Monday, December 15, 2008

Forthcoming Whisky Dinner

2008 was my whiskey year. I went to distilleries in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Tennessee and Kentucky. I have tried at least 60 different whiskies. After a trip to the Highland Cigar Bar a couple of weeks ago I decided to do a whisky dinner. Notice there is no "e" in whisky. That is because I decided to focus on Scotch Whisky after my friend told me that my Christmas present will be 11 pounds of peat. That's right, you can buy peat. That knowledge really got my brain working... I can smoke my own salmon with peat, I can cure and smoke my own bacon with peat... fun stuff.

Overall, I will be sticking to Scottish flavor profile, highlighting not only peat, but heather honey, Scottish cheeses, barley, etc. The dinner will be held at a private residence on March 14th. It is $75 per person, without liquor (it can not legally include liquor.) Each couple will be requested to bring a bottle of Scotch for pairing. Specific pairing guidance will be given closer to the date. You will be able to return with the bottle afterwards, unlike wine dinners where everything gets consumed. Afterwards everyone is welcome to stay behind and smoke cigars and have a glass of Dalmore Cigar Malt.

1. Peat Smoked Salmon, toast points, capers, red onion, whisky creme fraiche

2. Potato & Leek Soup with Islay Scotch Foam

3. Field Greens Salad with Homemade Peat Smoked Bacon, Grilled Apples, Crisp Barley Cake, Cider Vinaigrette

4. Spiced Celery Sorbet (Intermezzo)

5. Macallan Braised Veal Breast, Wild Mushroom Demiglace, Tournets of Parsnips and Carrots

6. Assortment of Scottish Cheeses with Heather Honey

7. Hazelnut Chocolate Whisky Gateau, Smoked Sea Salt, Drambuie Ice Cream

Please contact me for reservations or more information.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Day in the Rough

There are things that epitomize areas, cuisines, cultures, etc. These are the things that I seek out. While speaking to a colleague from Philly the other day, I asked him about Philly cheese steaks. While in Ireland, I ate lamb whenever possible. While in Scotland, you would be remiss if you did not have some haggis. While in Italy…you get the picture.

My final day of my recent trip to New England was capped off by a visit to Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough. This renowned seafood shack at the mouth of the Mystic River is open from April to Columbus Day. The menu, as the name suggests, is very lobster-centric but also includes other items such as clams, oysters, chowders, plus options for the seafood adverse. I overheard a conversation between a woman and her elderly mother as the woman scolded her mother for even thinking about getting a hot dog. I agree. This is like to going to Italy and having Chinese food (OK, I did that once, but I had a bad stretch of crappy tourist food, not to mention how cool and weird it was to have a conversation in Italian with a Chinese lady in Rome, Italy).

Columbus Day was sunny and about seventy degrees and quite breezy. The view couldn’t be beat; lots and lots of boats resting where the river met the sound. Frustrated seagulls flew overhead, their usual pesky behavior thwarted by the wires run over our heads forming a “net”. Unfortunately, I did not have as much time as I would have liked. I would have ordered a lobster dinner and brought my own wine, purchased the day before on the North Fork of Long Island AKA Long Island Wine Country. I ordered a hot lobster roll, lobster bisque and corn on the cob. The others in my party ordered shrimp chowder, clam chowder, stuffed clams, and of course more lobster rolls. The corn was kind of flavorless, but everything else was fabulous. The clam chowder was a light broth, no cream, not rich, just briny and full of clam flavor, clams, and potatoes. The shrimp chowder had corn, potatoes, and shrimp and was also very good. The lobster bisque was good, but very heavy for my taste. Too much fat deadens the taste buds, not to mention makes it even harder for my clothes to button and snap. The lobster rolls were served with slaw that had a nice little bite to it, individual bags of chips and a pickle.

This destination if a definite the next time I am in that neck of the woods. Next time I will make sure I have more time and bring a bottle of wine.

Long Island Wine Country

It had been a long time since I visited Long Island. By a long time, I mean decades. I have a picture of me with my family on the ferry from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Port Jefferson, Long Island that was taken in the seventies. A number of years ago I read an article about how far Long Island wines had come. The article specifically mentioned Wolffer Estates, located on the South Fork of the island. Coincidentally I spotted a bottle of Wolffer Estates wine in a local store about a week later. I purchased it, took it home, and quickly opened it. I could not have been more disappointed. It was no better than our local swill from Chateau Elan in North Georgia. Don’t get me wrong, Georgia wine has come a long, long, way and many are quite good, not just good for Georgia. But Chateau Elan is not one of those wineries that made that journey.

