Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bananas Foster French Toast. To Start.

"We have salmon, lettuce, simple syrup, beer, key lime cheesecake, a tri-tip, and...erm...butter." Pause. Blink. "Or would you rather go out?" After the usual uncertainty of what to eat on a weekend morning, we headed to Fig Tree Cafe, a local joint with a typical Southern California menu: omelettes, Benedict variations, hash, French toast, burritos and tacos, fresh fruit and salads, plus the sort of sugar-and-spice-lacquered bacon one finds on brunch menus these days. At Fig Tree, it's called Man Candy. Sure. Why not? Bring on the man candy — but that's not why I was there.

Appetizer (n): what you eat before you eat so you'll be more hungry
I was there for the French Toast: four thick slices of bread, batter-dipped, skillet-fried, and dolled up bananas Foster style with sautéed banana slices, brown sugar, and rum. When I asked our waiter to bring a plate of that, he nodded agreeably and asked "To start?"

Yes. To start.

After that, I'd like three pork chops, a pitcher of orange juice, a five-egg Denver omelette, a bowl of yogurt with honey and granola, a mango and arugula salad (check; make that two), two breakfast burritos, an English muffin with butter and marmalade, one of those crab cakes with avocado slices, some sausage, a chicken sandwich, six shrimp tacos, an order of breakfast sushi, and a slice of meatloaf. Oysters if they're good today. And biscuits. Do you have biscuits?

Oh, and don't forget the man candy. I'll take, like, a pound.

French toast to start. Pfft. Who am I, Diamond Jim Brady?

Grousing aside, breakfast was great.

Fig Tree Cafe
416 University Avenue
San Diego, California
(619) 298-2010
The menu

Goes well with:
  • While we're on the topic of bacon, sugar, and spices, but certain to make a batch of homemade bacon jam with apple cider. At its most simple use, just spread it on toast. But once you start folding it into macaroni and cheese, potato gratins, waffles, bread dough, and the like...well, then you're onto something quite good indeed. I might just use some in the next batch of bacon dumplings
  • Fig Tree isn't the only place I like to hit for breakfast in San Diego. The Tractor Room is always a solid choice. The full bar may have something to do with that
  • Tri tip is a cut we see a lot in California, but less so in other parts of the country. If you get your hands on some, do as I do: grill it
  • Diamond Jim Who? James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady was a Gilded Age railroad supply salesmen known for expensive swag and an expansive gut, a contemporary of Mark Twain. David Kamp looks into the truth of his supposed and infamous gluttony for the New York Times

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The One That Undoes You

From the back of the dust jacket:
Hassoldt Davis
As we slide into the weekend — for what is Thursday, if not the beginning of the weekend? — and begin planning the whiskeys, tequilas, beer, gins, amari, and the other drams and tipples that help us get our swerve on, we would all do well to bear in mind Hassoldt Davis' admonition from his 1958 handbook, Bonjour, Hangover! The thin little tome is a collection of maxims, aphorism, and personal observations on the painful mornings one endures after nights of intemperance.
Don't drink that last drink, 
the one-for-the-road, 
that nightcap. 
That's the one that undoes you.
Perfectly sound advice...with which I almost never agree after a night of drinking. "Irish whiskey," I'm bound to think around 2am, "is exactly what I need right now."

Invariably, that's the one that undoes me.

Preservationists and Historians Rally to Save 19th Century Bar Tujague's

Tujague's is one of the most authentic, unspoiled examples 
of a nineteenth-century bar left in America. 
To lose it would be to not only lose an important link 
with the history of New Orleans 
(a city whose reputation as a place to visit was largely built
 on the character of its old bars and restaurants) 
but with America's history as well. 
I know that with a little patience this historic place 
can be saved, and I pray that that patience is found.

~ David Wondrich
cocktail historian

It's hard to spend much time in New Orleans without, at some point, ending up at Tujague's. The restaurant, built on the site of an old Spanish armory in 1827, is just around the corner from Jackson Square and, although I've never ended a night there, I have begun quite a few days in the cool embrace of its bar. Nursed along several afternoons as well with a Sazerac or a Angostura phosphate in hand. I don't know how old the long cypress bar itself is, but the mirror behind it came from Paris in the decade before Lincoln was elected president. The bar is far older than I and — or so I thought until this week — was destined to survive me.

