Thursday, April 28, 2011

Building the Basic Bar

Even though I'm more of a straight spirits drinker than a cocktail maven, I've done some cocktail write ups, and I especially like a cool cocktail as the mercury starts to rise and the heat sets in. One of the frequent questions I get emailed is people asking what they should have in their basic home bar. There are lots of lists like this on-line, but I though I'd add my two cents. This is intended as the basic spirits and bitters you need to make standard mixed drinks. It's not intended to enable you to make every strange cocktail out there or to provide a selection of premium sipping spirits (the rest of the blog is for that).

The Basic Bar

  • Bourbon or Rye (these are pretty much interchangeable in most drinks)

  • Gin

  • Liqueurs (It's always handy to have one or two of Amaretto, Kahlua, Bailey's, etc.)

  • Orange Liqueur (Grand Marnier, Cointreau, etc.)

  • Rum

  • Scotch (a standard blended - Famous Grouse or Johnnie Walker - will do for mixed drinks)

  • Tequila (100% agave)

  • Vodka (don't spend too much, it's just vodka)

  • Vermouth (a dry and a sweet...beware, unlike spirits, once opened these will not keep indefinitely)

  • Angostura Bitters

This allows you to make a wide range of basic drinks: Martinis, Manhattans, daiquiris, Margaritas, Old Fashioneds, and such, but if you want to venture into more complicated territory, you'll need...

The Intermediate Bar (include all of the above plus)

  • Absinthe or Pastis

  • Bourbon and Rye

  • Brandy

  • Campari

  • Irish Whiskey

  • Maraschino Liqueur

  • Rum (a dark and a light)

  • Orange Bitters

  • Peychaud's Bitters

After this it becomes more specific to the type of drinks you prefer. If you love Aviations, you're going to need creme de violette. Depending on what you like, you may need Benedictine, Drambuie or Chartreuse, but I wouldn't spend money on any of these unless they are ingredients in a particular cocktail you want to make. Maraschino Liqueur may be in that category as well, but it appears in enough recipes that I think it's worth having a bottle around. The good thing about these is that a little goes a long way. I have a bottle of Benedictine that's lasted me for years.

A few more basic bar commandments:

  • Use fresh juice whenever possible

  • Never buy simple syrup (it's sugar and water, for God's sake; it takes all of three minutes to make in a microwave)

  • If you want an easy way to experiment, there are lots of great bitters around these days; you can always throw some new fangled pear-artichoke bitters into your Manhattan and see what happens

  • There is no need to spend a lot on cocktail ware: a shaker, a strainer, a measuring cup and a muddler should be all you need

  • Don't wear one of those bartender vests. Just don't.

  • The people who spend a lot of time lecturing you about shaking versus stirring are the same ones who will lecture you about whether or not to put an "e" in the word "whiskey". That being said, the basic rule is shake any drink that includes egg, juice, milk or cream and stir drinks that are only spirits.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Evan Williams Single Barrel

I recently finished an exhaustive survey of Evan Williams Single Barrel releases which was set up by the Bourbon Dork. As you may know, Evan Williams Single Barrel is an annual Heaven Hill release of single barrel versions of its popular Evan Williams Bourbon. These nine to ten year old bourbons regularly get high marks from reviewers and people scour shelves for older versions.

I tasted a series of twelve versions representing each distillation year from 1988 through 1999. This tasting was as exhausting as it was exhaustive, mostly because the majority of these bourbons were pretty middling. A few were quite bad, a few were above average, none was worth raving about. I was quite surprised that these widely heralded bourbons didn't perform better, and lest you think it was just because I'm quirky, I was pretty much within the consensus of the ten experienced tasters in the group. Indeed, I probably thought they were generally better than the tasting group.

I don't want to burden you with all of my notes (though you can find them all on the LA Whiskey Society site), so I thought I would give a quick summary.

My favorite was the 1995 which was one of the few that had some real wood on it. The runners up were the 1992, which also had a good wood/sweet balance, and the 1996 which had some nice citrus and spice notes.

The worst of these were the 1997, which was bitter, and 1998 which had a sort of dulled flavor. And the rest of them were pretty mediocre.

