Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Brunch | Maison Premiere

Lisa and I had tried going to Maison Premiere, a humble little restaurant tucked away on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, for brunch back in August, but the restaurant had an unexpected delayed opening due to a staff meeting that morning, which we couldn't make due to a previously scheduled engagement. We were really bummed out that we couldn't dine here that day (we had some serious oyster cravings on the noggin), but it turned out that Maison Premiere had just welcomed Chef Jason Stafford-Hill, a new chef (resulting in a hefty menu rehaul from just raw bar to something more comprehensive including small dinner plates) and was preparing the restaurant and staff for the new change. So a few Sundays ago, after nearly six months of Sundays gone by, we finally got our crap together and made it to {1,7} brunch at Maison Premiere.
  01 - interior

Essentially, Maison Premiere prides itself as being an oyster house and cocktail den "reflective of the staple establishments in New York, Paris, and New Orleans." And in no way does this spot deliver anything less than that. {5,6} The walls painted in sort of a period acid-wash is calming and relaxing  for its patrons, and the dark woods of the furniture and banquettes provide a comfortable contrast to the time warping interior design that makes you almost think for a second that you're in a French brasserie, existentially in New York, Paris, and New Orleans all at once. It is a nice escape from the bustling noise and crowds with which the city crawls. {2} There's a covered courtyard located in the rear with lots of gorgeous natural light pouring in, and {4} a bar at the center of the restaurant which houses the raw bar of oysters and crudo as well as all of the restaurant's spirits (including a generous catalog of absinthes).

Chef Stafford-Hill had worked in the well-renowned kitchens of AdourAlain Ducasse, Bobo, Craft, and Gramercy Tavern before taking reign at Maison Premiere, where he has continued the restaurant's focus maritime fare by adding his own "array of warm and cold small plates" to the existing raw bar offerings.

To start brunch off right, I enjoyed a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.

Just to preface what is about to come, I would just like to say that Lisa and I are crazy. Like really crazy, when it comes to our seafood (more specifically, sushi, sea urchin, and oysters) -- with absolutely no restraint or sugar coating, I can only be like this with her and no one else. Given the list of twenty-four completely different oysters on the menu, there was more variety than we've ever come across with these little slurp-worthy bivalves. Luckily, there was a kind of "oyster omakase" available -- the oyster selection comprised of chef's choice of twelve, i.e., six different varieties with two of each. With one look exchanged between the two of us, we wanted to take this to the next level. Why not order two oyster selections and specify that we wanted twelve varieties with two of each so we could both sample and enjoy simultaneously? We proposed our plan to our waiter, and he was game -- a dozen oysters in variety, twenty-four in total, shared between each of us. Our order came out a grand plateau -- a tiered tower of gleaming shells on generous beds of ice. It was very stunning. Stunning, indeed.

Our waiter explained to us how to match what was on the tower with what had been chosen for us on the list -- ultimately an upward spiral, going clockwise. He also let us have a copy of the list with the ones we had properly marked (so helpful!). I've numbered them in the photograph above for visual guidance. Here's a run-through our little bivalvic adventure at Maison Premiere (* = like; ** = love):

02 - oysters
(one) **Cape May Salt from Cape Shore, NJ: We were off to a great start -- absolutely loved this one! A nice size (a little petite) with a perfect sweet finish.
(two) *Cedar Island from Point Judith Pond, RI: Also another hit with us! A little bit of hogwash and a spritz of fresh lemon juice goes a long way -- this wasn't very briny and slurped down easily.
(three) Ninigret Cup from Ninigret Pond, RI: A lot brinier, but still decent.
(four) Moonstone from Point Judith Pond, RI: Very chunky.
(five) *Standish from Barnstable, MA: Thumbs up from Lisa for its subtle peppery taste.
(six) **Malpeque from Malpeque Bay, PEI: LOVED!
(seven) Gooseberry from Malpeque Bay, PEI: A no-go for us -- a lot of fishiness and very briny.
(eight) Kachemak from Kachemak Bay, AK: Nope. Too fishy, and considering how meaty it was, it didn't have much flavor.
(nine) *Fanny Bay from Baynes Sound, BC: Great balance of flavor -- very delicate yet palatable finish.
(ten) Kusshi from Deep Bay, BC: Didn't like this one because it was a little too peppery for our liking.

Once we hit ten, we started counting how many oysters we had left, and confusion struck: there appeared to be six left (i.e., three varieties remaining) when we were supposed to only have four (as we had only ordered two dozen, i.e., twelve varieties with two each). I was concerned that my notes on each oyster were mismatched against the list now that we had thirteen varieties. Thankfully our waiter cleared it up for us (we had in fact been going in the right order), and the raw bar had given us an extra bonus one to enjoy (thanks again, Maison Premiere!). Phew -- that was a close one!

(eleven) **Golden Mantle from Cortes Island, BC: A huge hit!
(twelve) Evening Cove from Vancouver Island, BC: Not bad -- just okay, nothing special.
(thirteen) *Spring Creek from Barnstable, MA: Another delicious one -- always great to end an oyster flight with one that was enjoyable as this!

Included on our tower of oysters were the other raw items we requested for -- the razor clam and the sea urchin. The razor clams were from Long Island and were served with celery root and apple. They were the balancing complements to the raw cubes of razor clam without taking away from its taste and texture but rather highlighting with subtle yet beautiful flavors. Even Chef Stafford-Hill has said that he does "more with garnishes than some chefs would" but also notes that "it's restrained as it's still all about the amazing seafood" that they're getting weekly.

A photograph of the damage incurred after our flight of twelve oysters each. Eek!

 For sea urchin fanatics such as ourselves, it's almost an unspoken rule that we have to order sea urchien or uni if we see it on a menu. It would be blasphemous otherwise. So that's what we did here. Marinated with pineapple, the crudo of sea urchin was from California. While I found the golden lobes of sea urchin to be very buttery and plump (just as it should be!) with a bit of sweet tartness from the pineapple, Lisa found the pineapple marinade to be overwhelming, taking away from the natural flavors and velvety texture from it. Perhaps it's because Lisa is more of a purist when it comes to uni, while I don't mind a little twist every now and then. Guess you win some, and you lose some.

You'd think after having all those oysters and the additional crudo that we'd be full, but not at all for us. Full speed ahead for brunch grub!

I had the smoked salmon rillette with soft-poached eggs, celery root, and capers. Rillettes have a similar preparation of meat as a pâté. The protein (can be meat or fish) is cubed or chopped, salted heavily and cured, and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded and the cooled with just enough fat to form a paste (though for fish, it's not actually cooked in fat but rather blended with fat to form the characteristic paste consistency). It can be used as a spread or served at room temperature, all of which can be stored in crocks for several months.While usually enjoyed with toasted bread, I actually enjoyed this small block of smoked salmon rillette with my two perfectly poached eggs and the fresh and tender rounds of celery root. It was very interesting to experience that I'd normally have as a brunch dish (smoked salmon, eggs, and capers, etc.) in a completely different form. Although the smoked salmon was a little saltier than I would've liked, the eggs helped tone it way down. Plus, look at how pretty it was!

