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5 Treasures: Cocktail Fights & Johnnycakes

16 Dec

The Finals

Tracy Latimer of jm Curley knocks out Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden in the final round

Best Event: Cocktail Fight

On a recent Monday night, Espolon Tequila and Nick Korn turned Union Square’s Precinct Bar into a COCKtial FIGHTING ring, complete with chicken wire and bookies in green visors collecting cock dollars. In a Speed Rack meets Iron Chef competition, 12 bartenders entered the ring to create delicious Espolon drinks featuring secret ingredients in record time.

The Competitors

The Competitors

While Tracy Latimer of JM Curley was busy knocking out Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden in the final round to clinch the belt, the rest of us were drinking Sangrita and eating Frito Chili Pie. Adding to the excitement was the ability to bet on bartenders to win swag. While my prediction proved right when the math fell apart in the end, that’s expected when the drinks are flowing.If I was looking to do an event, I’d hire Nick Korn. Since leaving behind the bar of Citizen Public House to start Off-Site, he’s the hardest working non-bartender in the business right now. “This event was predicated on the idea that cocktail competitions are stupid.  COCKtail FIGHT was the brainchild of the same people that brought us Remixology and was based on the same concept: that competitions should be fun and bartenders should have to put on a show,” Korn tells me.
Tracy Latimer of Jm Curley
In addition to upping the entertainment factor, Korn wanted to showcase great bartenders that usually skip cocktail competitions. “I wasn’t afraid to leave the city, and strove to highlight some of the amazing people fighting the good fight out in the suburbs (Brookline, Billerica, Lexington and Woburn were all represented).  The unintended consequence was that we ended up with a field in which no two competitors were from the same town.  I challenge you to point to another competition or other event where this has ever been true.” Keep an eye out for this event to go national next year!
Judge Jon of Beantown Drinks

Judge Jon of Beantown Drinks

Jon Berkowitz of Beantown Drinks served as one of the judges and gave me a typical Jon diplomatic quote that helps explain why I’m never asked to judge. “Cocktail Fights was more of a battle than a competition. All the competitors put on a great show and made some very tasty drinks. Judging a cocktail competition with such energy and improvised moments makes for a truly enjoyable event.”
MC Crazy Dan on Left

Left: MC Crazy Dan, a man who should never be given a microphone, a date, or an invitation to be among civilized company

The only thing I’d change about the event was the MC. Crazy Dan of Howl at the Moon was trying to get cheap laughs, but instead he confirmed how Howl at the Moon got named one of the douchiest bars in Boston. He resorted to very offensive and sexists remarks, such as when he was announcing that one of the two female contenders wasn’t going to make it to the next round. “Even though both girls are lovely and I’d take them home and do naughty things to both of them…” Luckily, Tracy is a professional and countered with piercing insults, but no one should have to put up with asshats like Dan. I got so fed up with Dan I had to leave for awhile to grab a drink at nearby cocktail sanctuary backbar. I returned because I wanted to see Tracy prove Dan wrong that a woman wasn’t going to make it to the final round because we weren’t “playing poker.” Mad respect to Tracy for winning it all with class.

Best Bite: Buttermilk Johnnycake at Neptune Oyster

Asians Taking Pics of Food

LA Son authors Roy Choi, Tien Nguyen, and Natasha Phan document the fresh uni in the window

With so many underrated dining spots in Boston, I find few places are worth the wait. Neptune Oyster is the rare exception, especially when you have good company visiting from out of town.

Natasha Phan and Roy Choi at Neptune Oyster

Pictures of Asians Taking Pictures of Food: Natasha Phan and Roy Choi clean their plates at Neptune Oyster

Friends Tien Nguyen of LA Weekly, Kogi maven Natasha Phan, and Chef Roy Choi were wrapping up their East Coast book tour of LA Son and celebrating a 45-minute NPR interview. After watching Roy cook up Korean braised short rib stew and ghetto donuts utilizing a can of Pillsbury dough for a roomful of students, he asked me where we should eat. He had dinner reservations for Island Creek Oyster Bar already, but I knew he wouldn’t mind another Boston seafood must-try.

