Thursday, August 30, 2007

The World's Whiskey Writer

If you are drinking a single malt or a microbrew as you're reading this, then you owe a debt of thanks to English whiskey and beer writer Michael Jackson.

There is probably no one person who played more of a role in changing the way we drink than Michael Jackson. It's almost hard to remember there was a time before Michael. Prior to the publication of his first beer compendium in 1977, beer meant Bud and prior to his books on single malts, Scotch meant a low end blend. Discussions of tasting, aromas and such were reserved for wine or maybe the precious few codgers who still drank Cognac.

Michael's ceaseless advocacy for quality beers and single malts was one of the major forces in changing how we drink. Thirty years later, we have had an explosion of craft brewing that's on its second wave, and of course a new interest in single malts as well as other small batch whiskies which he championed.

MJ might not deserve sole credit for this turn of events, but he was a huge force in making it happen. His writing, with its amusing, anecdotal and curmudgeonly asides, awakened a generation to the joys of drinks with flavor. His whiskey reviews were unpretentious and real...he always told you how he felt; his descriptions willed you out to he liquor store to taste the good stuff.

Michael Jackson, who suffered from Parkinson's Disease, died today at age 65. I'm sure that throughout the world, many glasses are being raised in his honor.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Whiskey Fundamentalism: The Whisky Bible

You've got to have a good amount of self-assurance to refer to your work as a "Bible." You are basically saying, I'm a god and I doth pass down these writings to thee. Is it possible to set up a greater expectation than to compare your own work to a book that millions of people use to guide them through life? Can any book come close to meriting such an expectation? Well, if your book consists of the most comprehensive set of whiskey reviews ever, then maybe.

And if God drinks whiskey, (and let's face it, if I can't have whiskey, I don't want to go to heaven), then I have no doubt that She owns a copy of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible. The Whisky bible, an annual publication now in its fourth year, is composed of British whiskey writer Jim Murray's tasting notes for literally thousands of whiskies. It includes not only Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, Canadian and Japanese, but whiskies from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. It reviews $10 bottles and bottles that only the wealthiest collector could ever hope to lay hands on. It is truly a thing to behold.

Now, I don't always agree with Jim's ratings. In fact, I'd say I disagree with him more than I agree, but his reviews are always interesting and the comprehensiveness of the book means if I want to know what whiskies a distillery has produced, I can just open up and look.

The Gospel of Jim Murray

Another thing I like about Jim is that, not unlike the writers of the other Bible, he has a distinct and somewhat contrarian point of view, and he's not afraid to share it. To wit:

  • He was one of the first people I heard rail against the still common use of artificial coloring in Scotch.

  • He is a champion of blended Scotch and
    rails against single malt snobbery. He went so far as to name a blended Scotch his best rated whiskey this year.

  • He thinks Bourbon is some of the finest whiskey being made today, no small feat for a Brit.

  • He is a proponent of Canadian and Japanese whiskey as well as the new American single malts and wants to see those markets grow.

  • He does not worship the false idols of price and age.

So, if you are an intermediate to advanced whiskey lover looking to expand your experience, this is the perfect book for you.

The availability of new editions is spotty in California, but for about $25 (depending on the exchange rate), you can order it on-line from, and Jim will even sign your copy and encourage you to...keep the faith.

Next Wednesday: The Indie Bottling Scene

Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a...sandwich!

When the planet Krypton exploded, a lone capsule was launched into space in an effort to save that dying civilization by preserving one young sandwich. Landing in rural Mexico, the young sandwich grew up and migrated to an urban metropolis. Now, when someone calls out in hunger, the unassuming sandwich dawns its cape and tights and turns into one of the best sandwiches in the greater LA metropolis: Super Torta.

