Friday, August 31, 2012

Bob Spitz Brings Julia Child to Life

Like everyone who had the good fortune to meet Julia Child — the iconic television chef and longtime Santa Barbara resident whose 100th birthday would have been on August 15 — the author of her new biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, has a tale to tell.

“I was in Italy in 1992 working on magazine articles when I got a call from the Italian travel commission,” said Bob Spitz. “They asked, would I mind being an escort for an older woman? I told them I don’t do that kind of work, but then they said it was Julia Child, and I said I’d be right there. I got to spend three weeks in Sicily with nothing to do but eat and talk with Julia. It was a foundation experience.”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Indy's site.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

C-Food, A+

How fitting it was that for our anniversary celebration we got to enjoy one of the best marriages of talent Santa Barbara could muster on Sunday night at a pop-up dinner at Municipal Winemakers featuring Cindy Black of the Blue Owl cooking using the seafood caught by Sea Stephanie Fish (aka Stephanie Mutz). This was truly a feast, listed as a three-course meal but much much more, especially with Dave Potter pouring generously, and for the last two courses from milk jugs (you can age in them! only kidding) since the 2011 Moorman Vineyard Pinot Noir and the delectable 2010 Lopez Ranch Cucamonga Zinfandel Port aren't bottled yet. But that does mean there's lots to look forward to from Municipal, and when I go on and on about the food you didn't have, there's at least that consolation.

The evening kicked off with lots of 2011 Bright White Dry Riesling, the perfect pairing for a salad that could have easily been my entire meal and left me totally happy. Part of that happiness comes from getting to include the words Semicossyphus pulcher into this entry, a name much more suggestive and catchy than California sheephead, which is the type of fish featured in an incredible salad. Stephanie joked she liked to call lobster "rich man's sheephead," and it did have more of that luxurious taste and texture, especially when Cindy Black got done with it, both grilling it and then pickling it (or vice versa?), so it had some of that good charcoal flavor and then the quick zing of the pickle-process too. That set the chunks up well to star in a salad full of all sorts of greens, from mint to dandelion (I think) to other herbs too numerable to mention. Then add pistachios, grapefruit, and tomatoes-a-bursting with flavor for more brights and acids and different levels of chew. Oh, and there was even quinoa, and it was so good one of our finicky tablemates exclaimed afterwards, "That's the most quinoa I've ever eaten, and I liked it!"

The menu for the evening suggested that for course the second "You should go outside." There we were met with platters of rock crab, mallets, and trucks waiting to whisk our soon-to-be-crab-besplattered clothes off to the dry cleaners. (OK, made that part up.) We got to whack away at our crabs, served cold and doused with a lemongrass-chili oil, plate them up, and then head back in to enjoy, where a platter of grilled vegetables (oh those romano beans--now that was edible summer rich in garlic oil and carbon char) and corn grilled in uni butter awaited. Now, I did my time in Maryland so I still long for the tradition of camping out at a table piled high with Old Bay steamed blue crabs that you pick at all day while drinking beer, so this was my idea of a great time. Rock crabs are heartier than blues, though, so one of my thumbs took one for the team getting through the shell some--the good news is a bit of blood is a fine accompaniment to lemongrass chili oil. By the way, in that photo, that's a big chunk of bread on my crab, soaked with the oil, too, because you can't get too much of that good a flavor.

Here's the vegetable platter we got nowhere close to finishing, despite 6 of us at the family-style-served table. Warning-the tomatoes in the photo are yummier than they appear.

I didn't get a photo of another portion of this feast, Kellet's whelk flatbreads, another item I could have eaten all night. Black has a way with dough, so simply the surprisingly thick bread itself was wonderful, with good pull on the inside and some crunch on the out, but then the chopped whelks were a cross between abalone-snail-clam to taste and not in the slightest rubbery, and atop all that was a healthy handful of chopped cilantro. So good.

As for dessert, there's no photo of that either, as I think I ate it. Dessert, that is, not the photo. I'm a sucker for gallettes, as the dough is always tasty and it doesn't bother with nicety--it's just folded over in a rustically beautiful way and let's the fruit peek out suggestively. (The suggestion: eat me.) This gallette, fired up in the oak oven so it had that extra character, too, starred apples and grapes, but then also was sprinkled with figs and berries, so was a fruit-wonderment. I only regret I was too full to have two pieces.

