Monday, September 25, 2023

After Years of Hunting Rabbit, The Dead Rabbit

Finally going to a place you've have put the years into yearned-to-be is a fraught experience. Expectations of greatness are difficult to meet, let alone by something that hopes to be a pub. A really damn good one. Say, one that has twice been named best bar in the world at Tales of the Cocktail.

So maybe that's why instead of trying to write up my at last visit to the lauded Dead Rabbit in FiDi* New York, I instead decided to craft a cocktail from the bar's first book, The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog  Drinks Manual (Houghton Mifflin, 2015). Turns out that a Bijou, inspired by Harry Johnson's 1900 Bartenders' Manual, is an almost perverse delight--gin and sweet vermouth in equal parts, with some Green Chartreuse (get them monks into the glass for a good time), and soupçons of orange bitters, Angostura bitters, and Pernod. You do "garnish" by expressing orange peel over the drink, but discard the peel (pay attention, that detail will be important later).

*That's short for Financial District, and despite our desires, it's not, alas, pronounced, feh-DEE.

The Dead Rabbit--which takes its name from one of the Irish gangs that roamed these tip of Manhattan streets in the 19th century--earns its Irishness as its founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry are two self-proclaimed "Belfast boys" who first kicked butt in their hometown, then came to New York City, because if you can make it there.... (I so didn't want to do that, but couldn't help myself.) Of all things the location is around the corner from Fraunces Tavern--you know, where Washington bid farewell to his troops--so certainly offers historical bonafides. Even if most of the current TDR building was part of the build out beyond the heavy-hewed ceiling beams, it certainly has a been-around feel in the best way. You feel as if you're entering an old lair of cocktail loveliness.

It doesn't hurt that the service is far from gruff pub land. Someone opens the door as you climb the stairs to enter. You are ushered to the host stand, and led upstairs--if you are us with a reservation--to the Parlor, billed "the cocktail cathedral" on their website. (The first floor, the Taproom, offers punch and different drinks and Irish coffee and louder craic and conviviality; the top floor, the Occasional room, is for special events.)

If you get sat at the bar in the Parlor, as we were, no one will be standing behind you. It's only table and bar seating, loud enough to feel buzzy, but the buzzing won't takeover your head. Plus you get to order direct from the bartender, the only one, actually, who manages to work steadily but never in a frenzy. It's a place of calm. It's like they took service tips from the French Laundry, almost, how well-timed everything is, how knowledgeable everyone is, how pleasant. 

And then there's that book above (see the entire book as PDF online). Twenty-two cocktails await (a brief panic as to how to choose and choose the best!), arranged in pairs of Tradition and Tomorrow, although Tradition is mucked with in yummy ways most of the time. The categories: Effervescent, Martini, Gimlet, Egg White, Daisy, Whiskey Sour, Savory, Tiki, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Bitter. We scan through, and realize it might be smart for our hopefully hangover-free tomorrows to pick a core liquor and pick two of each we hope to consume over the evening. It didn't seem prudent to go from gin to scotch, say. That made whiskey an easy choice, given it grounded several of the categories.

Plus we both wanted a Buttoned Up (Chryss luckily got it), the traditional Old Fashioned. 

Each cocktail gets its own page--how seen and honored each one must feel in this temple to potent potables. TDR helpfully offers three distinguishing characteristics for each drink, a charming drawing from the Great British Bake-Off school of culinary sketches (except the finished product actually does look like its drawing at TDR), and the ingredients. Who doesn't want an opulent char, especially one that layers Angel's Envy Bourbon and Craigellachie Armagnac Cask Scotch? You know how it is--those who are buttoned-up often conceal the most power. Plus, what a perfect, clear hunk of ice. (I really need to raise my home ice game--TDR sort of shames me.)

I couldn't resist the Whiskey Sour of tomorrow, especially because I had to Google several of its ingredients (why drink what I already know?). The Amazake Kick lived up to its dried fruit, ready, robust descriptors. Amazake, which auto-correct doesn't know either, so I don't feel so bad having to look it up, is a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice; TDR gives even that a twist, via Ireland, of course, making theirs from soda bread. That helps led to the breadiness, of course, and the welcome homeyness is always darling in a drink. Once again there are two whiskeys--they love layering on the core pours--and then there's the odd Danish product Plum I Suppose, from Empirical, a bright botanical liqueur that brings marigold and plum. A drink like this one makes me want to be Sour a lot tomorrow.