In a city of a thousand tortas, Super Torta is one that deserves its name. Located on Alvarado, south of third, Super Tortas does one of my favorite versions of the traditional Mexican sandwich. Traditional Mexican meats, guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes on a fresh, pressed bolillo roll. My favorite is the milenesa, that Latin American version of chicken fried steak. The milensa torta is the perfect combination of salty, crunchy and meaty, the thin, fried patty blending so well with the guac. The ribeye (lomo de res) is also excellent. The pork, usually my favorite of anything, is a bit dry.

I've only tried the Alvarado location but there are two others:

Super Tortas
360 S. Alvarado St.
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 413-7953

7951 Vineland Ave.
Sun Valley, CA
(818) 765-2496

1253 N. Vine St.
Hollywood, CA
(323) 469-8912

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Putting the Korea Back in Koreatown

I've lived in Koreatown for four years now, and I realized that, though I eat Korean food regularly, I have precious few Korean write-ups on this site, so I thought I'd provide a quick list of a few of my favorites.

The amount of Korean food available in my neighborhood is staggering. I've been eating Korean for years, and I still feel that I'm just starting to understand all of the styles and genres of Korean cuisine.

Now, most of the places I go are accepting of non-Koreans, at least enough to have English menus, but there is a whole world of Korean restaurants that appear to have no interest in serving non-Koreans, no English menus, no English signs, nada. In these establishments, where I'm usually treated somewhere between curiosity and annoyance, I employ a point and hope strategy...point to the menu, hope for the best. Sometimes this goes well, but once it got me a plate of rice mixed with what appeared to be chopped pieces of Oscar Meyer wieners. Live and learn.

Mysteries abound for the non-Korean speaker in Koreatown. The other day I drove by a restaurant on Vermont that had a picture of a goat on the sign among the Korean characters. Is this a Korean goat barbecue? I made a mental note and put it on my long list of places to investigate.

The places below are in the more well known, used to English speakers genre. In the future, I'll write up some of the not so typical places, but if you're looking for reliably fantastic Korean food, you can't do much better than these three:

Jeon Ju
Olympic between Vermont and New Hampshire (south side of the street)

Jeon Ju is one of my favorite places to eat of any genre. Their specialty is bi bim bap dol sot or hot pot bi bim bap. The #1, which you will likely be encouraged to order if you are not Korean, is a Kalbi bi bim bap, served in a cast iron hot pot. I love the melding of flavors in bi bim bap and with dol sot, you also get the crispy fried rice that sticks to the side of the pot, which is one of the best single things there is to eat. Add to that great panchan (Korean side dishes served before every meal) which change regularly and huge bowls of peppery soup with big dumplings and rice cakes and you have a truly amazing meal!

Dong Il Jang
8th Street, west of Normandie

I've often wondered whether there is any saturation point for barbecue restaurants in Koreatown. There must be 500, and more seem to open every day. Every time a new strip mall goes up in the neighborhood, I say to myself, I wonder what new and exciting thing will open up, and it turns out to be...yet another Korean barbecue. I've eaten at many barbecues (though there are many more I have yet to visit), but the one I always come back to is Dong Il Jang. The specialty is ross (roast?) gui, thin slices of marbled beef, sauteed on your tableside pan with butter. The marbling dissolves away in seconds and leaves you with pure beefy, fatty goodness. While I love bulgogi, Kalbi and all the marinated meats that are typically part of the Korean barbecue experience, there is something transcendent about the taste of pure, unadorned beef melting in your mouth and filling it with the rich flavor of cow.

After you finish the huge serving, the waitress will use your juicy pan to fry up rice with beef trimmings and your leftover panchan into a deliciously meaty fried rice (not unlike dol sot bi bim bap). This dish may be as good as the barbecue portion of the meal.

For a good, recent review of DIJ with pictures, check out KBlog, a great resource for all things Koreatown.

