Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: The Ardbeg Project

Are you an Ardbeg nut? Do you love and obsess over the peat-a-licious Islay distillery? Well, no matter how much you love Ardbeg, chances are you aren't quite as obsessive about it as Tim Puett. Tim is the founder of The Ardbeg Project, the go-to website for Ardnuts (Tim's name for hardcore Ardbeg fans).

Tim's goal on the site, which he started in 2009, is to create "a comprehensive list for all Single Malt Whisky ever produced from the Ardbeg Distillery." The Project is even more detailed than it sounds in that description. Tim not only catalogues each expression of Ardbeg but each bottle code on each expression. For the uninitiated, the bottle code is a 12 digit code stamped or etched on each bottle which shows the year, month, day and time that the bottle was filled. This allows you to compare Ardbeg 10 year olds from different years, different months or even different days. This has created a whole new obsession for Ardbeg lovers who can now track down specific years and dates.

Tim was kind enough to give me some samples of different Ardbeg 10 year olds ranging from 2001 to 2010. I have to say, the differences in these whiskies (all Ardbeg 10, mind you), were vast. Some had young, raw flavors, others tasted mature; the levels and character of the peat flavor differed quite a bit as did the sweetness and nearly every other characteristic. While they were all distinctly Ardbeg and all quite good, I was shocked by the variation.

After tasting through the batch, I followed up with Tim and asked him a few questions. It's not just Ardbeg 10 that shows variations between the codes; the other Ardbeg expressions, including those that are no longer produced, all have codes and can differ from batch to batch. And other distilleries' bottles also have codes which can be used to track batches.

The variety in batches found in Ardbegs probably relates, in part, to the fact that the distillery was closed for much of the 1980s and then again, briefly, in the 1990s. Lacking casks of ten year old whisky, Ardbeg had to use older stocks in its ten year old. My guess is that given that we are now more than ten years into Glenmorangie's ownership and stable stewardship of Ardbeg, we may now see more consistency from batch to batch.

Tim notes that batch variation is always present but is just one more element in the tasting variation that we all experience:

There are so many variables that exist during the whole whisky making process. From distillation, filling, maturing, evaporation, warehousing, vatting, bottling, etc. that it would be virtually impossible to keep them completely identical. Not to mention, each time we taste a whisky, there are even more variables that our own palate and environment bring into the mix. How is our health? What did we just eat? Do we smoke? What type of glass are we using? Do we properly clean the glass? How is the weather? Are we inside or outside? Did we have a bad day at work? Or a good one? I believe all of these factors (even if only slightly) weigh on our sensory perception when we taste a whisky, and now we add in batch variation. It can be a game to pinpoint if the variation is in the whisky or in the drinker. Obviously, when there is a color difference, our mind can convince us that there is a taste difference, whether there actually is one or not. In my opinion, there are batch differences, but I try to keep myself grounded to the likelihood that the problem is usually "between the keyboard and the chair." After all, I'm not a professional, and I am tasting something made by a professional.
For my part, my favorite versions of the ten were the bottle codes L3 316 (bottled November 12, 2003) and L7 143 (bottled May 23, 2007). Tim's favorite of the group is L1 045 (bottled February 14, 2001).

So spend some time with The Ardbeg Project. You may not ever look at a bottle of Ardbeg the same way again.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Recent Reads: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton's, Blood, Bones & Butter is probably the most talked about food memoir since Julie Powell's last memoir, Cleaving. Hamilton is the chef/owner of a Manhattan restaurant, and her book gets some major foodie street cred by carrying a hyperbolic Anthony Bourdain quote: "Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever."

Bourdain's quote might lead to assumptions that Hamilton's account is similar to Kitchen Confidential, but that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, while it is a memoir of a chef and her cooking is omnipresent, it isn't really about food or restaurant work the way that Bourdain's book was. In Kitchen Confidential, restaurant life took center stage and food was a prominent part of the story. In Blood, Bones & Butter, those elements serve as vehicles by which Hamilton conveys her life story.

