Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chewing Our Way Through The Big Apple: A Diner's Progress

It's been quite some time since I last set type to blog, but the month of December has been a dizzying rush of events both large and small, with a semester drawing to a welcome close, new puzzling developments at the medical library where I spend parts of the week, and a quick trip to the East Coast for a stay in New York, a city the two of us know well and think often about. With plenty of free time on our hands, we nevertheless spent a good portion of our several days in New York visiting with old friends, some for the first time in over a decade. We caught a few Broadway shows, checked out some museums, got some walking in. But we spent a large amount of our time inside the restaurants, bars, diners, and watering holes that make this city hum all hours of the day and night. In a metropolis as vast as New York, one can no more hope to adequately sample the culinary scene than one can hope to sample the entirety of a National Park by driving the main loop (and forget the fact that we didn't even make it to the outer boroughs - someday, Queens, someday). But I'll do my best, through photos, links and descriptions, to at least offer a hint of what we managed to uncover, taste, sip, enjoy.

Day One (evening) :

A late-night arrival into JFK and a sluggishly-advancing shuttle van meant we didn't settle into our midtown hotel until past 11 PM. The bitter winds blowing in from upstate and the East River didn't help matters any. But a brisk walk around our block reminded us that we were once again in the city that never sleeps - meaning, the city where it is always possible to find a plethora of open restaurants, no matter the hour. "How civilized," I muttered into my scarf. In the end, we passed up the welcoming (and warming) interiors for a curbside hot dog and bag of roasted chestnuts. We're easy to please.

Day Two :

The ubiquitous coffee and roll from the ubiquitous sidewalk vendor. Would New York be able to start its day without these carts?

With a cold wind barely edging past the mid-20s whistling through the cavernous blocks, I took evasive action and warmed myself as best I know how - two cups of espresso and a fast walk from The Bowery to Lincoln Center in just over an hour. To say I warmed myself up is to damn my accomplishments with faint praise. The espresso(s) were purchased and consumed at the charming Ballaro / Caffe Prosciutteria, a newish East Village Italian-themed coffee shop and food purveyor (77 Second Avenue and E. Fourth). My prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich + green salad was delightful. Did I mention the two espressos?

That evening, we managed to meet up with two distinct sets of friends, from opposite sections of the country and opposite moments of our lives, and two different restaurants our friends had independently chosen - restaurants that were literally across the street from one another. The Indian food at Basera smelled so wonderful that I felt bad at having to duck out to make our other engagement. The purposefully-tacky decor and rock album-illustrated menus at Vynl meant I didn't mourn my loss too much. The fried chicken and mashed potatoes were pretty great. Don't let any talk of fusion or gourmet trendsetters confuse you - New York is an awesome comfort food town.
Day Three:
Coffee and a roll. Are you sensing a pattern yet?
Slice of pizza. Pepperoni. Folded in half for consumption. I regret to announce that I did not adequately fix my pizza jones on this NYC trip. After all, I have to catch up on almost five years of eating West Coast pies.

As snow flakes from an approaching East Coast storm started making their way across Soho, I literally stumbled across a place I'd long been aware of - Once Upon A Tart, home to finely crafted tarts, cookies, sandwiches, soups. I even own the cookbook.

I managed to snag a seat in the impossibly cramped interior, and ordered myself some herbal tea and their famed tuna salad sandwich on a poppy seed roll. Heavenly. When I offered my seat to the New Yawk matron and her impossibly beautiful young daughter, I was told I was "very kinnnnnd".
Speaking of cookbooks - Chef Marcus Samuelsson taught me how to cook like (something approaching a) gourmet. Whatever meagre skills I had picked up during our first year or so in upstate New York, it was discovering Samuelsson's Aquavit cookbook - a (sorry, can't help it) smorgasbord of Scandinavian haute cuisine - that first suggested I might be able to attempt complex and fancy-schmancy concoctions. My wife still gets misty-eyed remembering the lobster soup. The crab risotto graced many a dinner table. The coffee-roasted duck breasts served as one of our final meals together before 2007's deployment. And so on.
While living in New York state, we never managed to scrape together enough cash to afford a full dinner at Aquavit, but had managed to sample some of their lunchtime offerings in their cafe. For this trip, we had planned ahead. Chef's Tasting Menu, we await you.
New location (East 55th)....

....lovely interior decor......

....and an eight course tasting menu that offered pleasant variations on traditional Scandinavian cuisine and tiny tastes that simply begged to be captured on film. The fabled Foie Gras Ganache, with pickled apples and port wine......

....served alongside paired wines (in this instance, the 2007 Auslese from Kracher (Burgenland, Austria)...

....and the Cured NY Strip, with Västerbotten cheese crisp, butternut squash and pumpkin seed.

