Thursday, December 30, 2010

Brandy Friday: Paul-Marie Fils 25 Year Pineau de Charentes

Pineau de Charentes is not a common drink in the US. It is a French fortified wine made from blending brandy (usually unaged) and fermented grape must, which is juice made from the the seeds, skins and stems of the grape.

Paul-Marie Fils Pineau de Charentes is unusual in that instead of being made with unaged eau de vie, it is made with Cognac and then further aged. According to David Driscoll's excellent K&L spirits blog, "It was made from Cognac distilled in 1984 and then white wine from 1985 and put into a barrel for 25 years!" A twenty-five year old dessert wine is unusual indeed.

Paul-Marie Fils 25 Year Pineau de Charentes, 17.5% abv, ($80 at K&L).

This stuff has a very nice aroma. The first thing I get on the nose is Cognac, a sweet one with raisins and other dried fruit, then behind it some of the dessert wine notes that give it a fresh and sweet scent. The flavor opens very sweet, but it's much more complex than most fortified wines I've had, with some of that aged Coganc flavor integrated into the sweet wine. I taste plums and other stone fruit along with the sweet wine flavors and some nice Christmas-type spice. The late palate to finish is very port-like.

This is much sweeter than what I usually drink, but it's quite a pleasant dessert wine with some real depth. I tried it both neat and chilled, but much preferred it chilled, which muted a bit of the sweetness.

If you are a dessert or fortified wine fan, you should definitely check this stuff out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: 2011 Whiskey Predictions

Last week, I decried 2010 as a boring year in whiskey. Now, looking forward toward 2011, I will do my best to predict the trends that will be in and out in the world of whiskey.


1. Super-Duper Premium Whiskeys (aka MYH -Mortgage Your House - whiskeys). Unfortunately, we haven't seen the last of these. The race to sell the oldest and most expensive whiskey is on and we will see more silliness in the coming year. Indeed, truth may prove stranger than fiction.

2. Affordability. It may seem at odds with number 1, but the truth is, we are settling into the third year of an extended recession, and it's all well and good to set records, but the companies that want to survive will have to be able to compete in this depressed marketplace. A few whiskeys actually did lower prices on some of their offerings in 2010, and I think we will see some more of that. Real people want to drink whiskey, but they aren't going to go broke for it. The spirits companies may finally be starting to figure this out.

3. World Whiskey. In whiskey, "world whiskey" means anything made outside of the five major whiskey producing nations (Scotland, Ireland, USA, Canada and Japan). You have only to look to the latest malt maniacs awards to see the growing quality of malts like Amrut from India and Kavalan from Taiwan. Amrut showed up in the US late this year and Mackmyra from Sweden is overdue. We have or are likely to be getting whiskeys from Australia, New Zealand, France, England and Wales, among other places, and they are of growing quality. It's a good trend that, I predict, will grow in 2011.

4. Retailer Specialty Bottlings. Some of the most vital and exciting releases of 2010, especially in American whiskey, were retailer specialty bottlings. Retailers like K&L, The Party Source, Shoppers Vineyard and others partnered with the distilleries to come up with special releases. These releases allow innovation at a micro level with macrodistillery resources. These have already included some really stellar bottlings, and the trend will hopefully keep growing.

5. Canadian Whisky. Canada has long been the unloved stepchild of the big five whiskey nations, but it is slowly undergoing the type of upgrade that has already occurred in its sister whiskey producing nations. There have already been some promising Canadians out and I predict that we will see a real push toward premium Canadian Whiskies in 2011, hopefully accompanied by more in the way of innovation. And now that Canadian Whisky has its own blog, you can be sure that we will here about any fabulous new releases as soon as the big news breaks.


1. Peat Monsters. Peat has had its extended day in the sun, but after a rockin' decade in which it seemed that everyone wanted to smoke up their whiskies, the peat craze may have run its course. That's not to say that there will not be lots of peated whiskey released in 2011, but we are getting away from peat as the dominant flavor profile. During the heady days of the last decade, many traditionally non-peated whiskies added peated expressions, including whiskies from Ireland and the US. There were some successes, but many of these just didn't work. I think we will see an emphasis on more refined flavors, with peat being used more sparingly and big peat being left to those distilleries which have traditionally done it best.

2. White Whiskey. White whiskey, new make, moonshine, white dog...whatever you call it, unaged whiskey was definitely the craze of 2010, but it only takes about one bottle of this stuff to realize that while academically interesting as pre-whiskey, it's unlikely to become a regular drink for anyone. Look for this trend to seriously wane.

3. Closed Distilleries. As time goes by, the era of the massive distillery closures is getting further away, and as it does, the stocks from those distilleries are dwindling. For years, whiskey lovers have flocked to each new bottling, official or indie, of Port Ellen, Brora, Rosebank, Stitzel-Weller and other distilleries; talking about the Broras you've loved is almost a rite of passage among whiskey geeks. But this year, Diageo didn't even send its new releases of Port Ellen and Brora to the US. The old Michter's Bourbon that's marketed as A.H. Hirsch is apparently all in bottles now (at ever-increasing prices), and the last of the Stitzel-Weller is trickling out from Van Winkle and McLain & Kyne. As they continue to age, closed distillery bottlings are going to become even more rare and more expensive, which will make them available to an increasingly narrow group of customers. In addition, given that many of these closures took place in the 1980s and early '90s, you have to wonder whether some of this stuff that has been lying around in barrels all that time hasn't been released yet because it is over oaked. We've had the best, now we'll get the rest, and likely at premium prices.

4. Japanese Whisky (in the US). It pains me to include Japanese Whisky in the list of "outs" for 2011 as I'm a big fan, but sadly, in the US, there doesn't seem to be any effort to introduce new whiskeys from Japan. In 2009, Suntory introduced the Hibiki blend and the super-premium Yamazaki 1984 to accompany their two existing Yamazaki expressions, but since then, nothing. US whiskey lovers have been pining away for Yoichi and drooling about the massive awards and praise heaped on Karuizawa, but the desire won't last forever. The resourceful will find ways of getting their whiskey while for others, the longing will pass as they satisfy themselves with the latest malt from India or newfangled Canadian.

Will my predictions be right? Who the hell knows, but happy new year to all. Here's hoping you ring it in with a Super-Peated Canadian from a closed distillery!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Holidays to Me!

What you see above is the Rancilio Silvia home espresso maker. My first home espresso maker since the Krups Espresso Mini I bought in 1990! I also got a Rancilio Rocky doserless grinder.

My espresso making skills, I have to admit, are stuck in the '90s when I worked as a barista. If anyone wants to teach me how to make microfoam and latte art, I'm ready to learn.

In the future, I'll be posting some of my home espresso adventures.

Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas Sushi!

Usually I celebrate Jewish Christmas in the traditional fashion at a Chinese restaurant, but this year we decided to eat in with a lovely sashimi selection from Marukai Market in Gardena. Buy big hunks of fish and for an extra $5, they will cut it sashimi style for you and garnish it. There are a number of Marukai Markets but the Gardena branch is larger and has a wider variety of sashimi grade fish.

The star here was the uni, which was among the freshest tasting I've had...creamy, uni goodness. Also pictured, top left, the Market's locally made fresh sukui tofu which is great with a little Maldon Salt sprinkled on top.

Happy Holidays!

Marukai Market
1740 W. Artesia Blvd
Gardena, CA 90248
(310) 660-6300

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cheese Report - Trader Joe's Goes Epoisses

Epoisses is probably my favorite cheese, so when I heard Trader Joe's was carrying a store brand Epoisses, I had to try it. Like all of TJ's products, the Epoisses gives no indication of where it was made, other than somewhere in Burgundy, which is a given. The cost is $8 for a smallish half wheel.

The TJ's Epoisses was not bad. It had a nice flavor with a bit of pungency. It lacked the balance of the better Epoisses I've had which are a perfect balance, at once mild and creamy as well as strongly pungent. The texture was also not quite right. At room temperature, the cheese was soft but not at all runny. It was more the texture of a Taleggio; in fact, it generally tasted more like a Taleggio than an Epoisses, and also had some nuttiness to it.

TJ's isn't a good substitute for Berthaut's wondrous Epoisses, but at $8, it's a pretty good deal and would work in a pinch for your cheese plate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: 2010 - An Unexciting Year for Whiskey

After a string of amazing whiskey years, 2010 was a bit of a yawner. Maybe it's just that we've grown used to major breakthroughs, innovative new releases and unbridled creativity from the last three or four years, but the truth is, 2010 gave the whiskey world very little that was new or particularly exciting. Sure, there were some good new releases and some great whiskeys, as there always are, but for the most part, none of these shook up the whiskey world.