As the years passed and I witnessed the vast improvement of so many non traditional wine area such as North Georgia, and I continued to read good press about Long Island, my desire to return there increased. So I made plans to go to the North Fork of Long Island, where the greatest concentration of wineries is located, over Columbus Day weekend. As I flew to New York, I happened across an article in latest copy of Food & Wine. The article was a basic primer on American red wines complete with examples of examples of particular grapes and the premier regions from which they come. To my delight, Long Island Merlots were mentioned. The universe and I seemed to be in the same groove.

The Friday before Columbus we boarded the Port Jeff ferry with our car. A little over an hour later we were driving towards the North Fork. A “Welcome to Long Island Wine Country” sign greeted us a short while later. I was impressed by the map I downloaded of the Long Island wine country by the large number of wineries packed into that little peninsula. It was much more impressive in person. The wineries were nearly stacked on more top of each other, across the street from each other, one after the next. The signs were clear and gave plenty of notice as we approached each new winery. Interspersed with the wineries were farms, farm stands, pumpkin patches and signs offering fresh cider. The day was about seventy degrees and sunny, really rounding out the beauty of this picturesque corner of New England


We visited three wineries and sampled many wines. Across the board, the wines were good, with only a handful of “whatever wines and none that were really bad. At Pellegrini Vineyards we had the opportunity to contrast and compare three different incarnations of Chardonnay, three different merlots, a Bordeaux blend, and a gewürztraminer. All were good and people were very nice. The woman behind the counter was kind enough to make dining recommendations and get us addresses and phone numbers.

We took the recommendation and went to the restaurant Soundview for lunch. We sat on the outside deck right on the sound. The day was nice but a bit on the windy side. The seafood was fresh, the food was hot, and I had a glass of wine from a fourth winery, a Paumonak Chardonnay that had a good balance of fruit, oak, and acidity.

We were heading to our planned stops at Bedell Cellars and Castello di Borgese, but decided to pop into Duckwalk Vineyards. The Merlot from Duckwalk vineyards was very good. The chardonnays ran the gamut from oaky and buttery to sharp and crisp to tropical and fruity. Duckwalk’s basic chardonnay was on special that day for $15.00 for a magnum. It was full of fruit and floral notesI was having a bunch of people for dinner at my sister’s house the following day so I picked up one of those. They also had a range of other wines we tasted including cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, gamay, even a vidal blanc ice wine and a blueberry port. They offered a small square of dark chocolate with the blueberry port. What a treat!

Our $4.00 tasting fee included five wines plus, much to our delight, a complimentary tasting at the Pindar winery just down the road. So for our combined $8.00, my brother-in-law and I got to taste a total of 22 wines (they threw in a couple of bonus wines including the ice wine and blueberry port).

Overall, the thing that impressed me the most was not only the quality of the wines, but the overall terrior that was evident. The reds had a decided earthiness to them, no fruit bombs here. My biggest disappointment was that I have a rule of traveling light so I only purchased what could I use on my weekend in Connecticut. Everywhere I visited I case discounts, up to 25% in the case of Pindar. I would definitely recommend this as a day trip, or longer. It could take days to work your way through this area.

We completed our day by picking up some pumpkins, beets, apples, cider, and more for the festivities the following day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

You don't know Dickel

Of the three distilleries I have visited in three countries in the last month or so, George Dickel in Tennessee ties for first place. Bushmill's, in Northern Ireland, was cool in the grand scope of it, the diversity of products, and most of all, the four hundred year history. The gentleman at the bar was one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met when it comes to whiskey. He was well versed in Scotch, Irish Whiskey, and knew a good deal about American Whiskey too.

Glenkinchie was just OK in all respects. They don't malt there, they don't kiln there, they do not even barrel and age there. It was purchased a couple of decades ago by Diageo to round out the company's offerings to include distilleries in the major regions of Scotland. Prior to that, it did not offer single malt whisky. In fact, all of the production went into blends. The young man guiding the tour did not know anything other than the script and, as I found out as I stood at the bar sipping my way through the offerings, doesn't really like whiskey. There was an older gentleman that was more knowledgeable about his national beverage. I wrote a bit about him in "What I learned about Scotch."

George Dickel Distillery was as interesting as Bushmills, though the other end of the spectrum. Our guide was a southern gentleman who walked us the the operation with a slow, deliberate pace. Their offering is limited to their number 8, number 12, and a Barrel Select Whisky. Note the different spelling. George Dickel proclaimed that his whiskey was as smooth as the finest Scotch and therefore opted to spell it without the customary "ey." The history, although not as nearly as long as Bushmill's four hundred years, was still interesting and dates back to 1870. The location was carefully chosen for its proximity to the pure water that naturally filtered through the layers of limestone located there. As Tennessee implemented prohibition, the distillery moved just over the Kentucky border along with countless other distilleries. National prohibition forced the closure of the distillery as it did with so many other distilleries, breweries and wineries.