Cindy, Stephanie, and Dave, you all knocked it out of the park.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Telling Tales of the Cocktail

Cocktails are always about tales — whether tall or twice-told, honest or half-forgotten, centuries old or made up on the spot—so there couldn’t be a better name for the libation celebration known as Tales of the Cocktail, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Even better, it goes down annually in New Orleans, home to the oldest of drinking tales, and replete with bartenders both knowledgeable — such as the chap who poured me a drink named after Betty Flanagan, the 19th-century James Fenimore Cooper character who supposedly first stirred a drink with a cock’s tail — and quick-witted, like the nattily dressed mixologist who, while finishing a table of drinks with mist from what looked like a perfume atomizer, told an onlooker that the drink contained “Chanel No. 5.” (It was really absinthe.)

If you want to read the rest do so at the Indy's site. (This is the overall over-view feature that ran in the paper and online.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pulling Out the Stolps

They call it Magic Hour for a reason, the last hour of sunlight each day allows. Contrast flattens, it seems less possible to hide in shadow, land and sky meet easily in an in-between glow. Terrence Malick figured this out when he shot one of the most gorgeous films ever, Days of Heaven, and you can see a bit of it and hear from its camera operator John Bailey here. Or you can go have your own day of heaven by attending an event like Dinner in the Vineyard at the Stolpman Vineyards back on August 4.

Part of the fun was a hayride about the property with either Tom or Peter Stolpman as your guide. Incomparable views greeted you from every hilltop--especially when you didn't have to get out on too steep a hill so the truck could putter the rest of the way up with less weight. It's fun to see where what has to be the best white wine in the region right now--L'Avion Roussanne--grows in the very level spot where barnstorming fliers once touched down (hence the name). But you also learn that this place is so dedicated to organic farming and to dry-farming that it's slowly converting its vines to own-stock. They bank on the phylloxera not being able to get across the dry soils, and therefore, there's no need for grafting onto resistant rootstock. And then there's Ruben's Block, the grapes growing in tight little upside-down V's on a quickly-dropping crest, meaning everything must be done by hand. Welcome to the U.S. doing its best Cote Rotie impersonation.

Of course, festivals do not exist on tours alone, so there was also plenty of good live music (wish I caught the band's name), fine wine (of course, it was all Stolpman, and winemaker Sashi Moorman is a master), and a buffet provided by J.R.'s Gourmet Catering beyond what was needed given everything else was so great. It kicked off with a salad that could have been a meal on many nights, not just greens but very ripe pear slices, blackberries, goat cheese. It didn't feature tomatoes, though, for they got their own special plate, with basil and a note from summer saying it was happy to be invited. And when I say plate I need to clarify--the tomatoes were brought out on a platter carved out of wine barrel staves--very fitting, very large, very lovely. Then there was one of those platters brimming with roasted vegetables--this was very much a BBQ under the graceful old oaks--and then some salmon, some roasted potatoes crisp on the outside and creamy inside, and tri-tip too, with horseradish waiting to give it a bit of a whipping. A feast, all done to perfection.

And can't forget the bread from New Vineland Bakery--another Sashi Moorman project, along with his wife Melissa Sorongon and Kate Heller and Peter Pastan. They're growing their own wheat so they can sell it at Farmers' Markets. (You might need to read that sentence again.) And the bread has got a richness and depth and soul you'd expect from someone who makes L'Avion and Hilltops Syrah and the people he'd choose to hang with.

So here's hoping that Ballard Canyon AVA goes through to further cinch the special nature of this spot so close to Los Olivos but so far away even from that mostly sleepy town. The Stolpmans (and Larners and Beckmens and Jonata) are all on to something back there--even at times when the sun isn't perfecting a slow set, setting the evening gorgeously aglow.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Blue Good Bye to You

Had to have one bayou-esque shot, even if this is just one of the lake-like spots in New Orleans City Park out by Bayou St. John. We spent a big chunk of this Sunday out here, since TOTC had pretty much wrapped up and we were in NO and wanted to see the sites, not just drink them. You can take the Canal St. streetcar out, even, which is good given the Charles St. one has a big chunk of its route closed for repairs, hence death marches like the day prior.

Day 5, Sunday, July 28


It does not rain this day. We are sore afraid. And still sweat enough to make up for the lack of precipitation (which you can't spell without perspiration).

Quote o' the Day:

"Oh my, today the [Monteleone] lobby sounds of children, not barkeeps who look like the dream of the 1890s."

Event o' the Day:

We do nothing directly TOTC related this Sunday, as there are few events on the get-away day. We do not pass the Bloody Mary Bar. It is closed. We are lagniappe-less.We do enjoy the trip up to City Park, where just the park itself is gorgeous and then there's historic stuff like what was a casino and now, sadly, is a souvenir/snack shop but still has this great mural.

