Sunday, December 27, 2009

24 Hours in Las Vegas

(This post was originally going to be called 24 Hours in LV, but I remembered Coolio made that porno ten years ago. It won 37 AVN awards.)

"My flight's in 15 minutes."
"You'll be fine."

I was standing within spitting distance of the security metal detector, watching as five of America's finest TSA officers staried at the X-ray screen, trying to figure out the contents of a bag. Seriously, this was taking minutes.

"Can't you pull the bag aside and open it up?"
"Quiet sir."
"But my flight's in ten minutes."
"You'll be fine."

Through the metal detector, I grab my bags, run to the gate, and: doors closed.

"Can I still get on the plane?"
"No, the doors are closed."
"Don't you page passengers as a courtesy so they can get through security?"
"I didn't hear it."
"You can't hear it in the security area."

Luckily LAX to LAS is a frequent flight so they got me on another one in about an hour. Not so bad--but the lack of efficiency and general myopeia of the GED-wielding TSA team was distressing.

I've never been to Las Vegas before, an assertion that is inevitably followed by an incredulous "You've never been to Vegas?" to which I respond "Nope." Usually that ends it, but sometimes it's followed by "Really?" and capped with "Really."

The shuttle from the airport to the Strip is only $7, which would prove to be the only cheap thing in Las Vegas. My previous gambling foyers having involved Reno and Tahoe, locations almost criminally cheap, the LV sticker shock was intense.

I met up with my traveling team at the Bellagio's Sports Book for a cocktail and a lament that Michael Mina was closed on Wednesday, the only day we were in town. We hopped a cab to the Hard Rock because we thought we were seeing a concert there. Turns out the concert was back at the Mandalay and we're retarded. But at least we got to have lunch at the Pink Taco, a restaurant whose name I found amusingly titillating when it first opened and I was in high school but now it's just wearisome with its faux-scandalous schoolyard snicker-inducing name. Also, three orders of carnitas and a pitcher of margaritas for $80? Christ. The carnitas were really bland. Homemade tortillas were good though.

And here's where we almost made our second fuck up of the trip--apparently the concert (Dethklok and Mastodon)--started at 5PM.

Yup, a death metal show in Las Vegas at 5PM. Back in the cab.

Given that this is a food blog I'll forego many details about the show other than it was epic and we were the only guys in the crowd not wearing black and/or a neck beard. Also, if you tip your bartender well the first time at the House of Blues you quickly get her attention on subsequent bar trips.

In what was another first for the world, after our head-banging death metal-a-thon we went for a late dinner at Aureole. A 5PM concert has its advantages.

Every one of the destination restaurants on the Strip were doing 3-course $50 prix fixe dinners so it was a no brainer, even if all these proxy versions of their NY/LA/SF originals are second-tier facsimiles--like the third or fourth iteration of Michael Keaton in Multiplicity.

Aureole is known for its epic thousand bottle wine list and its vertical wine storage skyscraper from which bottles are retrieved by wire-suspended "wine angels." The list is presented on a tablet PC which allowed for pretty quick searching and sorting by varietal, region, and/or price. When the Pinot Noirs all proved too pricey I quickly found a Beaujolais that was perfect.

The food was good but unmemorable, not really worth the price tag--even as a prix fixe. Clearly this wasn't going to be a showcase of the best they offer but it also shouldn't be an afterthought. This meal leaned toward afterthought.

As we waited at the Mandalay's cab stand, the attendant asked if we wanted to go to a strip club. As much as I appreciated the profiling (three drunk white 20-somethings), we declined and hopped a cab back to the Hard Rock (we were staying across the street). After an attempt at finding a cheaper than $10 blackjack table we gave up on gambling and crashed hard at our hotel.

Our flight out was at mid-day which gave us pretty limited lunch options and we made what would be our third and final mistake of the trip by hitting up the Hofbrauhaus. That's right, Munich's venerable tourist-trap has gone global. The only thing that kept the lunch from being a total mess was our very cute, very world-weary dirndl-sporting waitress who kept trying to get us to buy shots of Jaegermeister. The selling point? The shots come served on a paddle which she then spanks us with as a reward for our drinking, a popular activity amongst the Electors of Bavaria. We passed. My pork schnitzel was giant and greasy and the advertised "vegetable side" consisted of a single carrot slice, a solitary wedge of tomato, and one lone sprig of parsley. Inexplicably our food took 30+ minutes to get to our table, despite being the only three people in the restaurant.

After shelling out another seventy bucks for a mediocre meal, our last cab of the trip awaited. As an aside, every cabbie in Las Vegas is a late middle-aged white guy who speaks English and actually knows his way around the city. I've never experienced this with a taxi before.

We parted ways at the airport (after easily breezing through security--I swear LAS has as many security officers as LAX for a quarter of the traffic) and made the 45-minute journey home.

I'll have to give Vegas another (longer) chance--though I'm not sure how I'd afford it--but my first impression was pretty unfavorable. Since I can eat at the better versions of any Las Vegas restaurant in either SF or LA, I'd rather do my drinking and gambling in Reno where I'd have just as much fun for half the price.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

MC Rib and the Furious Five

Fast food gets a bad rap amongst the fooderati. There's a lot of value in businesses providing fast, cheap, and nutritious food to a struggling middle class.

And if you steer away from getting sodas and limit your side of fries to a small, a fast food meal isn't really all that bad for you, even nutritionally speaking. Sure there's going to be a good amount of fat and heaps of sodium, but that can be said about a lot of dining options (pork belly slider anyone?). And almost everything is raised and grown in the USA and that's something significant. Sure it's cheap factory farmed meat which is reprehensible, but also a problem that isn't, for now, going away.

At the end of a meal of a quarter-pounder with cheese and a small fries (that's enough food for a meal, it really is) you've consumed 750 calories, 38 grams of fat, 1360 milligrams of sodium, along with 6 grams of fiber and 32 grams of protein. Is that ideal? Not really. Is it bad for you? Not really. Is it good for you? It's better than a soda and potato chips.

What I'm saying is this: fast food once or twice a week is fine if you order smart and control your portions. Hell, skip the fucking fries and get a side salad or fruit (standard options at some fast food-eries now).

Which is a long way of saying that I had a McRib last week.

I hadn't had the McRib in ages, not since the early 90's I imagine. The McRib is sometimes described as the most dubious of all fast food items, largely due to its absurd shape: ground pork formed into a reasonable approximation of a rack of ribs, but ingredient-wise it's actually pretty straightforward. The patty is pork, water, a little dextrose, and a few standard preservatives (BHA, BHT, Sodium Benzoate).

The McRib sauce is a bit more dubious: Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor, food starch-modified, salt, sugar, spices, soybean oil, xanthan gum, onion powder, garlic powder, chili pepper, sodium benzoate, caramel color, beet powder. But really, other than a few texturizers and preservatives, it's pretty quotidian by most processed food standards.

Notice something? No added "natural" or artificial flavors other than the smoke flavor, no extenders, no autolyzed yeast extracts, meat broths, or souces of backdoor MSG (my porn star name)--just the straight-vanilla preservatives and texturizers.

Compare the McRib to the McDonald's Angus Beef Patty: 100% Angus beef prepared with Grill Seasoning: Salt, Pepper, Angus Burger Seasoning: Salt, sugar, onion powder, natural and artificial flavors, maltodextrin, natural beef flavor [beef broth, yeast extract, maltodextrin, salt, lactic acid, natural flavor, beef fat, citric acid], spice, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, garlic powder, dried beef extract, sunflower oil, caramel color, worcestershire sauce powder [distilled vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor], spice extractives, annatto and turmeric, calcium silicate and soybean oil added to prevent caking.

And we won't even begin to get into the McChicken ingredients.

The McRib, despite it's shape, seems to be the least Frankenfoodie of all the McDonald's proteins. Is it good for you? It's got a lot of sugar thanks to the sweet sauce, but I would give it a solid "kinda."

And does it taste good? Also a solid kinda. The texture is pleasant--surprisingly similar to really tender pork ribs--and the sauce isn't cloyingly sweet. The McRib is nominally topped with two pickles and maybe eight pieces of chopped onion and the impact of either is nominal. If I were making a similar sandwich at home, I'd throw a lot of onions on there, especially since the flavor of the pork itself is really bland. That happens when you have inexpensive processed meat and don't re-add meat flavor to it (as McDonald's does with its beef and chicken).

Fast food's not good, but it's not bad. I don't recommend it but I don't judge if you partake and try a McRib, even just ironically.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Great Pizza--Found!

I've been decrying the lack of quality pizza in LA for a while now but, to be fair, I hadn't been to perhaps the two most lauded local dough tossers: Pizzeria Mozza and Tomato Pie. I doubt I'll go to Pizzeria Mozza, at least not on my dime, as it appears to be exactly like A16 or Pizzeria Delfina and I bet dollars to doughnuts that Mozza will be no better and probably worse. High-profile restaurant openings and food quality tend to be inversely related. But if someone wants to change my mind and buy me a Mozza pizza, hit me up. I ain't hidin'.

I did hit up Tomato Pie last weekend with Brother Noah who, contrary to how his name sounds, is not in the Nation of Islam nor does he brew beer in Belgium.

Tomato Pie, for those who don't know, was one of only two LA pizza parlors to make it on GQ editor Alan Richman's list of the nation's best. I wasn't able to get a full pie, so this isn't a full evaluation, but the two slices I got were easily the best I've had in LA. Most notably, the crust was crisp without being burnt, holding its shape despite being New York thin. I'll be curious to see if this holds up on a full pie, as the second cooking that pizza by the slice undergoes can go a long way to crisp up the crust.

First slice was the signature "Grandma," the same pizza Richman swooned over (didn't know that at the time). Hot, fresh-tasting crushed tomatoes and fresh garlic topped with a fistful of Italian herbs and pecorino cheese. Simple but still flavorful and full-bodied.

Second slice was the "Syracuse," a sort of "hot wing" pizza with grilled chicken, wing sauce, spices, red onion, and ranch. This one rocked. The spicy sauce set off the slightly bland crust well and the chicken was amazingly not overcooked. The crust was pooled with olive oil (in a good way) that didn't soak through the crisp crust. I don't like greasy pizzas, but I love oily ones if the oil's good. This slice really kicked the ass of its Two Boots analogue, the "Bird."

