Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thirsty Thursday: Fly the Friendly Skies with an Aviation Cocktail

You can make all the fun you want of the mixology trend with its vested historian/bartenders and their house made coffee/pomegranate bitters, but granting some silliness, these folks have done a lot to improve the way we drink. The Aviation cocktail is a case in point. Ten years ago the Aviation was all but lost to history. One of the ingredients, creme de violette, wasn't even being produced anymore and one of the others, Maraschino Liqueur, wasn't easy to find. Fast forward a decade and every fancy bar has a bottle of Maraschino, there are several brands of creme de violette being made, and the Aviation has become one of the favorites of the classic cocktail crown. And the Aviation is popular for a reason, it's cool, refreshing, simple to make and has a great blend of flavors, plyaing off sour and sweet with the botanical notes from the gin.

I use Gary Regan's recipe for Aviations (which uses a higher percentage of creme de violette than most), but you should feel free to play with the ratios:

1 1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. creme de violette (I use Creme Yvette)
1/2 oz. maraschino liqueur
1/2 oz. lemon juice
Traditional garnish is a cherry but I usually skip it.

Shake with ice and strain - couldn't be easier.

Now, this drink is tasty done in the traditional style with London Dry Gin, but rebel that I am, I really like it with Genever Gin, which gives it a mellower herbal flavor which melds better with the liqueurs.

And if you don't have creme de violette, don't panic. Just use a double dose of maraschino liqueur. It won't be technically correct, but it's still a great drink, and unless you become a real Aviation fan, I wouldn't recommend shelling out for a full bottle of violette.

So mix one up on a warm evening. Now this is what I call "something special in the air."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Big Lizard in my Backyard - Ardbeg Alligator

The now annual Ardbeg committee releases have become one of those artificial marketing gimmicks, not unlike those around the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Pappy Van Winkle releases, which create panic based on a false sense of scarcity. The limited spring release seemed to sell out within minutes, angering those who missed out, but there will be a much larger release this fall. As annoying as that seems, it's hard not to appreciate great marketing, and the folks at Glenmorangie PLC are geniuses in that department.

Of course, none of this would work if the products sucked, but everyone knows that quality is not an issue with Ardbeg. This year's release is the Ardbeg Alligator, which contains whisky that was aged in new, charred oak barrels, the same type of barrels used for bourbon. The whisky was then vatted with their regular ten year old.

Ardbeg Alligator, 2011 Committee Release, 51.2% abv ($100)

The nose on this is gives you a blast of peat but with some very rich background aromas, including some wine notes. The palate gives you coal and smoke and the type of BBQ flavors you would expect along with a touch of both sweet and then quite salty and briny and a then some bitterness on the way down. The finish is smoky sea air. Water gives in an oily, syrupy mouthfeel and dilutes some of the salt and bitterness, making it taste more like a traditional Ardbeg flavor profile.

The Alligator, while heavily peated also has a very heavy coastal character, moreso than most Ardbegs. There's a lot of boldness and not a lot of balance; it really smacks you upside the head, but it a fun way. Despite the new charred oak, I don't get a lot of wood. It would be interesting to try the components separately so you could really get a sense of the impact of those new charred oak barrel. I'd say this is a good step up from the last few years of committee releases; it has a lot more character than Rollercoaster or Corryvreckan, even if it is a bit rough around the edges. Definitely worth a try for the peatheads out there, but then, you knew that already.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Houston Indian: Kiran's Restaurant & Bar

I've been spending a lot of time in Houston lately, mostly in the Galleria part of town which is dominated by chain restaurants. I was happy to find Kiran's Restaurant & Bar, an upscale Indian restaurant focused on northern Indian dishes, particularly tandooris. The dishes were full of bold flavors with a bit more finesse than your basic northern Indian cuisine.

We mostly stuck to the specials, but everything was quite good. The Halibut Tandoori came with a savory watermelon sauce, a brilliant concoction with a hint of watermelon mixed with spice. I never knew watermelon could work so well in a savory dish. The lamb shank special was intensely seasoned and falling off the bone tender. Daal saag, a pretty standard dish of spinach and yellow lentils had a nice consistency which was less mushy than I often find.

