Previous month:
March 2010
Next month:
May 2010

April 2010

The Beer Trials: A Fun New Guide to the Wide World of Beer

BeerTrials2 The beer world has become a vast, confusing place, since the boom hit back in the early 2000's. A lot of atlases have been published of late to guide one through this vast, undiscovered country -- indeed, one might call it an overwhelming number, as a search for "beer guides" at yields 855 results! For a beginner, selecting a guide has ironically become as difficult as wading through the beers they propose to describe! And each guide, of course, has its own aim and specialities, which are not always as clear as they might be. Well, neophytes, fret no more; The Beer Trials is a practially perfect populist preamble to the wide world of beer.

Okay, full disclosure: I got this book for free from the Fearless Critic Media, the book's publisher (There! You happy FTC?!). I agreed to receive a copy on a whim, not thinking I would get very much out of it, but what they sent me is actually a really great reference. Where most beer books go either super technical or into the realm of epic beer porn, The Beer Trials keeps it simple, stupid.

A rotating group of about two dozen beer lovers and experts blind tasted 250 beers of various types, agreed upon a score, condensed their notes into a pithy three or four sentences, and framed each entry with a little bit of background and label notes. That's about it. After a preface, some basic information on brewing, and a bit of a diatribe on marketing, the book consists mostly of these well laid out, cleverly written one page descriptions of each beer based on their results.

While this method is nothing new, authors Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein excelled in their execution. The extensive notes section is preceded by a brief but well thought out description of beer families and styles, in which groups the various beers were compared and ranked. This division by type is very important; it is often tempting to compare a light lager to Belgian ale, but what's the use? The Beer Trials does not compare Natural Light's apples to Chimay Blue's oranges, but rather ranks the beers in relation to their peers.

SteelRsv That's the other great thing about this book: along with Chimay Blue, they actually DO rate Natural Light! And Bud Light, for that matter, and MGD, and Busch, and every other cheap beer under the sun. And they do so earnestly, with thoughtful notes and reasoning to back up their high or low scores. Though many do garner the scores you'd expect, there are a good number of surprises, like the rosy description and score given to Steel Reserve, pictured at right.

Along with the macrobrews, the book is populated with widely available beers anyone can find; sizable microbrewers like Anchor, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, regional giants like New Belgium and Yuengling, and a good number of your dominant import brands from Asia and Europe are all well represented. Only a handful of these beers are rare or extraordinarily dear, and that is this book's greatest asset. Any newbie with even the most vague idea of what he likes could take this book to the grocery store, flip through and find information on any number of alternatives right in front of his face.

The authors state at the end of the preface that this book has an agenda: "To broaden your horizons, and narrow your search, by arming you with better information about beer. If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met." For those new to the game, this book is sure to hit the mark, thanks to its populist selection and fun writing style. For these same reason, I don't think this would be a great pick for the journeyman or 'serious' beer drinker; you lot know most of these quite well, and would be better served by a Michael Jackson tome. This one would be the perfect gift for that slightly geeky young person in your life who is just about to start college -- it'll give him important knowledge to guide his beer pong selections, and force him to think about what he drinks, hopefully leading him down the healthier, more rewarding path towards better beer. Go on! Be the coolest aunt or uncle ever; here's the link.

Ron del Barrilito: Puerto Rico's Best Rum, Now Available in DC!

RonB1 Contrary to popular belief, hard liquor can go bad. It doesn't turn into vinegar like wine does, nor cloudy, bacteria-laden poison like beer, but if you leave a small amount of liquor in a bottle for too long it will lose its flavor and end up tasting kinda dusty. Being capricious and forgetful, I have let many a bottle go down this road, and my latent attachment issues just won't let me throw the damn things out (at least not the rare ones). "But its not even good anymore!" I tell myself. "Yeah, but I can't get anymore!" It's bad for my mental health, and frankly, scads of nearly empty liquor bottles don't really fit the decorating scheme. Thankfully, one of the oldest of my precious garbage bottles has now hit the recycling bin, porque Ron del Barrilito esta aqui!

