Thursday, January 31, 2008

DIY: Drinking Chocolate

One of the most annoying food terms that has cropped up in the past few years is drinking chocolate. We used to have a perfectly good word for chocolate, but apparently, coffee chain marketers thought people wouldn't pay $4-$8 dollars a shot for something they mostly associated with a bag of Carnation or Swiss Miss, so they came up with a new item: drinking chocolate.

I fear that this conjugation will inevitably be expanded. Will fresh-squeezed juice become drinking fruit? Will fine Scotch be dubbed drinking barley? At the cheese counter will I be forced to order some eating milk?

The saddest thing about people buying little cups of drinking chocolate, especially the overly sweet goop at Starbucks (if they even still sell that stuff; I'm not a regular), is that if you happen to own that specialty cooking tool known as a stove, you can make hot chocolate that's better than pretty much anything you pay $8 for at a cafe in Brentwood.

DIY: Hot (Drinking) Chocolate

For about 6 servings, I use 6-9 ounces of good dark chocolate.
Scharffen-Berger is my cooking chocolate of choice, and I usually use equal parts semisweet (62%) and bittersweet (70%), but use the combination and type of chocolate that suits you.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler over medium heat. When it is fully melted and smooth, begin adding milk very slowly while stirring. I usually add it about a quarter-cup at a time and then mix until fully integrated (creating a shiny ganache) before adding more.

Add milk to taste. I like a super-rich drink, so I usually go about two cups of milk, but most people prefer more. Then heat until warm.

Once it's ready, take it off the heat to prevent the chocolate from seizing (separating and becoming an ugly mess).

Serve and enjoy.

Special tip: hot chocolate of this sort is really enhanced by a night in the fridge, which allows the flavors to meld. What you end up with the next morning may seem very thick, but just microwave it or reheat on the burner. In theory, making it a day ahead of time would be a good rule, but in practice, liquid chocolate is hard not to consume immediately.

I've done a lot of hot chocolate experiments, using cream, half & half, and other additives in different proportions, and I've come to believe that just milk and good chocolate makes the ideal cup.

Oh, and remember, this stuff is caffeinated!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Tennessee Smackdown

Grab your coonskin cap, put some BB King on the juke box and break open your copy of Inherit the Wind, it's time for a Tennessee Whiskey Smackdown!

Ahh,Tennessee Whiskey, that nearly-Bourbon whiskey, filtered through sugar maple charcoal and made by only two distilleries: Jack Daniel's and George Dickel.

Scots and Kentuckians alike shiver when they are reminded that a Tennessee Whiskey, not a Scotch or a Bourbon, is the world's biggest selling whiskey. That's right, not Johnnie Walker, not Jim Beam...Jack Daniel's is the world's best selling whiskey.

I've tasted my share of Bourbons, ryes and even American single malts, but like many American whiskey drinkers, I've largely ignored the land south of Kentucky. I made up for it by sitting down with three different Tennessee whiskies to see how they compared, both to Bourbon and to each other.

One thing is certain: the price is right. All of the bottles tasted are in the $20 range for a standard 750 ml bottle.

Jack Daniel's Old Number 7, 40% alcohol

Jack truly needs no introduction. As noted above, it is the best selling whiskey in the world. Its label graces thousands of t-shirts, leather jackets, aprons and jars of barbecue sauce. It is as ubiquitous as whiskey gets.

Well, Jack is popular for a reason. It's an easy-drinker. It has a nice, sweet taste and a light mouth feel. It's a light, perfectly decent whiskey and, though it lacks much in the way of complexity, it is smoother than some similarly situated Bourbons. It's amusing that, for all its rebel image of bikers taking swigs on their hogs, Jack is mostly smooth and sweet. As for me, it's not my favorite; it lacks the boldness that I seek in whiskey.

