Friday, May 26, 2017

Tullamore DEW Irish Whiskey: The Power of 3

Would you be willing to place the fate of your whiskey distillery on the result of a horse race? Most distillery owners would be unlikely to take such a great risk but it has allegedly happened before, when an Irish whiskey distillery was offered as a bet upon the Irish Oaks horse race.

It all began in the town of Tullamore, located in County Offaly, which is situated roughly in the middle of Ireland. Tullamore is known as the site of the first air disaster, reaching back to Tuesday, May 10, 1785, when a hot air balloon crashed, setting off a great fire that destroyed approximately 130 buildings, including a military barracks and a tobacco factory. After that disaster, Tullamore created a new coat of arms, depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes, reflective of their reconstruction after that massive fire.

We then jump forward, to 1829, and the founding of the Tullamore Dew Distillery. Eventually, this distillery would be placed on the line, a bet on a horse race. Would it be lost because it's favored horse couldn't get it done?

Recently, Redstone Liquors, in Stoneham, hosted a Tullamore DEW Irish whiskey tasting that was led by Kate Shaughnessy (pictured above), the Boston Brand Ambassador for Tullamore DEW. Kate, a native of Ireland with a delightful lilt to her voice, has been working for Tullamore since last October. She led us through a tasting of five whiskies, also relating the fascinating history of the distillery. She was personable and informative, and everyone present seemed to enjoy the tasting event.

The Tullamore DEW distillery was originally founded in 1829 by Michael Molloy, eventually being passed down to his nephew, Bernard Daly and then, in 1887, to Daly's son, Captain Bernard Daly. In 1862, when Bernard Daly was in charge of the distillery, he took on Daniel E. Williams, who was only 15 years old, and put him to work on the malt floor. Over time, Daniel worked his way up in the distillery, taking on greater and greater responsibilities.

Captain Bernard Daly had a strong connection to horses, being an international polo player, a county Master of Hounds, and owned a number of racehorses. It is said that during one of the races at the Irish Oaks, the Captain and Daniel bet everything, including the distillery, on a horse from Tullamore. Fortunately, the horse won so the distillery didn't change hands though I'm sure it was quite a tense race.

In time, due to Daniel's hard work and dedication to the distillery, he became the owner of the distillery! That is certainly a great example of working yourself up from the bottom. Daniel was an innovator, introducing new technology, from electricity to the telephone. Their famous Tullamore DEW whiskey is also named after him, DEW being his initials.

Today, the Tullamore DEW is owned by the William Grant & Sons company, which also owns a number of Scotch brands as well as other spirits. They are now the second largest distillery in Ireland, after Jameson Irish Whiskey. In September 2014, they opened a new distillery and will soon conduct everything on their own, from grain to bottle. Their first release from this new distillery, due in the near future, will be a 3 Year Old Blended Irish Whiskey.

Locally, Tullamore DEW is the official Irish whiskey of the Boston Red Sox and now appears at Tully Tavern, a new bar at Fenway Park. They cannot sell their Whiskey on its own, but has to offer it in cocktails. They offer the Monster Mule, their Irish take on the Moscow Mule, which is made with 1 part Tullamore DEW, 4 parts Ginger Beer, and lime juice.

The Tullamore DEW Original ($20-$25) is the only triple blend of whiskey in Ireland, blending together grain, malt and pot still whiskies. The malt is also the most dominant in this blend, providing more fruit flavors to the whiskey. In addition, after a triple distillation. it is matured, for about 4-7 years, in three different types of barrels, including Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and old Whiskey barrels. As you can see, the number 3 is very important to Tullamore. I found this to be a light and elegant whiskey, with bright flavors of apple and citrus, spice, vanilla, and salted almonds. At this price point, it is an excellent value.

The Tullamore DEW 12 Year Old Special Reserve ($45-$50) is also a triple blend, though with a higher percentage of pot still whiskey, giving it a spicier aspect. It is also triple distilled and aged in three different barrels, though most of the pot still was matured in Oloroso Sherry barrels so it has a stronger Sherry notes too. It is definitely a spicier whiskey, with notes of salted nuts, caramel, raisins and a hint of chocolate. There is more complexity to the blend and the finish is long, with a slight hint of a burn.

The Tullamore DEW 15 Year Old Trilogy ($80-$85) is another triple blend, with balanced proportions, that is triple distilled and spends time in three different barrels except that it also is finished, for about three months, in Rum barrels from Trinidad. Smooth and elegant, the complex melange of flavors included some tropical fruit flavors, pleasant spice notes, hints of chocolate, and a delightful creamy mouthfeel. The finish was long and satisfying, with a rich and pleasing aspect. Highly recommended!

The Tullamore DEW 14 Year Old Single Malt ($65-$70) is matured in the usual three types of barrels, but then also spends a little time in Port and Madeira casks. On the nose, there are pleasant notes of apple and tropical fruit, and the palate also presents this fruit flavors, accompanied by a complex mix of vanilla, spice and caramel, with an elegant creaminess that caresses your palate. The finish lingers for quite a time and I can easily see myself sipping this all evening. Highly recommended!

The Tullamore DEW 18 Year Old Single Malt (about $120) is going to be very difficult to find in Massachusetts as only 1 case was allotted for the state. Thus, the price could be much higher than provided. It is essentially the same as the 14 Year Old, except for the additional time in the barrel. In comparison to the 14 Year Old, it is as complex, with similar flavor notes, except it is more subtle and elegant. In addition, there are stronger notes of spice and raisiny elements. This is best, slowly sipped, savoring its more subtle complexities.

Tullamore DEW produces a delicious and interesting portfolio of whiskies, from their value-priced Original to the more complex Single Malts. One of their newest projects, which should be available around October, is the Tullamore DEW Cider Cask Finish, which is finished in Irish cider barrels. This could be the first, and maybe only, whiskey finished in cider barrels.

What are your thoughts on Tullamore DEW Irish Whiskey?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Civic Kitchen & Drink, Chef Rick Araujo and GM Sarah Lee are hosting a Spencer Trappist Ale Dinner on Tuesday, May 23, at 6pm. This is a very rare opportunity to taste a variety of unique Spencer Trappist Beer and the dinner is sure to sell out. The monks at St. Joseph Abbey, in Spencer,  brew the beer themselves; it is the only certified Trappist Beer made in the USA. Civic Kitchen & Drink is honored to present Spencer Trappist Beer and celebrates this extraordinary and one-of-a-kind local brewery.

Chef Rick Araujo is creating a Four Course Dinner paired with Spencer Trappist Beer.
The four course dinner features:
--Buttermilk Fried Chicken skewers with sweet potato waffles and a trappist orange marmalade glaze / Paired with Trappist Ale
--Grilled Swordfish with a green peppercorn hollandaise sauce and potato au gratin / Paired with Trappist IPA
--Chinese Five Spiced Duck over a smoked gouda polenta and smothered haricot vert / Beer Pairing Coming Soon!
And More!

Price: $75 per person, includes tax and gratuity
To make a Reservation, please call 508-329-5179

2) Puritan & Co. Chef/Owner Will Gilson and the Puritan team invite guests to join them at the bar for a brand new Caviar Special. Puritan & Co. is serving up this caviar special at its bar daily. Available during all regular business hours at the bar, the special includes two vodka nips served frozen on ice, 12g of Osetra caviar, and all the fixings for only $30.

