Friday, July 29, 2011


I, upon waking,
felt overwhelming ennui.
Bow tie, salvation.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Government work, Part II

The next day, we decided to head up to the Adams Morgan area to visit Jack Rose, a new bar that had just opened a couple weeks before.  Having read about it on UrbanDaddy as a "library of whiskey," I was quite intrigued.  As we walked closer, however, I immediately noticed a line that had formed in front of the establishment, with the people standing in line dressed as if to go clubbing.  This sight gave me significant consternation and other feelings of foreboding.  Good whiskey and club are not words that are commonly associated.

Thankfully, we discovered upon reaching the door that the line was for the rooftop bar, and that there was no line for the main bar downstairs.  Later we learned that the ground floor bar had only just opened for service a couple days prior, and there was a general feeling of being unfinished around the edges.  However, the description of the place as a "library of whiskey" is not far from the truth, and not just any library.  The Library of Congress and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault come to mind, any available wall space in the rather large room was covered in shelves stocking whisk(e)y.  Purportedly, there were close to 500 bottles of rye and bourbon, and twice that of scotch.  We were lucky to snag a nice booth in the far corner with a semicircular banquette, and we had arrived just in time as the bar soon began to fill with those people outside who decided that having a drink inside beat waiting in line.

 Many whiskies adorn the walls of Jack Rose

There did not seem to be service at our table, so we went over to the bar to order drinks.  One difficulty with such a large selection of whiskey is curating it and presenting the list in some comprehensible form.  In this department, Jack Rose needed work as there was no list.  Thus, ordering a dram depended on what labels one could read and what labels one can remember offhand.  For my first drink, I wanted something to ease into as I had not had much scotch in some time.  I ended up getting the Glenkinchie 12, as the distillery is one that I had heard of, but never tried before.  This whisky came across with a lot of heather, honey and nuts; it was good, but nothing fantastic.

As some in my group had been before, they caught the attention of Rachel, the beverage director, and Bill, the proprietor.  Both of them were rather amiable despite the increasingly hectic atmosphere as more patrons filled the bar.  After being introduced, Bill asked what my pleasure was, and I joked that being a Tennessean, born and raised, I had to have certain loyalties.  This quip turned out to be quite fortuitous as he mentioned that he was about to open and try a bottle of George Dickel 10 year old special barrel reserve with another patron and that he would pour me a taste as well.  In addition to notes of corn, oak and straw that I expect from George Dickel, there was also strong hints of sugarcane and banana.  It ended up being a particularly special treat as I have since learned that this expression of George Dickel is no longer bottled.

My next dram was Abelour A'bunadh, another whisky that I had heard of before, but which I have never tried.  This one also came with both Carlos' and Rachel's recommendations.  Despite being a whisky that is certainly on the sweeter side, it definitely had far more depth and intensity than the Glenkinchie.  Full of caramel, chocolate sauce, dates, raisins, PX sherry, but put into frame with strong spice on the tongue.  Unfortunately, I did not catch which bottling of the A'bunadh it was, as bottlings can vary in taste quite distinctly.

In the mean time, Arthur and Casie started with Yamazaki 12, but then moved into cocktail territory.  Clare also stuck with cocktails, including the namesake Jack Rose.  Of what I tasted of the cocktails, I would personally stick to the whiskies.  Whereas the quality of cocktail served was not bad, it was nothing extraordinary, unlike the multitude of whiskies from which to choose.  Carlos, on the other hand, drank only scotches, like me.  However, his tastes led him to the smokier end of the spectrum, getting the Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 1990 first and the Ardbeg Corryvreckan second.  The Airigh Nam Beist was simply superb, one of the best whiskies I think I have thus far tasted.  At first, the nose brought iodine, peat and the idea of a Norse funeral.  However, the taste was quite balanced for an Islay.  Smokey peat was there, but subsumed by the symphony of other flavors: velvety cashew butter, tart apples, salted toffee, coffee, lavender and black pepper.  On the other hand, the Corryvreckan struck me as tasting exactly like burnt toast, maybe spread with a bit of Nutella, but thoroughly burnt nonetheless.

By the end of the night, as the bar was clearing out, Carlos and I both got half pours of the Bunnahabhain 12 and the Bunnahabhain Heavily Peated Unchillfiltered Signatory 1997.  Trying the 12 first, I was struck by how extremely slight the presence of peat is, despite Bunnahabhain being an Islay distillery.  Instead, I tasted a lot of dried grass, papaya and other tropical fruit.  The contrast was even more notable after sipping the Heavily Peated, which tasted more similar to what I have come to expect from Islay whiskies.  The latter was characterized by roasted nuts, seaside driftwood, throwing wet hay on a campfire, burnt toffee.