Now of course, these are single barrel bourbons which means there can be variance from barrel to barrel even within a given year. That being said, I was so unimpressed with this whole lineup that you won't see me dropping any cash for Evan Williams Single Barrel expressions in the future.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy End of Passover: Matzo Brei

Eggs, salt, butter, matzo...what's not to like? Nothing says spring weekend morning like a mess o' matzo brei. For best results, I follow Jim Leff's recipe.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nostalgia for an Age that Never Existed: Cafe 50s

Cafe 50s is a 50s theme restaurant that opened about five months ago on Vermont north of Melrose, right across from LACC. There is another branch in West LA.

This place is like Johnny Rockets on steroids. Seriously, the place looks like Nick at Nite threw up all over it. The walls and ceilings are covered with a distractingly busy montage of period magazines, movie posters, campaign literature and other kitsch. The wait staff wear retro waiter uniforms, there is a predictably nostalgic soundtrack and each booth has the obligatory mini-jukebox. I half expected to find "white" and "colored" bathrooms, but luckily, that wasn't the case.

The menu here looked promising. It included plenty of old school classics like a monte cristo and chicken fried steak but with some updates like sweet potato fries and a bacon blue cheese burger. The food, though was uniformly mediocre. The burgers are sad little overdone patties with iceberg lettuce and unripe tomatoes (I guess that may well be what you would have gotten at a real '50s diner). The monte cristo had a decent crust but was cold in the middle, and while the regular fries and onion rings were decent, the sweet potato fries were flavorless and the garlic fries were just regular fries with a pile of raw garlic on top.

The thing to get here, the only thing, are the milkshakes. The menu lists nearly 50 shakes of every variety, but I'm a simple guy, so I opted for a vanilla malt. It was wonderful...thick and creamy with a goodly amount of malt in every sip (lack of malt in malts is one of my pet peeves). The excess is served in the metal cup, as it should be. The only thing that would have improved it would have been homemade whipped cream on top instead of the canned variety, but overall it was great shakes.

So if you are in need of a shot of nostalgia skip the food, grab a shake and an order of fries and enjoy the nostalgia for an age that never existed.

Cafe 50s
850 N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 906-1955

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Ethics - The Freebie Game

Imagine the fuss and the flames that we would see if it came out that a prominent restaurant critic was getting comped meals. Receiving free meals would violate the code of journalistic ethics of every major US newspaper, and the critic would almost certainly be fired and relegated to a life of shame. But in the whiskey world, nearly all professional journalists get boat loads of free whiskey. Some even go on sponsored trips to distilleries. Mind you, I'm not talking about lowly bloggers here, though the biggest of them get regular samples as well. I'm talking about the biggest names in whiskey journalism. Yet while there are discussions of side issues around whiskey ethics, I've rarely seen anyone question the practice of receiving free samples, and I don't know of any professional reviewers (or even any bloggers) who refuse them.

Is this a problem? Well, the reviewers will tell you that it is most definitively not. They say that these freebies have absolutely no impact on their reviews. For the most part, I believe them. The big name reviewers in the industry strive for honesty. I can't imagine most of them purposefully bending scores so as not to offend those who provide their whiskey, but is there a subconscious tug on them when they review free whiskey? Most politicians will tell you, with just as much righteous indignation, that campaign contributions have no impact on their votes, but we don't seem so quick to give them the benefit of the doubt.

There are a number of arguments in favor of free whiskey for reviewers, many of which make some sense. First, the most prominent whiskey reviewers have a symbiotic relationship to the whiskey companies. The companies need them to review their whiskey as much as the reviewers need samples. This produces a balance of power that allows reviewers to review honestly without fearing that the companies will turn off the spigot of free whiskey. While this may be true for the biggest names in whiskey journalism, it certainly is not for the smaller players and bloggers, many of whom get the freebies as well. And even if this theory is true, does that make it ethical? Again, I analogize to food critics, the best of whom enjoy a similar symbiosis. A Manhattan restaurant could not afford to spurn the New York Times, but it would still raise enormous ethical questions if the Times critic accepted free meals.