I was impressed by the balance of toppings, quality of the crust, and Buddhist Middle-Way distribution of cheese. From a menu standpoint, the mix of traditional pizzas like the "Grandma" with more adventurous options was refreshing. It was neither the uber-refined pretention of a high-end Mozza rip-off or the hipster pretention of a Two Boots; it was simply good honest pizza at a fair $3 a slice (cheaper than Two Boots).

Complaints? Yes. Still not enough salt in the crust (the edge tasted a bit like an Italian restaurant breadstick) and I could even go with something a little froofy in the crust like a tiny bit of red pepper or oregano. But that wouldn't be very New York.

It's too bad they don't deliver to my neighborhood as they're a good step above the (still quite tasty) Purgatory Pizza and a whole lot better than Rocket Pizza.

So there we have it, Tomato Pie is the first pizzeria in LA to get the full 100% HFF Seal of Approval. I'll have the seals printed up right quick.

Tomato Pie
2457 Hyperion Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90027

Sunday, November 29, 2009

HFF Re-Returns (again): Maverick

There are very very few restaurants that I return to regularly, or at least at the premium dining level (places that'll set you back at least a hundred bucks for two). They were uncommon in SF and are currently rare (non-existent?) in LA. But a holiday weekend stumble back up to the Bay took me to one of my favorites for the nth time: Maverick.

So what brings me back to a restaurant time and again? It's worth a musing or five....

1. Value. This is essential. It's not a matter of inexpensiveness (good inexpensive places I'll go to weekly in some cases), but rather a sense of satisfaction with my dining experience combined with a feeling of not only not being robbed but that I got a good, solid deal. I've had fabulous meals at restaurants I'll never return to. This isn't because of sticker shock (I knew what I was getting in to) but because the fabulousness was matched by restaurants at half the price. Maverick delivers on that count, with prices 10-20% less than comparable restaurants.

2. Variety. If there's a restaurant I enjoy but it's a place where I can essentially eat through most of the menu in a couple visits with friends, I'm not going back regularly, except in the rare instance there's something truly indispensable (i.e. Zuni's chicken). Maverick tweaks its menu daily and makes wholesale changes frequently, making each trip a chance to try something new.

3. Atmosphere. A restaurant's a place to hang out. I'm more than competent in the home kitchen to prepare interesting food, so going out to eat is as much about enjoying the space and service as the food (provided the quality hits a certain benchmark). And that's tough to pull off. I'm turned off by overly attentive service and overly stuffy spaces, no matter how elegant (cf Aureole in Las Vegas) but something a place too cheap and brightly lit has the same effect. And once again Maverick--simple, uncomplicated space that's perfectly lit, dark, and welcoming--succeeds. Service has been the one inconsistency, ranging from friendly but inattentive to quiet and withdrawn.

4. Consistency. Otherwise good restaurants have been dragged done by consistent inconsistencies. For instance Bendean never had good desserts, Chez Panisse Cafe's entrees were always heavily outshined by its appetizers, and Zuni never seemed to pull anything out of its hat that was ever as retardedly great as its chicken. Maverick has had a few individual duds here and there but nothing categorical, nothing reliably problematic.

5. Wine. Wine has proved to be more of a problem in LA than SF, where most high quality independent restaurants have a nice diversity of wines from small producers and boutique importers. But in LA I've encountered restaurants with killer food that have wine lists that don't go beyond a Whole Foods selection. But then there are lists that can diverge into total wine geekery (Hotel Biron, A Cote), which is great for me but is not, I imagine, for everyone. Maverick has an approachable list with plenty of noble options from small producers coupled with a nice cluster of esoteric oddballs.

So on to this meal.... We hit Maverick up with a five-top and tasted through basically half of the small menu.

First round: we started with a couple salads. The grilled persimmon salad was fresh and fall-y, though the featured persimmons were second-fiddle to the Little Gems lettuce, so billing the salad as "grilled persimmon" was kinda bogus. The second salad, chioggia beets, was delicious and beet-laden. We also finished up with a baked cheese and apple dish, tasty but unmemorable.

After the salads we had chicken liver pate--rich, creamy, and only slightly livery, pretty fabulous--and the salt-cured sardines. The sardines kicked ass, like giant meaty (and less salty) anchovies.

The entrees shown spectacularly. The buttermilk fried chicken was as good as ever. My pork shoulder was rich, tender, and perfectly paired with the braised cabbage and cippolini onions. The braised lamb brisket was one of the best pieces of lamb I've had and reports on the winter squash ravioli in leek broth and grilled hanger steak with fries & turnip/radish/pea sprouts were strongly positive. I didn't try the last two.

Desserts hit the brakes though, in the form of an odd sweet cheese-y profiterole dish that was neither sweet enough nor savory enough to really make sense. It was just kinda unpleasant. Our other dessert, something chocolatey that I don't quite remember, was very good, as was the cheese preparation.

Wine-wise we did it up with a couple bottles of our own (an 03 Mendocino Zin and an 05 South African Pinot Noir) along with a nice toasty Cava and a brisk Georgian (the country) white that was round and fruity, in stark contrast to the often bitter, underripe selections I've had from that country.

If you're in the Bay Area and still haven't hit up Maverick, please do. It's a great, locally-owned eatery that's doing everything right. Plus, it won't break the bank when compared to other dinner options in the neighborhood.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wherein the Protagonist Reflects Upon His Time as a Food Blogger and What the Future of Web-Based Food Writing Should Hold

I've been doing this a long fucking time. I've been blogging since 2001 and food blogging since 2006, longer than most of these other fuckers out there.

I'll admit that those early posts do look a lot like current food blogs. Course by course critiques with photos, vital details about the business, an overll evaluation, and a cost recap. Reasonably well written but dull.

I quickly moved away from that because an attempt at critical evaluation of restaurants is pointless. It's also steeped in exoticism and mysticism, of the bizarre otherness of food and dining. It reinforces the notion of restaurant dining as a bingo adventure, marking off cuisines and chefs like they're merit badges for your Boy Scout sash. But no amount of merit badges can hide the fact that you were diddled by your scoutmaster.

So I changed my approach. I decided to write about extremes, loves and hates. Anything I like, I love. Anything i dislike I hate. Mild annoyances I portray as inexcusable affronts, simple pleasures are worthy accomplishments. And crucially i try not to write about the in betwen or when I do I attempt to put it on its ear. I fuck it up at least half the time, but I think when things click it's pretty entertaining.

So I spent a night out a little while ago eating my through late night LA on a semi-organized junket that included foodies, bloggers, Yelp!ers and a bunch of other annoying people.

We bounced around town and I quickly found myself needing to fight the urge to gouge my eyes out with a chopstick. From the orgasmic fawning over the pork belly slider (good sure, but it's fucking pork belly in sweet barbecue sauce--not exactly a tricky feat of tastymaking. Like being an Asian woman with clear skin. It's easy) to the delighted squeals over the raw wriggling octopus, I was engulfed in a cloud of self-congratulatory ether.

The octopus squeals were the worst. I'm all for adventurous eating but eating sliced, raw, convulsing octopus isn't that. It's Fear Factor. It's a food dare. I've had octopus countless times and like it. This dish tasted like chewy nothing and chewy nothing is not good food.

At it's heart, eating is about fulfilling that basic human need. Ideally that act should be as pleasant and stimulating as possible but you aren't a special person for enjoying it. You're just a living thing. You aren't a great guy because you spent $300 on dinner at Bouchon. In fact you're kinda retarded. And I've been that retard numerous times.

Enjoy your food. Go out and have a good time and experience your meal for the simple transitory pleasure that it is--nothing more than that. Don't go out collecting Michelin stars and throwing up point scores and star ratings. Start being part of the solution and let's change how we talk about food and dining.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Salt Your Crust Motherfuckers!

I like pizza a lot. I've posted about pizza before. I like simple sleazy pizzas (Lanesplitter, Gioia) and classy roccola-topped wood-fired pizzas (A16, Pizzeria Delfina).

In LA I was underwhelmed by Two Boots but had a good experience with LaRocco's in Culver City and now Purgatory Pizza in LA's Boyle Heights. Well balanced, nice toppings, good sauce. But what I've encountered at all of the above (except Lanesplitter & Gioia) is way-the-fuck undersalted crusts.

A16 and Delfina are able to squeak by because their crusts are well-made, yeasty, razor thin, and cooked at blistering heat. But when you don't have those luxuries, undersalted pizza dough tastes like, well, dough.

The motive to undersaltiness makes sense on a superficial level. You're topping your pie with a whole shit-tonne of salty ingredients: cheese, pepperoni, tomato sauce (which is also often undersalted), so why blow all your salt load on the crust? Logical, if your comprehension of logic goes as far as "the more firefighters sent to a fire, the more damage the fire causes--therefore we should send fewer firefighters to fires." You're not throwing the pizza in a blender before you eat it. You have to eat the crust so you need salt in the crust too.

Salt salt salt salt! Put it in the crust! The crust is 1/3 of the pizza, it's not ancillary. It's what makes a pizza a pizza, show it some respect.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures on Larchmont Blvd.

Larchmont Boulevard sucks. It really really sucks. There's all of one good business on Larchmont: Larchmont Village Wine Spirits & Cheese. It's great that the more-money-than-sense Hancock Park crowd likes to think of Larchmont as "LA's Main Street," but if that's the case then LA's about as interesting as Diamond Bar or West Covina.

Although it is one of the few places where you can enjoy Starbucks, Peet's, Coffee Bean, Jamba Juice, AND Blockbuster, all in one fantastically dull little block. Main Street Pleasanton looks like a fucking Normal Rockwell painting compared to Larchmont.

(Main Street Pleasanton kinda does look like a Norman Rockwell painting.)

"Oh wow look at me, I'm going to go out of my five million dollar mansion and walk over to Larchmont Boulevard to enjoy spending my money that I earned the hard way--by being the child of a wealthy parents. What's a better way to spend money in a classy tasteful way than with a Pumpkin Spice Latte and some Jamba Breads while I go and patronize a video rental store for some inexplicable reason?"

Why are you still going to a video store?

"But we are so lucky to have this street with all these great amenities that CAN ONLY BE FOUND RIGHT HERE and not IN EVERY SUBURBAN STRIP MALL IN CALIFORNIA."