For more information, please call (617)-615-6195

3) Chef/Owner Michael Schlow, Chef de Cuisine Brendan Pelley, and the Doretta Taverna team invite guests to join them as they officially kick off patio season. On Wednesday, May 31, from 6-9pm, Doretta Taverna and Raw Bar will officially be kicking off patio season with an epic patio party featuring live music, mezze, local oysters, and more. The event will take place rain or shine and no tickets are required.

For Reservations, please call (617) 422-0008.

4) Chef de Cuisine Alex Saenz and the BISq team invite guests to join them on Sunday, May 28, from 10:30am-3pm, for a farmer’s market-to-table themed brunch. While the farm-to-table trend has been popping up at more and more restaurants for some time, BISq is taking the trend in a slightly different direction. Sourcing fresh produce the day before from its neighboring Union Square Farmer’s Market and beyond, BISq's fifth installment if its monthly brunch pop-up series will offer a deliciously fresh a la carte menu showcasing local fruits and veggies.

Reservations are strongly recommended so please call (617) 714-3693.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The British Are Coming! Chapel Down Sparkling Wine

Freshness and vibrancy are key features which I look for in wines and English fruit really delivers on this, whether it be unique aromatic white wines, classic fizz, or a twist on a rich Chablis-esque Chardonnay. Balance is at the heart of every good wine and my aim, in the vineyard and the winery, is to strive for perfect balance.”
--Josh Donaghay-Spire, Winemaker at Chapel Down

In a blind tasting in Paris in 2016, English Sparkling Wine defeated Champagne in two categories, tying in a third. Bubbly from England? Yes, and in a relatively short time it has been marking its mark and is now starting to reach the shores of the U.S.

We must remember that the Romans brought viticulture to England though it didn't catch on there as it did in many other countries. In the 1950s, wine making became popular in England for a time, and then again in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it is only in about the last five years that a more serious effort has begun. There is now even a university of wine-making in the country. England used to rely primarily on hybrid grapes but that has changed and now they have chosen to rely much more on traditional Champagne grapes.

In 2015, England produced approximately 5 million bottles of Sparkling and Still wine, with bubbly comprising about 70% of that total. This annual total is less than 1% of their domestic consumption so it is still a very small industry. There are now over 500 commercial vineyards, occupying about 5,000 acres, and over 130 wineries. England is also exporting their bubbly to 27 countries, up from 19 the previous year.

Much of their success is attributed to their chalky soils as well as their climate, which has been getting warmer due to climate change. England has a maritime climate, with slightly warmer springs and cooler summers, rather than the continental climate of Champagne, but they are actually only 1 degree cooler than the Champagne region. Essentially, England now has a similar climate to what Champagne did in the 1960s to 1980s.

I recently had my first opportunity to taste some English Sparkling Wine, at a media breakfast event at Bar Boulud. Bubbly for breakfast? Why not? The event was hosted by Chapel Down, an English winery which produces a number of Sparkling and Still wines, as well as beer, ciders and spirits. Two representatives of Chapel Down attended the event, including Josh Donaghay-Spire, their wine maker, and Mark Harvey, the Managing Director, Wine. It was a fun and tasty event, and I was impressed with the two Sparkling Wines we tasted.

Chapel Down's winery is located in Tenterden, Kent and their grapes are sourced from vineyards in Kent, as well as the region from Essex to Hampshire. Kent is the top region for English wineries, with Sussex in second place and Essex in third. Chapel Down's focus is the "North Downs," chalky escarpments similar to the limestone soils of Champagne. They grow grapes included Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc (which grows very well in England) and Bacchus. There are few organic wineries in England as the high humidity makes it more difficult. At Chapel Down, their yields are very low, about 2.5 tons per acre, which is partially because they plant at lower densities, allowing them to have more canopies.

Though they produced their first wines back in 1977, it has only been in the last 15 years that they have made a serious effort. For example, back in 2001, they sold only about 25,000 bottles though by 2012, they had sold about 250,000 bottles of Sparkling Wine. The winery currently produces 600K-800K bottles annually, a roughly equal split between Sparkling and Still. They see a big opportunity for bubbly and they produce at least 7 different Sparkling Wines, made by the Méthode Champenoise, and priced from 25-100 English pounds, including Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir, Non-Vintage Brut, Vintage, and Rosé.

Chapel Down is also very proud that "innovation is their ethos." For example, they were the first winery in England to produce an "orange" wine, a skin-contact Bacchus, and they were also the first to make a single-varietal Albarino. In 2014, they initiated a crowdfunding effort to support their winery and raised a record-breaking 2.5 million pounds in only two weeks.

Their top priority right now is introducing their Sparkling Wine to the U.S., and in October 2016, they launched their 2010 Vintage Three Graces ($50) in the U.S. Currently, their bubbly can be found in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, and they are also looking at a possible placement on the West Coast. They are following up the Vintage with their NV Brut ($40) and will eventually release one of their Rosé Sparkling Wines ($50). Chapel Down currently exports only about 10% of their production and the U.S. is their main market. In 5 years, their lofty goal is to be on the same level as Bollinger.

Josh Donaghay-Spire, the winemaker for Chapel Down, was born in Kent and originally began in the restaurant industry. In his early 20s, he decided to move to South Africa and get involved in the wine industry. He eventually spent time working in Alsace and Champagne, before returning to England and joining Chapel Down in 2010. He is extremely personable, very passionate about wine, seems to embrace innovation.

The Chapel Down NV Brut ($40) is a blend of 44% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir, 11% Pinot Blanc, and 7% Pinot Meunier. Most of the grapes are from the excellent 2014 vintage, sourced from vineyards in Kent, Essex, and Sussex. It was fermented in stainless steel, underwent about 80% malolactic fermentation (though most of their bubbly undergoes 100% malolactic) and spent about 18 months on the lees. It was disgorged a few months before release. With a 12% ABV, it also has about 8.5 grams/liter of residual sugar and the sulfur levels were kept low too.

The Brut is made in an aperitif style and had a pleasing golden color with lots of tiny bubbles and a pleasant fruity aroma. It has a clean and crisp taste, with prominent apple flavors, hints of citrus, and a streak of minerality. An easy-drinking, yet complex, and elegant sparkling wine, this certainly would be an excellent aperitif, though it also would pair well with lots of different foods, from seafood to chicken.

The 2010 Chapel Down Three Graces ($50) is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier. This was Josh's first vintage and it happened to be an excellent vintage as well. "The long growing season allowed for the slow development of delicate flavors and with a great balance of sugar and acidity at harvest." About 10% of this wine includes reserve wine from 2009, and there was a tiny bit of oak in that reserve wine. It was fermented in stainless steel, underwent 100% malolactic fermentation and spent about five years on the lees. It was disgorged a few months before release. With a 12% ABV, it also has about 9 grams/liter of residual sugar and the sulfur levels were kept low too.

Like the Brut, the Vintage had a pleasing golden color with lots of tiny bubbles. There are fruit notes on the nose but with a touch of toast. And also like the Brut, it has a clean and crisp taste, lots of freshness. On the palate, there were tasty apple flavors and hints of citrus, but with more brioche elements and a lengthy, pleasing finish. It is more complex than the Brut, an elegant Sparkling Wine which is delicious and intriguing. It too would pair well with lots of different foods. This Vintage Sparkling Wine is only about 10% of their overall production, about 20,000 bottles.

We enjoyed both Sparkling Wines with our breakfast, from scones to fresh fruit, to smoked salmon and eggs atop English muffins. The smoked salmon went best with the wines, especially the Vintage. As I've said before, Sparkling Wine is very food friendly and more people need to consider it as a pairing with dinners or even breakfast.