Beverly Soontofu
Olympic and Vermont, (north side of Olympic, west of Vermont)

Soontofu is a wonderfully spicy Korean soup served with soft tofu and bits of meat or fish. Beverly Soontofu is my favorite soontofu with its fresh tofu and delicious broth. I must admit, however, that Soontofu service has always been sort of a mystery to me. First, it's served with an egg. I always assumed the egg was to drop in the boiling soup cauldron which would immediately cook it, as in egg drop soup. The only problem is the soup, while it is usually bubbling, never seems to be hot enough, so you end up with a sort of slimy goo. I'm not sure if I'm doing it wrong of if slimy goo is the intended outcome. The second thing I don't get is that often, hot water is poured on your leftover scalded rice to make a sort of...soggy rice soup. Again, maybe it's just not to my taste, but I don't get it.

Now, while soontofu is great, my favorite food at Beverly Soontofu is their version of barbecued ika (squid). the slightly charred, medium-sized squid is cooked in traditional red Korean hot sauce. I love every chewy morsel of this stuff.

So, if you're looking for good Korean food, you can count on these three stars. But with nearly endless options, I'm always searching. I still have yet to find a great Korean dumpling house and my next big project, when I get around to it, is to hit the Koreatown Galleria food court, which I've never managed to make it to...and then there's the place with the goats...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Daddy Saz

Sazerac 18 year old rye whiskey, 45% alcohol,
Buffalo Trace Distilleries

Here we are, the last of my wry series of rye tastings (okay, bad pun, I admit, but note that, to my credit, I avoided any Salinger reference during this entire series), and oh what a tasting it is.

Sazerac 18 year old, the granddaddy of Buffalo Trace ryes, is a heavenly elixir, probably the most complex of the ryes I've tasted. The aroma is surprisingly fruity, as is the first sip, then you get the sweet caramel that is more associated with Bourbon and even the vanilla you sometimes get from aged Scotch.

What it doesn't strike you as is rye. Just as a peaty Scotch mellows as it ages, over its 18 years in the barrel, the spice notes have settled. Of course, they may not have been that strong to begin with. The 6 year old Sazerac had them, but they were much more understated than the other ryes I sampled.

This bottling shows me that rye has the comlexity and beauty to play with the big boys. The Daddy Saz is a fitting end to a fun series of tastings. Based on the sampling I did, the quality of new ryes being put out right now is excellent, running from the powerful spice of Old Potrero to the delightfully subtle Baby Saz, through the balanced Rittenhouse 100 and ending with the giant complexity of the Sazerac 18.

To sum up: It's a good time to be rye.

Next Wednesday: The Good Book

Colorado Whiskey Comes to California

When I recently reviewed American single malts, Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey was the best of the four I tasted. At the time, Stranahan's wasn't available in California, but last weekend, I saw a bottle at Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys. Now, I don't know that Stranahan's is worth the $50.00 (approx.) price tag, but if you are curious about American single malts, you can't do much better.

Wine & Liquor Depot
Saticoy, west of Balboa, Van Nuys

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Guilty Pleasures: Chocolate Ice Box Cake

Three ingredients: cream, sugar, chocolate wafers plus 24 hours in the fridge. Oh so simple, oh so delectable.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Like Oh My God: Valley Cheese

A lovely cheese plate purchased at The Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City. Artisan is a fine little cheese shop with a nice selection. They also serve great looking sandwiches, which I will have to try on another visit. If you are a Valleyite and can't get down to Beverly Hills or Silverlake, I would definitely recommend Artisan.

Again, moving clockwise from 12:00 on the cheese plate, we have:

Echo Mountain Blue
, A mixed milk (goat and cow) blue cheese.
Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Oregon.

Rogue Creamery, named after Oregon's Rogue River, makes a number of great blue cheeses. I'm a big fan of their creamy Rogue River Blue which has huge flavor. This Echo Mountain, which I'd never tried before, is a creamy blue with a mild flavor. Despite the use of mixed milk, there is not much of a goat cheese flavor. I enjoyed this with honey or a touch of fig jam.

Sablé du Boulonnais, a French cow cheese.

This was the first time for me with this pungent washed rind cheese from the far northern reaches of France. This is a high stinker. The rind is a bit overwhelming for me, as is often the case with the high stink family. The cheese itself has a dense, nutty quality, having some of the properties of a Taleggio but none of the subtlety of that cheese. The texture is soft but not liquid, holding its form at room temperature. This was an interesting cheese but not a favorite.