Which makes all this hullabaloo over Larchmont Bungalow kinda quaint.

On one side: Albert Mizrahi, Larchmont real estate investor who appears to value nothing but getting his buildings rented out to the highest bidder.

On the other: I Love Larchmont Blvd., a group of neighborhood residents who for some reason see Larchmont as a Blvd worth saving.

And you know what? Larchmont is worth saving, but preserving the shitty boutiques and coffee shops isn't the answer. There's no reason Larchmont can't be something simultaneously local and a destination, like Venice's Abbot Kinney Blvd. I blame the out-of-date tastes and NIMBYism of Larchmont's residents.

In the middle (or actually on the Mizrahi side) is Larchmont Bungalow, a newcomer to the block that, despite signing documents with the city stipulating it would be retail/take-out only, threw up tables and chairs and prepared a menu that's pretty clearly not meant for a primarily takeaway establishment.

So the Bungalow, which is Mizrahi-backed, is facing stiff protest from I Love Larchmont Blvd. And ILLB has a powerful ally in local councilmember Tom LaBonge.

So what's my analysis? Larchmont DESPERATELY needs an actually good restaurant, so allowing for the Larchmont Bungalow property (which would make a beautiful restaurant spot) to be rezoned should happen. All reports from the food at Larchmont Bungalow would suggest that this is not going to be that "actually good restaurant."

So ILLB needs to calm down and get with the times. Good restaurants can be the anchor that revitalizes a neighborhood. Holding on to a long-gone ideal of a "main street" is pointless. Other than a pharmacy and, if you're a wine drinker, Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits & Cheese, there's no business on Larchmont Blvd that a resident would ever need to patonize on a weekly basis. If you want your street to stay local, actually shop at your local businesses so they can stay in business.

But if Mizrahi thinks he can turn Larchmont into a Robertson Blvd or a Third Street Promenade, he's also delusional. Hancock Park is too old and too rich to submit to the usual bully real estate tactics. (Though it is strange that they even let Mizrahi get hold of that many buildings--couldn't the neighborhood pool together $23M pretty readily? Buy their own neighborhood!) Robertson Blvd was a sleepy street on the middle-class fringes of Beverly Hills and West LA ripe for the picking, not an established retail district in LA's oldest millionaire 'hood.

But hell, I'm tired of talking about it.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Yelp! Attack

Not food related, but Yelp! related.

Some breaking (ish) news from the SF Weekly Blog. Apparently a disgruntled book store owner tracked down a customer who had written a negative review of her shop, Ocean Avenue Books. She allegedly harassed him via Yelp! and email (Yelp! took down two of her accounts) before showing up at his front door and assaulting him movie passes.

But let's be realistic here, writing a negative review of a neighborhood book store is like selling your own meth in prime Hells Angels territory. It's a death wish. Book store owners, by their very nature, are mentally unstable, especially when you refer to their no doubt disorganized store as "a total mess."

Those boxes of books are stacked that way to prevent the Pope from getting herpes. Duh.

Plus, their website's straight out of 1999:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quick Myths Busted!

A recent episode of Bored to Death reminded me of a few food/drink myths and half-truths that annoy the fuck out of me.

1. VODKA IS MADE FROM POTATOES. Vodka is not made from potatoes. Some vodka is, but the majority of vodka is made from grain or beet molasses. Many American vodka producers are using grapes as well. Vodka as a beverage predates the potato's introduction to Europe. Potato vodka developed in the 19th century as it was a cheaper alternative to grain and could also be used to scale-up production. Improvements in distilling have rendered the cost difference between potatoes and grains essentially moot, but many vodka connoisseurs still consider potato vodka to be a lesser quality spirit, though I personally like the flavor.

2. RED WINE HAS MORE SULFITES THAN WHITE WINE. Wrong. Incor-fucking-rect. Though many ignorant read-half-the-study douche bags presume this is so because they always get a worse hangover from their shitty red Yellow Tail than from their shitty white Yellow Tail and decide to blame it on the "sulfites" and not on the fact they drank cheap sugar and cogener laced rotgut. Red wine is red because the grape juice remains in contact with the grape skins. Along with color comes flavor and natural preservatives in the form of tannins. White wine has fewer natural preservatives than red so winemakers add a bigger dose of SO2 to maintain wine stability (EU has a maximum threshold of 160ppm for red but 220ppm for white). And let me also say: the addition of sulfur dioxide to wine goes back well over a thousand years. It's not bad for you unless you're in the minuscule proportion of the population with an actual sulfur allergy, which involves an anaphylactic response, not just a little headache and some congestion. The best way to avoid a hangover is to drink less and drink better. I've gone through bottles of good stuff and woken up the next morning none the worse for wear, but I've also had two glasses of Lindemann's Shiraz and woken up with a splitting headache.

3. WHITE WINE HAS LESS ALCOHOL THAN RED WINE. Not true. Perhaps in general the average alcohol content of red wine might be a bit higher than white wine, owing to the existence of some 16+% alcohol bombs, but there are as many 15% burn-your-throat white wines as there are mellow 12% alcohol reds. Just read the labels. Chances are your oaky California Chardonnay has a higher alcohol content than that earthy Cotes-du-Rhone.

That's all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shake-Ups in the Wine Business

I apologize for this very business-related post since I think most of y'all probably don't give a fuck. But word on the street is Kermit Lynch Imports, the Berkeley-based importer of arguably the best Burgundies and Southwestern French wines in the country, has left the Henry Wine Group.

Henry Wine Group is one of the largest (if not the largest) California-exclusive wine distributor and s known for having the biggest selection of wines that good restaurants and retailers would actually carry. There are a few bigger multi-state companies, but they mostly carry prestige imports and mediocre mass-produced crap. Henry had the good shit or, at least, the decent shit.

But after having lost Italian powerhouse Winebow Imports last year and Kermit Lynch now (and Spanish oak-monger Jorge Ordonez teetering on the brink of departure), Henry Wine Group appears to be hurting bad.

"The economy" has damaged the wine business, but only kinda. It has damaged the companies that chased prestige wines like Bordeaux and California Cult Cabernets--they've seen their sales numbers plummet. Many of these companies left themselves with few inexpensive wines and the inexpensive wines that they have are so ubiquitous that restaurants and retailers who pride themselves on uniqueness and distinction aren't interested in them, leaving them for chain restaurants and hotels. Distributors who were already positioned for distinctive value are swooping in to take advantage.

Additionally, with better maneuverability, lower overhead, generally better customer service, and more distinction, mid-sized distributors can more easily weather the storm and many are even experiencing singificant growth. People are still going to drink they're just drinking differently. Margins are down but volume's up. They want value across the board.

In my cursory research for this article I stumbled upon Steve Heimoff's Wine Blog and this post in particular about the current financial instability of the wine business caught my attention. What struck me was this quote:

"What California brands will they buy? One clue to that is to see who’s hiring in the sales, marketing and finance areas at The Wine Group. Don Sebastiani & Sons. Henry Wine Group. Bronco. Gallo. Brands, in other words, that hope to be competitive in 2009’s tough economy."

Or maybe these companies are hiring because instability and uncertainty in the corporate structure has seen people leave and get re-organized. Long-time reps are moving to different companies or being forced out, opening up space for newer, cheaper employees. And in a business world where your sales staff is paid largely on commission, there's not a lot of financial risk in hiring more feet on the street as a last-ditch effort to improve sales. Hiring can be just as much a sign of instability, desperation, and flux as it can be a signifier of stability and growth. These could be brands that are doing whatever they can to hold on by the last shred of cotton in their ass cracks brought on by the wedgie that is 2009's tough economy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Honesty Honestly

Over a pleasant Dine LA lunch with a friend at Water Grill, I think I distilled what's at the root of my disdain for restaurants that I, well, have disdain for.

They're dishonest.

I understand that this is wholly subjective and based in nothing more than my own phantasmagoric knee-jerk opinions. I'm just elaborately and self-importantly justifying my own decisions. But hey, that's food writing.

Take the restaurants I've recently "panned":

LudoBites. Claim? "Combine Old World simplicity and New World imagination in innovative dishes to tantalize diners' taste buds." Reality? Middling vanity operation with more style than substance.

Two Boots. Claim? Cajun-tinged take on classic New York pizza. Reality? Over-reaching and under-performing limp crusted mediocrity.

Akasha. Claim? "New American cuisine offering comfort food with big flavors and sustainable ingredients, for carnivores and herbivores alike." Reality? Decent organic home-cooking in a million dollar dining room for fine-dining prices.

(As an aside--would LA restaurants please stop putting their business plan mission statements on their websites? Holy crap, no casual visitor to your site cares that the Westside Tavern is: "
An expansive, social and urban-minded restaurant, Westside Tavern features chef-driven yet affordable interpretations of California Tavern Cuisine alongside a complementary selection of fresh cocktails, craftsman beers and thoughtful wines. Encompassing 10,400 square feet and 300 seats, Westside Tavern is open for dinner daily and is designed to be used as a casually upscale gathering place by a broad cross section of Los Angeles professionals.")

The restaurants that I like are honest. They either make no claim to be anything in particular or they make a claim that they live up to. Bar Pintxo claims to be a reasonably authentic Basque tapas bar. Done. CitySip claims to be a friendly neighborhood wine bar. Done. Wurstkuche serves sausage, fries, and beer. Done. Church & State claims to be a French brasserie/bistro. Aces. All these places do what they do and they do it well and fairly.

That's all that it takes. Really. No high-falutin' concept. No crazy cushy chairs. No booths full of lithe models and swarthy men in stripy shirts and designer jeans. None of that.

Just be honest.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Tha Dolla' Dolla' Billz Behind Wine Pricing Y'All

An answer to the question you've never asked but always thought. How is wine priced?

Retail Shops:
The standard margin for independent wine shops is net 33%. So 50% over wholesale. If they pay $10 a bottle from the distributor they sell it for $15--when you consider general boutique retailers (jeans, skin care, shoes, et al) run a net 50% or higher, wine shops are giving you a deal.

Grocery stores will generally run a tighter margin, as they do with all their products. It's usually a net 10% give or take. When you couple that margin with huge volume (buying 2000 cases of a wine for regional distribution will get you better price then three cases for a stack in a small shop) then you see how grocery stores can fill their shelves with <$10 wines when most independent shops can't.