George Dickel's daughters inherited the property and it sat without a distillery for many years. Then about fifty years ago, as our guide explained, a master distiller who used to drink the whisky came back after many years and was disappointed to see the distillery was defunct. He approached the daughters about selling it. Upon their approval, he went back to Kentucky to secure financing. When he applied for a permit to rebuild the distillery, however, he was denied. Some time later, the story goes, someone stumbled upon the original distillery license and delivered it to the master distiller. The local government then grandfathered in the license and the distillery was rebuilt. George Dickel kept very thorough notes and the old formulas were once again flowing from Cascade Hollow, Tennessee.

A sampling of things that make Dickel unique include the fact that it is double distilled. The first is in the traditional column still followed by second distillation in a pot still. Another difference is that the "white dog" or clear distillate is chilled before being filtered through sugar maple charcoal lined with virgin wool blankets. The twenty feet of charcoal is equal to that used in the production in Gentleman Jack and double that used for standard Jack Daniel's production. They say the chilling of the liquor prior to filtration removes the fattys acids and oils in a manner similar to pouring gravy through ice.

The big difference from the other distilleries is in the absence of a large computer control panel. Everything is done by a handful of guys the old fashioned way. Both of the other distilleries I visited looked like the set of an old star trek episode with the boxy computerized controls. At the Dickel distillery we placed our hands over the open fermentation tank to feel the heat. "this one is about three days now, it will come out tomorrow" our guide explained. We all walked to the next tank and placed our hands over the bubbly liquid. "this one is about a day behind, notice it is not as warm. It will feel like that one tomorrow" our guide continued, "it will come out in two days."

We were unable to visit the aging barrels. Apparently this part of tour was done away with after September 11. I guess all that flammable alcohol presents a security risk. They had a mock-up of the barrel storage were our guide explained another difference. The barrels are stacked only six high, for consistent aging. Our tour concluded with a short film showing them opening barrels after a skillful roll down the hill. Finally, we went to the gift shop were I bought a bottle of Barrel Select.

The differences between the three distilleries were broad, a fact made all the more interesting by the fact that all three distilleries are owned by Diageo, a conglomerate company with holdings such as Smirnoff, Cruzan, Bailey's Irish Creme, Guinness, Tanqueray, and more.

Even amongst the globalization of industry, local flavor still manages to shine through.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What I learned about Scotch

My travels are always about food and drink, that’s why my blog is called FoodWineGuy. Last week, my self directed education continued as I found my way to the lowland distillery Glenkinchie, about a 30 minute drive from Edinburgh, Scotland. Glenkinchie has had a distillery on this site since 1830, though not in continuous operation due to pesky things such as World Wars. The distillery has always made whisky for blending until 1987 when it was purchased by a conglomerate company named United as part of a portfolio of distilleries representing all of the areas of Scotland. At that time, Glenkinchie started producing single malts.

The visitor center is a modern, nicely put together facility with the history of Scotch laid out on museum-type panels. There is a scale model of a distillery that was lost in piles of rubble at the Glenkinichie distillery for decades. It was rediscovered and reassembled and is currently on display. Our guide Cameron was a young man who did not know much more than the script he was given. My questions challenged him and he tried his best, but I finally got to speak with an older gentleman who was much more knowledgeable. My question was as follows:

Q. How much of the stylistic differences in Scotch are attributable to what the French would call terrior, and how much is simply a stylistic choice? Put another way, can we pick up this distillery and place it in the highlands and still produce a whisky that is representative of a lowlands whisky?

A. While terrior had an effect on the stylistic differences in the past, it was much less than for wines. For example the lowlands don’t have a lot of peat and therefore the whiskies are not as peaty. The sea air was thought to impart saltiness to the finished product as they are stored in barrels which breathe the sea air as the whisky ages. Recent studies indicate that the saltiness is likely imparted from the peat itself, which, being from coastal regions, has more salinity. The water was thought to impart significant differences in regional whiskies. It is now known to contribute only 10% of the quality of the finished product. The largest two factors in the difference in a whisky’s qualities come from the still itself and the maturing of the whisky. Minor changes in the shape of the still can have a dramatic effect on the whisky. The shape dictates exactly which compounds make it into the finished product and in what quantities. The barrels have a major influence on the finished product. Are they sherry casks, bourbon casks, port, etc? How many times have they been used? The gentleman cited an example of a distillery in the highlands making whisky in the style of Islay for a period of time when Islay distilleries where having a hard time keeping up with demand. Islay malts can have 50ppm phenols or more versus only 2ppm phenols for the 10 year old Scotch from Glenkinichie. The measure of the phenol is the measurement of how smoky the product is. The distillery no longer produces that type of whisky and the existing bottles of their 30 year old stock sell from £180.