We also ordered both versions of the Manhattan, what with our whiskey predilection for the evening and, well, that was where we were, after all. The "traditional" Jupiter Switch did what we like to do at home--use Amaro--but even gave that an unusual nudge by making it green walnut Amaro. Not that a hint of nocino is unwelcome or even that unusual in a Manhattan, but that earthy/nuttiness is a hearty touch, especially with the eucalyptus and cacao extending all the flavor's edges.

Tomorrow's Clare to Cádiz made me wonder if the present day and tomorrow are closer than they first appear. It's good to know elegance won't go out of style in the future, as this drink combines for a laser precise lusciousness, and then just enough extender notes--that hint of apple, the edge of nettle--to make it imminently quaffable. 

Most notable about all the cocktails--none were served with garnishes. The aromatics were all poured into the glass, and nothing detracted from the prefect crystal and the combined elixirs inside. And combined they always were. Cocktails at TDR--at least our four pours--all did that "let's make a whole new terrific taste" trick, as opposed to the, "I'm getting the whiskey, I'm getting vermouth, I'm getting the Angostura" bippity-bip moments of some cocktails elsewhere. 

I would also be remiss if I left out the food. I came in with little to no expectations there, assuming it would be all about the mixology. But I was sorely wrong. It's pub food, yes, but every bit as thought-through as the cocktail menu. Take these perfect deviled eggs, elevated with smoked salmon, herbed creme fraiche, caviar, espelette and dill. Savory, creamy, salty, devilishly addictive.

And we didn't photograph the rest of our food, partially as the light was dim enough (no, not too) that good photography wasn't easy, and partially because we were hungry (our evening came after a day of coast-to-coast flying and conquering the NYC transit system with two suitcases). Chryss had the fish and chips, a large enough platter we could have shared it even in our famished state--Harp Lager battered cod, mushy peas, crispy chips, and Ballymaloe tartar sauce (which made us recall our impressive lunch at Ballymaloe a few years back). Each item was nailed.

I went for the Bangers and Mash, a plate named simply so that every thirteen year old boy could suffer a giggle fit. The Cumberland sausage themselves were tasty little numbers, the pork in a good grind and well-spiced. But, of course, this dish is all about its accoutrements, especially that scallion-flecked mash potato, creamy yet not mush, and a lick-the-plate worthy gravy that brought the whole dish together.

The Dead Rabbit surpassed all expectations, and then some. It was mighty hard not to try one last tipple--I regret passing on their Irish coffee, but I don't regret not falling hard asleep that evening, too.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Drinking "Hidden" Italy: Poggio Stenti


With late September's plethora of perfect tomatoes, it's been sauce season*. We make so much we freeze it, too, so any evening's pasta can elevate with a blast of the bounty. 

*While I grew up in northern Jersey, I'm just too Slav through-and-through to call it gravy.

That means digging out the right wine to match from the cellar, of course. That's how I came to open a bottle of the 2018 Poggio Stenti Tribulo, a Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG. This is a wine that's very farm-based; the estate's 30 hectares contains vineyards, an olive grove and barley, spelt and wheat crops. So think integrative farming--done 100% organically--and some real terroir. Of course Montecucco isn't exactly a region many know (and only partially because the English language function on the consortium's website only works on a few of the site's pages). It's south of the more famed Tuscan regions like Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, and closer to the Mediterranean (not that there's much sea influence). 

Even at five years in bottle, it opened a bit grippy to almost chalky, as Chryss put it, but with air it softened up some, while still packing Sangio tannins. The fruit presented raspberries leaning into blackberries, with maybe a quick nap of balsamic vinegar. But this isn't a fruit bomb, not with its suggestions of tar, earth, black pepper, anise. It grew more complex as the night went on (and don't you want your nights to do that?). 

Our tomato sauce was very pleased.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A Review of "Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility," edited by Rebecca Solnit & Thelma Young Lutunatabua


It’s not lost on me that I’m reading Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (Haymarket Books) as I take a fuel-guzzling flight cross country. As much as the 28 essays that Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua have gathered provide hope, ammunition, community, congratulations for small gains along the way, as much as I don’t need to be in the slightest convinced that our human-caused climate crisis is destroying our planet (I also have recently left Maui a mere four days before Lahaina was consumed), I stand accused, too. And let’s not even get to our beloved vintage gas-burning Wedgewood stove….