Goat cheese and mushroom samosas were also very good. The goat cheese added a nice bit of funk to the samosa and gave it a bit of a lighter feel.

There were a few things I was less fond of. Duck kabobs were a bit too salty and the seasoning obscured any of the duck flavor. A deep fried, stuffed squash blossom had too much breading, making it more akin to a jalapeƱo popper than Kiran's other more refined dishes.

Lobster is a big emphasis at Kiran's (they have an entire lobster menu), but I wasn't up to that kind of spending. Even without the lobster though, bold spicing and use of creative ingredients to present a new take on Indian classics make Kiran's a fun experience. I'll be excited to head back the next time I'm in Houston.

Kiran's Restaurant & Bar
4100 Westheimer
Houston, Texas 77027
(713) 960-8472

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Recent Reads: Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

Another day, another cooking memoir, this time it's Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, the first book by Jonathan Dixon, in which he recounts his studies at the Culinary Institute of America (the other "CIA").

It's hard to read this book without comparing it to Michael Ruhlman's similar memoir of life at the CIA, The Making of a Chef. But whereas Ruhlman went into the CIA with the express intent of writing a book (it seems questionable whether he was even a matriculated student there; he was more an observer), Dixon appears to have been a true student. He was a former writer and professor who at age 39 opted for a second career as a chef, though likely with an eye toward the possibility of turning the experience into a paying gig much like Scott Turow did with Law School in One L.

Where Ruhlman's book is filled with awe and wonder at every crumb of culinary education, Dixon writes from the perspective of a real student, and a mediocre one at that. He struggles with classes and his culinary internship, he generally respects his instructors but also sees their faults, and with graduation one gets a sense of relief but also defeat. He may have won the battle of culinary school, but it seems unlikely that he's willing to enlist in the war that is regular culinary work.

The refusal to wax eloquent and instead stay grounded in the real world, including the burden of CIA tuition, provides exactly what was missing from Ruhlman's book: the feeling that, rather than observing with Ruhlman, you are standing right in class with Dixon. While reading the book, I actually dreamt that I was a culinary student, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.

While he is an engaging writer, Dixon comes up with a few groaners (in describing a class lecture: "I sat listening, burning with revolutionary fervor, like Bill Ayers in a toque.") and the occasional awkward phrasing (describing some past its prime shrimp as "beginning to throb with rot."). Overall though, he keeps you turning the pages with clear, crisp prose.

Beaten, Seared and Sauced, a title which alludes to its author as much as the food he learns to cook, would make a great summer read for anyone who's every considered dropping everything and picking up a chef's knife. Check it out!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Whiskey Calendar: The Peatin' Meetin' this Saturday

This Saturday, June 25 is the LA Scotch Club's annual Peatin' Meetin', but this year it's bigger than ever. Focusing on the smoky Scotch we all love and featuring peat-smoked BBQ, the Peatin' Meetin' will be this Saturday at UCLA Sunset Park, 6:00-11:00p.m. and costs $75.

The event sponsors include Ardbeg, Jura, Amrut, Kilchoman, Blackadder and Bowmore, but knowing the Scotch Club guys, I wouldn't be surprised if there were some rare malts from private collections being offered. Details here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Whisky Wednesday: Listing for Fun & Profit - My New Book

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of 18 American whiskeys that I recommend for newer whiskey drinkers. It occurred to me that, in my endless effort to monetize my blogging, this is the exact sort of thing that could turn into a book deal.

Think about it, here are just a few recently published whiskey books:

  • 99 Drams of Whiskey by Kate Hopkins

  • 101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die by Ian Buxton

  • Great Whiskies: 500 of the Best from Around the World, Charles MacLean, Ed.