To the extent that there were exciting releases they were in the ridiculously super premium MYH (mortgage-your-house) category. Gordon & MacPhail's 70 year old Mortlach weighed in as the oldest whiskey ever released, and the record for the most expensive new release was broken twice, first by the Dalmore Trinitas and then by the Macallan 64 year old Cire Perdue, which literally was sold for more than my house cost. But these whiskies can't really be counted as new or exciting releases since it is very likely that no one will ever drink them (except maybe the lucky friends of the dude who swiped a Mortlach 70 in Stockholm). And every distillery that could find an old barrel seemed to release a 50 year old this year. God bless Glenfarclas, who released a 40 year old at a reasonable price (i.e. the lower three figures).

In the world of Scotch that non-tycoons can afford, though, after five or more years of absolute wonder, this year was boring. Even the most reliable and innovative distilleries seemed to be phoning it in. The new Ardbeg releases, Corryvreckan, Rollercoaster and the new Supernova, were good but neither innovative nor overly impressive. Even the mad scientists at Bruichladdich seemed to sputter after a few years of phenomenal new and exciting releases.

In the world of American whiskey, the fall releases have become utterly predictable. We all know what the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Old Forester Birthday Bourbons will taste like, more or less. We don't know what the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection will release, but it will likely suck. Heaven Hill is one of the only distilleries to add some excitement with their Parker's Heritage Collection which is always different and usually excellent. Four Roses did have a great year last year with interesting new releases, including the individual release of all ten recipes for different retailer bottlings.

The majors did come out with some surprises, including new versions of Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, but these were really most remarkable because they came from distillers that hadn't changed their products in years.

Most other notable American releases were from the smaller bottlers. WhistlePig, with their 100% straight rye sourced from Canada and High West's Bourye, a blend of Bourbon and rye, showed the kind of innovation that was lacking elsewhere. There were also some great specialty retailer bottlings, but those are very limited releases.

In any industry there are cycles of production and innovation followed by some market stabilization. We may now be entering a lull in what has been an exciting market for the last few years, but there may be hope as well. Next week, for my last whiskey blog of the year, I'll make some predictions about what we might expect in the world of whiskey 2011.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cheese Report - Demon or Angel

I had a cheese emergency the other day. It was after cheese-store hours and I needed something right away for an evening get together. The best option in such cases is usually Whole Foods, but they are a big step below one of the local cheese shops. Whole Foods pre-cuts and wraps their cheese which is bad news as you can't tell how fresh it is, though their quality tends to be better than most stores which pre-cut and wrap, probably because of a fairly high turnover.

Anyway, because of the pre-cut and wrap issue, I was looking for an uncut round and I have to admit, I was intrigued by Le Demon Du Midi, less for its devil character than for a pleasingly pungent smell emanating from the cheese.

The Demon is a cow cheese from the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. I expected a washed rind, but opened the wrapper to find a brie-like bloomy rind.

Unfortunately, this cheese was much less demonic than advertised. It was mild and buttery, almost like an Explorateur. Of course, everyone loved it, probably more than they would have the high-stink type of cheese I like, but damn it, if you put the devil on something, it should have some demonic qualities.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

RIP Tokyo-77

It's sad to have two RIP posts in one week. Tokyo-77 is a tiny Culver City diner hidden away off an alley. While I poked my head into the shop a few times, I never ate there, and my understanding was that it was known more for its old-school, funky ambiance than its food, but I did want to draw attention to this lovely
remembrance by Ken Tanaka (whose picture I used above).

Tanaka, who was somewhat of a regular there, apparently foresaw the closing of Tokyo-77 in a dream:

I had not been to Tokyo 77 for many months, then a week ago I had a dream that Tokyo 77 was closing. Two days later, I took my friend Polo there for breakfast. There was a sign on the door saying " After 30 years, We are Closing. December 18th will be our last day."

It was just like in my dream. I have never had a dream that comes true before. I have had dreams about flying bears, and monkey cats who become friends and let me ride on their backs through the starry skies and together we eat juicy sweat Magalore Fruits. But those dreams didn't come true. I wish this dream hadn't come true either. I will miss Tokyo 77 very much.
Tonight I will try to dream that they are not really closing and that it was just a joke. Maybe that dream will also come true.

RIP Tokyo-77, maybe it will be replaced by a restaurant that serves monkey cats with magalore fruits.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday Trivia: Whiskey in Literature

Some whiskey trivia for you.

Name the book and the woman being described in the passage below.

When she ordered whisky she always chose Tullamore Dew, except on one occasion when she studied the bottles behind the bar and asked for Lagavulin. When the glass was brought to her, she sniffed at it, stared at it for a moment, and then took a tiny sip. She set down her glass and stared at it for a minute with an expression that seemed to indicate that she considered its contents to be a mortal enemy. Finally she pushed the glass aside and asked Harry to give her something that could not be used to tar a boat. He poured her another Tullamore Dew and she went back to her drinking.

Post your guess in the comments. Ill post the answer as an update by the end of the week if no one guesses correctly.

ANSWER: The passage comes from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final volume of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. The woman described, of course, is everyone's favorite anti-social sleuth, Lizbeth Salander. Congratulations to James who answered correctly!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Use Your Moonshine - The White Manhattan

A few months ago I wrote about the new make or white whiskey phenomenon and promised to follow up with some cocktail recipes. Cocktails are important here, because once you have had the intellectual experience of unaged whiskey and shared it with your friends, it's not something you're likely to sit around sipping, which means you may be left with a number of mostly full bottles of transparent, fetal whiskey (trust me, I have so much of this stuff in the house that I fear that if a law enforcement officer came to visit, they'd think I was running a backyard still).

White dog has really caught on with the mixology crowd, which makes sense. The stuff is more hearty than vodka and a nice alternative to the botanical flavors of gin.

The White Manhattan has become the most well known of white whiskey cocktails. It was originated by Neyah White of Nopa in San Francisco. It's fairly simple to make once you acquire the ingredients. Just mix the following with ice and strain into a cocktail glass:

1 1/2 ounces white whiskey (I used Buffalo Trace White Dog)
1/2 ounce Benedictine
1/2 ounce blanc vermouth
3 dashes orange bitters

Keep in mind that blanc vermouth is different than dry Vermouth. It's a sweet, white vermouth with notes of Christmas spice/fruit pudding. The flavor is closer to sweet vermouth than to dry. Dolin is the most available brand and it usually goes for a bit under $20 per bottle.

I enjoyed the White Manhattan (it's color is actually more in the yellow family). It has a strong botanical flavor, almost martini like, but it's sweet. In fact, it was a bit too sweet for me. Next time I might halve the Benedictine and vermouth, though their sweet/spice flavors do complement the whiskey.

If there's a bottle of white whiskey languishing in your cabinet, give the White Manhattan a try.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Deal on Christmas Trees

I don't usually give out non-food related advice, but one of the best deals on Christmas trees is a little lot on Sixth and Hobart. No frills, cash only but great prices. Check it out!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

RIP Pho Minh

Pho Minh, the much adored house of beef-noodle soup in El Monte, has shut its doors. It's not surprising. Pho Minh had struggled mightily; it opened in 2008 right before the recession set in. When it looked like all hope was lost last year, they were granted a brief reprieve by a feature article in the LA Times about the restaurant's struggle to survive, but the brief surge of crowds was not able to sustain it for the long term, even if it had the Jonathan Gold seal of approval.

I'll miss the intensely beefy broth and chewy noodles, but truth be told, when the hunger for pho hit, I was more likely to stop at Vietnam House in Alhambra than haul myself all the way out to South El Monte. Still, I was glad to know it was there.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Brandy Friday: Brandy Gifts

I don't review as many brandies as whiskeys, but I wanted to make note of a few that would make good holiday gifts for those of you who like your brandy sans the egg nog.

Cognac: If you like variety, you will have great fun with the Delamain Sampler which includes three 200 ml bottles of the basic expressions of Delemain Cognac. Given that you would have to pay more than $400 for full bottles of these three brandies, this is a great chance to sample the major offerings from one of the most popular Cognac bottlers.

Apple Brandy: For something totally different, I'd recommend the excellent apple brandy from Germain-Robin in Mendocino County. This Calvados-style brandy has a beautiful aroma of fresh apples but without too much sweetness. It retails for around $65.