In some ways, nothing in Hamilton's story is that interesting or surprising. She had some rough patches, no doubt, but nothing out of the ordinary. The thing that keeps you drawn in is a compelling narrative style. She's a story teller and she weaves the stories through the different periods of her life, catches up with themes when you aren't expecting them, is emotional without being maudlin, and is able to present something interesting by way of that style. A chapter which begins with a description of a particular ravioli made for her by her husband when he was first courting her then wanders into other stories and only at the end do you understand that the ravioli is a metaphor for Hamilton's troubled marriage.

And unlike Julie Powell's most recent memoir, Hamilton's use of food and restaurant work to tell the story doesn't seem contrived or forced. It's part of her life and she relays it as such.

In the end Blood, Bones & Butter is a good read, but maybe not so much a food read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Woodford Reserve Bourbons

Woodford Reserve is a relatively recent entry into the world of bourbon. Brown Forman, owners of the Kentucky distillery that produces Old Forester and Early Times as well as the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee, bought the old, shuttered Labrot & Graham distillery in 1993 and began selling Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select in 1996. Unlike most bourbon distilleries, which use column stills, the Woodford distillery uses pot stills, though the bourbon in the Distiller's Select is a blend of the pot still whiskey and whiskey distilled by column still at Brown Forman's other Kentucky distillery.

In addition to their regular Distiller's Select bourbon, each year since 2005, Woodford has released a new whiskey as part of its Master's Collection. The Master's Collection bottlings are experimental whiskeys distilled entirely in pot stills at the Labrot & Graham distillery. They retail for about $90. The releases so far have been as follows:

2005/2006 - Four Grain, a bourbon made with both wheat and rye (most bourbons have only one of the two) along with the usual corn and barley.

2007 - Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, the bourbon was finished in Chardonnay barrels from the Brown Forman owned Sonoma-Cutrer winery.

2008 - 1838 Sweet Mash, a bourbon distilled from a sweet mash rather than a sour mash, meaning that instead of transferring some spent mash from previous distillations, to maintain a consistent environment for the yeast, the mash was created from scratch, allegedly based on an 1838 recipe.

2009 - Seasoned Oak Finish, a bourbon finished in barrels made from wood which had been seasoned (essentially left outside) for 3 to 4 years instead of the usual 3 to 4 months.

2010 - Maple Wood Finish. The bourbon was finished in barrels made from sugar maple wood.

Thanks to some samples from Regular Chumpington, a frequent commenter here on Recent Eats, combined with some shopping luck, I was able to amass a set of all of the Woodford products except for the Four Grain Master's Collection. So here they are, the almost complete Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, 45.2% abv

This is the standard Woodford Reserve. The nose on this is light and sweet with some banana notes; the palate starts sort of generically sweet but quickly turns a bit astringent with some acidic notes at the tail end and a bit of a chemical flavor with some earthy notes as well which continue into the finish. I started drinking Woodford early in my bourbon career, and it was one of the bourbons that I really took a liking to early on. It was once my go to bourbon for cocktails and sipping. I haven't had any in years, and it's either changed character quite a bit since then or it's just not as good as I remember. It's not offensive, but it has some off flavors and is overall, a bit flat.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, 43.2%

The nose on this a bit sour. You can sense the wine influence in that it smells a bit like a winery, with the damp, musty old barrels, but not as pleasant. The flavor is sweet with a definite wine influence, but more like a cheap jug wine than a good California Chardonnay; the way the sweetness is integrated with the corn also gives it some Canadian Whisky notes. The jug wine notes really come out in the finish. The label says Sonoma-Cutrer, but the finish shouts Paul Masson.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash, 43.2% abv

This is probably the Woodford I'm most interested to try. The whole concept of doing a sweet mash is highly innovative, and I was excited to see what the result was. The nose on this is dry, oaky and maybe a little soapy. It almost reminds me of the nose on Wasmund's Single Malt (which is also distilled in a pot still). The palate is quite medicinal and woody, maybe even a little bit briny with some orchard fruit in the background. The finish is medicinal with a bitterness that grows. This version seems to have magnified some of the harsher characteristics of the regular Woodford, not one I would rush back to try. Maybe they should have left it in 1838.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Seasoned Oak Finish, 50.2% abv

Unsurprisingly, the nose on this is distinctively woody with some nice butterscotch notes. The palate starts sweet, has some woody astringency and finishes with the medicinal qualities that seem to be characteristic of Woodford. The woody astringency complements the medicinal notes making this pretty decent, with a dry, woody finish.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Maple Wood Finish, 47.2% abv

The nose on this is similar to the basic Woodford but with a bit more sweetness to it. The palate has a combination of briny and sweet notes. Those medicinal notes are there but are lightened up a bit by some sweetness. I don't detect any real maple character, other than the general sweetness; it's more Log Cabin than pure maple syrup. It's a decent combination, though there is still a bit of lingering bitterness in the finish.