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Natasha Phan, Tien Nguyen, Me, and Roy Choi celebrating the release of LA Son so far from home

Lobster rolls, clam chowder, oysters… Chef Michael Serpa of Neptune Oyster blew us away. However, one dish I had never tried before stood out above the rest: the buttermilk Johnnycake with honey butter, smoked trout tartare, and California sturgeon caviar ($16). It was a treat listening to Roy dissect each dish and compare the transcendent experience of eating the best oysters in Boston to LA’s best tacos. Roy has one of the best Twitter feeds and is apparently “LA’s Street Food King” according to the NY Times, but he’ll always be known simply as Papi to those of us lucky enough to eat his food regularly in LA.

Roy Choi Cooking Demo

Roy Choi Making Ghetto Doughnuts from his book LA Son

Random Musing: Tasty Burger

Tasty Burger has got to be the most profitable restaurant in the city between 2 am and 4 am. The Harvard Square location of Franklin Restaurant Group’s fast food burger mini-chain is insanely packed as soon as the bars close. Next door bland burrito institution Felipe’s has been unsuccessfully gunning for this 4 am license for years because they know how profitable the drunk college kid market is. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve ended several nights at Tasty Burger, and started several too since they have a surprisingly hip craft beer bar downstairs complete with a pool table. It’s hard to say no to a “starving student special” featuring a burger, fries, and tall can of beer for $10.

Tasty Burger was hoping to change Central Square too, taking on Moody’s Falafal Palace as the best drunk food in the square, but the city wouldn’t grant it a liquor license. That was a deal breaker for Tasty. It’s a great option in Harvard Square, but it’s soon to have competition. I’m curious to see what will happen when Shake Shack opens in the old Om space. Sure, the opening of a location in Chestnut Hill didn’t catch fire, but Harvard students seemingly can’t get enough burgers. Charlie’s Kitchen and Tommy Doyle’s were already doing burger and beer combos, and Flat Patties nearby is still going strong, but Tasty Burger is the new it place.

I’m curious to see how well Shake Shack does. It will help that Tommy Doyle’s is closing next door and that Tasty Burger can take forever to move a line even with a large staff working. The real question: is there a demand for more expensive but higher quality burgers?  It reminds me of the In N Out vs. Shake Shack debate. I’ve always found the debate strange since you are comparing apples to oranges. Shake Shack uses superior ingredients, but is also a lot more expensive. I think Shake Shack is a superior burger, but I’ll always choose In N Out because it’s a better value.

Looking forward to seeing how the burger wars shake out when Shake Shack opens at 92 Winthrop St. later in December.

Best Drink: Far From the Tree at Backbar

Far From The Tree: Bols Genever, Berentzen apple liqueur, and bitter lemon syrup

Far From The Tree

When I took a break from Misogynistic Dan at the Cocktail Fight, I was rewarded with this delicious drink created by Joe Cammarata, Principal Bartender at Backbar. Featuring gin and apple liqueur, the drink marries the best parts of a classic martini and an “apple-tini.” Bar Manager and co-owner Sam Treadway tells me “the joke for the name was how it was quite quite different from a sour appletini inspiration.” I passed the time with a great conversation with Backbar’s Alice Serenska, and felt infinitely better by the time I finished the cocktail (ok, and a mezcal pickleback shot). Just another reason I consider Backbar my cocktail sanctuary.

Far from the Tree

2 oz Bols Genever gin
0.75 oz Berentzen apple liqueur
0.25 oz bitter lemon syrup*

stir ingredients with ice and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. garnish with a lemon twist.
* bitter lemon syrup is made by steeping lemon wheels with sugar and water on low heat for 1 hour.

#DTO: Dueling DTOs at Park

DTO

Donnie Wahlberg Judges our Dueling DTOs

For the uninitiated, DTO stands for Daiquiri Time Out. This Boston phenomenon recognizes that whether you are having a rough day or celebrating, there is no bad time to take a break and enjoy a daiquiri. If you ask for a DTO, you may get a straightforward daiquiri featuring rum, lime, and simple syrup. Other times, your bartender might have fun with it by adding his or her own touch.