Budget Brandy: Cognac doesn't come cheap, but there are few better deals than Jean Fillioux's Balzac VSOP. Fillioux is one of the great remaining small Cognac houses and the Balzac, at $35, is a fantastic brandy and is one of the best deals on any spirit.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Gifts

December is our time for Whiskey Gifts. There is a lot of good stuff out there at all price ranges, particularly in American whiskey.

My number one holiday pick: One of the best whiskeys I had all year was the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Rye 'n Barrel, bottled specially for The Party Source. They take Sazerac Rye Whiskey and finish it in Sauternes-style dessert wine casks. There is a sweet/spicy interplay that is just beautiful. This stuff if so good that I'm shocked there is any left, but it's still for sale on The Party Source website at $60 for a 375 ml bottle. Get some of this while you can!

Other American whiskeys: Of the flurry of this year's new American whiskey releases, two of my favorites were Parker's Heritage Ten Year Old Wheated Bourbon and WhistlePig Rye. The Parker's is a bold, wheated bourbon from Heaven Hill. WhistlePig is a Canadian rye done in an American style but made with 100% rye. Both hover around the $80 range. Oh, and if you're still looking for some George T. Stagg, try Cap 'n Cork on Hillhurst; last time I was there they had a whole row of them. If you're interested in something a bit lighter on the wallet, don't forget to check my reviews of budget whiskeys.

Single Malts: For your Scotch loving friends, there are plenty of options, but why not try something different. Amrut, a Scotch-style single malt whisky from India, recently released its line in the US. There is a range of options and prices, but my favorite was the cask strength, non-peated malt which goes for $75.

Books: There were a number of great booze-related books that came out this year. Max Watman's Chasing the White Dog is an entertaining romp through the world of illicit stills and mason jars full of moonshine. Watman is an engaging writer who keeps you turning those pages. If you are more interested in the historical side of illegal liquor production, Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is a fascinating history of the "noble experiment," covering the politics, crime and culture of prohibition.

If you're looking for a book that's a bit less academic in nature but equally impressive for your whisky loving friends, I would highly recommend Dave Broom's The World Atlas of Whisky. Impressive in both scope and presentation, this lovely coffee table tome has informative text to accompany the lovely photos. I haven't gotten around to reviewing it yet, but it's a book that just shouts "holiday gift."

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sweet Chanukah Kugel

Kugel is a Jewish casserole typically made for holiday meals. They can be sweet or savory and made of almost anything, though the most common are potato, matzoh and my favorite, noodles kugel.

For many years, I've been making a sweet noodle kugel as part of our family Chanukah meal, and practice has made perfect with this never-fail recipe:

Boil about a half pound of egg noodles.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the noodles with:

6 tbs melted butter
1 1/2 lb sour cream
1 1/2 lb cottage cheese
8 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup raisins

Pour into a greased 9x13 baking dish and bake 30-45 minutes until custard is set and the top is lightly browned. It will come out moist and delicious.

Happy Chanukah!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: WhistlePig and Covert Canadians

Because of our porous northern border and common popular culture, Canadians often come to seek fame and fortune in the United States. Once here, unlike many other immigrants, they tend to assimilate quickly to such an extent that the American public doesn't realize that they hail from the nation to the north. They remain here, indistinguishable from US citizens, until they utter the stray "aboat" or drop a reference to a "bag of milk." Who are these covert Canadians? Well, there are too many to name, but they include Peter Jennings, William Shatner, Pamela Anderson, Jim Carrey, Alanis Morissette, Dan Aykroyd, the late Leslie Nielsen, Dr. Whisky and many others.

Add to this list another covert Canadian: WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey. It looks American, is bottled in Vermont, uses the American spelling of whiskey and has the American designation of "straight rye," but this seemingly US whiskey is actually Canadian.

WhistlePig is the brainchild of Dave Pickerell, formerly the Master Distiller of Maker's Mark. Pickerell started the WhistlePig Distillery in Vermont, but like many craft distillers, he chose to bottle a sourced whiskey as his first product. He found one in Canada. I should note that while there has been some confusion about WhistlePig, Dave is open about its sourcing and the back label states, albeit in small type, that it is imported from Canada.

WhistlePig is a 100% rye whiskey, and it really is a straight rye, albeit one with an unusual high rye content in the mashbill, as opposed to a typical, blended Canadian whisky. Even Canadian whiskies that are 100% rye are often blends of a "flavor whisky" and a higher proof, more neutrally flavored whiskey used as a blending agent. WhistlePig is solely composed of the flavor whiskey without any of the blending whiskey. That is what differentiates WhistlePig from other Canadian whiskies bottled by US companies, such as Pendleton or Snake River Stampede. Now, let's taste it.

WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, 10 years old, 50% abv ($72).

There is a fabulous nose on this with, unsurprisingly, a big kick of rye spice. I also get some briny notes, like pickle juice. The flavor starts sweet, then you get the rye kick, much more in the traditional rye fashion, followed by some herbal and medicinal notes, and then the brine, which fades into the finish. This is a very nice rye, and very unique tasting due to the briny notes, which I enjoyed. If I had to compare it to anything it would be some of the High West whiskeys with very high rye contents. I love these high rye mashbills because they really come out swinging with plenty of big, spicy rye.

This Canadian has fully assimilated into the American style. There is no question that it is much closer to straight rye than any Canadian whisky. I guess that's why they spell it with an "e".

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Juanita's at the Hollywood Farmer's Market

There are a number of great food options at the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market (Ivar Street between Sunset and Hollywood), but lately I've been enjoying the Mexican home cooking at Juanita's. It's fairly straight forward Mexican food, cooked fresh. The enchiladas go right into the pan as you wait. I'm always a big fan of a plate of chilaquiles for breakfast and the Juanita's version is piled high with chile sauce with egg and a sprinkling of cheese; it's not the most sophisticated version, more like someone's grandmother made it for you. There's a little table right alongside to sit and eat and it all washes down well with an ensalada from Delmy's pupusas, a few doors down.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Tasting and Talking at the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society Extravaganza

Last Thursday was the annual Scotch Malt Whisky Society Extravaganza in Santa Monica. As always, there were some good whiskies poured, particularly the Society's private label bottlings. I especially enjoyed their offerings of Glen Scotia and Rosebank, and I never miss a chance to sample some Highland Park 30 when it's on offer.

Most notable this year, however, was a panel discussion among brand representatives prior to the tasting. Hosted by the Society US President Alan Shayne, the panel featured Martin Daraz from Highland Park, Neyah White from Suntory, Robin Goupar from Skyy, Simon Brooking from Beam Global, Nicholas Pollacchi from Balvenie, Ricky Crawford from Glenlivet and Steve Beal and Ed Adams from Diageo. The hour long discussion was in Q&A format with questions from the 50 or so people in the audience. The discussion ran from basic tips to serious issues in the industry to more light hearted moments.

All of the brand representatives seemed to speak honestly and openly without a lot of salesmanship. I've seen Martin Daraz speak before; he's probably the funniest brand rep. I've ever heard, and if you have the chance to attend a class with him, you should.

On a more serious note, I was very impressed with Suntory's Neyah White, who showed an impressive grasp of Japanese history and its relation to that nation's whisky industry and made very thoughtful comments throughout the night. When asked about judging whiskies, for instance, he spoke of "emotional terroir," which I thought was a great way of describing the way in which environment, mood and other external factors affect the appreciation of whisky.

As regular readers know, one of my top whisky wishes is to get more Japanese whisky imported to the US. I've often asked Suntory representatives if they will ever send us whisky from their Hakushu distillery, and I usually get an ambiguous maybe, at best. When I submitted the question to the panel, White was straight forward, saying there simply isn't enough Hakushu to export, though he wished there was. I appreciate getting an honest answer on that one (and since I'm lucky enough to have some sources in Japan, I'm planning on reviewing the Hakushu 18 in the near future).

Another interesting tidbit that I'd never heard came out when someone asked about chill filtering, the controversial process that distilleries use to prevent whiskey from appearing cloudy at cooler temperatures which some claim inhibits flavor by filtering out oils containing flavor elements. Diageo's Steve Beal explained that prior to World War II, there was almost no chill filtering. After the war, Scotch became popular with Americans, but unlike the Scots, the Americans tended to drink it on the rocks which caused clouding. It was only then that the distilleries began large-scale chill filtering. Now, I haven't verified the story, but it would be interesting if all of this filtering was our fault. Perhaps we owe the world of whisky a collective apology (at least they can't blame us for caramel coloring).