There's the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, with plenty to contemplate amidst a bucolic setting, so much so nature often makes its own comment on the art.

There's the New Orleans Museum of Art itself, that we felt we barely got into but still enjoyed the extensive glass, pottery, and ceramics collection--how cool so much that was just usable house stuffs are now art (and how impoverished so much of our own daily wares seem by comparison)--, plus the small Dario Robleto exhibit was fascinating--how much totemic power do our fetishized pop object possess? Does that transform the mundane into art? And you can get basil lemonade at the cafe at NOMA. Very nice. Plus we learn that only in New Orleans would they try to save their daily newspaper by suggesting you drink cocktails. This is so totally my kind of town.

Surprises o' the Day:

Even a place that borders on one of the most touristy spots in town, Jackson Square, can still be good and not a trap. Stanley just does food straight and good, with fine service and Bloodys with zesty pickled beans and okra (had to pay for the darn thing, but I'll get over it). Here's an eggs Benedict with a brilliant addition--fried oysters.

Perhaps surprise of the trip, this is as close as we got to any of the town's magnificent cemeteries. No doubt we'll be back.

This is actually a comment for Monday, but I'm not doing a Monday entry as it would be--"damn, planes are small and we have to be in 3 of them to get home." In addition to that, the food at the New Orleans airport is surprisingly blah. While in San Francisco you can get a tasty tuna panini and a giant Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA and feel much better about flying.

Best Food Non-TOTC Edition:

For dinner we went to the dopily named GW Fins that overcame that initial disadvantage to be a treat. I started with the seafood gumbo that was richly rouxed with seafood that wasn't mere over-cooked floats but shrimp and crab with flavor. Chryss had the lobster dumplings, more like potstickers but feathery light with a bonus boost from some lobster butter. Then for mains Chryss had the blackened swordfish as you've got to have something blackened in Louisiana, and they do it right, not searing the crap out of the fish but giving it a quick shot with some very good spices--it added, and wasn't meant to hide. I had to try their signature dish, Scalibut, which sounds like the name from a very bad musical about gossip on the Gloucester fishing fleet but is actually scallops sliced and "fused" around halibut as a sort of scallop-coat. The two textures and flavors play well together, indeed, and while it's a bit of a stunt, it's yummy, too--not that some lobster and tomato risotto hurts the plate any. Sorry this iPhone photo isn't so great. And we paired it all with a bottle of Tablas Creek Patelin White, to get us ready to come home.

Other Drinks Not Mentioned Above:

Since we had the time and didn't get there prior, we pre-gamed for dinner at Arnaud's French 75 [sorry, that link opens with music], directly across the street. This is another NOLA classic, richly woody with funny monkey statue lights and dressed up service and incredible cocktails. Somehow we passed up things like a Herbsaint Frappéthat was barrel aged and a N'Awlins Christmas in July Chatam Artillery Punch (that truly would punch you as it features tea. Catawha wine, rum, gin, Cognac, rye, orange and lemon juice, sugar, Benedictine, Champagne, and love). Instead we opted for The Dealers Have Chosen, with Chryss enjoying two "shaken and "refreshing" stimulants from the PDT Cocktail Book and I had two "stirred and boozy remedies from the Northstar Cocktail Book. Do we exactly recall what went into those cocktails? Alas, no. But they--all four--pleased perfectly, doing exactly what their descriptions suggested. My second, that I could swear he called a St. Martin (or should it be St. Marteen and Dutch?) was a mighty yet smooth blend of gin, Aperol, and Averna, and I wish I had one now. We also got a shrimp roll, as we were drinking and not eating and hadn't since Stanley, and didn't want to go all Kowalski on the refined crowd thanks to our liquored-up empty stomachs.

And then after dinner, after a last loop about the Quarter avoiding the sodden sadness that is Bourbon Street, we settled back in to the Monteleone and had last call (ours, not the bar's) at the Carousel, as it was easy to fit and nearly quiet and Faulkner and Williams drank there, so here's a corpse reviver #2 and a sidecar and a wish to be back very very soon. So many tales, and not nearly enough time to tipple them all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Streetcar Named Perspire

Two different ways of looking at NOLA, one a bit more romantic than the other, although I never felt much defended against--everyone seemed more than welcoming. Still, there's that part of New Orleans that seems a bit wild that makes it more thrilling, isn't there? The air feels a bit like sin.

