. Have questions about which factory makes the best Girl Scout cookies in Brooklyn? Yeah, a Hound will tell you.

Sure, you could read postings by food luminaries like Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold, but if you hung out on the site, you would get to know legions of knowledgeable posters, unknown to the general public, who could teach you just as much and lead you to some great chow. And part of what made the community work was the constant back and forth. There were distinct personalities on display, and back in the earlier days, there was a lot of cross-board pollination, partly because the layout of the boards at that time allowed you to see and comment on all active topics in a convenient way. Sure I might live in LA, but that didn't mean I wouldn't chime in about New York, New Orleans or a great discussion happening on the general board.

Things were never perfect, of course. There were the inevitable flame wars, the predictable cries of foul at this or that removed post, and the constant challenge Leff faced in maintaining the site as a labor of love, but it was a remarkable place full of remarkable voices.

Not only did I find some of the best things I ate over the past decade on Chowhound, I read some of the best food writing around. Check out Thi Nguyen's (now a frequent food writer for the LA Times) write up of his first visit to Langer's or the poster known as Minty's description of her childhood trips to Red Lobster which you will find as the seventh reply in this thread about chain restaurants. The archives of Chowhound are rich with this type of thing, and it's great fun to spend some time just reading through the cache of five to ten year old posts.

What Happened?

Today, Chowhound is a shadow of its former self. The LA board, which I spend the most time on, still has some good posters and good information, but it no longer feels like the thriving community it once was. There are many fewer posts per day than there used to be, and many of them are simply reprints of the posters' blogs (I am guilty of this myself). But more importantly, the site is simply less useful than it once was. I used to find a few great tips per week from Chowhound, now I'm lucky if I get a single great tip in any given month.

It's tempting to blame the decline on Jim Leff's decision to sell the site to CNET Networks in 2006. Leff was not only the founder and administrator of Chowhound, but the guiding force and spirit behind it. He was the Wizard of Oz, sometimes cantankerous or curmudgeonly, but ultimately there to tell you, like the Wizard told Dorothy and her friends, that you always had it in you to find the best food out there, you just had to look for it. Without Leff, the site became Chow.com, just another corporate web forum. (Jim Leff has been writing his own fascinating account of the CNET deal on his personal blog).

But while the CNET purchase may have temporally coincided with the decline of Chowhound, I'm not sure that it caused that decline. While CNET did do an aesthetic remake of the site, it left the boards pretty much in tact, and even added some cool new features like the ChowTips and Obsessions videos which complemented the on-going discussions. Even if Leff wasn't in charge anymore, CNET pretty much followed his roadmap.

Rather, I think what caused the decline was just a natural evolution of food sites. First, Yelp came along, and younger food lovers seemed to gravitate to that site with its more free form postings and snarky, self-referential style, a food site for the MySpace generation.

Then came the deluge of food blogs. Nearly every regular poster on Chowhound, present company included, now seems to have a food blog. We spend our time on our blogs rather than posting on Chowhound. Sure, once in a while, we might cross-post a particularly worthy review on Chowhound, but our priority is our blogs, which must be supplied with regular content, and that takes up most of our food writing energy.

The proliferation of blogs has its positives and is in some ways the logical extension of Chowhound, but it came at the expense of community. In speaking through many different blogs, the conversation among those who consider themselves chowhounds has become more disperse. We talk less to each other and more around each other. Instead of a linear conversation, we are now many voices shouting in the cyber-wilderness.

Surprisingly, with all of the blogs out there, it can actually be more difficult to get reliable food tips. Finding large volumes of information about a particular restaurant or type of cuisine is easier than it was in the pre-blog era, but finding quality information and trying to determine whether there is any consensus is more difficult precisely because of that lack of direct communication. I pine for the days of a Chowhound post about a new find with 135 responses pro and con.

