Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vegas Journal: (Slightly) Off-Strip

While staying on the Las Vegas strip, we took a one-night jaunt off strip, back to the real world for Thai food and custard.

Lotus of Siam

There may be no more universally heralded restaurant in Vegas than Lotus of Siam. Praised by Jonathan Gold as the best Thai restaurant in North America as well as the best restaurant between the coasts, this Sahara Avenue strip mall Thai spot is a regular pilgrimage for visiting foodies.

Lotus of Siam is only slightly off strip. If you take the Las Vegas Monorail to the last stop, you get off right at Sahara and it's just about a mile walk east to Lotus of Siam.

If you frequent LA's great Thai restaurants in Thaitown or North Hollywood, you will immediately see a couple of differences from what you are used to. First, Lotus of Siam is the first Thai restaurant I've been to in a while that is mostly patronized by non-Thai people, or at least that was the case the night I was there. Second, they have an extensive wine list, focusing on German Rieslings. The crisp, sweetness of Rieslings, it turns out, are perfect for the spicy Thai flavors.

Now, I am sorry to disappoint, but I don't feel I can do justice to Lotus of Siam. Usually, to review a Thai restaurant, I would order at least five or six dishes, but our party was two people without a refrigerator in our hotel room to take food back to, so we were limited in our ordering.

Because of our limitations around quantity, we opened the extensive menu and skipped directly to the Northern Thai section, reputed to be home to the best dishes. The two dishes we picked from that menu were very good. The Northern Larb, a pork larb, similar to other larb's I've had but without lime, was excellent. The sourness of a traditional pork larb was replaced by a deeply, rich, meaty flavor, the type of flavor that appeals to your most basic flesh-eating instincts; I sopped up the juice with my sticky rice. The second main dish was a red curry with vermicelli and coagulated pork blood. It was very good, with deep, earthy flavors of pork and blood and some good spice. We also got a fried catfish salad from the regular menu; there were nice bites of fried catfish, but the salad was less interesting than the other dishes and didn't really come together as a whole.

While all the dishes were very good, I wasn't struck by lightening, as I sort of expected since this is the best Thai restaurant in the world, etc., etc. But as I said, I don't want to judge on this limited exposure to the menu; mostly, I want to go back and try more, especially some of the sausage dishes.

Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Ave. Suite A5
Las Vegas, NV 89104

Luv-It Frozen Custard

For dessert, we meandered northeast to Luv-It Frozen Custard, a little stand just off Las Vegas Boulevard in the seedy area north of the strip. Luv-It has a variety of custard flavors and toppings. I ordered a Western: vanilla custard with hot fudge, caramel and pecans. This was good custard. Creamy without being slick, a nice vanilla flavor with no chemical aftertaste. Good frozen custard is hard to find in Southern California, so I was very happy to have this treat. Both the smooth, luscious flavor and the stand-around-eating-it ambiance brought me back to my days of eating Ted Drew's in St. Louis. Good times, good custard, and a perfect off-strip dessert after the spicy Thai food.

Luv-It Frozen Custard
505 E. Oakey Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89104
(702) 384-6452

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Vegas Whiskey at Craftsteak

While I report on my Las Vegas food adventures, I wanted to give a shout out to the best whiskey bar I found on my trip. On a great tip from my colleagues at the LA Whisk(e)y Society, I headed to Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak at the MGM Grand. (You can read about the Society's decadent whiskey paired meal here).

Craftsteak has and excellent list of single malts, divided by region, as well as a very impressive selection of American whiskeys. The bartenders are helpful and will even let you nose the bottle prior to making your decision. The whiskey menu is quite varied, but includes some great deals; I found a 16 year old cask strength Mortlach bottled by James MacArthur's Old Master's for only $17.

There is also a lovely glass case of extremely rare and expensive whiskies, including some distilled in the 1930s, and while I didn't partake, they were fun to look at.

