Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Saloon Restaurant: A Whiskey Wonderland

I'm used to seeing lengthy wine lists at restaurants, a 100 or more choices from wine regions all across the world. It can be fascinating to scrutinize the options, especially when some are more unusual and unique. I love the opportunity to find wines that I rarely see, if ever, at local wine shops. I may spend more time perusing the wine list than I do the food menu. At Saloon, in Davis Square, you'll find a lengthy, diverse and intriguing drink list, except it's concentrated on whiskey. And that too is a major thrill.

Saloon, which opened its doors in December 2011, is the second venture by Ken Kelly and David Flanagan; the first being Foundry on Elm. I was invited to dine at Saloon as a media guest and it's a place I'l return to again soon, to explore more of their whiskey choices and enjoy more of their cuisine. It truly is a Whiskey Wonderland, and is a worthy destination for all whiskey and cocktail lovers. In addition, their food is a worthy draw in of itself.

Locating Saloon is not the easiest, as the primary signage is a .light ball on Elm Street. However, if you go to 255 Elm Street, you;'ll find a small lobby and within that lobby is a tiny sign indicating that Saloon is located downstairs. You then take an elevator down, where you follow more stiny signs down a bland hallway until you reach Saloon. It's worth the effort to seek it out..

Inspired by pre-Prohibition bars in New York City, Saloon contains lots of dark woods and leather. It has a large bar and two separate dining areas, one beyond an arch which is supposed to be over four hundred years old and obtained from a church in England. It is elegant and homey, with a welcoming ambiance. There are no windows so you almost feel like you have left the world, to step back in time. On a Tuesday evening, with snow predicted later that night, it was fairly busy and I suspected it gets packed on the weekends.

Their Whiskey list, with about 120 options, is diverse and interesting with headings for Bourbons; Single Barrels; Tennessee, Malts & Wheat; Rye; Canadian Whiskey; Irish Whiskey; Blended Scotch; Vatted Scotch; Single Malt Scotch; and Asian Whiskey. The list has three price options, including Standard Pour ($5-$50), Old Fashioned and Manhattan. You'll find whiskies you know well and rarer whiskies that you may not know. You'll find whiskies from Japan and Taiwan, as well as from the Hudson Valley of New York and Washington state. This is a list you'll want to explore on multiple visits to the bar.

It is a well curated list,prepared by Manny Gonzales, their Beverage Director. Initially, when Saloon first opened, they were known primarily for their bourbon and their list was heavy on the bourbon. Over time, Manny added a greater variety of whiskies to the list. Manny stated that their most popular whiskey is the Bulleit Bourbon & Rye. Other popular choices include the Auchentoshan Single Malt Scotch, the Elijah Craig Bourbon, and the Nikka Coffey Grain from Japan.

Though they can make the standard cocktails, they have a special list of thirteen Cocktails ($10-$12), many made with whiskey though others are made with mezacl, vodka, and rum. They also have four Duets ($10), which are basically a beer and a shot. If Beer is your desire, you'll find about 16 Draft Beers & Ciders ($3.50-$8) and 12 by the Bottle/Can ($3.50-$7, with 2 exceptions for larger size bottles). There are local beers, other domestic beers and a few international options too. Their Wine list is small, with only 13 options ($5-$10/glass), though the choices are not the usual suspects. And face it, you aren't coming to Saloon for the wine. The whiskey is the main draw.

Their Food Menu is also relatively small, broken down into Hors d'Oeuvres (12 choices priced from $7-$15) and Mains (6 choices, most priced from $15-$19). I like these smaller menus, which don't try to do everything, but which try to do a small number of things very well. The Hors d'Oeuvres present their own special take on bar food, from a Corn Dog (made with chorizo) to Brandt Beef Sliders. The Mains do the same, from a Short Rib Pot Pie to a Chicken Fried Rabbit Leg. If you like seafood, they have a Catch of the Day (market price) and for the carnivore, you can get the Ballers Steak ($40), a 28 oz bone-in rib-eye steak. Whatever your preferences, you'll likely find something on the menu which will appeal to you.

We began the evening with a couple cocktails. The Pass ($12) is made from High Rye Bourbon, Cynar, and Imbue Vermouth. Spicy and herbal, with hints of ;orange flavor, this was a pleasant, savory drink.

The Ward 44 ($11) is made from Pork belly rye, grenadine, and lemon. As you bring the glass up to your mouth, your nose will be caressed by the smell of bacon. And when you sip, the taste of smoky bacon will fill your mouth as well, with a mild spiciness, citrus notes and a hint of sweetness. I really enjoyed this cocktail and highly recommend it to any lover of bacon and whiskey.

To begin our dinner, we selected a few Hors d'Oeuvres. The Fried Pickle Chips ($7) are panko crusted dill pickles with a sriracha & horseradish ranch dipping sauce. With a clean, crunchy exterior, the pickles within were moist and crisp with a nice dill flavor. Some fried pickles quickly get soggy but these remained crunchy and crisp to the bottle of the bowl. They also weren't too thick and make for an excellent bar snack.

The Wedge Salad ($7) consists of romaine, heirloom cherry tomatoes, smoked almonds, bacon, and an avocado blue cheese dressing. A nice variation of the traditional Wedge.