There're also a handful of independent "discount" wine shops that run out of warehouses, shop around for close-outs, and generally keep a lower overhead. Here you'll find wine at a net 15% but you'll have to travel pretty far afield and/or not get the hands-on customer service that you'll get from a neighborhood shop. Worth it for big ticket items maybe, but not to save a buck or two on an everyday wine. Some big hybrid discount/specialty retailers run a net 20%-25%.

Finally there are some shops that specialize exclusively in close-outs, odd lots, and grey market direct imports. Trader Joe's gets most of their imports on this market. Here you'll find wine at crazy low prices and it'll often be wine you don't see any place else. But just because it's cheap doesn't necessarily mean it's a good deal. Distributors and importers will close-out wines for pennies and since there's nothing else around to compare against, the store can pretty much fix its price. And grey market direct importing means cutting out the middle man and quasi-legally sidestepping California regulations.

In my opinion you should do most of your shopping at your neighborhood boutique wine shop and hit up your local discounter, Costco, or Cost Plus for your pricey gifts if you want to save a few bucks or you're buying for a party. Generally speaking, grocery stores don't sell wine worth drinking.

It used to be that margins were pretty standard. Neighborhood spots marked up their wine about 3x wholesale, upscale restaurants closer to 4x, and fine-dining could be as high as 5x wholesale. Glass price was generally set at 1/4 or 1/5 bottle price depending on the size of the pour.

In Los Angeles, all that is out the window. Some nice restaurants have really aggressive wine prices and some neighborhood dives are running French Laundry prices on wine. Particularly interesting is the "glass first" approach where a glass of wine is priced at the wholesale bottle cost and then the bottle is priced at triple the glass price. It makes for fair bottle prices but freaking expensive glasses of wine.

At the same time I'm seeing a trending toward lower bottle prices with new restaurants like Bar Brix and Noir Cafe pricing their wine at just over 2x wholesale. A shrewd move in my opinion--sell two $24 bottles of wine instead of one $36 bottle. The customer gets more variety and the business moves more product and makes less margin but more real cash. That's what all businesses need to look to do right now.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Great LA Pulled Pork Face-Off

I love pulled pork. Really, I seriously fucking love pulled pork. It's the coming together of my favorite meat, the fatty delicious pig, and my favorite cooking technique, slow-roasting. The added practice of pulling the meat off the bone in delicious, fatty tendrils of gooey transcendent tastycakes is merely a bonus.

I had the pleasure of sampling a few different LA pulled porks recently. A critique:

The Oinkster: A super meaty style. Thin shreds of pork with minimal embellishment on a nicely baked bun. At the Oinkster they hedge their bets by having all the sauces available on the side instead of committing to dosing the meat in just one sauce. The price can't be beat and the meat is of excellent quality. That's right, I used beat and meat in the same four word phrase. The Oinkster's fries with aioli rock, too.

Lou: Killer fatty Niman Ranch pork with cabbage slaw on, again, a great bun. Lou opted for a heavier dose of sweat and spicy sauce than at the Oinkster. That's not a bad thing. I'm a firm believer in a chef not being afraid to lay on the sauce as long as its good and adds to the quality of the dish. The Lou pulled pork fits that bill.

The Park: This wasn't a pulled pork sandwich, but rather a pile of pulled pork with cabbage slaw and a sweet corn pudding. The Park uses fattier Kurobuta pork and it's not a waste. Their pulled pork has a richer, fattier quality to it. The slaw, using Napa cabbage, was very nice.

So in the end? I still really like the pulled pork sandwich at T-Rex in Berkeley in terms of quality for the price. Lou's sandwich was delicious but not much more so than the one from The Oinkster and The Oinskter's sandwich is half the price. The Park's corn pudding rocks but I can't really compare that one to the others since it's not a sandwich.

The Oinkster is the closest to real Carolina pulled pork that I've had and, as long as you're willing the go nuts with the a la carte sauce, you're in good shape. Go for it.

The Oinkster

Lou On Vine

The Park Restaurant

Sunday, September 27, 2009

LudoBites - A Belated "Meh."

This post has been stuck in the pipeline longer than Baby Jessica. I apologize, but unlike her I don't have access to waterjet cutting.

A primer: LudoBites is the "guerrilla pop-up restaurant" from Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, late of Bastide and L'Orangerie. Currently on hiatus, LudoBites ran for three months over this past summer in the evenings at BreadBar on Third Street.

Chef Ludo seems to be in that family of LA chefs who, thanks to a slick website, good looks, and a strong PR man or two, prematurely claim "celebrity" status. Prematurely is a poor choice of words--maybe unsubstantiatedly? If being behind the counter at a couple locally renowned restaurants makes you a celebrity chef, I have a couple dozen ex-French Laundry folks for you to sign to development deals.

There's also a charming naivete to the average Los Angeles diner. They're easily distracted by bells and whistles like foam, foie gras, and the novelty of oddly juxtaposed ingredients. It's cute. In other major dining cities--San Francisco, New York, Chicago--these odd juxtapositions, trendy ingredients, whimsical preparations are merely the jumping off points for quality innovative dining. There's nothing wrong with using cute ingredients, but use it in the service of a higher art. Make it the culinary equivalent of Peter Jackson's live-action/CGI-integration in Lord of the Rings, not an eye-catching Michael Bay plotless special-effects bore.

I'm going to be careful with my discussion here of LudoBites because I did have a good meal. It was well-made, sometimes intriguing, and overall pleasant. But at the end of the night I paid premium prices for what was, in my mind, a moderately compelling meal conceived and prepared by the equivalent of an adventurous, talented home cook. Couple that with a dining room and service quality that was uncomfortable and amateur you have a situation where you're paying Lucques prices for a Zankou Chicken service experience.

It's not to question Chef Ludo's pedigree--he's got a good resume, no doubt--but LudoBites was greatly lacking. Maybe it was the kitchen, designed to bake bread and make sandwiches and salads, not prepare fine dining entrees. Or maybe it's the LA diner that demands foie gras and squid ink rather than interesting innovative food. Or maybe it was the uncomfortable stools and nearly-competent servers. Or maybe it's just "meh."

Having a look at the LudoBites menu, it reads fairly impressively. But the preparations themselves were sloppy and inelegant--assembled with a heavy hand. That's where the home cook criticism comes in. I could buy ham, foie gras, bread, slap the ingredients together and grill it to the level of Chef Ludo's kitchen. In fact I do it, sans foie gras, a couple times a week. But I can't wrap a perfectly-packaged panino like Bacaro or the Cheese Store of Silverlake.

Throwing foie gras on a decent grilled cheese sandwich is like bolting implants on a bucktoothed hooker. Worth your time? Maybe. Worth the money? No. Fine dining isn't about indulging in luxury products for the sake of indulging in them or experiencing a bacon-maple cupcake for the sake of the story.

Contrasting LudoBites with its closest cousin I've experienced, Le Pigeon in Portland, shows LudoBites falling short on all counts. Where Le Pigeon did weird and whimsical steeped in honest innovation and virtuosic preparation, LudoBites wallows in high-concept just enough-itude.

LudoBites' chocolate cupcake with foie gras chantilly and maple-bacon crumbles is the strongest case in point and contrasts disfavorably with Le Pigeon's foie gras pumpkin pie. In LudoBites' case, the cupcake itself was of a quality on par with what you might get at a Kindergarten birthday party, the chantilly was liver-y, and the bacon-maple bits were tooth-crackingly carbonized.

At LudoBites, the menu description intrigues you enough to draw you in, but so does a neon marquee advertising "Live Nude Girls." Either way in the end you leave kinda happy but with a lighter wallet and the vague sensation that you've been scammed.

LudoBites (on hiatus)
8718 West Third St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90048

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Standing in Line at Wurstkuche

You're excited. It makes sense. Ever since Marketplace profiled your favorite Downtown LA sausage house you've been jonesing to go back. Sure you've only ever had the bratwurst and a Fentinman's ginger brew, but in your mind you eat the rattlesnake and rabbit on a tri-weekly basis while pounding yards of Kwak and hitting on svelte portfolio-toting coeds from Sci-Arc.

You walk through the parted sliding warehouse doors--like entering the vagina of a concrete Decepticon--and find a line. Not a crazy long line, but a line. Maybe a dozen or so people split up into a handful of groups. It's okay. This won't get in the way of your lunch break. After all, you have a whole hour to get there and back to your Bunker Hill cubicle.

But what's this? Twenty minutes have gone by and you haven't moved. Why might this be? Everyone's looking at menus. It's not that complicated at Wurstkuche. Twenty or so sausages, two sizes of frites, and a whole lot of beer. I mean, admittedly you do have to pick two toppings for your sausage. And that's two toppings from an imposing menu of four. With those odds you have only a 75% chance of getting at least one topping you like. Those are odds that'll confuse even the most moronic autistic bookie.

Forty-five minutes roll by with the ease of a Speedo-rockin' Venice Beach denizen on RollerBlades ™ and somehow you've barely moved. Apparently selecting a sausage and deciding on onions versus sauerkraut takes the mental discipline of a seventh generation zen master. And that's without considering the anguish you'll have to go through over the dipping sauces. Sure every sauce is delicious, but you have to choose your two most delicious sauces. Because if you choose wrong, you know what happens? You will only have a VERY delicious sauce instead of the MOST delicious sauce.

Do you dare make such sacrifice?

Do you?

DO YOU?!?!

But finally you make it to the counter and you still have ten minutes to grab your sausage and, I guess, eat at your desk next to the photos of your ex-wife and your Joe Jonas poster while listening to your "Coldplay" channel on Pandora. But at least you have your sausage. Bratwurst again, but, well, hey--maybe next time.

The moral of the story? Sack up and order your damn sausage. It's not that hard. No wonder your wife's fucking the pool boy. And Wurstkuche? Put a freaking menu above the service counter. Christ, it's not that hard. Buy some fucking chalkboard paint. You deserve it. You're delicious.

800 East 3rd St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90013

Sunday, September 06, 2009

HFF on the Road: Jerome, AZ - Day 3

It's so rare in this post-iPhone UrbanSpoon App-age to dine at a restaurant that isn't on the e-radar SOMEWHERE. But I experienced such a phenomenon on our return trip from Jerome.