The Legacy of Chowhound

No medium lasts forever and perhaps Chowhound has just outlived its usefulness, but it leaves behind a lasting legacy. Chowhound was the training ground for a whole generation of food lovers. I doubt that food blogs, as we know them today, could have happened without Chowhound and its dose of direct food democracy. All of us in the food blogosphere owe some of our existence to this groudbreaking site. And I wouldn't be surprised if the next generation of professional food writers are people who spent the early years of the century posting on Chowhound. Chowhound may not be what it once was, but it has served us well, and I'm thankful, if a bit nostalgic, for the time before it jumped the proverbial shark.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Glimmering Glencairn Glasses

When tasting whiskey, like many whiskey fans, I use the Glencairn glass. Designed specifically for whiskey, the Glencairn glass has a tulip shape which concentrates aromas; it's narrower and has a sturdier base than a brandy snifter. It's a great glass and an easy one to hold, smell and taste with.

There is no better place to buy Glencairn glasses on-line then Cobhthaigh Celtique. Marty and Dave Coffey are huge Celti-philes and have traveled and photographed extensively in Scotland and Ireland. Their website offers music, shirts, artwork and other Celtic themed merchandise, but for whiskey fans, it's all about the glasses.

The Coffeys offer one glass for a bargain price of $8.00 with discounts for orders of multiple glasses. A set of four glasses costs $29. Other sites sell the same glasses for as much as $16 per glass. For just a few dollars more, they also sell etched glasses with a number of designs and will do custom etchings (see my "sku" glasses above).

The Coffeys are a pleasure to deal with and offer old-fashioned, personalized service. If you need some whiskey glasses, this is the place to go.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

RIP Dumpling Master

Restaurants come and restaurants go, and that's life, but I'm deeply saddened by the closure of Dumpling Master in Monterey Park. I can't count the number of times I stopped in (or took home) their great lamb dishes and dumplings: the nicely sour Napa soup, the gamey boiled lamb dumplings, the crisply fried pork dumplings and the lamb chow mein with hand pulled noodles and succulent, juicy strips of lamb. Sure it wasn't the cleanest restaurant around, and yes, I'd noticed some decline in quality of late, but it still had a lot going for it. The only solace is that at least there are lots of other dumpling houses in the San Gabriel Valley and a handful of other Northern Chinese places that have good lamb dishes. I'll take any recommendations starting now.

RIP Dumpling Master. You will be missed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hilo Sweets

Part two of my Hilo, Hawaii Report focuses on desserts.


Wilson's By the Bay aka Wilson's Ice Shave

That most popular of Hawaii frozen treats, the shave ice, is referred to in Hilo as ice shave. Wilson's, located in the touristy strip of Kamehameha Avenue, had fabulous shave ice, certainly comparable to the best I've had on Oahu. Wilson's had everything you want in great shave ice: soft ice with the texture of fresh snow, strong flavors and goodly portions of ice cream and sweet azuki beans. Like most shave ice places, it takes its time but is definitely worth the wait.

Wilson's By the Bay
224 Kamehameha Ave.
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 969-9191

Kawate Seed Shop

Kawate Seed Shop, for some inexplicable reason, seems to have a better reputation for shave ice than Wilson's. I thought it was just okay. The ice was more coarse than I like and the flavors were lacking, with the exception of their li hing mui, the sour/salty/sweet dried plum that is probably the most popular variety of the Hawaiian snack known as "crackseed." My standard shave ice flavors are strawberry, coconut and li hing mui. While most li hing mui syrups are sweet with a vague saltiness, Kawate's version was boldly sweet, sour and salty with little bits of li hing mui in it; it gave you the true flavor of the real LHM. You would expect that, I suppose, from a crackseed shop with such a wide variety of plums and powders (the picture above is from Kawate). Now if I could only get their li hing mui on a Wilson's ice shave...that would be icy heaven.