Lisa, of course, had the eggs and black truffle baked in cocotte with Parmesan mousse and mâche. Considering the stark whiteness of the baked eggs, I was expecting the entire thing to be really heavy so much so that it'd be drowning in Parmesan and cream. Although it was quite rich (the winning combination of Parmesan, black truffles, and eggs will do that to you), it was the right amount of creaminess with just a hint of Parmesan, letting the thinly shaved truffles reign over in flavor. The cocotte was also the perfect portion for brunch -- Lisa didn't leave totally stuffed, especially with all of the oysters we swigged down so quickly earlier.

Compliments of the kitchen, we also were served a curried cauliflower salad which was very delightful and fresh.

Findings: Maison Premiere was everything I thought it'd be and more. I love it here, and if it were feasible, I would want to come back every single weekend. The trek to Williamsburg (though it's really not that far, haha) is moot, especially for exploring the two dozen or so varieties of oysters, which is exactly what Lisa and I dubbed as our mission that late morning. The half-shelled bivalves were not only iridescent, but for the most part, distinctly flavorful and unbelievably fresh. Quality is by no means compromised at Maison Premiere -- after all, the restaurant does pride itself with this caliber of seafood. I hear the menu changes frequently, week-to-week, which is just testament to this commitment to sourcing the best ingredients and seafood available. Chef Jared Stafford-Hill has worked in his magic into the heart of Maison Premiere's menu, and you can taste it in the well-crafted brunch dishes and the other crudo offerings -- we were nearly blown away with the razor clam and me with the sea urchin.

Cannot wait to come back to sample a bunch of new varieties of oysters and crudo in the spring. I know it'll be more crowded when the weather warms up, but either way, I'm definitely willing to show up as soon as it opens at 11 on the weekends so I can happily slurp down all the oysters without having to wait too long. But then again, the wait would be well worth it.

Price point: $30 for each oyster selection (chef's choice of twelve), $13-14 for each crudo, $4 for each glass of fresh-squeezed juice, $14-18 for each egg dish.

--January 13, 2013

Maison Premiere
298 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dinner | Husk

After having dined at McCrady's on Saturday evening, {1} we continued our Sean Brock-focused weekend in Charleston with dinner the next night at Husk. Opened in November 2010, the restaurant is "a celebration of Southern ingredients, only serving food that is indigenous to the South" ultimately "redefining what it means to eat in Charleston.

{2} Husk lives in a house that dates back to the late 1800s. Its main dining room was constructed in 1893 and  "evokes the grandeur of Charleston, speaking to the transformation of the city over time." {3,7,8} The Victorian details and turned columns were "layered over the original Queen Anne-style façade through the years, eventually falling into disrepair until discovered by Husk ownership." While the building retains much of "its antique charm and stately character (with original windows and exposed brick throughout), the renovations imbued it with a modern, minimalist theme" -- notice the glasses filled with long sprigs of rosemary.  Both floors are facing Queen Street with "sweeping piazzas (i.e., porches), and the courtyard allows diners to enjoy themselves in the late afternoon."

01 - foyer

The emphasis at Husk is on the ingredients and the people who grow them -- {6} this chalkboard lists the artisanal products that were used that evening and continues to change as ingredients change. The menu changes twice, daily, based on what is freshest that day. Whatever they receive from its farmers and purveyors that day is what dictates the menu. {4} Wood-fire cooking is key at Husk, especially as Chef Brock strongly embraces that "'low and slow' imparts the most flavor." For this intent and purpose, Husk has two of its very own smokers, a barbecue pit and spit, and a wood-burning oven, all of which is fueled by an old-fashioned burn barrel. {7} The main part of the house features an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven and dining room. The open kitchen encourages a collaborative effort from the chefs as well as a free environment that allow them "to freely interact with their guests and personally deliver food to tables."

Chef Brock, along with his chef de cuisine Travis Grimes, "exhaustively research Southern food -- its history and provenance -- and in the process reconstitute flavors and ingredients lost to time." Just like at McCrady's, many of the produce used at Husk is grown in-house on the restaurant's garden, with a concentration on "heirloom grains and vegetables that once flourished in the region, but were lost to twentieth century industrial agriculture." Along with this, the kitchen takes "what is fresh and available today, or even this hour, and transform it into an evolving menu." As seasonal bounty "comes in waves," whatever they cannot use right away is preserved, pickled, smoked, and saved.

02 - table
{2} At the center of every table is a glass jar filled with dried beans and okra husks -- how appropriate! {3,4,5} The dining room, as promised, was a harmonious marriage between antiquity and modernity. {1,6} To start, our server brought over a canvas sack filled with softest dinner rolls sprinkled with benne seeds. They went splendidly with a little smear of salted, creamy butter.

For the table, we shared a bottle of "Shatter" grenache from Languedoc-Roussillon, France with a 2010 vintage -- a brand produced by the collaborative efforts of Trinchero Family Estates and legendary winemakers Dave Phinney of Orin Swift Wines and Joel Gott of Joel Gott Wines. This grenache is sourced from 60-year-old French vines, and also happens to have a very high alcohol content at 15%. It was a little strong in that regard, but it went quite nicely with all of the dishes we had.

We decided to approach dinner at Husk family-style -- instead of each ordering a starter, main course, and dessert, we decided to share a bunch of appetizers, two main courses, a side, and a dessert.

03 - starters
First round of starters included the {1Southern fried chicken skins with Steen's cane syrup and Louisiana hot sauce. Though it sounded pretty gnarly to be eating fried chicken skins (not going to lie -- at one point, to keep myself from feeling like a cholesterol-growing fatty, I had to psych myself into thinking they were fried calamari), they were REALLY good. Savory and incredibly rich, the fried chicken skins were made even tastier with the sweet thickness from the cane syrup and the balanced kick from the hot sauce. It's a must order for the table -- I bet you won't ever have anything quite like it! {2} Of course, to counteract the greasy goodness of fat from the chicken skins, we also ordered ourselves the Ambrose Farms arugula (salad) with sorhum glazed beets, pecan granola, house made manchego, and apple bourbon vinaigrette. Just like he wowed us at McCrady's, this arugula salad was another example of Chef Brock's handiwork with tasty compositions of greens. The beets, hearty granola, savory manchego, and flavorful vinaigrette made for the perfect winter salad -- warming and satisfying.

We also shared the {5} South Carolina shrimp with creamy Geechie Boy grits, tomato braised peppers and onions, Surry sausage, and a soft poached farm egg, which was by far my favorite dish at Husk. It had the best consistency of creaminess and stewiness (if that's even a word!) as the grits swam beautifully in the tomato stew of braised peppers, onions, and slightly spicy sausage -- it was an excellent blending of ingredients. It had all of the Southern trimmings with the succulent shrimp in a grit stew that you wanted to sweep up entirely with a loaf of warm, fresh bread. The soft poached egg added another fun element to the dish as well.