The panel was a great way to begin the night, and I hope the Society will continue to sponsor it at its future Extravaganzas.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Next Pop Up: Your House

The morning started like any other weekday morning. I awoke to my alarm at 5:30, put on a robe and headed quietly toward the kitchen, trying not to wake the rest of my family. Once I turned the corner from the hallway, I noticed there was someone in the kitchen. My first thought was that it was a burglar, but then I saw that this intruder was cooking, and as he turned around, I recognized the face of a well known, local celebrity chef.

"What are you doing here?", I asked, perplexed.

"Zis is pop up!" the chef responded.

"A what?"

"Ze traditional restaurant is dying. Soon there will be only food trucks and pop ups. Zis is your pop up breakfast."

"But I thought pop ups were just where you cook at someone else's restaurant..."

"Wrong! A pop up can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone."

"How did you get in here?" With that, the chef shoved a plate in my face, "Zis is an amuse bouche: a cured baby scallop in a puff pastry shell with an uni-fennel foam." I popped it in my mouth. It was very good, but I did have to get ready for work.

"You know," I said, "I usually just have coffee and toast for breakfast, and..." The chef pushed another plate toward me, "First course, a deconstructed fingerling potato and cheddar zoup inspired by potatoes au gratin topped with caviar scented truffles, paired with a German Riesling."

"I don't usually drink this early either, I just..."

"Nonzense! Now where do you keep your liquid nitrogen?"

And so it went, a tour de force of a menu, a breakfast unlike any I'd ever had. It consisted of nine courses plus wine pairings. The chef cooked furiously, only stopping for the occasional tweet. Just as the rest of my family was getting up and wondering what was happening, the chef disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. My wife looked around quizzically and asked, "Have you been drinking wine?" I sighed, "It's a long story."

So don't be surprised if sometime, somewhere, someplace when you least expect it, someone steps up to you and says, "Zis is a pop up!"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Help Me Figure this Out: Bright Kitchen Article

So I'm wondering if any of you can help me identify this implement. I received it as a gift from my mother-in-law, who bought it in Japan. It's a steel utensil about the size of a kitchen knife. It is slightly bulb shaped on one end and stretches into a long tear drop shape on the other. It looks a little bit like a long, flat metal Q-tip or maybe a cuticle pusher.

There is very little English on the package. The company appears to be "Stylish Cutlery," and the product seems to be called "Bright Kitchen Article." It also notes "stainless steel," and "Made in Japan." That's it for the English.

So, what is this thing? Can anyone help me out?

UPDATE: Thanks to Yuki (see the comments) for pointing me in the right direction. Apparently, this is a cocktail stirrer, what we would probably call a bar spoon. Thanks Yuki, time to mix up some cocktails.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Est Arrivé

Last weekend, the first bottles of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) started appearing on local shelves. It's always an event when the BTAC arrives each fall, but this year, it's reached a level of frenzy that I've never seen before.

David Driscoll, the spirits buyer at K&L recently wrote on his blog that he was getting a huge volume of calls and emails asking about the Collection, and his three stores get only a case or less of each bottle. (By the way, if you aren't reading David's blog, you should be; he's one of the few retailers who writes really honestly about the whiskey retail world without always trying to sell you something). On, there is a frenzy of activity as people try to find bottles so they can add one of each (or a case of each) to their already massive bourbon bunkers.

The excitement is understandable. The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection includes some of the world's best whiskeys at reasonable prices. George T. Stagg is probably the world's most renowned bourbon. William Larue Weller is less popular than Stagg, but the reputation of this wheater is growing fast. Sazerac 18 and Thomas Handy are undoubtedly two of the best rye whiskeys around, and while Eagle Rare 17 may be the runt of the bunch, it's no slouch either. Even more amazing than the quality of this collection is the price. While some retailers have been known to jack it up into the three figures, they still regularly retail for $70-$85. I don't know that there is a better price/quality ratio in existence.

All that said, the frenzy is getting a bit out of hand. These things are becoming like the newest Xbox on Christmas Eve. I would appeal to all of the American whiskey lovers and collectors out there to, as Jon Stewart would say, take it down a notch.

While the BTAC is an annual release, they tend to be quite consistent from year to year, especially in the last four or five years. Do you really need a bottle of each when you have a closet full of the past releases? Can't we leave some for the newbies?

Even if you decide these are must haves, there are lots of stores that get the BTAC, including both the big chains and some much smaller, off the radar stores. There are always a few bottles that languish on shelves and usually some that pop up mid-year. If you live in Southern California and you are willing to put in a little bit of effort (i.e. drive around a bit), you should be able to find a bottle of each without too much effort.

Me? I picked up a Stagg, but I still have some Weller left from last year, and while I'm out of Sazerac and Handy, I have enough good rye on hand to keep my thirst quenched without buying these up.

So let's all take a deep breath. Remember folks, it's just whiskey, and there will probably be enough for everyone.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pork Pump at Yu Garden

Over the summer, I posted about the pork pump at the Shanghainese restaurant Wok and Noodle. In the comments, Tony C., the inimitable SinoSoul recommended the pork pump at Yu Garden in San Gabriel. It takes me a while to work up to a pork pump, so I took some time, but did manage to head their recently.

For those who don't read Chinese, it can be a little tricky to pick out the pork pump on a menu. At Wok and Noodle, it's "degreased and braised boneless pork leg shank." At Yu Garden, there were two potential items. One was, I think, just labeled braised pork and the other was House Special Braised Pork Shank. I went with the shank, which turned out to be the pork pump.

This was a great pork pump. Occasionally, the meat inside the pump is a bit dry, but in this one, it was moist and fully flavored by the sauce, which had really permeated the thing. The fat was rich and sticky, and after the meat was gone, it was pretty hard not to just eat the fat and skin. On the whole, I liked this pump better than the version at Wok and Noodle, as the whole thing really came together more. I'll have to try it against some of those classic pork pumps that I haven't tried for a while.

While the pork pump was great, and they did a very nice pork fried dumpling, most of the rest of the meal was lackluster. The xiao long bao were dry, with very little broth and the skins were tough. The pickled napa and pork soup was bland, and the scallion pancake was too greasy.

This is a pork pump place, and it would be wise not to wander too far off the menu.

Yu Garden
107 E. Valley Blvd. (just east of Del Mar)
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 569-0855

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recent Reads: The Latest Bourdain

Medium Raw, published earlier this year, is Anthony Bourdain's fourth work of nonfiction (not including his cook book), and probably his best book since his breakout Kitchen Confidential.

The book reads much like Kitchen Confidential, a series of disconnected pieces, more a collection of essays than continuous chapters. Bourdain retains his straightforward and snarky writing style, though his editor needs to give him a banned list which should include "maw," "clusterfuck" and question marks, which he inevitably misuses. (It seems like you shouldn't be able to misuse question marks, but somehow, Bourdain does?)

There's plenty of red meat here for Bourdain's fans, including slaps at the classic easy targets like Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee. Wielding his pen like a slasher movie villain wields a chef's knife is what we've come to expect from Bourdain, and he doesn't disappoint. I love the snark as much as the next sarcastic blogger, but I feel like it's become part of a schtick for Bourdain.

More thoughtful than his usual snark is a chapter-long take down of Alice Waters. The full-on attack raises issues of class and challenges the Waters world view in a manner that is influenced by Bourdain's first hand experiences of some of the world's harder places to live.

Despite all the classic Bourdain venom, I was much more interested in the chapter about Justo Thomas, the guy who breaks down all the fish, every day, at Le Bernardin. Bourdain lyrically describes the work, somewhere between art and drudgery, of a lone fish-butcher, trapped in the basement of New York's seafood temple, cutting fish to perfection. It's the story of a man and his craft, and it even has a surprise happy ending.

The last chapter is a sort of "where are they now" of the characters from Kitchen Confidential. It would have been interesting as an updated epilogue in a new version of that book, but here, it's a lot to expect that we remember the ins and outs of each character that made a chapter appearance in his book from nearly ten years ago.

Overall, the book is a good mix of the old snarky Bourdain and the newer, more reflective writer. It's an easy read and one that's worthwhile.