Kawate Seed Shop
1990 Kinoole St
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 959-8313


Mauna Loa Visitor Center

I don't tend to frequent tourist traps or factory tours, and I didn't have much in the way of expectations for the Hershey-owned Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitor Center, but it's actually fairly unobtrusive. The Visitor Center is a three mile drive through the Mac Nut fileds off Highway 11, south of Hilo. The Visitor Center experience is a fairly simple affair, including (1) a self-guided factory tour in which you get to look through the factory windows and watch videos narrated by an animated, talking Mac Nut; (2) a small garden of unlabeled tropical plants and Mac Nut trees; and (3) a large store stocked with every imaginable flavor of Mac Nuts and a few choice samples. The whole experience takes only 15 to 20 minutes, so if you love Mac Nuts, why not do it.

Mauna Loa Visitor Center
16-701 Macadamia Road (off Hwy 11 - you'll see the sign)
Keaau, Hawaii 96749
(888) 628-6256

Big Island Candies

Big Island Candies is sort of a local version of the Mauna Loa Center. Big Island Candies specializes in shortbread and assorted chocolate dipped snacks. The factory includes a large store with a window onto the factory floor where you can see workers dipping all manner of things in chocolate. The store is as big as Mauna Loa's, but Big Island Candies is more generous with the samples. The shortbread is excellent, sweet and vanillay with that melt-in-your-mouth quality that great shortbread has. They have it in a variety of flavors, such as guava, ginger and olive oil, all of which were good, but I think I liked the plain shortbread the best. Oh, and when I said they have all manner of chocolate dipped snacks, did I mention the chocolate dipped dried squid? Sorry folks, I left it on the shelf for braver souls than I.

Big Island Candies
585 Hinano Street
Hilo, HI 96720
(800) 935-5510


Puff City

One of my favorite Hilo finds was Puff City, a downtown pastry shop specializing in cream puffs. Their standard puff is a chocoalte custard with a chantilly topping. Hawaii locals and frequent visitors will immediately recognize this as a direct challenge to the famous Liliha Bakery and their famous coco puffs. So how did Puff City compare? Well, their pastry was excellent. Liliha is so big now that most of their puffs come out of the fridge and the pastry gets soggy, but Puff City's pastry was fresh and had more flavor than the Liliha standard. The Puff City chocolate filling was good but a bit too sweet for me, and while I liked Puff City's chantilly topping, it didn't have the complex sweet/salty flavor that makes Liliha's chantilly so compelling, but hey, you're in Hilo so it's not like you're going to fly out to Lilhia, so you should enjoy these puffs. Puff City also makes an excellent lilikoi puff with a fabulous lilikoi cream filling and a nice mini-chocolate silk pie with a well made, sweet pie crust filled with chocolate cream and whipped cream. Puff City has some lunch items as well, but I stuck to the sweets.

Puff City
187 Kilauea Ave.
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 961-6964

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: The United Colors of Bruichladdich

You need a scorecard to keep up with the output from Bruichladdich these days. The proudly independent Islay distillery puts out dozens of whiskies per year and seems to be increasing their output. They have expressions that are peated, unpeated, sherried, Bourbon matured, wine finished and pretty much everything else you can think of, mostly in their distinct "dumpy" bottles, sometimes with elaborate designs or opaque coloring.

Today we will try two of the more visually striking new Bruichladdichs: Resurrection and Black Art.

Bruichladdich's The Resurrection Dram is a seven year old whisky. The name refers to the resurrection of the distillery which was closed in 1995 and reopened, under new ownership, in 2001. The Resurrection Dram was distilled right after the reopening, in October 2001. It maintains the traditional lightly peated Bruichladdich profile. It is 46% abv and goes for around $80.

The nose on this is malt and fruit juice with some light peat. The palate begins with a pure, sweet, malty flavor with some grass then some slight sherry. Midpalate the peat sets in. For a fairly light peating level, the peat is noticeable throughout, though it doesn't dominate. Malt is the key characteristic here. It's not an overly complex malt, but not an unpleasant one either. A good, light drinker.