We opted to take the mountain highways back, as they run the hypotenuse from Jerome to Blythe. Two lane roads versus interstate, but there's a whole helluva lot more character. And I love the Highway 50 drive through the Sierra Nevadas, but US 60 through the Colorado Plateau is pretty goddamn beautiful. It takes you through the (relative) metropolis of Prescott but other than that you're dealing with ranches and creepy trailer park oases waiting for their snowbirds.

Prescott, Arizona came too early for us to be hungry, which was somewhat unfortunate as we discovered that it was basically the only place with multiple food options until, well, Palm Springs (not counting fast food options, naturally).

So we drove and drove and drove and drove and we got really fucking hungry and then we saw it, shimmering on the horizon, some sort of diner. We pulled off the freeway. We ate there.

The establishment in question is Steve & Shelley Bergeson's Ranch House. A thorough google search yielded nothing so it's a good thing I took a picture of the menu.

This was the sort of cash-only greasy spoon with a motorcycle-filled parking lot that exists in my imagination of Hollister is like. Once we found the door to get in, we were greeted warmly and found the place freaking packed. Which given its status as the only place for a home cooked meal for sixty miles makes sort of sense. The menu is a pretty typically diner selection of breakfast favorites with a vague white southwestern tinge.

Service was prompt and friendly and the food was good. My breakfast burrito was retardedly huge, loaded with eggs, potatoes, and peppers. Grandmaster A got a combo loaded with pancakes, eggs, bacon, and a biscuit/gravy combo. Biscuit & gravy was a real shining star, though the applewood bacon was also freaking tasty.

So really, in the world of random sit-down road trip lunhces, this was tops. My only complaint was as follows....

Somehow, our lunch which was advertised at costing ~$18 based on our listed prices ended up somehow coasting close to $40. Sure we got coffee. Sure we got "smothered" hash browns as our sides. But paying double what the listed menu price is makes me think that we were involved in a tourist scam.

And honestly? I don't object. This makes perfect sense. Why not scam douchebags who are cruising through your town to make a buck? Makes sense to me. It was the totally transparent nature of the upsell that pissed me off. "Do you want coffee?" Sure. "Do you want onions and peppers with your hashbrowns?" Fine. "Do you want to pay significantly more for nominal flavor enhancements to your dishes?" Why yes I do! Thanks for asking.

So, despite all the positives I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. It makes me less likely to go BACK to the Bergeson Ranch House on subsequent visits on Arizona highway 60....

Okay, not the most likely scenario, so maybe they're onto a new business model.

Other than being scammed and raped, it was a good restaurant, it's just disappointing that they would resort to such quotidian money stretching maneuvers.

As our day continued we ended up not being hungry again so we basically just kept driving and there isn't anything more to write about. Except for our evening Echo Park cocktail party courtesy of Pharmacie, so....

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

HFF on the Road: Jerome, AZ - Day 2

Day Two was the big day. This was the day we were spending with Paula Woolsey, AZ Stronghold's national marketing director, former co-owner of The Asylum, and the woman who has just maybe done more for Arizona wine's visibility than even Maynard himself.

We met up with Paula at the Flatiron Cafe in Jerome, a tiny corner restaurant on the approach into town. Little coffee counter with about eight seats inside but they also have seating at the patio across the street--a bonus on this warm morning. The cafe's got an upstairs kitchen that throws out some pretty cool sophisticated takes on southwestern food and diner cuisine. My breakfast burrito was simple and clean--egg, chorizo, nopales, et al nicely griddled. The patio was great though we had to deal with a gaggle of sexagenarians demanding that the vintage clothing store upstairs open up. Apparently the three blocks of Jerome was far too large of a city to be roaming around in waiting for a store to open. No doubt they were really looking forward to complaining about the prices and not buying anything.

Paula drove us out to Page Springs Cellars, giving us a roundabout tour of the Cornville wine country: Merkin Vineyards, Maynard's produce market (it's the most organic market in the world, if you don't mind the limited selection), and John McCain's driveway. Apparently "Sedona Cabin" sounds better than "Cornville Ranch," no matter if that ranch isn't within a Navy plane crash of Sedona.

We had vague plans to visit a couple other wineries but Page Springs was far more compelling than we anticipated so, well, the rest of Arizona's wines will have to be saved for another trip.

I've learned two things in AZ:
1. Eric Glomski is a talented winemaker.
2. Arizona is uniquely suited to aromatic white varietals.

As regards point one--it's hard to quantify, but I tasted through a large array of Glomski's wines from many different vineyard sites and they were all well-made, nicely structured, and compelling. Transcendent? Only some. Good? All.

As regards point two--holy fucking shit, Page Springs can make the fuck out of Malvasia Bianca, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and blends therefrom. And, actually, some tasty Chardonnay as well.

A few (two) reasons for this:

1. Heavily volcanic soils. Northern Arizona is covered in volcanic soil. Serious, it's like a Peter North volcano went to town on the earth and the earth liked it.
2. Although it's hot as hell in much of Arizona during the day, it gets really cold at night. Lots of wine regions get to 100 degrees during the day (Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi), but not as many get to close to freezing at night. In fact, frost is the biggest problem Arizona fruit faces, with UV exposure probably a distant second.

It's an odd coming together of terroir that echoes both cool-climate wine regions like Alsace and hothothot regions like Bierzo and the Alentejo. Godello and Arinto, anyone?

But I think that raises the most interesting question in this whole discussion: why do we insist on describing Arizona in terms of other wine regions? There's a sort of projection of the other aspect to that, no? I suppose that will go away with time: I'm sure in the 1970's the Napa Valley was described in Francophilic terms and Keenan himself talks about his decision to grow grapes in Northern AZ because it "looked like Spain and Portugal."

I'd like to just think of the subregions of AZ--there's actually officially only one AVA--as simply another grape growing region of the USA slowly (quickly?) figuring out what grapes grow well. Sure we can infer some successes based on similar climates--I'm not shocked that Petite Sirah grows so well here or that Pinot Noir doesn't--but we should be open to some surprises. Who would've thought Riesling, that stalwart of cool Alpine climes, would take so well to Arizona?

After tasting through most of the current Page Springs wines in the tasting room, we were given a tour of the creekside estate vineyards. Hermitage-clone Syrah makes up much of the vineyard: its widely spaced clusters resist rot. But Glomski's also planted Chateauneuf clones of Grenache and Mourvedre, California-clone Petite Sirah, and some Cabernet Pfeffer daringly waving about on its own rootstocks. I'm excited to see what Grenache on this site can do, given its similarity to sites in the Rhone and Spain (there I go being all comparative like a shmuck), but the vines are still too young to harvest. Of the Page Springs Estate reds, the Petite Sirah stands out. Full-bodied but not nearly as jammy as some of its California competitors, with a palate-enticing acidity and lots of dusty earth and leather on the nose. This is what French Durif tastes my mind.

After the vineyard tour we headed into the cellar and met the man himself Eric Glomski. He generously popped open a freshly-bottled 2008 PSC Petite Sirah (the first 08 red I've had the pleasure of trying). Tight and shocked to be sure, it quickly lubed up with a few swirls (if only it were that easy), and definitely showed its promise. There seems to be a general excitement about the 08 vintage in AZ.

I plied Eric with a bottle of 06 Domaine Gauby Calcinaires Blanc (have you had a French Muscat-Macabeu blend? I didn't think so) so he shared a couple tank samples of freshly crushed Marsanne and Viognier. You haven't actually tasted grapes until you've had freshly crushed Marsanne--sweeter than Jesus with diabetes, it tastes like a ripe white peach dipped in honey; it'll stick in your memory as vividly as the first time you went south on a girl.

(And it [probably] tastes a helluvalot better.)

And that's not to belittle PSC's Viognier which was also rich and vibrant with some pronounced floral aromatics--they're flirting with Condrieu country here. I'll be curious to see how the finished product compares with the offerings from Demetria in Paso, so far the best non-French Viognier I've had.

And fuck Pride Viognier. If I wanted my wine to taste like shampoo I'd shower with Carlo Rossi. It'd cost me less.

There's still very much a sense of play at Page Springs, from the children's toys in the tasting room to the broad array of varietals on hand. Arizona is the Wild West (east?) of winemaking and there's lots of experimenting to be done. A mix of careful study, educated guesses, gut calls, and whimsy over the coming years will help determine the shape of AZ's flagship grapes.

We wrapped up our visit at Page Springs by picking up a mixed case of whites. Did I mention I liked them? I'm currently sleeping with a bottle of PSC La Serrana Viognier/Roussanne blend, it's stern but still likes to cuddle. Paula dropped us off at our divey motel in Cottonwood (the Connor in Jerome was alas fully booked by a gay New Zealand motorcycle club--I'm only lying about one of those descriptors). We cruised out to Sedona with a plan for dinner and a visit to Slide Rock State Park. Slide Rock was very cool--it's basically a natural waterslide formed by erosion in the slippery bed of Oak Creek. The whole park is pretty fun and (unfortunately) kid friendly.

After surveying our options in Sedona--mostly expensive touristy places--we opted instead to go back into Jerome, having still not gotten enough of the town. Dinner was at Quince, a Cal-Mexican diner offering big portions and good prices, as well as the compelling option of "pulled pork" in one's burrito. Nothing to write home about, but a more than solid bet for dining in Jerome when The Asylum's out of your price range.

We walked around Jerome some more and checked out the twilight views before calling it an early night and coasting back to Cottonwood.

In terms of getting Page Springs wines, your best option is to visit the winery on a long weekend from LA. They currently have limited distribution in Arizona and have no intention of expanding outside the state. You can also buy the wine online and some Page Springs wines are available at the Caduceus tasting room in Jerome.

I'm not intennding to sound like an AZ wine geek fanboy, and to be honest I'm no more excited about Northern AZ as I am the Anderson Valley or the Alentejo. It's just exceedingly rare that you can be one of the first outside voices touting the virtues of an emerging region so you better believe I'm going to pimp that for all its worth.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Asylum - Jerome, Arizona

It's exceedingly rare to find a decent restaurant in an out-of-the-way tourist town. Selections are often limited to the kitschy tourist-themed (Uncle Petey's Wacky Mountain Chuck Wagon) to the expensive faux-fancy (Chez Petey's House of Steak and Beans). But befitting an organically atypical town like Jerome, I wasn't surprised that there was at least one top-notch restaurant in town.