Medium Raw
Anthony Bourdain
Ecco/Harper Collins 2010 ($27)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Ralfy on American Whiskey

Hellooooo Malt Masticators. If that doesn't mean anything to you (you need to imagine a thick Scottish accent), then you need to know about Ralfy, the king of the ten minute Scotch tasting video on YouTube. He has recently started an entertaining series of reviews of American Whiskey that is a must watch for any American whiskey fan. Ralfy does his homework more than most reviewers, especially those stepping from single malts into the treacherous and confusing category of American whiskey, and it's fascinating to hear his Scottish perspective on our whiskeys.

Included in his reviews so far have been Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, Rittenhouse 100, George Dickel No. 12, Buffalo Trace, McAfee's Benchmark Bourbon, Jack Daniel's and Gentleman Jack, Knob Creek, Elijah Craig 12, Maker's Mark and Maker's 46 and something called Western Gold Bourbon, which appears to be a German bottling made for Supermarkets. It's a great selection and the videos are a lot of fun so check them out (and if you know, tell me what type of animal had to die to make Ralfy's jacket).

Oh, and last year, I did my own little tribute to His Ralfyness:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Scotch Malt Whisky Extravaganza Coming Soon - Get Your Discount!

Don't miss the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Extravaganza coming up next Thursday, November 18.

Prices for non-members of the Society are $135, but the Society is offering my readers up to two tickets per person for the member price of $120. Just go to the Society's website to sign up and enter SRE2010 in the promotion code box to get the discount or call (800) 990-1991.

Last year's Extravaganza was great fun and featured some great whiskies from a number of distillers and bottlers. In fact, the Extravaganza is one of the only ways to taste the excellent single malts bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society if you aren't a member.

This year's Extravaganza will be Thursday, November 18 at The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica from 7:00pm-9:30pm.

Check it out and tell 'em Sku sent you.

FTC Disclaimer: Sku was invited to attend this event free of charge.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Search for Great Dumplings Continues: Mama's Lu

Any random weekend morning, you're more likely than not to find me somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley in my quest for great dumplings. The latest was the popular Mama's Lu dumpling house.

A quick hit here since I didn't take good notes. The Xiao Long Bao were good but not stellar. The pork chop noodle soup was good, but no match for the heavenly version served at Qing Dao Bread Food.

I inevitably compared the lamb chow mein to the one I miss so much from Dumpling Master, and it paled in comparison. The noodles were thick and a bit too chewy, and there were only sparse slivers of lamb. The whole thing just didn't come together well.

I did like the pan fried dumplings, and the stir fried pea shoots were good and garlicky.

All in all, everything was competent but nothing was great or better than I've had elsewhere nearby. I can't really figure out the intense popularity of the place. Mama's Lu fans, did I miss a great dish?

Mama's Lu
153 E Garvey Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91755
(626) 307-5700

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Recent Reads: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

For those of us who enjoy wine and spirits, it's sometimes hard to believe that alcohol was once banned in the United States. New York Times reporter Daniel Okrent does a marvelous job of telling the fascinating story of this failed experiment in Last Call- The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Okrent starts from the earliest strains of the prohibition movement and ends his tail at repeal. For any student of American political history and grassroots movements, it's fascinating to see how this cause took shape. One thing that may seem surprising to today's readers is the the political diversity of prohibition's advocates, from progressive reformers to religious conservatives to the Ku Klux Klan. This diverse and divergent group managed to make the Anti-Saloon League one of the most powerful forces in American politics for nearly two decades.

Once Prohibition actually passes, the story becomes less political history and more of what we think about when casually considering prohibition: the remarkable tales of bootlegging, speakeasies, medicinal alcohol scams, poisoned hooch and gangsters. Writing in an engaging, page-turning journalistic style, Okrent relays numerous fascinating tidbits such as the story of the notorious bootlegger Sam Bronfman, the growth of Walgreens through sales of medicinal alcohol and the grape bricks, sold by California wineries, which cautioned not to add yeast lest the grapes inadvertently be converted to illegal wine. And Okrent finally puts to rest the legend that Joseph P. Kennedy had anything to do with bootlegging (he didn't).

Okrent's book is a must read for anyone with an interest in prohibition or American twentieth century politics, but also for anyone who enjoys their liquor and can't imagine that it did happen here.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 2010 ($20-$30)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Parker's Wheater

The two releases I probably look forward to most in fall whiskey season are the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the unveiling of the newest bottle in the Parker's Heritage Collection. This is the fourth year of Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage series and each release has been unique and pretty darned good. The inaugural bottle, released in 2007, was a high strength, Stagg-style Bourbon; the 2008 edition was a whopping 27 years old; and the 2009 Golden Anniversary edition featured whiskies from each of the last four decades.

This year, for the first time, the Parker's Heritage bottling is a wheated Bourbon, using wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain. This is particularly surprising since, while Heaven Hill does produce wheaters under the Old Fitzgerald label, they have never seemed to put much care into making or promoting that brand. Many the old Bourbon lover has lamented the decline of that previously vaunted label under the stewardship of the otherwise quality-oriented Heaven Hill. So for those of us who are fans of the unique beast that is wheated Bourbon, perhaps this is a sign of good things to come from the bards of Bardstown.

The other pleasing thing about this year's release is that, after two years of three figure prices on the Parker's bottlings, the price has come back down to earth's orbit at a still premium but more reasonable $80.

Let's give it a try...

Parker's Heritage Collection 2010, 10 year old wheated Bourbon, 63.9% abv ($80)

There is a lot of alcohol on the nose, beneath it is caramel candy and other sweet Bourbon notes. The flavor profile is very nice, with lots of good wheated Bourbon notes, including some apple brandy type fruit. It's sweet with some acidity and some herbal flavors in the finish. It remains very hot on the palate. This is one that really benefits from a few drops of water. As the alcohol content diminishes, more flavors emerge. There is some oak, but its the sweet caramel that becomes really pronounced, bringing with it some Cognac-style fruit. The finish evinces a certain umami that was previously undetectable.

After an initial tasting, I tasted some of the 2009 William Larue Weller from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection for comparison. The Weller is a wheated bourbon at a similar proof and price point that I really loved, so I thought it would make for a good head to head.

The flavor profiles of these two are quite different. The Parker's is sweeter, with more of those candy notes, while the Weller has more of that dry, oaky/woody/wood polish profile. While these are both great bourbons, the Weller had more depth and complexity. The flavor profile of the Weller is just so rich and varied, and the flavors are sharper and more direct. Even though the Weller is slightly higher proof than the Parker's, the alcohol is better integrated and it's actually less hot tasting than the Parker's. While I prefer the Parker's with water, I prefer the Weller neat.

Still, the Parker's is a great bourbon that I would recommend. I would love to see Heaven Hill put this kind of energy into the neglected Old Fitzgerald line. Hopefully, there will be more great wheaters to come.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: I Can Be Bought!

The whiskey blogosphere has been all aflutter about ethics. This week, in the latest of many blogger ethics posts, Malt Advocate Publisher John Hansell put up a post titled Let me reiterate: I can't be bought!. Hansell described an unnamed whiskey company rep asking for a mention in his blog based on their participation in Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest. Other bloggers have also recently chimed in on the ethics of whisky blogging.

Of course, anyone who is a regular reader of Malt Advocate shouldn't have to be told that Hansell can't be bought. You may or may not agree with his scoring, but there is simply no questioning his integrity.

With me, however, it is quite different, so I want to reiterate here and now that I can (and hopefully will) be bought!

For a long time now, I have given out a handy price guide to interested companies which shows exactly what kinds of whiskey scores they can get for their money:

$5,000: 99-100
$2,000: 95-98
$1,000: 90-94
$500: 85-89
$200: 80-84
$100: 70-79
$50: 60-69
Free: 0-59

Now, keep in mind that this system is not without integrity. While a company can pay for a scoring range, I reserve complete discretion as to where on the range a given whiskey lands. If someone pays $1,000, I alone decide if their whiskey scores a 90, a 94 or somewhere in between (though a muffin basket never hurt).

Surprisingly, I have thus far not had much luck with this plan. One drinks company did make an offer, but it was contingent on my reviewing their new whiskey liqueur, and hey, even I have some standards.

So come on companies, drop me a line because remember, there's nothing worse than someone who tries to sell out only to discover that no one's buying.

[And for those of you who are tired of the satire, we'll have a real whiskey review tomorrow].

