Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Ordinary: A Review, Based Solely on a Dream

I think it's a pretty good sign that a new restaurant is getting a lot of buzz if you dream about eating there, and last night I dreamed that I was dining at Mike Lata's and Adam Nemirow's new King Street oyster bar venture, The Ordinary. And, I have to say that, based upon my dream, I was not particularly impressed.

For starters, it was really, really loud. As I sat at the bar, which was made of boring brown wood and not nearly as impressive as all the pictures I'd seen online and in the Charleston City Paper, I tried to chat up Mike Lata and get his recommendations on what was good and fresh that day, but I had a hard time hearing him over the roar of the crowd, and I ended up ordering a bowl of chili.

"You can't order a bowl of chili," Lata scolded me. "This is an oyster bar!"

And I found that quite rude. I mean, really, it's your restaurant. If you don't want people ordering the chili, then why is it on the menu?

"So what would you recommend then?" I asked, which is actually what I had just asked a little while before but couldn't hear his answer because Lata's joint had such poor acoustics.

"Try the pizza," he said. "It's really good. Baked in a wood-fired oven."

Which struck me as kind of weird, since why would the chef at an oyster bar recommend pizza? I didn't even know they had a wood-fired oven, but they are all the rage now, and I believe in trusting your chef. So I ordered the pizza.

It arrived, surprisingly enough, in a big Domino's pizza box, and I couldn't figure out if that was some sort of intentional ironic dig at mainstream food culture or just poor planning on the part of new restaurant that had forgotten to order its own pizza boxes. I envisioned Brooks Reitz sneaking down the street and buying an armload of boxes from the closest delivery joint. Either way, it was pretty low rent.

And, when I opened the box, whoever had put the pizza in it had put it in upside down, the cheese all gooshed against the bottom of the box, and I had to flip the whole box over just to eat it. I would have complained to Lata, but by then he had moved on to chat up some other customers. But, despite the cheese being smeared all over tarnation, it was pretty good pizza.

So, that's the Ordinary in a nutshell, at least how I experienced it in my dream: crowded, loud, rude, and downright sloppy on the service.

I'm not sure what people are making all the fuss about.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

And we're launched!

It's official. Going Lardcore, my new collection of Southern food pieces, is now up on Amazon and available for the Kindle.



Update (12/16/2012): For the Nook users, Going Lardcore is now available for download at barnesandnoble.com, too.

Here's the table of contents, if you want a look at what it contains:
Introduction
Section 1: That New Southern Thing
Two New Southern “Classics”: Fried Green Tomatoes and Shrimp ‘n Grits
Fried Green Tomatoes: a Southern Movie Star
Shrimp and Grits, the New Fangled Way
A New Old Variation: Shrimp and Rice Grits
Shrimp and Grits: The Irresistible Seductress
Roe is Me: An Odyssey Through the Streets of Charleston in Search of She-Crab Soup
The Curious Case of “The Pate of the South”
A Visit to Benton's
Going Lardcore
Does Authenticity Matter?
Section 2: Good Eats
Serious Burgers
And Some Fries on the Side
Death to the Bistropub
Lowcountry Barbecue
Six-Packs of Sauce and "Fast Casual" Barbecue
Section 3: Boozing It Up
The Bourbon Boom
What About Rum?
Rye Revival: The Forgotten Whiskey of the South Makes a Comeback
90-Proof Yankee Hornswoggling
Section 4: Prejudices & Animadversions
Please Don't Tuck Me Away in a Strip Mall
Barbecue for the Uneducated
Sushi Fatigue
Why Do We Tip?
A Seat at the Chef's Table
The Death of the Entrée
Cracking the Inner Sanctum
I Mean, Really, Can You Even Afford a Coke Anymore?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Going Lardcore: the Cover

Here's the cover for the new collection. It turned out a lot better than I thought it would.


I actually took all the photos myself. That any of them were usable is a bloody miracle.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Going Lardcore: A Pending eBook Launch

Learning the Hard Way: Galley Proofs are Still Important
A couple of years ago, intrigued by Amazon's then-still-new Kindle Direct Publishing, I undertook to publish my own e-Book. More than anything, I just wanted to understand how the whole process worked and what the possibilities were. I knew e-Books and Internet distribution promised to transform the book publishing industry and the business of writing even more than the Paperback Revolution of the mid-20th century had, and I want to get inside and take a look around.

The result was The Fried Green Tomato Swindle, a collection of various pieces I had written over the years. I cobbled the text together pretty quickly because I wanted to get to the actual production of the eBook, which requires everything from creating HTML and Cascading Style Sheets to designing a book cover. I figured it would be a good learning experience, and, boy, was it. I stumbled through various versions and iterations, and perhaps the hardest part was just figuring out what tools to use and how the ePub books are structured and how to make it all work so the text looks good in the end on the various reading devices.

And so it was with a feeling of accomplishment and a little nervousness when I had my "final" file ready. I uploaded it to Amazon (and, subsequently, to Barnes and Noble for the Nook), waited a few days until it had been approved, then purchased it on my Kindle and became my own first customer. The text downloaded to the device in less than a minute, and I was holding in my hands a published version of my writing, all delivered electronically, and all put together by me and me alone (except for the massive Amazon infrastructure, of course.)

"This is really cool," I thought to myself. I could feel the disruptive potential of the technology, how it might open whole new worlds for ambitious and creative authors.

People more ambitious and creative than me, that is. I figured I would probably be both my first and my last customer, since my mom doesn't own a Kindle. So, imagine my surprise when a few days later I checked the stats and saw that three people had bought the book. And every day or two another sale would occur. And, this was just from people stumbling across the book by accident: the extent of my promotion had been to put a link on my blog.

And that's when I realized that I probably should have paid a little more attention to the text when I was rushing to get the thing assembled. There were typos and misspellings, the kind of things that close editing would have caught, as well as numerous issues with formatting and rendering, since I had created the book through a convoluted process of going from word processor to HTML to ePub, which created a lot of styling and markup issues.

Fortunately, unlike printed books, it's easy to make corrections to eBooks and distribute the revised version, except, of course, for the hours of work involved. So, I undertook a thorough proofreading and made extensive revisions . . . and then learned the pain of trying to incorporate changes into an ePub and also updating and maintaining the right versions on multiple platforms. Changes I thought I had made mysteriously wouldn't show up out in the actual ePub ready for downloading, some changes overwrote others, etc., etc.

After a month or two of wrestling with it and still having problems, I pulled the book down and stopped selling it. My plan was to take it all the way back to the manuscript (that is, Word processor) stage, re-do the whole thing, and get it back out there the right way. Which is to say, to go back to the exact same process--manuscript to galley proofs to page proofs--that I knew well from the old fashioned dead-tree publishing world.

And that takes a lot of work, which meant it kept getting pushed aside for more pressing (i.e. paying) projects, and it's been sitting dusty on the shelf ever since. In the years that have passed, I've produced a lot more material on the same themes as the contents of that original eBook--especially, Southern food history and dining in the contemporary South today. Finally, it seemed like I had the critical mass needed to take another stab at a collection. And this time, I started back at the beginning of the processes and, having been through the whole thing before, was able to avoid about 90% of the pitfalls that tripped me up the first time.

And, so, I'm preparing to roll out a new eBook collection, which I've entitled Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining. It includes what I felt were the best pieces from the old eBook collection, and adds in a bunch of new stuff, including several long pieces on liquor and cocktails as well as a look at the current state of "good eats" like burgers and barbecue. As a whole, it provides a multifaceted look at a remarkable decade of dining in the South at large and Charleston in particular.