Of course, how can’t we all take the boiling/flooding/drought-stricken/on fire end of the world personally? A collection like Not Too Late by its very nature tends to speak more to the converted no matter how hard its authors hope otherwise, and even the converted among us always yearn we might somehow be exceptions. It certainly helps that’s it’s only a few pages into the book when co-editor Lutunatabua asserts, “The question shouldn’t be Will my actions be enough? but Will our actions be enough? This is a communal quest in which everyone can bring their talents, visions, desires, access—and if one person struggles, we can help each other up.”

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

A Review of "The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder" by David Grann


A study of skullduggery and heroism, vainglory and stiff-upper lips, the unbelievable odyssey that is David Gann’s latest nonfiction work The Wager also manages to tear at the evils of empire, 18th century edition. That very direct subtitle makes clear the book won’t be a mystery: British vessels set sail hoping to bag a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure, all part of the now forgotten War of Jenkins’ Ear, endeavoring to sail around Cape Horn, a passage of unimaginable waves and wind, only to lead to…well, you just read the subtitle. But as a study of human will tested to its utmost, and beyond (eventually there’s even some cannibalism of corpses), The Wager (the all-too-perfect name of the ship that wrecks) fascinates. Gann (Killers of the Flower Moon) even gets to vividly paint a portrait of a roaring sea battle along the way. 

 To be honest, it’s a pretty critic-proof book. A page-turner thanks to the amazing twists and turns the ever smaller crew of the Wager suffers (passages about typhus and scurvy are particularly affecting), what’s most striking is how much Grann keeps writerly moves out of the way. Crucially, he’s an ace historian, digging through volumes of firsthand accounts of 1740-1746, synthesizing generally self-interested tales effectively. Central to that is an account written based on one of the perilous journey’s few logbooks, that of gunner John Bulkeley, devout Christian, experienced seaman, natural leader, reluctant mutineer. Alas, when those that survived the ordeal made it back to England, they were welcomed by the age of Grub Street, when “the loosening of government censorship and wider literacy” meant an insatiable appetite for what would not yet be called yellow journalism for several more centuries.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Vivid Green Sodas Drink Furiously


How fitting with another Teenage Mutant Ninja Moneymaker out that Jones Soda Co. has concocted their current special release that has the glowing hue of Mutagen. The good news is the soda won't genetically modify you or you loved ones, artfully-named turtles or otherwise. Nope, this gloriously green soda shouts its flavors in neon--it's Hatch chile and lime. As the label suggests, the pepper temp is at best a low burn, one that kind of warms up your palate as you get to the bottom of the bottle. You get a bit of the smoky characteristic Hatch is known for, but not a ton--I doubted the chiles are roasted before being infused, or however their "natural flavors" are extracted. The color comes from Yellow 5 and Blue 1, btw, but this is soda after all. It's not like you drink it for your health.

It is mighty tasty and just fun to consume, though. How pleasing is that vibrant green? And if you're going to give in to the flabbergastingly successful Hatch Chile marketing campaign--how one valley conquered the rest of New Mexico's chiles, not to mention their Anaheim cousins, I'll never quite figure out--you might as well get a smile out of it.

The consumer-provided "Reel labels" are a hoot, too. Each bottle offers a QR code so you can upload an image and maybe one day your photo will grace something retina-burningly chartreuse too.

For further research--seeing how well this Hatch Chile and lime works as a mixer in a cocktail; I'd have to imagine a splash of mezcal couldn't hurt.

Monday, August 14, 2023

A Review of "Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House" by Alex Prud’homme


Freedom Fries—the bogus re-naming bestowed by right-wingers requiring simple-minded revenge during the Iraq War when France was a hesitant ally to the US—weren’t the first occasion food nomenclature became a patriotic battlefield. During World War I, Herbert Hoover, then the head of Woodrow Wilson’s Food Administration and years prior to his own presidency, decided sauerkraut was too Germanic to stomach. He renamed it Liberty Cabbage. If tasty bits of trivia like that entertain, they will be one of the many motors propelling you through Alex Prud’homme’s extensive and entirely fascinating Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House

 Believing “the president is the eater in chief,” Prud'homme explores not only what was eaten and with whom in the White House, but also the history of U.S. food policy. In his introduction he asserts, “[The President’s] messaging about food touches on everything from personal taste to global nutrition, politics, economics, science, and war—not to mention race, class, gender, money, religion, history, culture, and many other things.” Overall, the enlightening volume — complete with 10 presidential recipes so you can play White House chef at home — provides Prud’homme with the opportunity (as he told me in an interview I conducted with him for a different publication) “to look at American history through the lens of food, which, oddly, has never been done before. I was surprised to find out there hadn’t been a book quite like this, so that was a blessing for me.”