After we ate our way through those three dishes, next came {3} Dave's wood fired clams with sweet corn bisque, Benton's bacon, wilted arugula, roasted red peppers, and cornbread. I am sorry to say that this dish was quite disappointing -- the bisque was very salty, and the clams were just okay. Thankfully the cornbread and bits of bacon were the saving grace here. However, we had more luck with the {4} Tennessee pork ribs slow smoked with pecan shells, charred scallion barbecue glaze, roasted peanuts, and cilantro. Upon first bite, you could taste the intense smokiness seeped into the pork all the way into its bones. The edges were well-charred,  and the glaze of barbecue mixed in with the toasted pecan shells and roasted peanuts was delightful. Very intense set of ribs -- lots of flavor packed into the petite things!

04 - main courses
As one of our shared main courses, we had the {1cornmeal dusted North Carolina catfish with roasted fennel and sweet corn, Benton's sausage, and preserved tomato broth. For me, this dish was on the medicore side -- it was pretty bland, even with the preserved tomato broth. I suppose I was expecting a little more out of this dish, but even with the cornmeal dusted on its exterior, the catfish was not as awesome as many of the other things that Chef Brock had cooked up for us here and at McCrady's.

Fortunately, our other choice of the {3Blue Ridge bison short ribs with apple-celeriac purée, heirloom garden greens, turnips, baby carrots, and elderberry jus. I hadn't really had bison before (perhaps in a burger at one point), so I was curious to see what it really tasted like without it being blended in a grounded patty. It wasn't gamy one bit -- just heartier and meatier in taste than what you would normally expect in a typical beef short rib. As you would usually see mashed potatos or creamy polenta accompanied with short ribs, the apple-celeriac purée paired wonderfully here along with the heirloom greens and root vegetables -- it was certainly a wintry dish you wanted to sink your teeth in. The short ribs were nicely braised with that texture that you would find only from meat that fell easily off the bone, while the elderberry jus gave it a slightly sweet and tart flavor. As a side, we had the {2cider braised Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, which were fantastic. The vegetables were glossed beautifully with a subtle yet flavor layer of glaze -- a little sweet and a little balsamic on the palate. Give me Brussels sprouts any day, and I'll be a happy camper!

By the time dessert rolled around, our stomachs only had room for one shared dessert. The winner? The fried cameo apple pie with granola, cinnamon-maple whip, Anson Mills brewster oats, and ice cream. The pie itself was piping hot when it arrived to our table, so it was gratifying a la mode with the classic vanilla ice cream on its side and the spiced, lightly whipped cream. The cream melted right into the crevices of the encapsulating pie crust -- a nice end to a Southern-heavy meal.

After our dinner at Husk, though we were so full already, we hauled our butts over to the {1Bar at Husk (right next door) for a little post-dinner digestif, just so we could take in the entire Husk experience.

06 - Bar at Husk
{2} The Bar at Husk is "a rusticated, exposed-brick affair, with a cozy, two-story outlay" -- the large upstairs has a lounge area with huge windows and seating for patrons, while the downstairs is this decked out little darkened bar, both with "accurate trim details that make them true to their historic roots but remain modern in disposition." I enjoyed a glass of the {5Rosco pisco punch -- a concoction of pisco, bourbon, green tea, fire roasted orange, and raw sugar, while Alice had the {3} Charleston light dragoon's punch which was derived from a 1783 recipe discovered in the archives of the Preservation Society of Charleston -- a blend of California brandy, Jamaican run, beach brandy, black tea, lemon juice, and raw sugar. Undoubtedly seems like a Southern practice to incorporate tea into their spirited beverages, especially in punches like ours.

Along with the hand-crafted cocktails and punches, the drink menu at the Bar at Husk catalogs an insane amount of bourbon (varying in range for vintage, origin, proof, and distillation), five distinct regional madeiras (ranging up and down the East Coast), and five quality Southern artisanal ciders that meet the Bar's strict requirements (i.e., the use of Heirloom bitter cider apples as well as the production of pre-Prohibition-style dry ciders). The Bar's focus on cider in this regard is that over 100 years ago, more cider was consumed in this country than beer, but was drastically changed as the Prohibition devastated the industry, resulting in the cutting down and replacement of orchards as a result. Same goes for the emphasis of madeira on the menu, too -- the importation of wine was incredibly important to the colonists of Charleston as no wine quality grapes were grown in the region. Madeira was the main port that regularly set sail for the New World, consequently bringing madeira, a fortified wine, to colonial America and making it "the drink of choice for the elite and wealthy Southern plantation owners." Another attribute of madeira that made it so favorable to colonists was its unique winemaking process (i.e., "heating wine up to temperatures as high as 140° F for an extended period of time and deliberately exposing the wine to some levels of oxidation.") which resulted in a very robust libation that can have a long life of sustainability even after being opened.

While the four of us were ruminating over our stay in Charleston thus far (as well as digesting all of that food we just inhaled), the barkeeper brought out an entire leg of aged ham for a little shock value, though for us, it was just another instance of visual culinary indulgence. Turns out, this particular Kentucky country ham from Newsom's is processed by hand (in fact, by Husk's very kitchen) and hangs in the smokehouse for over 400 days (over one year!) before it is offered to Husk's patrons. when it is sold by the pound as an uncooked or cooked product. We were very lucky to sample a slice of this aged ham, and it rivaled some of the Iberico hams I've had in the past.

Findings: Our dinner at Husk was a very enlightening one -- one that brought us back to the days of authentic, polished Southern cuisine sprinkled with antebellum heirloom ingredients and preparation techniques. The amount of Southern history packed into the kitchen and cuisine at Husk is astounding, even in the subtlest of details (e.g., its table centerpieces and firewood display in the foyer). While a couple of the dishes were disappointing misses for us, I would have to say that the passion that weaves in and out of the hearth at Husk is tangible in Chef Sean Brock's cooking and his commitment to local suppliers, farms, and purveyors really makes the experience. Just writing this post alone, I learned so much about Southern cuisine about which I had no previously knowledge. The fact that Chef Brock and his team intensely research the history and provenance about everything that is and was Southern cuisine says enough. Indeed, Husk is truly celebrating Southern ingredients and redefining what it means to eat in Charleston -- the mission of Husk all along. The unbelievably dynamic menu (at least two change per day!) and chalkboard display say it all. Even the Bar at Husk right next door has its own charming ways, which makes me wish we had more time to spend there exploring the other spirits (i.e., the madeiras and ciders as  well as the laundry list of bourbons) and drooling over slices of the aged Kentucky country ham.

I am so very glad we made time to stop here (along with McCrady's) to finally understand why Chef Brock has received so much press and acclaim over the past few years. It is so incredibly awesome to know that one guy has done so much for Southern cuisine. Rumor has it that he may be setting up shop in New York City next, so I cannot wait to see what he has in store. Until then, another trip down to Charleston may very well be in the cards.

Price point: $64 for bottle of grenache, $9-14 for each first course, $25-29 for each supper course, $7 for each side, $7 for dessert, $8 for each punch cocktail.

--January 6, 2013


76 Queen Street
Charleston, SC 29401

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dessert | coffee & pastries in Chucktown

In between all of the eating we did in Charleston (nicknamed Chucktown), we found solace in some more consumption by snacking on some crazy good pastries as well as sipping on well-crafted hot beverages. When traveling with Alice and Jimmy, a solid coffee joint will always be on the itinerary. So after a delightful lunch at Butcher & Bee our first day in town, we thought a nice afternoon pick-me-up was in order before our grand feast at McCrady's. Although we were disappointed to find out that Hope and Union Coffee Co. unexpectedly closed in October last year, we found another hopeful spot -- {1Black Tap Coffee on Beaufain, right in the reach of a local school, College of Charleston.