Chances are if you are from the islands you know this one, and if you ain't, you don't. For the longest time, RDB was one of those treasures the Caribbeans kept for themselves, with some small enclaves of availability in NYC, San Francisco and the like. A friend of mine from Puerto Rico (from which RDB also hails) was kind enough to let me try some of his stash some years back, and I was bowled over. The reputation of Puerto Rican rum is almost exclusively built on Bacardi, far and away the best selling rum in the world, largely by virtue of being the lowest common denominator. It's insipid, neutral, and purposefully bland, so as not to offend, and turn almost flavorless in the presence of Coke.

RDB by comparison has a beautiful dark brown, gold accented hue, like maple syrup, and is visibly more viscous then that clear crap. The nose is a complicated melange of roasted nuts, cola, honey, and pepper. The front is sweet and slightly buttery, with a smokey character developing on the middle, leading to a peppery, molasses accented finish. This is not a rum for mixing, but for sipping neat, or with a splash of water. Though, if you were feeling saucy and wanted to make an ersatz Manhattan or Old Fashioned, I guess I wouldn't blame you...

RonB2 The aforementioned friend, on one of his sojourns to visit friends and family, was kind enough to bring a bottle back for me, some 4 years ago. I nursed that bottle like I was Florence freakin' Nightingale, taking only the occasional drink every few months. I even moved the damn thing three times! As time wore on, I knew it wasn't the same... the stuff tasted like crap, towards the end, but I clung on, a codependent in an abusive relationship. Imagine my elation when I saw a full bottle at one of my favorite stores not two weeks past, and learned that the product was just picked up by Bacchus Imports! That very same night, I kicked that old good-for-nothin' space taker to the curb.

So far, I have only seen Ron del Barrilito at Ace Beverage and 1 West Dupont Wine & Spirits, but ask your neighborhood retailer to get it for you from Bacchus, and I am sure he will accommodate. The rum I have been discussing is the "Three Star," and should run about $40 to $50, but they also now sell a younger "Two Star," which I cannot wait to try.

Grilled Bacon: At Least the Stillwater Ale was a Good Idea

DSCN5173 "Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you."
- The Stranger

Here at the DC Foodies test kitchen (my backyard), I come up with all sorts of good ideas. The problem with good ideas, though, is they don't always produce good results.

My idea to grill bacon is a good idea. It combines fire, pork, fat and salt. What's not to like? Well, like The Stranger told The Dude, sometimes the bear eats you.

Grilled bacon, however, is not bacon. It's ham. It's country ham, actually. That shouldn't be too much of a surprise, as I approached the preparation and grilling the same way I approach large cuts of pork: I seared and then I slow cooked.

The result looks nothing like bacon. It tastes nothing like bacon. It's not crispy. It's smokey pink. It's moist.

In other words, it makes some excellent country ham. Not exactly what I was expecting, but it sure wasn't bad. It just wasn't bacon.

What I set out to do was tackle cooking bacon on the grill and then give you four variations of the traditional BLT. What I actually did was create four variations of the ham sandwich. And if I were honest, only one made the whole endeavor worthwhile.

When I came up with the idea of grilling bacon, the first thing I did was Google it. Sure enough, a whole bunch of folks have taken to the grill with packages of bacon. But the problem with grilling thin strips of bacon, as I see it, is all that delicious pork fat drips off, leaving you with shriveled pieces of smoked pork (which is great if you want to make jerky). When you pan fry bacon, the meat cooks in its own fat, giving it that fatty, delicious flavor we all know and crave.

DSCN5163 Instead of using strips of bacon, I opted for a one and a half pound slab that I picked up from my buddy Carlos at Canales Quality Meats. Slow grilling a slab of bacon bacon allows the rendering fat to baste the meat as it sweats in the heat, keeping everything nice and moist.

In the end, that's exactly what happened. After initially searing the fat cap, I flipped the slab and moved the whole thing to a cooler part of the grill and allowed it to cook for 35 minutes. The result was delicious, delicious ... ham.