Going back over old pieces and revising and combining them together into a longer form has been quite rewarding, a nice way to look back and reflect on how the Southern dining scene has grown and evolved since I first started writing about it in the early 2000s. All told, it's been a great time to be an eater in the South, one full of rewarding experiences like the ones captured in Going Lardcore.

So that's the backstory. I'm putting the final touches on the "page proofs" (ePub file) right now and should have it out to the world through the magic of the Interwebs in just a few days.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

More Rye Whiskey (And a Recipe, Too)

Having just uncorked a post on the enduring appeal of high-end bourbons, I wouldn't be true to my most recent hobby horse if I didn't follow that up immediate with an update on rye.

I recently made the following inflammatory claim in a story on the revival of rye whiskey for the City Paper: "We Southerners need to disabuse ourselves of the delusion that bourbon is the 'quintessential spirit of the South.' Bourbon is about as authentically Southern as Hazzard County, Georgia, and Bo and Luke Duke. . . . Rye whiskey, not bourbon, should properly bear the mantle of the South's favorite spirit."

I stick by that assertion (see the article for the evidence), and also by my prediction that rye's best days are still ahead of it. In recent news, we're seeing more and more of the big boys from the bourbon business agree and starting to move into the rye market.

The latest of the crop is Diageo, which just came out with a 90-proof rye whiskey in its George Dickel line, which previously consisted solely of bourbons.

Retailing around $25 for 750 ml, the Dickel is not quite as cheap as the reliable Old Overholt (which you can consistently find for  under twenty bucks), but it's firmly in that much-needed category of affordable ryes that you can use in abundance in stiff classic cocktails without needing to take out a second mortgage on your house.

I figured it would be worthwhile to try it side by side against some Old Overholt and see how it stacked up. Both have the same sharp, dry bite that is the hallmark of ryes, though the Dickel is a little darker in color, slightly richer in aroma, and a little smoother on the tongue, too. That's a good candidate, in my book, for cocktails with citrus and fruit juices, like the Cherry Rye Sour (recipe below).

Fast on the heels of Diageo, Bacardi Brown-Forman is bringing out its own rye whiskey in its Jack Daniels line. In an interesting twist, it will be an unaged rye whiskey.

Why unaged? The Cocktail Enthusiast relates that the company distilled 800 barrels of rye in 2011, with the intention of putting them into barrels to mature. But, the distillers liked the flavor of the unaged stuff so much that they decided it was worth releasing. In an interview with The Spirits Business, Jack Daniels' master distiller Jeff Arnett added, "We would all agree that white dog is not going to be the best thing to ever produce, but it’s a seller that can be offered as a teaser to say 'Hey, we’ve got this new aged whiskey coming, do you want to try it in its raw state?'”

It sniffs a little of a company trying to play catch up with the market, and at fifty bucks for a 750 ml bottle, it's pretty darn expensive for a teaser (a bottle of the splendid Willet Rye retails for just $40). Perhaps I should wait to judge until the JD unaged version hits store shelves, which it should in the next few weeks, and I can actually sample it. In any event, that rye bandwagon is getting pretty crowded now, and I couldn't be happier.

Rye: the original whiskey of the South. Its comeback continues.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Pappy Just Keeps Getting Harder to Find

The Most Wanted Man
in New York City
About a year ago, I wrote a story on the recent boom in high-end bourbons and highlighted Pappy Van Winkle as the patron saint of the genre. I wondered at the time how long bourbon's vogue would last.

So far, it seems to be just getting stronger. Over on the Atlantic Wire, Jen Doll has a short piece on the scarcity of Pappy Van Winkle in New York City, where a bottle of the 23-year-old stuff can run $250 and customers are harassing liquor store owners to try to get a spot on waiting lists that are already nine-pages deep.

In my bourbon boom piece, I shared what was then the insider's trick for getting a jump on the competition in the hunt for a rare bottle. Watch the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery's Facebook site, I advised, where they announce when each state's allocation ships, and "you can start staking out your local liquor store and hounding the owner for your bottle."

Turns out a lot of people took just that tactic. This fall, the Van Winkles are no longer posting the ship dates for states allocations because, "we had big backlash from retailers and wholesalers who were bombarded with phone calls as soon as we posted that shipments had gone out, even though we would suggest giving it a couple of weeks for inventory to arrive."

So, don't expect to just walk into a liquor store near you and pick up a bottle of Pappy any time soon. And please, let's take it easy on our poor liquor store proprietors. It ain't their fault.




Friday, November 23, 2012

In Case You Just Can't Get Enough Middlebrow

Earlier this week, in the guise of reflecting on Pete Wells's New York Times dope-slap review of Guy Fieri's American Grill and Bar, I managed to sneak an essay on middlebrow culture past the editors at the City Paper.  As is usually the case, my first draft was considerably longer, and I had to chop out a lot to keep from putting the paper's entire readership asleep.

Originally, I had more material musing on the high-, middle-, and low-brow split and why being middlebrow was so contemptible. Here's just a little of it:
Ever heard of the novelist James Gould Cozzens? You might have if his much-anticipated 1957 novel By Love Possessed hadn’t been labeled by Commentary’s Dwight MacDonald as “the latest episode in The Middlebrow Counter-Revolution”, sinking him without a trace from the American literary canon. Cozzens, MacDonald charged, was writing the kind of pseudo-intellectual garbage that made upper-middle-class insurance salesmen feel like they were reading great literature, and off course no self-respecting high-brow would want to come anywhere near that.  
Of course, the vacuity of middlebrows has long been ridiculed in literature and film, from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt to that one damning word in The Graduate, “plastics”, which sends poor Benjamin Braddock plunging to the bottom of a swimming pool. (Am I the only one who thinks that was actually sensible career advice for a young man?) 
There’s always the question of bias when critics take on the middlebrow, as Mr. Wells can bear witness. Are they lashing out at the thing itself, or do they just not like what the thing represents or the kind of people who like it? Highbrows rarely show disdain for the low, but, of course, the lowbrow poses little threat. The lines are murkier between middle and high. Those booboisee a critic is mocking may well be the exact sort of people the critic came from they came from and desperately needs to separate ones. One's parents from Des Moines might think a night at Guy's American Grill and Bar quite delightful, especially after seeing the matinee of The Jersey Boys and shopping at the Disney Store
To me, that's what makes wading into the waters of reviewing middlebrow restaurants so perilous. Can one step back and ask, am I slamming this thing because I simply don’t like the food and the experience? Or, is it because I don’t like the whole concept of the restaurant? Because I don’t want to be associated with the type of people who like this type of thing? It's a hard line to navigate, but I think it can be done and should be done.

So there it is. And I'm sure all you highbrows out there appreciate it. Not appreciating it would be so, well, middlebrow.






Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Breaking Out the "Company" China

My Pho
One Thanksgiving a good decade or more ago, my younger brother brought his then-fiance and now-wife to meet his extended family for the first time. This is an experience that, though they don't realize it until years later when they've had a chance to  compare notes and commiserate with their fellow family-by-marriage inlaws, is something akin to a gang initiation or high-school sorority hazing ritual, except that my family has no idea that there's anything painful or even out of the ordinary going on.

So, we were in my now-departed grandmother's house, and my now-sister-in-law Margaret wanted a glass of wine. My brother started to open the china cabinet to get her a wine-glass. "Oh, no, Jim," my grandmother declared, deeply shocked, as if he had begun to micturate on her rug. "That crystal is for company!" Poor Margaret had to make do sipping her wine from a clear plastic tumbler.