Having been opened a little over a year ago, Black Tap Coffee has clean, minimalist interiors -- {2,6} white walls with dark mahogany tables, benches, stools, chairs. Most of the furniture was designed by local woodworker Stephen Wain. In fact, the main table was made from wood rescued from a house fire on Rutledge Street. {4} Cucumber water comes complimentary to patrons, while {4} the menu is silkscreened on a sheet of burlap featuring singular descriptions of brew styles, many of which is new to me, a complete bean novice (I only count them during my day job :P). {5} Love the layout of the coffee counter here -- zen combination of black, white ceramic, and glass.

The wall art, including {1} this spiffy neighborhood map of Charleston, and subtle textures from the simple greenery, made for a very relaxing and calm environment to read, enjoy a hot drink, etc. In fact, we loved this place so much that we made a second trip on Monday before we left. 

{3,5} It was fun to watch the barista at the counter make Jimmy's {2} pour-over coffee, {4} Alice's gorgeous cortado with a simple latté heart, and {9} an on-tap cold brew coffee. {8} Additionally, I had one of the best steeped chai lattés ever here. It was brewed from legit chai tea leaves, not artificially from a drink mix, concentrate or what have you. {6,9} The assortment of pastries here are pretty damn good, too (note almond croissant and chocolate chip cookies were awesome) -- funnily enough, they're all from WildFlour Pastry (see rest of review below). I recently found out that the baristas at Black Tap Coffee were trained at Counter Culture Coffee, so they really know their stuff. So great to find a niche coffeehouse like Black Tap in the heart of Charleston. We kept saying it wouldn't be surprising to find a spot like this in Williamsburg here in Brooklyn.

The following morning on Sunday, we set forth to {2WildFlour Pastry for {1} its (in)famous pecan sticky buns which are only available on Sundays from 8 AM to 1 PM. A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Baking and Pastry back in 2004, Chef Lauren Mitterer owns and heads the operations at WildFlour. Her past experience includes interning at Tavern on the Green and externing at Larkspur in Vail, Colorado. After graduating, she moved to Charleston to accept a position as executive pastry chef at Red Drum Gastropub. Five years later, she left to open WildFlour, in pursuit of "her dream of creating {3,7} "deconstructed yet elegant versions of comfort desserts, satisfying that unique craving of sweet and salty."

{6} Along with the usual hot beverages running the gamut at most bakeries and cafés, the bakery also offers a few varieties of quiche and other baked goods. {4} We had no idea how massive the buns were going to be so we got one pecan sticky bun and one cinnamon bun so we could sample and share without ruining our appetites for lunch. The sticky buns were as awesome as everyone hyped them to be (sweet and salty!), and even with the generous glob of icing, the cinnamon buns were great (a little softer than the sticky buns) as well!

The same afternoon, we were looking for another fix of caffeine so {5} we found Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer to be worthy of a drop-in. The local coffeehouse is named after the African antelope that has a grayish/brownish coat with white vertical stripes and long, spiraled horns, as it features many strong African blend of beans. Kudu serves Counter Culture coffee and espresso, and it also turns out the baristas here make pretty badass latté art.

For Alice and Jimmy's cortados, there was {3} a singular and {8} a double heart. I guess the noticed us snapping away at our coffees, the barista was kind enough to make us two more -- {1} a classic tulip and {3} a beautiful foamy swan.

Findings: One thing's for sure -- Charleston is not without an exciting caffeine community nor a delicious pastry scene. It appears this town takes its taste and technique for a solid cup of joe quite seriously. So if you're in search for a non-chain, neighborhood spot to enjoy your daily brew au lait, then Black Tap Coffee and Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer are must-visits. As far as pastries are concerned, you'd be crazy to be in Charleston on a Sunday and not stop into WildFlour Pastry for a hunk of its awesome sticky and cinnamon buns. But if you're at Black Tap, you can enjoy both well-crafted coffee and WildFlour's pastries. 

Price point: $3.25-4.50 for each hot beverage at Black Tap Coffee, $2.5-3 for each pastry; $3 for each bun at WildFlour Pastry; $3.20-4.35 for each hot beverage at Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer (please note we received two complimentary lattés from the barista). 

--January 5-7, 2013

Black Tap Coffee
70 Beaufain Street
Charleston, SC 29401

WildFlour Pastry
73 Spring Street
Charleston, SC 29403

Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer
4 Vanderhorst Street
Charleston, SC 29403

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dinner | McCrady's Restaurant

So when we arrived at the footsteps (or {3} alley, more aptly) of {1McCrady's Restaurant in downtown Charleston, little did we know that we were in for quite the culinary joyride. It was the first big dinner of my long weekend excursion in the South Carolina Lowcountry with Marcus, Alice, and Jimmy.

Before I get into the details behind Chef Brock, his restaurant, and his cuisine, I'd like to share a little about McCrady's history. {2,4,5,7} Built in 1778, the building that houses McCrady's "embodies Southern glamour in a modern age." In fact, we were told that it was a tavern that George Washington had visited during his time. It is no surprise then that it is included on the National Register of Historic Places and Landmark. The tavernesque qualities of the restaurant's space, the toasty embers from the dining room's fireside, and the exposed brick along the walls gives its guests a warm (quite literally, too!) welcome into what will undoubtedly become one of the best meals of your life.

{7} The menu at McCrady's is very flexible -- you can opt for the nine-course tasting menu for $110 per person, the four-course prix fixe dinner for $65 per person, or simply a la carte to your liking. We were initially going to go for the tasting (there were a few courses on there that weren't offered with the other dining options), but seeing as there were four of us, we felt we could tackle more ground with variety than if we all opted for the tasting menu, ending up with the same nine courses all around. Musical dishes for sharing, woohoo! Additionally, I would like to note that the menu includes all of the farmers and purveyors that were used to source the ingredients for that evening's dinner, including Butcher & Bee, {8} which provided the artisan bread we had. Coincidentally enough, we had just eaten there for lunch that same day, not knowing we'd see them again so soon! I believe it was the same bread used in Alice's broccoli and brie grilled cheese sandwich. Such a tight-knit little place Charleston is! The bread you see here was a result of a six-month long collaboration between the kitchen at McCrady's and the team at Butcher & Bee. It is a ridiculously tasty and addictive multi-grain variety of oats with its loose crust dotted with benne seeds (which I recently discovered to be sesame seeds -- imagine that!). If I remember correctly, I had about three slices with a light smearing of salted, creamy butter. No shame!

Once seated, we were welcomed by Jodi, our energetic and super-knowledgeable captain (also a sommelier at McCrady's). If Chef Brock had a cheerleader, she would be the one -- she was so enthusiastic about our visit from New York City to Charleston (she is actually originally from Brooklyn!) that she gave us a very detailed rundown of the evening's menu -- you know, from an insider's as well as a fellow foodie's perspective. She knew the menu inside and out, down to the subtlest of ingredients and the preparation for some of the more complex items. Jodi was a blast to have throughout the course of our meal, and it was because of her fervor I became even more excited about the four courses that were to come.