At the end of a Harvard Square mini-bar crawl, Jen Sutherland and I ordered dueling DTOs from Park Restaurant. She went with Berkshire’s Ragged Mountain Rum and I went with Privateer Rum, and we let Donnie Walhberg decide which local rum does it better.

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The real winner? Donnie’s rattail

One Fund, Three Pigs, & 1 Scary Night

19 Apr

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Andrea Novak, Bar Manager Ryan McGrale, Bruno Prado, and John Henderson

There’s nothing I can add to help convey how tragic this week’s events in Boston were, nor do I care to relive them. One thing that is worth further reflection is how the Boston community rallied together, presenting a strong and proud face to the world.

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Chef Ian scoops out pig brains for happy guests

Not enough can be said about the great professionalism of the city’s law enforcement and emergency first responders. Neighbors, friends, and strangers provided material as well as emotional support to those in need. And to be honest, most of us were in need of emotional support.

highmighty

Andrew Bosquet of High and Mighty Brew keeps everyone’s red cups full

Even though I have only lived in Boston since August, I’ve grown to love this peculiar city. While I love my classmates who are recent transplants from around the world, when shit hits the fan, I always seem to surround myself with cocktail and restaurant friends.

Last Thursday evening, I was exhausted – stress and sorrow can really wear a man down. However, I was so impressed that instant hit restaurant Tavern Road decided to host a fundraiser for The One Fund benefiting Boston Marathon victims, I mustered up the energy to cross the river to Boston.

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Birthday boy Chef Sean happily shares cookies with full patrons, and here with Manager Graciele Maiden

I made the trek because it is important to be around family during trying times. When I looked at the Facebook event, I longed to see the many familiar faces. For those I didn’t recognize, the list appeared to be industry folks, and anyone willing to attend an 11 pm pig roast and drink Fernet cocktails for charity is someone I wanted to be around that night.

pigshead

Thanks piggy – I’m a stress eater

Which brings me to my second reason for going. The $20 door donation got you unlimited access to three roasted pigs. Brian Wang greeted friend Maureen Hautaniemi of Lush Life with the juicy tip that pork cheeks was the cut to get. When I asked Chef Ian if he had any pork cheeks left, he looked around, shrugged, and said, “As long as you don’t mind fingers in your food.” He then proceeded to violently rip off the cheeks with his fingers, scraping up every tasty morsel. He then ripped off the snout, tossed it on my plate, and said, “Here, suck on this snout.” A lucky guest after me scored the brains. Now that’s hospitality.

nightcap

Andrea Novak, Bar Manager Ryan McGrale, Bruno Prado, and John Henderson

Between money collected at the door and $5 drinks courtesy of Fernet Branca, High & Mighty, Dickel Rye, Jim Beam, and 90+ Cellars, the event raised over $7,000 for Boston Marathon victims.

Sadly, the tragic story continued to unfold during the fundraiser. After friends Drew Starr, his fiancee Rachel, Maureen, and TJ Connelly all said goodbye, I decided to head to the bar and close my tab. There was something unsettling about seeing TJ, in many ways the heart, or at least the beard, of the Boston cocktail community look shaken and a little lost. I was ready to get home to Harvard Square.

hawthorne

Dan Lynch of the Hawthorne gets the dance party started

As I was waiting to close out, my phone went berserk. I got text after text, from new friends, loved ones, and several from my LA cocktail family. The first one read: “Stay inside. Something is happening in Harvard. There are talks about grenades. Don’t come back. Tell everyone.” I was startled, but I looked around at the people around me, and felt grateful. I knew I was better off here than alone in my Harvard Sq. apartment.

brains

Nothing goes to waste

With bartender Jason Cool of Citizen, I was able to alternate between expressing my anxiety and distracting myself with talk of trivial things like the under-appreciation of blue cocktails (he’s going to hate me for calling that trivial). I got to admire Nicole Lebedevitch of The Hawthorne’s fabulous new look, short hair just in time for Spring. I got to enviously watch an especially generous Dan Lynch, also bartender at The Hawthorne, dance the night away. I was moved by how Becca Jane and Andrew Bosquet of High and Mighty Brew were so happy to be able to contribute to the event, and joyously joined in a rendition of “Sweet Caroline” with bartender Steve Schnelwar.