Hot-Smoked Arctic Char! Venison Loin! TÊTE DE MOINE (uh, riesling jelly, grapes, marcona almonds)!
But the somewhat horrified look in our server's eyes when we mentioned we had tickets for an 8 o'clock show should have tipped us off that we hadn't planned the evening out as carefully as one should. The plates began to come and go at a rapid clip, watches were anxiously studied, and before we knew it, we were attempting to tackle the grand finale of Arctic Circle - goat cheese parfait, blueberry sorbet, passion fruit curd. With no time for even a celebratory glass of the restaurant's namesake liquor, we scurried out the door. Maybe next time?

Day Four :
The coffee / roll streak ends abruptly. Enter the proverbial NYC diner. Decent omelet under a heat-spewing wall unit.

Another evening, another theater date. This time, we gave ourselves a bit more time. Our friend led us into Koreatown for what he promised would be excellent mandu, or dumplings. His predictions were accurate. Trust a dumpling shop that prepares their dumplings practically streetside to know what they are doing.

Mandoo Bar (2 West 32nd Street) - what lovely seating arrangements! What friendly waiters! What colorful bundles of goodness!

Following the evening's performance (Fela!- check it out), I suggested we take advantage of the post-production hour and check out what had been advertised as New York's only casual 24-hour brasserie - Pigalle Brasserie. Casual, yeah - I could have done without the flat screen over the bar tuned to ESPN. But keep your back to the TV, and a surprisingly warm interior takes over.

Plenty of seasonal holiday brews (don't you just love ale with hints of pine needles?), an excellent charcuterie plate (with pickles and brined lentils), and an after-dinner sampling of a now-deemed-safe-and-legal glass of absinthe (much tsk-tsking from the wife). Vive le France!

Day Five:
Back streetside. Coffee and a (wait for it) cruller.
Friends from L.A. had also left the sunshine behind for a week under the cruel East Coast winter light, so we met up at the 2nd Avenue location of one of the many restaurants under the Momofuku banner. Chef David Chang has been setting the NY culinary scene on fire for several years now with his rapidly expanding locations of Momofuku (literal translation - "lucky peach" in Korean, yet also the inventor of instant noodles). His East Village Noodle Bar has been packing them in since 2003, whereas our location, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, opened in 2006. It was last year's Momofuku Ko restaurant that really turned heads, however - only twelve seats, reservations taken on a first-come first-served basis only six days in advance, three-hour lunch tasting session for only $175. This was not where we had lunch.

However, the Ssäm Bar proved a favorite - for us, our L.A. friends, and a good friend from upstate who made the long journey from Albany to meet us there. Asian-themed appetizers and east/west fusion without a hint of condescension or compromise. Shigoku oysters with kimchee. Newman's Farm bbq rib sandwich. Pork scrapple (yum). Fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce vinaigrette, mint and delfino. Plus, tender and amazing steamed pork buns with slow-cooked brisket - Asian tacos!

Plus, spicy rice cakes with chinese broccoli and shallots!

Plus, assorted root beers and dandelion soda!
You think we're done with Day Five? Hell, that only takes us past lunch. Yet another friend showed us around the downtown pub scene by first taking us into The Blind Tiger, where I was delighted to find several dusty chalkboards displaying rapidly changing menus of draft beer, many of the East Coast variety (who knew there were so many excellent Pennsylvania microbrew offerings? Not this Californian)......

....and then marching over to the unfortunately named Spitzer's, a gastropub that served amazingly flavorful duck confit, wondrous house-cut french fries, and an appetizer dish of Gus's Pickles, a Lower East Side tradition of sorts I had long wished to sample.

Plus, another wall of beer choices. Long live the gastropub tradition.

What better way to wash the taste of finely crafted New York microbrew out of one's mouth than sampling New York's other great culinary tradition - the rapidly expanding world of cult cupcakes. I see you over there, Magnolia Bakery (and so do all the teeming hordes with their "Sex And The City" location maps). And nice meeting you, Crumbs (plenty of you back in Los Angeleeeze). But how about investigating something new - Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

The pumpkin cupcake I devoured was all one hopes for in such matters - soft, bouyant, excellent frosting. The confused Brazilian boy next to us who kept asking his increasingly bemused companion questions about American culture probably enjoyed his cupcake, too - but I suspect the disillusionment of realizing that there is more to American culture than was dreamt of in the American Pie movie franchise was probably a bitter pill. No, not all of us received swirlies in high school, my friend. Nice try.

Day Six :
Both of us had discovered the pleasures of Cafe Angelique during earlier times, and it was pleasant to return and tuck ourselves discretely into the back to sip our dark coffees. Jane's bowl of fruit was better than one should expect in the Northeast this time of year. My panini was beyond reproach.