So if you're in Vegas and wanting some fine whiskey, head to Craftsteak, and I hear the food isn't bad either.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Vegas Journal: The Lion, the Witch and Joel Robuchon

Deep in the heart of the MGM Grand, right off the casino floor, not far from the lion habitat housing actual lions, lies one of only two Michelin three star restaurants west of the Hudson River (the other being, of course, the French Laundry). To walk through the large doorway is akin to entering a new dimension. The sights, sounds and smoke of the casino are gone, and you are now in a more tranquil world.

The aesthetic of Joel Robuchon is unique, far different than any American restaurant I've visited. It is as if the designer was a pre-teen girl. The centerpiece of the room is a gigantic chandelier hanging much lower than seems wise. There are pink and white flowers everywhere, and each table includes a bird cage containing pink birds and butterflies made of feathers. The decor caused me to wonder whether they used the same designer as the American Girl Cafe.

There are a variety of tasting menus offered, starting at $109, but this may be the only time I ever set foot in a real Michelin three star, and it's a very special occasion, so we opted for the 16 course tasting menu for around $400 per person (and that's without wine!).

Robuchon makes ample use of carts and the first presentation was the bread cart, a massive, elaborately decorated cabinet housing what must have been twenty or more different breads. There were baguettes, focaccias, rustic country breads, flavored breads, soft buns. It went on and on. We sampled a selection throughout the meal. All were excellent. The rustic country baguette is all you would want it to be, deeply crusty, light and airy. The bacon bread tasted of smoky bacon with thick cut pieces studded throughout. Various cheese breads were also very good.

Then came the parade of courses. As with everything at Robuchon, there was an attention to presentation beyond anything I'd seen before. Each plate was a work of art (I'm not talking about the food here, but the actual dishware). There were props and accessories and spiral wires that wrapped around each bowl and saucer. An asparagus dish came with a glass framed picture of asparagus, a seafood plate included a starfish and piece of coral on the tray, and on it went.

Much of the food was very good, but in general, while the experience was exciting, the food was not better that at other great restaurants; in fact, it was a bit hit and miss.

Many dishes blended French technique with Asian flavors to good effect. One of my favorites was a starter of tender uni in a carrot mousse topped with a chilled, beef consomme. Interplay of textures, as evidenced in this dish (soft uni, smooth carrot puree, and gelatinous consomme) was another motif that we saw throughout the meal. A roasted lobster ravioli in a foie gras foam was hard not to love.

Another very successful plate was a trio of asparagus dishes - a savory pana cotta, a lightly scrambled egg with asparagus presented in a thin "toast" and an asparagus flan with morels.

The main course dishes were weaker, particularly around texture. Foie gras with bamboo shoots wrapped in green cabbage was a bit too mushy, and a veal chop, while tasty, was very tough.

Mid-way through the meal, I was shocked to see the man himself, Joel Robuchon, clad in black shirt, making his way through the dining room greeting what I can only assume were VIPs and studiously ignoring the rest of us who were merely ponying up several weeks' pay for a meal. It never occurred to me that Robuchon, who has restaurants in six countries over three continents, would actually be in the restaurant while I was dining there.

For some inexplicable reason, the tasting menu does not include a cheese service, although a cheese cart was in evidence, so we moved directly into dessert. Dessert at Robuchon successfully combined the qualities that were sometimes lacking in the main part of the meal: consistency, originality and the wow factor.

I'm generally a chocolate guy, and while there was a fine chocolate mousse, the best dessert was la verveine, a tangerine cream with candied kumquats and a lemon verbena sorbet.

And then came the candy cart. The end of service candy cart is a thing of children's dreams. A massive cart filled with dozens of candies: chocolates, caramels, jellies, marshmallows, cookies and even lollipops. The server then fills plates and plates based on your request. I was tempted to order "one of each" but I reined myself in. The chocolates were rich and tasty, especially the chocolate macaron, but everything was quite good. If I was left with one strong sentiment from the meal, it's that I want a candy cart. Yes, after each meal, I want some guy to wheel in a candy cart and serve me rich, delicate sweets to my order. Now that would be living.