They Asylum's located in the Jerome Grand Hotel, a concrete beast that looms above Jerome like Willard Scott's cliffside El Centro sex den. The hotel was originally built in 1927 as the town's hospital and then lay dormant (like much of the town) for most of the second half of the 20th century. In 1994 the hospital was rehabbed into a luxury hotel.

Being a few hundred feet above a town that's already a thousand feet above the valley below affords some of the best views of any restaurant I've been to.

We had a couple local beers at the dark wood-appointed bar and then moved to the patio overlooking the Verde Valley. Appetizer was the fried squid--medium sized squid rings and tentacles lightly dusted and quickly fried and perfectly tender. Well seasoned, not greasy, nice heat from the accompanying spicy aioli. Good stuff.

Our server recommended a really nice inexpensive Pinot Noir (Barra of Mendocino) served at a perfect temperature for out-of-doors dining on an 85 degree night.

Entrees. Grandmaster A had the New Zealand rack of lamb special which was excellent, albeit pricey (unlisted and a good 25% more than the most expensive item on the menu--a practice I'm not too keen on). I had the vegetarian entree--roasted butternut squash with sesame-crusted tofu, brown rice, vegetables, and pickled ginger. Great flavor combinations but an odd preparation: the squash was one big chunk of roasted squash instead of pieces, so it was a bit bland with an inconsistent texture. Mild hiccup.

We also had dessert, it was good--chocolate--don't remember what it was. We were drunk at this point.

Great space, gorgeous views, great wine list, solid food, and fair prices. It's nice to have an opportunity to end a day of exploring that isn't either McDonald's or diarrhea-inducing Mexican food. Worth a stop if you're in the area--near as we could tell it was nicest spot for dinner in the greater Jerome-Cottonwood-Sedona area.

The Asylum
200 Hill St
Jerome, AZ 86331
(928) 639-3197

Thursday, August 20, 2009

HFF On The Road: Jerome, AZ - Day 1

I fucking hate Phoenix. It's admittedly an irrational hatred stemming from one extended visit several years ago where I ended up in the middle of a monsoon and stuck 10 miles of asphalt from anywhere. Still, Phoenix reminds me of the worst parts of the San Fernando Valley without any of the charm of being within 30 miles of the ocean. It's unfair, but it is what it is Phoenix has my title for "Worst Big City in America." And I've been to Philadelphia.

As this was my only exposure to Arizona, my disdain for Phoenix had sort of extended to the entire state. But my relocation to Los Angeles and its relative proximity to the Copper State--along with my general love for deserts--put Arizona back on my radar.

But it was a little tasting at Silverlake Wine that made reconsider what 'Zona had to offer besides binge drinking, blond Republican coeds, and the good half of Lake Havasu (the topless half).

I've always said two things (and I mean ALWAYS):
1. California Wine that's any good is too expensive.
2. California became the wine production capital of the country by accident--a product of Prohibition, a lack of phylloxera, and a lucky break in 1976. New Mexico had more land under vine prior to Prohibition than California did.

Caduceus Cellars turned me on to Arizona wines (though most of the wines aren't 100% Arizona fruit) but AZ Stronghold (partnership between MJ Keenan and Eric Glomski) sold me on what can be had out there. Really nice, food-friendly wines at an attractive price. So I made a few calls, packed up my suitcase, and rode through the desert on a horse with no name. Or rather it's a Kia Soul with a name that I won't disclose (let's just say it rhymes with paint yockey).

My travel partner on this journey was Grandmaster A--friend since elementary school and frequent co-adventurer to places as far afield as Denver, Japan, and Anaheim. We got an early start and hit the state line by lunch time. As we debated our fast food preferences (both having jobs that keep us on the road a lot, we've redeveloped an appreciation for quick cheap eats that belie our organic mindsets). We agreed El Pollo Loco to be our favorite but hunger and an empty gas tank found us at a Burger King in Blythe.

We both grabbed the "Angry Tendercrisp Sandwich." Crispy chicken breast on a roll with lettuce, tomatoes, fried onion strips, jalapenos, cheese, bacon, and a spicy mayo. To our shock and awe the sandwich looked surprisingly like the picture on the wall and I'm not embarrassed to say that it was fucking good. Juicy, drippy, spicy--and not cheap. Since when did a fast food sandwich and some onion rings cost eight dollars? A couple bucks more and I'm getting Oinkster. Meh.

The next exit had an El Pollo Loco.

There are two ways to get to Jerome, AZ (where you'l find the Caduceus tasting room). You can take a straight shot on I-10 through Phoenix and cut north on I-17 to SR-89A or you can cut northeast at Blythe and take a series of mountain highways through a series of high desert trailer park oases. Unfamiliar with the terrain, we stayed on the interstate this time (our return trip would be different). The low desert country gives way quickly as you make your way up the Colorado Plateau out of the Lynchian hellscape of Phoenix into the Coen Brothersian heckscape of rural Arizona. Scrub desert gives way to saguaro forest, then rocklands, until you get to the fringes of good old-fashioned Ponderosa pine forests.

We sped through the local metropolis of Cottonwood (pop. 11,000), wound our way through no less than three roundabouts with central berms so high you couldn't see oncoming traffic, negating the purpose of roundabouts, and made a hard left (still miraculously on SR 89A) up a winding mountain road to imposing, haunted Jerome, AZ.

In the less than six miles from Cottonwood to Jerome you gain 2,000 feet in elevation and you do it quickly, like huffing glue while riding an escalator. A copper boom town in the late eighteen hundreds through the 1930's, Jerome was all but abandoned by the early 1950's, when the mine closed after yielding over a billion unadjusted dollars in copper, gold, and silver. Jerome stayed virtually empty and decaying until the the late 1960's when hippies, bikers, and outcasts began calling the quasi-ghost town home. At present, Jerome is a town that looks largely like it did at the turn of the 20th century with most residents restoring the town's beautiful Victorian homes. But the town still has its ruins.

The town reminds me a lot of the mining towns of the Sierra Foothills, like Murphys or Columbia, but without the history theme park veneer. With the exception of a couple tacky t-shirt and jewelry shops, Jerome isn't flaunting its mining heritage. The town is very much Jerome 2009, everybody there just happens to live in buildings out of Jerome 1909. It's also not as family-friendly as some tourist destinations: in its roughly four blocks, Jerome sports three wine tasting rooms, two full-service saloons (along with several restaurants with full bars, one of which is a local gay bar), a tattoo parlor, a sex shop, a Thunderdome-esque basketball court, and Keenan's Puscifer Store which, despite the cute cartoon devil, is neither for kids nor for for the dull and obtuse.

Basically, it's heaven for the off-beat, progressively libertarian, Mr. Show-worshiping, 25-60 year-old music-loving wine geek.


We arrived at the Connor Hotel, est. 1898, were greeted by the extraordinarily friendly staff, and tossed our stuff in our room. Nice hotel. It maintained all its historicity while having most modern amenities: in-room fridge and coffee maker, (superfluous) TV, in-suite bathroom, good AC, etc. And reasonable too. With a AAA discount we got a nice big room for right around $100 on a Friday night.

Since the Caduceus tasting room was open until 8PM we spent the remaining daylight hours bouncing around the town, looking at the mining exhibits, stumbling into the aforementioned Puscifer shop, hiking up the gravel roads on the perimeter of the city, admiring the views, exploring the town flume, and getting hit on by camera-toting art students from Phoenix. But there was business to be done, and that business was wine.

Here's a basic rundown of the northern Arizona wine scene. It revolves, at least in the wider national consciousness, around Maynard James Keenan--lead singer of Puscifer/A Perfect Circle/Tool and accomplished vigneron. He makes his home in Jerome and has about a half-acre of Cabernet Sauvignon growing on his property. Keenan's winemaking partner and co-celestial orbiting grape body is Eric Glomski, formerly of David Bruce winery, and owner/winemaker of Page Springs Vineyards in nearby Cornville. Together, they've formed Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, whose winemaking facility is in Cornville but whose vineyards are in southeastern Arizona. This is where the bulk of Arizona's grape-growing takes place; it's a fairly fertile valley and the soil retains water well. But with Keenan's personal estate fruit, Glomski's fruit at Page Springs, and the grapes at Keenan's Merkin Vineyards project in Cornville, there is a lot of wine to be made from grapes in the Jerome area.

Which is a long way of saying that the Arizona Stronghold Vineyards wines are made mostly from Keenan & Glomski's estate vineyards all over AZ as well as some purchased fruit from selected sites in California. The Caduceus Wines are still largely California-based since it took 3-5 years for the new AZ vines to be ready for their first harvest, though Caduceus' new "Dos Ladrones" white wine is 100% Arizona fruit as is the "Nagual del Judith" (a tiny production premium Cab Sauv from Keenan's personal estate vineyard, dedicated to his late mother). Eventually the Caduceus wines will transition to more AZ fruit.

I'd had most of the Caduceus wines before at Silverlake Wine and they impressed me, in particular the powerful aromatic Dos Ladrones (half Malvasia Bianca and half Chardonnay) and the funky Cote-Rotie inspired Primer Paso (88% Syrah and a hefty 12% Malvasia taking on the role of ersatz-Viognier). In a domestic wine market that is producing more and more ripe, extracted, high-alcohol wines that taste more like brandy than wine, Caduceus Cellars is producing red wines that are, to use a horribly over-used douchey wine term, a revelation. Musuclar to be sure, but structured as hell with nice tannins, dusty earth, modest alcohol, and rocking acidity.

I tasted some of the Page Springs wines too, but I'll get into that in more detail with my Day 2 post. I'll also get into detail about or dinner at "John McCain's favorite restaurant," The Asylum, on a different post. You've all read enough for one sitting.

HFF out, with love.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Wherein the protagonist becomes self-righteous in defense of tradition and old-fashioned intuition

It was a quiet night, quiet even for a Tuesday in downtown. I stumbled out of King Eddy's Saloon into a balmy Los Angeles evening. Fitting for an evening in Los Angeles, I was on Los Angeles Street, walking south and not quickly enough--my shoes are worth more than a month's rent at a local SRO. I lit a cigarette. I threw it on the ground. I forgot. I don't smoke.