Wensleydale, an English cow cheese.

I love British firm cheeses; the Cheddars and Cheshires that crumble at your touch, taste of salt and white wine and pair so well with sweet wine, strong ale and hard cider. Wensleydale is in this family. It has a strong, salty, somewhat barny taste and a tart finish. I've always been a fan but hadn't had it in a while. It was worth going back to.

Haystack Peak, goat cheese.
Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, Longmont, Colorado.

This Colorado goat cheese, aged to perfection, was the star of the plate. A bloomy rind cheese (meaning it had a soft, white rind like brie), the cheese was at the perfect ooze stage in which you don't cut it so much as scoop it. It has a smooth goat flavor, much more subtle and complex than some goats. This is definitely one of the best goats I've had. I must try some of the other offerings from this Colorado dairy!

Overall, a nice diverse cheese plate, touching three nations and two animals. The cheese was served with a Los Feliz bakery sourdough boule, a selection of farmers' market fruit and a glass of Trader Joe's late harvest Moscato dessert wine.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Rittenhouse Rye

Rittenhouse Rye, and particularly, Rittenhouse 100, their 100 proof version, seems to be all the rage lately, gaining more write-ups than many other, better known ryes. The distillery seems to be positioning it as the poster child for the rye revival.

Produced by Heaven Hill Distilleries, Rittenhouse is a Kentucky straight rye which purports to be a "Pennsylvania style" rye (its name presumably comes from Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia). As I've noted before, prior to prohibition, rye distilleries dotted the mid-Atlantic seaboard, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York.

At 100 proof (50% alcohol), this rye packs a slightly greater punch than either the Sazerac or Old Potrero I reviewed over the last few weeks. The enhanced alcohol marries well with the rye flavors to give this whiskey a good balance. Your first taste will be the alcohol and then the rye floods in. Rittenhouse lacks the subtlety of the Sazerac and the intensity of the Old Potrero, but overall, it's an enjoyable whiskey.

To sum up: Another fine rye.

Rittenhouse 100 seems to be fairly available in LA liquor stores and is very affordable, clocking in at around $20, so check it out.

Next Wednesday: Sazerac 18 year old rye

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hidden Gem: Shanghai Restaurant

Located on the second floor of the giant San Gabriel Square mall on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, Shanghai Restaurant seems to have escaped notice of the food writing world, but I love it, and most everything I've had has been good.

Shanghai cuisine, in my experience, is some of the most intricately flavored food around. The Shanghai sauces, often dominated by anise, can have a dense, sweet taste, almost like a licoricey black mole or a lighter, more refined taste. At Shanghai Restaurant, pork ribs or baby eel (though the eels seem to have disappeared from the menu) come slathered in these dark, anise scented sauces.

Xiao long bao (XLB to those in the know), or soup dumplings, are a popular Shanghai treat that has caught on in the US. They are made by filling dumplings with meat and jellied broth. When the dumplings are steamed, the broth melts so that the meat is suspended in a pool of delicious soup. When you bite in, watch out; if you aren't careful, you will get a lap full of piping hot broth. Shanghai Restaurant has good XLB stuffed with a mix of crab and pork, though they are not quite up to the par of the famous Din Tai Fung in Arcadia.

My favorite dish is the shen jian bao, wondrous pan fried pork buns topped with black sesame seeds and scallions with a nice XLB like broth that squirts out when you bite into them. I could just sit and eat these things all day.

Last time we visited, the waiter chastised us for ordering too many dishes with flour and suggested some dishes to provide balance. One stand out was a cold spongy bean curd with mushrooms and peanuts. The bean curd was served in the anise sauce, which it absorbed completely. The dish, which admittedly didn't look like much, was surprising addictive.

Good stuff!