  • The World's Best Whiskies: 750 Essential Drams from Tennessee to Tokyo by Dominic Roskrow

It would appear that all it takes to get a whiskey book deal is a penchant for list making, and I can make a list with the best of 'em, but I can do it bigger. To that end, I'm proud to introduce my new book. Here's the blurb:

13,765 Whiskeys You Should Try Right Now! by Sku

Internationally published whiskey blogger Sku pulls no punches when it comes to recommending whiskeys and separating the wheat from the proverbial chaff. In what is perhaps the most complete listing of recommended whiskeys, Sku painstakingly guides the reader through the 13,765 whiskies that every whiskey fan should try and includes an appendix listing the seven whiskeys that are not worth trying. Every other whiskey book is literally dwarfed by comparison.

Publishers are free to email me with inquiries or simply wire me signing bonuses. And, as a special gift to my readers, my 13,765th follower on Twitter will get 10% off the cover price!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chinatown Eats: New Dragon

Finding good Chinese food in Chinatown always seems to be a problem, but my pal Ken Tanaka recently directed me to a pretty reliable joint. New Dragon on Hill has all the usual basic Chinese dishes, but they are done pretty well. Won ton soup with beef brisket has a rich beef broth and nicely chewy noodles. Eggplant with garlic sauce is a traditional dish done well, with nicely textured, not too mushy eggplant. Even the orange chicken was pretty good, less cloyingly sweet than the usual version. And after you enjoy your Chinese food, you can head across the street to LeBasse Gallery to see Ken's latest art show and buy a copy of his excellent children's book for adults Everybody Dies.

New Dragon
934 N. Hill Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-6050

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Good Coffee Trend Continues: Bru Coffee Bar

The world of LA coffee will be one day divided into two periods BI and AI, that's Before Intelligentsia and After Intelligentsia. Since the opening of the Chicago-based third wave coffee chain in Silveralke in 2007, our collective coffee fortunes have continued to grow. It seems that every time I turn around, there is a new cafe serving really good espresso drinks. It's a whole new world of LA coffee.

My latest coffee excursion was to Bru Coffee Bar in Los Feliz, where they craft espresso drinks from coffee roasted by San Francisco's Ritual Roasters. The cappuccino was nicely textured with a very nice flavor, including some tannins reaching through the milk to give a nice but not overwhelming tang. Espresso had good crema but was a bit on the weak side, and the wait can be very long, even when there aren't that many customers, so check it out in the off hours.

Bru Coffee Bar
1866 North Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027-4215
(323) 664-7500

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: K&L's Exclusive Barrel Scotch

If you are a Scotch fan in California, or anywhere within shipping distance, you need to check out K&L's exclusive barrel program.

K&L is a California retailer with shops in Redwood City, San Francisco and Hollywood. They've only been open in LA since 2007, but really took off in 2010 under the leadership of their new spirits buyers, David Driscoll and David Girard. Increasingly, they are my go-to spot for whiskey. Earlier this year, the Dynamic Duo of Davids took a trip to Scotland (all nicely chronicled on their blog) where they visited distilleries and independent bottlers in search of a few good barrels.

The Davids, who are extremely knowledgeable even from the whisky-geek perspective, hand picked twelve rare casks from the the distilleries and bottlers they visited. The great thing is that they didn't just go for the big name "eye candy" type Scotch but instead ventured into the more obscure distilleries (including a number of closed distilleries) such as Blair Athol, Ladyburn, Dailuaine, Auchroisk, Banff and Littlemill. Exciting, old and all of it bottled at cask strength.

Over the last few months, they have been revealing the barrels slowly for pre-orders (at a lower rate). The list of those still available for pre-order is posted on the right hand column of their blog. So far, all but one are still available.

The price is right too. There are a few big ticket items in the mix, but for the most part, the prices are really decent, and all of the prices are very good for what they are. How will they taste? Well, you won't know until they come in, but I've talked to the Daves enough to be confident that they know their stuff and they don't over-sell. If I had the wherewithal, I'd buy one of each.

Check it out!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

RIP Ig Vella - The Godfather of Artisan Cheese

Ignazio ("Ig") Vella passed away last week at the age of 82. Vella, the owner of Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma and the maker of the famous Vella Dry Jack is one of the pioneers of the American artisan cheese movement. He's definitely the person most responsible for my love of great cheese.