Day 4, Saturday, July 28


Today's daily downpour comes courtesy of the people who decide to shutdown their establishments for a week (or more--one place was closed since May 19!) in the summer. How European of them, and miserable for us, as we did a lovely hike that slowly converted into a miserable death march through the Garden District this day. Plenty of cool shopping and architecture and people watching along Magazine St.

One fun stop for a beer (see surprises). Then a lot of disappointment trying to find a place to: eat lunch, stop sweating, stop moving, avoid the deluge clearly on its way. Domilise's closed. Casamento's closed. Le Petit Grocery turns us away at 1:40 even though they supposedly serve lunch till 2:30 and we assume we look too bedraggled and be-touristed (caps! a big camera!) for their preciousness, or did I mean pretentiousness. (Ha, no good review for you!) A fourth place whose name is washed away by the beginning rain also on vacation. We wonder if we missed the "Garden District--Closed for Summer" sign when we entered. Luckily we find Slice, with solid pizza with an intriguing cornmeal-featured crust and a good enough salad. And a roof. Best restaurant feature, ever.

Quote o' the Day:

"After four days of cocktails, don't you want a beer?"

(Clever marketing by Newcastle, giving beers away at Happy's, which just happened to be a breastaurant, and schoolgirl outfits and beer after lots of drinking, well, they might just have something there if their goal is to part middle-aged men from their money.)

Event-and-a-Quarter o' the Day:

After recovering from our Garden Street debacle a bit in the hotel, we hike back out to the Hyatt Regency, which seems too corporate a place for Tales, in a way, but there's a Taste the World's Best Spirits Grand Tasting to attend. It's the kind of event where all the Johnnie Walker's are on a table for you, through the blue, green and gold, next to a table of the Classic Malts (when in doubt, seize the name and make them pry it from your peat-y fingers, I guess)--Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Lagavulin. Yeah, and that's just whiskeys and leaves out my favorite, Aberlour's A'bunadh, aged in solera casks and presided over by this dandy chap.

There was Lillet with their new Rosé, that you want to drink straight and fiddle with at the bar too, and Del Maguey Mezcal with a good 8 varieties to try and you want to linger just to play with their little clay tasting cups. Somehow, the only edibles at this event, though, were chips, popcorn, pretzels, and nuts. Seemed like they thought it was a light beer fest, and, alas, nothing was light about these fine sips.

So, our spirits emboldened by consuming the world's best spirits, we take the escalator down a floor and discover the Spirited Awards are beginning and no one is really paying attention if you want to sneak into the pre-event reception. We figure, as long as we don't go in and sit down for dinner, who will know we don't belong? Part of it is this is the first and last dressy event, so we might stand out a bit for being too casual, but cocktails make everyone civilized, as long as you don't cut in line when they're hoping to score a slider or grill cheese. We have some more drinks, one a pinkish straight martini, and that makes me wonder if I've had too much.

Not that we saw this while there, but it seems they really do the awards portion right, too, based on the videos they ran during the event that are kindly now on YouTube like this one, "Shit Brand Ambassadors Say":

Surprises o' the Day:

House Spirits Distillery out of Portland, OR doesn't just make Aviation Gin, and will make you a fine whiskey Bloody Mary. Conveniently this will be in an art gallery on your way to Cafe Beignet.

In swagland, the loot is always greener in another conventioner's hands. Where did those leather-looking books go at the Herbsaint tasting room? How did we miss that one attractive bag? Why do we think we need everything given to everyone at TOTC?

Parasol's is our dream of a neighborhood bar--big scary dog that's actually nice allowed inside, people of all ages and races, locals and us, smokers and not (OK, not my favorite part about New Orleans bars--I've become a true anti-cig Californian), a hipster bartender with a Dr. Who obsession, and NOLA Brewing beers on tap, including my new favorite, Hopitoulas...of course a West Coast IPA.

The Columns is nowhere near as fascinating when Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields aren't staying there.

Best Food Non-TOTC Edition:

Even closer to the Monteleone, Cafe Beignet has better beignets than Cafe du Monde. There, I said it. Much doughier, less sugar, better coffee. It has nothing to do with having had three Bloody Marys before the first fried dough hit my stomach, promise.