So instead of BLTs, I came up with four HLTs. They ain't too bad, so go with it.

DSCN5182 HLT one was a fairly straightforward BLT .. uh, HLT, except I roasted a couple heads of garlic in the oven and mixed them into the mayo. Now, I'm a pulp-in-my-orange juice guy, so I didn't mash up the cloves too much because I liked the idea of biting into the odd chunk of roasted garlic.

Basically, this is a smoked ham sandwich with roasted garlic mayo. It's a good sandwich, but probably not worth the trouble. Just go buy some ham.

DSCN5192 For HLT two, I had high hopes. It's the same sandwich as HLT one, but with the addition of soft French blue cheese. In my mind, the combination of salty, smokey moist pork would go incredibly well with the creamy, tang of the blue cheese. In reality, the sandwich garnered a "meh" from the missus. Hey, you win some, you loose some.

DSCN5198 When HLT three was still BLT three in my head, I was planning on treating the bacon like pork by brushing it with barbecue sauce. In the end, I brushed the grilled ham with some peach barbecue sauce and it worked (note: use regular mayo). It's a little smokey and a little sweet, which worked well with the saltiness of the ham. Like the first sandwich, though, it didn't work well enough to go through the trouble. Stick with pork chops and the sauce and you'll do just fine.

And then there was the final sandwich, HLT four. This was the one that excited me. This was the one that would get my dear wife to roll her eyes. This is the one that I crowned with an beautiful egg, fried sunny side up. I do love me some eggs, and I've been accused by the missus of sticking them on top of everything. She's right, but that doesn't make it wrong. In fact, when it came to this little project, it made everything alright.

DSCN5209 There is something near perfect about the combination of warm egg yolk and moist, hot ham. It's rich, savory, unctuous. And just as those flavors have you thinking you're eating an overly complicated, yet kinda sloppy breakfast sandwich (nothing wrong with that) the roasted garlic mayo keeps the sandwich squarely in the p.m. The sandwich reminded me exactly of the Three Little Piggy sandwich I had at Chicago's Silver Palm Restaurant (a sandwich Tony Bourdain described as "a work of genius, in an evil way."). Throw some of that blue cheese on it and you're there. The HLT with egg justified my day (nearly). And that's enough of a happy ending to go out on.

DSCN5227 To go with my porky project, I picked up a bottle of Stateside Saison from the region's newest brewery, Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Stillwater is still very much a one-man band headed by Brian Strumke, a DJ turned contract beer maker (happens all the time). You can read all about Brian and Stillwater here or listen here. It's an interesting story, but what's important to me is that we have another local brewer producing quality beer.

The Stateside Saison, Brian's initial offering, is a well balanced golden farmhouse ale. I like this style of beer, but all too often it tends to be a bit cloying. The Stillwater ale, however, is just bitter enough, thanks to some dry hopping, to keep the beer from getting insipid. And at 6.8 ABV, you don't have to share the 22 ounce bottle if you don't want to.

Grilled Bacon
(makes four servings)

1 1.5 lb. slab of bacon, whole

Yeah, that's it. The ingredient list is pretty short this time. In defense of buying a pound and a half of bacon just to make ham, it put me back all of $5. So if this idea appeals to you, it's an inexpensive way to experiment with bacon on the grill.

An hour before you're ready to grill, pull the bacon out of the refrigerator and let it warm up. For grilling, you want to set up a hot and a cool zone. This will allow you to sear the fat cap and then slow cook the slab.

When the grill is ready, place the slab of bacon on the hottest part of the grill, close the lid and cook for 10 minutes. Because the fat can cause flare ups, you need to watch the grill very carefully. After 10 minutes, flip the slab of bacon over and move it to your cool spot. Close the grill lid and cook for 35 minutes.

Remove the bacon from the grill and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Trim off all the excess fat cap you don't want and do with the ham what you will.