We finished our candy and coffee, and then we were done. The portions were small, so I was certainly satisfied, but not stuffed. We set out past the flowers and bird cages, through the doors to the hustle and bustle, the ring and the bling of a Vegas casino. I looked back, half expecting the entrance of Robuchon to have disappeared, like the door to Narnia, another strange, mystical place that lives by a different set of rules.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vegas Baby: My Birthday Journal and a Fabulous Steak

So, I had a birthday recently, one ending in a zero. To celebrate, I spent a long weekend in Las Vegas, eating my way through the strip and environs. I hadn't been to Vegas for a few years, but in this town, things change so much that a few years can seem like a lifetime. I'll begin my series of reports on Sin City dining with one of the best meals I had on my trip: Carnevino(at the Palazzo).

Mario Batali's Italian steakhouse Carnevino was a tour de force of a meal from start to finish. I mean, how can you not love a place that serves its bread not only with butter but with a little tub of lardo. Yes lardo, pork fat, whipped up and seasoned with rosemary and salt. It had the texture of a very creamy butter and the taste of a rosemary butter with an underlying porkiness. The stuff was addictive. It made me want to lick out the tub, to take it home with me or to buy a brick of manteca and try to make it myself.

Given my experience at Batali's Osteria Mozza, we expected the pasta appetizer to be good, and it was. We opted for the cannelloni, stuffed with braised rabbit, spring garlic and lemon zest and topped with cheese. The pasta was Batali-perfect and the stuffing was a delightful fusion of sour, salt and garlic.

But beef is the thing here, BBL Beef to be specific. BBL is still sort of a mystery to me. As far as I can discern, it stands for Belgian Blue Lefaivre, which appears to be a proprietary breed; a hybrid between a particularly lean breed and a fattier cow which is both lean and well marbled, if that seeming contradiction makes sense. The menu states that BBL is "often beyond regular USDA prime standards for marbling and flavor and is hormone and antibiotic free."

Whatever the stuff is though, it's tasty. We ordered our favorite cut, the porterhouse, which was stunning. The beef tasted like no other I've had. The marbling, evident in the bone left on the plate (all steaks are carved tableside) was more similar to that of Wagyu steak than any other steak I've had in the US. The flavor was much more beefy, almost gamey, than a standard cut. This was one of the best steaks I've had, ever, and I like steak. And yes, I picked up the bone and tore the last bits of meat from it caveman style, to the amusement of surrounding tables. I'm sorry, but if you're going to give me the bone on a plate, I'm going to eat it.

Dessert was also excellent. Caramel date fritters, were warm and perfectly fried. The date and caramel, which you might think would be an excessively sweet combination, came together perfectly, the date puree adding some texture to the burnt sugar of the caramel.

My only complaint of the meal was that one of the sides we ordered, a fregula pasta (a sort of large couscous) with fava beans and pecorino romano, was too salty. The pecorino, cut into little balls and mixed in with the fregula, overwhelmed with their saltiness and there were too few favas in the dish to make an impression.

The more I eat at Batali restaurants, the more impressed I am that this seemingly class-clown type of a guy with a television, restaurant and cook book empire is still putting out food of this quality. This was a meal that was worth a pilgrimage. If you are a steak lover, you need to check out Carnevino.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Balblair Comes to LA

Last Thursday, the good people from the Balblair distillery sponsored a party at the Edison, downtown, to kick off the introduction of Balblair to the US market. Balblair is an Eastern Highlands distillery. Unlike most Scotches, which release whiskies with general age statements (e.g. aged 12 years), the Balblair has opted for vintages. As with wines, their whiskies are identified by the year of production. While a few other distilleries are doing this (most notably The Glenrothes), it is still fairly unusual in the world of distillery bottled Scotch. The first two expressions coming to the US market are the 1991 and the 1997 vintages. Both were bottled in 2009 so the 1991 is 18 years old and the 1997 is 12 years old.

Balblair is owned by Inver House distillers, which is in turn owned by Thai Beverage (ThaiBev). Inver House owns the excellent Old Pulteney, but until recently, many of their whiskies were not available in the US market. Within the past few months though, they have released Balblair, Speyburn and anCnoc (distilled at Knockdhu). I'm always glad to see new releases on the US market, so kudos to Inver House for opening up the market.