Second, one could argue that whiskey samples are no different than the pre-publication editions of books or pre-release films that are sent to critics for review. Unlike a restaurant meal, those things can't be changed to suit the critics; it is what it is. But it seems as though whiskey may lie somewhere in between the restaurant meal and the pre-release novel. In a recent blog posting, John Hansell raised the issue of critics reviewing samples before they were completed for bottling, and there was at least one example of a company making changes to a whiskey after John tasted it (to John's great dismay). Along those lines, I've often wondered if reviewers sometimes get special, choice samples for review, particularly of single barrel offerings that can vary quite a bit from batch to batch. In the comments section of Hansell's post, Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun notes that he has received samples at higher abvs than the standard bottling, which is pretty scandalous. If critics aren't basing their reviews on the same whiskey available to consumers, that presents a huge issue not just of ethics but of the value of the reviews in general.

The third argument in favor of freebies is that it benefits us as whiskey consumers. It helps us to have professionals reviewing a wide range of whiskey, and most of them just couldn't do it if they had to pay for it all themselves. This very practical explanation is probably the strongest argument for freebies. I want to hear reviews of a wide range of whiskeys including those so expensive I would never even be able to dream of owning them. But does that negate any potential ethical issues around industry freebies?

Many bloggers disclose when they review free samples (which is legally required in the US), but is this enough? I appreciate knowing when someone reviews a free sample, but the practice is so widespread that I assume that nearly all major reviewers receive everything they sample for free.

I'm a minor blogger, so I don't bathe in the bath of free whiskey. I have received a small number of free whiskeys in the past (really small, like two or three), but I haven't reviewed them on the blog.

So what say you dear readers? Is it appropriate that the gears of whiskey journalism are greased with free samples? Is this a massive industry-wide ethical lapse, a necessary evil or simply the way business is done and not something that we should worry about? Would any major reviewer dare to say that they would no longer accept free samples? Should they?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Life's a Beach: Playa

Playa is the newest restaurant from New Mexico native and Jonathan Gold favorite, Chef John Sedlar. It's a pan-Latin, quasi-small plates, bustling space on Beverly where Grace used to be.

The first thing you notice upon entering Playa is a giant and impressive wall of spirits (now that's my kind of beach!). One would expect the nice selection of tequilas and mezcals (including at least five from the Del Maguey single village line), but there was also an impressive selection of whiskeys, including Scotch, American and Japanese, with full lines from High West and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and some good standards from distilleries ranging from Glenfarclas to Springbank. There wasn't necessarily anything rare, but it was a much more complete selection than I usually see in LA restaurants (or bars for that matter). They will also make you a customized cocktail if you tell them what you like; everyone at my table who had one was very satisfied.

This was my first taste of Sedlar's cuisine, which I would describe as based on but not restricted to Latin flavors; one motif seemed to be a use of Indian flavors with Latin ingredients. I call it quasi-small plate because there is an extensive small plate menu but also and entree list. We indulged in both.

Much has been made of the maize cakes on the menu, but these were basically updated tacos, and while generally good, they didn't strike me as any sort of revelation, though I very much enjoyed the cauliflower cake which featured purple and white cauliflower, nicely caramelized. The best sounding of the cakes, the Bombay Taj, featured pork belly and Indian spices, but the pork was a bit dry and the flavors didn't seem to coalesce.

Among the other small plates though, there were some real standouts. The Octo-Palm included grilled octopus, dried red onions, hearts of palm and a roasted tomato. The octopus had a super-rich flavor and a mouthfeel that was more like a tender filet than octopus. The dried onions and the roasted tomato were little flavor bombs that added to the richness of the dish.

The Tamalli Chipotle looked like a tamale but was made with wild mushrooms and had a deep mushroomy flavor. It was served with a few slices of perfectly cooked, tender and spicy filet mignon.

The favorite dish of the night, though, was the Flan De Elote. A rich, corn custard topped with huitlacoche. The custard was light and creamy and the addition of the huitlacoche added just the right savory, slightly funky note. We ordered a second dish.

All of the entree dishes were also very nice. Duck was crispy and well cooked, though the "garbanzo creme" it was served on tasted like a very bland hummus. The New York Strip was well cooked, and the skate wing, fried and sliced, was lovely, crispy and sort of addictive.

Desserts were generally good but nothing fantastic.

Aesthetics are big at Playa. The photo above is one of their floral print tortillas, and many of the dishes are served on large plates which feature themed photos. The night we were there they were all scenes from A Clockwork Orange, some of which were a tad creepy, in a fun way (I particularly liked one of a woman doing yoga surrounded by cats, though I can't recall that scene from the film).