Bruichladdich Black Art 1989 is a 19 year old whisky bottled at 51.1% abv and available for $150. It is finished in a combination of different wine casks, the specific nature of which the distillery is not revealing. The bottle styling is similar to the very popular sherry aged Blacker Still. Cynics may wonder whether they are using the bottle design to capitalize off of the reputation of Blacker Still in selling this new, unrelated malt. I never tried Blacker Still, so I'm afraid I won't be able to compare.

Nose is dry sherry or port with some plums and raisins. It really retains that dry wine note on the palate. There are port like flavors and even some Zinfandel and other tannic red wines with just a slight bit of sweetness. As you sip on, there are layers of flavors here that include chocolate, orange and a bit of tin; the mouthful is syrupy. The finish is all port. It's and interesting mix of wine flavors that shows great promise, but it's a bit flat on the palate; a hint more sweetness would add some needed depth. Still, I keep drinking this and chewing over the flavor; it's definitely holding my interest.

Both of these are fine malts, but neither blew me away. Do you have a favorite Bruichladdich?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hilo, Hawaii Eats

Hilo may be the largest city on the Big Island of Hawaii, but this 40,000 person burg still has the feel of a small town. Partly, by Hawaii standards, Hilo is off the beaten track. Most tourists opt for the Kona Coast on the sunny side of the island. In Hilo, nestled on the northeast side of the island, it rains nearly every day. The coast, while beautiful, is made up of volcanic rock, not sand, and the only redeeming factor for most tourists is the city's proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But I'm a big fan of Hilo with its lush rain forests and craggy coasts.

Foodwise, Hilo isn't in the league of the population center on Oahu, but it has some good stuff if you know where to look. The culinary ethnic mix is pretty similar to Oahu but with more of an emphasis on Native Hawaiian flavors where Oahu's cuisine tends to be tilted more heavily toward Asian.

I'll run through some of the better eats I experienced in and around Hilo today with a wrap up of Hilo sweets on Friday.

Ken's House of Pancakes

Ken's is a classic local diner, and it's open 24 hours which is a huge boon to the jetlagged mainlander waking up at 4:00 am. I actually didn't think the pancakes were that great, but Ken's is a haven for great local food. The loco moco (pictured above) really hit the spot. The Hawaiian breakfast classic of two eggs over a hamburger patty and rice smothered in brown sauce is the kind of thing that lasts several meals. The Ken's version has a well charred burger and a meaty brown sauce. Ken's also does a great saimin, the Hawaiian ramen with a shrimp-based broth, and I enjoyed the blood sausage breakfast, with two nicely seasoned blood sausages, eggs, and hash browns.

Ken's House of Pancakes
1730 Kamehameha Ave,
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-8711

Cafe 100

Cafe 100 is a bustling lunch spot that specializes in loco mocos, but I found it lacking. We got two mocos, a traditiona and a Kalua Pig version. At $1.99, it's hard to beat the value on the loco moco, and the burger patty had a nice peppery flavor to it, but the sauce was disappointing, tasting like it came out of a packet. The Kalua Pig was bland and unexciting. A regular hamburger at Cafe 100 tasted remarkably similar to a McDonald's burger, paper thin patty and all. Given its popularity, I was disappointed that Cafe 100 just didn't measure up.

Cafe 100
969 Kilauea Ave
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-8683

Verna's III

Verna's is a small plate lunch chain that has the advantage of being open 24 hours on weekends. The Kalua Pig with cabbage is ultra-smoky and mixes well with the cabbage, and the shoyu chicken, lean chicken marinated in soy sauce, was also excellent. Not the best plate lunch in Hawaii, but good stuff, and you have to love the motto: If no can, no can...if can, Verna's.

Verna's III
1765 Kamehameha Ave
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-2776

Asami's Kitchen

Asami's Kitchen is an okazuya in downtown Hilo, just a few blocks from the farmers' market. Most of the choices will be familiar to any fan of okazu (spam musubi, shoyu chicken, tempura shrimp, hash patties, etc.), but my favorite thing was the shoyu pork, same as shoyu chicken, but pork. The pork was moist and full of ginger/garlic/soy/pork flavor. They also did a great nori chicken, fried chicken wrapped in seaweed. Asami's was the best okazu I had in Hilo, and I liked it better than the more popular Hilo Lunch Shop on Kalanikoa.