Locally, Chapel Down's Sparkling Wines are being distributed by the Carolina division of the Martignetti Companies. These wines are now available in a number of local restaurants and I've also learned that the Wine Press in Brookline is selling these Sparkling Wines. I was impressed with the Chapel Down Brut and Vintage Sparkling Wines, enjoying the elegant, complex and clean flavors of each. If these are an example of the quality of English Sparkling Wines then I certainly need to drink more of them.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Elemental Beauty of Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo

Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.
--Vista M. Kelly

Snow is Sake's friend. 

Consider that the traditional Sake brewing season starts in October and it's said that the best Sake, like most Daiginjo, is made during the coldest, snowiest months. Some of the snowiest prefectures of Japan are considered to be the best regions for Sake. For example, the snowy prefecture of Niigata, with over 90 breweries, is one of the most popular Japanese regions for the production of Sake. Located in Niigata, the Hakkaisan Brewery is using the copious snowfall in a rather unique way, to assist in the maturation of a Sake.

Hakkaisan Brewery, which was founded in 1922, is located in the city of Minami-Uonuma, which is nestled in a valley known as Yukiguni, Snow Country, due to its heavy snowfall. At the foot of Mount Hakkai, within Minami-Uonuma, the snow can be as much as nine feet deep. The brewery has a water pipe at the foot of Mount Hakkai, bringing in Raidensama no mizu, "spring water from Raiden," which is a super-soft water and excellent for Sake production. Raiden is the Japanese god of thunder and lightning.

One of their newest releases is the Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years ($60), which is pictured above, the pure white bottle intended to reflect the nature of pure snow. I was sent a media sample of this Sake, which certainly intrigued me when I was informed of its nature. I had some questions about the Sake, which were initially directed to Timothy Sullivan, a Sake Samurai, Certified International Sake Sommelier (SSI), and the founder of Urban Sake. Timothy is also the Brand Ambassador for Hakkaisan and last November, started a year of working at the brewery and contributing to their blog. Some of my questions, of a more technical nature, had to be forwarded to their Toji, Shigetmitsu Nagumo.

"Be like snow — cold, but beautiful."
--Lana Del Rey

The Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years is special in a number of ways, making it a more unique Sake. First, most Sake is brewed using only a single type of rice but Hakkaisan produces a number of Sakes using two or three different Sake rices, including this Snow-Aged Sake which uses three. Yamada Nishiki, the "King of Sake Rice," is used to make the Koji, so they can "maximize the brewing characteristics of Yamada Nishiki." As the Toji feels the creation of koji is the most important step in Sake brewing, he wants to "emphasize the characteristics of Yamada Nishiki such as the pronounced aromas and softness." For brewing rice, they use a blend of about 80% Gohyakumangoku & 20% Yukinosei, with the Gohyakumangoku providing a light clean flavor and the Yukinosei providing Umami. This blend of three Sake rice types provides them the target flavors they seek.

The brewing rice was polished down to 50%, which technically is the minimum rate for a Daiginjo, though this Sake is labeled as a Ginjo instead. The brewery was aiming to "apply Daiginjo-class production techniques to all levels of our sake in order to improve the overall quality of the sake that people drink everyday." Thus, as part of that intention, this Sake was labeled as a Ginjo rather than a Daiginjo.

As I've mentioned before, aged Sake is rare but this Snow-Aged Sake is one of those exceptions. It is aged for three years in a fascinating place, a Yukimuro, a snow storehouse. Constructed in July 2013, this is an insulated storage room with almost 19,000 square feet of floor space. Within this space are 20 storage tanks, each which can hold 20,000 liters, and the only Sake within those tanks is that intended for their Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo. Not all of the tanks are filled at any one time.

Besides those twenty tanks, the Yukimuro is also filled with approximately 1000 tons of fresh snow! They gather the snow from the low hills behind the brewery and only need to fill it once a year. By the end of that year, there is about 1/3-2/3 of the amount of snow remaining. This snow will maintain the temperature within the storage tanks at a stable 3-5 degrees Celsius year round. There is also no need for electricity within this building, making it a more eco-friendly solution for aging. Each year, they produce about 400 Koku of this Snow-Aged Sake, which is the rough equivalent of about 10,000 720ml bottles.

What does this snow aging accomplish? Some Sake, usually called Koshu, is aged but not under very low temperatures. That causes the color to change drastically, to darken so it looks more like an old Port or Sherry. It also brings out very different flavors, usually much more earthy elements. However, aging under low temperatures generally does not change the color and it seems to primarily raise the complexity of the Sake. It may also help to mellow and smooth out the Sake.

The Snow-Aged Sake is a Genshu, meaning it is undiluted by water and possesses a 17% ABV. In addition, it has a SMV -1, Acidity 1.5 and Amino Acid 1.3, which won't mean much to many people except you should understand that it has a higher acidity level than similar Sake, meaning it works even better with food pairings.

I shared this bottle with several friends at a dinner party, where all of the food was prepared with Sake, including tomato-bread soup, halibut, rice, and chicken wings. Everyone enjoyed the Hakkaisan and I think it worked very well with the various foods, especially considering its high acidity and rich umami. I found the Hakkaisan to have a more subtle aroma and on the palate presented an elegant, deep complexity with hints of melon and a touch of anise. It was full-bodied and smooth with rich, savory umami. A hedonistic pleasure that is extremely food friendly. It is certainly worth its price and I highly recommend it.

The snow elevated this compelling Sake, providing a deeper, elemental aesthetic to it. 

"Kindness is like snow-it beautifies everything it covers."
--Croft M. Pentz

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rant: Wineries, We Don't Care About Medals

Sure, all of those shiny medals and brightly colored ribbons hanging on your wine bottles look pretty but I don't care about them. And I'm not the only one. I think it's safe to say that most wine writers feel the same, that the fact your wine won a handful of silver, gold or even double gold medals is basically meaningless to us.

I attend numerous media/trade wine tastings, meeting many winery representatives, wine makers, winery owners, importers, distributors, PR reps and more. As I taste their wines, it's inevitable that a significant majority of these individuals will boast of the medals that their wines have won. That is when my eyes glaze over and my ears shut down. It's not something I'm going to write about and it's not something that matters to me in the least. It's a waste of your words.

Consumers might be interested in hearing you talk about your medals but most wine writers I've spoken to would rather not hear about them. We would rather judge the wine on its own merits, rather than caring about how well that wine did at some wine competition. In a similar respect, we don't want to hear about your wine scores either, as they too are basically useless to us.

We do want to hear about your story, about the people behind the winery. We do want the technical specifications, though some of us want more than others. We want to hear about what makes your wines unique. And we will taste your wines and decide on our own what we think about them. If any of us really wants to know about your medals and wine scores, then we will ask, but I doubt many will inquire about those.

Please also consider the fact that at many of these trade tastings, our tasting time is limited so we may not spend lots of time at any one table. As such, you need to be succinct, providing us the most valuable information in a short period of time. Don't waste that time bragging about your medals when that is the last thing we want to know. You can brag about your medals to the consumers.

Save your breath and please don't even mention your medals.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Bangkok Brings Tasty Thai & Vietnamese To Melrose

Good things something come in small packages.

The Bankgok is a small, new Thai/Vietnamese restaurant on West Wyoming Avenue, near the railroad tracks, in Melrose, that opened around mid-March. There are about five small tables, for two people, in the restaurant and they have room to put up another couple tables if they get busy. They also do take-out and delivery, though delivery may be limited to the evening hours. I've dined there on multiple occasions, mostly during lunch time, and including getting take-out one evening.