That prospect is now in doubt.

Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans magazine, writes about troubling rumors concerning the historic restaurant after its long-time owner, Steven Latter, recently died:
According to the rumors, the building on Decatur Street that houses the last of the original Creole Restaurants and the second oldest (after Antoine’s) restaurant in the city will be sold to businessman Mike Motwani who is known for converting businesses into tacky, touristy T-shirt and gift shops. Motwani supposedly will do the same, though the front part of the building, according to my source, might be used to serve fried chicken.
Laborde pulls no punches. "Preservationists and those who care about urban style and character," he explains, "have long despised Motwani’s businesses." He goes on with a plea to Mr Latter's surviving brother, Stanford, who owns the building itself: "Please Mr. Latter, keep the legacy of your brother’s restaurant alive. At the very least, don't let the builiding fall into the hands of those who don't give a damn about the character of the city."

Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, wrote an open letter to Stanford Latter bemoaning the potential dismantling of such an historical New Orleans restaurant where, it's asserted, the grasshopper cocktail was invented. She writes:
Dear Mr. Latter, 
Let me start by saying how sorry I am about the recent loss of your brother, Steve. In the time I got to know him through my work with Tales of the Cocktail and the New Orleans Cocktail Tour two things always stood out-- his dry wit and his love for New Orleans. He clearly had a deep respect for the history and culture of our great city with the way he ran Tujague’s for more than 30 years 
Now, I don’t claim to be a real estate expert so I can’t speak to getting the most out of your investment. But as the founder of New Orleans Culinary and Cocktail Preservation Society, I do know about our city’s rich history of dining and drinks. Tujaque’s is the place that continued the legacy of Madame Begue’s legendary brunches and where the Grasshopper cocktail was invented. It’s the home of brisket and horseradish and the beautiful long standup bar that takes you back in time when you order a drink. It breaks my heart to picture the doorway of this landmark littered with Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 t-shirts. 
This city is in the midst of a renaissance — one that’s met with both excitement and fear. Every day brings progress that New Orleans hasn’t seen in decades. But the great fear, one that’s generations old, is that with progress comes a cleansing of the culture that makes this place not a just a great place to visit but, more importantly, a great place to live. Culture doesn’t just disappear in a day. Here one day, gone tomorrow. It erodes slowly as people put the bottom line ahead of everything else. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With what you choose to do with the Tujague’s building, you can stand for the peaceful coexistence between progress and culture. 
I know business is business. But sometimes selling to the highest bidder comes with costs that can’t be counted in dollars and cents. Like losing yet another of our beloved restaurants and a piece of the living history that makes New Orleans so special. If you sell the Tujague’s building to the wrong person, the rest of us will be the ones paying for it. So please, Mr. Latter, respect our history, respect our culture and respect the legacy your brother worked his life to build. 
Ann Tuennerman, Founder of Tales of the Cocktail 
Thank you in advance.
Allow me to add my voice to those who decry the potential loss of such an historic place. If a restaurant must fail, then fail it must. But to sell the building to a businessman who has shown time and again his disdain for the culture and history of one of America's most treasured cities is a gut-wrenching prospect.

New Orleans needs another t-shirt tourist trap like it needs another hurricane.

Goes well with:
  • Laborde's piece Save Tujague's — Please is here
  • A visit to Tujague's while you still can.
  • My review of Sara Roahen's Gumbo Tales. In 2008, I wrote "Those of us interested in the drinking and food cultures of New Orleans savor classic cookbooks such as Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 La Cuisine Creole for shedding light on the origins of creole cooking. Others help explain the growth of both creole and Cajun cookery, such as Paul Prudhomme’s 1984 Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen or John Folse’s recent encyclopedic tomes on South Louisiana cookery (all of which, by the way, contain an abundance of recipes for alcoholic beverages, sips, and nips from absinthe drips to brandy milk punches)." Roahen's book belongs on that same shelf.
  • Another rumor circulating is that New Orleans chef John Besh is interested in purchasing the building. For what it's worth, I'm interested in purchasing the building. I'm interested in a lot of things I can't do. If you can't make it to Tujague's for a drink, grab a copy of Besh's 2010 cookbook, My New Orleans. Click for my review.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tax Stamp Bourbons Tonight at Seven Grand

Late notice, I know, but tonight Seven Grand Whiskey Society in San Diego is hosting a guided tasting of tax stamp bourbons, each bottled more than three decades ago, from the private collection of Chris Uhde. The tasting will be at Seven Grand cocktail bar in North Park. If you're nearby and have an affection for whiskey, you should get in on the action. As remaining stocks of these bourbons are depleted, opportunities like this don't come around much any more. Seven Grand manager Brett Winfield writes that a mere 12 spots remain open for tonight's event.