The Edison party was very nice; it's hard to beat sipping whisky and munching hors d'oeuvres among the turbines and other strange electronics that make up the Edison's renowned steampunk aesthetic. There was also a bowl of dark chocolate bars, and as it turns out, Balblair pairs very well with high cacao chocolate.

Balblair was offering tastes of both malts. It's hard to do formal tasting notes in this type of setting, but I did get a good impression of both of the expressions being offered, which have very different characters. The 1997 is a floral, perfumy malt; lighter and younger tasting. The 1991, in contrast, has big malt flavors; it's very straightforward, very drinkable and should appeal to those who like the pure taste of malt, uninfluenced by sherry or peat. Both of the Balblairs clock in at 43% alcohol and are aged in ex-Bourbon casks. The 1997 will retail for $64.99, and the 1991 will retail for $129.99. They are available at specialty spirits shops.

FTC Disclaimer: The Balblair event offered whisky samples and a bottle to each attendee free of charge.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bouchon: It's Kellerific!

As is my tradition, when a glamorous new restaurant opens, I try to wait until the hype has died down, the celebrity chef has gone back to his home restaurant and the reservations are available. Using that measure, it was time to try Bouchon, the Beverly Hills outpost of Thomas Keller's bistro that opened last fall.

I've never been to a Keller restaurant, so this was my first exposure to the cuisine of one of the most highly regarded chefs in the world. No pressure though.

We went for charcuterie and pate for appetizers, all of which pleased. There is little nicer than a jar of pure foie gras terrine. I like that it was served unadorned, without jellies, glazes, nuts or berries; it was just a jar of Sonoma foie gras, some toast strips and sea salt, leaving nothing to cover the pure, silky taste of the terrine.

Pate de campagne looked like the traditional country pate, but one bite reveled it to be so much more. It was moist and porky with much more spice than a traditional pate de campagne. It quickly disappeared and was among our favorite dishes.

The Assiette de Charcuterie consisted of a number of salamis and a dry cured ham. All very good, but not as exciting as the pate or as sublime as the foie.

I was thrilled to see boudin noir on the menu. I love a blood sausage, but I haven't seen boudin noir much on LA restaurant menus(morcilla, yes; soondae, yes, but boudin noir, not so much). And this one was divine. A modestly sized sausage, the boudin noir innards which spilled out of the sausage once the casing was severed were moist to the point of melting in your mouth with a few chunks interspersed within. The flavor was deep and pure, spiced well enough but not such that it got in the way of the pure blood sausage flavor. It was served with mashed potatoes and caramelized apples.

As the meal progressed, it became apparent that Bouchon's food aimed to highlight the main ingredient with as little adornment as possible. Sauces were mild, there were no molecular tricks or other gimmicks, and it really was about showcasing great ingredients.

Another great dish was a rack of lamb special. The lamb was rich and tender, but the highlight of the dish was a few slices of a house made merguez sausage, which hit all the right notes, which had all of the requisite merguez spice without losing the taste of the lamb.

We ordered a plethora of desserts, but my favorite was the Ile Flottante, a traditional floating island (meringue in creme anglaise) with the addition of caramel sauce. The meringue was light and airy while also being moist and creamy; it was served in anglaise with caramel poured over it tableside. It was all I could do not to lick the bowl to get all of the sauce out of there.

Other desserts were all very good. The chocolate mousse was thick and rich, pot du creme infused with almond was delightfully subtle, profiteroles came with a hot fudge sauce on the side which was another lap it out of the container situation. The two desserts that were less exciting were the creme caramel, a well executed but fairly typical flan and the restaurant's trademark dessert, chocolate bouchons. Bouchon means cork in French, and the chocolate bouchons are small cork-shaped chocolate cakes topped with chocolate sauce and raspberry sorbet. The sorbet was fantastic with a strong raspberry taste, but the bouchons were just okay.

Bouchon opened last fall to mixed reviews from the food bloggerotti, but count me as a convert. Less is more at Keller's only Southern California outpost which goes for traditional interpretations of bistro dishes that put ingredients first.