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Great Deals at Bawarchi Indian Kitchen

Bawarchi is a small, vegetarian steam table Indian spot in Culver City where you can get good Indian food at a great price. For a mere $8, you get to choose one of two rices, one of three breads and three main dishes from the steam table, along with a small salad, pappadum and raita. There must be a dozen main dishes to choose from, and they change with some frequency (the labels on the steam table seem to change somewhat less often, so it helps to ask what the dishes are). The day I was there I tried a nice jackfruit dish, paneer in cashew sauce, saag with corn and a lentil dish. All of it was nicely spiced, though not too hot, and tasty. Good food at a great price is hard to beat.

Bawarchi Indian Kitchen
10408 Venice Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 836-8525

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Downhill Alert: Peet's Coffee

I don't write this lightly. As a Bay Area kid, I grew up on Peet's Coffee. I had Peet's beans shipped to me by UPS when I lived in New York. When the first Peet's shops opened in LA, I would go out of my way to get to Beverly Hills or Manhattan Beach to get some of that deep, smoky brew. Back then, they didn't even carry syrups in their stores, it was just coffee.

I suppose it was bound to happen with expansion. It's simply hard to keep a product at a consistently high level of quality once you reach a certain point (take note, Intelligentsia, don't let this happen to you!). With hundreds of stores spanning six states, Peet's has simply overreached.

I still buy Peet's beans for my own use, but the in store service for the last few years has really gone down hill. Peet's used to be reliable for a thick, smoky espresso with a good crema or a cappuccino with a light head of milk. Now, my espressos often lack any real crema and the caps are drown in milk. The coffee sometimes tastes burnt (too long in the warmer for drip or bad temps for the espresso). Peet's in LA was always a chain, but it used to be a sizable step up from Starbucks; while I wouldn't say it's as bad as Starbucks had become, it's about as bad as Starbucks was five or ten years ago, which is not good.

It's not just the fact that the bar has been raised. Even a couple of years ago, when Intelligentsia and LA Mill were already on the scene, I still enjoyed the pleasures of a dark Peet's espresso. But now, when I crave an espresso drink, it's nearly always Intelligentsia I head to.

I would love to see Peet's reclaim its former glory, but I fear they have morphed into Starbucks Junior. Farewell, my dark and smoky friend, farewell.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Whiskey Persons #1 - A Blogger With a Secret

One of my favorite new whisky blogs is Oliver Klimek's excellent which includes tastings, articles and interviews with people of the whisky world. Oliver's blog is so impressive (and listed in the Malt Whisky Yearbook after little more than a year in existence!) that I decided to copy it and start doing some interviews, but they didn't quite work out as I had planned.

This first interview is with one of the web's most famous whisky bloggers. If you are a whisky lover, it's a name I guarantee you would recognize, but this is a blogger with a secret. I must warn you that the interview that follows may shock you and lead you to question everything you thought you knew about the whisky blogosphere.


What gave you the idea to start blogging about whisky?

I was lonely. I had a family, but I wanted a more intimate community, one that would think I was really special, so I started hunting around on the web. For a while, I posted on gardening sites, but those people are horrible. I mean, if you suggest that you use the wrong shaped hoe or soil, they will flame you to death. I just couldn't handle the stress of the gardening forums. I flirted briefly with the parakeet-loving community, then I followed a link to a whisky forum and I loved it. Right there, I said, okay, this is for me.

Had you been a whisky drinker before that point or did you only start tasting whisky when you became involved with that forum?

Oh, I don't drink.

I'm sorry, what do you mean?

I don't drink whisky, or anything alcoholic, not even a bit. I just blog about it.

But you rate and sample whiskies by the hundreds, you are a household name among whisky fans, and you are in a famous tasting society. How can you not drink?

I'm interested in blogging, not drinking. It's really quite easy. When I started out, I read everything I could find about whisky, studied ratings, bought every book and became knowledgeable. I know how whisky is supposed to taste from sherry and spice, to malt and heather, to peat, iodine and seaweed. I mean, once you know those combinations, you just make up the rest. It's easy and it's a great creative exercise. I use heather and treacle all the time in my reviews, and to be honest, I have no idea what those things are, but they sound great.

You're kidding, right? I mean, you've sampled Bowmore Black and Macallan Lalique. Did you just make those up?

Oh, those are the easiest. With whiskies that almost no one else in the world will ever taste, I don't even have to try. Who's going to prove me wrong? Do you think some Russian tycoon is going to post a comment saying my tasting notes are bogus? That's why I confidently wrote that I tasted "Iam's kibble for senior cats" in the finish of the Mortlach 70. Why not?

But don't the distilleries send you samples?

I get more of those damned things than I know what to do with. I do like the little bottles though. They're so pretty! The whisky? Most of it goes down the drain.

You dumped a Bowmore Black down the drain?

I don't dump all of them. I give some of them to the wino who hangs out on the stoop outside my apartment.

What about your scores? Whiskies have been known to double in price when you give them a high score?

Scores are just a way of imparting confidence in the consumer. When you think about it, I'm like the Wizard of Oz, and the consumer is the Cowardly Lion; all they need is the courage to make the choice they know they want to make anyway. People want Ardbegs, Broras, Port Ellens and Highland Parks to get high scores, so I oblige. They don't care about much else, except that they like it if you occasionally give something that's really expensive a low score. That reaffirms the consumer's feeling that they aren't missing anything. Scoring isn't a matter of taste or math; it's a matter of psychology. And, of course, who can disagree? Taste is subjective, and I include the disclaimer that my scores are only my opinion and it may be different from that of others, which is certainly true.

How do you live with yourself?

My liver is very healthy.

Common Questions

Your Three Tips for Whisky Novices

1. Always listen to the experts. Remember, your palate is not sophisticated enough to judge whisky. Leave it to those of us who know what we're talking about.

2. Don't buy anything that scores less than a 98.

3. Please support my advertisers.

Your three tips for experienced whisky lovers

1. Always listen to the experts. Remember, your palate is not sophisticated enough to judge whisky. Leave it to those of us who know what we're talking about.

2. Don't buy anything that scores less than a 98.

3. Please support my advertisers.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Good Things in Small Packages: Platine's Pot du Creme

Platine is a small bakery on Washington in Culver City. It carries a sparse set of offerings at premium prices. There's nothing wrong with the small one dollar cookies, but I feel like I could make most of them myself. The chocolate chip with salt is nice enough, but the black and white cookie is unexciting, and it's cookie isn't cakey enough (as is needed to support a true black and white).

I tend to avoid high priced, museum-quality bakeries, but the pot du cremes at Platine are delightful. The chocolate pot du creme is thick and creamy, textured half way between a mousse and a ganache. Served in a little custard cup the size of a large thimble or a small demitasse, the pot du creme is the perfect mouthful of thick, dark chocolate with just a touch of salt sprinkled on top. It will set you back $2.50, including a dime that you get back if you return the ceramic cup.

When I was last there, the special, for a dollar more, was a wonderful pumpkin seed pot du creme. This was another winner. More chunky than creamy, it was rich and nutty tasting with a flavor that reminded me more of pistachio than pumpkin seeds.

The danger of Platine is that I save up those pot du creme cups to return, (more because it seems sad to waste them than because I need the dime), but each time I return one, I buy at least one more, and so the cycle continues.

Platine Bakery
10850 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 559-9933

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Charamel: Garrett Chicago Mix Popcorn

I'm woefully underexposed to Chicago, having set foot in the Windy City only briefly, and I look forward to exploring it, but for now, I will need to rely on friendly travelers, layovers and the like. In terms of food gifts from Chi-Town, hot dogs, deep dish pizza and Italian beef just don't travel well, so the good folks of Chicago came up with Garrett Popcorn. Garrett is a popular flavored popcorn shop that makes caramel and cheese popcorn. The caramel is good but pretty standard, while the cheese is fairly special, more greasy than powdery and full of cheesy-salty goodness. But the prize at Garrett is the Chicago mix, equal parts cheese and caramel corn (my daughter has dubbed it "charamel") which play off the sweet/salty flavors that we all find so enticing.

I have no idea if real Chicagoans eat Garrett popcorn or if it's simply a tourist thing (Chicagoans, please let me know), but the best thing about Garrett is that there are at least two at O'Hare (and they make the popcorn fresh on site).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: WhiskyLive 2010

Last week was the second annual WhiskyLive Los Angeles, sponsored by the good folks at Whisky Magazine. This year, the festival moved from the Santa Monica Civic Center to the more centrally located (and much more posh) Beverly Wilshire Hotel. While it lacked some of the more casual atmosphere of last year's event, the whisky was good and there was a wide variety of it to be had.