Even John Gertsen stopped by for a nightcap after closing cocktail sanctuary Drink across the street. I also got to admire Tavern Road’s great service despite the crowds, and the hustle of the talented bartenders. I’m not at liberty to say much, but I must admit that bar manager Ryan McGrale has better intelligence contacts than anyone I know, and I go to a government school.

citizen

Ezra & Jason Cool of Citizen Public House sharing his love of blue cocktails

By 2 am, I had little choice but find my way home. Eventually I found a cab driver to take me home, but unfortunately he tried to drop me off at MIT instead of my apartment. As I passed countless police cars and a couple crime scenes, I couldn’t help but feel a little disquieted. However, as I hid safely under the covers, and listened to the endless parade of police sirens (which I must admit did make me oddly homesick for LA), I felt grateful that I experienced this tragic evening with a generous and loving group of people.

Tavern Road
343 Congress St
Boston, MA 02210

A Beer Cocktail to Celebrate Boston Beer Week

11 Mar

Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell enjoys a beer cocktail at Park

Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell enjoys a beer punch at Park

Happy Boston Beer Week!

Bars and restaurants are finally tapping those special kegs they’ve been hoarding for weeks, so it’s time to ignore that Smuttynose 6-pack you got at Trader Joe’s and try something new. Here is a schedule of events to entice you, or just search #BOSBW on Twitter.

Beer Punch at Park

I couldn’t wait to kick off my Boston Beer week, so I started a day early at my go-to bar next to school, Park in Cambridge. I was grabbing drinks with Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell, who will be supplying the rum punch on Mar. 18 for the unparalleled art fundraising organization Opus Affair

After interrogating the always delightful Chris Balchum on what kegs they were planning to tap for beer week, he surprised me with one of the best beer cocktails Maggie and I have ever had. It featured two of Ipswich’s finest exports: Privateer Amber rum and Notch Brewing Saison. Chris said it was a riff on a previous beer cocktail creation by Park Bar Manager Chris Olds. Here’s the recipe  

1.5 oz Privateer Amber Rum
3/4 oz King’s Ginger
3/4 oz lime
1/4 oz Limoncello
1/2 oz cinnamon syrup
Notch Saison

Celebrating Beer Week at Deep Ellum

Before heading to the Veronica Falls and Cold Showers concert at Allston’s Great Scott, I stopped by Deep Ellum for a few special pints. I started with one of my absolute favorite beers, Lost Abbey Deliverance. It’s the perfect blend of Brandy Barrel Angel’s Share and Bourbon Barrel Serpent’s Stout, and goes down way too easy for 12.5% ABV. Staying in the barrel aged family, up next was Firestone Walker’s Sucaba, a barrel aged barley wine at 13% ABV. I completed my California trilogy with Stone’s Enjoy By IPA. This batch wasn’t quite as hoppy as previous entries I’ve tried in Stone’s Enjoy By ultra-fresh IPA series, but enjoyable in its own right. Since Deep Ellum is one of the few spots in this city offering sours on tap, I finished the evening with a Brouwerij 3 Zwet.Be, a Belgium Porter sour. Maybe it was the high ABVs talking, but I felt like I was in (beer) heaven.

If you are interested in trying the Sucaba, Lower Depths in Boston’s Kenmore Square is tapping a keg for a beer social on Tuesday Mar. 12.

Any Boston Beer Week highlights you’ve had or are looking forward to?