Bouchon Bistro (at the Montage Hotel)
235 N Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, California 90210
(310) 271-9910

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Amedei Single Origin Chocolates

Amedei Chocolates are among the best things you can put in your mouth. When I sampled the Italian company's Porcelana bar, it blew me away, so I was very happy to receive a set of their cru series of single origin chocolates to sample. All of Amedei's bars are 70% cacao and contain only cacao, sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla. All of the chocolates are made from trinitario beans, a hybrid, though the Venezuela and Madagascar beans are made from a different strain of trinitario which has a higher percentage of criollo beans in its genetic makeup.


Creamy, pure and dark chocolate case. There is not much to say about this, except that it is wonderfully straight forward dark chocolate; almost text book in its purity.


The Grenada has a strong dark, nose which is much milder than most of these. It takes a while for the flavor to kick in. Mid way through the first bite, the sweetness hits, and then the chocolate tones, which are still quite subtle and carries on into the finish. If you are doing a sampling, try this first as the others will overwhelm its subtle flavor.


The Jamaica has a strong chocolate scent. The flavor is rich and deep, with some olive brine and other savory notes. It is very low in acid.


Great, powerful flavors. Deep and dark, some salt and even garlic notes; lots of umami with some burnt qualities on the finish. Lovely and unique.


Very herbal nose with cinnamon scents. Herbal qualities continue on in the flavor, along with some Cognac/liqueur qualities. Another great one with really interesting flavor.


A bit more fruity than the others; smooth and creamy; sweetness comes in mid-palate but with lots of balance. One of my favorites of the lot.

All of these chocolates were excellent. Interestingly, I found them to be more similar to each other than other single origin collections I've sampled, such as Michel Cluizel. or Pralus. Amedei chocolates tend to eschew acidity and go for very pure chocolate flavors. It's a style I like very much, but it means that the distinctions between the different chocolates are more subtle than I've found with other chocolates. Of course, some other chocolates use a wider variety of beans as well, which would likely account for some of the differences.

The Amedei I Cru Sampler is available in several sizes on

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: It's a Marvelous Night for Some Moonshine

It turned out that last week's post on moonshine/new make/white dog, came at a serendipitous time. The same day my post went up, the New York Times published a story on the topic and Highland Park announced that they would start selling new make spirit. Days later, Dr. Whisky weighed in against the trend toward new make, and John Hansell opened the topic for discussion among his commenters. It's clearly the hot topic of the moment.

In another great whiskey commentary, Chuck Cowdery told his readers to curb their enthusiasm about the new craft distilleries, arguing that their product is not yet up to the standard of their prices or marketing.

I have to say, I'm torn on this issue. As usual, everything Chuck says is absolutely correct (and Chuck was recently a judge at the American Distilling Institute's whiskey competition in which 65 craft whiskeys competed, so he knows from whence he speaks). I do want to encourage microdistillers, but most of their whiskeys (with exceptions like Charbay and Old Potrero) have not been up to snuff so far. I also think some of them are hurting their brand by releasing premature spirits at exorbitant prices, though I sympathize with their needing to turn a quick buck.

Also, to all of those who compare the microdistillery movement to the craft brewery movement that began in the 1990s, there is one big fat distinction. In the '90s, most American major brewery beers were terrible. Americans were drinking watered down lagers. The craft breweries introduced flavor to beer. In whiskey, the big American distilleries make fabulous products. You can't compare Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace today to Bud, Miller and Coors in the '90s. The craft distilleries are doing some interesting things, but no more so than the big kids in Kentucky and Tennessee. The story of the craft distilleries isn't David and Goliath, it's David and Picasso.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

New York Odds and Ends

Having already written up my trips to Katz's and Doughnut Plant, I thought I would summarize the other greatest hits of my brief New York trip.