I couldn't help wondering something: if my grandmother's future granddaughter-in-law, whom she had never even met before, didn't rank as "company," well, then, who the heck would? Perhaps she was expecting a visit from the Secretary of State or perhaps a Nobel Prize laureate in the next day or two, and we just hadn't heard about it yet.

This whole Thanksgiving memory was sparked by the fact that none of the commenters on my recent review of Mì Xào, Mt. Pleasant's new Vietnamese take-out joint pointed out a slight issue with the photographs.

I clearly indicate in the review itself that, when I ate there at least, everything was served in take-out containers except the pho (a.k.a. London broil soup), which came in a plain white ceramic bowl. The photographs illustrating the review? Elegant blue and white china with ornate wood chopsticks, absolutely beautiful and (unless I managed to catch them on two bad days) nothing like what is actually served to patrons.

This is not at all a complaint, mind you. The food at Mì Xào is delicious and it doesn't need fancy china to improve it. I just found it amusing (and a reminder of why we do these review anonymously) that there's good china socked away somewhere in the back room, waiting for someone super important--like a newspaper photographer--to show up.

But, if you drop in for a bowl of pho and it comes out in a plain white bowl, don't be offended. You may not rank as "company", but I bet you'll still enjoy the meal.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and Nate Silver



I somehow managed to spend way much time this morning reading about the recent flap over the New York Times blogger and poll-geek Nate Silver's prediction that Obama has a 77.4 percent chance of winning the election on Tuesday. This, predictably, has raised the ire of numerous commentators (mostly those in the Romney camp) who called into question the validity of the number. And that, in turn, has raised the ire of Silver defenders, who have taken pot shots back at the pot shot takers and accused them of many egregious things, such as not being good at math.

Paul F. Campos's piece in Slate is a good example of the "learn your math, dummy" counter-reaction, and he closes it by raising the spectre of the Monty Hall Problem, an old counter-intuitive chestnut. I hardly think this is fair, since the Monty Hall Problem is a sort of optical illusion of logic that fools all sorts of smart people the first time they tackle it, and it's hardly a good litmus test of someone's basic statistical literacy. The statistical concept here is a much more fundamental one.

It's a fun sort of thing to while away a Sunday morning pondering, but in the end, does Silver's prediction even really matter? Should Romney supporters take a look at the numbers and, disheartened, fold up the tent?

Of course not. What Silver's model is saying is, based upon the way the poll numbers look right now and past performance of those polls, if you ran 100 elections, Obama would win 77 of them. But that also means Romney would win 23, so hope is by no means lost. If your favorite football team was down one touchdown going into the 4th quarter and you knew in similar situations the trailing team lost 77% of the time, would you leave the stadium and quit cheering? Of course you wouldn't.

And, what's more, those polls can still continue to change over the last few days leading up to the election. How much of a move in the polls themselves does it take to adjust that 77.4% likelihood down to 65%? To 55%? To a coin flip?

To my mind, Silver's predictions shouldn't change the behavior of Obama or Romney supporters one way or another. If you are in the Obama camp, you wouldn't want to take the foot off the gas, any more than either of those football teams wants to slack off in the 4th quarter. If you're in the Obama camp, it means this election is by no means a sure thing. Better buckle down and get that number close to 100%. If you're in the Romney camp, it means it isn't over yet. One strong last minute drive and those numbers can totally change around . . .

Hmm . . . I just checked back at Nate Silver's blog. The morning he updated Obama's chances to 85.1%. Not looking too good for the trailing team . . .

In any event, come Tuesday, I predict I am 100% likely to be glad the whole thing's over.


  

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Great Mint Julep Controversy of 1933

Eddie of the Astor (L), Irvin S. Cobb (R), and
Heywood Broun (seated) at the Infamous
Mint Julep Trial, July 1933
What's the proper liquor for use in a mint julep? Bourbon whiskey or rye? What about rum or brandy, or even gin? 

Most drinkers today would immediately answer, "Bourbon, of course," but it wasn't always this way. Back in the 19th century, any one of those liquors might be found in a julep. Rum, in fact, was the original base, though it was supplanted by brandy in the early days of the Republic. Whiskey rose to julep prominence only after the Civil War, and Kentuckians and Marylanders debated hotly whether Bourbon or rye was the proper variety for juleps.

Last year in the Charleston City Paper, I speculated that the near-ubiquity of Bourbon as the liquor of choice for mint juleps today was largely due to the Kentucky Derby, at which juleps have been the signature cocktail for over a century. But, the more I look into matters, the more I suspect that the Kentucky-born newspaper man and humorist Irvin S. Cobb might actually share a lot of the blame.

In July 1933, still several months before the repeal of Prohibition, Cobb challenged “Eddie of the Astor”, a well-known bartender from the Hotel Astor, to a mint julep showdown. The challenge was sparked when Cobb overheard Eddie say that a proper julep should be made with brandy. “Brandy?” Cobb reportedly said. “Putting brandy in a mint julep is like putting ketchup in iced tea.” The contest was set for July 13th at Cobb’s Park Avenue apartment.

As late as 1933, it seems, there was still a rich diversity of liquors employed in the julep world. Cobb’s challenge, columnist H. Allen Smith noted, originated out of “a controversy over the potability of the Kentucky mint julep as compared with all other forms of julep.” 

H. L. Mencken, the famed Baltimore journalist and critic, upon hearing of the contest, harrumphed that both Cobb and Eddie were wrong. “In Maryland we use rye whiskey. Bourbon puts too much meat on the consumer,” a perhaps not so veiled dig at Cobb's substantial girth. Mencken declined to participate, saying he had to head back home to Baltimore “to watch the hanging of a gentleman who put Bourbon whiskey in a julep.”

Cobb enlisted Heywood Broun, the popular columnist for the New York World-Telegram, to serve as the contest's judge. For his “Kentucky julep”, Cobb broke out a bottle of Belmont Bourbon distilled in 1901 and obtained from Louisville’s Pendennis Club. Eddie of the Astor was given a bottle of brandy  by Cobb and, when he requested a bit of Jamaican rum for his “Cosmopolitan julep”, he was provided with the closest thing Cobb could find in his basement: Bacardi.

In alternating succession, Broun downed three of Cobb’s Bourbon juleps and three of Eddie’s brandy ones, then retired to a bedroom for a nap. He awoke a half hour later, fortified himself with three cups of coffee, then banged out his decision on Cobb’s typewriter. “Judgment is rendered in favor of Mr. Cobb and the mint julep compounded out of Kentucky Bourbon,” he declared. “Eddie of the Astor is guilty of a heresy in using brandy as a base.” He took the opportunity to take a swipe at rye, too, declaring it “Communistic, Atheistic, and against the dignity of man” to commit “such gross violations of the code as using rye whiskey, or that great abomination, the gin julep.”

Eddie of the Astor, for his part, took the defeat graciously, though he did note that he was a little out of practice, thanks to the whole Prohibition thing, and added, “I wish the press to know that it was not really Mr. Cobb that won, but really his liquor.” He did have  a point: it’s sort of hard to compete with 32-year-old Bourbon when all you’ve got is a bottle of Prohibition-era brandy and some bootleg Bacardi.

Predictably, newspapers in Maryland and in New Orleans cried foul. Marshall Ballard, the editor of the New Orleans Item, protested that what Cobb had actually created was not a mint julep but a mint smash. “Both are good,” he declared, “but the julep demands more solicitude and time.”