Bunnahabhain Heavily Peated Unchillfiltered Signatory 1997

Bill was a great host, and it was truly wonderful to try some of these delicious and rare whiskies.  Of the ones we tried, I believe the Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist, the George Dickel 10 year Special Reserve and the Bunnahabhain Heavily Peated Signatory are no longer bottled expressions.  There were a few snags in service, slowness and bartenders who are not thoroughly educated on the offerings, the latter problem exacerbated by the lack of a menu or list.  The slowness seemed to be caused by unfamiliarity on the one hand and only one cashier terminal with which to do all the monetary transactions.  Hopefully, both issues will be resolved soon as I would love to return next time I am in DC.

Government work, Part I

A couple weekends ago, I went down to DC for one of my frequent trips to visit my parents.  Ever since they have partially moved to DC this year, it is much easier to visit them as airfare between Boston and DC is relatively inexpensive and convenient.  Although this time, the flight down proved to be somewhat of a pain since thunderstorms in the DC area led to one flight cancellation and numerous delays.  Sadly, I was planning on having dinner with my parents, but the delays meant that that was not to be.  Instead, I had to grab a quick dinner at the Legal Test Kitchen next to the gate.  In hindsight, it did not need to be quick, as more delays soon followed.  In any case, with my dinner of a scallop and shrimp topped gumbo, I ordered a martini and specified 4:1, stirred, lemon twist.  What I got was a glass of cold gin with very little, if any vermouth, and it was shaken.  As my confidence in the bartender was similarly shaken as a consequence, I finished dinner with a dram of scotch neat and went back to waiting gate-side until we finally commenced boarding.

A couple hours later, the plane lands at DCA, but we sit on the tarmac for a good 20 or so minutes because apparently there were no open gates for us to debark.  By this point, the flight has not only ruined dinner, but became very close to ruining a reservation to go drinking as well.  Thus, as soon as we finally pulled into a gate, I ran off straight to the Metro to catch a train up to Columbia Room.  I arrived a few minutes late much to my dismay, but thankfully, I had not missed too much.

First off, you may be wondering why I was in such a hurry to make it to the bar on time.  Granted, I generally do not like to keep people waiting for me regardless of where I am meeting them.  However, in this case, being punctual was not simply a courtesy towards friends.  To better understand, allow me to explain what Columbia Room is.  Unlike most bars where one can walk up and take a seat at one's leisure, Columbia Room requires a reservation at a specific time for a specific number of guests.  Not only is the reservation to guarantee a seat at the bar, but also represents a commitment to a prix fixe tasting menu that consists of a trio of beverages and an amuse bouche alongside.

Upon arriving, I could see why such a policy exists.  I had been to Passenger, the watering hole within which Columbia Room resides, before, but I had not been to Columbia Room itself before.  After fumbling for a moment before knocking on the correct unmarked door, I was ushered into the antechamber of the speakeasy.  I was amiably greeted by the host, who checked my name off of the reservation ledger set upon the side table in the small, dimly lit room that felt in some ways like a parlor given the decor.  Off to the left was a private powder room separate from the facilities for Passenger, where I quickly freshened up from my journey.  Within the door to the right was the sanctum sanctorum, the bar itself.  Along one length of the oblong room was the bar with ten seats, and along the opposite wall was a raised banquette.  In some ways, it felt like a theater where the bartenders performed behind the stick and everyone else in the room faced this stage.

Joining my friends already seated at the bar, I was first presented with a cool, damp towel, an extremely welcome refresher given the heat of the day.  Small gestures such as this really elevated the experience above and beyond the ordinary.  Another example of seemingly trivial details was that the drinking water even had a hint of cucumber, thoroughly refreshing.  By the time I sat down, the bartender was already hard at work crafting a round of drinks.

The first drink we were served was the DCA to LAX, a light, punch-like tipple with Cocchi Americano, lemon juice, cane syrup, crème de mûre, prosecco and a blackberry garnish.  The name was even rather apropos as Arthur was to be moving out to the west coast in a week's time.  Certainly seasonal, I found it a touch sweet, and I felt that a bit of gin perhaps may have given it more balance for my palate.