The Woodford Reserve Master's Collection has a generally poor reputation, and I'd have to say it is deservedly so. I wasn't very impressed with any of these whiskeys. If you have a thing for astringency and medicinal flavors, you might appreciate them, and while I like some medicinal flavors in peated Scotch, this was a different sort of medicine. The maple finish and the seasoned oak were my favorites of the lot, though I wouldn't rush to buy either of them, especially at the going price. Given that I was an early fan of the regular Woodford, I must say that while I admire their experimental spirit, I'm disappointed in the outcome.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Smoke & Spice: Hunan Restaurant

I was first turned on to Hunan Restaurant in San Gabriel by the inimitable Tony C. aka SinoSoul, recently deemed "LA's Most Controversial Food Blogger." While much of Tony's content may be provocative, he knows his Chinese food, and Hunan Restaurant is some fabulous stuff.

Hunan cuisine, is of course, spicy, but also fragrant with herbs and preserved (i.e. smoked) meats. I'm told that Hunan Restaurant smokes their meats in-house. The interplay of smoke and spice is one of the things that is unique and crave-worthy about Hunan cuisine and one of the strengths of Hunan Restaurant.

The menu at Hunan Restaurant (sometimes called Hunan's Style Restaurant or Hunan's Restaurant) is not particularly helpful to the English speaker, though it is filled with some fairly amusing translations, including a category of dishes called "Hot Pot Soil Food." I'll do my best to describe the dishes in way that makes them easy for the non-Chinese speaker to identify. If anyone happens to know the Chinese names to these dishes, please leave them in the comments, and I'll add updates.

My favorite dish at Hunan Restaurant is a smoked pork with bean curd. Unfortunately, the menu description is something vague like "Assorted Preserved Meats" but what you get is smoked pork belly slices with slivers of fried bean curd, all buried in piles of leeks and peppers. The smoked pork is deeply smoky with fat that melts in your mouth. If you served it without the peppers and bean curd, you would think it came out of a Carolina BBQ pit. It's some of the best smoked pork I've had. Add to that the cushiony, chewy bean curd slices and searing peppers, and you have a dish that is near perfect. I would eat as much as I could, rest to allow the burn to subside, and then go at it again.

Also excellent was the stir fried (non-smoked) lamb with peppers, stir fried with gobs of cilantro. Again, there was a great flavor interplay, this time between pungent lamb, cilantro and other herbs and again, all those peppers.

As a palate soother, the restaurant gives you a free bowl of its sweet pumpkin soup. The bright yellow soup has a smooth, creamy broth with small chunks of pumpkin. It's mild, sweet flavor is the perfect salve in between spicy bites.

The food is generally quite spicy but not inedibly so (at least not what was served to a table full of white folks). If you go with folks aren't huge on spice or bring kids like we do, there are noodles, scallion pies, fried rice and dumplings, all nicely done but none particularly exciting.

If what you want is exciting food though, go for the pork, and savor every luscious bite.

Hunan Restaurant
529 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-0758

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Salty Pig - Edwards Meats

For my birthday, I am lucky enough to get a certain amount of cured pork products. This year, it was a gift packet from Edwards Meats in Virginia. The sample included come uncooked ham slices, a packet of bacon and some sausage links, which I tackled one at a time.

I fried up the uncooked ham slices in a skillet and deglazed with coffee to make red eye gravy. They were very tasty, like a great diner breakfast ham, but extremely salty. Even with the high salt factor (and I have a high tolerance for salt), they were good enough to polish the whole packet, and the gravy helped cut the salt.

The bacon was very nice but not so different in quality from the Nieman Ranch bacon I get at Trader Joe's.