With a smash, Ballard explained, either Bourbon or rye is put in a glass with sugar, mint leaves, and crushed ice and agitated with a spoon until the mint leaves are crushed and the outside of the glass coated with a fine frost. For a julep, “you soak as much mint as possible in as much Bourbon as you can afford for about three weeks.” The resulting greenish brown liquor is stored in a jug and mixed with ice and sugar just before drinking, and is, Ballard claimed, a “slightly smoother and mellower product” than the quick-made smash.

Cobb's contest may not have decided the issue once and for all, but in the wake of Repeal more and more Americans turned to Bourbon when stirring up a frosty julep. I, for one, am partial to rye, but almost a full century of Kentucky propaganda puts me decidedly in the minority.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Small Barrel Failures

Barrels Aging in the Buffalo Trace Warehouse
Courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery
A little interesting news coming out of Frankfurt, Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Distillery has been experimenting with making "small barrel" bourbon, and they've now declared those experiments to be, well, a failure.

An ordinary bourbon barrel (in which, by law, corn whiskey must age at least two years before being able to be called straight bourbon whiskey) is 53 gallons in capacity. Starting in 2006, Buffalo Trace took smaller barrels of 5, 10, and 15 gallons and filled them with the same mash bill and aged them side-by-side to see what would happen.

What happens, it appears, is something akin to cooking a burger on too hot of a grill or a pork roast in too hot an oven. In whiskey aging, its the barrel itself providing the "heat", the charred wood filtering out the congeners from the distillate and imparting a dark color and smoky, mellow flavor to the whiskey. "As expected," Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley noted in the press release announcing the results, "the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged faster than the 15 gallon version." But faster isn't necessarily better. "It's as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained the depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons."

The distillers sampled the progress of the experiment each year, and finally this year threw in the towel, deciding the small barrel versions just weren't going to get any better.

It must be to their chagrin, for if distillers were able to use smaller barrels to speed the aging process but still keep the quality then they would be in a better position to react to changes in the market--like the recent resurgence in rye popularity that has left distillers and wholesalers with a shortage of stock.  When your product has to sit in a warehouse for four or more years before being ready to sell, there's not much you can do to ramp production quickly to meet the rising demand.

For now, it seems the 53-gallon barrel--and lots of time--remain the formula for success.





Sunday, September 02, 2012

I am HUGE in Vietnam

Cookshop in Huế, Vietnam. Courtesy Thomas Schoch
Holy canoli. Just a few short days after making my publishing debut in Spanish (thanks to a SFA blog post picked up by CNN and lifted by one of their Mexican affiliates), now I get the thrill of seeing my own prose translated into, of all things, Vietnamese.

Unfortunately, I don't speak Vietnamese. Fortunately, Google Translate (which is built into the Chrome browser) makes it easy.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much I can trust the automated translation. The headline of the piece translates as "Bread Vietnamese 'gulp' American city like?", which I've got to think is missing a little of the nuance from the original version.

But, the cool thing is that, in the eyes of  Zing.com Vietnam, at least, it's apparently newsworthy that the press in the "second largest city of the state of South Carolina" has picked up on Vietnam's classic street food. Here's how Google translates the one original paragraph written by some Vietnamese scribe before he or she blatantly pirated my text:
In The Charleston City Paper Charleston - the second largest city of the state of South Carolina, U.S., author Robert Moss has expressed his impression filled with dizzying speed of bread Vietnam food market this place.
Again, I expect something might have gotten lost in translation there, and as my editor and her repeated patient but firm deadline reminder emails will attest, "dizzying speed" is not something often used to describe my writing process.

But, how bizarre is it to think that there are people over in Vietnam reading my commentary on the sandwiches their own country invented? It is a small, strange, and almost unbelievable world sometimes.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Banh Mi: New Amercian Icon or Flavor-of-the-Month?


This week for the City Paper I undertook a head-to-head bánh mì battle, surveying the various options for the Vietnamese sandwich here in town and, at the insistence of my editor, selecting one as "best in town".

Unlike Southern cities such as Houston and Atlanta, which have large Vietnamese immigrant communities, bánh mì is brand new to Charleston, showing up for the first time last year. (Though, after the piece ran, I did hear via Twitter that there used to be an Asian grocery out at Rivers and Remount that sold them back in the early 2000s.) Included in the story is a look at the roundabout way the sandwich traveled from the streets of Saigon to upscale digs on Charleston's King Street, plus some musing on banh mi as an example of the American culinary melting pot at work:
A food starts off as an exotic dish found only in immigrant communities. Then, a few intrepid outsiders stumble upon it. Finally, if all the stars are aligned, it goes mainstream in a big way and, as the years pass, becomes so thoroughly a part of American eating that it's no longer thought of as "ethnic."
Of course, the "stars are aligned" part is the key. The hot dog may have made the journey from exotic "frankfurter sausage" to American icon, but how many other German delicacies didn't?  That gap from ethnic to mainstream is pretty darn wide.

I suppose it’s time for the hipsters to start moaning about shark-jumping and inauthenticity and move on to the next new thing.

In fact, we’re hearing it already. The local versions have raised grumblings over their prices. "Hate they charge $10 for this sandwich!," one reader Tweeted. "It's a $2 sandwich in CA!" And then there are the creative liberties. Short ribs and kimchi on a bánh mì? You’d never find it that way on the streets of Saigon!

Yes, but in some ways that’s just the point. Bánh mì began as a fusion of different food cultures, and it’s only natural that adaptation continues as it moves to new locales. The core palette of bánh mì flavors — the cool, minty cilantro merged with carrot crunch and jalapeño heat — provides a firm platform that can support any number of riffs and variations. Roasted eggplant? Eggs and Canadian bacon? Pulled pork and pickled okra? Heck, why not.

Hot dog partisans argue fiercely over the merits of New York’s mustard-and-kraut version versus the dragged-through-the-garden excess of the Chicago-style dog. No one worries about how they used to serve them in Frankfurt. Perhaps in a few decades, sandwich fans will get just as passionate about the endless variety of traditional American bánh mì. It might just happen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Death of the Entree: Part 2

Four years ago, I declared the death of the entree. Now Pete Wells of The New York Times is trying to bring it back from the dead. "Very few small plates really lend themselves to sharing," he writes in his blog this week. "Either they look like a car crash by the time you’ve divided them in four, or your portion ends up being so small you hardly get to know it before it’s gone." No, what Wells really wants is a good old fashioned large plate entree: "When I really like a dish, and I’m not obsessing about my calorie intake, I tend to want to eat more of it. "

Besha Rodell of the L.A. Weekly took issue with Wells and came to the defense of tapas-style plates:
The tapas trend has done for American dining what no other trend has done, at least not as pervasively, and that is to make eating out more communal and less formal. . . . like Japan and sushi, Spain's way of eating has infiltrated to the point where we claim it as our own. And much like sushi, there will be a period of derision and then it will be such an integral part of our dining culture than people will cease to comment on it at all.
Now, John Kessler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has jumped on the bandwagon, too. He has always liked the smaller sizes as a restaurant reviewer because they allow him to sample more things on a menu. But now, he notes:
Everyone else is starting to eat this way as well. Stick a fork in your main course, and then pass it along. The entree is just about dead. . . .  Now, I’m seeing so many menus that offer a couple dozen starters to consider and then maybe a handful of entrees. I look around and I see forks flying at many of the tables around me.
And here I was thinking I had settled this whole issue four years ago. Back then, I made the case that, after all the variety of a splendid appetizer line-up, an entree is often just a let down. And, unlike Mr. Wells, I'm not so sure having a huge portion of something is such a great thing:

There's an old show business adage that you want to leave the audience not quite satisfied, so they walk out wishing there was just a little bit more. For some reason, that doesn't seem to be the goal for restaurant dining. "I was still hungry when I left," is not an endorsement--it's the kiss of death. 
Maybe it's time to change that. Why shouldn't we leave restaurants wanting just a little bit more rather than feeling so bloated and full that our middles hurt and all we want to do is lay down in a cool, dark room?