Second, we were presented with a cocktail that contained Bulleit rye, acid phosphate, wild cherry soda, Bitter Truth aromatic bitters and an orange twist (the name for which I failed to write down).  Accompanying this drink was a small plate of roasted and candied peanuts with dried cherries.  Cherries were the direct link, but the pairing went beyond that as the crunchy, caramelized, slightly spicy and buttery snack complemented the cocktail well.  The use of acid phosphate in this drink also stimulated a conversation with one of the bartenders, Katie, over Darcy O'Neil's book, Fix the Pumps, and a  recent New York Times article on the subject.

The last drink of the night is not set, unlike the previous two, and gives both the customer and the bartender a chance to explore further.  Casie started things off by ordering a Martini upon Katie's recommendation.  Made with equal parts Tanqueray No. 10 and Dolin Dry with a dash of orange bitters and a lemon twist, this martini was infinitely better than the one I had in the airport just a few hours prior.  In addition to the unusual proportions of gin to vermouth, the other notable feature of this preparation was the use of a thermometer such that the drink is stirred to a temperature of no greater than 31ºF.

Next, Arthur requested something with applejack since he is a fan of the Jack Rose, and Katie obliged with a Pink Lady.  Quite similar to the Jack Rose with applejack, lemon and grenadine, the addition of Plymouth gin and the white of an egg rather changes the complexion of the cocktail.  It is drier without losing the fragrance of the applejack.  Carlos then challenged Katie to make him something with rum, which resulted in the Getaway: Cruzan Blackstrap, lemon juice, Cynar and cane sugar syrup.  The richness of the Blackstrap was nicely balanced by the other ingredients, and the combination with the Cynar brought out somewhat of a smokiness.

When I asked for bartender's choice with open-ended parameters, Katie quickly asked whether I was up for something funky, to which I replied in the affirmative.  Whether its a rhum agricole from Martinique or George Clinton's Parliament, I do love funk.  The drink that resulted was a Mezcal Old-Fashioned made with Los Nahuales Blanco, chai-infused maple syrup and Bitter Truth Aromatic, Grapefruit, and Celery bitters.  While I have had other mezcal old-fashioned cocktails before, the different bitters and unique sweetener resulted in a novel experience.

Mezcal Old-Fashioned

Columbia Room was a pretty fantastic experience.  Small, quiet and intimate, this bar is one for serious tippling.  However, the gravitas therein did not obscure the camaraderie.  Katie, PJ and the other bartender whose name I did not catch were all very hospitable, and we all had a great time drinking and chatting.  Perhaps because we were seated in the very center of the bar, or perhaps because we were among the last people there at the end of the night, but I felt like we were spoiled with the amount of attention that we received.  My one complaint is that it is not cheap, but as with fine dining, one pays just as much for the atmosphere and service as one pays for the quality of food or drink.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Overcoming sickness

As some of you may know, I was stricken down with some nonsense midsummer's illness for a couple weeks in June that really put me out of commission.  After my initial fever subsided, I was still struggling with a particularly bad sore throat and persistent coughing, which still bugs me a little even now.  Since benzonatate, codeine, pseudoephedrine and guaifenesin failed to really help, I turned to home remedies: salt water gargles, hot tea and Chinese loquat syrup.  Oh right, and a touch of bourbon.

For instance, adding a touch of bourbon to Korean yujacha (citron tea) was quite soothing for my sore throat.  However, as my cough became the biggest issue, I decided to ratchet up the intensity a bit.  First, I made a Frisco Sour, but I quickly realized that my taste buds were shot, making the Benedictine taste quite bizarre.

Frisco Sour
2 oz rye
1 oz Benedictine
3/4 oz lemon juice

Next, I decided to just focus on therapy, combining bourbon, lemon juice and honey to get what I euphemistically called my cough medicine for a few days.  You'll note in the picture below that its not too dissimilar in appearance to the Frisco Sour above.  Having tasted it again after having recovered, its actually quite overpowering.  Note that I didn't dilute the honey at all.  However, when sick, it didn't taste too bad and actually let me sleep for a bit before it wore off and the coughing started again.

Cough Medicine
2 oz bourbon
2 oz 1:1 syrup of lemon juice and honey

Happily, despite my lingering cough, I can sleep fully and taste properly again.  Moreover, for me, this impromptu cough medicine worked better than the prescription codeine, so I might as well save it in my back pocket for future ailments.