As a kid growing up in Sonoma, Vella's was a regular stop. The musty stone building on 2nd Street East, just down the street from the Sonoma Plaza had the same feel as one of the many surrounding wineries, cool and damp, but instead of smelling like fermenting grapes, the smell of cheese wafted from the behind the counter. They made the cheese in the back, sold it in the front, and Ig, in his ever present white paper hat, always had a slice for the kids.

A couple of years ago I wrote in more detail about my memories of Vella's shop and its cheese, and Ig sent me an email thanking me and asking if we could talk on the phone. He wasn't interested in publicity, he just wanted to thank me and reminisce about the shop and his cheese. He was that kind of guy.

Rest in piece Ig, I'm sure there's a slice of some good dry Jack waiting for you.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I've Had it with Kids in Restaurants!

For years, I have read the screeds on Chowhound and other sites about kids in restaurants (just do a Google search on "Kids in Restaurants"). I always thought the writers of these pieces were just old Scrooges who didn't remember what it was like to be young or have young children. How could anyone get so worked up, I thought, about kids in restaurants? Well, recently, I had an experience that made me sympathize.

About a week ago I was staying at one of the better hotels in Anaheim. I was shocked to find that nearly all of the hotel's restaurants (and nearly every restaurant within several miles) were just swarming with children. They were everywhere, often several to a table! And they were loud, gregarious, all of the things those people on-line complain about. I couldn't understand what kind of parents would bring these brats to a house of fine dining.

One of the restaurants we visited was very sophisticated and even featured some performance art. In what was undoubtedly a nod to Spanish surrealism, performers dressed as anthropomorphized rodents, fowl and dogs enacted a sort of wordless dance/mime as they moved from table to table. I was eager to see what sort of social commentary the artists were making, but children kept interrupting the performance with all sorts of inappropriate behavior, including actually hugging the performers. Instead of removing their offspring, parents actually encouraged the behavior by taking photographs.

This really is a sign of the death of fine, elegant dining. One ruined meal is enough! I will never again criticize those who are constantly complaining about children in restaurants; they are on a righteous mission to rid the world of unruly rugrats!

Goofy's Kitchen
Disneyland Hotel
1150 Magic Way
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 778-6600

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: 18 American Whiskeys to Get You Started

Along with writing about whiskey, I sometimes do whiskey tastings, and bourbon tastings in particular, for novice or intermediate whiskey drinkers. In these tastings, I am often asked for bourbon recommendations. To that end, I've come up with a list of American whiskeys to try. The idea of this list is that if you are a novice bourbon drinker, tasting these whiskeys will give you a good sense of the variety and range of styles of American whiskey. Once you have tried all of these, you will be ready for the big-time. In addition, they are all whiskeys I feel comfortable recommending (i.e. I generally like them).

Since the list is intended for novices, the two qualifications for the list are that all of the whiskeys be (1) fairly easy to find in a good Los Angeles area liquor store (although some are obviously easier to find than others); and (2) fairly affordable (although, obviously there is a range and the idea was not to only list the absolute cheapest bottles or expressions). I also tried to mix it up between styles and distilleries.

The list certainly reflects my biases. You won't find many Beam products or any Jack Daniels but lots of Buffalo Trace. Rye is arguably over-represented, but I love my rye. Of course, there are some great bourbons that I left off. I wasn't going to list every expression of a given whiskey, so for instance, I limited myself to one Weller. And while Very Old Barton BIB is great and would easily belong on such a list, you can't get it in California, so it's not on the list. I also excluded special releases that change from year to year (such as Parker's Heritage, Buffalo Trace Experimental, etc.).

So let me know what you think. How helpful would you find this list if you were (or are) a novice? What would you add? What doesn't belong?