Their website has little information about the restaurant beyond the necessary basics, though you will find their full menu online. Some research indicates that corporate officers are also connected to Pho & Rice in Somerville and Thana Thai Kitchen in Arlington. In the near future, I will try to speak with the owners for more background on the restaurant but for now, I'll primarily deal with their food and service.

The Menu is extensive, with plenty of Thai and Vietnamese options, and is very reasonably priced, with no dish costing more than $15. The Menu categories include: Appetizers ($5-$7), Salads ($7-$8), Soup ($4), Vietnamese Pho & Thai Noodle Soup ($9-$12), Stir Fried Noodle ($10-$14), Fried Rice ($10-$14) Bun-Vermicelli ($9-$11), Rice Plates ($10), Sautéed ($11-$14), Curry Dishes ($11-$14), Bangkok Specials & Seafood Entrees ($11-$15), and Sides ($1-$3.50).

They don't have a liquor license but their drinks menu includes items like Bubble Tea, Smoothies (though it appears they are not available yet), Thai Iced Tea, Lychee Juice, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Coconut Juice, and more. It is nice that they usually bring a large bottle of water to your table, though you drink it out of a paper cup.

They have about thirteen Appetizers and I've tried several of them. The Roti Curry Sauce ($7) is a  Fried Scallion Pancake served with a Green Curry Sauce. The pancakes are fresh, light and flaky, and not greasy. They make an excellent vehicle for dipping into the sauce, with its tasty flavor combination of coconut, lemongrass and mild spicy heat.

The Moo Pbring ($6.50) are grilled skewers of lemongrass marinated pork, accompanied by a smoked chili and tamarind sauce. These were excellent, with lots of tender, moist and flavorful pork and the sauce added some sweet & spicy elements. Forget those dry beef teriyaki skewers you get at other Asian spots. These easily put them to shame.

The Gyoza ($5), which you can have steamed or pan-fried, come as either Pork & Chicken or Vegetarian, and are served with ginger soy sauce. I opted for the pan-fried Pork & Chicken and they were tasty, filled with plenty of meat, and fried just enough to add some crispness to the gyoza skin.

The Sai Grog Issaan ($6) states it is "Sausages fermented Pork and Glutinous rice" but appears to be sliced sausage with lettuce, cucumbers and peanuts. The sausage was tender and spiced well and the veggies were fresh.

As for the Soups, I tried the Soup Hoanh Thanh ($4), which are pork and shrimp dumplings gently boiled in clear chicken broth with lettuce, onion, scallion and cilantro. You receive four plump and meaty dumplings and the broth is clean and mild. This would be especially good on a chilly day.

The Pho Gar ($9) is a Chicken Noodle soup with shredded chicken, rice noodle, onion, cilantro, and scallion with aromatic chicken broth, accompanied by some bean sprouts, herbs and lime. The broth is intense with flavor and there is plenty of chicken within the soup. The noodles had a nice chewiness to them.

The Mi Hoanh Thanh ($10) consists of pork and shrimp dumplings, yellow noodles, sliced pork, scallions and cilantro in a chicken broth. This is a hearty dish, with several slices of tender pork and plump dumplings. The noodles are thinner than the ones in the Pho but still had a nice texture and chew to them. There was plenty of flavor in the broth making this a very compelling dish.

The Rice Plates ($10) come with Traditional Vietnamese Grilled meat (chicken, pork or beef) accompanied by steamed Jasmine Rice, fresh tomato, cucumber, sliced lettuce and their Fresh Homemade Sauce (Nuoc Cham). You can also add a Fried Egg ($2). Above is the dish with the grilled chicken and egg. Another excellent dish with plenty of tender, flavorful chicken, enhanced by the egg, and the veggies were fresh and crisp. There was plenty of rice below all of the toppings. A good value for only $10.

I enjoyed a few other dishes, but which I don't have photos. The Grapao Gai Sub ($11) is stir fried minced chicken with fresh chili and basil. A spicy dish, it was very good layered over some rice. The Com Chien Fried Rice ($10) is Vietnamese fried rice with a combination of shrimp, chicken, Chinese sausage and mixed vegetables in Vietnamese chef's special sauce. Lots of flavor in this rice dish as well as plenty of meat. It tasted very fresh. The Chicken Pad Thai ($10) consists of stir-fried noodle with egg, bean sprout, turnip, and scallion in a Thai tamarind sauce topped with ground peanut. A nice choice as well.

The restaurant has a special, second menu which you probably won't receive unless you are Thai. It's only written in Thai and they don't have an English translation though your server will explain it to you if you ask. You can see there are sixteen options, priced $7-$12.

Fortunately, Pai Chourattana on Facebook generously provided me a translation of their menu which will help you navigate this special menu.

Off this special menu, I tried Nheam Kra Dook Moo, sour pork ribs (#6 on the menu), which were accompanied by some cucumber slices and lettuce. You need to gnaw the meat off these small pieces of ribs, which have a mildly sour flavor to them. These would make for a nice bar snack.

Also off the special menu, at #16, is the Garlic Pork Over Rice, which also comes with a few cucumber slices.  It's a simple dish, pieces of slightly fatty pork with crisp pieces over garlic over white rice. But it is hearty and tasty, perfect for a rainy day.

The Garlic Pork dish also comes with a small bowl of soup, a slightly soup broth.

I'll be sure to try more items off this special menu as there are plenty of other dishes that interest me.

Service is very good, personable and attentive. Overall, I've been very pleased with the quality and taste of the food from The Bangkok. It is fresh, with clean flavors, and there is enough diversity for all preferences. I've already been recommending it to my friends and I'll also continue regularly dining there. It is a welcome addition to the Melrose area.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

2014 Zorah Karasi Areni Noir: An Armenian Wine

Like the country of Georgia, Armenia has an ancient history of wine making, including the use of large clay vessels for fermentation and maturation. I know little about Armenian wines except what I've recently amassed. I don't recall ever seeing any Armenian wines in local shops, until recently at Streetcar Wines in Jamaica Plain, where I found the 2014 Zorah Winery Karasi Areni Noir (about $30).

The winery was founded by Zorik Gharibian, an Italian-Armenian, with the initial purchase of small plots of land in the Vayots Dzor region, about 1600 meters above sea level. As he wanted to make more traditional wines, Zorik sourced out karasi, clay vessels similar in many respects to the qvevri used by Georgians. The use of these ancient vessels, which extend back thousands of years, has been dying out. Zorik had to seek out used vessels, searching many different villages to find what he desired. He eventually acquired about 30 karasi and restored them all to working order.

Zorik's vineyards are phylloxera-free with sandy soil, rich in limestone, and the grapes vines came from cuttings from abandoned vineyards located at a nearby 13th century monastery. His wines are fermented in concrete vats and then matured in karasi for about a year. They are then lightly filtered and spend another six months in the bottle before release.

This wine is made from the indigenous Areni Noir grape, an ancient varietal that also extends back thousands of years. It is thought to have originated in the village of the same name in the Vayots Dzor  province. Within Armenia, it is used to make a variety of still red wines, rosé and even brandy. Considering the relative isolation of this grape, and its lengthy history, this is a grape that reflects Armenia, which provides a true sense of place.

This is a medium-red colored wine with a pleasing nose of red fruits and spice. On the palate, you truly experience its uniqueness as it presents with a complex and appealing melange of flavors, including red fruits, spice, herbal notes and an underlying earthiness. There is so much going on in the palate and there is also an exotic hint to the wine which will make you question its origins. It wasn't overly tannic, had plenty of acidity as well as more minerality. Delicious and food friendly, I strongly recommend this wine.

