Thursday, February 26, 2009

Brandy Friday: Armagnac

So far, our Brandy Fridays have exclusively explored the region of Cognac, but there is a whole world of brandy out there, even in France. Today, we will branch out and taste and Armagnac.

What is Armagnac?

Armagnac is often thought of as the other French brandy, having to share the limelight with its celebrated sister brandy, Cognac, but Armagnac should be celebrated in its own right.

Armagnac is an AOC, meaning that brandy of that name must come from the Armagnac region of France. Armagnac, the region, lies in the duchy of Gascony in southwestern France amid the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains on the border with Spain. South of Bordeaux, Armagnac is a rich culinary region which is known as home to some of the best foie gras in France.

Armagnac, the brandy, is similar but not exactly the same as Cognac. It is produced using some of the same grapes, including Ugni Blanc, though it also uses Folle Blanche and Colombard, and for a few years still, the hybrid grape Baco 22A, though use of this grape will be discontinued in another year per the regional authority that presides over Armagnac production. (Can you say "collector's dream"?) Armagnac is also known for using continuous stills to distill their spirits, as opposed to the pot stills of Cognac, though continuous stills are not universal in the region. Armagnacs are often sold younger than Cognacs, though this is also not universal.

As with Cognac, Armagnac has subregions, including Bas Armagnac to the west and Tenareze and Haut Armagnac to the East. Today, we are tasting a Bas Armagnac.


Marie Duffau, Bas Armagnac, Napoleon, 40% alcohol ($50).

Beautiful nose with more spice than fruit, like a mulled wine with clove and allspice, also some agave/Tequila scents. Very nice flavor, the sweet and spice interplay reminds me of a high-rye content Bourbon.

This is wonderful stuff and very different from the Cognacs I've been enjoying. Less fruity and more spicy, there is more going on in the glass than lots of the Cognacs I tried. I will definitely be trying more Armagnacs.

Next Friday: A Cognac, of sorts, from California

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

RIP Fassica

It's hard times, no doubt about it. Restaurants, especially small, family owned spots that operate at a low profit margin, are always economically vulnerable, and in this economic climate, we can expect there will be casualties. But that doesn't make it easy.

It is with great sadness that I report the closing of LA's best Ethiopian restaurant, Fassica in Culver City. Fassica was one of my favorite restaurants of any genre. The proprietors excelled at the spicy lentils, rich shiro and flavorful stewed meats that make up Ethiopian cuisine, all to be tucked away with hands full of slightly sour, homemade injera. Ethiopian has always felt like comfort food to me, and nowhere was it more comfortable than at Fassica. I was so excited when I found it in all its homespun glory, now I suppose I will saunter back to Fairfax and revisit the more popular but less refined cuisine of that strip.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whisk(e)y Wednesday: To E or Not to E, Epilogue

You may recall that two years ago, we looked at the controversy over the various spellings of the word Whiskey (See our first column here and a follow-up here). We focused on the debate between whiskey bloggers and journalists about whether writers should change the spelling of the word whiskey depending on how it is used in the native land of the particular whiskey being described. That is, should we use whiskey (with an "e") for the US and Ireland and whisky (without the "e") for most other places.

As I described in those posts, since beginning this blog, I have simply used the American spelling, whiskey, to refer to any whiskey. I did this in an effort to minimize confusion among whiskey beginners who see the variant spellings; it seemed to me just one more whiskey matter that was mysterious and overly complicated.

It has always been the practice for the two major English language whiskey publications, Malt Advocate and Whisky Magazine, to vary their spellings, but earlier this month, no less an authority than the New York Times weighed in on the side of changing spelling to suit the whisk(e)y.

Well, I can only resist for so long. Now that the paper of record has weighed in, (and even while my pals Kevin Erskine and Chuck Cowdery continue to duke it out), I feel that this issue is settled. While there were good arguments on both sides, the overwhelming trend is to vary the spelling, so from now on, here on Whiskey Wednesday, Scotch, Japanese and Canadian will be whisky while American and Irish will be whiskey. When referring generically to whiskey, I will still use the American spelling, and I will not use the annoying whisk(e)y, except sarcastically.