An old childhood friend from Jane's Walla Walla days is currently serving as a Presbyterian minister at a lovely Upper East Side congregation, and we enjoyed both her company and the views from her 27th floor apartment. That evening, she took us and yet another friend (a fellow childhood friend from Walla Walla - how many of them are there in this city?) into the busy streets below, first to Libertador, an Argentine-themed restauarant that we visited solely for their attractive bar....

....and then down the street a bit to see if we could weasel our way into Sfoglia, the Nantucket- and-Manhattan Italian ristorante that informs website visitors that reservations should be made weeks in advance. We somehow managed to score an 8 o'clock table. How civilized.

This place was wonderful. Snug and warm, with a small yet world-class wine list, a tiny bathroom tucked alongside the kitchen, and ingredient-driven dishes that reflected both old world traditions and contemporary flash. The sauces were to die for - rich and oily, yet smooth and intensely flavorful. The gnocchi were lighter than air (no easy feat - I've made 'em myself). The chicken al mattone, my wife tells me, was fantastic. The brined Berkshire pork chop with melted gorgonzola and celery mostarda was even better. The fish of the day was no doubt the best of all - they had sold out earlier in the evening. Rumor has it Sfoglia has a cookbook out. Watch this page for updates....

Day Seven :
Travel day, back to the land of sunshine, gentle breezes and good tacos. Breakfast at the Midnight Express Diner, solid Greek fare served up with playful attitude (if you ask for butter on your toast instead of on the side, you're told to be a keeper. If you're not yet ready to order when the guy comes around the first time, you're informed they're open 24 hours). Bottomless cups of coffee.
Quick trip to one of the many Dean and deLuca locations in Manhattan to ward off starvation at the airport and on the five hour flight back to San Diego. Overpriced? Oh yeah. But excellent people watching. And a Cuban Sandwich that can't be beat.

And that's the menu. Seconds, anybody?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thoroughly Cooking One's Goose: Of Giblets and Dark Broth

When I made the rather arbitrary decision to serve stuffed goose instead of the traditional turkey at this year's Thanksgiving table, I can't say I was making any knowledgeable or informed choice based on years of experience sampling the world's poultry. I've had duck on numerous occasions, and even tossed together a duck-and-roasted-coffee-bean Scandinavian recipe on the eve of Jane's 2007 deployment for a get-together with friends. And I suspect I've tasted goose at some fancy meal or other. But an expert on waterfowl? Not me. Rather, the idea of using one of the world's other noble birds for a holiday meal simply - can I say this without sounding excruciatingly posh? - touched my fancy. Plus, the notion of serving goose has always struck me as being uncommonly festive, a holiday tradition, perhaps more common around Christmas time, but perfect for any season of cold amid the cheer of company.

But while it was all well and good to announce goose on the Thanksgiving menu, it was quite another to actually set about acquiring the bird in question, finding a suitable recipe, convincing my guests on the appropriateness of my choice, and taking a crash course in goose preparation. I handled the problems one at a time.

First, finding the goose. I turned to the good folks over at Iowa Meat Farms, some kind of San Diego institution and vegetarian house of horrors tucked back among the loathsome sprawl of Mission Gorge Road. They boast a wide array of meats of both the farm and game variety (note to self: this is the place to head for when I get the hankering to try some of the many preparations for wild boar lurking in my cookbooks), and while they may not be the place to seek out when looking for bargains, their quality is impeccable. I'm still a bit shocked that my handsome 9.5 lb. goose rang up somewhere in the ballpark of $72. But I'm also shocked that a co-worker of mine served a $4 turkey to a family of six. Somewhere between the $4 turkey and the $72 goose must lie some kind of reasonable compromise. Our goose was frozen and as sturdy as a brick. We planned our thawing process out far in advance, and still needed the give the rigid fellow a bit of a warm water bath on the big day.

Next up was locating a suitable recipe. For that, I consulted my large array of European cookbooks. As the dinner's Mediterranean theme had already been decided, I quickly came across an Italian preparation that seemed perfect - Lombardy's oca farcita, or stuffed goose. The stuffed bit was essential - I may be a bit iconoclastic, but a Thanksgiving without stuffing strikes even me as anathema. This recipe called for a stuffing made out of roasted chestnuts, toasted filberts, prunes and salsicce sausage. It also called for the goose itself to be draped in bacon. Who was I to resist such a call?

My wife handled the delicate process of contacting our guests to inquire about their feelings concerning goose vs. turkey. All were amenable to the experiment, and my heart was warmed when one of our friends gave her official blessing with the words, "Whatever he wants to do will be great, I'm sure". I believe in the restaurant business, this is called 'throwing yourself at the mercy of the chef'. Game on.