Some special treats that were being offered included a 40 year old Tomatin and a nice range of unusual single malts from Duncan Taylor, including Auchroisk, Imperial and a peated Bunnahabhain. There was also a wide variety of American whiskey on display. At the Heaven Hill table, they were tasting several versions of the Parker's Heritage series of Bourbons, including the most recent wheated version which I found very impressive. Dave Pickerell was there with his WhistlePig Rye which I was glad to finally get to taste. And it was nice to see a whole table devoted to my favorite underrated whiskey, George Dickel.

As usual, apart from the tasting floor, there were masterclasses dedicated to specific distilleries. For the true whiskey geek, there was the class by High West's David Perkins (bottles pictured above). Perkins not only offered tastings of two of his newest whiskeys which aren't on the market yet, but ran a "virtual distillery," in which he provided samples from the various phases of distillation, including the heads, heart and tails, and explained how distillers make the all important cut that creates good whiskey. It was a fascinating experience and went far beyond the basic brand promotion that is the norm for most masterclasses.

Next up in the fall tasting lineup is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Extravaganza on November 18.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Why I Shed No Tears for the Stolen Mortlach 70

The big news in the whisky world over the past week or two has been that a bottle of the Gordon & MacPhail 70 year old Mortlach, reputedly the oldest whisky ever bottled, was stolen from the Gordon & MacPhail importer's table at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival. The bottle was stolen after the show while the supplies were in a locked room. Mark Gillespie has a thorough report on this week's episode of WhiskyCast.

For those of you who have been living under a rock (or drink it on the rocks), the Mortlach 70 was released earlier this year and goes for around $15,000 per bottle. Of course, while this may seem like a lot to the uninitiated, two bottles of Dalmore sold last week for around $150,000 each.

Now, I don't condone theft of any kind, but I can't say I'm shedding any tears for the folks at G&M (or importer Symposium). If you are going to start selling whisky for the same price as rare jewels, you better be prepared to treat it like rare jewels. I'm talking armored cars, motion sensor laser activated alarm systems and briefcases handcuffed to the brand ambassador. Leaving it in the back of the stack of bottles just ain't going to cut it anymore. Sorry, but the industry brought this on themselves.

In my dreams, some whisky Robin Hood figure took the bottle and will be pouring it at his local pub.

And I hope someone is on the phone with Henning Mankell. This would make a great Wallander mystery.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where Thai Food Meets Fair Food: It's Thai Noodle 'N More

At first blush, the new Koreatown restaurant It's Thai Noodle 'N More looks like any non-Thaitown Thai place. The small restaurant adjacent to Ham Ji Park and Ice Kiss on Sixth Street, serves a decent pad thai and has a good assortment on its menu. It bustles at the lunch hour as businesspeople rush in for the multiple lunch specials. Most things I had were fine if not exciting. And then there was the fried som tam.

Fried som tam (green papaya salad) can best be described as what would happen if you opened an authentic Thai restaurant at the LA County Fair. It's as if someone took an entire green papaya salad, battered it and dumped it into the frier, papaya, green beans, shrimp and all. the only un-fried elements are the tomatoes and a few cashews. The sauce is a bit sweeter than typical but has a nice blend of chili spice and lime juice which helps cut the grease.

Eating it is like eating the best of fried fair food. It's both addictive and somewhat repulsive. It's enjoyable at the time, but feels like dead weight in your stomach. Throw it in a cardboard box with some red, checkered paper and I'd be looking for the ferris wheel.

It's Thai Noodle 'N More
3407 W. 6th St., 100C
Los Angeles, CA 90020
(213) 738-8849

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disney's Soda Fountain - Great Shakes, Bad Food

The Disney Soda Fountain, adjacent to the Disney owned El Capitan theater, is like a small Disneyland outpost in Hollywood. Enter it and you could very well be in one of Disneyland's many shops where food, gifts and Disnified decor intermingle. The cramped space is divided about half and half between a gift shop and a soda fountain with a few tables. I had lunch at the Fountain a few weeks ago after watching a Tinkerbell movie at the El Capitan and expected the food to be roughly the same as the movie, recognizable and kid-friendly but overhyped and utterly unoriginal. On balance, I was about half right.

The food at the Fountain was uniformly bad. My French Dip was served on a roll that should have been parbaked but wasn't. The meat was sad and dry and the jus was little more than tepid salt-water. The pastrami sandwich was similarly uninspired with a few slices of deli pastrami on cold, supermarket-style rye bread. The hot dog was a lackluster Hebrew National.

But this is a fountain and they should really be judged on their fountain drinks. I figured there was some hope here, since at Disneyland, the sweets are nearly always better than the savories, but I was surprised at what I got.

I ordered a simple vanilla malt and what I got was a nearly flawless version of the classic specimen. The shake was thick but sippable through the straw, the malt was perfectly balanced with the ice cream, and yes, they even gave us that sadly endangered species, the metal cup with the overflow shake. Had they used home made whip cream instead of the can, it would have been perfect.

I wasn't expecting this milkshake to be so good partly because of the low quality of the food and partly because of the various absurd ice cream items on the menu, including various Disney themed toppings such as Mickey Mouse shaped sprinkles and Tinkerbell green marshmallow cream (which seems more akin to what you would get if you stepped on the fairy). I must say, though, that I'm now interested in trying some of their sundaes and other items.

The Fountain is usually packed after the more popular movies so avoid it as you're coming out of the latest Pixar release, and instead, go during show time, or better yet, take in a Tinkerbell movie.

Disney's Soda Fountain
6834 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 817-1475

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Amrut

Amrut, an Indian single malt whisky, entered the US market about six months ago, but they have been using the fall whisky season as a sort of west coast coming out party, holding tastings and appearing at whisky festivals throughout California. I hadn't tried Amrut before but was able to sample their whole range at an excellent tasting at the Wine House (Note: as usual, I paid my own freight).

Unlike some Indian distilleries which have caused controversy by using molasses in their whiskies, Amrut makes single malt whisky entirely from barley. The barley comes from Punjab and is distilled and aged at the distillery in Bangalore. Amrut has been making whisky, mostly for domestic blends, since the 1970s, but starting exporting single malts to Britain and the EU in 2004.

Amrut is a single malt in the Scotch tradition, and tasting blind, I would certainly guess that it was Scotch. They have both peated and unpeated expressions as well as a new, sherried malt and the Fusion, a blend of the peated and unpeated malts. All of their malts are four to six years old, but likely due to the high heat in Bangalore and the use of some new American oak, they seem to age quickly and taste older than their years.

The current Amrut range is as follows:

  • Amrut Single Malt, 46% abv ($55)

  • Amrut Peated Single Malt, 46% abv ($70)

  • Amrut Fusion, 50% abv ($65)

  • Amrut Cask Strength, 61.8% abv ($75)

  • Amrut Cask Strength Peated, 62.8% abv ($85)

  • Amrut Intermediate Sherry Cask Strength, 57.1% abv ($125)

All of these malts were good. My favorite was the regular cask strength malt, which had some very nice spice and fruit notes; the sherried malt was also nice with some candy notes, though at $125, I wouldn't see myself buying a bottle. I was less enamoured of the peated malts, which were fine but didn't offer much more or different than is currently available in the world of peat. Distilleries without a strong peat tradition need to learn that it is not absolutely essential to peat everything, especially when the chances of improving on the existing world of peat are pretty slim.

This is a good start for Amrut. Right out of the gate, they have shown themselves to be a quality distiller, and I'll look forward to more of their output.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

New on Larchmont: Larchmont Bungalow

The commercial strip of Larchmont Boulevard between Beverly and First Street is known for many things such as roaming $1,000 strollers, overpriced crappy restaurants, and being the furthest point east within the city limits that many Hancock Park residents will go without a police escort. Now, there is a welcome new addition to the strip. Occupying a former antique furniture shop, Larchmont Bungalow is a homey place which smells warmly of the fresh coffee they roast in the front window. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and have a full pastry counter. I had brunch there a few weeks ago and have been doing my best to sample a wide variety of the pastries ever since.

The Bungalow has a large breakfast selection, available any time, including crepes, omelets, benedicts and more. I ordered the Latkes and Lox plate which is similar to Square One's salmon benedict, including lox and a poached egg over a potato latke. The latkes were a bit too crisp, really fried to the point of being tough, but the eggs were perfectly poached and I really enjoyed the wasabi creme fraiche.

The coffee is fine, but nothing special, which is too bad given the amount of effort they are putting into roasting their own. I had an espresso and a cappuccino, and wasn't impressed by the technical quality of either. The espresso was a bit thin and the cappuccino was too milky.