Boston Bakes: Chile Olive Oil Charity Bake-off

11 Nov

trio

(Clockwise l-r) Fig pudding cakes from Treats on Washington, brioche donut from Sofra, and citrus cupcake from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes

The Chilean Association of Growers and Producers of Olives and Olive Oil recently went on a three city tour to promote the country’s robust olive oil industry. Recognizing that hosting a simple olive oil tasting is probably a tough sell, they got creative and threw an excellent free event in Somerville. In addition to sampling Chilean olive oils,  attendees enjoyed free wine and FIVE desserts. The winner of the charity bake-off was honored with a $1,000 donation made in their name to Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer. The only guideline was that each baker needed to incorporate one of the Chilean olive oils into their dessert.

Jaime Davis No. 9 Park Pastry Chef

No. 9 Park Pastry Chef Jaime Davis

Boston Bakes for Breast Cancer founder Carol Sneider was in attendance, sharing the moving story of how she started the charity 14 years ago. When Carol was 16, she lost her mother to breast cancer. Her family’s history of breast cancer combined with having a daughter of her own, she felt compelled to do something. Thanks to her passion and dedication,  hundreds of Boston restaurants will once again offer diners an opportunity to support breast cancer research by enjoying a dessert from from May 6-12th.

Carol Sneider and Chilean Olive Oil met thanks to the magic of Twitter, but I wonder if the embattled Todd English was another connection. English is a friend of  Boston Bakes, a promoter of Chilean Olive Oil, and his sister lost a battle with breast cancer.

no9park

No 9. Park: Vanilla olive oil bavarian cake with grapes, almonds, and celery

My favorite dessert of the night was courtesy of No. 9 Park Pastry Chef Jaime Davis. Her vanilla Bavarian cake swapped in tahini and olive oil instead of butter. The naturally sweet and bold olive oil flavor complemented the candy almond and celery. The olive oil sweet jam was the winning touch. At excellent restaurants, sometimes people get carried away with apps, cocktails, and entrees, that they forget to save room for dessert. If this dish is any indication, that is not a mistake you want to make at No. 9 Park.

fig

Treats on Washington: Fig pudding cake

Another great dessert was a fig pudding cake by Brighton bakery Treats on Washington. The bakery was started by long-time friends Dana Briley and Jessica Brown who met at the Culinary Institute of America in 2000. Their olive oil pudding cake with black mission figs and citrus glaze made for a beautiful and memorable treat.

curlycakes

Isabelle’s Curly Cakes: citrus cupcake

The biggest surprise of the night came from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes. I almost skipped the table altogether because I’m not a cupcake fan (I’m a muffin guy, what can I say?). However, out of fairness, I tried their citrus cupcake with spiced buttercream frosting. I’m so glad I did.

cupcake

Isabelle’s Curly Cakes: Blood orange curd surprise!

Upon investigation, it was filled with a delicious blood orange curd! Curly Cakes got a close second place on my scorecard.

I wasn’t an official judge, however. That difficult task was left up to Bianca Garcia of Confessions of a Chocoholic, Karen from Fussy Eater, and Susan from Food Service East. They awarded first place to  freelance chef Jon Sargeant. His dessert had some truly great elements, but he suffered from a lack of editing. After his dessert was introduced, he corrected the announcer, saying that he had been inspired in the kitchen and started adding more and more ingredients. Ahh, it all made sense. The olive oil cake with
creme fraiche, cranberries steeped in olive oil, blueberries, orange, basil, rosemary – I wasn’t able to keep up with the long list of ingredients.

Also generously participating was Sofra in Cambridge. Sofra made the brioche donut with salted caramel glaze (in first picture). I’m not a big salted caramel or brioche fan, so it wasn’t my favorite – but that’s by no fault of their own. I absolutely can’t wait to go this week and see what else Sofra has to offer. It’s been recommended to me by several of my most trusted dessert advisers.

This wasn’t my first time nerding out about olive oil. In addition to attending my fair share of olive oil tastings and festivals, I was fortunately enough to learn about olive oil from Tom Mueller, the guy who literally wrote the book on it.

An excerpt from my review of his book launch at Fig & Olive:

“…Olive oil has played an important symbol throughout history: babies used to be slathered in olive oil during baptisms, and it was olive oil that would  in baths and gymnasiums.