Finally, I needed to familiarize myself a bit with this unfamiliar fowl. The oca farcita recipe itself gave very little advice. The goose packaging offered a little more in the way of concrete details. Word of mouth, on both the streets and the blogs, could be summed up in one sentence: "goose is a very oily bird". The oil mantra, as a matter of fact, was so all-encompassing that I soon had a notion of my goose as being little more than a dozing grease monster, an oozing mass of oil so dangerous that I would need to elevate it from my roasting pan and drain off the accumulating crude throughout the three hours of cooking time. Had I cursed myself? By opting out of the stereotypically dry turkey, was I about to subject my guests to a plate of OPEC?

In the end, I relied on a simple poultry-cooking rule of thumb: prick the bird all over with the spines of a fork to allow the juices and oil to run more freely. Midway through the roasting process, I poured out a large portion of the accumulated oil and fat, some of which was mingling with the bacon fat coursing down the sides of the goose. Healthy? Nope. But rather than pouring the fat down the drain (a major no-no at any rate), I collected the stuff in a large container to keep for future use. More on that later. As it turned out, the goose was perfectly moist and rich, and no excess of oil was noted by any of our discerning guests. In summation, at least on the matter of oil, I'd argue there's no need to fear the goose or the gander - just prick and drain (a lovely kitchen mantra).

In the preparation of the goose, I was aided by our guests, three of whom were physicians and one of whom spends his days in surgery. Sewing up the holiday bird after filling it with stuffing is a Thanksgiving tradition, but I doubt many have had the pleasure of witnessing as professional a suturing job go down in their kitchen as we did last Thursday. I may have been the chef, but Brian was the doctor (see below for the surgical footage).

I won't go into the entire process, but allow me to pat myself on the back and say that the goose was an unequivocal success, triumph, discovery. Like the kids say today, it was a"hit". The outer skin had crackled into a sweet richness that was only aided by the nearly candied-like fusion of the bacon strips into the sides. Everyone agreed that these bacon-fused skin chunks were like ice cream treats - tasty and utterly decadent. The goose meat itself was a pleasant surprise - certainly not oily but plenty moist, with an abundance of flavor that was simultaneously gamey yet smooth. It proved a far more substantial offering than the overly-familiar dry white meat of the turkey. It was indeed a noble bird and a noble dish.

And, much like the American Bison in the days before its near-extinction, our goose continued, and has continued, to offer up additional riches. I must admit to feeling a brief rush of that old pioneer spirit when I contemplate exactly how much we managed to wring out of our fairly pricey purchase. In addition to several full meals worth of bird (with leftovers), I was able to concoct a rich, yummy gravy from the enclosed giblets. I placed the liver, neck and other items on a baking sheet and roasted them with celery and onions, tossed with a bit of tomato paste and seasonings, and simmered on the stove top until dinner was ready, at which point the ingredients had thickened into a delightfully fragrant gravy. I'll admit it - I have always found the creation of authentic gravy to be one of the great magical processes of the kitchen. As a child, I adored the stuff poured over mashed potatoes and found it to be a lifesaver for turning dry turkey meat into something capable of being swallowed, but I had absolutely no idea how it came about. No doubt I suspected a can yielded up the stuff. I understand for many people, cans still supply the majority of holiday gravy. At the risk of offending any well-meaning reader out there, I would like to make a passionate plea for the criminalization of using canned gravy instead of the real thing. Don't get squeamish about handling the giblets - it's no less graphic than anything else you'll be handling when preparing a bird. And don't fret about the time required, either - gravy requires very little preparation and lots of non-supervised stove top simmering. The transformation from giblets, vegetables and water to a glistening saucer of rich gravy is a treat no cook should deny themselves. And anyway, the pre-made crap has tons of unnecessary added sodium inside. You'll be getting enough sodium as it is.

In addition to the gravy, I still had all that goose fat. I've left it to sit for a few days, and it has taken on the consistency of soft candle wax. We haven't yet reached the point where we're capable of making our own soap or candles from the rendered goose fat, but perhaps that day will soon come. At any rate, my wife and I both made remarks about our desire to jump into the wonderful world of soap making. Maybe another time. For now, I'll keep the goose fat for more basic pleasures. Besides being healthier than butter (less cholesterol, less saturated fats, higher in heart healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats), goose fat is known as an intensely flavorful cooking agent. The French have been relying on goose fat instead of other oils or butter for quite some time and seem to be doing rather well. I hope to flavor soups and broths with my goose fat in the days to come, and especially look forward to roasting or baking sliced potatoes with the goose fat. I have a potato recipe in my favorite Scandinavian cookbook that calls for lemon and goose fat that I've been dying to try for years now.