Asami's Kitchen
308 Kilauea Ave.
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-2242

Suisan Fish Market

What's a Hawaiian vacation without poke? I loved the poke variety at Suisan Company. The ahi in the shoyu poke was fresh and clean tasting; the salmon chunks in the smoked salmon poke tasted like chunks of fresh lox, and the kimchee mussel poke had a great flavor with a bit of spice from the kimchee. The fish market is right on the water and most of the poke is super-fresh, but watch the signage as some of their dishes are previously frozen.

Suisan Fish Market
96 Lihiwai St.
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-9349

Queen's Court Seafood Buffet

I wouldn't necessarily recommend the seafood buffet which is weekends only at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on beautiful Banyan Drive. Most of it is pretty standard hotel buffet fare, but it's notable for two things. First, the centerpieces of the mostly Hawaiian food hot side of the buffet is a whole roasted suckling pig stuffed with Kalua Pig. You can tear into the glistening red skin to reach the tender, white roast pork or you can dip some tongs into the space where its rib cage would be, which has been hollowed out and filled with the Kalua Pig. Mmmm, pork stuffed pig, and the Kalua pig is nicely done, salty and light on the smoke; take a bowl of poi and enjoy. Oh, and the second thing of note, the buffet comes with a bottomless pitcher of beer. What's not to like?

Queen's Court Restaurant at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel
71 Banyan Dr
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-9361

On Friday: Hilo Sweets.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vacation Break

Coming next week: Hilo Eats.

Pictured above top: The beautiful Waipi'o Valley on the north of the Island of Hawaii.

Pictured above bottom: Smoke billowing from Kilauea Volcano.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Drink Like Draper

If you're a fan of Mad Men, then you know that the preferred tipple of Don Draper, when he's not out at a bar drinking Old Fashioneds, is Canadian Club. Founded by Hiram Walker, Canadian Club has a long and storied history, but is now owned by an American company, Beam Global. While it might have been a premium sip in the '60s, these days, Canadian Club is a pretty standard Canadian Whisky which retails for around $12.

Is Don onto something? Is this the whisky you want in your office bar? Let's see.


Canadian Club, 6 years old, 40% abv.

The nose is light and sweet with honey. This is very sweet stuff even for a Canadian. The flavors are honey and flowers with some hay and grass. There is a bit of metallic bitterness on the finish along with apple juice.

This might have been the stuff in Draper's time, but it's too sweet for me. Luckily for the denizens of this century, we have a lot more whisky to choose from.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

LA Lox-a-thon

Preparing for a recent birthday brunch for one of my daughters who loves lox, I wanted to put out a nice lox spread with some Brooklyn Bagels, so I went about trying to find the best lox in LA. I reviewed Chowhound posts, looked for internet tips and prowled Jewish markets. The party was in the Valley so the list is Valley-centric.

This was an intense lox-a-thon. We did blind tastings, tasted at restaurants and ran around Valley supermarkets. Here are the results:

1. Tashkent Market. Tashkent is the Studio City Russian/Uzbekistani market adjacent to Dacha Russian restaurant. They have a wide range of cured meats as well as prepared food and freshly baked bread in the back room (note to self: I must come back to try that spread). The lox at Tashkent is fresh cut and they don't always have it in stock (Indeed, when we returned for the birthday, they were out!). The lox we had there was beautiful, subtly smoky, oily and fresh tasting, without the dryness that you so often find in packaged lox. The only challenge would be having enough left to put on bagels after people ate it right off the plate.

2. Rasputin's Market is another Russian market adjacent to a restaurant I previously reviewed, this one next to the Israeli mezze palace Itzik Hagadol in Encino. Rasputin's lox is a thick cut and a bit salty, but the thickness gives it a nice chew. It had nice clean flavor and a good fresh taste, but it wasn't quite as nice in taste or texture as the Tashkent lox.