And now, I need to learn more about Armenian wines.

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Scampo, at The Liberty Hotel, has chosen to extend its “Jazzy Cocktail Nights,” a weekly late-night live music series that pairs sophisticated sounds with elegant cocktails and savory bites. Designed for Bostonians looking for a new twist on the nightlife scene, the Thursday night series, from 10pm-1am, transforms Scampo’s bar and lounge area into a sleek hideaway that showcases the talents of some of the region’s top music acts whose genres include jazz, vocals, Latin rhythms, funk and blues:

May 18: Alec Hutson Trio, an eclectic group that plays folk, gypsy and jazz
May 25: Tony Leva Trio, a quintessential upright bass jazz group featuring musicians from Longy School of Music
June 1: Bonnie & The Hot Stuff, a multi-decade group spanning classic jazz, standards and torch songs
June 8: Dylan Jack Quartet, a well-known group playing upbeat jazz with a bass clarinet, upright bass, guitar and percussion
June 15: Belén Cusi, an Argentinian singer-songwriter specializing in Latin jazz
June 22: Josef Nadj, an electric violinist who leads a quartet that plays jazz fusion and will feature a special guest vocalist

With the new series comes a dedicated list of cocktails and bar bites available exclusively during the Thursday performances from 10pm-1am. For single-serve cocktails ($16 each), highlights include the Boulevardier, a stirred concoction of rye, Campari and sweet vermouth finished with an orange twist; Classy Champagne Cocktail served in a water glass with sugar cubes and a lemon twist; and, Roaring Violette with lychee, Violette, lavender, white wine and bubbles.

For those looking to take their imbibing game to the next level, there are sharable Punch Bowl Cocktails ($36) – that come shaken for two, served in festive brass pineapple-shaped vessels – like the Sparkling Jazz with Absolut, lime, Aperol and a prosecco float with floating orange pin wheels and Dubonnet Sangria with wine, fruit, anejo tequila and hibiscus with a ginger beer float and fresh fruit. For those with a late-night sweet tooth, there’s the Prohibition Milkshake ($36), a large format liquid treat of vodka, chocolate ice cream, crème de cacao, Kahlua and bubbles served with freshly made mini bacon doughnuts.

On the culinary side, there are a quintet of items that are available in addition to Scampo’s seasonal pizza offerings: Veal & Pork Meatballs in a 17-minute candeli sauce with shaved pecorino gremolata ($12); Fried Arancini with Pomodoro and parmesan ($10); Calamari a la Plancha with fennel salad and chipotle aioli ($10); Bruschetta with homemade ricotta, candied pistachios and warm guanciale ($11); and Lydia’s Stuffed Dates ($11).

2) This Sunday, from 5pm-1pm, Taberna de Haro will open in honor of BU Graduation. They are accepting reservations, whether or not you are a BU grad. Starting June 4, Taberna de Haro will also open every Sunday with a special menu consisting of cold tapas. All will be priced at $5 each.

Here's a sample menu of Sunday's Tapas ($5 each)
Gildas ~ 2 toothpicks full of salty briny things
Canapé de jamón ibérico ~ one perfect Iberian ham canapé
Manchego con anchoa ~ sheep cheese w anchovy, evoo
Montaditos de erizo ~ mini canapés of sea urchin paté
Mar y montaña ~ tomato bread, one fuet, one tinned mackerel
Patatas alioli ~ garlic potato salad
Chorizo picante ~ spicy hard chorizo, evoo, picos
Mojama y huevas ~ cured tuna & mullet roe, olives
Tomates con atún ~ fresh tomato, tuna, onion, sherry vinaigrette
Cogollo con queso azul ~ Gem lettuce wedge w Spanish blue cheese
Alcachofas con pimiento rojo, boquerón, alioli ~ artichoke hearts, roasted red pepper, white anchovy, alioli
Arzua Ulloa con miel y nueces ~ Galician soft cheese with honey and walnuts

To make a reservation, please call 617-277-8272

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ciders of Spain: Viuda de Angelón & Guzman Riestra

"Really, it is the Asturian cider makers who are calling the attention of Americans to your magnificent region and sidra is serving as an excellent ambassador."
--James Asbel

Besides my love for the diverse wines of Spain, from briny Manzanilla Sherry to aged Rioja, from crisp Albarino to fruity Mencia, I also enjoy their Ciders, from Asturias (which are known as Sidra) and the Basque region (which are known as Sagardoa). Cider may even have originated in Spain a few thousand years ago. Spanish ciders present their own unique flavor profiles and it's great to see more of them entering the U.S. market.

Ciders of Spain tasting event, led by importer James Asbel, was recently held at Pemberton Farms in Cambridge, and two Sidra makers were in attendance, from Viuda de Angelón & Guzman Riestra. I've previously enjoyed Sidra from both of these producers but I wanted the opportunity to meet and speak with the Sidra makers. Please check out my two prior posts for more background and history on Ciders of Spain, James Asbel, Sidra and some specific reviews: Ciders of Spain: Asturian Cider (Part 1) and Ciders of Spain: Asturian Cider (Part 2).

Francisco Ordoñez Vigil, pictured above, is the main Sidra maker at Viuda de Angelón (the "widow of Angelon"), which was founded in 1947 by Alfredo Ordoñez Onís at the orchards of La Alameda. In 1978 the cidery was moved to La Teyera, Nava, home of the annual Asturian Cider Competition and the Museo de la Sidra de Asturias. It remains a family-owned and operated artisan cidery and they also operate a sidrería, a cider pub, in the center of Nava.

Francisco is a 3rd generation Sidra maker and acquired an oenology degree from the University of Valencia. Though he worked in the wine industry first, he eventually gravitated back to the family cidery. There isn't a school in Spain for cider making, so an oenology degree is the closest educational degree you can acquire. Francisco has been able to apply his winemaking knowledge, bringing more scientific analysis to the Sidra production. Francisco produces a wide range of Sidra, four of which are currently imported into the U.S. He stated that his biggest challenge in Sidra making is growing the apples.

The Sidra Brut Viuda de Angelón (about $16) is a Sparkling Off-Dry Cider made from 5 varieties of cider apples, though the exact proportions of each will vary some year to year. They have some of their own orchards, which are organic though not certified, and they purchase some apples from other local, organic orchards. Their orchards are quite steep so they must be do all hand harvesting, which is certainly laborious work. They also raise some livestock, including sheep and cows, which graze in the orchard.

Like all of their Sidras, the initial fermentation for the Brut occurs in an open tank and using wild yeasts. The cider will be cold shocked so some residual sugar remains within it, meaning they don't need to add additional sugar for the second fermentation, which occurs in a sealed tank. In addition, before that second fermentation, the cider is matured for about eight months in large chestnut barrels. It is cold shocked for a second time during the second fermentation so a little residual sugar, about 9 grams/liter, remains in the bottle. With a mild sweetness, this bubbly has rich apple flavors and would make a nice summer drink. There isn't much of a history of how well this Brut will age, but James believes it has a good aging potential.

The 1947 Sidra de Neuva Expresion (about $13) is a Petillant Semi-Dry Cider, produced from a blend of 14 apple varieties, all from their own orchards, with a rough breakdown of about 75% sharp, 15% bitter-sharp and the rest bitter-sweet. Fermentation occurs in an open chestnut vat, with wild yeasts, and I was quite surprised that they also allow it to mature in the open vat for about 12 months!  The vats are old, some being as much as a hundred years or more, and are quite large, about 15,000 liters. Some of the vats are stored underground while others are at ground level. The chestnut provides a touch of sweetness to the cider.