Finally, when we had finished picking the goose free of any stray bits of meat in the days following Thanksgiving, I set about the process of cleaning and chopping the bones for the preparation of goose stock. This, too, was something I'd eagerly been awaiting. A gloriously colorful photo in the opening pages of the above-referenced cookbook has teased me for some time - beet soup with goose stock. I now have nearly four cups of thick goose stock to play with. I vary my stock recipes each time out, but I tend to always roast the bones first in the oven, sweat the celery, carrots and onions alongside, add a bit of tomato paste, then simmer with water on the stove for a few hours with peppercorns and bay leaves. The stock is strained twice, allowed to cool, then frozen. In addition to the beet soup, the flavorful stock will no doubt be called into duty for soups, broths, basting sauces and risotto dishes. We'll be enjoying various parts of our goose through the winter.

Looking back on the immense effort required to locate, prepare, consume and preserve our holiday goose, I can start to recognize why the purchase or slaughter of such a fine animal instilled a sense of respect and awe in our ancestors. This was no quickly-prepared and just-as-quickly-forgotten meal. This was an offering that will continue to appear in our kitchen for months to come. I understand why families in Europe saved up for their Christmas goose and why they humbly gave thanks for the bounty on their tables. We all agreed it was a noble bird that had found its way to our celebration. One needn't be accused of being maudlin for suggesting that we had a duty to honor it as best we could.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recession-Proof Thanksgiving, Take 2

I seem to recall last year about this time, the US was knee-deep in a crippling recession, the unemployment rate had reached obscene percentage points, the country was mired in several unwinnable military adventures overseas, and our president was suffering new lows in poll readings. Flash forward to late 2009 and....yep, pretty much the same story. Another holiday, another recession.

I pinch my pennies year-round, but I refuse to skimp on Thanksgiving. It's not a matter of flash or greed or gluttony, just a core belief that the fourth Thursday in November represents our rapidly fading country at its finest - calmly secular, harvest-based, seasonally-minded, in love with company, fellowship and rich foods.

As always, I attempt to top the previous year's efforts by unveiling a new batch of concoctions, few if any tried before, and all grouped around a specific theme. I enjoy the traditional turkey-potatoes-cranberry spread, but find myself unable to continually fall back on the tried and true. This year, I'm not even deigning to carve Ben Franklin's favorite flight-challenged fowl - I've moved on to the world of the goose. Others may cry foul (ouch) and argue goose is more the proverbial Christmas bird, but I believe traditions exist to be broken, or at least to be maneuvered around.

Last year, our dinner was themed around those European nations existing somewhere above the 55th Parallel - Scandinavia, Scotland, Russia, bits of Germany. This year, I've cast my gaze a bit farther south to the sun-blessed Mediterranean lands. The dishes I've selected, therefore, are all a little less severe but still autumn/winter appropriate (even southern Italy turns chilly in late November). And at least one favorite from last year has managed to squeeze its way onto the table once again. What can I say? I do take requests.

* Starter *

Smoked Wild Alaskan Salmon, with whole-grain rye bread, Colman's mustard and homemade pickles
(I've cured my own salmon, gravlax-style, in the past. But not this year.)

* Main Course *

Oca Farcita - Stuffed Goose
(Italian specialty, from the Milan region of Lombardy. The stuffing will consist of prunes, roasted chestnuts, filberts, salsicce sausage chunks and apples. The noble bird will also be draped with bacon slices.)

* Sides * (always the best part, in my humble opinion)

Catalogne Racante - Autumn Dandelion Crumble
(More Italian goodness. From the Adriatic coast of Apulia, a dish of dark bitter dandelion greens baked with garlic, tomato and capers, drizzled generously with olive oil.)

Navets Glace - Glazed Turnips
(French preparation from the Loire Valley. I find turnips to be among the most surprisingly tender and sweet of root vegetables if prepared properly, and I'm hoping this combination of butter, rich stock and sugar coaxes out the flavor. If not, I'll drizzle it with maple syrup. Either way, we win.)

Raw Grated Beets
(A true wonder food, with seemingly endless restorative properties - this finger-staining member of the amaranth family requires nothing more than peeling, grating, mixing with apple matchstick slices, and drizzling with safflower oil.)

Jansson's Frestelse - Jansson's Temptation
(OK, far from the Mediterranean - this one's from Sweden. But it proved so popular last year I had to return. A wonderful and unlikely variation on tried-and-true sweet potato recipes, this creation layers yam slices with chopped anchovy fillets and onions, before mixing with cream and butter flakes. The result is a heavenly-soft dish that alternates the sugary potatoes with a welcome salt tang of sardines. I know, it sounds unlikely - everybody last year requested seconds).

Jane's Roman Bread
(I'm not the only gifted chef in the household...)

* Dessert *

Pumpkin Pie
(Of course. Courtesy of Melissa. One does have to observe some traditions, after all.)

Pere San Martin al Vino Rosso - Winter Pears in Red Wine
(Italian specialty from the Aosta Valley. Simmered with cloves and rich red wine, drizzled with sugar, and most likely moistened with fine brandy, if I have anything to say about the matter.)