Despite my change in spelling, I promise that I will not be one of those people who sends angry letters to newspapers when they choose not to use the alternate spellings or lectures newbies who confuse the spellings.

Now let's get back to enjoying our whisky, whiskey and whiskee.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Winter Break: Tahoe Report

I took a winter break for some skiing, skating, sledding and eating in the Tahoe area. We were based in the North Shore area around Truckee, California. When I'm out in Tahoe, I don't typically eat out as much as I do at home, preferring home cooked, rustic meals. In addition, Tahoe and environs aren't exactly a culinary Mecca, but there are some gems in the snow that are worth noting.

Moody's Bistro

Since Moody's French Bistro opened in old-town Truckee four or five years ago, it has become our place for the special night out. This was my third visit, and each year I go, it is one of the best meals I have in Tahoe, serving French bistro food with a nod to rustic Sierra cooking. This year, I had a wonderful sweet breads appetizer, a plate loaded with perfectly fried sweetbreads on polenta. For my entree, how could I resist Moody's Big Ass Pork Platter? Moody's buys and butchers its own hogs to come up with this five way pork preparation. The night I was there it was loin, tenderloin, copa, fried belly and a sort of hash of trotters. The loin was a bit on the dry side, but all of the others were perfectly cooked. I'm impressed by Moody's every time I go, and given the cost of similar meals in LA, I'm impressed by the price as well.

Moody's Bistro
10007 Bridge St
Truckee, CA 96161
(530) 587-8688

Euro-Snack Waffles

One of my favorite Tahoe fast foods is the Euro-Snack waffle stand at the Squaw Valley and Northstar ski areas. For $4 you get a small, sweet waffle square, grilled to order (pictured above). The gooey, chewy, sweetness warms your soul on a snowy day. It's one of those things that is probably only good in Tahoe, but I can't resist.


If you're flying into Tahoe, as we generally do, you're more than likely coming through the Reno-Tahoe Airport. Reno presents some of its own culinary challenges, but I try to find something decent on my way in or out. Mexican is generally the best bet, so we tried Lupita's in the Reno-adjacent town of Sparks. Lupita's features good, home-style Mexcian food, centered in the cuisine of the state of Nayarit. The food was solid if not particularly exceptional, though the chili verde was excellent, with the pork pieces fried up nicely with a crispy crust and a good tart salsa.

668 E Prater Way (in the strip mall on the northwest corner of Prater and McCarran Blvd.)
Sparks, NV 89431
(775) 355-1770

Sweets Handmade Candies

Sweets candy shop in old-town Truckee (with a branch in Reno) is a pretty typical old-time candy shop featuring fudge, peanut brittle and many other handmade candies that inevitably seem to look (and smell) just a bit better than they taste. It's fun to watch them making the candy in the window and be lured in by the scent, and it's easy to overindulge. The one thing I love at Sweets, which lives up to its smell, is the chocolate covered toffee popcorn. It's a butter toffee corn dripped with chocolate and served in big clumps; it's sweet, salty and highly addictive. They also do good fudge, but stick to the traditional flavors like chocolate and penuche.

Sweets Handmade Candies
10118 Donner Pass Rd # 1
Truckee, CA 96161
(530) 587-6556

4991 South Virginia, Suite C
Reno, NV 89502
(775) 827-8270

If you're a Tahoe visitor or local, I'd love to hear your recommendations as I'm always looking for something new and good.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Brandy Friday: Pierre Ferrand

Pierre Ferrand is the big name in small Cognac houses. Ten years ago, Ferrand was the toast of Cognac, touted as the artisanal Cognac house by which all others were measured. Recently, though, I have heard criticism that the house has grown too large, too fast, and as a result, the quality has suffered.

Ferrand does not deal in the world of VS and VSOP, specializing instead in aged Cognacs; their line starts with the ten year old Amber, which we will taste today, and goes up to the 75 year old Ancestrale.


Pierre Ferrand Ambre, Grande Champagne, 40% alcohol ($35.00)

Agave/Tequila is the most prominent smell on the nose. I've had peated malt whiskies that give this scent as well, but never a Cognac. The agave is more muted in the taste, but still there. There is sweetness and, on the finish, prunes. It's a nice brandy at a decent price but the flavors weren't as complex or delicate as the other Cognacs we've been trying.