The sausage was very had good flavor but was better in pieces than eaten as a whole sausage. It's a dense sausage and, like the ham, quite salty. It's great cut up into small pieces, eaten with toothpicks or as an ingredient in omelets, greens or some other concoction (I bet it would be fantastic in jambalaya).

Overall, despite a pretty high sodium level, this was some good pork.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: My Bloggers' Blend - The Scotch Blended Whisky Society

Ever trying to figure out a way to "monetize" my blog, I've decided to go into the whisky business. I was inspired by a web savvy retailer who recently sent a number of prominent whisky bloggers (myself, needless to say, not included) whisky samples and asked them to come up with their own blended whiskies. The retailer is now actually selling the resulting blends. That's right, for a mere $48 (plus shipping) you can sample 10 blends put together by some of the web's most prominent whisky bloggers.

I do have to say that I worry a bit about my fellow bloggers in this scheme. It appears that the bloggers are making blends to be sold at retail, and giving oodles of free publicity to said retailer on their blogs. As far as I can tell, though, said bloggers are not sharing in the profits (though who knows?). Well, this doesn't sound like a very good deal to me, so I figured I would cut out the middle man. I have loads of whisky in the closet; why not blend it together and sell it on my own.

That's what I did, and the results are in. I am proud to introduce the Scotch Blended Whisky Society. For a mere $75 membership fee, I will allow you to purchase a number of personally selected blends, specially tasted and given descriptive notes by my one-person blogger tasting panel (yes you read correctly, you pay a fee simply for the privilege of being able to then pay again for the actual whisky; brilliant, I know). In addition, you will have access to my beautiful tasting lounge (i.e. sparsely furnished back room) should you visit the Los Angeles area.

Here are the first selections you will have the privilege to buy if you choose to join the Society (I am using a numeric system to designate the blends so as not to divulge the component whiskies, but you may be able to guess what they are):

Blend 38.89032 1/2 (Bad Day at the Fair) PRESIDENT'S CHOICE

The primary malt in this whisky comes from the Dufftown distillery whose master distiller recently had a very bad case of head lice. This is mingled with the Islay peat monster whose brand ambassador went through an ugly divorce last year. All of that is blended with a number of grains, particularly that from the distillery in which the assistant floor malter neuters cats during his breaks. The nose evinces rancid oil, stale caramel apples and deep fried Snickers bars. The palate tastes of the fledgling hopes of carnies that there will be enough whisky to dull the sounds of screaming children, and the finish is the whiff of old beer, Fritos and cigarettes on the morning after the Strawberry Alarm Clock tribute band performed to a scattering audience of stoned out teenagers and the occasional confused patron looking for the pig races.

Blend 423,875 (International Crisis)

This international blend will have you booking tickets for The Hague. It includes Scotch malt and grain whiskies, Irish pure pot still, Bourbon, Canadian, Swedish, Welsh, Japanese, Taiwanese, Swiss, French, Indian and Argentinian whiskies as well as a rare, aluminum finished Panamanian whisky. The nose will make you recoil with the scent of failed international relations and the palate will follow with a dose of realpolitik and shuttle diplomacy, ending with a finish that can only result in mutually assured destruction.

Blend 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592307816... (Christmas Pi)

The nose and palate seem normal enough, but the finish just goes on, and on, and on, and on...

Blend -5 (Epistomological Crisis)

This whisky will lead you to question your very existence. The base malt comes from a distillery whose metacognitive narrative fails to take into account the post-colonial and indeed post-Freudian tropes that inform the distillation process, leading to a Lacanian paradox in which the paradigms of heads and tails are reconceptualized and detached from their signifiers. The grain elements add a post-structural palate that has no essential value such that it deconstructs the very nature of taste and yields to a dawning neo-historical recognition that the death of the distiller is indeed the birth of the taster.

Sign up now!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Isaan in Hollywood: Krua Siri

There is much buzz in the food world about the influence of amateur bloggers, Yelpers and Chowhounds on restaurants, but despite the hype, old media still has a mass market that eclipses us. A restaurant will still explode with business after a great review in the LA Times or a Gold write up in the Weekly that is far beyond the impact of any single on-line review. Many of us cringe when a good restaurant gets the write-up, lest it becomes packed and infiltrated with culinary philistines (I recall the night of a Times review of a Salvadoran restaurant, a Salvadoran friend of ours who went was asked by a review-chasing patron whether he spoke "El Salvadoran").