Gentleman Jack, Rare Tennessee Whiskey, 40% alcohol

Gentleman Jack markets itself as a more refined, slightly more upscale Jack. It has a sweet honey aroma, which is followed up on the palate by fruit and candy flavors. It's much sweeter than Old No. 7 and tastes a lot less like Bourbon than its black labeled counterpart. Frankly, I found it too sweet and lacking in complexity. If I want liquid candy, I'll drink a liqueur.

George Dickel, Superior No. 12, (what is it with Tennessee whiskey and the numbers?) 45% alcohol

George Dickel is forever the other Tennessee whiskey. He is Ashlee Simpson to Jack's Jessica (Shaun Cassidy to Jack's David for us older folks), always in the shadow of his more successful sibling.

But what George lacks in stature, he makes up for in flavor. George is a solid, oaky whiskey with some real complexity. The sweetness of Jack is replaced by some of the flavors you get in a good Bourbon: polished wood, tobacco, leather. Having met George, I don't think I'll be hanging with Jack much anymore. This is a sophisticated whiskey and one that clearly deserves more attention than it's getting.

On second thought, I think the better sibling analogy would be George as adventurous Branford to Jack's smoother, people-pleasing Wynton Marsalis.

And the winner of the Great Tennessee Smackdown is...

George Dickel, hands down, a great whiskey that could stand up to good Bourbon. Jack comes in second with its perfectly drinkable, if not particularly exciting old No. 7 and Gentleman Jack, which I found too sweet, picks up the rear.

Next Wednesday: A Whiskey Bar in LA?
In Two Weeks: You've met Jack and George, now meet Johnnie

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hidden Gem: TiGeorge's Chicken

If you've ever been to the great Haitian restaurants of Miami, you know that Haitian cuisine is a scrumptous, earthy, powerful thing. It's like an even bolder version of Cuban.

We don't have a lot of Haitian options on this coast, but we do have a shining light at TiGeorge's Chicken on the southern most strip of Glendale Boulevard in an area sort of between Echo Park and Downtown.

The thing about TiGeorge's Chicken is, I don't like their chicken. It's floppy and rubbery, lacking any crispness; it has the fatty taste and texture of underdone duck. I don't get it.

What I absolutely love is their veggie plate, which includes crisp plantain fritters, black beans and rice, a small salad, and my favorite, deep fried acra...delicious fried nuggets of ground herring and taro root (apparently, in Haiti, herring is considered a vegetable). All of this is served with their superb, garlic-packed Ti Malis sauce that goes well on everything. For me, the sauce joins Zankou and Mario's Peruvian in the pantheon of great garlic sauces. Wash it down with TiGeorge's fresh lemonade and it's a near perfect meal.

They also have an enticing sounding pate de poulet (chicken pastries), though they are never ready when I'm there. And they roast their own coffee beans for coffee served black or au lait.

TiGeorges' Chicken
309 Glendale Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 353-9994

Friday, January 25, 2008

Spirit News


St. George Spirits reports that the second batch of their excellent Absinthe will be released on February 3. The first batch sold out quickly. See my review here. Southern California locations that will carry it include Hi-Time Wine and K&L. The last batch sold out quickly, so be on the lookout for green fairy sightings come Ground Hog Day.


The Whisky/whiskey debate, which I covered here and here is still raging on the Scotchblog. Check the comments section if you are interested in spirit-ual grammar.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Chocolate Grail: Amedei

Among serious chocolate fans there is no word more magical than Amedei, the Tuscan chocolate company that is prized by connusieurs. Chocolate guru David Lebovitz names Amedei as one of the five things to eat before you die.

I picked up a couple of bars from the website, a must peruse site for the chocolate lover.

Amedei Chuao, 70% cacao, $11.95 for a 1.75 oz bar.

Chuao, not to be confused with the California company of the same name, is a coastal region of Venezuela where some of the world's most prized cacao beans are grown.