We also had a lovely late dinner at Eat New Orleans, a place that takes the classics and freshens them without going frou-frou. A mustard green and artichoke gratin to start was everything you could hope--rich with the two different textured and tasting greens, just enough of a creamy sauce but not so much you need a defibrillator nearby, and some crunchy pita-ish chips to scoop it all with. Chryss has a butterbeans with shrimp bowl, I had the trio--cup of gumbo, cup of red beans, a roasted stuffed red pepper, rice, and a Caesar, and we both hailed our meals. Simple, satisfying, soul-quenching. We also got an inadvertent show out the window as a drunk crashed on the curb, letting his two dogs loose to wander out into Dumaine Street. Luckily, they didn't get run over; the cops visited the guy but left him; our waiter brought out a to-go tray with water for the dogs. Ah, the humanity.

Other Drinks Consumed Not Mentioned Above:

Eat is BYOB, so a six pack of Abita Jockamo IPA from the corner shop down the street did the trick. At one of the Saveur Snack Stand events we got a pleasing Breckenridge Rocky Mountain Rickshaw, zipped with some ginger. Martini (as in Rossi) concocted a very elegant The Monteleone Cocktail--not to be confused with the different one the Carousel Bar serves--of cognac, Martini Roasto Vermouth, Amaro Avena (which will be in the surprise list tomorrow)--and then a misting from a perfume atomizer. When asked, the one bartender said it was Chanel No. 5. (Actually it was Herbsaint--even better.)

And we finally got to the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel to enjoy the namesake drink in a truly swank location ringed by Paul Ninas Art Deco murals that make you expect to see some unholy drinking party of Huey Long and Noel Coward to wander in. A very civilized spot, and fine drinks, although their Sazeracs are much redder than mine--perhaps that's because I use both Angostura and Peychaud's and they only use the carmine latter. No matter, can a lovelier thing be done to rye than make it into a Sazerac? Even I'd be better with the perfect combo of bitters, citrus, sugar, and a bit of sticky Pernod.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Bugs, Bitters, Bacardi

Perhaps things get blurry, what with a Bloody Mary Bar open every morning at the Monteleone--a feature it seems every hotel needs. But let's get right into day 3, and note there's no Best Food Non-TOTC Edition section for today's write up as what we had was mostly meh--perhaps the idea of Cafe du Monde is better than the lost in puffs of sugar reality? Or maybe it's because their coffee seriously burned my tongue (horrors!).

Day 3, Friday, July 27


It's NOLA. It's sweating weather. And there's a good drenching with some lightning every day; this day it's all done by noon. Well, not the sweating.

Quote o' the Day:

"What did I drink that made my pee smell funny?"

Event o' the Day:

The Bacardi 150th Anniversary USBG Hand-Shaken Daiquiri Competition made me like daiquiris more than ever before, although I still hate having to type the trickily spelled name. This party featured some yummy tuna tacos, with the tortilla shells pleasantly fried, plus poor young things in red dresses that looked like tightly wound windowshades about to pull up--there was no way for the outfits to be flattering even on super-slender, non-Bacardi-consuming models. But those bat belts they wore were Adam West cool. And, as part of the event, Bittercube let 10 people at a time make their own bitters, preferably one that would work with a rum-based drink. At events like this, it's easy to become bossy/pushy--simply talk more quickly and louder than everyone else, and soon your herb/spice choices are part of the mix. Supposedly we'll get a mailed sample of the bitters we helped concoct soon. Can't wait. It's like cooking for your cocktail's pre-goodness.

And if I'm allowed a second event of the day, and it's my blog, so I'm allowed what I want to, it's our visit to the media Lagniappe Room. That means a little something extra, but as with most of TOTC, a little goes a long way, and this room was like walking into a minibar. Which was free. And maxi, or it was like that great episode of Lost in Space when the Robot grew giant and Will had to go inside to fix it, then get out before it shrunk to normal, not fit for a boy to be inside, size (tell me someone else has seen this and I didn't make it up?). Plus there were free bags to carry all your loot, and stirrers and matches and mixes and shirts and and posters and keychains and olives and cocktail cranberries posing as cherries and bitters bottles so tiny you could smuggle one out in your nostril and still have room to breathe. Here's what that looked like back in the room. Even better, it got back home after riding in our suitcase through 2 plane changes.

Surprises o' the Day:

You can jog in New Orleans in July and not die. You simply won't do it again.

I'll drink your green kale long as there's Tito's Vodka in it. Thanks, Vistamix!

The Audubon  Butterfly Garden & Insectarium, or the ¡Insectaria! as we like to call it, is fun and not just for kids, although it's a crazy science turn on for the pre-teen set. You do not get to see the worm from the mezcal, but you get to see pretty much everything else. Do not go if you get the creppy-crawly hebbie-jeebies easily. Take photos of butterflies up close so they look like Son of Mothra.