But those massive crowds only last a few weeks, and the publicity and attention can have many good sides as well (aside from the obvious benefit to the restaurant). A couple of months ago, the excellent Thi Nguyen reviewed a new discovery: Krua Siri in Thai Town. The review told the all too familiar story of a restaurant with a bland, Chinese-Thai menu, but a host of off menu (or Thai menu only) specialties from the northern, Isaan region of Thailand.

Fast forward two months, and the back page of Krua Siri's menu is dedicated to a list of recommended dishes, which lists everything mentioned in Nguyen's article (which is also printed on the cover of the menu, for good measure).

While the menu has changed, the food is as good as it was when Nguyen reviewed it. Thai sausages are just a tad acidic and do well rolled in lettuce the large ginger slices and peanuts that are served with them. All of the salads we had were very good. Papaya salad was a nicely balanced version of the familiar classic, every bite of duck larb had a crunch of herb, spice, meat, skin and what I think were small bones as well, and the squid salad was spicy and acidic with tender strips of squid. My favorite dish of the meal was probably the sour curry, a sweet, sour and spicy soup with shrimp and what I can best describe as little square omelets of eggs and greens. The complexity of the broth is what did it for me; it was one of those things you just want to keep eating to make the flavor last.

Krua Siri delivers within a three mile radius, you can order on-line on their website.

Krua Siri
5103 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 660-6196

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: The Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

Last week, I poked what I thought was a little good natured fun at Buffalo Trace's new Single Oak Project. Based on the comments, though, it appears that I hit a bit of a nerve. The Project appears to be as controversial as it is innovative, so I thought I'd give it a more in depth treatment.

The Prelude: The Perfect Bourbon

Earlier this year, Buffalo Trace started dropping hints about a major spring release. Back in March, BT Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, speaking on the K&L Spirit Journal podcast, let drop that there was a big release coming in April.

A few days later, the Washington Post ran a story by Jason Wilson provocatively entitled Does the Perfect Bourbon Exist? In the story, Wilson revealed something called Project Holy Grail, an effort by BT to isolate the variables that would lead to the perfect bourbon, designed to get a perfect 100 point rating the spirits world's most influential critics, "among them F. Paul Pacult, who publishes the newsletter Spirit Journal; Gary Regan, the cocktail columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle; and John Hansell, editor of Malt Advocate magazine."

This led to a long and far ranging discussion on a number of whiskey sites (several of which I participated in). The assumption, reasonably gleaned from the Post article, was that BT's April release would be this perfect 100 point bourbon. People were, needless to say, skeptical.

The Release

What BT in fact announced in April was something very different from the perfect bourbon: The Single Oak Project, a release of 192 single barrel bourbons, each aged in barrels made from a single oak tree and each having some differences which would allow tasters to compare the impact of different variables on a whiskey. For instance, one barrel might be made from wood from the top of the tree and one from wood taken from the bottom of the tree, another might have variations on the coarseness of the wood, another might have the same wood but the barrel might have been aged in a different part of the warehouse. As Chuck Cowdery explained:

Think about it this way. You can taste two bottles of Blanton's or any other single barrel bourbon, from two different barrels, and know that any differences you taste are coming from the barrel, but you can’t know what it is about the barrel that is causing the difference. With Single Oak Project bourbons, you know, because the only difference is that one is fine grain and the other is coarse, for example. Everything else about the distillate and barrel is the same. Hell, all of the wood is from the same tree.

The bourbons are all eight years old and will be released in 375 ml bottles at 45% abv for $46 per bottle (that is the BT price; as with many BT products, consumers in markets far from Kentucky will likely pay large mark ups). The bottles will be released twelve at a time, every three months for the next four years.