* Digestives *

Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey
(Wonderful whiskey from the West of Ireland, smoked with the ubiquitous peat from the region's many bogs - a campfire in a glass, a wonderful discovery from last summer's excursion to County Clare.)

Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Nog
(The real thing. Made, as the label says, "with real dairy cream, rum, brandy and blended whisky". I've been saving it up for weeks.)

The wife talked me out of a dish of caviar this year. She claims I was the only one last year who enjoyed it, and that I was laying it on a bit thick. Upon further reflection, I have to admit she was right. I do lay it on a bit thick.

Enjoy and revel in our most glorious federal holiday!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bidding a Fond Farewell to Beer Week 2009

There were so many activities taking place across the city of San Diego these past ten days involving beer and food that I suspect if I had involved myself in even one-tenth of them, I'd be bloated and inebriated and probably lying in a prone position. As it is, with the wife off in the highlands of New Mexico, breathing in the thin, cool air of 7,000 feet and partaking in multi-part spa sessions, I chose to sit out the vast majority of beer-related activities. Some see drinking as a solitary existence. I feel I experienced quite enough of that during her last deployment, and prefer both company and the comforts of home as a backdrop to my alcohol intake.

However. I did manage to experience a few San Diego Beer Week activities, enough to convince me that our fine southwestern city has the proverbial dog in the fight against weak, yellow, fizzy piss-swill that passes for beer in many of the bars and liquor stores across this great land of ours. I think the last time I sipped the liquid dreck that is Miller / Bud / Coors / Whatever was during the Green Bay Packers' ill-fated scramble towards the NFC Conference Championship, which I observed perched on a squeaky bar stool in one of San Diego's countless Irish-themed bars. Glued to the plasma and marvelling at the vast amounts of snow swirling around the Packers and Giants, I ordered a draft for each quarter, which helped increase the camaraderie I felt for the fellow GB fans around me and cushioned the blow of disappointment as the game spiralled into overtime, countless interceptions and a loss at Lambeau Field. Somewhere during the third quarter, the attractive barmaid (is that term even used any more these days?) slid a tall glass of undistinguished yellow liquid in front of me, saying she couldn't remember who ordered it, nobody was laying claim to it, and I could have it. Free beer is free beer, I remember thinking to myself, and set about quaffing it down somewhere around the time Mason Crosby trotted out to kick a field goal. Whatever this vile brew was, it had a bit of fizz, absolutely no hops, and a slick aftertaste not unlike Mountain Dew. I'm led to understand that this joke is the top-selling beer in the United States and beyond. The tears I subsequently shed were equally for Corey Webster's interception and the market dominance of such a sham.

Needless to say, if the above slander makes me a beer snob, so be it, Jedi. I make very little excuses for my extreme tastes - I like my music loud, my literature complex, my food fancy, my wine refined and my beer strong (about automobiles, however, I'm known to take a less refined approach). And a quick glance at the many activities sponsored by my fellow San Diegan beer enthusiasts suggests I'm not alone. Just as film aficionados shun the multiplex and flock to the art house, as music lovers turn their backs on Best Buy and check out the local record store, and as gourmands drive past the Mickey D's and dig into some local organic fare, the enthusiasm displayed for craft beer and intelligent brew culture suggests a larger audience unwilling to accept the watered-down inoffensive nonsense in cans that has been pushed upon us by the powers-that-be. Drink whatever you want, certainly - and if that means Coors Light, well, more power to you. But until you've sampled some of the finely crafted offerings out there and determined that, no, it's really not for me, I can only suggest that you have no idea what you're missing.

In an earlier post, I made reference to the overwhelming response to Extraordinary Dessert's special beer dessert menu. I was able to take part in two other San Diego Beer Week activities, the first an inspired beer and pizza pairing at Newport Pizza and Ale House just a few blocks down the street from our home in Ocean Beach. Newport is locally renowned for having a truly awesome selection of excellent beers on tap ("No Crap on Tap" is their deadly accurate motto) and in the bottle, and on Wednesday night they offered seven courses of specially-made pizzas with paired craft beer, all for the agreeable price of $20. I adored their first offering, a "garden pizza" consisting of basic cheese and Canadian bacon topped with gently wilted spinach, fresh diced tomatoes, and onions. The "Mexican pizza' came courtesy of the good folks at El Rodeo Taco Shop, just down the block below the tattoo parlor - the green peppers gave just the right amount of heat. I even dug the "Thanksgiving Pizza," which arrived boasting a gob of cranberry and roasted turkey. The revolving selections of Double IPAs, Stouts and Bitters were even tastier.

This afternoon, I ventured into North Park for a visit to one of my favorite San Diego restaurants, the farm-to-table mainstay The Linkery. Starting at noon, the restaurant highlighted the excellent offerings of Bluelake, California's Mad River Brewery, with a specially-designed six course menu of Mad River beer paired with appetizer-sized Linkery specials. I didn't have quite the stamina to try all six (sorry Pumpkin Panacotta paired with Pumpkin Ale - I'm sure you were memorable), but I did make a valiant assault.