Here's a semi-random picture of a huge tableful of oysters. Just to point out it was that kind of an event. Ile de Ré Fine Island Cognac is quite lovely, btw, but I'm not sure cognac goes with oysters.

There's something called crispy Armenian bread that's like a flatbread. What's no surprise is it's not so good burnt. (Sorry, Carmo, which tired very hard but didn't succeed quite enough.)

You can make seriously charged ice cream--say a Ramos Gin Fizz ice cream (now that egg does double duty) and mezcal chocolate ice cream. Or perhaps that was all an end of the day dream.

Best Food TOTC Edition:

We didn't take as much advantage as we should have of the media events in the Vieux Carre Room, high atop the Monteleone with views of the mighty Mississippi and most of NOLA. But this afternoon we hit the Taste of Italy Media Luncheon presented by the Spirit of Italy, which is evidently a typically handsome Italian guy telling you how special Italian spirits are while showing you slides of gorgeous Italian locations, all of which you want to visit on your next vacation, which has to be to Italy. We had cocktails made from Amaro Lucano, Luxardo, Distillerie Moccia, Distilleria Nardini, Pallini, Toschi, and Distilleria Varnelli--a lusciously vowelly mouthful of drinks.

But then there was an amazing buffet, too, starting with the ever present oysters, but also a lovely primavera pasta with fresh parmigiano grated atop, some redfish en croute, melon and prosciutto, etc. This was not your usual free spread, not in the least. We get to sit next to Amy Stewart from yesterday's presentation, too, and then ride in an elevator with Dale DeGroff, who hums his way to his floor. Oh, sorry, I'm dropping names, aren't I.

And as for a perfect bite, in the Angostura Bitters’ tasting room we enjoyed channa on bara (chickpeas on what else but fried dough--perhaps the savory island version of beignet?) at a Taste of Trinidad. 

Other Drinks Consumed Not Mentioned Above:

Sure we tried the recently imported to the US Edinburgh gin (smooth), and some St. Germain drink we missed the name of (it's that kind of party, TOTC), and some Abita at Carmo to be New Orleans-esque, but what I really need to talk about was my time at the Craft Distillers Tasting where so much was good I would have denied me Satan right there on the spot for only something approaching the godhead could man these stills. At the Anchor Distilling table I told them I knew and loved the Junipero Gin so I didn't need to taste it and the guy's eyes lit up. "Well, try this," he says, pouring me something that smoked as it fell into my glass. OK, it didn't smoke, but it was lovely, a new hops-flavored spirit. Beer-loving me heartily approved. Speaking of the beer-spirit nexus, esteemed brewers from New Holland, Michigan are aging whiskey in old beer barrels, and that certainly works if it seems backwards (and they admit it). And then there's Corsair Distillery, that features nifty Reservoir Dogs inspired t-shirts and a wonderful range of liquor, from gins to a red absinthe (you do taste the hibiscus, plus red means it's not green like everyone else's) to a Ryemageddon that is sure to please any rye lover and if you're not one you will be by your second sip. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Someone’s in the Kitchen at Esperanza

The class, a wide-raging group from their twenties to their fifties, listens attentively as Chef Anita Krissel lectures, highlighting their notes about dry-heat cooking methods for chicken. As they are about to break from the lecture portion of the evening and move to the hands-on cooking, Krissel drills them: “What do you do first in the kitchen?”

The class responds: “Wash our hands.”

“And second?” she asks.

“Set up our mise-en-place,” they reply, using the French term for kitchen prep like it’s an everyday term.

Krissel pauses and then says, “And what do you do before anything else?” There’s a tiny moment, and one student suggests, “Have a cigarette?”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Indy's site.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Let's Slip Out of These Wet Clothes and into a Dry Martini

No, that's not me after just one day at Tales of the Cocktail, that's Papa Gede at the Voodoo Museum, because when in New Orleans you need to know how not to become a zombie, let alone know enough not to drink one. (We won't even begin to consider the Hurricane--if you want to drink just to get smashed, it's cheaper to buy a mallet you can reuse and just thwack yourself in the temple with it and repeat as necessary.)

Day 2, Thursday, July 26


Does this photo capture the thrill of t-storms tearing down the Mississippi? The rain eventually made it to our side of the river, too, and we tried to wait it out, but finally ran a single block in it, and were soon ice cubes, as we'd been soaked and then back into an air conditioned inside.