The Website

Here's another interesting twist. The bottle won't tell you anything about the oak. In order to find out what kind of wood and other variables went into a given bourbon, you will have to visit the very handsome Single Oak Project website. By registering and entering your barrel number, you are given the opportunity to review the bourbon. The website review process consists of 11 questions in which you can click on answers; there is no opportunity to write your own notes. Once you complete your review, you get to view the "DNA" of the bourbon in that bottle, including the fill proof, char level, aging warehouse, tree cut, harvest location, warehouse type, staves seasoning, and woodgrain size. You can also compare your review to other reviews.

Presumably, BT will use the reviews (and their own evaluations) to figure out which variables might lead them further in their quest for that perfect bourbon.

The Reaction

The consumer reaction to this announcement, as evidenced on web forums and blog comments, is somewhat skeptical. Consumers seem unclear as to how it will work, how much the bottles will actually cost at retail, and whether they will even be available given how many of BT's other limited edition bottlings become scarce commodities. There certainly seemed to be a sense of people being overwhelmed with the prospect of 192 distinctly different bottlings being released rapid fire, 48 bottles per year. The cost of owning a complete collection, at the BT price, is $8,832, and when you consider a realistic, non-predatory retail mark up somewhere like California, that easily passes the $10,000 mark.

I'm as cynical and jaded as the next whiskey fan, but I think we should all take a moment to acknowledge that this is possibly the single most ambitious project that has ever come out of any distillery. I may not taste them all, I may not taste any of them, but I'm thrilled that BT is doing this. BT could have done this completely in-house without releasing a single bottle. I assume that distilleries are always experimenting with different variables and their effect on the whiskey. They just don't do it on this scale, and they don't release the results of those experiments to the public. The main beneficiary of this experiment is going to be BT, who will get to learn an amazing amount about their whiskey and its interplay with wood, and that will help them to make better bourbon, but we get a chance to go along for the ride. (I do wish these were released at cask strength, but of course, that would mean even fewer bottles would be available).

Is there marketing at play here? Of course. This is still a product, and BT is among the most skilled marketers in the whiskey business. Think about it, people scramble to grab up the Antique Collection every year, even though it is always the same five whiskeys, and the obsessing over each Pappy Van Winkle release has become akin to the annual Christmas rush to find the latest video game consul.

Even so, I don't think the worry about availability is merited. While it may be hard to get any single bottle of the first set of twelve, there are going to be releases every three months for four years. I'm guessing that by the third release of 2014, people aren't going to be calling their retailers six weeks early to get a bottle. You may not get to taste all 192, but surely everyone will have a chance to sample a few of these.

The new media aspect of this project also merits mention. Letting people enter their own reviews on the website is genius. So far, whiskey companies have been pretty unsophisticated in their use of new media. This is the most promising new media whiskey promotion I've seen, though they probably would have benefited from using even more interactive social media devices, such as letting people comment on reviews or engage in on-line Q&As with BT staff. Even without that though, if people really take to the site, it will be an interesting way to view reviews and a useful tool for BT. After all, how many other distillers get the benefit of a database of individual customer reviews.

So I say, let the festival of oak begin!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lukshon: You Get What You Get

There's a saying among parents of small children charged with cutting up birthday cake amidst shouts of "I want a star" or "I want the pink piece": You get what you get and you don't get upset. It could also be the motto of Sang Yoon, the proprietor of Father's Office and the new Lukshon who has become known for his refusal to offer substitutions or even provide any ketchup for his burgers.

Now, I try to avoid restaurants that have recently been reviewed in the LA Times, so I was a bit miffed when, two days before my reservation, Irene Virbila came out with a review. The only saving grace was that she only gave the restauarnt one and a half stars, which I figured might cut down on the craziness that usually follows a Times review.

Sitting directly adjacent to the Culver City Father's Office, in the old Helms Bakery building, Lukshon is a pan-Asian restaurant with family style service. It bills itself as Southeast Asian, but the flavors run from South Asia to Japan with everything in between.

Overall, I was very impressed with the food, bright Asian flavors and whimsical concepts resulted in a really good meal. I started with a Lukshon sour, a play on a whiskey sour using Michter's Rye and tamarind. It had a nice sweet/sour/salty interplay which seemed to reference both tamarind drinks and the salty limeade you get at Vietnamese restaurants.