And that is what I learned about Scotch.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

My Plan in Ireland

It was a good plan, I would walk into a pub in the Yellowbatter section of Drogheda, Ireland and tell them I am looking for some Norris'es. I know it seems kind of simple, but I know that my cousin Tom Norris lives here, at least he used to.

So that is what I did, I went into a pub called Hanbratty's. I sat down with my son, ordered a pint and some food and asked the waitress if she knew Tom Norris. She did not because she is not from this part of Drogheda, she explained, but some of the other people there might. Our drinks arrived, then our food. As we started to eat a gentlemen came out and asked "so, your lookin' for some Norris'es?" Well, turns out he is knows Anthony, son of Tom, but wasn't sure where they lived, although he said they do live in Yellowbatter. He had it narrowed down to a couple of blocks. I asked him if he could direct me to those blocks. He went into the back and came out about five minutes later and said some calls had been made and we might expect a call at the pub shortly. About ten minutes later he came back out with a paper in his hand. "Success!" he declared as he sat down. "Well, actually I have some good news and some bad news" he said as he handed me the paper. "Tom is not in Drogheda at the moment, but here is his cell number, and he doesn't live in Yellowbatter anymore." Tom was called away for work on a gas line in County Mayo, on the other side of the island.

So I called Tom. His Mother Tessie still lives in Yellowbatter. He gave me the address and I will be visiting her tomorrow. He is going to call her and said she will probably get some more family there for our visit.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I Did the Mash, Part II

This time it was the Monster Mash. If you go to Naples, Italy you must have pizza, if you go to Scotland, you must have haggis. And that is just what I did. The Monster Mash was recommended to me by the nice young gentleman at the reception desk of our hotel at the First at Edinburgh University. He said it was a diner, the food was good, and the prices were reasonable. He also highly recommended the haggis. For those of you who do not know, haggis is the national dish of Scotland. It contains sheep organ meats mixed with oats, seasonings, and some blood. It is then sewn up in the sheep’s stomach and baked. Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: eeeewwhhhh, that sounds gross!! Well, my friends, that is what some of the best foods on the planet are; leftovers and scraps. For example, sausages, salami, pâtés, terrines, and more are all just ways to use up the leftovers so nothing is wasted.

I must confess, organ meats can have a strong flavor, not all of which I enjoy. I am not particularly fond of liver or blood sausages. My aversion to both is for the same reason; the high mineral content (particularly iron) can cause a metallic taste. Foie Gras is better because the manner in which the liver is enlarged reduces the effect of the minerals on the palate. Haggis is not Foie Gras and I was curious about the flavor. Truth be told, it was quite good. The Monster Mash was actually the second time I tried haggis, the first was the day before at a pub on the Royal Mile. The menu item was called “A wee bit of haggis” and it stated that it was served with nips and tatties, meaning mashed turnips and potatoes. The first thing that struck me about the haggis was its flavor. It was both rich, yet mild in the absence of minerality and earthiness. It reminded me of meatloaf. While I was speaking with a local at a Scotch distillery the next day about haggis, she asked me if I had it with turnips and potatoes. This is apparently the holy trinity of haggis.

Which brings me to the mash, The Monster Mash. We entered, were sat, and ordered the Haggis for me and a Shepard’s Pie for my son. The haggis was a large mound of haggis, layered on turnips and potatoes and surrounded by rich dark gravy. The flavor was similar to my haggis of the previous day, but it was drier and a bit more crumbly. The gravy helped moisten the dish. The Shepard’s Pie was tasty as well; nicely browned potatoes atop ground meat in gravy. I like mine better, but it was good. The vegetables were al dente, a direct contradiction to all things expected in the United Kingdom.

Our shared dessert was an apple cobbler served with Byrd’s custard. My inquiry as to the nature of Byrd’s custard was answered with “it’s custard, a sauce”. “Like crème anglaise?” “Aye kind of, it’s very British” “OK, we’ll have that.”

The dessert came and it was indeed very much like crème anglais, only very hot and served in a small pitcher. We poured it over our soft, caramelized, appley mess of a dessert and dug in. This and strong black coffee was a good finish to the meal.

Why don't we eat seagulls?

This question has been bugging me for some time. Consider that people eat blowfish in Japan and that will kill you if it is not prepared correctly. In Iceland they eat a shark that will make you vomit if you eat the fresh meat. To combat this, they first ferment it, then salt it and hang it to cure like ham. An viola', the uric acid is gone. America is the exception rather than the rule in our refusal to eat bugs. In South America, guinea pigs are routinely eaten. Chitterlings...need I say more?