The Amedei Chuao has a smooth, chocolatey taste, followed by a distinct fruitiness, which tastes of cherry. It avoids the bitterness that can plague high cacao chocolate but also the acidity that mars some single origin bars. A wonderful specimen.

Amedei Porcelana, 70% cacao, $12.95 for a 1.75 oz bar.

Porcelana is a distinct variety of Venezuelan cacao which is very delicate and hard to transport.

This bar is a whole different ballgame. Where the Chuao is a lovely specimen of dark chocolate, the Porcelana is much more complex, full of bold, dark chocolate flavors, nuttiness and a deep creamy flavor. Though it has the same cacao content as the Chuao, you would swear it is darker.

Five stars for this beautiful specimen.

Next week I will dip into the single origin bars from French purveyor Michel Cluizel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Young and Smoky Part 3 -- Ardbeg Almost There

The final leg of our tour of young, assertive Islays is a whiskey that is regrettably not available in the US. One of the difficult things about being a Scotch fan in America is that lots of the good stuff just doesn't make it to us. There are many complex reasons for this, and John Hansell recently addressed them on his blog at Malt Advocate Magazine. But whatever the cause, the result is that many smaller distilleries or specialty bottlings pass over the US market, and we consequently lose out on a lot of good Scotch.

One of the things we Americans have been missing out on is an innovative series from Ardbeg, known as the "Peat Path to Maturity." The concept is simple, starting with its first distillation after reopening (Ardbeg was briefly closed in the 1990s), Ardbeg began releasing samples of young Ardbeg over several years to demonstrate how it matures on its way to the standard 10year old bottling.

The whiskey for the series was distilled in 1998. In 2004, Ardbeg bottled its first in the series, Ardbeg Very Young; in 2006, the distillery introduced Still Young and in 2007, it came out with Almost There. These bottlings are cask strength (or close to it) and are not chill filtered.

Now, while this is a fascinating experiment, it doesn't exactly show you how Ardbeg evolves into the ten year old bottling. The Ardbeg ten year old, while wildly popular and critically acclaimed, is not, as the series seems to suggest, merely a bottle of ten year old whiskey. Rather, as with most distillery bottlings, it is a blend of whiskies of different ages, the youngest of which is ten years old (or older). Now, perhaps this will change when the '98 distillate turns ten and we will see a cask strength all-ten year old ten year old, but that would be different than the standard ten which is blended with other, older barrels to create the Ardbeg ten that people know and love.

That being said, it is still a great concept and a chance to try much younger Ardbegs than were previously on the market. As an Ardbeg fan, I had wanted to try this series since its inception, and when a willing relative traveled to England, I got my chance.


Ardbeg Almost There, Distilled 1998, Bottled 2007, 54.1% alcohol, Non Chill-Filtered.

Wow! There is nothing almost about this whiskey. Ardbeg can twist more flavor out of smoke than any other distillery, and this bottle is no exception. It has a perfect balance of smoky and sweet, with a salty, oceanside taste as well; and with all that going on, the maltiness is not lost. There is great balance here and if a nine year old is this good, I know there are more impressive things to come from our friends at Ardbeg.

A very impressive Scotch and my favorite of our young and smoky series...too bad we can't get it here...maybe someday.


John Hansell reports on his Malt Advocate blog that Ardbeg will indeed release a special ten year old cask strength as the final leg of the Maturity series. Known as Renaissance, the new bottling will be out soon, but, unfortunately, as with this entire series, it will not be available in the US. Woe is us.

Next Wednesday: Tennessee Smackdown - Jack vs. George

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Bacon Wrapped Hot Dog: An LA Institution

How do you make something better? Add bacon!

To hungry downtowners, the push-cart bacon wrapped hot dog is as much a symbol of the city as the Hollywood sign. It's usually a plain, unsnappy, supermarket hot dog wrapped in bacon and charred on a portable makeshift grill, topped with ketchup, mayo, mustard, grilled onions, peppers and jalapeños. The whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts in this great snack.