Lucky for me the City's coming back to mama, back to where it was born, and it's filling up mama's womb with million dollar lofts. Where there's a million dollar loft there's a bar serving pretentious cocktails, 'cause when someone's paying a million to live adjacent to a cardboard-box tenement he's willing to spend $14 on a glass of vodka shaken con brio. I'd say he or she, but women have more sense. More sense but no dick, that's what mama always said.

I made a quick right onto Sixth right before three tough-looking hoods in skinny jeans and white belts wearing eyeliner made a grab for my iPod. And who could blame them? I was listening to the Faint. But Quick's my middle name and I made sure my birth certificate didn't lie as I left the toughs grabbing only at air, like when I tried to feel up Molly Archer in the tenth grade. Her middle name was Quick too.

When you make that turn onto Sixth and walk toward Main, you leave Skid Row squalor for a new kind of squalor--the kind that wears Rock & Republic jeans. I hurred across the street and down a small set of stairs. I was walking into Cole's, but I wasn't looking for a French Dip I was looking for booze cold and straight. The bouncer nodded at me and I nodded back. I pretend his name is Marquise.

Cole's after feeding time is an eerie place. Barstools sit on top of the bar, booths are empty, there's no au jus. The mise en scene is unsettling--it looks like if Charles Bukowski shit on a Picasso after eating an Edward Hopper. If you ever make that movie, give me a "story by" credit.

In the back of Cole's there's a door. Behind that door is a bar. That bar is Varnish and it pretends to be a speakeasy. I walked in and sat at a booth in the dim light. I picked up the cocktail menu but I couldn't read it--it's been hard for me ever since my cousin was killed by a cocktail menu. That and the light was too damn dim to read by--crucial oversight or deliberate hip douchebag maneuver? Dollars to donuts on the latter.

I picked up the candle at my table to shed more light on the menu. The menu caught fire. I watched it briefly burn--fire licking at the corners of the paper as vigorously as Mayor Villaraigosa on a Hollywood Blvd. tranny--before extinguishing it beneath my palm. Ouch.

A cocktail waitress slinked up to my table but unlike a slinky she wouldn't be falling down my stairs tonight. She leaned forward and smiled, her low-slung neckline slinging lower from her not insubstantial chest.

"What'll it be," she would've said if this was a movie from the 1940's. Instead she said:
"What do you want?"

You have to love a town that'll spend a few million on a new bar but won't spend five minutes trying to hire friendly staff.

"Well manhattan, up."
"We don't really have a well."
"Excuse me?"
"We don't have a well."
"The fuck you don't have a well."
"We don't have a--"
"Do you have a speed rack where your bartenders keep their primary liquors?"
"So you have a fucking well."
"It's not--"
"I'm ordering a fucking well manhattan because I don't want to have to fucking think, yeah?"
"So is Maker's okay?"
"Is that what's in your well?"

Pause. I stared at her. She stared back. She blinked.

"I'll have that."
"Are you sure you wouldn't like our Skid Row Flip? It's like a manhattan--"
"No I don't want your fucking Skid Row Flip. I want my fucking manhattan as I ordered it from you what feels like a fucking hour ago."

She walked away. I watched her. She was cute but I was sober and in the morning she'd still be dumb.

I watched the pair of bartenders behind the counter. They were surrounded by flasks and beakers. It was a scene more appropriate for a laboratory trying to figure out a way to artifically inseminate a cantaloupe with Burt Bacharach's sperm--and not in the fun way.

The mixologists each didn't look a day over sixteen and unlike in pornography in the drinks business that isn't a good thing. I watched as they carefully measured everything in jiggers and teaspoons. Everything. Every drop of booze, liqueur, bitters, fruit juices, ball sweat, and orphan tears that goes into a Skid Row Flip or Old Bank District Sour or Bunker Hill Rickey is rationed like a Soviet whore apportioning handjobs. I got up and walked to the bar.

"Excuse me, but would you hand me that bottle of vodka?"

I grabbed the bottle of vodka.

"Shh, easy there chief. It's okay. You see this top?" I asked, pointing at the resin pour spout on the tip of the vodka bottle."
"What about it?"
"That's a fine piece of technology my friend. It measures your pours. You invert the bottle and about a quarter ounce comes with each second it pours. Are you following me?"
"How much vodka does that bullshit cocktail you're making require?"
"Two ounces."
"How many times does a quarter go into one?"
"Four times."
"So how many times does a quarter go into two?"
"Eight times."
"So what?"
"So just pour your fucking vodka straight into the shaker. Put down the spoons and shot glasses and mix your drinks like a man, not a pretentious little prick who thinks he's a freakin' scientist because he pours homemade bitters from a graduated cylinder. And maybe that way you won't take so goddamn long to make a FUCKING MANHATTAN!"

I felt a large strong hand on my shoulder. It was the bouncer whose name I pretended was Marquise.

"Is there a problem?"
"No my friend, I was just heading back to my seat."

I sat back down. My iPhone buzzed--someone was Tweeting and that someone was a director of dirty movies. He was throwing a DVD release party in a warehouse off Alameda. Decisions decisions.

The cocktail waitress came back with my drink.

"Your manhattan."

I stared at the drink. I stared at her. I stared at Tom Sizemore making out with a model in the next booth over.

"That'll be $14."

I handed her a twenty.

"Keep the change--and the drink."

Out through Varnish, out through Cole's, a quick nod at Marquise and into a taxi. I was out the door before my drink started to sweat.

"Where to?" said the cabbie. At least he played his part perfectly.
"Just start driving," I replied. "East."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

C for Effort

As a Bay Area transplant it's something of a novelty to see the LA County Health Dept. letter grades posted in the window of every diner, taqueria, Walgreens, and Office Depot. Los Angeles diners seem to love those letters, especially when it's because the House of Pies has a B, or so says every fucking person in line for a fucking table at Fred62.

Well, get ready to have your minds blown Los Angeles:

The letter grades don't fucking matter!

Are you startled? Did I shake you up? Good.

Here's why not:

If a restaurant passes its health inspection, what does the score matter? Is there a sliding scale of "possibly-make-you-sick-itude" for restaurants? Am I more likely to die of salmonella at a "C" than I am from an "A"? If I'm at all likely to die of salmonella, shouldn't that be an "F"? Seems to me that a health inspection is a pass/fail proposition. We're determining a business' fitness for serving food to the public, not the quality of its analysis of the theme of the "phallic female" in Hemingway's later works.

So what's the point in the grading system? In what is pure rampant speculation, here's my theory:

1. A restaurant that had an "A" receives a "B."
2. Angelenos with the ingrained belief that these letter grades mean something slow down/stop their patronage of that restaurant.
3. The economic impact forces the restaurant to make rapid adjustments, bringing the Health Dept. back before their next scheduled visit. (Perhaps for a fee?)
4. Health Dept. is able to show that they're relevant, get more funding, hire more inspectors, go on gambling junkets to Macau.

Health Inspector letter grades should go. A restaurant passes and stays open or fails and is shut down. Keep the inspections on file and make them available online to the consumer, but the posting requirement gives the grades more weight than they deserve (I mean, what is the difference between an 88 and a 92 anyway?). Letter grade distinctions are arbitrary and the economic impact of dropping down a letter is too great.

This creates yet another hurdle for restaurants operating in LA and disadvantages new or immigrant-owned restaurants whose operators are not familiar with the byzantine requirements of Los Angeles bureaucracy. It's not that they don't keep a safe restaurant.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Two Boots Pizza - Echo Park, Ca

For reasons that are entirely arbitrary I grant fancy-pants pizza much more leniency than fancy-pants hamburgers. I suppose the one un-arbitrary reason is that even the fanciest of pantsed 1-2 person pizzas top out in price at around $14, as opposed to burgers that can top $20 for what is, at best, a hearty appetizer. Plus, pizza has always existed in the whambamthankyoumaam variety and the classier forkandknife variety, as opposed to the hamburger which had been a filling fast food and diner standard up until, oh, about 1999 (to pick a wholly arbitrary date).

I judge pizza against two standards. The Lanesplitter Standard and the Pizzeria Delfina standard.

The Lanesplitter Standard: Inexpensive, generously topped thin-crust pizza in a dive-y environment with plentiful modestly-priced booze available.

The Pizzeria Delfina Standard: Moderate-to-expensive, thoughtfully topped with premium ingredients on a thin, lightly scorched crust baked at high-temperatures.

Two Boots, the recent NYC transplant to Echo Park, compares favorably against the Lanesplitter Standard but it's a bit more ambitious than Lanesplitter and a bit more expensive (and served no beer), so overall my impression was mixed.

I had two slices. I opted for the more unusual selections. First was a "Bird" slice--buffalo chicken, blue cheese, scallions, jalapenos, on a white pizza. This was a pretty good slice, though not very spicy. I would've liked more scallion and jalapeno and less blue cheese which hid itself in stinky pockets throughout the pizza. The second slice, Bayou Beast, with crawfish, andouille, and jalapenos, was a disappointment. Sparsely topped, it just tasted kinda salty.

And that was my general complaint: the pizzas were salty as hell. And not because the components were particularly salty--the crust, sauce, cheese, everything was loaded with cheap-tasting salt. Fine for a pepperoni slice from some dive, but when I'm eating crawfish and andouille on a pizza I want to taste crawfish and andouille.

My secondary complaint: the pizza was soggy. This is my frequent complaint with Lanesplitter too, but whenever I get a slice from Lanesplitter it's usually pretty crisp (as opposed to a pie which is always soggy in the middle). At Two Boots, even the slices were soggy at the ends. Lame.

My tertiary complaint: the pizza is too lightly topped. With inexpensive pizza, you can forgive the shortcomings in sauce and crust because there's a heap of tasty toppings. Not so at Two Boots. If you're not going to load up on toppings, your sauce and cheese had better shine, but Two Boots' sauce and cheese is serviceable at best.

Still, it's the most interesting pizza I've had in LA and the prices are still pretty good, even if they're a few cents more expensive then some of my old favorites. I'll give it a go on a regular basis--and they deliver to my neighborhood. Bonus.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The All-Time Greatest Thing of All Time

So Chowhound, the grande dame of foodie message boards, is home to the closest approximation of reasoned dialogue in the internet food world. Part of that is because Chowhound aggressively moderates its message boards to keep discussion on topic, cordial, and as objective as possible. Food professionals are not allowed to comment on their own establishments or directly about a rival, flamers and fucktards are kept at bay, and purely malicious comments are deleted.