Amy's Bread (three locations, but I went to the one in the Village). I'd been to Amy's West Village location on my last trip to New York. Amy's is on the same block of Bleecker as Faicco's Pork Store and Murray's Cheese Shop, which qualifies it as one of the greatest food blocks in the world. Amy's makes bread, but I've never tried the bread; instead, I indulge in their wonderful sweets. This trip, I had a fantastic red velvet cake. The cake itself, often the fatal flaw of red velvets, was moist and sweet, though with less discernible cocoa than some versions. The frosting was a perfectly light as air butter cream, which I dug as I much prefer butter cream to cream cheese frosting on my red velvets. Good stuff!

Amy's Bread
250 Bleecker Street (@ Leroy)
NY, NY 10014
(212) 675-7802

After hearing about it for a few years now, I had to stop by Momofuku Milk Bar for the famous crack pie. The Milk Bar is home to many fun and creative desserts. The compost cookie is a chocolate chip cookie with pretzels, graham crackers and potato chips. Cereal milk and cereal milk ice cream give you the sweet, malty taste of milk at the end of a bowl of cereal. The celebrated crack pie is a buttery, oat-infused, custard pie. It's a good dessert, creamy and buttery, but I didn't develop the immediate obsession for it that passed over New Yorkers when it opened. I also tried a grasshopper pie, chocolate and mint with marshmallows on top and a bit of salt on the crust; overall, it was a bit too sweet for me. I like the playful spirit of the Milk Bar and the products were good, but the place suffers from an over-the-top hype that can't help but leave one disappointed.

Momofuku Milk Bar
207 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-3500

Bluebird Coffee Shop. When I lived in New York in the '90s, coffee was a problem. Starbucks, which invaded the city during that decade, was actually a pretty substantial step up from the vast majority of coffee in Manhattan, excepting a few espressos pulled in little Italian joints in the Village and cafe con leche at Cuban and Puerto Rican diners. The indie coffee shops were mostly terrible. After a few years, I just gave up on the whole scene and had Peet's beans shipped to me from California. Well, times have changed. New Yorkers have fully embraced third wave coffee, and the latte art flows, especially in the Lower East Side. There were far too many to try, but one of the best I had was the Bluebird Coffee Shop on East First Street at the corner of First Avenue. They serve a smooth, creamy cappuccino similar those from Intelligentsia in LA. It was good to see so much potentially good coffee in what was once an espresso wasteland.

Bluebird Coffee Shop
72 East 1st Street (@ First Avenue)
NYC, NY 10003
(212) 260-1879

Num Pang is a Cambodian sandwich shop on 12th Street, east of Fifth Avenue. If the guys from Animal opened a banh mi shop, this is what it would be like (num pang is essentially the Cambodian version of banh mi). The 5 spice glazed pork belly sandwich is among the most indulgent things between bread. It consists of a large hunk of sweet, glazed pork belly, juices pouring onto the toasted bun, the fat cut by pickled pear slices. Also excellent was the regular pulled pork sandwich; the pork was moist, tender and glazed with a spiced honey sauce. On my last day in New York, I was lured back in the direction of Num Pang and even passed by it, but I just couldn't do it. After four days of pastrami, doughnuts and other indulgences, my arteries couldn't take it. Thanks to the great Nina M. for taking me here.

Num Pang
21 East 12th Street
New York City, NY 10003
(212) 255-3271

Hey, that was lots of food for three days! Next stop: Vegas.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

F***ing Euphoria at Doughnut Plant with the NYFD

As regular readers know, every spring, I commence Doughnut Days, an eating extravaganza dedicated to the once humble doughnut. Given that I've been at this for years now, I've pretty much tapped all the great doughnuts of LA, so this year, I'm taking Doughnut Days on the road.

Being in New York City gave me a chance to visit the legendary Doughnut Plant. I'd been hearing about this lower Manhattan doughnuttery and its creative recipes for years; the tres leches cake doughnut and creme brulee doughnut are the stuff of doughnut lore.

Like any good food blogger, I mapped out my trip ahead of time. I hit Doughnut Plant 15 minutes after opening on a Tuesday morning (6:45 am). There was no line, just a few people milling about. I got a tres leches cake doughnut and a vanilla bean doughnut. I asked for one of the famous creme brulee doughnuts but was told by the counterperson that they would be ready in five minutes, so I went outside and stood next to two firefighters who were also waiting for the creme brulees.