Chef Brock grew up in Virginia, where his family grew their own food. "You grew and cooked everything you ate, so I really saw food in its true form," he has said. "You cook all day, and when you’re not cooking, you’re preserving.  If you were eating, you were eating food from the garden or the basement–it’s a way of life." It was this way of life from his childhood that inspired a "lifelong passion for exploring the roots of Southern food and recreating it by preserving and restoring heirloom ingredients." He continued his relationship with cooking and studied at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, and upon graduating, he began his professional career at the Peninsula Grill under Chef Robert Carter. He moved on to Richmond, Virginia where he worked in the kitchen of Chef Walter Bundy of Lemaire Restaurant and then to Nashville, Tennessee at the Hermitage Hotel as executive chef. After three years in Nashville, he returned to Charleston, accepting a position as executive chef at McCrady's Restaurant, where the restaurant's mission emphasizes "the importance of the food from the Lowcountry region and constantly refine its cooking processes to best honor its relationships with the farmers, artisans and fishermen that provide the restaurant with their amazing products." Its menu centers on "new Southern fine dining, concomitantly serving as a canvas for postmodern gastronomy" -- simply put, "inventive cuisine fresh from the farm."

One of his major projects upon his return to Charleston in 2006 included the development of a two-and-a-half-acre farm on Wadmalaw Island. During this time, Chef Brock "began dabbling in resurrecting and growing crops that were at risk of extinction, such as those indigenous to this area pre-Civil War." Crazy enough, this experimentation has made him "a passionate advocate for seed preservation" as he continues to grow a number of heirloom crops, Including James Island red corn ("Jimmy Red" for making grits), Flint corn, benne seeds, rice peas, Sea Island red peas, and several varieties of farro. In keeping up with this knowledge, he has also "worked closely with Dr. David Shields and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and studied nineteenth century Southern cookbooks to educate himself on Southern food history and discover new ways to resurrect antebellum cuisine." Further proof of Chef Brock's commitment to his trade and craft is his responsible sourcing of heritage breeds of livestock for his restaurants, including raising his own herd of pigs (some may call them heirloom pigs). Four years later, he opened Husk, his second restaurant, which focuses on classic cuisine of the Old South (which we also made reservations for the following evening).

And the laundry list of why Chef Brock is so commendable continues to grow. Being "a firm believer that 'low and slow' imparts the most flavor," he cooks food in the dining room fireplaces, which were actually built for this very purpose in the late eighteenth century. Chef Brock "believes cooking this way brings the historical building full circle." Additionally, he also pickles, cans, and makes preserves from the produce he cannot use immediately, saving it for a later date and for new creations. His techniques include an old Southern one called lactobacillus fermentation which uses his grandmother's forty-year-old vinegar as the base. For all of these reasons, it should not come as a shock that he has garnered awards and acclaim from the likes of the James Beard Foundation (winning "Best Chef: Southeast Region" in 2010; being nominated "Rising Star Chef" in 2008 and 2008 as well as "Outstanding Chef" in 2012), Bon Appetit, Food Network, Iron Chef: America, etc.

For our first course, we each chose four dishes from a set of five possible choices -- all recommended by Jodi that best showcased the region's bounty and ingredients. It was paired with a bottle of gruner veltliner (Hefeabzug -- German for "yeast-aged") produced by Nikolaihof from Austria with a 2011 vintage. {1} I had the sunchoke soup sprinkled with sunflower seeds and herbs along with {2} foie gras doughnut. Sunchokes are actually a variety of sunflower, so it has a very earthy and floral subtlety to it and was well-captured in Chef Brock's soup. It was incredibly rich and quite thick but not in the way that an overly creamy soup would be -- i.e., its thickness didn't lie in how creamy it was. It was magical and had the perfect consistency and washed over the palate intensely. The toasted sunflower seeds added an interesting textural contrast to the silky spoonfuls of soup. The foie gras doughnut was prepared almost as an ode to the zeppole as it was essentially fried dough, too, only with the essence of foie gras at its center. The bed of white crumbles was powdered sugar and dissolved into the dough with the slightest bit of heat from the soup. Ahhh, even now, I still want more of this soup!

{4} Marcus had the Masami Ranch wagyu beef tartare with beets, dill, and cabbage cream -- Chef Brock's loose interpretation of a soupless borscht (i.e., a soup typically made from tomatoes and beetroot). The beef was soft and chilly as you would want in a solid tartare. The coarsely chopped beets gave the beef cubes a little splash of raw juice, and the cabbage cream gave it more of a soup-like quality to it. {3} There was a side of grilled toast on which to enjoy the refreshingly hearty tartare. The addition of dill was a lovely touch.

What's really interesting about many of the ceramic serviceware (plates/bowls/etc.) at McCrady's is that they are original creations that were custom made using the ashes from Husk's oven. Talk about quite the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes!

{1} On one of these service pieces, Alice had the salad of winter brassica with cauliflower, citrumelo (also known as hardy grapefruit), and reine de pres (also known as meadowsweet). Brassica is a plant from the mustard family. If there's one thing Chef Brock is a wizard at, it's vegetables and crafting them into  enchanting salads. Who knew salads could be magical? He curates the most vibrant and crisp leaves and the freshest vegetables, all lightly glazed with the most fittingly flavorful vinaigrette. The most bitter of leaves like the ones found in the salad of winter brassica (brassica is actually a genus of plants in the mustard family) were really appetizing and a pleasure to eat. If you want to see the potential behind the heirloom vegetables and plants native to the area/region (i.e., something you won't be able to find back in New York City), then order whatever salad Chef Brock has listed on his menus. I guarantee you'll be captivated.

{2} Jimmy went for the soft poached farm egg with Rosebank gold grits, farro miso crisp, allium, sumac, and leek jam. The egg itself was barely white and lightly translucent -- you know, the kind of consistency that could only form after a thoroughly slow and delicate poaching. Once pierced, the yolk washed over the creamy grits and the accompanying ingredients mixed in to create one dynamic bowl of awesomeness. The leek jam was so different than anything I had ever tasted before, and it made the entire dish sing a beautiful song of flavor.This was another dish with some grand Southern influence that can't be missed.

The next course that awaited us was the fish course.

{1} I had the stew of Lowcountry clams, oysters, and shrimp with benne, heirloom beans, kohlrabi, and lovage (i.e., from the parsley family). The bivalves were plump and rich in flavor (as they should be!), and the shrimp was divine. The lovage had a very strong taste of celery which blended well with the hearty and nutty flavors of the heirloom beans, kohlrabi (i.e., German turnip) and benne. Every part of this stew could be gobbled up and drunken to a clean-licked plate. Though less dressed up than the traditional French bouillabaise or Italian cioppino, this stew rang with Southern charm.