The menu features a number of small plates. Shrimp toasts were satisfying little fried grease bombs. Lamb roti was a nicely seasoned lamb with a raita-type sauce on a deep fried roti, sort of an Indian lamb pizza. From the raw menu, mackerel slices topped with a green papaya salad were pleasant but not very exciting.

Both of our entree sized dishes were big hits. Short Ribs Rendang, a Malaysian treatment, were melt in your mouth soft with a nice crust. They were served with fried coconut rice cakes which had a satisfying combination of crisp and stick-to-your-teeth chewy; they were highly craveable, tasting like deep fried popcorn. Garlic pork belly was a Chinese style stir fry. The pork belly was in small bites, each featuring equal parts of nicely caramelized, chewy meat and luscious, slippery fat. The bowl also included cabbage and little rice cakes, of the tubular variety, that had a nice crispy crust, another nice textural contrast.

While the food was very good, the service was chaotic. We were brought one dish that wasn't ours while our dish was served to another table, we waited a very long time between the small plates and mains and the waiter forgot one of our dishes entirely. Part of it might have to do with the fact that the waiters use hand-held computers to place orders and run credit cards (like at the Apple Store) and they may not have mastered the technology yet (or maybe our waiter just hadn't).

After dinner, they offered Vietnamese Coffee, but they didn't have decaf, so we regrettably passed.

Strangely, there is no dessert menu. Everyone is served a small, complimentary dessert. The night we were there, there were two plates. A mango panna cotta with coconut sorbet was very nice. The panna cotta was creamy and the mango and coconut blended well (there was a citrus element which tied it all together well but I can't remember what it was). The second dish was a Vietnamese Coffee Truffle and a marshmallow. The truffle was a basic chocolate truffle without any discernible coffee flavor and the marshmallow was fine but unexciting.

The desserts are quite small, and the table next to us asked if they could get a bit more of the delicious coconut sorbet. The waiter was fairly gracious in his refusal, but didn't they know this was a Sang Yoon restaurant - you get what you get, and you don't get upset.

3239 Helms Ave.
Culver City, CA 90232

Thursday, May 5, 2011

New York Report: Third Wave Coffee at Grumpy and Stumptown

On my last visit to Manhattan, I was impressed at the rise in quality coffee. On this year's trip, I wanted to try two of the well known Chelsea espresso bars: Cafe Grumpy and Stumptown.

Cafe Grumpy is a surprisingly quiet little shop tucked away on West 20th Street. The set up is pretty no frills, but they do a good drink. My cappuccino had a nice, bright flavor and creamy texture. It was pretty standard third wave coffee fare, but the standard these days is high.

Stumptown Coffee, along with Intelligentsia, was one of the pioneers of the Third Wave. Founded in Portland in 1999, they now have outlets in Seattle and the one I visited on 29th Street in Manhattan. I've never been to a Stumptown, so I was excited to try it. Quite the contrast to the casual Cafe Grumpy, Stumptown had a long line and sort of an industrial feel. The seating area is the ultra-cool lobby of the Ace Hotel. The coffee at Stumptown was superb. The cappuccino was perfectly balanced with just the right amount of tannic notes coming out in the cup. I had an espresso as well. It was darker than what I'm used to from Intelligentsia, which I personally enjoy in an espresso, even if it's against the norm these days. (Note that the cappuccinos from Grumpy, above, and Stumptown, below, look almost exactly alike, down to the cup.)

All in all, both of these were great cafes. I enjoyed Stumptown's coffee more, but the ambiance was nicer at the less uptight Cafe Grumpy.

Cafe Grumpy
224 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 255-5511

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
18 W. 29th Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 679-2222

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Introducting The Single Cow Project

Usually I use this space for whiskey talk, but there has been an exciting development in the world of milk that simply cannot wait. Last week, the Buffalo Herd Dairy announced an innovative new program made especially to please the milk obsessives and dairy geeks among us. Over the next eight years, on a bi-weekly basis, the dairy will be releasing 785 single cow milks. Each batch comes from a single cow. Buffalo Heard Brand Ambassador Harlen Milky explained as follows:

For the first time, we've eliminated all the variables so that consumers can taste the difference that each cow makes. People are always talking about various milk varieties, but they seldom think about factors like teat location, utter volume and other micro-factors that we have been able to isolate in this project. For instance, we've got some front teat only milk and some back teat only milk and they taste entirely different, same with right and left. In fact, you will be able to taste milk that comes from a single teat of each cow (the exclusive "single teat" bottlings.)