While I waited, I munched. The tres leches was a good concept, a glazed cake doughnut with a soaked bottom just like the cake of the same name, but it was overwhelmingly sweet, so much so that the sweetness masked any other flavors. The vanilla bean, a yeast doughnut which was the closest thing they have to a traditional raised glazed, was also sweet and nicely chewy, though I would have liked more yeasty flavor. Overall, I found it unexceptional. Needless to say, while doughnuts generally make me happy, I wasn't finding these to be out of the ballpark; was this just another overhyped New York eatery?

The firefighters, who had not ordered any other doughnuts while they waited for their creme brulees, pegged me for a newbie.
"Have you had the creme brulee?" one of them asked. I responded that I hadn't and asked if it was good. His eyes widened.
"Fucking euphoric," he said, staring intensely at me. At that moment, as if on cue, I saw the counterperson pull out a tray of small round doughnuts with gleaming brown caps. She motioned for us to come in.

The creme brulee doughnut is quite modest in size compared to the rest of the Doughnut Plant lineup; it is a round, compact yeast doughnut which fits firmly in the palm of your hand. The top is hard, caramelized sugar, as per the namesake dessert, and the filling is a liquid, vanilla custard. Eating this doughnut is an explosion of flavor and texture. The chewy and still slightly warm yeast dough gives way to the sweet crunch of the caramelized sugar, after which the vanilla creme oozes out. The custard is perfect. It is a far cry from the gloppy, corn starch custard you traditionally find in a custard doughnut. It's more liquid with a purer vanilla taste, and it's not too sweet, not unlike the custard of a particularly liquidy creme brulees. All of these elements come together to create a moment of doughnut perfection.

As I walked out of the shop, I took a bite. One of the firefighters, now getting into his red car, looked up at me.
"Is that the best doughnut you've ever had?"
"Fucking euphoric," I responded without missing a beat, and immediately turned around, went back into the shop and bought another.

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
(202) 505-3700

What's that? You want pictures. Jeez, what do I look like, a food blogger? Well, if you must have them check out these beauties from the ever gracious BananaWonder.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chasing the New Make: Buffalo Trace White Dog

There has been a lot of interest lately in unaged whiskey, alternately referred to as moonshine, white dog, white whiskey and new make. To clarify the terminology, moonshine is the name used for illegally distilled liquor, but to capitalize on the rebellious and romantic associations that the term conjures, several new distilleries are calling their unaged (legal) whiskeys moonshine. (Most illegal moonshines are actually made from sugar according to Max Watman, author of the recently released moonshine chronicle, Chasing the White Dog).

White dog is the name used by distillers for unaged American whiskey, and new make is a term meaning the same thing but used by Scotch and Irish distillers.

Legally, most unaged spirits cannot be called whiskey. In Scotland, a spirit must be aged for three years to be called whisky, and it is unclear whether unaged spirits can even include the name of the distillery on their label, hence Glenglassaugh's release of its new make under the label, The Spirit Drink that Dare not Speak its Name. In American whiskey, only corn whiskey can be bottled straight off the still without being stored in wood. All other whiskeys must be stored, for some time, in wooden containers.

Why the sudden interest in this type of spirit? There are likely several reasons. First is the proliferation of new microdistilleries. New distilleries that want to make Bourbon or rye have to age it, which deprives them of any immediate return on their investment. As a result, to get some immediate cash flow, many new micros release unaged spirits such as corn whiskey or white whiskey. The result has been a corn whiskey boom. For years, there were only one or two distilleries that produced unaged, American corn whiskey. Now, in the midst of a microdistilling boom, there are more than a dozen.