{2} Jimmy had the grilled cobia with roasted cabbage, turnips, and honeycrisp apple. The cobia was very meaty and dense --  the temperature of the cobia proved to be easy to eat and enjoyed accordingly. Its blackened exterior from the grill gave it an extra dimension of flavor to experience. The preparation seemed to be simple and yielded something grandly delicious. Overall, it paired well with the fall vegetables and refreshing slices of apple.

{3}Both Marcus and Alice opted for the pan-roasted tilefish with potato purée, braised chicken, and carrots. Each of them loved this course (I believe it was Alice's favorite of the evening, actually)! Its firm texture (though not as tense as the cobia) and clean taste was able to mesh quite favorably with the braised chicken that topped its thick, flaky filet, bringing some more intensity to the course overall. The potato purée was light and creamy, sweeping up the braising sauce from the chicken, and the carrots, while lovely for a pop of color in an otherwise brown-and-white dish, were delightful, too.

So I've changed my mind. Not only can he craft some kickass salads and make vegetables lively, Chef Brock just very well may be a fish whisperer in the realms of the kitchen.

For our meat course, we decided that a half bottle of red would do the trick. We went with another recommendation -- "Les Violettes," a grenache blend produced by Moillard from Côtes du Rhône, France with a 2010 vintage.

Many times, the meat courses at McCrady's is comprised of a duo -- i.e., two sections of the animal, prepared either in similar or different ways but somehow unify as a singular course. This is evident with the {2duo of Berkshire pork (the belly and the shoulder) served with Japanese sweet potato, brewster oats, and pear mostarda (i.e., an Italian condiment made from candied pears and mustard-flavored syrup). Although Jimmy found a couple bites to be grisly, the pork was overall quite tender and flavorful. The pear mostarda had a jelly preserve-like texture to it and went perfectly with the cuts of pork (just like a fruit-centered chutney would). The brewster oats were also noteworthy in texture, rounding out the dish nicely.

{1} Alice had the aged duck roasted on the bone served with winter citrus, radish, and benne. How long was the duck aged, you may be wondering. Well, I'll tell you -- five whole days! The duck was exquisite -- roasted with an intense flavor from the bone with slightly smoky and texture of elegant tenderness (undoubtedly from the five-day agedness). An exercise in patience and commitment, those five days really make a hell of a difference! The winter citrus gave an interesting take to duck à l'orange especially with the tickled crunch of benne and snappy baby radishes. Outstanding!

{3} Another dual dish was the one I had -- the duo of Kathadin lamb (rib chop and shank) with cracked rye porridge, beets cooked in embers, and wild sorrel. The rib chop was cooked to a gorgeous medium rare, resulting in a succulent tenderness that absorbed all of the magical flavors from the surrounding bone and fat. It was easy to slice and to eat as well -- not one bit of this was grisly. I found myself gnawing away at the bone for any last charred remnants or bits of meat. The shank meat was mixed in with the side arrangement of smoky beets, fresh leaves of sorrel, and some rye porridge, showcasing another cut of lamb whilst highlighting some regional ingredients. Together, the duo of lamb made a winning dish.

Marcus had the Thornhill Farms chicken with chicken dumplings and Brussels sprouts. Jodi made sure to emphasize how important the chicken jus was to this dish, insisting that Marcus ask whoever would be presenting the course to pour the entire glass tube of jus onto the chicken. She was so serious, in fact, that she came out and did it herself! Something that my cousin Bill has noted to me before is how a main course that features poultry (especially chicken) can be a compelling way to assess how good a restaurant is or can be -- You know how you can tell a restaurant is really, really good? By how well its chef cooks its chicken course, especially the ones featuring chicken breast! If the kitchen can somehow manage to not turn it into a hard piece of inedible protein, but instead, yield a winning combination of moist, tender, and flavorful, then you can be sure they know what they're doing. In a world where chicken is so easily overdone and abusedm I am happy to report that McCrady's not only knows what the heck they're doing but also that they're doing something exciting with the chicken. The jus was crazy good and worth everything Jodi made it out to be. While the generous sliver of chicken breast was what one could only dream of having at least once in their life (like I said earlier -- moist, tender, and simply flavorful), the flavors were enhanced by the jus. The chicken dumplings were made style of German spaetzle dumplings and served loosely with the Brussels sprouts and herbs. While the dumplings were just okay, the Brussels sprouts were worth writing home about, especially with its exposed interior browned and edges charred.

Each of us got a different dessert so we could play musical plates and sample them all. {1} Jimmy loves cheese so it was no surprise that he ended his four-course dinner with something a little savory: the chef's cheese selection of three artisanal cheeses. While Jimmy was enjoying his cheese plate, {2} Marcus was digging into the chocolate ganache with peanut butter, caramel, and mascarpone. I felt the presentation was lacking. When it arrived, all the elements of the dish seemed to be softened and nearly melted. But minus presentation, it was quite good and incredibly rich.

{3}I had the frozen brioche parfait with tamarind and kumquat. Very much resembling a baked Alaska (the swirl of toasted meringue is pretty gorgeous!), the frozen brioche was lightly sweet and mostly tart (most likely from the kumquats), resulting in a savory-leaning dessert. The parfait blended crumbly frozen brioche and had a light finish to the intense meal we had just devoured four-fold.{4} Alice went for the sweet potato pie with spiced anglaise, benne, and grapefruit. Another one for the savories, this spiced number was a deconstructed sweet potato pie with all of the fixings, including the restaurant's beloved benne. The main part of this dessert was very reminiscent of the creaminess of a cheesecake, and the crumbles of the "pie crust" went beautifully with it.

To end the meal, we were given a slate platter with two petit-fours -- a blood orange pâte de fruit and lavender-rosemary madeleines.

Findings: Our first evening in Charleston was marked by enchanted dinner -- one that involved the gusto and finesse of Southern cuisine at its highest potential, curated by the marveling Chef Sean Brock. The menu itself was a whole new game to tackle -- I learned a whole slew of new culinary nomenclature indigenous to the region. The chef's commitment to heirloom ingredients is definitely a large part of this enlightenment. One takeaway from everything we ate that evening -- the kitchen sure loves its benne seeds! And rightfully so -- it gives dishes that je ne sais quoi.

While I haven't had first hand experience with the tasting menu at McCrady's, I can certainly say that the four-course prix fixe menu offerings, especially if you're with a party of four, best showcases Chef Brock's culinary wizardry with much breadth. What would be key is to ask your captain for what they feel would be the signature dishes on the menu -- you know, the items that are most indicative of the South Carolina Lowcountry. I would say you couldn't go wrong with ordering any of the fish or meat dishes -- they were all lovely. At that point, it's just up to personal preferences -- the rest you can leave at the hands of Chef Brock!

What you hear about Southern hospitality is not at all far from the truth -- the service at McCrady's was, hands down, one of the best I've had the pleasure of encountering. Our captain Jodi made that possible -- when someone like herself is so enthusiastic and ecstatic for you to be joining them that evening, it makes the dining experience that much more worthwhile and notable. Along with her welcoming demeanor, her knowledge of the restaurant, chef, and menu was effortless and simply astounding -- when she would tell us about each dish, it was as if she were telling us an engaging story.