Care to read the rest then do at the California Review of Books.

Monday, July 17, 2023

CA Shindig at the Shore

What could get more California Wine Festival, Santa Barbara edition, held this past weekend, than this view? How much could anyone argue with that?

True enough, there's so much going on--vendor booths hawking clothes, cakes, candles and more, a "Best Tri-Tip in the 805" competition, live Caribbean music from the band Upstream, booths offering beer--its emphasis is almost more on fest than wine. But wine ultimately is all about good times, making memories, enjoying. So the Festival had that down.

Not to downplay the wineries present. The event really does span the state, from Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley all the way to a host of wineries from Temecula with a stop at the Tri-Valleys tasting table (that's Livermore, btw), so you could taste all sorts of varietals. It does provide a kind of odd portrait if you hope to make some more conclusive opinions about the vinous state of our state, but there was plenty delicious to be had, from old faves like Navarro and Napa's Cuvaison and Paso's Austin Hope to newer discoveries (at least for me) like Mizel Estate, in the Malibu AVA, or Goldschmidt Vineyards, pouring elegant, built for aging Bordeaux varietals from Alexander Valley and Oakville.

Call me a homer, but of course some of the best showing pours came from right here in Santa Barbara, and I could have happily camped at the Santa Rta. Hills Wine Alliance table, which kept bringing out different wonderful gems as the afternoon went on, from Loubud sparkling to Pinot Noir from Dragonette, Brewer-Clifton, and Montemar. When I wind up turning one down as it's just an SRH and not a Radian Vineyard, well, we are pretty lucky, you know?

The main section of the fest certainly offered plenty for carnivores, what with all the samples for the tri-tip contest right inside the gate (each festival-goer got a vote). Other food was dotted throughout the spaciously laid out area in Chase Palm Park, giving people plenty of room (even if there's always somebody who parks himself--yes, it's generally a dude--at the front of the wine sample line to chat and drink through, folks behind him be-damned). Some you could buy--those cakes at SiSi Cakes sure looked delicious--and some you could sample, as they lured you into a purchase, like the super tasty crackers at Savory Bites

We were lucky enough to score VIP tickets, and that section of the festival offered even more upscale eats, even better, more from Santa Barbara, too. (OK, I really am a homer.) From Blue Owl's fried rice to Finch & Fork's wheat blini with Santa Barbara Smokehouse salmon, green olive, agro dolce, and bachelor button, many a taste tempted. Special credit to Finch & Fork for making something you could just pop in your mouth--people don't think through the ease of eating issues for festivals enough. Sure, it's great be generous, but if half the bigger bite you prepared ends up on my shirt, I won't think super kindly of you, restaurateur.  

That's not to say other food didn't also impress--the faux nigiri offered by Fysh Food was not just scrumptious, but also sustainable (please tell me our oceans won't be empty of fish by 2048), and Rosalynn Supper Club, which I'm probably not hip enough to eat at in LA itself, had two flavor bombs, a scallop with cilantro roasted scallion chimichurri, green Szechuan peppercorn, aged soy, and red chili oil, and a "flank steak" that was actually pork, seared and served with a mix of passion fruit herb sauce, Nam Jim, fish sauce, This chili, mint, Thai basil, and cilantro. Just the full listing of the items should make it clear how wild and rich these offerings were.

To be honest, throughout the festival, the vibe was a bit more LA than SB, with lots of folks so well-dressed and prettified that I joked many were likely to be the next victim on a season of White Lotus. But that's just me being provincial. A fun time was had been a lot of folk. I just assume many of them wound there way to the nearby train station and went south afterward.

A lucky few of us also had the opportunity to continue the party at an after event at nearby winery Skyenna. All thanks to sponsors Sommsation, who helped set up the wine and food pairings at the after-party (as that's what they do), and Hexclad, who also helped sponsor the VIP section and gave the cooks there some beautiful pots and pans to cook with.