How can the cider survive for 12 months in an open vat? First, the cider actually forms a type of flor atop it, like occurs with Sherry, protecting the cider from oxygen and bacteria. In addition, as they use higher acidity apples, that is another element protecting the cider. The cider is unfiltered, unfined and doesn't undergo any cold shock. It possesses a strong, appealing apple aroma and on the palate, it presents as mostly dry and crisp, with only the slightest hint of sweetness, with a mild effervescence, enough to be a nice palate cleanser and excellent for food pairings. It has delicious apple flavors, with a lengthy pleasing finish, and was one of my Top Three Sidras of the previous tasting.

The Viuda de Angelón Sidra de Pera ($3.50/330ml) is a Sparkling Off-Dry Perry, made from several varieties of pears from their estate. Perry production might extend back to the ancient Romans and was popular in Asturias during the last couple hundred years though mostly it was made by families at home and there was little, if any, commercial production. The pear trees are wild, organic and over 70 years old. Once the pears are picked, they are first fermented in stainless steel, with wild yeasts, and then mature for about four months in chestnut vats. Then, they undergo a second fermentation in the tank.

This is an impressive Perry, with a harmonious blend of earthiness with subtle pear flavor and a mild effervescence. It is dry and refreshing, with lots of depth. It would be excellent on its own or paired with food, especially something with umami. Absolutely delicious, it was also one of my a Top Three Sidras of the previous tasting.

I had some concerns last week when I read a news article from La Sidra titled "The Spanish administration bans pear cider." The article states "So now this category, pear cider, turns to be illegal and prevents the sale of perry with its own name. In Asturies, as we said, pear cider is a traditional and historical product as apple cider, despite its production and consumption was decreaded lately. Only the cider mill Viuda de Angelón produced this product since 2011 and now it will have to stop its production and distributon of this beverage, while the shops and cider bars can still sell this."

Fortunately, I spoke with James Asbel who soothed my worries, as the La Sidra article apparently wasn't fully accurate. James stated that Spain had only banned the use of the term "sidra" in referring to a "perry." As such, it will have no impact on production and sales, and no impact on Viuda de Angelón's labeling in the U.S. Perry can certainly still be produced in Spain, just as long as you don't try to label it as a sidra. Francisco Ordoñez Vigil, of Viuda de Angelón, has indicated he might decide to change over to the use of perea, the traditional term for Perry.

Raul Riestra, pictured above, is the main Sidra maker at Guzman Riestra, which was founded back in 1906 by Robustiano Riestra and it eventually was passed on to his daughter, Etelvina Riestra. With her husband, Ricardo Riestra Hortal, they eventually implemented some modern advances. Today, the cidery is in the hands of Raul and Ruben Riestra, the great grandsons of the founder, and Raul, with a business degree, is the chief cider maker.

Raul does not have an oenology degree but has always worked at the family cidery so he has learned everything on the job. Riestra grows some of their own apples and also purchases some. About 40% of their apples are from the local area, 40% are from little further away, and about another 20% come from Normandy, France. The cidery has about 30 vats for their apples, including chestnut, stainless steel and fiberglass. When making Sidra, the same juice goes into 3-4 vats to maintain consistency and they don't fill the vats all the way, allowing room for expansion.

Like Angelón, they conduct open vat fermentations, with wild yeasts. After the October harvest, fermentation can take about six weeks, though during the colder months, fermentation takes longer, and can extend even as long as 9 months. This is not a problem, as it allows them to more evenly spread out their availability. Overall, they produce about 850,000 liters of Sidra annually. Their greatest challenge is trying to press so many apples in such a short time.

The Sidra Natural Riestra (about $9.50/700ml) is a dry, unfiltered Sidra and when you are pouring it into a glass, you hold the bottle high in the area, a practice known as escanciar, which helps to aerate the cider as well as make it fizzier. It possesses a very mild earthiness, with much more rich apple flavors and stronger tannins. It is dry with sour and bitter notes as well as good acidity. This too would be excellent with a variety of food pairings, including cheese. The U.S. imports about 50% of the total production of this Sidra.

The Guzman Riestra Sidra Brut Nature (about $16/750ml) is a sparkling dry Sidra made in the Methode Champenoise. They select 2-3 tanks specifically for this Brut, only the best of their Sidra. It is matured for about 4 months in the tank, is then filtered and fined, before receiving a dosage and undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle. It spends at least four months in the bottle, and usually longer, and is commonly released about five months after disgorgment. The U.S. imports about 30% of the total production of this Brut.

The Brut is clean and dry with moderate bubbles, a mild earthiness, a bright apple flavor, a hint of tropical fruit, and a pleasingly long finish. It has similar tannins to the other Riestra and this could stand up to stronger foods, like cured meats.

Asturian Sidra offers a compelling and more unique flavor profile, with a great sense of history and tradition. And the Sidras in this article, from Ciders of Spain, offer an excellent value as well. A number of local wine and liquor shops now stock these Sidras, and if they don't, you should ask them to carry them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pierde Almas 9+ Botanicals: The First Mezcal-Gin

"I exercise strong self-control. I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast."
--W.C. Fields

I'm very particular about gin as I dislike those with an overly strong juniper taste, far too piney for my preferences, and they sometimes remind me of cheap aftershave. I feel that the other botanicals get lost in those gins, vastly dominated by the juniper. I much prefer gin which has a more balanced melange of botanicals. A couple of my favorites include the Barrel-Aged Tom Cat Gins from Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, Vermont and Aviation Gin from House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon.

Recently, I learned of a unique Mezcal-Gin, said to possess a more balanced blend of nine botanicals, and I knew I needed to taste it. I love Mezcal so was curious how the gin botanicals would affect the taste. And the more I learned about this unique spirit, the more I was intrigued.

"I've tried Buddhism, Scientology, Numerology, Transcendental Meditation, Qabbala, t'ai chi, feng shui and Deepak Chopra but I find straight gin works best."
--Phyllis Diller

Pierde Almas is a Mezcal producer devoted to being a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company. I recently wrote about their fascinating and delicious Mezcal de Conejo, a Pechuga made with wild rabbit, and they make a variety of other Mezcals too. After some experimentation, that started back in 2011, Master Distiller Jonathan Barbieri invented Mezcal-Gin, aka Ginebra de Agave, a Gin which uses Mezcal as its base spirit. This intriguing creation is now bottled and sold as Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals.

With assistance from Maestro Mezcalero Gregorio Velasco, production of the +9 Botanicals begins using the Pierde Almas Espadín Mezcal as its base. This Mezcal is made very traditionally, with natural fermentation in wooden vats and relying upon wild yeasts. After undergoing a double distillation, the Mezcal undergoes a third distillation, this time with the addition of nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, star anise, fennel seed, orange peel, cassia bark, angelica root, orris root, and nutmeg. Currently, all of those botanicals are sourced within Mexico, which is also a source of pride for the distillery. That certainly makes it much more of a local spirit. This third distillation occurs in a 100-liter copper pot alembic and they only produce about 200 liters per bottling.