There are many purveyors and I can't say that I've tried enough to do a round-up, though that's a fun idea, but my go-to stand is on Lafayette, south of Wilshire, just outside the Parking Violations Bureau almost makes me look forward to paying parking tickets.

Do you have a favorite bacon wrapped hot dog stand? Let me know so I can compare and contrast.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Big K: K Chocolatier

K Chocolatier is the brainchild of Diane Kron who, with her husband, sold gourmet Hungarian style chocolates to the stars in the 1970s. There is much lore associated with the Krons. According to their publicity materials, Diane's husband's great grandfather was the chocolate-maker to Emperor Franz Josef of Austro-Hungary (Presumably the chocolates did not play a role in the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, over which Josef presided). The Krons also claim to have invented the chocolate covered strawberry. When it opened in 2000, Diane's Beverly Hills store signaled her return to chocolate after a 17 year absence. They recently added as second location in Malibu.

When you walk into the tiny, cramped storefront of K Chocolatier, it seems as though you have escaped from the hustle and bustle of Beverly Hills. You are offered voluminous samples of high end truffles and liqueur filled chocolates in a little shop that could be owned by your grandmother, dotted as it is with tchachkas and stacked boxes of chocolates. Often, Diane herself staffs the store and the service is less Beverly Hills stuffy than down home friendly.

Being a purist, I am a fan of their regular chocolate truffles (pictured above). The small cocoa covered cubes are a rich, creamy version of the traditional French truffle with a hint of rum. Their only fault is in being a tad sweeter than necessary. Kron also makes delightful marzipan filled chocolate. Kron's goodies are definitely in the top tier of LA chocolate truffles.

While the store may not feel like Beverly Hills, the price tags do. A small bag of chocolate truffles, containing what amounts to a large handful, goes for $35.

K Chocolatier/diane kron
9606 South Santa Monica Boulevard
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 248-2626

3835 Cross Creek Road
Malibu, CA 90265
(310) 317-0400

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Young and Smoky Part 2 -- A Young Laphroaig

Laphroaig 1999, 7 years old, cask strength, Bottled by Signatory for Binny's Beverage Depot, 58% alcohol ($44).

Binny's Beverage Depot is a major Chicago-based liquor store which does a big internet business (and they ship to California). This bottle was a special bottling for Binny's by well known independent bottler Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky Company, which goes for around $44.

This bottling interested me for a couple of reasons. First, you don't see that many Laphroaigs by independent bottlers in the US, though they are apparently quite common in the UK. Second, I have never tasted a Laphroaig younger than the standard 10 year old.

The 7 year old tasted exactly as you would guess if you're a regular Laphroaiger. It's a younger, brasher version of the elder. As soon as you smell it, and definitely when you taste it, you think, oh yeah, this is Laphroaig all right. It has all of the medicinal flavors ("iodine, seaweed and phenols" for the Scotch snobs out there) that are classic Laphroaig. Of all the peat monsters out there, Laphroaig differentiates itself by these strong medicinal flavors, and this malt has them in a bolder, more intense way.

This wasn't my favorite of the young malts, but I really enjoyed it, and if you are a Laphroaig lover, this is a must-have bottle for you at a good price.

Next Wednesday: Ardbeg Almost There

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hamming It Up: Ham Ji Park

Ham Ji Park is a palace of the porcine. Located on Sixth Street just west of Catalina in Koreatown, it is filled with kitschy little pigs...pig signs, pig figurines, etc, and it makes some of the best pork spareribs in town. These ribs, each with a thin piece of tender meat attached, are juicy and full of flavor-salty, sweet and delicious. They are cooked in the kitchen, not on the table.

At lunch a single serving of the ribs, with panchan, easily feeds two and goes for a measly $16 making it a great lunch for the K-Town business crowd.