Next Friday: An Armagnac for a Change

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: An Old Fashioned Cocktail

We return to our occasional series on classic whiskey cocktails with one of the most classic whiskey drinks: the Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned is similar, in mechanics and composition to the Sazerac, though it substitutes orange and spice flavor for the Sazerac's anise. For a fairly simple drink, there seem to be as many recipes as people who make Old Fashioneds with cocktail fans passionately defending the inclusion or exclusion of various ingredients. The basic recipe, as shown in this video by the great Chris McMillian or on DrinkBoy is:

Muddle a cube of sugar, water and Angostora bitters,
Add and muddle a slice of orange rind,
Add ice and two shots of American whiskey,
Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.

Now, some people will insist that there shouldn't be any fruit used at all. Others will say you should add lemon rind and still others sacrilegiously insist on soda water. And then there's the question of whiskey; should it be Bourbon or rye? Given all of these factors, I decided to play around, so I tried a few different Old Fashioneds. I used the recipe above, with muddled orange and no soda water.

1. The Rockhill Farms Old Fashioned

Winter in Southern California is citrus season and beautiful, sweet and juicy Valencia oranges were at their peak when I started my mixing, so I really wanted to use a version with some orange. Rockhill Farms is a fairly sweet Bourbon that I thought would go well with the bitters and orange, and it did. The resulting drink was very tasty though a bit too sweet. I could reduce the sugar next time or try a Bourbon that was lower on the sweetness scale (see below).

2. The George Dickel Tennessee Old Fashioned

My favorite Tennessee Whiskey, George Dickel No. 12, makes a great Manhattan, so I figured I would give it a try in an Old Fashioned. Sure enough, it really did the trick, making a very nice Old Fashioned. A drier whiskey, Dickel gave a nice punch to the Old Fashioned.

3. The Russel's Reserve Rye Old Fashioned

As with most classic American whiskey cocktails, the original whiskey of choice was rye while more recent versions tend to use Bourbon. As a fan of rye, I thought I would try a rye Old Fashioned. I used Wild Turkey's Russel's Reserve Rye, a good mid-level rye for cocktails. The Russel's Reserve Rye did very well in the Old Fashioned, the rye spice standing up well to the bitters and orange.

4. The (rī)¹ Old Fashioned

Since Jim Beam's (rī)¹, which I pretty much panned, is supposed to be for cocktails, and I now have a mostly full (but very sleek looking) bottle of the stuff, I figured I would give it a try in an Old Fashioned. It came out okay, and certainly better than drinking the stuff straight. (rī)¹ is a sweet rye without much rye character so it adapted well to the sweetness of the drink, but didn't give me any rye contrasts.

Based on these experiments, I would go with the Russel's Reserve if making a rye Old Fashioned and the Dickel if making a Bourbon/Tennessee Old Fashioned. If you have a sweet tooth, you might like the Rock Hill Farms version as well.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Breakfast Bread: Pan de Bono at La Fonda Antioqueña

One of my breakfast favorites are the big, puffy cheese breads known as pan de bono at the Colombian stalwart, La Fonda Antioqueña on Melrose. Similar to Brazilian pao de queijo, but larger, pan de bono have the same chewy, cheese texture as the Brazilian cheese breads. The breads come out of the oven around 11:00 a.m. and are available throughout the day. They reheat beautifully in a conventional oven, so I always take a few home for the next day.

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

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Portugese Cheese: St. George from Matos Cheese

Matos Cheese in Santa Rosa, California was founded by a Portuguese immigrants who started a dairy with a herd of 45 cows. They now produce a Portuguese style cheese known as St. George which I was lucky enough to receive as a gift. St. George is a hard cheese with a complex, nutty flavor. It's like a more flavorful variation of the Spanish Machego. This was a really wonderful cheese and was a good accompaniment to some Arrogant Bastard Ale I had on hand.