-Double IPA paired with rosemary-skewered grilled shrimp (a perfect high-alcohol thirst-quencher)

-Double Brown paired with pork mole taquitos (a lovely slow-burn mole that meshed nicely with the nutty brown ale)

-Scottish Export paired with the scotch egg and grapefruit marmalade (the gentlest, flakiest scotch egg I've ever tasted, not that I've tasted many)

-Chili Beer paired with BBQ Pastured Lamb Sliders (don't mean to get too orgasmic here, but the combo of spicy-hot mini lamb burgers with the honest-to-god hot chili pepper aroma of the Chili Beer was food porn of the highest order. I swear you could smell the habanero skins when you sniffed the brew)

-Bourbon Stout paired with the Sweet Potato Pecan Fritters and horseradish aioli (the sharp sting of the horseradish was a wonderful match with the honeycomb goodness lurking beneath the bourbon stout)

One of my friendly waiters told me that Beer Week has proved a madhouse for the place, and that I had been wise to come down for lunch rather than waiting for dinner, reckoning that come 6 PM, they'd be wiped clean of their Mad River pairings. I ended up taking a long walk around North Park, relieving Off the Record of a few of its Feelies and Vaselines albums, and slowly sipping a cup of strong coffee to allow my Linkery buzz to drift into oblivion before heading back to the beach. Thanks for an inspiring week dedicated to craft, skill and responsible inebriation, San Diego - at times like this, I suspect that our city is one of the few in America that is truly made of of individual neighborhoods, linked by geography, each unique enough to keep one interested, all open to the curious and adventurous few that venture beyond the tourist-mandated watering holes and parking lots. Cheers.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Salute to San Diego Beer Week: Some Beers I've Known

San Diego Beer Week kicked off this past Friday, and for the next ten days the city will be literally hoisting a glass to a growing craft beer scene here in the southland. One can check the official webpage for the event(s), and even a cursory glance shows that Beer Week is far more than a weekend suds party. In fact, brew-chuggers may be a bit disappointed - the vast majority of the events involve careful food pairing, craft celebration, behind-the-scenes looks and even film screenings. I posted earlier in the year about our trip to Escondido's Stone Brewing Company, and noted how San Diego still lagged behind those two epicenters of beer culture, Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, but our city is rapidly approaching world-class beer status, both on the actual production front and on the cultural stage. Restaurants increasingly feature diverse arrays of local and foreign beer choices, quality bars and brewpubs seem to open and expand every day, and festivals like the ongoing Beer Fest attract legions of intelligent, enthusiastic and adventurous fans of hoppy concoctions.

A deadly combination of work, school requirements, and a trip to Taos will be slicing heavily into our ability to sample all that San Diego Beer Week has to offer, but the hope is to at least sample the many activities taking place across the city. Last night, we made the trek to the Little Italy location of Extraordinary Desserts, to meet a friend and try some of the specially featured "beer desserts" on the menu for the week. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the restaurant, the event was already proving so popular that they ran out of the special beer creations before 8:30 (they assured us they'd have more throughout the week). For the record, the promised desserts included a chocolate truffle loaf cake made with Rogue Chocolate Stout finished with chocolate ganache frosting, a Coconut Porter beer float, and a caramelized apple pie with house made St. Peters Cream Stout Ice Cream. I managed to snag a bowl of the stout ice cream, and it was delish.

So, in tribute to San Diego Beer Week, I offer a photographic display of some of the many bottles (most of the large variety) of microbrews and craft beer I've been sampling and enjoying over the past year. I find it hard to discard and crush individual bottles, and have been moving most of them to shelving units out in the garage. Some were brewed within our zip code, others hail from overseas. All deserve to be served at the proper temperature, in appropriate glassware, and should be poured at a cautious angle to preserve the head. And all that good stuff.

Stone Brewing Company, Escondido, CA - the grandaddy of the San Diego craft beer scene.

Ayinger, purveyors of authentic Bavarian bierkultur since 1878. This is the highly sought-after Oktoberfest Märzen.

Affligem Abbey, located between East Flanders and Flemish Brabant, was built in 1074 and has been releasing monk-brewed beer since the French Revolution. This seasonal special is for Noel, and is an appropriate holiday bottle.

Baggywrinkle Barleywine Ale, from the tiny Cisco Brewers on the island of Nantucket, given to me by some friends who spent time on the island earlier this year.

Nice unique release from Orange County's Bootlegger's Brewery. Another gift, this time from my wife's co-worker and fellow beer enthusiast. Available only in limited quantities, this dark stout was brewed with coffee and chipotle peppers.