“Olive oil has played a significant role in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  ‘In Israel it is obvious that Hanukkah is connected with olive oil,’ said David Eitam, director of the Olive Oil Industry Museum in Haifa, Israel. ‘The famous miracle in 165 B.C., when Judah Maccabee and his brothers found a drop of oil to light the candelabra in the Temple in Jerusalem, was not soy or vegetable oil. It was olive oil, common in Israel from the time of Adam and Eve.’ In addition to lighting, olive oil was used for fuel, medicine, cooking, and ablutions on priests during the biblical period. In the Qu’ran, Prophet Mohammed also drenched himself in olive oil. Other uses of olive oil throughout history includes cosmetics, preservatives, weaving, aphrodisiacs, and contraceptives.

“Today of course, we are more familiar with olive oil in the kitchen. There are 200 active ingredients in olive oil, offering important health and nutrition benefits. There are also 700 different kinds of olives.”

Just as Chilean Olive Oil and Boston Bakes connected through Twitter, I heard about this event through the same magical tool. It was a unique and decadent event – just the type of surprising night that is making me fall in love with this chilly city.

Toro: The Best Meal I’ve Had in Boston, So Far

30 Sep

crudo

Atun Crudo

Toro is the closest I’ve come to reaching food nirvana in this great city. Bold and creative tapas by two of the most buzzworthy chefs in town: Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette.  I had been cooking quite healthy all week, so I chose to go all out with my selections. Vegetarians, might want to skip past some of the next pictures.

bone-marrow

Asado de Huesos

Bone marrow doesn’t get much better looking than that. The roasted bone marrow was generous with radish citrus salad and oxtail marmalade on bread.

foie-gras

Foie Gras con Duraznos

Why stop at just marrow when foie gras is on the menu? I don’t go crazy for foie like a lot of my friends, so it wasn’t a predictable choice for me. However, something about the new foie ban in my hometown of LA made it a bit more enticing. The perils of bad public policy, I suppose. I’m glad I gave foie yet another try – a nice sear and a delicious peach jam really did the dish justice.

mussels

Mejillones

Toro’s Barcelona style really came into focus with a bowl of mussels with chorizo and basque cider. If you tend to find mussels a little too subtle in flavor, you’ll love the addition of chorizo here.

uni

Uni Bocadillo

The bread in the open-faced sandwich recalled a canvas, with the orange sheen of the fresh uni recalling the surreal characters by Os Gêmeos. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time at museums lately. The miso butter and pickled mustard seeds were nice touches.

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Tuna Conserva

I feigned at ordering a lighter dish, but that’s not just ordinary tuna . Mmm… Spanish tuna belly, with tomato tapenade, and celery leaves.

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Perro Picante & Stratocruiser

Toro backs up its excellent food with a good cocktail and wine program. My best drink of the afternoon was the Perro Picante. Deaths Door Gin (delicious) got the grapefruit treatment, with the spicy pepper rim adding considerable depth. Highly recommended.

I also tried the Stratocruiser because although I order any shrub on any cocktail list, I’ve never seen a blueberry shrub. The vinegar with New Hampshire blueberries are combined with gin, maraschino, and lemon. Don’t be fooled: it’s not as sweet as it looks. In fact, the overpowering vinegar flavor may have needed a bit more balancing.

cocktail-toro

Sanguinello Highball

The Sanguinello Highball was refreshing and a perfect choice for day drinking. Aperol and blood orange satisfied my quench for something bitter, but instead of using my favorite nightcap spirit whiskey, it featured my day drinking spirit of choice: gin.

dessert

Manchego con Membrillo and Churros con Chocolate

For dessert, I found the churro average but its accompanying very salty chocolate sauce delicious. The better choice was the traditional Spanish dish, aged manchego with a quince paste.

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Toro Wine Bar

Not only do I want to come back to Toro to finish off the rest of the menu (starting with their famous corn), I want to try Oringer’s other joints Coppa, Clio, Uni, La Verdad, and Earth. New Yorkers are in for quite the treat with a Toro on their way.

Toro
1704 Washington St
Boston, MA