Check it out.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Valerie Valentine: Valerie Confections

You would think that to find not one but two amazing handmade European-style chocolate stores on the same block in LA, you would have to head down to Beverly Hills, but the block of First Street just east of Virgil has become an unsurpassed chocolate lover's paradise. Adjacent to the excellent L'Artisan du Chocolat is Valerie confections, a newer addition to the chocolate scene.

Valerie has a smaller selection than L'Artisan, but their chocolates are excellent. They specialize in toffee (too bad I tried some too late for my Holiday Toffee-Off), and also have various truffles including a lovely, caramel truffle with a liquid filling akin to those at Boule. I also enjoyed an almond teacake, a dense cake with a strong almond flavor.

And of course, it's hard to go to Valerie without stopping next door to try the latest experiments at L'Artisan (the latest and greatest: the Mango Wasabi really is good!).

It's fantastic that, in only a few years, LA has had such a renaissance in artisanal chocolate. If you or your loved one is a chocolate fan, you can't do better than First and Virgil this Valentine's Day.

Valerie Confections
3360 W. First Street
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(888) 706-1408

Don't worry Cognac fans, Brandy Friday will return next week!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Who's Your Grand-Daddy?

The thing I love most about American whiskey is that there are still great, affordable whiskies to be had. One of my favorites in this category is Old Grand-Dad 114.


Old Grand-Dad 114, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 57% alcohol, made by Jim Beam (under $25).

Old Grand-Dad is made by Jim Beam, and while I am generally none to fond of Beam products, I really like the OG...D. This is a big, high alcohol, rye boosted Bourbon. The flavors run from big rye spice to wood and barrel char. It's strong, it's in your face, it's not subtle and not really complex, but it's good and reliable stuff.

Sunday, February 8, 2009



I went back to Animal recently, just for more of the marvelous poutine, but also tried some other desserts, both of which were very nice. My favorite was the chocolate pudding, a rich, dark pudding topped with an inch of whipped cream in a glass jar (from appearances, we guessed an old yogurt jar). Great stuff. We also had the doughnuts with apple filling in an apple/caramel sauce. It's hard to beat piping, hot doughnuts.

Third & Fairfax Update

The Farmers Market now has a selection of real farmers selling goods. I've seen local Farmers Market stalwarts Ha's Apple Farm and Soledad Goat Cheese as well as a few others. There are just a few, but it's nice to see some real farmers at the original Farmers Market.

Breadworks is a new bakery at the Market which replaced The Bread Bin. It's just as mediocre as the old place.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Brandy Friday: Le Reviseur

The two Cognacs we've tasted so far have been from the acclaimed Grande Champagne cru of Cognac, but now we have a brandy from the adjacent subregion of Petite Champagne. As with all of the Cognacs we have been tasting, this is from a small house; it is made from vineyards that have been with the Abecassis family for seven generations. Along with the Le Reviseur line, they also make Cognac Leyrat and the club-ready ABK6.


Le Reviseur X.O., Fine Petite Champagne, Single Estate Cognac, 40% alcohol ($65-$75).

Beautiful, sweet wine scent. The flavor is bold, fruity and quite sweet early in the palate; there is some oak but it is less prominent than one would think for an X.O. the finish, though, is a bit flat. I certainly think this is as good as the Cognacs we've had from the acclaimed Grande Champagne Region, though it is a bit sweeter and less oaky.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

St. George Drinking Chocolate

Now, I love whiskey and I love chocolate, so when Recchiuti Chocolates suggested a hot chocolate with St. George single malt whiskey, I was all over it.

Recchiuti is a San Francisco based chocolatier, widely credited with introducing the now ubiquitous salted caramel to the US, and also a maker of wonderful homemade marshmallows and other candies. As you may recall from my review of American single malts, St. George is single malt whiskey made by St. George spirits, just across the Bay from Recchiuti, in Alameda, California. Now, as a malt whiskey, St. George was a bit too fruity for me, but as a hot chocolate additive, I thought it just might work.

So, I whipped up a batch of my drinking chocolate, using Valrhona chocolate, added a shot of St. George and topped it off with on of the excellent vanilla marshmallows from BonBon Bars.