The point is, man eats what is available even if he has to overcome challenges of inedibility or risk to ones health. Seagulls are everywhere in coastal areas so why are they not eaten. I invite anyone reading this to leave a comment sharing your thoughts. Perhaps we can take a trip to the coast, catch some seagulls and have dinner.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Kitsch is International

Dublin, Ireland

A sign demonstrates that people across the globe are interested in vapid, kitschy things.

The Walt Disney Scotch Experience

Well, not really. But if Disney World had a Scotch Whisky ride, it would be like the Scotch Experience, located on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland. Not that this is a bad thing. It was informative, fun, and believe it or not, family friendly. Of course the kids can’t taste the Scotch.

There are different levels of tours, the basic of which includes the tour, a free glass and a sample of whisky. I purchased one of these for myself and a student tour for my son. The prices were discounted because it was morning, and much to my confusion, people don’t want to drink whisky in the morning. The gold level includes the above plus a sampling of four different scotches highlighting the four production areas and a one year membership in the Scotch Appreciation Society. I inquired about it and was a £7.00 up-charge over the £6.25 I already paid. No, the basic tour will be fine was my initial response. That notion lasted about 4 minutes and I purchased the upgrade.

The tour started with a young attractive Scottish girl giving everyone a sample of Dewer’s White Label Blended Scotch whisky and a brief spiel about tasting. First we look at the colour, then we swirl it around the glass and look at the “legs” that form. We could tell that this was a lighter bodied whisky because there were many legs and they came down the side of the glass rapidly. If there were fewer legs and they came down slower, this would be a heavier bodied whisky. Then we put our nose in the glass, leaving the mouth slightly ajar to allow the nose to work at its fullest capacity, and smell. the bouquet of this particular drink was vanilla, toffee and dried fruits. Lastly, of course, we taste it. We discern the various flavours and determine the finish, which was medium in this case.
er I chuckled a bit at the folks who shuddered and gasped at drinking straight alcohol we all went into the next room. There were benches and a movie screen in this room. We all sat down and a ten minute film rather cheesily done talked about whisky production from the malting and roasting of the barley to the fermentation, distillation, and aging of the whisky and also spoke briefly of the whisky heritage in Scotland. The conversation between the poorly acted customer asked the more convincing bartender how so much variety in flavour could be achieved and we were directed into the next room full of more benches. This time, though, instead of a movie screen there was a large model of a distillery. Our attractive young tour guide talked us through the production. The front wall of the distillery slid down and the interior was exposed. She pointed out where the malting took place, kilning, etc. A map on the wall highlighted the different areas of Scotch Production; the lowlands and the milder product they produce; the highlands and the varied, robust products they produce, the Speyside area and the products of refined intensity; and lastly the island malts and their robust, briny, peaty products. Up until now, everything discussed was malt whisky. The subject of grain whisky came up. Grain whisky is basically what we make in America. It contains mostly corn, with lesser amounts of other grains including barley. It produces a less intense, mellower brew. Grain whisky is used only for blending in Scotland. Blended Scotch Whiskies account for the vast majority of the whisky made in Scotland. This answered a long standing question that my fellow whisky aficionado friend and I have had for some time. What is the difference between a vatted whisky and a blended whisky? A blended whisky contains a blend of malt and grain whiskies, while a vatted whisky is a blend of various single malt whiskies.

Next we went to another room with more benches where a “ghostly” bartender resembling something you might see on the Haunted Mansion at Disney gave us information on the art of blending. For instance, when a blend states an age, this is the youngest whisky in the bottle. When a single malt has a statement of age, this of course is the age of every drop in the bottle. Our ghostly tour guide also cleared up the misconception that some people have by stating that whisky receives no further benefit from age once it placed in a bottle.

The tour further increased it resemblance to Disney when we boarded the barrel ride; a ride through the history of whisky in Scotland as brought to life with scenes and figures a la the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, without the animatronics. It touched on all of the highlights from the flight of the distiller to the highlands because of heavy British taxation to the rapid increase of whisky’s popularity after the phyloxera louse decimated the vineyards of Europe and with them, the ability to make cognacs and other brandies.

The tour ended in, aptly enough, the bar. Those who went with the basic tour were done, but not me. I still had my regional tasting.

The whiskies included the golden Glenkinchie 12 year old from the lowlands, a milder whisky with tasting notes of a creamy mouthfeel and developing citrus notes in the finish. The Highland malt whisky was from Old Pulteney, an amber drink with a nose described as fresh, aromatic with a hint of sea air and full bodied, lightly salty and gently malty flavour. The Speyside malt was from Tamdhu. Also amber in colour, this whiskey was much sweeter on the nose and palate with notes of toffee and some peat. Lastly was Laphroig 10 year. I have Laphroig at home so I was a little disappointed that I did not get to try something different. This interesting whisky’s official tasting notes state that the nose is “medicinal and phenolic”, while it is “salty, oily, very smoky” on the palate. I always thought that Laphroig smells like smoked bacon soaked in seawater.