Booker’s Bourbon ($50)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($20)
Eagle Rare 10 Bourbon ($25)
Elijah Craig 12 Bourbon ($20)
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon ($40)
High West Rendezvous Rye ($50)
George Dickel #12 Tennessee Whiskey ($18)
George T. Stagg Bourbon ($75)
Maker’s Mark Bourbon ($23)
Old Grand-Dad 114 Bourbon ($23)
Old Potrero Rye ($70)
Sazerac Rye ($27)
Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Bourbon ($36)
Rittenhouse 100 Rye ($20)
Wild Turkey 101 Rye ($20)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon ($43)
William Larue Weller Bourbon ($75)
Woodford Reserve Bourbon ($25)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cheese Pick: Ticklemore Goat Cheese

Today's cheese pick is Ticklemore Goat cheese from Devon, England by way of Neal's Yard Dairy. It is a slightly sharp tasting aged goat cheese with a creamy exterior surrounding a chalky center; the more cream on this the better, and at room temperature it's pleasantly oozy. It's quite similar to Humboldt Fog.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ice Cream Sandwich Head to Head: Carmela vs. Coolhaus

With summer approaching fast, it's ice cream sandwich time. The mere mention of ice cream sandwiches summons my memories of hanging out around the pool as a kid. Then we ate flavorless vanilla ice cream sandwiched between soggy, flavorless "chocolate" wafers. Now, ice cream sandwiches are trendy and you are more likely to find basil-avocado ice cream on hand-made chocolate-toffee cookies. I'm planning on doing some serious ice cream sandwiches this summer, so I thought I'd kick it off with two of the most well regarded: Coolhaus and Carmela.

Carmela Ice Cream

I've long been a fan of Carmela, and even though they now have a brick and mortar store in Pasadena, I still make my purchases at their Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market stand. Carmela's ice creams are fresh and bursting with flavor. The cookies are thin wafers-types, like a flavorful version of the traditional sandwich. The salted caramel sandwich features their lovely salted caramel ice cream sandwiched by chocolate wafers dotted with salt crystals. Carmela does a fabulous mint ice cream that radiates with garden-fresh mint flavor which is sandwiched in a chocolate wafer. The plain vanilla sandwich on a chocolate wafer is also wonderful, hearkening directly back to the classic. Everything about these sandwiches works, the ice cream and cookies are both wonderful and the proportions are right on, with just enough ice cream that each bite yields ice cream and two pieces of cookie.

Carmela Ice Cream
2495 E Washington Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91104
Also, stands at the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market and Thursday South Pasadena Farmers Market.

Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwiches

Coolhaus started as an LA food truck with an architecture theme - each sandwich is named after a famous architect or architectural movement. They are planning a store in Culver City, and in my neighborhood, you can find their sandwiches at Kalbi Burger. Coolhaus sandwiches are more comparable to the Its-It, with a more substantial cookie and larger scoop of ice cream, than the traditional ice cream sandwich.

I tried four Coolhaus varieties. My favorite was the Mintmalism, featuring a double chocolate cookie with mint ice cream. The mint ice cream was good, though not as transcendent as Carmela's, and it went well with the chocolate cookie. The Mies Vanilla Rohe, was a good solid sandwich with vanilla ice cream and a chocolate chip cookie, though the cookie, as with most of the Coolhaus cookies, was overly sweet. I liked the Thai Tea ice cream in the Thai Tea sandwich with a ginger cookie (which seems to lack an architect themed name), but the cookie was so heavily spiced that it completely overwhelmed the more subtle ice cream. Last, and least, was the Sir Francis Candied Bacon. Now I admit that I never jumped on the bacon dessert bandwagon, but the brown butter candied bacon ice cream in this was just nasty. The texture was icy and gloppy and while the candied bacon wasn't bad, there were also globules of fat (or was that the butter).

Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwiches
Food Truck and coming soon to:
8588 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

The Winner

Carmela easily wins this contest. Other than the bacon sandwich, the Coolhaus collection was fine, but the flavors lacked the fresh, beauty of Carmela. The other problem with Coolhaus is that there was no sense of gestalt. The cookies were very sweet and often overwhelmed the ice cream, and the proportions were such that it was hard to get a bite of each element. It's as if more thought went into the clever architecture related names than the composition of the sandwiches themselves. Meanwhile, Carmela managed to perfectly synthesize the elements with strong, beautiful ice cream flavors and a subtle cookie that tasted good but didn't overwhelm.

There will be more to come this summer. Let me know if you have a favorite ice cream sandwich.