Ham Ji Park
3407 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020
(213) 365-8773

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Newsflash: Giant Cupcakes Devour Beverly Hills

Crumbs is one of the newer entrants into the Los Angeles cupcake world. A block down from Sprinkles, on what is becoming the cupcake lane of Little Santa Monica Boulevard, the venerable New York cupcakery sells softball sized cupcakes in playful flavors like Snickers, Twinkie and Oreo.

I recently tried a sampling of them, including Oreo, Devil Dog, s'mores, chocolate blackout, pecan pie, Snickers, vanilla with chocolate cream and the famous Artie Lange cupcake (a caramel monstrosity apparently named for a radio personality from the Howard Stern show -- as you can tell, I'm not a fan). They had light moist cake, velvety buttercream frosting and cream fillings. I was most partial to the Devil Dog with its perfect, fluffy white's like what you wish the cream inside a Twinkie (or a Drake's Devil Dog, for you East Coasters) tasted like, but it never does.

If there is a flaw to these cakes it was that the sweetness overwhelmed the other flavors. I tend to like my desserts more on the rich side and less sweet, and these were enormous sugar bombs. A little less sugar, a little more subtlety and these could be amazing, but as is, they are quite good.

9465 South Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 550-9811

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Young and Smoky Part 1 -- Bruichladdich PC5

Over the next few weeks we will be examining the new trend toward ever younger, ever peatier Scotches with tastings of three brash, young Islays.

We start with one of the most heralded (and hyped) Scotch releases in recent memory: Bruichladdich PC5, a 5 year old cask strength (63.5% alcohol) release from that most maverick of Islay distilleries.

Like many distilleries, Bruichladdich faced economic trouble in the 1980s and '90s and actually closed its doors in 1995. But unlike other distilleries, the Laddie, as it's known, was reopened under new ownership in 2001. The fiercely independent Jim McEwan was named production director, and the distillery has been a huge success story ever since with a reputation for innovation.

Released in 2006, PC5 is the first bottling of a Scotch distilled under the new ownership. PC stands for Port Charlotte, a long-shuttered Islay distillery which the new bottling claims as its model.

When PC5 was released in 2006, it sold like hotcakes across the UK and Europe. The bold, highly peated five year old flew in the face of Bruichladdich's traditional flavor profile of low-smoke, non-peated malts.

Now, more than a year after its European release, a small number of bottles have made their way to the US. It is available at Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys and Wine House in West LA for $120...quite an investment for a 5 year old Scotch. Let's see if it lives up to the hype.


PC5 gives the people what they comes out fighting with a massive peat aroma. The taste is a balance of strong smoke and sweetness. There is some interesting flavor buried under all that smoke including the traditional Islay seaweed as well as some fruit and vanilla. While it's cask strength, it holds its alcohol well and I liked it both neat and with a bit of water.

With this grand smoker, Bruichladdich joins the pantheon of heavily smoked Islays, previously occupied by the charred triumvirate of Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg. If you like the heavy peat smoke, you will love this whiskey.

The real question for PC5, however, is whether it's worth the steep price tag. To that question, I would have to respond in the negative. I liked it quite a bit, but it really should be priced in the $50-70 range. Remember, for $120, you could buy two bottles of 16 year old Lagavulin, which is more refined and complex, not to mention any number of other good, smoky Islays with change to spare.

While I applaud Bruichladdich for making a good product, I am honestly disturbed by the overblown prices it is promoting. If this is the 5 year old, what are they going to charge for PC10? And given its success, I wouldn't be surprised if other distilleries jack up their prices in response. Does PC really stand for Plenty of Cash?

Next Wednesday: A Young Laphroaig

Sunday, January 6, 2008

I Wish They All Could be California Absinthes: St. George Absinthe

The recent, highly publicized decision to allow real Absinthe into the US market led to the almost immediate availability of two imports. Kubler, from Switzerland and the French Lucid, which I reviewed last month. Now, the first domestic Absinthe has entered the market and it's a gem hailing from right here in the Golden State.

