Friday, June 20, 2008

Restaurant Review: North 110, North Miami

I had been wanting to give this place a try for awhile now but couldnt muster up the energy to make the drive up from Coconut Grove (damn MGFD is like a vaccuum - I cant seem to make it past the exit for 195 haha). Well, I had some business up north to attend to so I decided to call a lady friend and check out this spot.

The place has a dining area up front and a dining/bar area in the back. It was POURING outside, so the place was somewhat empty. We chose the bar area since it was a Wednesday and they had live music - a great jazz singer with a few tables of fans sitting nearby. I think she sings every Wednesday and she was great as was the music. Only drawback was that the space is very tight so its hard to have conversation while she is performing but thats really not too big of a deal.

I really enjoyed the way that they break down the wine list by tasting notes. I selected a '06 Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (Willow Tree or Willow "something", the name escapes me at the moment) from the "truffles and mushrooms" section. The waiter liked the pick and we really enjoyed the bottle, enough that we had to pace ourselves as to not run out before the mains came out. For an appetizer, we ordered the Ricotta Risotto Fritters with Parmesan Dipping Sauce. These were fantastic. Nice semi-crunchy exterior with a filling of incredibly smooth, cheesy goodness. The parmesan sauce was great for dipping too.

The mains came out next. The waiter had informed us that the menu changes weekly and I liked that. Using the waiter's recommendation to help me decide between 2 dishes, I ordered the large portion of the Barolo Braised Short Ribs with Bacon and a grain that is also escaping me at the moment. She had the Grilled Skirt Steak with Sauteed Corn and Pancetta and a Warm Mushroom Vinegarette. The waiter handed me a knife and said, "This is for appearance only, you wont need it." He was right. The meat fell off the bone and tasted delicious. The Barolo liquid had awesome flavor that I felt really enhanced the flavor of the meat. The bacon was a thin slice of pancetta that was cooked to a crispy well done. Im still struggling with whether I liked that or not. At first, I didnt because Im a bacon fan and I dont like well done bacon. However, I thought the crispiness and slightly charred flavor really meshed well with the rest of the dish. I tried a little of my companion's steak and it was excellent. I will likely order that next time.

We were pretty full from the wine and meal, so we opted to skip dessert and I asked for their bourbon selection. Knob Creek and Maker's Mark so I chose Maker's. Kinda disappointing because this restaurant has an elegant high-end feel to it and these bourbons are kinda pedestrian. I recommended carrying Basil Hayden in a conversation later on with the hostess/manager but its somewhat silly on my part to expect a nice bourbon list at every restaurant I go to. A bourbon connoisseur can dream though... (Side note: The hostess/manager was extremely nice, polite, and informative when we asked about a spot to check out for a cocktail afterwards. The waiter and the rest of the staff were equally awesome. I think this is important to the success of a restaurant and it was much appreciated). Before my drink came, our waiter presented us with some Blueberry Fritters, compliments of the chef. Man, they like them some Fritters at North 110 and these were a nice end to a great meal.

Overall, I really enjoyed the dining experience at North 110. Service was great, food was delicious, tried a new wine that I loved, and the added bonus of a sultry jazz singer made for a killer time. Its not easy on the wallet but I thought the quality of food and presentation fit the bill. I will definitely have to make an effort to get back up there for another meal. A seared foie gras and that skirt steak are calling my name.

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

This is long overdue but procrastination is kinda my middle name. I will warn you that this is a long post that took a shitload of time to put together, again, mainly because procrastination is kinda my middle name. Im also a tad wordy and tend to relate every detail possible but hey, at least the few who read this will be gettin their money's worth. Enjoy...

Around my 21st birthday, my Dad gave me a salute with a glass of bourbon. At the time it tasted like gasoline and I was not a fan. I was used to sucking down beers not sipping liquor. As time went on, however, I began to get more into new liquors. I remember sitting at an airport bar waiting for a flight that was delayed and deciding to order a Maker's Mark and Coke so I could get a nice buzz and nap on the flight. I liked it right away. The Coke subdued that gasoline taste and added to the sweetness of the bourbon. As time went on, I switched from bourbon & Coke to bourbon & ginger ale. One day, I decided that I wanted to begin trying new bourbons and Dad had kept Basil Hayden at the house on my last visit home. He told me that was a bourbon to be consumed on the rocks only, so naturally I ditched the soda I had been mixing with other bourbons like Maker's Mark. This is when my love for all things bourbon began.

This year, I gave my dad a killer Christmas present. I booked some business in Louisville on a Friday and had him fly out to meet me that night. That was the start of the Bourbon Trail for us. In the next 2 days we were going to be visiting various bourbon distilleries and learning the secrets of their sweet nectar.