"The Greek physician Galen, writing in the second century AD, said that juniper berries “cleanse the liver and kidneys, and they evidently thin any thick and viscous juices, and for this reason they are mixed in health medicines.” This certainly suggests a mixture of juniper berries and alcohol, although that, too, would have tasted nothing like the superb gins we drink today."
--The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

I obtained my bottle of Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals ($94.99) at Astor Wine & Spirits in New York City. The label notes that this is a Joven Mezcal (basically unaged), with a 45% ABV, and it is #443 of only 720 bottles. At the bottom of the label, it has the phrase "Otra vez esta maldita felicidad" which translates as "Again this damn happiness." I can understand why this Mezcal would bring on happiness. However, what you won't see on the label is that it is a Gin. Why is that so?

The answer to that question needs to start with another question, whether +9 Botanicals is legally a Gin in the U.S. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 27: Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, Part 5--Labeling and Advertising of Distilled Products, you have to consult Subpart C--Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, section 5.22(c) which states: “Gin” is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof."

As it meets these qualifications, the +9 Botanicals could legally be labeled as a Gin so you would expect that the label would state that it was a Gin. However, there is a secondary issue which must be considered. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) doesn't permit producers to put multiple categories on a spirit's label. Thus, Pierde Almas had to make the decision whether to label the +9 Botanicals as a Mezcal or a Gin. They were not permitted to include both categories, even if their spirit qualified as both. Jonathan told me that they ultimately decided to keep it in the domain of Mezcal which certainly makes sense as it then fits well within the rest of their Mezcal portfolio.

"The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire."
--Winston Churchill

Would the +9 Botanicals be too juniper heavy? That was certainly my concern but I was reassured by Jonathan Barbieri that wasn't his intent. He explained to me, "I'm not a fan of the lonely juniper berry soprano, singing way out in front about all that pine tar and turpentne. I wanted to bring up the chorus - like the "slave song" in Verdi's Nabucco. So, all of those Mediterranean spices and oriental botanicals share the stage, and in the pit, the orchestra is well, Espadín in all its earthy flesh." How could you not be compelled by Jonathan's poetic words?

After I poured myself a glass, I found that the primary aroma was the piney nose of juniper, and I was sure that I was smelling a gin. No one would be confused in that regard. Beneath that piney nose were more subtle herbal notes. Once I tasted it, the Mezcal elements made themselves known, and I found it to be an intriguing and complex spirit. There were plenty of citrus notes up front, with an interesting melange of spices and herbs, as well as a smoky edge, especially on the finish. The piney notes of the juniper became much more integrated into the whole, and the other botanicals joined the complex mix. The juniper might have been primary on the nose, but the taste became the great equalizer.

This is definitely a sipping spirit, which is quite enjoyable neat, and each sip seems to bring new flavors to your palate. However, the +9 Botanicals would also bring more unique flavors to traditional Gin cocktails, or intriguing botanicals to a Mezcal cocktail. I will be experimenting with some Gin cocktails in the near future. A Mezcal-Gin Martini? A Mezcal-Gin Margarita?

If you already love Gin, then you should check out the Pierde Almas 9+ Botanicals for its unique flavor combinations. If you aren't a huge fan of Gin, then you should still check it out as it is likely to appeal to you anyway. And if you love Mezcal, then this is definitely something you need to experience. Kudos to Pierde Almas for another winner of a Mezcal.

"Forget the cheap white wine: go to beef and gin!"
--Julia Child

Monday, May 15, 2017

Rant: Drink Writers, Burst Your Bubble

Drink writers, especially if they have a narrow focus in their writing, can easily find themselves isolated within a bubble. They might write only about something specific like Italian wine, Sparkling wines, Rum, or Bourbon. Or maybe they write about a more general category of drinks, such as wine, beer, or whiskey.

In addition to the limits of what they write, they might also surround themselves with others who share their interest, who they meet to share their chosen libations. On social media, they will follow others who share their chosen interest. In addition, they will likely read books, magazines and articles about their chosen interest. They immerse themselves in their chosen speciality, excluding anything outside of that circle.

They probably don't even realize that they've created a bubble around themselves, limiting their exposure to outside views and experiences. They feel safe and secure inside their bubble, buoyed up by their friends who share similar interests. Everything they experience is presented through the same lens, the same filters. As such, they miss out on information and experiences which are outside this narrow lens, yet they never realize that they're missing anything. In essence, they may be blissfully ignorant.

By existing within a bubble, they can miss out on the greater context of their chosen drink, failing to understand how it compares and contrasts to other beverages. They need to take off their blinders, which keep them walking down a narrow path, and look out at a greater world. They can look at their chosen interest with new eyes, potentially finding new approaches to their interest, realizing new ideas which will broaden their knowledge. It's a great way to improve their writing, to make it fresher and more relevant.

For example, I write about both Wine and Sake, and it has been enlightening to compare and contrast the two beverages. They possess interesting similarities and differences and similarities which cause me to think more critically about each, seeing them in a greater context than if I concentrated on only one of them. For example, when pairing food and Sake, umami is an important consideration. However, most people rarely consider umami when pairing wine and food, unless they have had experiences with Sake. Though Wine possesses less umami than Sake, it still can play a role in food pairings.

Beer and wine have their significant differences too, and by learning more about each, you can break out of your bubble and view matters in a larger context. Consider how beer consumers view pricing, how $15 a bottle can seem like such a high price, yet in the wine world, $15 a bottle is often considered a value price. Each type of spirit also brings with it a unique framework, well worth exploring.

The drinks industry is wide and wonderful, a myriad of experiences which bring new knowledge and allow you to view old knowledge through different lenses. Don't box yourself in to a specific alcohol but allow yourself to be more open, to have an adventurous palate.  Break out of your bubble and welcome the new.

I should note that I'm not advocating that you have to write about all of these different types of alcohol. What I'm trying to get across is that you should learn more about these other beverages, reading and researching, so you better understand them. That knowledge should help you better understand your chosen beverages and should lead to better articles. There is no downside to learning more about other drinks.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Torishin: A Yakitori Paradise

If you're seeking an exceptional restaurant in New York City, then I must give one of my heartiest recommendation to Torishin.

While planning our recent visit to New York City, my good friend Adam Japko made reservations for us to visit Torishin. He'd dined there before and been thoroughly impressed, knowing that I would appreciate it. Before our visit, Pete Wells of the New York Times wrote a stellar review of Torishin, giving it three stars. After I dined there, I fully understood the reasons for the raves as it is an exceptional restaurant, offering yakitori that elevates chicken to new heights.

The name of the restaurant breaks down into “Tori,” which means “chicken,” and “Shin,” which means “spirit.” And that spirit of the chicken permeates the restaurant. It is a Japanese yakitori, "grilled chicken," restaurant, and originated in Tokyo, Japan, with an outpost established in New York City back in 2007. They specialize in using traditional methods to prepare and cook every part of the chicken, wasting nothing. I actually wouldn't have been surprised if they had found a way to use chicken feathers. The chickens they use are organic, and their other ingredients, such as their vegetables, are often locally sourced except much of their seafood which comes from the seas of Japan.

Their grilled chicken are cooked over Kishu Binchotan, a traditional Japanese charcoal that releases larger quantities of infrared rays, allowing the meat to get crispy outside while remaining moist and juicy inside. It burns at a lower temperature, but for a longer time, than regular charcoal and also doesn't release lots of smoke. Cooking over these binchotan is a skill, and you will see the chef at the grill, frequently fanning it throughout the evening, keeping the charcoals hot.