The space itself is quite loud and was very warm, though it was one of those unseasonably warm April nights that we had this weekend, so they may not have had their AC up as high as they will in the summer.

The service was friendly and informal, and they were very happy to accommodate diner's wishes, on or off menu.

Overall, Playa is a fun experience, and I enjoyed Sedlar's playful take on Latin cuisine.

7360 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 933-5300

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Real Texas BBQ

One of the great things about Texas is that even in the snooty, hoity-toity areas, like the Houston Galleria neighborhood, you can find tasty 'que. Brisket that is soft and tender, but still has some chew to it and a pure, smoky goodness. Links that burst with juice and spice when you bite into them and get even better dipped in a vinegar/mustard sauce. All of it served on large sheets of butcher paper with sweet pickles, sides and the obligatory though, to me, still confounding slices of generic white bread.

Texans, for whom barbecue is something akin to relgion, may not consider this place top tier, but for a visiting Californian, it's a slice of smoky heaven.

Luling City Market
4726 Richmond Avenue
Houston, TX 77027
(713) 871-1903

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Virginia Whiskey

The A. Smith Bowman distillery in Fredericksburg, Virginia is somewhat of a novelty. Owned by Buffalo Trace, the distillery does not distill from grain mash but instead, redistills whiskey that has already been distilled at Buffalo Trace. For years, their only brand was Virginia Gentleman Bourbon, but about a year ago, they discontinued that label and replaced it with a series of (more expensive) spirits under various labels highlighting the A. Smith Bowman name, including Bowman Brothers Bourbon, John J. Bowman Bourbon and Abraham Bowman rye. They are also marketing gin, vodka and rum.

The Bowman products, like Virginia Gentleman before it, have been released to a fairly limited market in and around Virginia, so they are hard to find outside Virginia. Now, The Party Source in Kentucky is offering a privately barreled cask strength version of the Abraham Bowman Rye. The Bowman Rye is nearly ten years old, so it's a bit older than Buffalo Trace's other cask strength rye, Thomas Handy. I've loved some of The Party Source's past private bottlings, so I was eager to try the Bowman (and while I usually use my own photos, I couldn't resist The Party Source's photo, complete with packing material for ambiance).

While I'm at it, I've got an old bottle of the standard, discontinued Virginia Gentleman, so I thought I'd give that a try as well.

Virginia Gentleman Virginia Bourbon, 40% ($15.00 - no longer available but probably still on the occasional shelf in the Virginia area).

The nose on this has really clear and clean bourbon notes with citrus and rye. On the palate there is a real rye inflection; it's heavily herbal and a bit medicinal with a bit of bitterness. The finish is mostly a dry rye finish. This is really quite good for a budget bourbon and reminds me of the standard Buffalo Trace bourbon. It may be a little rough around the edges, but it's got a lot of flavor. Too bad it's no longer around.

Abraham Bowman Rye Whiskey, bottled for The Party Source, distilled 3/14/01, bottled2/1/11, Lot 01-C-14, Barrel #1, 68.2% abv ($70).

The nose on this is a huge rye bomb; it definitely smells like Handy. The palate is full of big rye flavors rolled up with a pure, rock candy sweetness. It's got sugar, herbs, anise, the whole big rye package at a whopping 68.2% abv. Water is really not good for this one, turning it syrupy sweet. Tasting it neat, it's great stuff!

It's too bad that these A. Smith Bowman products aren't more widely available. They have clearly been putting out some good stuff, from the bargain basement to the premium level.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: Joe Dangler, Master Distiller at A. Smith Bowman, let me know that they are discontinuing the 90 proof version of Virginia Gentleman but not the 80 proof version which I review here. Thanks Joe, it's good to know that Bowman is still making some great budget bourbon.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Candy Quiz

Check out this classic candy counter: Charleston Chew, Abba-Zaba, Big Hunk, Look, Pop Rocks, Fun Dip. I didn't know they even made some of this stuff anymore. So in what unlikely location did I spot this? Answer later this week or as soon as someone gets it in the comments.

UPDATE: Congrats to Regular Chumpington who managed to figure out the answer solely through visual clues in the photo. You'll find his answer in the comments.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Newest Restaurant Concept

It is truly an era of innovation in the world of dining, and Ella Bloom is a restaurateur with yet another new concept: a completely stationary restaurant. That's right, Ms. Bloom has developed a restaurant that is housed in a building, somewhat like an office space or retail shop. It has a kitchen and dining area, but unlike the pop-ups and food trucks that most foodies dine at these days, its facilities are permanently anchored to one location. I spoke to Ms. Bloom about this revolutionary new idea.