Omakase at Sushi Taro

Taro1 Last week I received a fabulous surprise birthday gift, when Eliza took me to Sushi Taro for omakase. For those that don't know, omakase pretty much means "your call," an instruction giving the chef carte blanche to serve up whatever he thinks is best. This is a commonly offered option in Japan, but not widely available in DC -- I'm told it took quite a bit of research to track the service down. So this is something I had wanted to do for ages, but other than eating way more fish than my stomach can technically hold, I had no idea what to expect.

Sushi Taro has taken quite a bit of flack on the internet since its complete restructuring back in late 2008; I'd never been, but it seems they converted from a typical Japanese sushi and noodle shop to something a bit more upscale. Lots of people on Yelp call the new Taro "soulless," and other equally unflattering things, swearing to never come back. That said, the place was bumpin' when we arrived around 7:00 last Saturday, and were led by the perfectly lovely front of house staff to a small room at the back of the restaurant. Inside was a small six-seater sushi bar, at the corner of which sat another couple sipping sake. We ordered a couple drinks, settled in, and waited for the chef to arrive.

What followed was a magical three hours, and one of the greatest food experiences of my life. I wasn't even planning on reviewing it (hence the few, mediocre pictures), but we had such a fantastic time I just had to share.

TaroApp1 The meal is split into three distinct courses: Appetizers, sashimi, and finally sushi. The appetizers consisted of a mix of traditional japanese small plates. The chef's signature starch cake, a soft, almost gelatinous brick served in bonito broth and topped with Uni, was not my favorite thing in the world; its completely foreign texture made a pretty scary start to the meal, leaving us both wondering if we were up for what we had gotten ourselves into. From there, it was only uphill. Next came a fried cake made from tiny shrimp available only in the spring, and then a plate of seasonal fishes, including a whole firefly squid, and fantastic miniature conch that had been slowly braised for almost seven hours. With each plate came a description by the chef, explaining to us the dish's origin, and how it was prepared. A consistent theme throughout the apps, which would continue through the other courses, was an emphasis on using rare seasonal fish.

Next came the sashimi. The chef pulled out five square boxes from the refrigerator beneath the bar, which contained the day's fish offerings. He spent the next ten minutes showing us all the fish, and describing each in detail. We were welcomed to select whatever fish we wanted, but being a bit overwhelmed by the choices, we left ourselves in his hands.

The fish was of a quality I had never experienced. I love toro, and I thought I knew it well; the piece that the chef expertly sliced and plated before me was so sweet, rich and velvety, I am hesitant to even compare it to toro I have had in the past. This course was six or seven servings long, the highlights being the aforementioned toro, white salmon (which was in fact real salmon, but so high in fat that it is white), and the live scallop, shucked and prepared right before our eyes.

Right after we finished the scallop, the couple down the bar asked the chef if they served something in particular; the word was Japanese, and I didn't understand. The chef laughed, and said no, because it was not popular, but that he would gladly do it for them. He proceeded to open another scallop, and described the process, as he removed the innards (liver, intestines, etc), then separated the nervous system, and minced it into a sort of sauce, which he served on top. And hey, it turns out he'd made enough for four! Now, earlier I had already eaten a whole squid and some transparent baby eels served as noodles, so I couldn't really balk at this -- fortunately, it was delicious! The texture of the liver was almost like foie gras, and the sauce had a briny, low-tide flavor the likes of which I have never tasted.

TaroShabu Our sashimi plates were removed, and replaced with a one foot square ceramic box. This is the traditional vessel for preparing Shabu-shabu - meat or vegetables lightly cooked in hot broth. Typically patrons are given a piece of raw wagyu beef, which is steeped in the broth for about a minute before eaten; we picked a lucky day, as the chef had some special seasonal toro which was perfect for the preparation. I kind of thought it a perversion to cook such a piece of fish, but the quick broth bath really enhanced the fish's flavor, and made the resulting meat even more buttery and delicious.

