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. 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Busy Week

I looked up the other day and realized I'd had a flurry of pieces come out at the City Paper.  These included:

A Cover Story on the Current State of Bourbon

A Bourbon Tour of Charleston

A Review of Kevin Johnson's The Grocery

An Eat Blog Post on Husk's Barrel of Van Winkle Bourbon

A List of the Top 10 Places to Eat in Charleston Right Now

An Article on Magwood's Shrimp and How Two Boroughs Larder Uses It

and this doesn't even count the Wine+Food festival coverage from this coming weekend and the Best of Charleston issue due out next week!


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