Second, the growth of whiskey connoisseurship has produced an interest in new make among whiskey aficionados. Tasting your favorite Scotch or Bourbon fresh off the still is an educational exercise which can give you new insight into how the whiskey matures and the dramatic effect of oak. Maker's Mark, in its whiskey tastings and master classes, has long offered samples of its white dog along side other samples of various ages of whiskey to shed light on the aging process. The logical next step was for distilleries to start bottling the stuff. Along with the previously mentioned Glenglassaugh, several Scotch distilleries are releasing new make as is the Buffalo Trace Bourbon distillery

Third, the cocktail/bar chef/mixology renaissance has led to the (re)introduction of all sorts of old and obscure spirits and cocktails. The release of these new make spirits fits right into that movement as recently chronicled by Watman.


As I noted, Buffalo Trace is now marketing their new make, White Dog spirit. When first released, it was only available in Kentucky and at Binny's, but it seems to be slowly spreading (I have yet to see it on the shelf in LA); it goes for around $17 for a 375 ml bottle. The Buffalo Trace white dog is made from their Mash #1, a low rye Bourbon mash which is the same grain combination used in Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare and the legendary George T. Stagg Bourbon. It comes off the still and into the bottle at 62.5% alcohol.

The nose on this stuff has lots of sugar cane with a bit of a raw alcohol note. It smells much more like a white rum than any sort of Bourbon. The first thing that hits me is the syrupy mouthfeel and a surprisingly sweet flavor. Only at the end of the palate and on into the finish is there anything resembling whiskey. On that finish, I can feel the Bourbon and even a hint of rye spice.

The presence of rye is what separates the Buffalo Trace white dog from corn whiskey, which must be a whopping 80% corn and generally, doesn't include rye. In addition, the Buffalo Trace White Dog is cask strength, while most corn whiskey on the market hovers around 40% alcohol. Compared to corn whiskeys I've had, I definitely prefer the Buffalo Trace. The rye gives it a more complex flavor and the higher strength accentuates the flavor. Regular strength corn whiskey tastes pretty watered down and one dimensional in comparison.

I have to say, I quite enjoy this stuff, though it's more interesting as an academic exercise. It's hard to picture grabbing it off the shelf for a relaxing drink, more of a, "hey, you gotta' taste this" experience for Bourbon fans.

Coming up soon (as in, when I get around to it) we will try some White Dog cocktails.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Great Pastrami Debate: Katz's vs. Langer's

I lived in Manhattan for three years in the mid to late '90s. Since then, I've been back only sporadically. When I lived in New York, I occasionally ventured out to Katz's famous deli on Houston, but on a recent trip back to NYC, it occurred to me that I had not been to Katz's since I lived in New York, which means I had not been since before I moved to LA and tried Langer's. Since one of Angelenos' favorite pastimes is telling New Yorkers that Langer's is better than Katz's, I thought I should go back to Katz's with that comparison in mind. So, I headed to Houston Street, took a ticket and ordered the Katz's equivalent of my Langer's order: the straight up pastrami on rye.

Katz's makes a great pastrami sandwich, no doubt about it, but I'm proud to report to all you LA civic pride advocates that Langer's is indeed better. I view Katz's meat as the best of the deli pastrami. It is well spiced, tender and full of spicy, meaty flavor, but it is ultimately a great version of the same pastrami you get at every deli in the City. Langer's, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. It has very little in common with traditional, sliced deli pastramis. It's moist and thick and almost more of a meat entree than a cold cut. Biting into a Katz's sandwich is extremely satisfying, but biting into a Langer's sandwich is a near religious experience.

And then there is the bread. At Katz's, the bread is a throwaway. A mere container for the meat, Katz's bread is limp and flavorless; it's clearly not there to be appreciated, it's there to keep your fingers from getting greasy. At Langer's, in contrast, the soft, crispy crusted bread is as much a part of the sandwich experience as the meat. That is the wonderful gestalt of the Langer's sandwich; the thick and tender, perfectly spiced meat contrasted with the fresh, crusty bread is what makes it superior.

The one place where Katz's clearly wins, though, is the pickles. Langer's pickles are floppy and sad. Katz's gives you both a sour and a half-sour with your sandwich. The half sour is not as good as some I've had, but the Katz's sour pickle is everything you want in a pickle. It's salty, juicy and deeply sour.

So give me a good old Langer's sandwich any day, but I'll take it with a sour pickle from Katz's.