All in all, I can boldly say that this meal at McCrady's shared with Marcus, Alice, and Jimmy, was one of the best meals of my life. I felt that familiar tingle in my bones when we licked up every last morsel on our plates, just as I had felt before over two years ago in Chicago after experiencing Chef Grant Achatz's modernist approach to fine dining at Alinea. This dinner was no different. It proved to me that Southern cuisine can be sophisticated, polished, and singular. Jodi shared with us that Chef Brock likes to think of McCrady's as "his head" -- where he does most of his thinking and innovating -- where as his other kitchen at Husk as his heart. If this is where his head is at, I wonder what Husk will have in store with what his heart holds.

So if you ever make it to Charleston, please make it a point to book a table at McCrady's. It is one of those things you must do for yourself. Just do it, and thank me later.

Price point: $65 per person for four-course prix fixe dinner, $68 for bottle of gruner, $24 for half bottle of grenache.

--January 5, 2013

McCrady's Restaurant
2 Unity Alley
Charleston, SC 29401

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lunch | Butcher & Bee

Back in late September, Alice was kind enough to ask Marcus and me if we wanted to join her and Jimmy on a weekend trip to Charleston (wait for it) . . . to eat at Chef Sean Brock's two well-renowned spots, Husk and McCrady's. Our first response? Totally down! I'm embarrassed to report that I didn't know much about the Charleston scene (or any Southern scene for that matter) -- I think as a food blogger up in the Northeast area, I sometimes get caught in this microcosm, so much that I focus much on what's going on in our neck of the woods before I can start thinking about other regions. With that being said, I'm quite thankful to Alice for giving us this opportunity to experience, taste, and absorb a different part of the U. S. -- a less metropolitan place (but by no means any less sophisticated) in comparison to my familiar territories of Chicago and the Bay Area. When foodies (pardon my use of the word -- it just fits!) travel with other foodies, there's no question that the majority of the trip (if not of its entirety) is centered around food and drink. A getaway of any kind to us is an exercise in hedonism and gluttony.

We arrived mid-afternoon that Saturday to Charleston, dropped off our things are our little airbnb weekend rental, and set forth for what would begin our two-and-a-half-day exploration of the Holy City. As we had our first big dinner that evening at McCrady's at 8:15, we wanted to make sure to have lunch to hold us over until then -- one that would satisfy our post-flight hunger but one that wouldn't ruin our appetite for dinner. With a recommendation from Everyday Musings, we decided on {1Butcher & Bee, a sandwich shop/comfort food joint on King Street.

01 - interiors
{2} Run by owner Michael Shemtov and Chef Stuart Tracy, Butcher & Bee is open for lunch (known for its "honest to goodness sandwiches") and then again for late-night dining until 3 AM. Its offerings on the menu are full of big ideas, and the shop even has a garden growing behind the restaurant. I love the mosaic of woods against the white tiled walls with a ribbon of chalkboard running atop it. Definitely has a modern-rustic café feel to it. {3,4} The eclectic industrial furniture makes the ambiance laid back and casual along with {5}old-fashioned cash registers that you'd find in a midwestern saloon.

On top of it all, the menu is constantly changing and developing, filled with sandwiches, salads, coffee, and other tasty items. You can track the changes daily on Butcher & Bee's Twitter.They're growing a garden out behind the restaurant, and their menu's constantly changing and developing. I found the menu on the day we went over here.

Marcus tried a bottle of Fentiman's Curiosity Cola (just a fancy way of saying cola), which was quite flavorful yet less carbonated than most colas I've had.

The Burger and Fries with American cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and LTOP (i.e., lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles). Atop a well-buttered brioche bun, the patty itself was nicely charred and very juicy -- it was divinely with the melted American. The Thousand Island dressing was a tangy touch which makes it so different from most classic American burgers that pervade restaurants and diners alike. The fries were hand-cut and crunchy -- it had that "straight-from-the-potato" texture to it.

As one of the recommendations from the gentleman who took our orders, I opted for the pulled squash sandwich with smoked slaw, barbecue sauce, and pickles -- ultimately a "pulled pork sandwich" for vegetarians and veggie lovers. Thoroughly coated with some savory barbecue sauce, the julienned squash remained snappy and had some wonderful texture to the sandwich overall, especially with the smoked purple slaw and vinegared pickles. Undoubtedly something I've never had before but am glad I tried -- the pulled pork sandwich is just delightful! Oh, and the baguette! Loose crust, soft interior -- one bite, and it was gone. No tugging or difficulty eating. It was the kind of bread you wish you had with all of your sandwiches.

Jimmy had the Chinese pork sandwich with hoisin, cabbage, and peanuts. It worked exactly as it sounded in the description -- like an Asian-style salad on a baguette. For an American sandwich joint to pull this combination of ingredients off so deliciously, I was happily impressed. It was so tasty that Marcus even said he wished he had ordered it, too!

Alice went for the other recommendation we received (i.e., the other most popular lunch item on the menu) -- brie and broccoli grilled cheese with roasted tomatoes, mustard, and a side of tomato-bacon soup. The brie melted onto the bread into a creamy ooze that melded right onto the housemade multi-grain bread covered in benne seeds. While the inclusion of the tomato is familiar in the world of grilled cheese sandwiches (though they being roasted here garners bonus points!), the tossing in of broccoli made the sandwich stand out. It all complemented each other, and with a careful dunk into the intense tomato-bacon soup, you will surely surrender yourself to this sandwich and leave no crumb or bite behind.

Findings: There is no false advertising at Butcher & Bee -- "honest to goodness sandwiches" come to life in its kitchen with the best ingredients and resulting combinations for them to put in between two slices of bread (yup, seriously the next best thing since sliced bread). It is worth venturing out to the north part of King Street, just for the bread alone. Seriously.

Given it was our first meal in Charleston, all in all, every single one of our choices really hit the spot and gave us the warmest welcome to this city. I wish we had more time to stick around and explore the late night menu, but there's always next time, right? ;)

Price point: $9-11 for each sandwich, $12 for each burger.

--January 5, 2013

Butcher & Bee
654 King Street
Charleston, SC 29403

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Drinks | Pouring Ribbons

To ring in the new year, I brought Jess to Pouring Ribbons, a newly tucked away cocktail bar deep in the East Village (big thanks to Alice for introducing me to this gem)!

A project undertaken by Alchemy Consulting (bartenders/owners Joaquín Simó, Toby Maloney, Troy Sidle, and Jason Cott), Pouring Ribbons was opened during September 2012 in a second level space on Avenue B. Alchemy Consulting set the bar high for Pouring Ribbons, that is, in terms of impeccable service and welcoming hospitality as well as inventive and creative yet approachable and comfortable cocktail offerings. Mr. Simó told Serious Eats that he "wanted any kind of drinker to feel comfortable at the bar and not to feel like they're at a temple of mixology where they're obligated to order a cocktail." In fact, the bar offers many noteworthy beers for those advocates.

The bar counter at Pouring Ribbons. How awesome is it that Imbibe magazine named the bar as the year's best cocktail bar?!

The other seating area at Pouring Ribbons.