St. George Spirits, the Alameda based distillery that makes Hanger One Vodka, fruit brandy and even a single malt whiskey now gives us St. George Absinthe Verte.

The bottle features a vicious looking monkey holding a human femur and a bell. (What is it about Absinthe and animals?). Apparently, the monkey image caused some problems; as the New York Times reported, the original image of a monkey and a human skull caused the very prickly Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau concern that it “implied that there are hallucinogenic, mind-altering or psychotropic qualities” to the product. I know that when I see a monkey on something, I assume it has psychotropic qualities.

St. George Absinthe is a brandy based spirit (60% alcohol) which is flavored with star anise, mint, wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, meadowsweet, basil, fennel, tarragon and stinging nettles (ouch).

I tried several combinations of the Absinthe with sugar and water, and also tried it side by side with Lucid. In general, when tasting Absinthe, I've found that sugar brings the licorice flavor to the fore and subdues the bitterness of the wormwood, so the amount of sugar you want to add will depend on the flavor profile you seek. I like a moderate amount of sugar to retain some of the wormwoody bitterness, but occasionally sip my Absinthe sugar-free, which is about as refreshing a drink as there is.

St. George Absinthe is a beautiful green, the shade of a fine olive oil. The Louche that forms when water is added is a cloudy green, as opposed to Lucid's pale white cloud.

St. George has a slightly more medicinal character than Lucid, with more herbal notes, including the wormwood bitterness, and less sweetness. While Lucid is smoother, St. George is more complex, possibly due to the number of herbs used in its distillation. Even for Absinthe, which is not a shy spirit, these are big, powerful flavors.

While I enjoyed Lucid very much, I have to say I prefer St. George because of this added complexity. The good people of Alameda have done our state proud.

St. George Absinthe is new on the market and pretty hard to find. I was able to snag the last bottle on the shelf at Silverlake Wine for around $70, but I'm sure it will become more available in the future.

And, if you're thinking of getting into the Absinthe habit, Silverlake Wine has good prices on Absinthe glasses, which have a bulb to show how much Absinthe to water to pour ($15) and decorative slotted Absinthe spoons, for pouring water through your sugar cube. ($12-15). These trinkets are fun but certainly not necessary to your Absinthe enjoyment.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fond of La Fonda: La Fonda Antioqueña

One of my favorite restaurants, the Colombian stalwart La Fonda Antioqueña has moved down the street to larger digs. The new place, still on Melrose, has ample seating, much better parking and all of the same great food. This is one of those places where almost everything is great, but my favorites are:

  • Empanadas: Crispy corn crust, stuffed with well-spiced beef

  • Morcilla: Maybe the best blood sausage in LA

  • Chicharron: The Antioqueña version has big chunks of moist fried pork served on the fat and skin.

  • Arroz con Pollo: An old favorite done well

  • Chuletas de Cerdo: Breaded pork chop, pounded thin as a milenesa; it's hard for me to not order it.

  • Mojarra: Whole fried fish

In addition, they have great condiments and sides: tangy green salsa that goes well on everything, crispy plantain fritters and a bakery with wonderful cheese rolls.

La Fonda Antioqueña
5125 Melrose
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 957-5164

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Faster Than a Speeding Bourbon

Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, 45% alcohol (Four Roses Distillery)

The relatively new Bulleit Bourbon is being marketed heavily these days. With its slick bottle and romantic claims of being a "Frontier Whiskey" (whatever that means), it's popping up everywhere, including on the final season of the HBO series Deadwood (despite the ahistorical nature of that appearance) and at Trader Joe's for about $20. Bourbon expert Charles Cowdery notes that it is pushing for a slice of the lower-high end market being occupied by Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek.

Despite all its positive press, I was unimpressed by Bulleit. It was too light and a bit on the caustic side. There was a slight medicinal taste, cough syrupy, which I found off-putting as well. Personally, I'd grab for a Woodford Reserve over this speeding Bulleit.