My experience over the past four years has done little to change this conviction. In fact, I've noticed again and again entrees that are having to really stretch to be a big, whopping meal: the groaning mounds of mashed potatoes, piles of veggies that taste just fine on bites one and two but get tired and dull after a dozen forkfuls. And those proteins: massive double-cut pork chops, two filets of fish when one would do, half a large chicken. Who eats that much at a single sitting?

I've come not to praise the entree but to bury it. And this time it better stay dead.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dining in the Post-Husk Era: A Few Extras

For the City Paper's Summer Dish issue, I contributed the essay, in which I assess Charleston dining in the post-Husk era and contemplate where we might go next. As is usually the case with such pieces, I had far more material than would fit, and a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Most of it was expendable, but I did regret that there wasn't room for me to talk about some of the more encouraging things going on around town in terms of furthering a distinctive local culinary style. I didn't want the piece to have too negative a note, for as a general matter I'm very bullish on what's going on in Charleston dining these days.

Here's what I originally wrote about some of the positive trends in town:
At the Charleston Grill, Executive Chef Michelle Weaver recently added a fine-dining version of Frogmore Stew to the “Southern” panel of her four-sectioned menu (though I would advocate they rename it “Lowcountry”). There’s also a squab and butterbean appetizer, which hints at another promising trend. The squab is the product of Sumter’s Palmetto Pigeon Plant, for which Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad has long been an advocate. Now Weaver and other chefs, like Mike Lata at FIG, are adding it to their repertoire.
In his Vogue piece [on Charleston dining and Husk in particular], Jeffrey Steingarten singled out the Peninsula Grill’s coconut cake for praise, noting that it is “said to be a Charleston specialty.” I’m not aware of any other Charleston restaurant serving a similar coconut cake, but perhaps they should--and recreate the long-lost Lady Baltimore cake while they’re at it. 
Husk itself is pushing in the right direction on the cocktail front. Yes, its bar established itself early on as a temple of bourbon--that foreign Appalachian import--fetishizing Pappy Van Winkle and stocking 50 other premium brands from Kentucky and Tennessee. But, with an eye to local history, they’ve added a selection of punches, too, including Charleston Light Dragoon Punch, the signature tipple of Charleston’s elite 19th century militia unit. Following a recipe obtained from the Charleston Preservation Society, Husk’s version packs a potent dose of three liquors--brandy, peach brandy, and Jamaican rum--under the cover of black tea, lemon juice, and sugar, and it’s splendid. There’s an offering of Madeira wines, too, right there on the main cocktail menu--a fitting revival of what was once the premier wine of the Lowcountry elite.
 A Light Dragoon Punch at cocktail hour, then Frogmore Stew for dinner followed by coconut cake, all accompanied by a fine old Madeira. Now there's a meal you'll only find in Charleston, SC.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

South Carolina's Earliest Barbecue?

During my research for Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, I pored over countless journals and newspapers and other sources, but I was never able to find a single mention of a barbecue being held in Charleston in the colonial era. And that really surprised me, especially since I turned up a good account of a "barbacue house" and the carousing that went on there just down the coast in Beaufort. It's hard to prove a negative, but eventually I had to conclude that, "Though it was firmly entrenched in the daily life of Virginia planters, barbecue does not seem to have played a significant part in the Lowcountry plantation culture of Charleston, South Carolina."

Now, ironically, while engaged in a completely different line of research (seeking out recipes for rum toddy in the colonial South), I have stumbled across a barbecue reference in Charleston--and very early on, too. It's in an imitation of Horace that was published in London's Gentleman Magazine in 1753, and it was written by one "C.W." residing in Charles Town, South Carolina.

The writer is reveling in the spring, the time at the end of the Charleston season when the planters were wrapping up their business in town and preparing to head back to their rice plantations to begin a new growing year. But first, the poet implored, they should should enjoy themselves a little:
Let's each hold a gen'rous barbicu feast,
And with toddy and punch drink rich wine of the best.
So, perhaps barbecue did have a role in colonial Charleston's social life after all.

The full poem is below:





Sunday, July 15, 2012

Where to Find the Oldest Old-School Barbecue?

Looking to experience barbecue as close to its 19th century roots as possible? In a Houston Press piece, Robb Walsh has the perfect insight on where to look.
For the past few years, I have been crisscrossing the Old South documenting Southern barbecue culture. When I set out, I expected to trace American barbecue back to its roots in rural Southern restaurants. But in my research, I found the ancient artisanal culinary culture I was searching for has been much better preserved in community barbecues.
Walsh visits a fundraiser for a German singing society and a community barbecue hosted by the Sons of Hermann Lodge. My favorite part is where the old timer scoffs at the new fangled metal "baskets" used to hold the cooking meat, preferring instead the old-school seven foot metal rods. Classic stuff.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Scenes from Scott's Variety Store

This weekend, CBS producer in tow, I made a trek up Highway 41 to Hemingway to visit Scott's Variety Store, where Rodney Scott was gracious enough to give us a tour of his pits. Watch for the segment--a short piece on barbecue history--on CBS Sunday morning this upcoming weekend, July 15th.

Here are a few pics from the visit.

The Pit House

Order at the Counter

Mop Sauce

Mr. Rodney Scott tending the pigs

The pits

Burn barrel

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Pimento Cheese Trap


A Serious Burger with Pimento Cheese
(under that big blanket of lettuce somewhere)
My article this week for the Charleston City Paper delves into the perilous world of the gourmet burger and calls for a reformation.

One of the problems I identify with "the Serious Burger" (as I've dubbed the gourmet variety) is with the cheese. I didn't have space to ponder the subject of cheese too much in the article, but it's a thing that I've come across again and again and deserves addressing.

If you slap on a thin slice of American cheese on top of a burger, it gets soft right away and melts around the patty to form a smooth, soft coating. With fancier cheeses--like crumbles of bleu cheese or feta--you don't get that effect. The hunks and shards just don't melt properly, and leaving you with a burger with the textures all wrong.

It's a problem that is particularly pronounced with pimento cheese, creating what I like to call "The Pimento Cheese Trap."

 Virtually every Serious Burger joint in Charleston--and all over the South, for that matter--has stumbled into this trap.  You can see why they do it: what better way to gussy up a burger than to top it with a generous scoop of good old “Southern caviar”? You not only get some fancy cheese on the burger but also can tap right into the current hot trend for all things Southern. Instant class and hipness, all in the same scoop.

The problem is not with the pimento cheese itself but with the delivery. When it’s plunked onto the burger in a big cold scoop, the mere warmth of the patty isn’t enough to melt it, and, since most Serious Burger joints don't toast or griddle their buns, you’re left with a burger with big clumpy chunks of cool cheese on top. And it's just not all that pleasurable to eat.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one can’t make a good pimento cheese burger. It’s just that very few restaurants manage to pull it off.

The Rockaway Burger from Columbia’s Rockaway Athletic Club will always be the gold standard for me. Old Columbia residents maintain that the Rockaway Burger is but a pale shadow of the original pimento burger from the long-departed Dairy Bar, and I can't contest that, but the Rockaway Burger has the advantage of still being available on the market.