Quotes o' the Day:

"This Blackwell pool party is kind of like MTV meets rum--so many yo-ho-hos."

"Why isn't their promotional giveaway one of the Becherovka chick outfits?"

Event o' the Day:

The only seminar we attended, one called "The Drunken Botanist." It was a sneak peek of science writer Amy Stewart's next book, and she presented very well, doing that "I've come across a whole bunch of cool things, wanna see?" style of a "lecture." Her tag line was, "You're taking plants and putting them into bottles," but then she told the tales of some of the coolest plants we've done that with, including a bunch that might be a titch poisonous, like tansy and gentian. Yes, there was a cocktail, too, a Pineapple Surprise, redolent with a pineapple sage leaf as a garnish, and with that sage, tequila, Kummel, agave nectar, and lemon juice.

Drinking event of the day was the Diaego Happy Hour "A World Class Affair," like the Absolut party the night before, but not quite as magical even with a wider range of liquors used to make the 25 or so cocktails available to sample. And, for something odd, a strong drink with which the bartender offered a shot of granola back as a way to cut the kick.

Surprises o' the Day:

A mouthful of granola after a shot of strong drink is pleasing.

One scientist swears that the variety of apple doesn't matter, it's the type of yeast that makes the flavor difference when you make hard cider. It's not that I find that fact so odd, it's that somewhere on a college campus a professor gets to do this for his research. I want to start my career again.

The margaritas at what seems to be the tourist trappy El Gato Negro by the French Market are quite good, with actual pulp from the fruit that's supposed to flavor the drink (mine was pineapple-cilantro). So if you get stuck there in a rain storm, don't feel too bad.

DBA doesn't open until 5. So if the door is ajar and you walk in at say, oh, 3, and then walk back out, the guy who finally realizes you were in there will act like you were trying to rob the place.

Best Food, Non-TOTC Division:

This was our best overall day of eating, a very good lunch and even better dinner. We hiked out to Butcher, the deli component of Chef Donald Link's (also owner of Herbsaint from the evening before) Cochon. Now, this wasn't exactly the perfect place for pescatarian Chryss, but they kindly made a roasted turkey sans turkey (arugula, tomato, Fontina, and basil pesto aioli on 7grain) for her and even cut the price a bit. I went whole hog, and couldn't refuse the pork belly with mint and cucumber on white. This place even does white bread well, and since mint and cucumber are two of our favorites to play with in summer cocktails, this sandwich called out to me like a long lost edible friend. There was also microbew in bottles, totally needed after the walk out along Tchoupitoulas (its name is as long as our trek), and mine was particularly southern, a nut brown made with pecans. That cucumber-tomato salad side was summer, too.

Then, for dinner, Bayona. I've been a huge fan of Chef Susan Spicer since she published her cookbook Crescent City Cooking, so keenly anticipated this meal and it didn't let me down. To get in the mood I sipped a Bayona martini, Hendricks gin with a cucumber slice for garnish and a bit of rose water instead of orange bitters--very sophisticated. Then the food started, with Chryss having a special "salad," crabmeat with a jalapeno kick in an avocado soup.(Oh, excuse the no flash iPhone pictures--it's a classy place so we acted as restrained as we could.)

I had to try her famous sweetbreads, because I'm offal like that. She does have the recipe in her book, btw, but I haven't attempted to convince my butcher I need the "noix" and not the "gorge" sweetbread, or as she calls them, tenderly, the "heartbreads," aka pancreas. (Never underestimate the power of naming.) They are a wonder of eating, though, fried crispy, yet so tender inside. Again, in her book she explains a randy old chef taught her the procedure and that he suggested "they should have the feeling of a firm, young breast, and would say that looking directly at me to see me blush!" We've got all our hungers so easily cross-wired, don't we. But back to the plate, beneath the richness of the sweetbreads are little squares of beets and then super-crunchy pan-fried mushrooms, and those two totally ground the dish. The sherry-mustard butter sauce sends it all singing.

Trying to avoid going on and on, for mains Chryss had the triple tail special, done very New Orleans style over peas that weren't black-eyes, but certainly seemed to be.

I had one of the best pork chops of my life, truly done medium rare and not in the slightest chewy despite being very thick, with mango salsa and a deep sauce and great green rice--more Caribbean than New Orleans but totally delicious.

And we couldn't, ok, I couldn't, resist dessert, a classic chocolate caramel tart with the crust made with the wisdom of a thousand mothers, and hazelnuts, and for a bit of twist, some Earl Grey ice cream.