As you enter the restaurant, there's a small bar to the immediate left and then you proceed through a doorway into the main dining area or you can go upstairs to a smaller dining area. In the regular dining areas, you can order the yakitori and organic vegetable skewers a la carte, generally priced $4-$8 each. You also have the option of a 10 Skewer Set (with 7 meats & 3 veggies) for $65 or an Omakase for $70. In addition, they offer some Small Plates ($6-$27), including dishes such as Grilled Organic Edamame, Broiled Sea Urchin with Garlic, Chawanmushi and Homemade Chicken Cha-shu. There are also several Rice Dishes ($17-$22), such as Oyako Don and Ume Chazuke.

We though had reservations at the Select Counter, basically a chef's table with only eight seats at a counter and where you are served a superb omakase dinner. The counter is made from Hinoki wood, Japanese cypress, which is considered a sacred material. Chef Atsushi Kono (pictured above) presides over the grill, and spent nearly all of the evening in front of the grill, cooking all of the yaiktori to perfection. The Chef had two assistants at the Select Counter and we interacted more with them, as they prepared, plated and served us the various dishes we would enjoy. We also had a server, who worked only in the Select Counter room, providing us attentive and responsive service. All of this combined to transform  this from a mere dinner to a more expansive dining experience.

Torishin has a full bar, from Wine to Beer, Japanese Whiskey to Shochu. Their Sake list has about 21 options, with more than half available by the glass. There is a good variety of Sake, prices are generally reasonable, and some of them are offered hot. Over the course of the evening, we ordered two different Sakes, and both were quite good though very different. The Harada Muroka Namagenshu Junmai Ginjo ($110/bottle) had a round mouthfeel with some delightful berry flavors along with floral elements. The Fukuju Junmai Ginjo ($75/bottle) was superb, with a dry, clean and elegant taste with plenty of fruit notes. It was silky smooth, drinking so easily, and I could have sat all night drinking this Sake. Highly recommended.

On their drinks list, you'll also find they carry about 12 Shochu, most made from Sweet Potato, and all available by the glass or bottle. Before going to Torishin, I spoke with Stephen Lyman, a Shochu expert, seeking some recommendations. He noted that Torishin is one of his favorite restaurants and he gave me some Shochu recs, which I'll discuss later in this post.

As you sit at the Select Counter, you'll find in front of you a few containers of soy sauce, sansho (Japanese pepper) and shichimi (a Japanese spice blend). Though you can use these condiments on any of the skewers or dishes you receive, the Chef's assistants give advice on when they recommend you use certain condiments with specific items. We followed their advice, figuring they knew best how to season the various skewers and dishes.

The Omakase ($150/per person) offers the seven skewers in the box above, with your choice of either a King Crab Leg or Kumamoto A5 Beef. In addition, you'll receive a number of other dishes and also get a choice of a rice dish, like Oyako Don, or a soup, like Ramen. During the course of the dinner, we also ordered a few extra skewers a la carte, to sample more of the various chicken parts. It's the type of restaurant where you want to sit and sample everything they have to offer.

During the course of our dinner, I took numerous photos but I didn't take any notes. I was primarily there to enjoy the experience, and not write a detailed review. Plus, I wanted to eat each skewer as soon as it was put before me, garnering the maximum amount of pleasure. So, you won't find many notes accompanying the following photos but I can't stress enough how delicious and exceptional the experience was that evening. Much of the food was prepared relatively simply, but the high quality ingredients and perfect execution of cooking techniques elevated these items far above the ordinary. The chef was able to extract so much flavor in many of these items, including more unusual body parts that you might not even consider to be edible.

Ever had chicken arteries?

This was our first taste, an Eggplant dish, and though I'm not a huge fan of eggplant, this was a tasty item, with some creaminess and slightly bitter notes.

The next dish was killer, two pieces of lightly seared fish and grilled bamboo shoots. Both of the fish were from the waters off Japan, and the middle piece is Rosy Seabass though I don't recall the name of the other fish. However, both were excellent, tender, melt-in-you-mouth seafood. The bamboo shoots were also tender, with a nice crunchy texture, and a nutty, savory taste. Torishin might be best known for its chicken, but their seafood is exceptional as well.

The first two yakitori skewers included Chicken Liver and Tenderloin. The liver was tender and earthy, with a silky texture. The tenderloin pieces were more flavorful than much of the chicken you are probably used to, with a very light sear. Relative simplicity but so much flavor.

The Neck meat was also tender and flavorful, with some crunchier, charred pieces adding to the taste.

The Baby Corn was tender and slightly crunchy, a nice intermission before additional chicken skewers.

This is the Main Artery, actually comprised of the arteries from 6 chickens. I was surprised at how tasty this was, with a lightly chewy texture (which I expected to be far more chewy). This was actually one of my favorite skewers of the evening.

This small fish was prepared with a light tempura and accompanied by a green veggie, also tempura. It resembled a flying fish caught in a tree. Again though, this was an excellent and delicious dish, with a light and crunchy tempura and the meaty fish.

Next, were some slices of Kumamoto A5 Beef with a couple potato slices. The beef was very tender and moist, with compelling flavors.

The King Crab Leg was sweet and tender.

These grilled Tomatoes impressed, despite their simplicity. When I popped one in my mouth, and bit into it, my mouth was filled by the hot, sweet and acidic juices inside of the tomato. A burst of umami that went well with the Sake.

I wasn't as crazy about this dish with Chicken Gizzards, more of a texture issue than flavor-wise.

Besides the chicken, the restaurant also has Quail, which was tender and meaty, with a bit of a gamier taste than the chicken, and some nice crispy skin elements.

The Chicken Oyster is the small piece of dark meat on either side of the chicken's backbone, and is considered by many to be the best part of the chicken. It certainly was full of flavor, moist and tender, with a nice char. I certainly would have enjoyed a few more skewers of this.

The Chicken & Duck Meatball was accompanied by an egg and they suggested you stir up the yolk and dunk the meatball into the yolk. The meatball was amazing, moist and meaty, and didn't need anything more but the yolk actually enhanced the meatball.

The Knee Gristle wasn't as tough as you might expect and had plenty of flavor.

Two more skewers and I'm not exactly sure what they are, though I do recall both were tasty and well cooked.

For our rice or soup dish, we opted for the Tsukemen, a type of ramen where you dip your noodles in a separate bowl of broth, and you can see the broth bowl above. The slightly chewy noodles were excellent, and the broth was full of umami and intense flavor. Tsukemen is certainly a way to ensure your noodles don't get too soft from continually sitting in a bowl of broth.

We then ended our dinner with a choice of desserts. I opted for the Shiso (Japanese Mojito) Sorbet because I was planning to have a glass of Shochu, the Tenshi no Yuwaku ($18/glass). Shochu expert Stephen Lyman recommended the pairing so I took his advice. The Tenshi no Yuwaku is a sweet potato Shochu which was fermented in Sherry casks for about 10 years. This is a more unique Shochu as few are ever aged this long. It's name translates as "Angel's Temptation," a reference to the Angel's Share, the amount of spirit that evaporates over time while it ages in a barrel. I enjoyed it neat, finding it rich and creamy, with intense Sherry notes, hints of sweetness, and plenty of complexity. And it worked well with the sorbet. I really need to get a bottle of this Shochu.

What a superb dining experience, an evening of great food and drink. Within the Select Counter, it almost feels as if you were dining at a tiny specialized spot in Tokyo. I thoroughly enjoyed the various skewers and dishes, so much delicious diversity, which was accompanied by tasty Sake. I fully understood why Adam Japko was so impressed with this restaurant and I now share his sentiment. Service was excellent and I didn't have a single complaint about anything. Torishin is definitely one of my favorite restaurants of the year and receives my highest recommendation.  I will certainly be returning there on one of my next trips to New York City.