The burger comes to the table sliced in two, a toothpick speared in each half. The bun is warm and soft, the patty generous but not too thick, and—most important—the pimento cheese is melted completely so that it coats the burger and merges into the soft bun and oozes out in rich, golden drips as you bite into the thing.

Here's a pic from the Columbia Free Times of the Rockaway Burger in all its glory.

So here's a simple plea, burgermeisters: load up that bun with pimento cheese if you wish. But, pretty please, put that thing in a sandwich press or drop it straight on the griddle and melt that cheese good. Anything else is a sacrilege.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pork Sandwich Showdown: Nouveau Yankee Que vs. Classic Southern Sandwiches

Check out these pics from the Boston Globe of the barbecue sandwiches at the Beantown barbecue joint called Tremont 467. Then, head over to Garden & Gun and peruse their photo lineup of the Top 21 BBQ Sandwiches in the South.  Notice any differences between North and South? (Ignore that one G&G pic of the Korean pork sandwich: it's "fusion" to begin with and comes from Atlanta, no less.)

Now, don't get me wrong. Those Boston boys probably cook up some pretty tasty barbecue. But what's up with the massive haystack of meat, the groaning bun, and drizzles of sauce on the plate.  And is that slaw or kimchi cascading out of the bun? It looks like someone might have dropped the damn thing.

Some time ago I weighed in on how to create a great barbecue sandwich, noting that it's "an exercise in balance, with just the right ratio of meat to sauce to bun."  And, you have to add in a little slaw or pickle to add crunch and tang. The picks from Garden & Gun are bear this out. Check out the spartan simplicity of Jackie Hite's entry from Leesville, SC; the balance of bun, meat, pickle, and onion from the Old Hickory Pitt Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, KY; and, the controlled heft of the sandwich from Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, NC.

There's a reason these are classics.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Contrary to Rumors, I Do NOT Have Gout

Two months ago I wrote an article for the City Paper about fresh local asparagus. One of my interviewees told me that he loved asparagus but had to stop eating it because it aggravated his gout. I didn't know asparagus aggravated the gout . . . in fact, I knew almost nothing about the gout at all. So I did a little Googling to educate myself. (Turns out asparagus does stir it up, by the way.)

Now, anytime I visit a site that has ads on it, I'm inundated by ads for gout remedy and gout studies and all things gout-related on every site I visit--including my own damn blog.


Let's clear this up once and for all. I DO NOT HAVE THE GOUT!

But, jeez, aren't those Google ads creepy? Careful what you search for.

And, yes, asparagus, it turns out, makes everyone's pee stinky, too. In fact, those people who think it doesn't have that effect on them simply, for some unknown reason, can't smell it. I would post a link to supporting information on this, but Lord only knows what ads that would unleash on my browser.  Google it yourself if you don't believe me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Arkansas Barbecue

Rex Nelson has a good post on the topic "What is Arkansas Barbecue?" over on his Southern Fried blog.  He includes in it a nice excerpt from my contribution to 
The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South, a collection of essays from Vanderbilt University Press edited by Ted Maclin and Jim Veteto.  If you want to dig into the history of Arkansas BBQ, check it out.

Nelson also just wrote the preface for the Arkansas section of the Southern Foodways Alliance's Southern BBQ Trail, which is collection of oral histories of great barbecuers and restaurateurs from across the South. For Arkansas barbecue fans, there's now a treasure trove of information out there on the state's unique style.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Charleston Gravy Train

I've been listening to Josh Ozersky being interviewed on Chris Gondek's University of Texas Press podcast about his book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream.  When discussing how difficult it is not just for KFC but for any restaurant to make good gravy, Ozersky says:
I'm a food writer who lives in New York City.  I eat out all the time.  And now we're in this wonderful lardcore renaissance and all these Southern chefs are trying to cook things here. None of them makes good pan gravy.  I haven't had a first-rate pan gravy since Sean Brock cooked chicken in a pan for me at Husk.
In other words, don't order gravy in New York. Come down here to Charleston.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Early Virginia Hams and Bacon

I've been reading the journal of Nicholas Cresswell, a young Englishman who came to Virginia in 1774 with the ambition of making a fortune as a planter. He got sideways with his neighbors after the Revolution broke out and he refused to support the rebellion.  Threatened with "Tar, Feathers, Imprisonment, and the D---l knows what," Cresswell fled Virginia in 1777 and ended up returning to England.

Before he departed, though, he captured in his journal this excellent account of the art of curing bacon and ham in Virginia:
The bacon cured here is not to be equalled in any part of the world, their hams in particular. They first rub them over with brown sugar and let them lie all night. This extracts the watery particles. They let them lie in salt for 10 days or a fortnight. Some rub them with hickory ashes instead of saltpetre, it makes them red as saltpetre and gives them a pleasant taste. Then they are hung up in the smoke-house and a slow smoky fire kept under them for three or four weeks, nothing but hickory wood is burnt in these smoke-houses. This gives them an agreeable flavor, far preferable to the Westphalia hams, not only that, but it prevents them from going rancid and will preserve them for several years by giving them a fresh smoking now and them.
The hogs, he noted, grew fat in the woods on a mast of "acorns, Walnuts, Chestnuts, and all wild fruits").

And now I'm officially hungry.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Scenes from Opening Day: Mt. Pleasant Farmer's Market

The Mt. Pleasant Farmer's Market opened for the season yesterday at Moultrie Middle School on Coleman Boulevard.  Here are a few scenes.




Of course, it wouldn't be a market without a little funnel cake:



The pick of the day: this remarkable asparagus from Ambrose Farms:


All in, my haul included some local ground lamb, Bull's blood beets, fresh asparagus, green garlic, and some magnificent strawberries.

The good eatin' time of the year has arrived.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Straw Man Beer

Writing over at CNN's Eatocracy blog, Nathan Berrong just posted a bit on beer and restaurants that made me pause. "Why do restaurants neglect beer?" he asks, arguing that it's hard to find amazing beer and great food in the same place. "Maybe the best restaurant in town serves Guinness," he states, and "I'm baffled when I go into a nice restaurant and the beer list mirrors the offerings of the convenience store down the street." Budweiser and Heineken are called out for particular abuse.

I paused to check the date on the piece.  It was April 3, 2012, not, as I first suspected, 2006.  My next question was, "where in the world is he eating?" No location in the dateline, but I did note that Berrong "works at CNN's satellite desk."  So, he might still be in orbit, which would make things understandable.

Because, frankly, I have no idea what he's talking about. Good beer is everywhere in good restaurants these days, and not just in Charleston (where, admittedly, we do have some culinary advantages) but just about every city I visit. Victory HopDevil is the new Budweiser, Allagash White the new Heineken.  It's quite typical to find anywhere for eight to two dozen really good beers on tap--a handful of locals and a bunch of craft/micros from all over the country, plus a few dozen more bottled names. And that offering is not just for the bar crowd: chefs are highly attuned to beer, too. It's  becoming quite common to see a beer or two slipped in among the wine pairing suggestions on menus, and it seems like there's a beer-paired dinner every three or four days here in Charleston.

About two years ago, as I reviewed restaurants around town, I would note with delight, "The bar has a deep line up of craft brews, too . . ." and list a few examples. These days I rarely even mention the beer selection because it almost goes without saying that they're going to have a deep line up of craft brews (and they have coffee, too, both regular and decaf, and your choice of sparkling, still, or tap water!).