The Bungalow has a lovely pastry cabinet with a mixed bag inside. One of my favorite things was the strawberry muffin, a deeply pink muffin with a good strawberry flavor. I also enjoyed the chocolate cigar, a rolled chocolate croissant type pastry. The cupcakes were decent, but a number of the sweets, including both the lemon bars and the moon pies, were too sweet.

The cake selection looks very familiar if you have ever been to Sweet Lady Jane, the princess and berry cakes are almost identical to to popular versions at the Lady. I'm wondering if the Bungalow baker trained there or just "took her inspiration" from it. In any case, they are good copies. The princess cake's custard is rich and creamy with a distinctive egg/custard taste, but the cake is a bit dry. They also have a chocolate truffle cake, which is delightfully rich but a bit on the sweet side.

My favorite sweet was the chocolate bread pudding, a huge (though size varies) sort of muffin shaped creation. When warmed, the chocolate oozes over the bread in just the right way.

Not every dish is a star, but overall I really enjoyed the Larchmont Bungalow and it's a good addition to the neighborhood. I'm looking forward to more deeply exploring their menu.

Larchmont Bungalow
107 N. Larchmont Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 461-1528

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blogger Profile: JayMan and the Noodle House

The blogger who goes only by JayMan is a food blogger like any other, except for one thing. He only reviews one restaurant.

"The first time I went to Jay's Noodle House in Alhambra, I was blown away. I was like, how could this little hole-in-the-wall have such great noodles."

Since that time, JayMan has reviewed nearly every one of the 47 dishes on the Taiwanese Noodle House's menu. (He doesn't favor eggplant, so he is missing a couple of dishes on that account). His popular blog also reports on staff changes, decor, some of the regular customers and other news from the restaurant.

"One of my biggest scoops was when Hsin Jr. started working exclusively lunch shifts. I think I had it up and posted before he even made the switch. I was also the first to report when they switched to shorter hours for two weeks back in August when the owners went back to Taiwan."

The owners of Jay's, while they appreciate his business, seem somewhat bemused by all of the attention.

"I think he is a very strange man," said owner Hsin Yu-Shan. "I put up a new picture or sweep the back room and he puts it on his blog. I think he needs to get a real job or something."

Jay shrugs off comments like this as well as the odd stares he sometimes gets from the restaurant's patrons.

"Hey, I've got to be true to me," he says.

When asked if he would ever blog about different restaurants, he is indignant.

"The internet is full of people posting about all sorts of restaurants and cuisines they know almost nothing about. I may only post about one place, but I am the world expert about that place."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Calendar and Books

Fall is the big season for whiskey in LA. It's when all the new releases come out, all the big whiskey festivals take place and all the new edition whiskey books publish. Here's a quick guide to the events coming up soon and the books that are just coming out:


October 13:WhiskyLive LA is back. Whisky Magazine's tasting event has moved east to Beverly Hills at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

November 18: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society's Scotch Malt Whisky Extravaganza will be held at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica from 7:00pm-9:30pm. Sign up on their website, and don't forget to use your Sku discount: SRE2010. FTC Disclaimer: Sku was invited to attend this event free of charge.


Jim Murray's 2011 Whisky Bible is available for preorder. Now in its eighth year, the Whisky Bible is a massive compendium of whisky tastings. Murray rates whiskies of all types from all over the world. Now, I personally think Murray's ratings are pretty much useless, but it's a very thorough listing of current releases and it's always interesting to see what he thinks. More importantly, Murray is a great writer, and the articles in the front of the book, and prefacing each section, are usually worth the price alone.

The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011 is also available for preorder. The Yearbook is an invaluable tool for any whisky fan, with detailed listings of all of the malt whisky distilleries, bottlers, and blenders and containing articles reviewing the year in whisky. It's another one that I buy every year.

So drink, read and be happy!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Where in the World is the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection?

Each fall, American whiskey lovers wait with baited breath for the release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. This release typically features some of the best Bourbons and rye whiskeys in existence and includes George T. Stagg, William Laure Weller, Sazerac 18 year old rye, Thomas Handy rye and Eagle Rare 17. Typically, the releases are announced in September and advance reviews start going out in mid-October, which is around when the bottles are released in Kentucky. They typically don't make their way to California until late October/early November.

But this year, we've heard nothing from Buffalo Trace. We've seen no press releases, advance reviews or anything else. What's happening?

The reason we love the Antique Collection is that it is extremely high quality (among the best Bourbons on the market) at an extremely affordable price. Even the vaunted Stagg can usually be found for $75-$80. At a time when more and more American whiskeys are inching up over the $100 mark, especially for special releases, American whiskey lovers are especially thankful for the Antique Collection.

I've heard nothing in the way of rumors about what's happening, so hopefully, it's just an issue of production delays. This happens in the industry; for instance, the 2008 edition of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon wasn't released until early 2009, but usually, those problems are accompanied by some news from the distillery.

So, is this just a delay or are the folks at Buffalo Trace trying to build up suspense for something new? Anyone know what's going on and when we can get our Antiques?

UPDATE: Buffalo Trace announced this very day that they are releasing the Antique Collection, which will consist of the traditional lineup. I'm nothing if not timely.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Black Cod in Red Sauce at KangNam

I was glad to finally make it to KangNam on Olympic at the western edge of Koreatown. They have a wide and varied menu with BBQ and sushi, but seem to specialize in home-style dishes. It's sort of a less funky version of the food at Seongbukdong.

The fried oyster pancakes had a nice oyster flavor but were a bit too doughy; I would have liked to see a lower oyster to dough ratio. The boiled short rib is actually braised and served in a sweet jus with apples, cherries and chestnuts. The meat was tender, but the sauce was a bit thin. The KangNam version only made me yearn for the bolder braised kalbi at Seongbukdong.

But the spicy boiled black cod with mixed vegetables was a home run. The dish is a braised code with scallions, rice cake, tofu, daikon and assorted vegetables in a thick Korean chili paste braising sauce. The cod itself was cooked perfectly, maintaining its buttery texture while soaking up the spice from the sauce. The assorted accompaniments added a wide variety of textures and the sauce was sippable by the spoonful.

They also do a good, somewhat spicy chapchae (the ubiquitous Korean noodle dish that we always order for the kids).

4103 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
(323) 937-1070

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Prison Cheese" Proves Growing Problem for Correctional Authorities

Monitoring and policing the nearly 200,000 inmates in California prisons has long been a challenge for authorities. Officials constantly struggle with controlling contraband such as drugs and weapons, but now they face a new challenge: a rise in "prison cheese." Department of Corrections Media Relations Director Byron Hadley explains:

"For years we had problems with pruno, a fermented wine-type beverage that inmates would make in their toilets with fruit from the dining halls. Gradually, some inmates switched from produce to dairy, and now we increasingly have inmates producing cheese in these same cell block toilets."

Referred to by inmates as "milk rot," this homemade cheese has led to an increase in black market activity both in cheeses and cheese making supplies. Last month, a group of guards at Pelican Bay was arrested as part of black market ring that sold rennet tablets to inmates.

The problem has become so widespread in the system that different prisons are associated with different types of cheese. Ig Jenkins, director of the Department's new Contraband Cheese Task Force (CCTF), explains, "When we recover a cache of illegal cheese, we can tell where it comes from, which gives us clues to the lines of operation between different prisons in the system. For instance, Corcoron is a big cheddar producer. Solano is only a stone's throw from all of those Sonoma County goat farms, so if we see a chevre, we know there is a 95% chance it originated there."

But California's most notorious prison is also its most notorious source of contraband. According to Jenkins, "Pelican Bay is a cesspool of illegal cheese. I've seen everything you can think of come out of there, epoisse, livarot, guryere, ricotta salata, even feta."

The CCTF is up against great odds, but Jenkins believes the Task Force's approach needs to use a carrot as well as a stick.

"We can bust hundreds of illegal milk rot mongers, but until we give inmates an option beyond USDA Loaf Cheese in the dining halls, we're going to have to deal with this problem."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Passion Play

It's rare to find passion fruit in LA farmers' markets, but last Sunday I found a great batch of them at the Hollywood market. They are at the stand with yellow crates that sells mostly avocados, on Ivar, just north of the Selma intersection on the west side of the street.

Not only did they have that trademark, deep passion fruit flavor, but they actually had some sweetness to them (passion fruit tends to be quite tart). I have no idea if they will be around this Sunday, but if they are, I'm getting more.