Another variation on a bar staple, the Duck Wings ($9) are covered by an orange-molasses glaze. The tender meat nearly falls off the bone, there is a nice crispness to the skin and the glaze isn't overly sweet. There is a stronger taste to the duck meat than chicken and that isn't a negative. I've long been a fan of duck, and Saloon's use of duck wings rather than the traditional chicken wings works very well.

Manny writes a spirits blog, Life By The Drop, and holds monthly spirits classes at Saloon. From speaking with Manny, it's clear he has a deep knowledge and passion for whiskey, and his whiskey list is indicative of that passion. Manny led us through a tasting of five whiskies, pouring them from the strongest to the lightest, which is the opposite of how you would taste wine. He thought this is the best way to understand and experience the greater complexities and subtleties of the lighter whiskies. His choices were diverse and interesting.

We began with the Colorado Straight Bourbon from Peach St. Distillers, which is made from a blend of 60% local corn, 20% rye, and 20% two-row malted barley, and has an alcohol content of 46%. It is open-air fermented, distilled once, and aged for at least two years. It is a small batch bourbon, with only 1 and a 1/3 barrels produced a day. This was a lighter bourbon, with a smooth and lightly sweet taste and some mild spicy notes. There is some heat from the alcohol level, but nothing a few drops of water can't handle. Or you could just use it in a cocktail.

Next up was the Westland American Single Malt, which is from one of my favorite domestic distilleries. You can read my extended review of this distillery and its whiskies in my blog, A Worthy Washington Whiskey.

We then moved onto the Nikka 12 Year Old "Miyagikyo" Single Malt, a compelling Japanese whiskey. Within the last hundred years, the Japanese have been producing top notch whiskies, and winning many world whiskey awards. Check out my previous blog about Nikka Whiskey for a review of this whiskey and more info about the distillery.

Our fourth whiskey came in a mysterious unmarked bottle. About 1.5 years ago, Manny attended a whiskey blending class, where the objective was to try to recreate the flavor of Johnny Walker Black. The idea of blending caught Manny's interest and he has been holding blending classes at Saloon. In addition, he has created his own blend, the Grocer's Blend, which can be found on the menu at Saloon.

Six different single malts are used to produce this blend, with only two being the same from blend to blend. Manny aims for consistency even though different single malts are used. The particular blend I tasted had been bottled about four days prior, and was about 46 proof.  Manny did an excellent job as I found this whiskey to be delicious, smooth, and complex with an interesting melange of subtle flavors. Though blended whiskies sometimes get ignored by whiskey lovers, the act of blending is an art that should not be ignored.

We ended with a rarer whiskey from the A.D. Rattray Cask Collection, which bottles whiskies from Scotland and Ireland, though they generally don't disclose the origin of the barrel. We had their 12 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey, and the talk is that it might originate from Bushmills. With an ABV of 57.5%, this is a whiskey that would benefit from the addition of a little water. It possesses a bright taste, with fruity notes, hints of caramel, and intriguing herbal notes.  It is complex and light, a whiskey to slowly savor, appreciating all the subtle flavors and aromas which can be found. Highly recommended.

With all of these whiskies, we continued to eat (which is always a good idea when sampling numerous whiskies) a couple more Hors d'Oeuvres. The Lamb Merguez Sausage ($12) comes with a spicy pepper, onion relish and the sausage was juicy and flavorful, with lots of spice and a slightly gamey taste. I love lamb and these sausages satisfied in every way.

The Devils On Horseback ($9) are feta stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. Sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy, these were an excellent balance of flavors and textures They could almost serve as a dessert.

Moving onto a couple Mains, we enjoyed the Chicken Fried Rabbit Leg ($18), with a cheddar biscuit, kale, and sour cream gravy,. I respect any restaurant willing to serve rabbit, which is nutritious, sustainable and tasty. Saloon did an excellent job with this dish, with a light and crunchy fried coating covering plenty of tender, moist rabbit meat, covered by a creamy and savory gravy. The portion size was plentiful and I'd order this again. It is a hearty dish, excellent for a winter eve.

The Short Rib Pot Pie ($18) is made with red wine, wild mushrooms, root veggies, and is topped by a puff pastry crust. The flaky crust was light and buttery, and I could have easily devoured a few of them. The crust was far lighter and flakier than many others I have had on similar pot pies. Beneath the crust, the tender short rib meat was within a savory gravy with plenty of mushrooms and veggies. This is another hearty dish, perfect for a snowy, winter evening, and it stands up well to some of the hardier whiskies.

The last spirit of the evening was the Wigle Landlocked, a "distilled honey" which is pot-stilled from buckwheat honey. It had an intriguing taste, a sweetness enhanced by earthy and herbal notes and hints of vanilla and dried fruit.

For Dessert, the Irish Cream Guinness Brownie Sundae:is a good choice. The moist and chocolaty brownie was a good canvas for the ice cream and toppings. It is large enough to share if you are too full and can't eat your own dessert.

For a lighter dessert, you could opt for the creamy Passion Fruit Panna Cotta.

Overall, my first impression of Saloon was very positive. Delicious food, with interesting variations of the usual bar far, complement the excellent whiskey and cocktail program. With its large and diverse whiskey list, this is definitely a whiskey lover's paradise, and they know how to make an excellent cocktail too. I will certainly be returning soon, to try more of their food, and to investigate more of their whiskies. I'll report back on my further experiences.

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