Patience rewarded

Sometimes patience is required in more abundance than I typically possess.  Waiting is not my forte, especially not when waiting for something delicious.  However, stashing things in the back of the linen closet, out of sight and out of mind, does help the process along significantly.  Along with curing meats, infusing liquor is one of a class of projects that demands willpower.  In this particular case, I speak of my limoncello project.

Back in March, when Meyer lemons were approaching the end of their season, I could not resist buying a few (read, a dozen).  While I could not help myself to some immediately, I did save the majority for making limoncello.  The first challenge was deciding how to make the limoncello, as there are many methods described.  One major division is the decision to use peel only or use the whole fruit.  As my understanding of limoncello is that it should be neither bitter nor sour, I opted to use just the peels.  The next question is whether to infuse with zest or with strips of peel.  In this, practicality had a lot to do with my decision.  As my zester is not particularly good, whereas my knife is quite sharp, I opted for the latter.  Additionally, pictures I have seen seem to indicate that zest yields an opaque product whereas strips produces a transparent liqueur, and I slightly favor the clearer result.

Thus, several months ago, I began the arduous task of peeling the lemons and then filleting the peels to remove as much of the pith as possible. After several hours hunched over the cutting board, I had the peels of 8 Meyer lemons in the jar, and I proceeded to cover them with 100 proof vodka that I had lugged over from New Hampshire.  For the first few days, I would swirl the jar daily, but then I stashed it in the back of my linen closet to make it easier to age without tempting my impatience.  After a couple months, I then made approximately 400mL of 1:1 simple syrup and added it to the jar, giving it another swirl and hiding it away again.

Limoncello after 3.5 months of infusion

Sadly, I forgot to take a time initial picture, but the above is a picture of the jar right before I bottled, about 3.5 months after the infusion began.  Part of the reason why I infused for so long was because I simply forgot it for awhile; putting it in the back of the linen closet really did work.  One thing that is not immediately apparent from the picture is that the color of the peels had really leached, leaving the peels a very light, whitish yellow and the liqueur a goldenrod, if not amber color.  After straining out the peels by pouring it through a handkerchief and strainer, I bottled the concoction and placed it in the freezer.

Limoncello, bottled and chilled

For a first attempt, its actually pretty tasty.  There is a lot of lemon fragrance, not just lemon oil, but also some floral aspects to it as well.  Additionally, since it is made with Meyer lemons, it does not seem as bright as regular limoncello, but with more honeyed sweetness instead.  A certain herbal quality is also present, thyme perhaps.  One detractor though is the presence of an alcohol burn that is rather unpleasant and probably caused by the high proof vodka I started with, although I didn't try the vodka on its own before using it.  Alas, I am not sure whether a bit of dilution would help or whether the vodka taste is irremovable.  Perhaps next time I make a batch, I will try with a cleaner tasting vodka.  Burn aside, the taste is quite pleasant and leaves a sunniness on the tongue for some time after swallowing.  Perfect for a nip after a long summer day.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


For my birthday back in May, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner as I am generally wont to do whenever I help myself to a bit of indulgence.  As it was my friend Jose's birthday a couple weeks prior, we arranged to pamper ourselves together.  The question of where to go was actually quite easily settled.  Although there are plenty of Boston area restaurants that are fantastic and on my list of places to try, one stood out in particular, Craigie on Main.

Yes, I had been there for drinks at the bar on a few occasions, and a few other gentlemen and I did track down their renowned burger after much effort.  However, I had never been there for a full dinner, the most complete experience.  Especially with Chef Tony Maws again nominated for a James Beard Award, which he would win a few days after I made our reservation, I wanted to experience it fully.  Thus, we made our way over to Central Square late one Sunday night for the Chef's Whim, a weekly special that promises inventiveness and spontaneity.

Joined also by Amy and Joy, our foursome wasted no time in making merry, starting with a round of aperitifs before dinner.  I chose the Bellwether cocktail, made with green apple and almond infused Dolin Dry, St. Germain, yellow Charteuse, Macon-Villages chardonnay and sparkling wine.  Assuredly, it was exactly the light aperitif that I desired, an enhanced flute of champagne in many ways with each of the other ingredients adding depth and complexity.

Since we were not sure what exactly was on the menu until it was set upon the table before us, choosing a bottle of wine was somewhat difficult.  Thus, it seemed that the safest option would be to go for something in the middle of the spectrum.  Avoiding wines that might be too overwhelming, we decided to go for a bottle of L'Ancien Beaujolais 2008 from Jean-Paul Brun.  It turned out to be not an unreasonable choice with its lighter body laced with raspberries complemented by a backbone of earthiness reminiscent of the forest after an autumnal rain.  Consequently, it could hold up to the stronger flavors presented but never threatened to overwhelm anything either.