Shanghai Restaurant
140 W Valley Blvd, #211
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-0991

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Summer Cheese Plate

This summer cheese plate was perfect for a July evening before a pasta dinner. All items were purchased at The Cheese Store of Silverlake.

Starting from 12:00 on the plate and moving clockwise:

Gerome Munster, soft French cow cheese.

French Munster is one of the classic cheeses of France. This Gerome Muster hails from Lorraine. Don't confuse French munster with the bland American muenster with its orange rind. French Munster is a much more powerful and flavorful cheese, a washed rind cheese that is soft and gooey. It's pungent, but this one was pleasantly so without reaching the highest of stink. It had a slightly porky taste which made me think it would go well with prosciutto or a good salami.

Piave, hard Italian cow cheese.

Piave is in the Parmigiano Reggiano family of cheeses. It hails from Northern Italy and has the look, texture and taste of Parm, but with a sweeter and more nutty flavor. When you take a bite, you immediately get nuttiness and then you get a white-wine/fruit flavor. This was a great munching cheese but would do well over pasta or a salad as well.

French Goat, raw goat milk cheese.

I can't say I can faithfully recreate the name or producer of this aged French raw milk goat cheese, but it had a very subtle taste for a goat cheese. You don't get any of that petting zoo/barnyard taste that it typical of aged goats. The thick, pasty center typical of chevre, was surrounded by goo, which comes form the aging process. While I liked this cheese, it could stand some more aging to increase the goo to paste ratio.

Stinking Bishop, English cow cheese.

Ah, the Stinking Bishop, the cheese that revived a comatose Wallace in the Wallace & Gromit movie. When I think of English cheeses, I think of the wonderful Cheddars, Cheshires and other firm cheeses or the glorious blue Stiltons. Stinking Bishop is decidedly un-English, having more similarity to a French Epoisse or an Italian Taleggio. Like those cheeses, it has a high stink; this is what people mean when they talk about cheese that smells like old sweat socks. But as with a good Epoisse, the smelly bark is worse that the tasty bite. The cheese itself, while strong, has a smooth, complex flavor. Every bite is a revelation, salty, creamy, dreamy. Stinking Bishop is a magnificent cheese, try some soon, but keep in mind that it is not for the faint of heart.

This was a great cheese plate. All of these were winners, though I was less excited by the goat than the other three. They were served with a Robert Mondavi Riesling, which went particularly well with the Piave with its fruit and nut flavors.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Whiskey Wednesday: Buffalo Trace Comes to California

I'm taking a break in my series of rye tastings for this exciting announcement.

The good folks at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa have announced that they will be carrying the excellent Buffalo Trace Bourbon, the signature bottling of Kentucky's greatest distillery.

This is the first time I have seen any retailer in California carry this most excellent bourbon. You may recall that in order to get a bottle, I had to con a friend from Tennessee to get me some. No more must we lovers of great bourbon act like we live in the prohibition era. The complex bourbon with the rye kick will be available in Orange County for the very affordable price of $20.99 for a regular-sized bottle (less than my friend paid in Tennessee). And a good thing too because, as you can see, my bottle's getting low.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon: Go get some!!

Next Wednesday: Back to Rye with Rittenhouse 100

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Cheesy Post

Another one of my food obsessions, and there are many, is cheese. Having grown up in cheese rich Sonoma County, California, I've been eating great cheese for many years but seriously obsessing over it for about the last ten. When it comes to cheese, my tastes are totally eclectic. My very favorites tend to be runny, stinky French cheeses like Epoisse, but I also love blues, goat and sheep milk cheeses, cheddars, hard cheese, etc., etc. And no flavored cheese please.

And keep in mind that, while I like very stinky cheese, (and I'm talking old, gym sock stinky, scooped up from the floor of the petting zoo stinky), I also appreciate mild cheeses and will try to review a selection.

So, here is a brief introduction to prepare you to join me on my cheesy journeys, which I will be reporting here, interspersed with my usual rantings and ratings.

Where can I buy cheese in Los Angeles?