Now, in Berrong's defense, he's really just creating a straw man that he then pounds to shreds by listing a bunch of restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Denver and cosmopolitan Decatur, Georgia (my birthplace!) that focus on craft beers and pair them with the meals. But, that straw man is getting pretty dusty and dry these days.

As the formerly encyclopedic wine list shrinks to a manageable page or two, and the attention to beer and cocktails increases, I predict that before long beer and wine will share equal billing at your typical "nice restaurant". Whether that's a good thing or not is a subject that's open for debate, but that seems to be where the winds are steering us.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Beware: Food & Drink April Fools Pranksters Striking Early

When I was a kid, I remember one of our local TV news reporters filing an April Fools story where he interviewed a farmer on the progress of the season's spaghetti crop, complete with shots of limp noodles hanging from the limbs of some sort of green plant.  To my 8 year old sensibilities, it was a total riot.(And, as it turns out, totally ripped off from the BBC, who originated the gag).

Fast forward three decades and the wacky April Fools food story--fueled by the quick tweet and Facebook link--is so rife that I'm surprised anyone even bothers to even to login on the first day of April.

Now, it appears, some crafty wags are getting the jump on all the rest of the pranksters, releasing their stories several days in advance.

Like this one about a ludicrously expensive brand of flavored vodka infused with . . . rum.    Notice the date it's scheduled for release?  (But, it is a brilliant send up of artisan distilling trends.)

The ultimate ending to the bacon fad?  How about a bacon coffin?

I'm now officially on high alert.  If you see a food or drink story anytime over the next week that seems too nutty to be true . . . well, it probably is.



UPDATE: March 30, 2010 7:30 AM: The good people at J&D Foods have insisted in a Huffington Post interview (probably doing everything they can not to break into a giggle) that the bacon coffin is not a hoax. Read their explanation and decide for yourselves.






Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Care vs. Insurance

So, this isn't exactly a food topic, but if you eat like I do, sooner or later you're going to need healthcare. And when you do, it would probably be good if you had health insurance to pay for it.  For, of course, healthcare and health insurance are NOT the same thing.

That point really shouldn't need to be made, but unfortunately it does. I've been following with particular interest the coverage of the Supreme Court arguments on the constitutionality of the Healthcare Reform law (a.k.a. ACA), and, fortunately, one of my old pet peeves has bubbled up again.  This isn't just a quibble about a common usage sneaking into a few man-on-the-street-interviews but occurs with annoying regularity in the actual reporting of some of the most respectable media outlets.  Like NPR, one of whose reporters just this morning a reporter stated that the ACA "requires all Americans to purchase healthcare," and then proceeded to use that same term again and again and again.



For the record, the ACA does not require Americans to purchase healthcare. It requires them to purchase health insurance (for example, a PPO policy).  If they get sick they have the option (but, when you think about it, aren't necessarily required to) purchase healthcare (say, an EKG or an angioplasty).  And, their health insurance will (in theory) pay for at least part of that healthcare.

I'm sure that most people, if you slowed them down and made them think about it for a minute, would be easily able to articulate the difference between the two terms. But, the fact that we so easily conflate them, I believe, is much more than just a language issue. It's a symptom of our convoluted, by-accident system where just about every element conspires to make things opaque and confusing and upside down:

(As a sidenote: I've been working in the healthcare . . . no, wait . .  the health insurance field for the past 6 years, trying, among other things, to design software that guides consumers quickly and efficiently through the process of shopping for and purchasing health insurance.  I'm not sure it can be done.)

Ultimately, I think, the reason that so many people say healthcare when they really mean health insurance is because, deep in our hearts, healthcare is the only thing we really care about. We all want healthcare, whenever we need it, and preferably as easily and efficiently as possible. The only sticking point is who's going to pay for it.  

Precision is in order here, if for nothing else so that we can--in the heat of all the impassioned rhetoric on all sides--be sure we are at least arguing about the same thing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Proper Old Fashioned

Martin Doudoroff has launched a much-needed educational website entitled Old Fashioned 101 aimed to correct the longstanding adulteration of the classic Old Fashioned.

So what is an Old Fashioned, anyway? Not that convoluted concoction of whiskey with a bunch of fruit mashed up in it.

It might be easiest to start with what an Old Fashioned is not.

Here's Doudoroff's list:

  • There is no slice of orange in an Old Fashioned.
  • There is no cherry in an Old Fashioned.
  • You do not mash up fruit of any kind in an Old Fashioned.
  • There is no seltzer, soda water, ginger ale, or lemon soda in an Old Fashioned.
  • There is no vermouth of any kind in an Old Fashioned.
  • There is no beer in an Old Fashioned.
  • There is no lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice or sour mix in an Old Fashioned.
  • There are no frothing agents in an Old Fashioned.
  • You do not shake an Old Fashioned.
Now, as to what it is . . . well, check out Old Fashioned 101.  In essence though, the original Old Fashioned is actually the recipe for the original cocktail, as it was made back in the beginning of the 19th century (when it was made most frequently with brandy, not whiskey).  By the turn of the 20th century, cocktail had taken on an expanded meaning of a mixed liquor drink of any sort.  So, an "old fashioned" cocktail was one made the old original way.

I've been drinking my brown liquor following the "old fashioned" cocktail formula for several months now, and I highly recommended it.  Kudos to Doudoroff for establishing his  essential prerequisite course.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is the Wine List on the Way Out?

My review of the Peninsula Grill, one of the old standbys of high-end downtown Charleston dining,   just hit the streets in the City Paper.  Right before that, I visited The Grocery, Kevin Johnson's hot new restaurant, with its big wood-fired oven, everything local and hyper-fresh, lots of in-house pickling and preserving, and all the other hallmarks of the New New Southern style.

There's quite a difference between the luxurious fine dining style of just a decade ago and the more informal, ingredient-centered local cuisine that is currently on the rise. And, it's not just the the food: the level of service, the atmosphere, the dress code are all changing, too.

And that led to this thought: is the wine list a thing of the past?

Not serving wine, mind you, but having a huge wine cellar and a sommelier (or multiple sommeliers) and not a wine list but a wine book, those big leather bound things with brass trim that you strain to lift and hold awkwardly in your lap as you turn one heavy page after another.

At The Grocery, the wine list is just two pages, able to fit, front and back, on a single piece of paper, whites on one side (seven by the glass and two dozen bottles), reds on the other (five by the glass and thirty bottles).  At The MacIntosh--another of the hot new spots--the selection is a little larger, approaching 100 bottles, but it still fits comfortably on both sides of a single sheet of paper. Compare that to the older Charleston Grill, where sommelier Rick Rubel's acclaimed list runs over forty pages.

So buy, sell, or hold the future of the wine list?  If I had to choose, I would have to say, sadly, "sell." The trends just seem to be moving against it.

Some restaurants, Wine & Spirits Magazine reported recently, are now replacing their big leather books with iPads, which makes it a breeze to swipe and tap your way through thousands of options and has the added advantage of being easy to read even in the dimmest dining room.

But it's not just the physical form of the wine list that may be its downfall.  The whole dining culture just seems to be moving away from it.  The newer hip restaurants are putting as much emphasis into their beer selection and cocktail "programs" as they are their wine cellars.  Beer-paired dinners have been hot for a couple of years, and now cocktail-paired dinners are starting to pop up, too.  (I just experienced my first one a few weeks ago at the Charleston Wine + Food festival.)