Winfield explains:
I really couldn't be more excited that I get to offer this tasting to you guys in the Seven Grand Whiskey Society. Chris Uhde of JVS Imports has started a Southern California Whiskey Club focusing on rare and vintage whiskey which I am a part of and can attest to the bad assness of his tastings and whiskey collection. Chris recently contacted me and graciously offered up some of the Whiskey in his private collection for us to taste through. These are not your average whiskeys, each one of these Bourbons, with the exception of a few modern labels for comparison purposes, is a Tax Stamp Bourbon. Tax stamps were employed by the federal government as a way of proving that the taxes had been paid on a whiskey from the 1960's to the early 1980's. So the answer is yes, we will have the pleasure of tasting Bourbons from 1970 to the early 80's. "Holly sh*t" you say, that was my reaction as well. These are bottles that, unless you are very very very lucky you will never get a chance to taste or see again. I have tasted through them and they are truly special Bourbons.
The lineup for tonight's Tax Stamp Bourbon Tasting is:
  1. Ancient 6 yr 1977
  2. Yellowstone 1976
  3. Early Times Current release
  4. Early Times 1980s
  5. Old Crow 1970s
  6. Old Crow Current release
  7. Old Grand Dad 1977
  8. Old Grand Dad Current Release
  9. Old Taylor 1977
  10. Old Taylor 1980s
Winfield continues (and in all caps lets you know just how serious he is):

Monday, March 25th 2013, 8pm
Seven Grand
3054 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92104

Registration for the event is here.

Goes well with:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bottling the Pamper Moose: Homemade Vin de Pamplemousse with Bergamot

This year's label
It's been said that San Diego's seasons can be divided roughly into four: Early Summer, Summer, Late Summer, and Next Summer. As local flowers start to bloom, nights remain chilly and one still does see young women wearing hot pants, scarves, and fleece-lined boots, but it's undeniable that Early Summer is on us once more. Summer can't be far off — and with it comes a craving for lighter and more bitter drinks. Whether that bitterness comes from hops, citrus peel, quinine, wormwood, or more esoteric bittering agents, count me in. This weekend I got a leg up on Summer by bottling a faintly bitter grapefruit aperitif for our yard drinks in the coming months.

The vin d'orange, a bitter orange wine I put up last month, is still maturing in big glass jars and will be for another several weeks, but a grapefruit version of essentially the same aperitif, vin de pamplemousse, only took a month to macerate. Yesterday I bottled six liters of the traditional before-dinner drink. The recipe isn't wholly traditional, however. Oh, the grapefruit (pamplemousse in French) is legit. Even the sweet oranges I sliced and threw in to soften the wine a bit wouldn't raise every eyebrow in France. However, I'd gotten my hands on a load of bergamot oranges and included one in the mix, an addition that may cause purists to sniff in disdain. Ah, well. Their loss.

Racked, clear, and bottled: grapefruit wine
Bergamot, tea fanciers know, is a type of sour orange that lends its distinctive, almost lavender-like aroma to Earl Grey tea. The fruit looks a bit like a lemon, but unlike a lemon's, the volatile oils in its skin are so potent that they easily overwhelm food and drink if not treated with care. The juice is mild enough and can be used much like lemon juice, but truly, a small amount of skin or zest goes a long, long way. Two common precautions against its dominance in cooking and preserves making are (a) to use small amounts relative to the other ingredients and (b) to blanch each fruit before use. I chose the former: only one bergamot to every six grapefruit and two oranges.

Even in southern California, bergamots can be hard to track down during their late-winter Early Summer season. If you have access, use one. If not, just toss in an extra sliced grapefruit.