I will be visiting an actual lowland distillery tomorrow. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go to the Highlands, let alone Speyside or the islands. The Whisky Experience as a great way to spend an hour and a half, learn something about whisky, taste some great whiskies and grab a bite at their café. The “Disnification” seems a bit strange, but it was informative and fun.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Old "New" Kid in Town

I guess if you have done something successfully for more than eighty years, you can feel confident enough to branch out. That is just what Pepe’s did. The historic pizzeria has been making great pies since the 1920’s in New Haven. Their claim to fame is the white clam pizza. I have been away from the Northeast for many years and one of the things I miss the most is good pizza. No offense to those who grew up elsewhere in America, but if someone recommends a pizza place to me, I always ask them where they are from. If they answer Kansas, the Carolinas, Florida, hell most anywhere in America, yes, I am sorry to say even Chicago, their opinion does not count much. This is not rude, it makes as much sense as someone from Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, etc. not taking my opinion on barbeque with much weight. It simply was not part of my culture growing up. With deference to Chicago, it is part of the culture, but I do not care for it. The pies are thick and doughy, the sauce too sweet, and the overall experience lacking in my estimation. This is from eating pizza in Chicago and suburbs, not simply from eating at “Chicago Style” pizzerias elsewhere in America ( which is another entry, but I have a friend that says he does not like New York pizza, yet has never been to New York or anywhere near it, he has dined at “New York Style” pizzerias).

The point is, whenever I go home, I try to make it to New Haven for Pizza, specifically for the white clam pizza from Pepe’s. There is always a wait and they do not always have the fresh clams. They have opened a couple of locations since I last visited home and due to time constraints, I decided to go the location recently opened in Fairfield, Connecticut. We called ahead to see if they were busy as I was trying to get to the airport. The lady laughed and said no. We then asked if they had the white clam pizza today, which they did. So we stopped in on our way to JFK. Having visited the original location on Wooster Street in New Haven for some years, I was unsure of what to expect. My question as to whether or not the oven was wood fired was answered when we pulled into the parking lot and the telltale smell of a wood burning oven was not there. The location was more sterile than the original, as could be expected from a new suburban location. They do have a very large brick oven, with pizza peels that must be 12 to 15 feet long. The menu consists of a board over the main kitchen and a few more scattered about on the walls of the restaurant. The total age of any three employees does not equal the age of a single employee in New Haven, but we persisted and got a table. The waitress greeted us and took our order, asking us if we want mozzarella on our clam pizza or not. I must admit, I was somewhat confused as I had never been asked that before. I know the pie comes with minimal amounts of cheese and I wanted it the way they do it in New Haven. There was a little bit of a communication breakdown and I got it with a little bit of mozzarella, which is atypical. When I tried to correct the error, the pie was already in the oven and we got it with the mozz. Fortunately, it was very minimal amounts of mozzarella cheese. We also got a small sausage and mushroom pie.

The moment of truth arrived when she plopped down a full size sheet pan of pizza on our table. While there is a difference between a gas-fired oven and a wood-fired oven, the pie was good. It had the telltale sign of an oven that was hot enough- black bubbles on the crust. This is a constant pizza crime in the south. The pizzas are always undercooked. If pizza does not have a little black on it, it is not done properly. The south, who loves to overcook its vegetables, meats, and most things it serves, consistently undercooks pizzas in ovens that never see a degree over 500. But I digress.

The sausage and mushroom pie was less stellar. The toppings were soupy, and even after letting the pizza rest for a while, it was still just a sloppy pie. The ingredients were all good quality, but the execution was a bit off.

The clam pizza was almost as good as New Haven, and still better than most you will have in this country. I made the mistake of trying clam pizzas from other pizzerias, even acclaimed shops in the area, and they all fall short. The fact that the other locations can mean less driving, less waiting balances out the slight difference in the pies. In this humble chef’s estimation, this is worth the gas money. Go have a pie.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana

157 Wooster St
New Haven, CT 06511, United States
+1 203-865-5762

The Old Kid in Town

If you go to the website of Louis Lunch, there is a link to an entry at the Library of Congress that attributes the invention of the hamburger to this little shack in New Haven, Connecticut. That, in my book, makes this an historic place to dine. And that is what I did. The small place is unassuming in diminutive stature, while being quaint and eye-catching at the same time. As you enter this little historic burger joint, located across the street from some hopping clubs in New Haven, you can not help but be struck by the feeling that something is very different. In fact, it is very, very, different. The menu consists of burgers. You can get them with cheese, onion, and tomato….and that is it! They will come on toasted white bread and you will be mocked and ridiculed if you ask for ketchup or mustard. The burgers are cooked in contraptions that resemble vertical gas-fired toasters. The burger is hand formed from a pile of meat and placed in a wire-grill basket and inserted vertically into the contraption. If you want onion, it is placed on top of the meat patty. This allows the onion to cook at the same time, being basted in the fat that drips down from the patty. You can get chips with your burger, or potato salad, and a good selection of sodas including Foxon Park Sodas such as birch beer, root beer, and cream soda. Foxon Park soda has been made in East Haven Connecticut for more than eighty years. Birch beer, for those who are not familiar with it, is kind of like root beer with a lighter flavor and a bit of menthol. I used to drink the hell out of some birch beer growing up in Connecticut. I even used to shave the bark off of a birch tree just to smell it; it smelled good enough to eat or to make my own birch beer.

If you are wondering why the burgers are served on white bread, it is because they have been serving them that way since before the hamburger bun was invented. That’s right; Louis Lunch has been serving burgers this way since 1895, making Foxon Park look like johnny-come-lately company. It gets high marks in the Road Food Guide, the biblical tome leading foodies and hungry travelers to good food across America for decades.

The burgers were remarkably moist and flavorful. The onion had a great grilled flavor and the tomato added enough moisture and sweetness that no one will ever miss ketchup. America is short on things that go for more than a century, let alone things that are credited with culinary creations that have conquered the globe. You can experience both of them with a quick stop in a small shack of a burger joint in New Haven.

Louis' Lunch

263 Crown St
New Haven, CT 06511, United States
1 203-562-5507

I Did the Mash

Not the monster mash, but mash house. My stay here in Birmingham, England started out on a very sour note. Although my Ryan Air flight was on time and flawless, and I picked up my Hertz rental car in short order, and I even had a nice lunch in a local pub along with a pint, I eventually found the Warwick Castle (pronounced Warrick), albeit after a few nerve shattering errors as I tried to get used to driving on the left side of the road. The castle was impressive, if expensive. The rooms were full of figures Madam Tussaud dressed in period clothing and staged in the midst of medieval tasks. There were weapon rooms, suits of armor, and lots of art and furniture spanning the centuries the castle has been in use, all the way up to the introduction of electricity and beyond in the latter part of the 19th century. There was even of portion of the original castle built in 1068 by the order of William the Conqueror. The castle closed and we were off.

And that is when the trouble began. The plan was to take a quick drive to Stratford upon Avon, the namesake of the town were I spent my teen years. It is only about ten miles away so it seemed easy enough. The reality could not have been further from the truth. The A46 was closed due to an accident, and I spent the next four hours trying to get the forty miles to my hotel in Birmingham. I abandoned the idea of stopping in Stratford upon Avon after being grazed by a truck, scratching my rental car. The gentleman was calm as he explained that there was simply no way it could have been his fault, even though my car was not moving. I was sitting with my turn signal on trying to merge into the barely moving traffic.

So I spent a few hours in England, learning to drive on the left side of the road, in pouring rain, on country roads, wishing that every hotel I passed was my hotel. But they were not and I finally made it into Birmingham city center. The hotel I booked is under construction and has no sign. Another ½ hour was spent trying to find my hotel, which I finally did. After an overpriced meal at the bar of the hotel because I was too tired and stressed to go anywhere else, my son and I retired to our room. And retire we did. I awoke at eight in the morning and awoke my son, twice. Seeing the futility in this plan, I returned to bed, watched some television (The Rockford Files) and went back to sleep. We woke up around noon to the sound of a jack-hammer on the floor above us, putzed around and finally made it outside just shy of two P.M., heading off to the historic canals of Birmingham. The day got better. Birmingham seemed to be a great city, balancing its history with the city’s forward momentum and growth.

The historic canals are flanked by cafés, coffee houses, restaurants, and the very modern International Convention Center, Symphony Hall, and a mixed use development called The Mailbox. They are also building a massive square mixed use building aptly named The Cube.

After looking at a number of options for dining including what amounts to floating diners on converted long boats that used to carry so many goods up and down the canals, we settled on a place called The Mash. The instructions are simply laid out; 1. Choose for Pie or Sausage, 2. Choose your mash. Options range from cheddar mash, to horseradish mash, colcannon, house mash, and more. 3. Choose your gravy. Options included tarragon creamy gravy, house gravy, and more. You can also have additional veggies, salad, and a few other options for main courses.