3. Art's Deli. The lox at Art's is fairly mild but still has nice flavor. It has some nice oil in it without excess salt.

4. Costco. Costco's prepackaged lox was one of the most suggested by Chowhound along with Barney Greengrass (sorry Chowhounds, Barney Greengrass was not in the budget). Costco lox was the smokiest of the lot. To some in our tasting group, it was the favorite, though I liked the hand cut lox better. The texture was a bit dry, but the smoke was nice.

5. Banner Smoked Nova Scotia. Another packaged lox from Brooklyn, the Banner had very nice flavor with a good balance of salt and smoke (hmm, sounds like a whisky review), but the lox was too dry.

6. Acme Smoked Nova Scotia. This is another packaged lox from a Brooklyn company. We got it at one of the big Russian markets in the Valley. It was fine lox but not extremely memorable; the texture was better than the Banner but the flavor was less distinct.

What was clear from the tastings was that fresh cut lox won out over packaged products. The fresh lox tended to have a fresher taste and a nice texture, the packaged lox was almost universally saltier. Presumably, more curing is needed for a product that is going to sit on the shelf of a supermarket.

I should add thought that all of these products were good and any of them would find a happy place on your bagel.

UPDATE: As Michael E. correctly notes in the comments, I sampled both lox and Nova Scotia salmon. Though the definitions are sometimes blurred, lox is cured salmon while Nova Scotia is cured and then smoked. For my purposes, they were all going on a bagel, so the distinction didn't really matter. We were just looking for which would be the best for our purposes, but apologies for my inexact language in using "lox" as a catch all for the various cured salmons we sampled.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Whiskey Heresy: Flavored Whiskeys

I didn't post this as part of my Whiskey Wednesday series because, as noted in the title, flavored whiskeys are whiskey heresy, but on Friday, anything goes. We've suffered through inanely flavored vodkas and rums for a few decades now, but flavored whiskey and whiskey liqueurs are just starting to proliferate. Sure there are some that have been around forever, like Southern Comfort (though I don't know that it has actual whiskey in it anymore), Bailey's and Drambuie, but recently the floodgates seem to have opened wide to new, sweet whiskey products.

The highest profile new flavored whiskey is Jim Beam's Red Stag, a Black Cherry flavored Bourbon. Wild Turkey American Honey is a liqueur made with honey and Bourbon which has been around for a few years now. I grabbed minis of both to do a tasting. Obviously, these things are not meant for whiskey geeks like me, so I'm going to do my best to judge them for what they are, sweet drinks probably meant for cocktails.


Red Stag by Jim Beam, Black Cherry flavored Bourbon, 40% abv ($14-18)

The nose on this is very light, smelling only faintly of cherries. Egads, it's insanely sweet! It's actually not bad though. I was expecting it to taste like cough syrup but the cherry flavor is more reserved than that; more like a cherry soda flavor. The sweetness makes it difficult to take straight, but on the rocks with soda, it would probably make a refreshing drink, like an alcoholic cherry soda.

Wild Turkey American Honey, liqueur with Bourbon and honey, 35.5% abv ($20-23)

The nose on this is really nice. It's got lots of floral and herbal qualities along with a good dose of lemon. Lemon is the predominant flavor, which I didn't expect. Surprisingly, it doesn't really have much of a honey flavor. While it's very sweet, the sweetness isn't quite as cloying as it is in the Red Stag. For this one, I would think there would be lots of good cocktail uses. It has a more complex flavor profile than the Stag and is generally more interesting to drink.

Now, that wasn't so bad, was it. I'm not going to rush out and buy this stuff but it's not bad as far as liqueurs go.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Ten Recipes, Four Roses

In a whiskey world where change sometimes comes slowly, few brands have made the kinds of strides that Four Roses has in recent years. Ten years ago, there was no Four Roses Bourbon available in the US; even five years ago, you couldn't by it outside of a few shops in Kentucky. Now, Four Roses has taken its place among the most innovative distilleries.