But if you're a regular Chowhound reader, you'll often catch choice gems in the brief window before they're deleted that will make your day. Sort of like when you find a Wikipedia article that reads "Bob Dole likes golden showers" before it refreshes with the truth that Bob Dole merely tolerates golden showers when Liddy insists.

A chef friend of mine sent me this screenshot from Chowhound (click for full size):

As a bit of background, Mark Malicki, the angry respondent, is the chef-owner of the St. Rose Cafe in Santa Rosa, the target of the poster's vitriol. And you know what? Good for him. The guy who wrote this post is clearly a high-functioning moron who won't ever be coming back and anybody who would be upset with Chef Malicki for his comment shouldn't be going to his restaurant anyway.

And now a guy like me who'd never heard of this place before will make a point to visit the St. Rose Cafe the next time I'm in Santa Rosa. You gotta support the cause, you know?

Plus I'm intrigued by this "bag of dicks" he has on his menu. Never heard of that before. I think it's Greek.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Had the chicken fajita pita at Jack in the Box today, desperate for food but with very little time. That's one of the best fast food items for the urban hobo. Spicy, whole grains, and a decent amount of veggies.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Well, at least he doesn't have hands any more....

Molecular Gastronomy gone horribly awry....

But at least this happened in Germany. They have the technology. They can rebuild him.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Future of Wine?

I'm tired of wine. Let me explain. I'm tired of the wine regions that people care about. Napa, Sonoma, all of France, most of Spain, northern Italy, and lets throw in Paso Robles just for kicks.

So where then do we look for the next great wine region that we can plunder and and force into over-price-itude?

Old World: The re-emergent Eastern European wine scene is of interest.... Slovenia was quickly ravished by nearby Italian winemakers, but further down the Adriatic coast in Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia have some great white wines at great prices. Red wine is still tricky for this region, but we'll see how that develops.

A good spot for red wine is Portugal. Just like Spain fifteen years ago, Portugal is seeing a new generation of winemakers taking over and modernizing the process, creating wines with a little less funk, a bit more stability, and a bit more approachability from a new world palate. Check out wines from Alentejo for an easy point of entry.

New World: I'm still not sold on Australia. I think they make some decent wine but it's all ripe, straightforward stuff until you get into the ultra-premium range. New Zealand is worth a watch, but their varietal selections are limited. South Africa makes some very cool wines and price points seem to be coming down in recent years. Some of my favorite Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon comes out of South Africa.

In South America, there is some quality coming out of Argentina but you have to sift through the acres of cheap swill that represents the bulk of Argentine imports. Uruguayan Tannat is stellar, but it's a tough sell. I like Chile for its price point.

Which brings me to the United States. In California, I encourage you to stock up on Mendocino County wines before the prices get prohibitive. Lake County is producing some nice inexpensive stuff and the Sierra Foothills is underappreciated for its quality. We'll see some more emerging AVAs from the Central Valley producing wines of quality, akin to what we've seen from Lodi AVA and Clarksburg AVA. I dislike Washington and Oregon's nice but expensive. I'm very intrigued about what's coming out of Arizona and think that's a region to watch. I'm underfamiliar with New York wine, but I like Caberner Franc. I also like wines from Western Virginia and North Carolina, but it's expensive to get the wine out here and production is still too small for real value.

In conclusion? Mendocino, Sierra Foothills, Croatia, Portugal, and Arizona.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Cookbooks About Actually Cooking

So I'm reading Mark Kurlansky's new book, The Food of a Younger Land. It's not actually his book, he's more of the annotator/editor. Sort of like how Flavor Flav doesn't really write Public Enemy songs, he just adds his two cents here and there and wears a clock.

The book is a printing of the scrapped Depression-era WPA project called America Eats. Like the immensely successful WPA guidebooks that were published in the 1930s, America Eats would offer insights into regional cuisine and, just as much, regional food culture. State projects submitted notes and essays to one of six regional headquarters who then compiled the information into guides like "The South Eats" and "The Northwest Eats." Unfortunately, flagging interest in the WPA during the waning days of the Depression combined with disparate regional funding slowed the project and World War II put a decisive end to the program entirely.

Kurlansky makes no attempt to recreate what the theoretical guide book would be. He simply presents the article he's selected with short introductions. He lets the vintage writing from the late 1930s speak for itself.

It's an engaging read because it reflects how recipes should be written. The recipes aren't quite as haphazard and whimsical as 19th century cook books (where a "good joint of mutton" was a common ingredient), but they do require an active engagement with the cooking process and the local culture behind the recipe.

Cookbooks now are about measuring ingredients, aseembling, setting timers, and walking away. Even as recently as the 1930s where clocks and timers were rather common, recipes required vigilance, advising you to "cook until done" or "cook until bright green." Sure there are some specific measurements, but there are also directives like "cover with water, add more if needed" and "if you want spicier, add more Tabasco."

Now we treat cooking as a sort of paint-by-numbers rote exercise instead of a fluid act of creation. This is why we can never make something "like Grandma used to make it." Sure Grandma followed recipes, but she wasn't a slave to them.

The best contemporary cookbooks for real cooking I've found are How To Cook Everything and The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman who, despite his recent late-to-the-game Locavore transformation, still does a good job of integrating food, culture, and history into his recipes.

And if you haven't read Kurlansky's Salt or Cod, you really must. They're indispensable food history books.

HFF out.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Let's take this literally....

So this website is called Horny For Food. Sometimes I write about the interrelationship between food and sex. I like the blurry boundary that exists between the two. It's interesting.

So let's take food and sex literally. I am now about to do Google Image searches for several different food items. I'll let you know how many results (not pages, results) deep I need to go before a pornographic photo pops up. SafeSearch is definitely off.

1. Cucumber: 26 (16 if you count the picture of a very penis-shaped sea cucumber)
2. Banana: 57
3. Watermelon: 489
4. Sausage: 43
5. Cheese: 586 (actually a photo of a topless Mischa Barton highlighting her cellulite, but I'm counting it)
6. Donut: 110
7. Mayonnaise: 97
8. Pepper: 285
9. Melon: 12 (and not what you're expecting. Try the search yourself)
10. Pie: 55
11. Hamburger: 343
12. Manwich: 60
13. Tortilla: 736
14. Roast Beef: 62
15. Gravy: 675
16. Taco: 199 (I'm actually surprised how far I had to go for that)

Well that wasted some time.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Caduceus, Merkin, & Tool - Oh My!

There are lots of famous wealthy people who decide to diversify once they strike it rich. It's about brand building I suppose. Or maintaining a 360-degree media consciousness. Actors open restaurants, singers start clothing lines, strippers become porn stars and then become escorts. It's all about squeezing money out of every possible stream, channel, and orifice.

But in most of these instances, it's not a labor of love. It's just a bunch of big companies figuring out new ways to make money on the same crappy Chinese sunglasses. Jay-Z is no more a fashion designer than Sasha Grey is a legitimate actress.

But when the motivation to use your considerable financial resources to pursue non-autochthonous business ventures is pure--driven by an honest passion--you get some damn good salad dressings. Or, in the case of Caduceus Cellars, some really good wine.

The baby of Tool/A Perfect Circle/Puscifer frontman Maynard James Keenan, Caduceus Cellars represents an effort to bring world-class winemaking back to Arizona. Maynard was at Silverlake Wine last weekend presenting a few releases from Caduceus and its brother, Merkin Vineyards.

Only one of the wines poured was from the Arizona vineyards--they were planted in 2004 so wine from the first harvest was just bottled this past year--but there's nothing wrong with what they've been doing so far using fruit mostly sourced from Paso Robles. Eric Glomski takes the lead on the winemaking, but after a short conversation with Maynard (where we talked about yields, distribution, and temperature, amongst other things), it was eminently clear that he's more than just a money guy. He's out there in the dirt, in the cellars, and has a clear mission for his winery and a very active hand in the winemaking.

First up was a white wine (the Arizona one), Dos Ladrones, roughly equal parts Chardonnay and Malvasia Bianca. Girlfriend Charlie and I were both, at first pour, turned off to the wine. It was very tight and tasted underripe. We were thinking "Oh hell, some over-hyped celebrity wine here." But as the wine warmed (reaching about 57 degrees, Maynard said, the wine is at its best) it opened up beautifully. Really beautifully, actually. Very cool stuff and I think clearly expressive of what Arizona white wine can be.

Next up was the flagship "Primer Paso" wine, made up primarily of Syrah with a dose of Malvasia (from Arizona) in there. What would prove to be a trait of all the Caduceus wine was what made it eminently appealing: there was a lot of acid for a red. This was a food wine.

My favorite of the tasting was the Naga, a primarily Sangiovese blend made from Paso Robles fruit. Unlike most Sangioveses I've had from Paso Robles, this wasn't overly extracted and the acidity shown through nicely. Mostly Italian-styled, but with more bright fruit.

As much as I did like the Naga, I'm stoked on the Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra. The one thing about Caduceus Cellars and the cachet attached to its owner is that they can charge quite a bit for their wine. The wines are priced fairly given the quality, production size (tiny tiny) and the serious costs associated with starting up a vineyard from scratch, but I'm not going to lie: there are plenty of wines to be had of comparable quality for considerably less. But the Chupacabra, made from an annually changing blend of varietals (mostly Cab & Syrah), hits a nice ~$20 price point and serves as a solid introduction to the style of the more prohibitively priced Caduceus wines. Big fruit, good tannins, and that brisk acidity--a good barbecue wine for summer.

What was just so cool was to hear a guy who could easily use the novelty of his star power to make some horseshit crap but instead he's made wine a part of his life, all while campaigning hard for what could be a new major wine region in the United States.

So the only negative opinion I really have about the wines is that they're really expensive. But with the Chupacabra and a growing estate vineyard, hopefully Caduceus/Merkin will have more wines across the price spectrum.

Caduceus Cellars Wines are available throughout Los Angeles, including at Silverlake Wine, The Cheese Store of Silverlake, Liquid Wine & Spirits, and select Whole Foods.