The final course -- because we clearly hadn't eaten nearly enough -- was a round of sushi. Again, we let the chef do the picking, though I did insist that we try my favorite go-to, the unagi. The fish was prepared as a simple nigiri, served with two different soy sauces, one standard, and one spiked with ginger. My beloved eel, while pleasant, paled when compared to the smoked salmon and the tuna cheek meat, which made a normal cut of tuna seem dry by comparison. I got the impression that the chef would have kept serving us until we couldn't move, but we stopped at about five or six rounds. The whole affair was capped with a small jelly of fresh fruit and a pot of green tea.

TaroDessert At the meal's conclusion, the chef actually apologized for the lack of attention, as the restaurant was packed, and he was doing a lot of the prep for the main dining room. In fact, the chef (who as it turns out was also the owner, Nobu Yamazaki) was extremely gracious, informative, and friendly, not to mention super talented with that knife. We had absolutely no complaints about the service, which makes me wonder how attentive they are on a quiet night!

Rates for the sushi bar seem to vary with the market; at the time, we were told that we would have to purchase a "minimum" of $120 worth of sushi each. I am not sure how they meter that, as there is no menu, but we accepted everything offered, and did not incur any upcharges. The sake list is a bit expensive, so we brought our own bottle from home, which the chef was more than happy to open and serve us, for a $25 corking fee. All told, with tax and tip, the bill came in at just under $400, which I believe is actually cheaper than it would have been had we ordered all that sushi ala carte.

Though the price keeps this from being a monthly sort of event, Chef Yamazaki's emphasis on seasonal ingredients makes me very curious to visit sometime in the summer or winter, and see what crosses my plate. The entire experience from beginning to end was beautiful; the food, the ambiance, and the adventure of it would be incredibly hard to match. I absolutely cannot wait to go again.

Sushi Taro
1503 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036-6230
(202) 462-8999

Recession Refreshment: Jo Pithon 'Les Pepinieres' 2005

Schneiders Schneider's of Capitol Hill is a great shop, and they do a fabulous job in all departments. What endears them most to my heart is their fantastic selection of closeouts. Schneider's provides a great service to the wine drinking public by investing thousands of dollars in good but unpopular wines that distributors are keen to unload, and then selling them for a song. Not that they are saints or anything -- I am sure they make a healthy profit, but hey, I usually end up happy in the end. I'm afraid that my latest find, the Jo Pithon Les Pepinieres '05, though tasty, is a little bittersweet.

Jo Pithon, owner of the eponymous estate, is a really nice guy. I met him several times over the years at the wine shop, when he was visiting town for trade shows. Jo is a big, open, genial man, and he sports a pair of the most kick-ass mutton chops you've ever seen. Most importantly, he was willing to field questions from a 23 year old kid without rolling his eyes, which is not something that can be said of all producers. Jo made many great wines at his estate in Anjou out of the native Chenin Blanc, but they were always a bit pricey. Imagine my surprise last week when I saw the previously mentioned Pepinieres, normally a $25 wine, stamped at a mere $9.99. When I asked the staff about this, I learned the sad news that Pithon had lost his investors, and that the brand is no more. Being shocked and saddened by the news, I picked up several bottles to assuage my grief.

Pithon1 The Pepinieres is a little on the old side (as is often the case with these sorts of closeouts), but that works towards it's advantage. The wine pours a pretty, clear, goldenrod yellow. The nose is has a pleasant nutty quality, along with melon and pear, and a rich, old whisky quality. The attack is surprisingly steely for a five year old wine, carrying with it flavors of raisins, butter, stones, and honey. A full, straw and lemon flavored middle leads to a dry, lemony, and slightly acetic finish. The combination of high acidity and rich, old-wine flavors make this wine very versatile. Try it with cold pasta, fried fish, or as an accompaniment to cheese and charcuterie.

Again, this wine used to sell for about $25, and despite the extra age, is still quite the bargain at $9.99. Schneider's had about 40 cases left as of last Friday, so don't expect it to last long. As is the case with any older white wine, you have to expect a few off bottles; though, I am happy to say all three that I purchased were quite satisfactory.

I am sorry to have heard that Jo Pithon has fallen on hard times, and sincerely hope he soon gets himself back in the game. In the meantime, at least I have a good white wine with which to welcome the warmer weather.