But, ultimately I think the demise of the wine list will follow hand-in-hand the disappearance of the coat and tie from the restaurant dining room. More and more people simply have no desire to dress for dinner; some just prefer wearing their regular casual clothes, others are actively uncomfortable and awkward in a tie and are intimidated by environments where they are expect to wear one.  And they are equally uncomfortable with a massive leather bound wine list with a lot of names and countries and dates that mean nothing to them.

That, ultimately, is what I think will be wine's downfall. For far too long wine has maintained an imposing, intimidating stance, one that suggests you need years of study and a dense insiders' vocabulary to not seem like a total idiot. The nine thousand regions of France, all those years, and--of course--those three- and four-figure prices mixed right in with the regular stuff, making us feel like cheapskates for settling on a lowly $75 bottle.  And then there are wine tasting columns that offer "helpful" advice for novices like this: "Learn the meaning of wine terms like fruit forward, smoky, chewy, structured, bright, jowly, citrus, effervescent, creamy and fatty." Holy crap! How long will that take?

Countless sommeliers have made the case that this simply is not true, that there's no reason for regular Joes to be intimidated when ordering wine at a good restaurant.  Just be cool, say what you like or don't like and your price range, and let your wine professional guide you.  By and large I think that's true: in the world of fine dining just a little confidence goes a long way.      

But I'm not sure the average restaurant goer agrees. Curious nugget from the Wine & Spirits piece on the iPad wine apps: at Manhattan's SD26, wine director Paul Guerzon used to have 3 sommeliers working with him.  Now that they've introduced the iPads, he works the dining room alone. Which suggests that in large part the role of the sommelier has served simply to help confused diners navigate the large, overwhelming list of regions and vintages.  Certainly there are a some patrons who value the knowledge and guidance of a trained sommelier, but it seems most just want to quickly narrow it down: Red [tap] Cabernet [tap] $50 to $99 [tap].  Done.

And that raises the question of whether the sommelier is going the way of the travel agent, but that's for another time. For now, I think, suffice it to say, expect to order your wine from a single sheets of cardstock more and more often in the upcoming years.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Charleston Restaurants on the National Scene

Two Charleston restaurants make Opinionated About Dining's list of the Top 100 Restaurants for 2012.  Yes, they both have the same chef at the helm, which should pretty much clue you in to which restaurants they are.

What I think is interesting is that the one that got the highest ranking in the list (at #10) isn't the one that got all the press in 2012.  Yes, McCrady's gets the top Charleston honor, with Husk way down at #90.

And, let's face it, McCrady's deserves it.  It's still cranking out some of the best dishes to be had anywhere.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Pappy on Its Way to South Carolina

Last week in the City Paper I gave a few tips on how to get your hands on a bottle or two of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon..  In case you haven't had time to check the Van Winkle Facebook page every few hours, here's the big news, and I quote: "South Carolina has shipped. Please allow a week or two for inventory to make it to the distributor and then out to stores."

So, by my count, that means you should start hounding your local liquor store owner about next Tuesday or so. Heck, why take chances: go in and start hounding him or her this afternoon. That's my plan.

Stick a fork . . . or, er, a knife . . . in it

To continue my ongoing monomania about current burger trends, here's a seemingly new facet I've stumbled across lately: the practice of serving big, fat, gourmet hamburgers with a steak knife plunged into the middle of them.  One can immediately see the marketing appeal: what more dramatic way to illustrate exactly how big, fat, disgusting, and decadent a burger is? 

Maybe this technique has been around for a while and I just missed it, but I swear I've seen it cropping up in half a dozen restaurants in just the last few months.  (The picture here is from Pawley's Porch, a brand new gourmet burger joint in Mt. Pleasant, a town which already has far more gourmet burger joints than it could possibly need.)

So, this goes right up there with the other big burger trend I've been monitoring: eye-catching burger names.  The Liberty Tap room has its Freedom Burger, which demonstrates that in America we are free to order our burgers with bacon, a fried egg, and fried onion straws if we damn well please.  Poe's on Sullivan's Island has a similar concoction dubbed the Tell-Tale Heart (fried egg, bacon, and cheddar), while Triangle Char Bar ups the ante with the Hot Sh** (their emendation, not mine) which of course has a fried egg on it but also adds chorizo, jalapenos, and pepper jack cheese just in case you thought you could make it through the night without Tums.

But, the leading burger name contender in Charleston right now is the W.T.F. Burger from Boone's Bar & Grill downtown on King Street.  It features a big ground beef patty with pepper jack and cheddar cheese, fried onions, and a bunch of fries--yes, french fries--sandwiched between not a bun but rather two grilled cheese sandwiches.  

W.T.F. indeed.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Brand Ambassadors

A Pink Peppercorn Paloma from Charlotte Voisey
Last night was a first for me: a cocktail-paired dinner.  It was the Cocktail Dinner at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, part of the 2012 Charleston Wine+Food Festival.   The food was fabulous, and the cocktail pairings worked pretty well.  My account of all that and a few pics of the event will be hitting the City Paper's Eat blog soon.

One of the pleasures of the night was sitting next to Michael Saboe, the dean of the Culinary Institute of Charleston, and chatting about his years in the Charleston restaurant world. He noted that one of the great things about being at the Institute was that it allowed him to stay in the fine-dining and hospitality world and still be able to spend nights and weekends with his family.

And that got me thinking a little bit about career paths beyond the restaurant and bar--a world of late nights and high anxiety with a nights-and-weekends schedule that's almost diametrically opposed to the rest of the working world.  It was appropriate for the evening, since the cocktails were being shaken up by two former-bartenders who had managed to stake out professions that got them out from behind the bar and on the road.

Junior Merino shaking up a
rose-infused Rosita margarita
The first was Charlotte Voisey, a British mixologist who struck it big in London with her classic cocktail bar Apartment 195.  Now she's the "brand ambassador" for William Grant and Sons, the makers of Hendrick's Gin and Milagro Tequila, which sponsored for the Wine+Food event.  She teamed up with Junior Merino, worked his way up the ranks at Roth's Westside Steakbouse in New York and then launched his own cocktail consultancy, The Liquid Chef, which in addition to events like the Cocktail Dinner has him designing cocktail programs for cruise ship lines and theme parks.

That sounds at first like a "good gig if you can get it" sort of thing.  The New York Times ran a nice piece on the new world of liquor brand ambassadors a few years back, and you can see the appeal--a regular salary, travel to exciting places, flashy parties, and crazy perks like actual health insurance benefits.

But, to my eye it still looks like an awful lot of work to me.  Voisey and Merino were certainly hustling last night, mixing up a course of eight different cocktails for dozens of guests.  And that doesn't count the hours of prep work that went into the evening--from squeezing fresh juices to set up--and the breakdown, and the event tomorrow, too.  

Tasting notes and Merino's  Rogue cocktail
(featuring apricot infused Milagro Anejo,
hibiscus syrup, Cherry Heering, cream sherry, and
chocolate bitters)
And then there's the travel. Yes, it's glamorous for a little while.  But, as someone who travels frequently as part of my job, I can attest that spending lots of nights alone in a hotel room far from family and friends can be a tough gig, too.

But I can say one thing: they mix some splendid cocktails, and they're bringing new flavors and experiences to a wide range of people who might not otherwise try, say, a French 75 laced with coriander and cucumber simple syrup or a margarita enlivened by tamarinds and Velvet Falernum.

Amid the celebrity chefs and the big-time television personalities, the brand ambassador is a curious new wrinkle in an industry where a job behind the bar or on the line had few options apart from perhaps working your way up to owning a restaurant or bar. 



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