Sounds heavenly, right? It was good but a bit too rich. Partly, my hot chocolate is super-duper hot chocolate. The super chocolatyness and the whiskey was a bit overpowering, though the whiskey's fruit flavor did do well with the strong, dark chocolate component. If I do it again, I'd probably add a bit more milk to cut the chocolate strength, which should make it just right for a cool winter's day.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey, Age and Oxygen

For how long can you keep an open bottle of whiskey?

Whiskey is a distilled spirit and distilled spirits, unlike fermented alcohols such as wine, are very hearty. Whiskey in a sealed bottle can last decades, maybe even longer. Once you pop the cork, you are still good for a long while compared to wine, which needs to be had within days, but exactly how long will that Scotch or Bourbon last?

Answering this question is harder than you might think and there are different schools of thought. Once you uncork the seal and pour a glass, you let oxygen into the whiskey bottle so oxidation is a possibility. Just how long such oxidation takes and under what circumstances is not clear.

It is common lore among whiskey fans that once a bottle is half full or less, you should drink it within 18 months to prevent oxidation and a change in flavor. Others, however, swear that whiskey can last for years at a low level and have virtually no ill effects.

Well, I decided to find out a little more about the effects of oxygen on whiskey, so I set up a little experiment. I filled three mini bottles with varying levels of whiskey, in this case Longmorn, a single malt Scotch. I filled one to the absolute top such that no oxygen was left in the bottle, a second about half-way and a third about a quarter full. I will now store these bottles, in a cool, dark place, for two years. In early 2011, I will revisit them and see how they've done. It's a long time to wait, but the results will be interesting and will hopefully give us some clarity regarding this age old question.

While we wait, I'll give you my tasting notes on the Longmorn:

Longmorn, 16 year old, [owned by Pernod Ricard] 48% alcohol ($92).

Nose has light sherry and malt, very pleasant. On tasting, the first thing you get is a rush of sherry, followed by some sweetness and then a nice little whisper of malt. Mostly sherry on the finish. A mildly sherried Speysider that is pleasant but not particularly distinctive. I'd say it's overpriced for what it is.

Tune in around February 2011 and we'll see what the result of our ageing experiment is.

UPDATE: Results are in!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ig the Noble - Vella Cheese

I grew up in the wine and cheese rich town of Sonoma, California. I was practically weaned on Cabernet Sauvignon and the cheese on my brown bag school lunch sandwiches was inevitably a Vella's Monterey Jack. Trips to the musty, stone building that housed Vella's factory and shop on Second Street East and tastes of the voluminous free samples were a staple of my childhood from age 5 to 18. Let the tourists have their Sonoma Jack cheese on the town plaza, with its caraway and jalapeno versions; we were a Vella's family.

I didn't know then that Ig Vella had been making cheese in that same spot since 1931, nor could I have predicted that in the American artisanal cheese explosion to come, Vella's would be seen as the patron saint. No less an authority than Steve Jenkins writes in his influential Cheese Primer, "Let there be a visible aura around this text, because elder statesman Ig Vella and his magnificent cheeses are driving forces behind the emergence of American-made cheeses that must be ranked among the world's finest."

Vella's has five age-levels of Jacks. Outside of Sonoma, you are most likely to come across the Dry Jack, which is Vella's most vaunted product. This hard cow cheese tastes more like an aged American cheddar than the Parmigiano-Reggiano to which it is often compared. The cheese is aged seven to ten months and coated with cocoa. There are now older versions as well, the Special Select Dry Jack and the Golden Bear Dry Jack, aged two to four years.

While I love Dry Jack, one of my favorite Vella's cheeses is not widely available outside the wine country. The Mezzo Secco, partially dried Jack, is the level between the young, high moisture Jack and the popular Dry Jack. In the Mezzo Secco, you can still taste the rich, creamy Monterey Jack character along with the beginnings of the aged flavors that will take over in the Dry Jack. It's a window into the aging process and it creates a unique cheese that is equally good on a sandwich, in a salad or on its own. I find the Mezzo Secco to be just as good as the Dry Jack, though it is underappreciated.

Mezzo Secco Jack along with other Vella cheeses are available on the Vella's website.