SKU: "I'm not entirely clear on how this will work. What Will you do if you want to move your restaurant to a different location, say another neighborhood or a different street."

BLOOM: "Well, you can't do that. It's just in one place."

SKU: "So you are going to only serve people who will come to you to eat. Do you think people will actually do that?"

BLOOM: "Well, if the food is good enough, I'd like to think they will."

SKU: "How long is your engagement here?"

BLOOM: "What do you mean?

SKU: "I mean for how many weeks will you be operating this stationary restaurant concept?"

BLOOM: "For as long as we can, as long as people come."

SKU: "So let me get this straight, not only are you going to only serve food in one place, you are going to do it indefinitely? Why would anyone make reservations if they know they could just go whenever they want?"

BLOOM: "Ah..."

SKU: "What are you going to tweet about if you're just open all the time in one place?"

BLOOM: "I guess I hadn't thought about it."

Personally, I'm skeptical about this concept. It's one thing to innovate, but it's another to offer something so radically different from what diners are used to. I wish Ms. Bloom the best of luck, but she may want to rent a truck, just in case.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Colder Than Your Average Whiskey - Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix

We in the whisky world loves us some back story. It's not enough that a whisky is just plain good; we want a story. We revel in the tales of the master distiller who happened on an old barrel in the warehouse or the storied legacy of a Bourbon, even if in reality it's only been around for five years. The narrative is part of the experience; it gives us purpose, perhaps the sense that we are doing something more than just drinking something; we are part of the legend.

Well, the folks at Glenfiddich have done us proud with the Snow Phoenix. The much repeated story is that in the winter of 2009-2010, there was so much snow in Scotland that the roof of one of Glenfiddich's warehouses collapsed "leaving maturing oak casks of Glenfiddich exposed to the winter sky." The Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, "risen from the Great Warehouse Collapse of 2010," is a blend of whiskies from the casks in the exposed warehouse.

Now I love a good story as much as the next person, but I have to say, this is a pretty silly gimmick. None of these barrels was opened or spilled, so none of the whisky within was exposed to the elements. The worst you can say is that some of these barrels were exposed to the cold Scotland air, and my guess is that they were exposed for a pretty limited time, compare to say, Shackleton's Antarctic whisky. Other than causing some clouding, cold air really shouldn't have much effect on whisky, so I'm not sure I see why this would make a difference to the flavor, but it's a good story, and hey, Snow Phoenix sounds a lot better than Whisky That Was Briefly Very Cold.

Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, 47.6% abv ($86)

The nose is sweet and fruity, like fruit hard candy. The palate follows suit. It comes on strong like strawberry candy, which yields to traditional Glenfiddich malt. The fruit comes off as more cherry like in the finish with a bit of sherry influence as well.

If you like them sweet, this one is for you; it's a bit too much so for my tastes but it's nicely drinkable, and of course, it's got a great story.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Proving Ground: Proof Bakery

Proof Bakery is a little Atwater Village bakery/cafe. I stopped by the other day to check it out. The baked goods are all very nice. A chocolate chip cookie was very good, buttery and chewy with big chunks of dark chocolate. The flourless chocolate torte was light and airy, almost souffle like, and a gougere was a nice little bite of fluffy, cheesy goodness.

In addition, they call their coffee service Cognoscenti Coffee. I'm not sure why the coffee has a different name when they appear to be part of the same establishment, like any other bakery/cafe, but there you go. The coffee is what has become the pretty standard third-wave cup - lightly roasted, just a bit tannic, latte art. There is perhaps a bit too much milk in the cappuccino, but they also have a cortado, which has more milk than a macchiato but less than a cappuccino. I wonder how many new drink names we can come up with to describe the varying espresso to milk ratio; you would think at least thirty, right?

Overall, everything at Proof/Cognoscenti is well done and tasty, though none of it is so exciting or so different from other bakery/cafes that I would go out of my way for it. It's certainly a welcome addition to the Atwater Village commercial strip and I'm sure I'll stop in whenever I'm there.

Proof Bakery
3156 Glendale Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90039
(323) 664-8633