Other Drinks Consumed Not Covered Above:

Bloody Mary from the Absolut Bloddy Mary Bar (every hotel needs free Bloodys from 8:30 - 10:30--it's a reason to wake up); a couple of drinks at the "Tales of Two Cities: Bean Town and the Barbary Coast" thingee Anchor threw; a Woodford Reserve Bluegrass Breeze; some Blackwell rum drink; Becherovka, a Czech liqueur, so close to my Slav (no, not slob) roots; and an adult chocolate milk. Note: this day as every, many of these drinks I sipped twice or thrice and then put on the clean-up trays. Nonetheless, I am a professional food and drink writer, so do not try this amount of consumption on your own.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Muse Is Always Half Drunk In New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail is a marathon, not a sprint, as one of the drink descriptions at Arnaud's French 75 put it, but I did have to write the sprint version for the Indy, the long but not long enough feature that will run August 9. In the meantime, I want to provide some daily snapshots to give you even more of a sense of what a festival honoring the cocktail, in New Orleans, means for one's mind and liver and deodorant.

Day 1, Wednesday, July 25


Post-plane touchdown thunderstorm, Thor v. Zeus division. Even after that, hot and humid, which I'm pretty sure is human-controlled as a clever plot to keep you inside in air conditioning, eating and drinking.

Quote o' the Day:

"This is insane--I've only been here two hours and I already have icing on my arm."

Event o' the Day:

Welcome Reception at the Contemporary Arts Center sponsored by Absolut

You know there's this dream in your head of the perfect happening party, the kind even movies never even seem to nail properly, when the setting is magical, the drinks tasty, the people fun, and a row of models greet you as you enter? Well, that was this shindig. It snowed. Inside. The blue lighting added to that effect, but then there were all these separate bars to go to, themed sort of internationally, like It's a Drunk World After All, but without the insipid earworm of a song. (Instead, a DJ not quite getting people to dance, but perhaps that's just because we were all too f-ing cool.) You could get temp tattoos (not many takers, as most people there didn't have enough un-tatted territory on their bodies for one). You could pose with New Orleans appropriate costuming (masks, etc.) for an Absolut ad photo. You could get a t-shirt silk screened with one of 8 designs. You could drink, plenty--probably 20 different Absolut cocktails, including one made with dry ice, one featuring ice cubes carved into diamonds. One spot featured Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders side-by-side making you drinks like the king and queen of boozy prom. The waitress with the little grilled tuna cubes remembered you liked them and that one of you was prescatarian and kept hunting you out with a fresh tray. All the models went back to your room at the Monteleone afterward. Perhaps I made a part of this up.

Surprises o' the Day:

At a tasting called Better with Age, where I somehow avoided any jokes about my magnificence because of my midlife status, during a blind tasting I actually preferred the young Glenfiddich to the 15-year aged one, mostly because it packed more punch so stood out in a room of fantastic tequilas, whiskeys, and Armagnacs, and a bit because it was aged in old Solera barrels, giving it a pleasing Sherry push.

You can make a lovely sipping whiskey...from wheat. At least Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey can.

Evan Williams does a single barrel whiskey that you can buy for $21. Maybe the best value tasted at TOTC.

You actually can make interesting cocktails with vodka. It's a challenge, but that's the fun, no?

Best Food, Non-TOTC Division:

Herbsaint. We'd do further homage to Chef Donald Link on the trip, but this was on the way back from the Absolut party so we decided to do a bit of the small plate action and everything was pitch perfect with prime ingredients. Simply the fries, with pimenton aioli not so simple, were divine. We also enjoyed Seared Louisiana Shrimp with Summer Squash and Chili Oil and Butter Poached Gulf Tuna with Criolla Sella Chili and Lemon--the seafood clearly the stars of each plate, but all the other ingredients whipping up spectacular supporting symphonies. We had a dessert, too, that the receipt calls a BB tart a la mode, but somehow we can't remember what the BB is--butter and bourbon is what I'm going to say.

Other Drinks* Consumed Not Covered in the Above:

Tito's Cherry-Vanilla Limeade, Jasmine-Spiked London Lemonade, a Sazerac at Herbsaint, a Vieux Carre at the Carousel Bar in the Monteleone, and an Abita Turbo Dog draft at Acme Oyster House, where we ate after our long, foodless plane flights out, a soft-shell crab po' boy and an oyster po' boy and some raw oysters, too (see below)

*Note, this really does just mean cocktails and beer, so liquor straight is left out of the equation.