Vin de Pamplemousse with Bergamot

2 white grapefruit
4 ruby red grapefruit
1 bergamot
2 navel oranges
1 2" piece of vanilla bean, split lengthwise and cut into thirds
4.5 L crisp white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc (e.g., Trader Joe's coastal)
750ml 80 proof (40% abv) vodka
1.75 cups/350 g sugar

Cut each piece of citrus into an upper and lower half. Slice each half into half-moon shapes, about 1/4"/6mm thick, saving any juice. Combine all the ingredients (including any juice from slicing) into a single two-gallon/8L nonreactive container with a sealable lid such as a jar or carboy.

Stir or shake it, then allow it to rest in a cool, dark place (a closet is fine: no need to refrigerate). Strain after one month into a similar large container. After one day, rack the cleared liquid off the  cloudy residue at the bottom of the container. Strain this through cheesecloth or other clean filter, and bottle in clean, sterilized wine bottles. Seal with new corks and label. Let rest a few months in a cool, dark place.

Makes about six liters.

Goes well with:

  • That vin d'orange I mentioned. Good stuff. 
  • Each year, I try to make a batch of creme de noyau using crushed peach pits and a recipe from an old, old Creole cookbook. I don't always get around to it, but when I do make some, here's the recipe I use
  • If light wines aren't your speed, how about fifty oranges and a gallon of corn whiskey?
  • Fany Gerson's recipe for pasita, a dark raisin cordial from Mexico.
  • Finally, more old recipes: three separate recipes for syrup of violets spanning nearly 250 years. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bartendro Eliminates Need for Pesky Skills and Knowledge

Pack it in, Dale DeGroff. We'll take your recipes and drinks nomenclature under advisement, Gaz Regan. Charlotte Voisey, it's time to unpack that suitcase one last time and stow it. Simon Ford, Chris Hannah, Erick Castro, Audrey's been nice knowing you. But Bartendro is here now — or will be soon — and, well, bartenders like you are going to have to start looking into new lines of work.

Your essentials may differ.
Bartendro, you see, is an automated, modular, couter-top drink-mixing robot that, its creators assure us, can crank out cocktails in less than ten seconds. Inventors Rob Kaye and Pierre Michael launched a Kickstarter campaign recently to promote the device. In the video (below), Michael explains the contraption's origins five years ago:
I was more of a beer and wine guy. I liked cocktails, but they seemed a little unapproachable. Whenever I was going to make a drink, it was messy and I was always wondering, "Is this what my drink is supposed to taste like?" So we set out to make a robot that would automate the pouring and get rid of the guesswork and the messiness. 

Maybe it's just the way I was brought up to overcome challenges, but we ought to learn skills and techniques to make tasks easier and experiences more enjoyable. Bartending isn't mathematics. Sure, formulas come into it, but actual skills and knowledge are at the core of it, not formulas. Variability of qualities such as the sourness of a particular lemon or the vitality of vermouth (was it opened an hour ago? a month ago?) require a human touch. Taste the vermouth to see if it's wan, add more (or less) sweetness to adjust for the lemon — an actual bartender can make innumerable decisions for adjusting drinks to the ingredients, a customer's mood, or even the weather. An actual bartender can suggest things you might not ever consider and — good ones, anyway — spend hours upon hours developing recipes, perfecting techniques, building a knowledge bank of ingredients, and learning the craft.

Frankly, if you don't know how a drink is supposed to taste, you need a good bartender. Walk into a bar during a slow time and try something like this:

"Say, Lloyd, I'd like to try a Manhattan. The thing is, I've never made one I thought was any good. Maybe it's just me. Mind if I watch how you do it?" If Lloyd himself is any good, he may ask whether you prefer rye or bourbon and, if the latter, whether you're in the mood for something soft or with a little more peppery bite to it. Bulleit, maybe. Ask questions as long as he's not crushed by a crowd. Take the opportunity to learn something. Come back and visit Lloyd and the rest of the staff. Meet your neighbors and colleagues. Learn something, then go practice it. Get out and experience life. Heads up, though: sometimes, it gets messy.

Or just just chuck it the towel, give up, and get a robot. If you can't be bothered to learn something as simple as a gimlet or a mule, Bartendro may be for you. The Bartendro Kickstarter is here. Almost 300 backers have already pledged over $100,000.

I wish the boys nothing but happiness, but don't look for my name among those kicking in for this particular project.