All beer lovers recognize the plodding pink elephant as the sign of a quality beer - Ghent's
Brouwerij Huyghe Melle and their two Delirium variations - tremens and nocturnum.

Lovely bottle from Bavaria's Schneider-Weisse - the Aventinus, a chocolate-flavored wheat dopplebock.

Portland, Maine's Allagash Brewry, one of the strongest of the contemporary New England brewers, and their golden-hued winter seasonal Grand Cru.

Little need be said about Chimay Ale, the flagship offering from the premier Trappist brewers. One of these days, perhaps they'll release their legendary patersbier, currently made only for the monks, to the wider public. Until then, we can all dream.

New Belgium Brewing Company, located in Fort Collins, CO and home to the popular Fat Tire Ale (and the Tour de Fat), also offers the delightful Lips of Faith series. The above is the springtime special Biere de Mars, features lemon peel and assorted spices that result in a citrusy zing.

Attractive bottle from Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing Company, this quadrupel ale, The Sixth Glass, is the most authentically Belgian beer I've tasted that was actually brewed in the Midwest. Serious work.

More Belgian-inspired brewing from the states, this time from baseball-famed Cooperstown and the good folks at Ommegang. A nice malty Abbey Ale.....

...and the wonderful seasonal release of Chocolate Indulgence.

Back to California, and Larkspur's Marin Brewing Company. A nearly sherry-flavored Star Brew Triple Wheat Ale.

A rare find from Dexter, Michigan and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, courtesy of an adventurous beer enthusiast at Ocean Beach's Olive Tree Market. Flanders-style amber ale, called La Roja.

More mile-high brewed goodness, from Boulder, CO's Avery Brewing Company. A wonderful group, here with a strong and hop-heavy American Double style IPA, the Maharaja.

Not many quality beers are made in the deep south, due to the complex webbing of alcohol-unfriendly "blue laws" that predominate, but Louisiana's Abita Brewing Company is a notable exception. The Abbey Ale is a nice Dubbel.

Real old world stuff here, from Sunnyvale, CA's Rabbit's Foot Meadery - the Belgian-styled strong ale Diabhal. Pure funkiness.

From tiny Boonville, California. The Anderson Valley Brewing Company offers a delightful double abbey style ale - Brother David's Double.

More old world goodness, from Bungay, Suffolk, U.K.'s St. Peter's Brewery Co. A refined, reddish defiantly non-New World porter.

Serious stuff - Petrus' Gouden Tripel Ale, with low alcohol and not unlike a champagne. Pop it open!

Another San Diego-area brewer - Port (once known as Pizza Port), up in North County by way of San Marcos, a schwarzbier featuring a groovy surfer catching a gnarly one just in front of the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Enicinitas.

More San Diego (more San Marcos, actually) craft beer - the totally awesome Lost Abbey folks.
Amazing concoctions, amazing artwork.

Speaking of amazing bottles...Oregon's mighty Rogue Ales Brewery offers the skeleton-bedecked red bottle of the 2009 Double Dead Guy Ale. For the strong.

And back to SoCal, with San Clemente's Left Coast Brewing Company, just over the Orange County line, and their Hop Juice Double IPA, with plenty of bitters enclosed within its 9.4% alcohol level.

Farther north up the California coast comes Fortuna's Eel River Brewing Co. - wonderful organic beer. The Triple Exultation is an English-style Old Ale. More strong stuff.

The pride of Chambly, Quebec - Unibroue, and Trois Pistoles, a Belgian strong dark ale. Released in a strong dark bottle, too.

More San Diego craftiness - the Black Lightning Porter Fall Seasonal from Black Lightning.

No, I won't resist making the inevitable pun, and will go ahead and say something about a "Rogue's Gallery". I'm especially partial to the Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale.

Fort Bragg, CA and the mighty Brother Thelonious Dubbel-style bottle from North Coast Brewing Co. A friend once burned me a copy of a Thelonious Monk-themed cd and, lacking a suitable cover for the jewel case, peeled off the label from this bottle and affixed it forthwith.

Wychwood Brewery, hailing from Oxfordshire, produce a mild English Brown Ale, the Hobgoblin, complete with a sneering and sword-wielding Hobgoblin on the label.

More from New Belgium - 1554, the "Enlightened Black Ale," and Mothership Wit, an organic wheat beer.

Juneau's very own Alaskan Brewing Company, with a rather mild IPA.

A fun-loving and experimental brewery from the Southern Californian city of Petaluma, with plenty of year-round special releases. The Hop Stoopid Ale is a perennial favorite, but I really dig the richness of the Capuccino Stout.

And why not end on a real high note - a 20th Anniversary special release from the pioneers at Oregon's Deschutes Brewery, one of the greatest purveyors of craft beer in the country. A citrus-smooth witbier that I'd love to stumble across again.