The menu is specifically designed to be user-friendly with fifteen original "house" cocktails and just as many classics (Manhattans, Negronis, etc.) -- drinks are "plotted on a grid with four quadrants: refreshingspiritouscomforting, and adventurous." These scales are again reiterated beneath each drink so the reader is relatively aware of what to expect with respect to the cocktail's ingredients (adventurous/comforting) and overall taste (refreshing/spirituous). Now, don't be fooled about the "classics" on the menu -- while these familiar concoctions do not deviate much from their original composition, Pouring Ribbons aims to show its patrons their interpretation for them.

The names tagged to each of the cocktails at Pouring Ribbons are curious and inviting. The descriptions are a catalog of included ingredients with no further explanations offered in terms of what to expect -- preparation-wise or flavor-wise. The level of curiosity alone makes the experience here that much more exhilarating.

Another fun fact is that the bartenders at Pouring Ribbons "literally draw the drinks" as they come up with them -- "sketching them out" as "a round of drinks coming to a table should all have distinctive visual appeal." You can definitely tell from just looking at the first round of cocktails we ordered (see below).

I started out the evening with Lust for Life (on the right) -- an unusual combination of Vida mezcal (a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant -- a form of agave), pineapple, Lustau Peninsula Palo Cortado sherry, orgeat, and cocoa (find the recipe here from Imbibe). If there's one thing I can say about this cocktail is that it is boldly seductive upon first sip. The smokiness from the mezcal (Spanish for "oven-cooked agave") and the subtle nuttiness of the orgeat (essentially a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water) permeate the palate with a tinge of sweetness from the pineapple juice and sherry. The kicker? The sprinkled cocoa on top would seem like it wouldn't work, but it really does! It added a bittersweet quality to the finish of the drink, and alas, Lust for Life became an instant favorite.

Jess went with the Tahona Smash (on the left) -- Siete Lequas tequila, lemon, Lustau dry amontillado sherry, caramelized pear, and Angostura bitters with crushed ice and a couple slices of pear. Tahona in the cocktail's name refers to the traditional, large stone wheel turned by donkeys, oxen, or tractors in a circular space (typically a cement well) to mash up the pulp of the agave (from which tequila is distilled twice, mezcal once) into a coarse paste and extracted to aguamiel (i.e., the juice, or "water-honey") which is diluted with water to create the necessary consistency for fermentation. I suppose this cocktail is an ode to tequila and the primitive machinery still used in the present day. A very citrus-driven concoction, the Tahona Smash has the qualities of a light sweetness, a smooth sliding tequila-sherry combination, and a little bitterness from the angostura. The ice in the glass gives it an overall sno-cone effect. This comes highly recommended for tequila lovers out there.

Round two for me began with the Surabaya Sling -- Banks 5 Island rum, lemon, cocchi di torino (an Italian, Moscato-based vermouth), Spice Trader syrup, and root beer bitters. Sometimes referred to as "the city of heroes," Surabaya is Indonesia's second largest city. Its name is believed to be derived from the words sura/suro (shark) and baya (crocodile), i.e., the two creatures of local myth that fought each other in order to gain the title of "the strongest and most powerful animal" in the area according to a royal Javanese prophecy. I also didn't realize sling is vernacular for a sweetened drink of liquor (in this case, probably for the Italian vermouth). Perhaps to emulate a dual-personality drink of tropical (of Indonesian origin) and warrior-like (of Javanese prophecy) qualities. It truly reflected it once I sampled the drink, especially with its rum base and root beer bitters. Flavors are distinct and strong, but not in an overly-spirited way. Great for sipping!

Jess finished the evening with Death & Taxes -- Dorothy Park gin, lemon, Clear Creek blue plum brandy, lavender-infused Cinzano Bianco, and grapefruit bitters. Besides the obvious flavors of citrus -- tart, sour, sweet, and bitter -- the real focus is on gin, and boy is this drink is quite gin-y. There is no escaping the spell in which this cocktail casts on you. The title, after all, comes from the epistolary, famous words of Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy regarding the Constitution: "Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." The other tastes of lavender and plum complement it very well, too.

Findings: Alchemy Consulting can successfully say that its latest cocktail bar project, Pouring Ribbons, is comfortable to any and all drinkers. Its super approachable yet inventive menu (that grid is gorgeous and so practical!) is comprised of house cocktails (original concoctions) and classics (interpretation on traditional beverages) as well as a vibrant selection of beers, wines, chartreuse, and other spirits. I can't imagine a guest walking in and not finding something that is up his or her alley. The world of mixology and all things spirited can be intimidating for those new to it all, and let's face it, pretty pretentious. Pouring Ribbons wipes all of that away so that the snobs, connoisseurs, and newbies can enjoy some striking and colorful cocktails. I don't doubt that Pouring Ribbons will be a regularly frequented spot for me in 2013!

Price point: $14 for each cocktail.

--January 3, 2013

Pouring Ribbons
225 Avenue B, Floor 2
New York, NY 10009

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Brunch | Tipsy Parson

Last Sunday, I had a reunion brunch at Tipsy Parson with Ariana and Mimi (who was back in town from medical school!) over in Chelsea. 

Opened in 2009, Tipsy Parson serves "belly-filling goodness" with a menu influences by the Southern flavors of South Carolina and comfort food in general. Its brunch reservation policy is pretty fair -- it offers reservations via OpenTable from 10 AM to 11:30 AM, and after 11:30, it has a first come, first served policy in place.

Upon entering, there were window benches on both sides of the entrance-way, making for a super cozy ambiance. However, what really caught my eye was the wall paper along the walls -- trompe l'oeil bookshelves with bold, multi-colored spines. Love it!

The front of the restaurant had a bar and some smaller tables which led into the back dining room which had a communal table at the center and banquette seating at the sides.

The walls were sprinkled with kitschy plates of all shapes, sizes, and designs.

Ariana and Mimi both enjoyed a Grafton cheddar burger with an eight-ounce house ground organic patty (i.e., a blend of beef and pork) topped with red onion, bibb lettuce, potato bun, a fried pickle, and shoestring fries. The burger was quite juicy, and the Grafton cheddar gave it a sharp and melty flavor to it. The highlight of this dish for Ariana and Mimi was the fried pickle.

I opted for the barbecue pulled pork spoonbread with Berkshire pork butt (on the right), corn spoonbread (on the left), and fried eggs (on top). Very much shouting Southern comfort here with this combination of cornmeal, barbecue, and pulled pork -- all of which was quite savory and melted away on my palate. While the pulled pork was very tender and bursting with flavor, the amount of barbecue sauce, at times, was just a tad overwhelming, but mixing it with the fried egg whites and the spoonbread made it less so.

Findings: I love Tipsy Parson and its low-brunch scene. The quaint, playfully yet tastefully kitschy décor adds a bit of whimsy to your dining experience. I haven't had a chance to explore the potential of Southern cuisine in New York City, but I will have to say that Tipsy Parson is cooking up some confidence in that realm. The prices are quite reasonable for brunch, and its reservation policy is fair all around (half reservations, half first come/first served) for ritual brunch goers and first timers. I know I'll be back very soon!

Price point: $15-16 for each entrée, $13 for each cocktail.

--December 30, 2012

Tipsy Parson
156 9th Avenue
New York, NY 10011


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