I chose the steak and kidney pie because I am in England and no doing so would be akin to not having pizza when in Naples, Italy or not having haggis when in Scotland (which I will be trying in the next few days). I chose colcannon and tarragon gravy to go with it. My son had three sausage plate: lamb and mint, pork and apple, and honey mustard. He chose the cheddar mash and house gravy. Our food arrived promptly and displayed attractively enough. The steak and kidney pie was rich and flavorful, a dark gravy containing chucks of tender beef and the earthy flavor indicating the presence of the kidneys encased in a flaky, nicely browned pastry shell. The colcannon was very nicely prepared. The greens still had some texture and the potatoes were creamy and rich. The gravy was tasty enough, but lacked any flavor of tarragon. The sausages were nicely browned and very moist. The lamb and mint tasted as one would think, the pork and apple had a very subtle flavor of apples, and most surprising was the honey mustard sausage. I was nervous when my son ordered it. I have been inundated with grossly-sweet goopy honey mustard things in America and I was afraid that this might resemble those disgusting concoctions. To the contrary, the mustard has a hint of spiciness and the honey played a restrained supporting role. His cheddar mash was nicely balanced, not too cheesy, but had the flavor of sharp cheddar in every bite. The gravy was good too.

After our meal, I peered into the small kitchen and saw a Rational Self Cooking Center there. I pulled out my business card and handed it to the young man working there, informing him of my position with the company. After a series of questions from me, I learned that the food is prepared off premises and brought in frozen. The entrée items are placed in the Self Cooking Center on the “level control” setting. This setting is where each shelf gets its own timer that self adjust for recovery time each time the door is opened. The mashed potatoes were microwaved, and the gravy was remarkably tasty for being from a dry product that was mixed with boiling water.

The pies and sausages are cooked from frozen. I would have never guessed. This is exciting because I have been telling my customers and prospective customers that this machine could revolutionize the way they operate their kitchens. I have demonstrated this capability many times, but it is very theoretical in demo. Here I was witnessing a concept that was built around the Self Cooking Center and its advanced capabilities. They have already signed on two companies in America to franchise the concept. They will be opening 6 stores per year, half of which will be franchised, the others owned by the company.

It is only a matter of time before our country gets around to implementing what the Europeans have know for a long time: technology can increase quality, reduce food and labor costs, and allow your kitchen to be a fraction of the size of what we are used to.

If I can’t get my customers to see this, then I just might have to do it myself. Stay Tuned.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Is it me?

I ask myself that question with great regularity. I have a coworker who, after eating out with me a number of times, states rather matter-of-factly that you should not go out to eat with me because the restaurant will screw up my food. They didn't screw his food up, just mine. But he and I are both chefs and maybe it pains him to watch them serve me screwed up food. The screw-ups have ranged from shards of corncob in my corn chowder to "butter poached" lobster tails that seem to have been deep-fried to the point they would have made better shoes than food. And then there are less severe issues that I face with regularity. I travel a fair amount for my job and therefore I eat out a lot. I am currently in Savannah. It is a beautiful city that is full of historic charm. I have had many good meals of oysters and beer here. The beauty of good seafood is all you have to do is stay out of its way; don't screw it up!
Food that actually requires preparation is a different story. It takes skill and knowledge. Last night I went to the Six Pence Pub in Savannah. I had started to walk towards the river to get some seafood, but it was about twenty degrees and I decided to stop in the pub for a bite rather than brave a ten minute walk it the frigid night air. The pub was very cool. It had a classic pub look and feel and the beer selection was great. The whiskey and wine selection weren't too bad either. I order beef Guinness and a Guinness beer. The meal came out with near immediacy. I thought that was cool at first, but only at first. The beef Guinness was served in a small hollowed out bread roll, about the size of softball. The stew was a lumpy mess that was prepared with too much roux, the cooked blend of flour and fat that thickens gravy. A couple of pieces of beef were nearly inedibly tough. Perhaps the most egregious error was that they heated my food by microwaving it, in the bread bowl. As most home cooks know, if you microwave bread you have something suited better to a street fight than a food fight.

Tonight I went to Il Pasticcio, a very well renowned Italian restaurant located in the heart of the historic district. I ordered a pasta dish called Spaghettini Pasticcio. The menu described seafood pasta with concassé tomatoes and a saffron sauce. I ordered it because I wanted something a bit on the lighter side. The dish that arrived resembled a soup more than a pasta course. It was swimming in cream, not just cream, but cream that had no hint of saffron. I found the dish heavy, flavorless and bordering on unpleasant. I tried to pull the pasta out of the pool of fat and allow it drain before I ate it. I also left a full cup of cream and pasta in the bottom of the bowl, choosing not to finish it. In my experience, one of the most common offenses to Italian food in America is too much sauce. The surprising part of the evening is the restaurateur was sitting next to me and he is from Italy. He was speaking in Italian with a gentleman I perceived to be a manager, perhaps the general manager. The manager was eating at the bar with his American girlfriend and both of their dishes looked really good. Perhaps I should have ordered in Italian.