With that important bit of business settled, there was naught left but to enjoy the food.  First up was a dish of squid noodles with nuoc cham, toasted garlic, and breakfast radish.  For me, this was actually the most memorable dish.  From my understanding, the squid was cut into the shape of noodles, and they had fantastic texture, not too chewy, but that ideal balance that I think of as QQ.  I would be quite interested to know how the squid noodles were cooked exactly as the texture really was quite perfect for squid.  As for the taste, Jose remarked, quite rightly I think, that the dish was quite reminiscent of gambas al ajillo with the combination of seafood and garlic.  This dish is of that category where one begs for more after the last bite has been taken.

Next, we were served smoked and citrus cured char topped with white and green asparagus that had been shaved and maple glazed, microgreens, shallots, bulgur wheat and a buttermilk vinaigrette.  At the time of the dinner, we were very much in the middle of asparagus season, and I simply could not get enough.  The way they were prepared here was most definitely superior to my own attempt at shaved asparagus.  Here, they retained more sweetness and crispness.  I am sure that there is also some difference in quality since I bought mine from Stop & Shop.  The char was also tasty, very much like lox.  However, at times, I was not sure of the harmony in the dish and probably would have preferred just more asparagus.

A course of tempura soft-shelled crab with a squid ink anchoiade, preserved lemons, dehydrated olives and a Louisiana-style slaw followed.  This was some of the most deftly fried soft-shelled crab I have ever had, hitting that perfect juncture of crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.  I was a huge fan of the anchoiade and had to stop myself from licking it off the plate; although, not everyone at the table shared in my tastes.  Sadly, I cannot find the words to fully describe how delightful I found this dish.

For the fourth course, we were treated to rye straccetti, morel and rabbit ragu, guanciale.  I certainly have a soft spot for good, fresh pasta, and the straccetti was spot on: toothsome with nuttiness and spice elevating it far beyond supermarket stuff.  The morel and rabbit ragu alone was also meaty and umami-savory while not being overly rich, and it would have rescued even that insipid supermarket stuff.  And really, who can say no to guanciale.  Perhaps it can best be described as comfort food, but by no means to I mean that as anything less than a compliment.  Again, another dish that I wanted more when there was no more to be had.

Dinner continued with confit chicken thigh topped with foie gras foam and chive flowers and served alongside sauteed spinach, young vidalia onions and a prune, almond and parsnip tzimmes.  Personally, this course could not compare with the elation from previous one.  The chicken certainly was well-prepared and quite good in its own right, but it did feel quite as exciting.  Also, I do not mean to be culturally insensitive, but tzimmes just does not quite satisfy me as it seems muddled and overly sweet to my palate.

By this point, we were all quite full, but dessert was yet to come.  Since there were four of us, I thought it quite clever that each one of us was served a different sweet and expected to share.  This arrangement suited my tastes as I always want to try a bit of everything without feeling too stuffed at the end.  The four were: an olive oil chocolate mousse with elderflower meringue and tangerine foam; an apricot frangipane with amaretto ice cream and pistachios; a bourbon pecan ice cream tart with a bacon pecan crust and a smoked Mexican chocolate sauce; and a panna cotta with brown butter powder, cashew coriander granola, and a dried cherry and kirsch puree.  Of course, my favorite was the bourbon pecan ice cream tart because, well, just read the list of ingredients again.  I also found the frangipane to be quite good with the strong flavors of marzipan and amaretto, although perhaps the apricot got a little lost amidst all the nuttiness.  The panna cotta was like eating breakfast.  Although, if breakfast always tasted as good, I would probably eat breakfast more often.  Additionally, the brown butter powder was an excellent touch, reminding me of Grant Achatz's powdered caramel.  While the mousse was again tasty, it also failed to capture my imagination as I feel that the combination of chocolate and olive oil has become a bit of a fad.

At the end of this fantastic meal, we probably could have rolled out the door.  All in all, it was fabulous and delicious.  I want to reiterate again that my more critical comments above are really quite nitpicking, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  Craigie certainly is on my list of recommendations for Boston's best restaurants.  Last, allow me to express my gratitude to my friends who came along, willing to indulge me as I indulge myself.