Four Roses was a very popular Bourbon around fifty years ago, but when Seagram's bought the company, they marketed the Bourbon for export only. For decades, the only Four Roses product available in the US was a cheap, blended whiskey (you can still find dusty bottles of this stuff on the shelves at certain liquor stores).

Those of us who love Four Roses have Japanese beer to thank for its resurgence. In 2002, the Kirin company purchased the distillery, and things began to change. They quickly released a trio of Bourbons to the US market: regular yellow label, small batch and single barrel, and followed those up with a specialty bottling called Mariage and a new limited edition small batch bottling coming soon, but it didn't stop there.

The thing that differentiates Four Roses from every other Bourbon distillery is the recipes. Most distilleries have, at most, three different Bourbon recipes. Four Roses has ten. Using two different mashbills and five different yeasts, Four Roses has an extremely diverse set of flavor profiles to work with. The impressively transparent distillery sets out these recipes right on its website.

Traditionally, the distillery has blended together these recipes for its various Bourbons. But now, individual retailers are selecting barrels so that they can market specific recipes of Four Roses Single Barrel. You will recognize these expressions from the use of the four letter recipe designation in the title of the Bourbon (e.g. Four Roses Single Barrel OBSQ).

Two of the retailers who have made these Bourbons most available are Binny's in Chicago ($55 each) and The Party Source in Kentucky ($50 each). Both retailers bottle the Bourbons at cask strength, and thankfully, both take on-line orders.

Given the differences in flavor between these Bourbons, I am excited to try all ten recipes. From those I've tasted, I know that they offer an enormous diversity of flavor, even within the same mashbill. The problem is that tasting all ten, at $50-$55 a pop, is expensive. I suggested to The Party Source's Jay Erisman that they bottle a series of ten mini bottles representing each of the recipes. Jay seemed to think that would be too difficult and the cost would be prohibitive, but I open the suggestion to all retailers as well as the distillery. There are many whiskey fans out there who I know would treasure a ten bottle set of every Four Roses recipe. Think about it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Magnolia Bakery, It's That Good!

Living in Manhattan in the pre-Sex in the City nineties, I was a big fan of Magnolia Bakery. Back then, before the massive cupcake craze that Magnolia spawned, it was crowded and cramped but more of a popular neighborhood joint than the baked goods juggernaut that it became a few years later. And it was great. I always preferred the layer cakes to the cupcakes, but everything had a lovely, homemade flavor. It wasn't fancy; all of the baked goods tasted like stuff someone's grandmother might have made.

I was pretty hesitant about hitting the new LA branch of Magnolia that opened last week. Having not been to the New York branch since before it hit the bigtime, I had no idea if the New York branch was still great, much less a satellite 3,000 miles away from the mothership.

I'm happy to report that my anxiety was not merited. We headed over to Magnolia last weekend and it was all there: cakes with light, moist cake topped with beautiful, fluffy buttercream in white and chocolate; red velvet cupcakes with clouds of white frosting. (Magnolia are masters of buttercream, I could eat their frosting out of a bowl.) It tasted just the same as I remembered, like the best homemade cakes you've ever had...the most comforting of comfort food.

The coconut cake was another triumph. It's a yellow cake with coconut mixed throughout, layered with a coconut cream. The frosting is a sticky meringue, which somehow retains both its fluffiness but also a creamy quality that's unusual in, say, a meringue pie topping.

And then there is the banana pudding. One of Magnolia's trademark dishes, it's more akin to a mousse or custard than a pudding. Studded with Nilla Wafers, it is light and fluffy in texture but also rich and creamy with a subtle banana flavor. I don't usually even like banana pudding and I can't stop eating this stuff.

So despite the hype and the TV fame, I'm proud to report that Magnolia lives up to its reputation, and then some. In fact, it may well be the best bakery in LA.

Magnolia Bakery
8389 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 951-0636