There are two LA temples of cheese:

1. The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills

2. The Cheese Store of Silverlake

Both of these are excellent stores with knowledgeable staff and great selections. Beverly Hills probably has the best selection but also the highest prices, though none are cheap. I find the Silverlake store, which was started by CSBH graduates, the most accessible (as well as the closest to me) so I frequent it the most often.

In general, a good cheese store should give you lots of individual attention. Cheese stores should cut to order and offer plenty of samples (except for small rounds). If you can't taste it, don't buy it!

If you walk into a cheese store and see chunks of pre-cut cheese in plastic wrap, turn around and run screaming. Long term storage in plastic wrap allows moisture to permeate cheese and can cause a dreadful ammonia odor. This is why buying cheese at supermarkets, even high-end "gourmet" supermarkets, is risky.

How should I serve cheese?

When serving a selection of cheeses for a party or cheese plate, I try to get a variety. A good rule is a variation of the old wedding adage:
Something old,
Something new,
Something goat,
Something blue.

In other words, mix it up a bit.

Be sure to serve cheese at the proper temperature. One of the biggest cheese mistakes is serving cheese too cold. Most cheese should be served at a cool room temperature. Unless your place is sweltering (like mine is now), take the cheese out of the fridge the morning you intend to serve it and let it warm up through the day.

I always serve cheese on good, crusty bread and usually have some accompanying snacks, such as olives, various cured meats, gherkins, figs or apples and pears. Different cheeses pair well with different foods, so the accompanying food will differ based on your cheese selection, but make sure it's good quality stuff. Good cheese should be served with good bread and good food.

How should I store cheese?

Practically every cheese book or cheese monger around will tell you that plastic wrap kills cheese, that cheese should be wrapped loosely in wax paper, if at all and that if a piece of Saran touches your cheese, it will be ruined.

Now this is partially correct. As noted above, long term storage in plastic wrap does kill cheese and leads to excess moisture and ammonia. But, in terms of home use, plastic wrap is really the best way to go. For most fine cheeses, you aren't going to be aging them at home or storing them for months and months, so slip on some plastic wrap and put them in the fridge. You can use wax paper, but your entire fridge will smell like cheese, and you will regret it when you bite into that piece of cake or chocolate pudding you've been looking forward to and think, hmm it tastes a little...goaty.

Where can I learn more about cheese?

The best book around about cheese is Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer. Jenkins is a cheese fanatic on a crusade to turn Americans on to the glory of good cheese. While the book is a bit out of date, especially with regard to American cheeses, it is a great introduction to cheese and gives descriptions and buying guides for the classic cheeses of Europe. There is no better handbook for the beginning cheesehead.

Cheese articles to come:

Pairing wine and cheese, or not
Cheese from my hometown
Cows and Goats and Sheep, oh my!
And a myriad of cheese reviews.

Quick Picks: Kyoho Grapes

Tis the season of Kyoho Grapes, the succulent Concord-like grapes from Japan. These, robust, perfectly spherical grapes are bursting with sweet grape flavor. They have a relatively short window so get them now at various farmers' markets. I get mine at the Sunday Hollywood farmers' market on Ivar between Sunset and Hollywood.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Square One, Take Two

Okay, so I know I just wrote up Square One last week, but I just had a dish there that I must report on.

The open face skirt steak sandwich is a tender pile of marinated skirt steak, order it rare, topped with Gorgonzola cheese and hollandaise sauce, on a bed of caramelized shallots placed on single piece of bread. The heart-stopping tastiness of this dish is hard to put into words. Rich? Sure, but delicious. I mean it's got all the food groups: Steak, cheese, hollandaise, onions. The combination of these strong flavors is poignant, to say the least. You think it will be too much, and maybe it is, but if so, it's too much of a very, very good thing. And besides, what isn't better topped with hollandaise?

Get it:
Open-Faced Skirt Steak Sandwich
at Square One
4854 Fountain Avenue
(between Normandie and Vermont)