Other variables include cows treated with bovine growth hormone, cows massaged and bathed in beer and a choice few that have mad cow disease.

The milk will be released 20 at a time in gallon jugs for $45 per jug. As Milky says, "you really have to taste them all to make this project worthwhile." Consumers will be able to rate the milks on the dairy's website, and if the dairy finds one cow that is a favorite, they will continue to milk that cow, and the entire concept, for all it's worth.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Know the New Knob

After busting open the boutique bourbon business in the '90s with their small batch collection, nothing new came out of Jim Beam for a decade or more, save the occasional commemorative bottle of Maker's Mark (a separate, but Beam owned distillery). Suddenly last year, though, the sleeping giant of American whiskey seemed to awake from its slumber.

First, without press or fanfare, Beam released a six grain bourbon for the duty free market. Then came the much publicized Maker's 46. This year, we've already gotten two new Beams on our shelves: Jim Beam Devil's Cut and Knob Creek Single Barrel, a single barrel, high proof version of the popular 9 year old that is the cornerstone of the small batch collection. I recently had a chance to sample the new Knob Creek.

Knob Creek Single Barrel, 9 years old, 60% abv ($40)

This has a big fat candy nose with caramel, chocolate and some honey and maple notes. It smells like a candy bar! Big corny flavor. Yes, this is definitely in the Beam family, no doubt about that. Even at a higher strength, it's got that light, sweet, corny flavor. Oak starts to come out mid-palate and sets in for the finish, though that corn syrup is still there too. I'd say this is a solid step up from the regular Knob; the extra abv gives it some heft, and I'm sure they are picking for barrels with some strong notes, but if you're not generally a fan of the Beam flavor profile, I doubt this will make you into one.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

New York Report: Minetta Tavern

Every spring I get back to Manhattan (where I spent time as a student) and take some time to see what's new and fun in the Village and adjacent food scene; over the next few weeks, I'll be filling everyone in on my latest trip.

It seems that New York is busting with food, even more than usual if that's possible. There suddenly seem to be a million more gelato places than I remember in the Village, Eaterly (which I didn't get to this trip) towers over Chelsea and the food truck trend has definitely migrated east...I saw everything from a legit looking taco truck to a truck called Kimchi Tacos (gee, where did they come up with that concept?) One place I'd been meaning to get to since my last year's trip was Minetta Tavern in the Village to try their famous Black Label Burger made of all kinds of prime cuts of dry aged beef.

The Tavern has a great old-school feel with lots of polished wood. I arrived early as a walk-in and had no trouble getting a seat at the bar, where I enjoyed a house specialty Dodd Cocktail, a flip made with bourbon, absinthe and peach bitters; I love a good flip (guilty pleasures you know), and this was a smooth and lovely drink; foamy, cool and slightly fruity, it was the perfect thing for a hot New York afternoon. I was less pleased with the Maple Sazerac, a sazerac with maple liqueur. Any maple notes were drowned out by absinthe, which was of the artificially bright green and overly sweet variety (might have been La Fee). As a disclaimer though, I should say that I'm very picky about my sazeracs.

Then onto the burger. Instead of fries, I opted for the punched potatoes, smashed white potatoes fried in duck fat with rosemary and garlic. The burger, served with caramelized onions, was very good, cooked medium rare it was a nice bright red in the center. It had a rich meaty taste but was a bit less funky-beefy than I might have hoped for. It's a high quality burger, but it didn't strike me as a revelation. I'm not sure that it was significantly better than my favorite LA burgers, and at $26, it was $10 more than Comme Ca's burger, for one, though this is New York and a ten dollar mark up from LA is probably just par for the course. The potatoes were quite tasty, but again, not a revelation. I found myself wishing there had been more fried surface area and bits, that they had punched harder.

Overall, a fine meal in a nice atmosphere, but not one that I will be dreaming about.

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal St.
New York, NY 10012
(212) 475-3850