I had booked a hotel in downtown Louisville, walking distance from area attractions like Stevie Ray's Blues Bar and Fourth Street Live, a pedestrian street with shops, bars, and restaurants much like Lincoln Road on Miami Beach just with bigger buildings. After settling in and planning the next day's itinerary, we headed down to Fourth Street Live to check out the Maker's Mark bar. After all, this was a bourbon trip so we needed to make sure we drank as much as possible!

The Maker's Mark bar was stocked with around 70 different types of bourbon all lined behind the bar in alphabetical order waiting to be served up by Chris and Melissa. Both took good care of us and we decided to stick around for dinner so we could eat and watch the Celtics/Pistons playoff game. I sampled 5 bourbons, Dad had 3. Rock Hill was my favorite that night. The food was ok, mine was overcooked but Chris sympathized and passed me a free round so it was all good. Celtics came back in the 4th to finish off the Pistons and we got nice and buzzed before heading to the hotel to crash. Saturday was going to be an early start, late ending day.

We started the day early and arrived at the Jim Beam distillery around 9:15am. They are known for their namesake bourbon but have gained much more notoriety from their small batch collection - Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Booker's, and Baker's. Basil Hayden is my favorite everyday bourbon, Dad's too. Its incredibly smooth with a nice flavor and for that reason I always recommend it to scotch drinkers who want to give bourbon a try. The tour at Jim Beam was kinda lame because it was self-guided. You got to see a movie about the Beam family history and then you could walk around the grounds before finishing off at the Beam House for some tasting. Not much learning, mostly browsing. I did think the Beam family history was pretty cool though. When we finally made our way around to the Beam House it was about 10am. The house was decorated with pictures and memorabilia from the Beam family business. There was one room that housed what is believed to be (and in my opinion has to be) the worlds smallest distiller. It can still produce 4 gallons of "high wine", the clear liquid that is poured into charred white oak barrels and aged, eventually bottled as bourbon. Other things like Beam's long pipe and an old piece of paper that held Beam's computations from when he tried to figure out what it would cost him to get going after Prohibition was lifted adorned the walls. Pretty cool. We then went for the tasting and we were in luck. The 2 bourbons available that day were Booker's and Basil Hayden. Basil at 10:15am, neat (no ice), after a full night of drinking, wasnt too bad but it did give me a little "HELLO!" moment. Booker's, on the other hand, was rough. At 124.6 proof, it was like drinking fire, especially since I'd only had an english muffin all day. But hey, I was awake now!

We hit the road and began the drive to the next stop on our Bourbon Trail - Buffalo Trace. This was the one I was most looking forward to because they produce some of my favorite brands and the most highly rated brand in the world known as Pappy Van Winkle's 23yr. Pulling into the parking lot, we get hit by the aroma of aging bourbon wafting through our car windows, also known as the "angel's share". That was awesome. We enter the store and find we have 40 minutes until the next tour. I was excited to see a whole basket full of corks from Blanton's bottles being sold. Each cork features a horse and rider figurine on top and each of those bears a letter of the name "Blanton's" at the horse's back foot. If you take all of them and spell out "Blanton's", the figurines resemble a horse race from standing position to full stride and ending with the rider raising his hand in victory. The "S" piece was rumored to be the hardest to get so I was fired up when I found the only one in the bowl. I also got the "T" and "O" to complete my collection (See below).

Here are some other highlights from the shop:

Barreling process

Buffalo Trace Milestones (6,000,000+ barrels!!!)

List of Distilleries throughout history

The Roll of Honor - all the award winning spirits made at Buffalo Trace (Impressive!)

The tour started at 1pm and we headed on over to the Free House to watch a quick movie about the history of Buffalo Trace. Turns out, the "Buffalo Trace" was what they called the paths that buffalo created as they walked through the fields of yesteryear, paths followed by our American forefathers on their expedition West. After the video and a good amount of Q&A with our guide, we headed on over to Warehouse C to check out the racks of aging barrels.

Warehouse C is where the smell of the "angel's share" was coming from when we arrived. Wooden ricks about 11 stories high with barrels upon barrels of aging bourbon lie inside, hibernating through each Kentucky season. Buffalo Trace has actually found a way to control the climate inside during the various seasons to maximize efficiency. Bourbon must be aged a minimum of 2 years to be considered Straight Bourbon though most are aged for 6-8 years. Dad and I really liked this pic I snapped next, looking out from the dead center of the warehouse.

From the warehouse we headed on over to the Albert Blanton Bottling Hall. Large batch bourbons, like Buffalo Trace's namesake brand, are a blend of 100+ different barrels aged in the warehouse. See, barrels will age differently in different sections of the warehouse, with the ones on top usually aging at a higher proof than those down below. Small batch bourbons are a blend of a much lesser amount of barrels, a select few from the heart of the warehouse. Let's not forget single barrel as well which is poured from a single barrel in the warehouse...imagine that! (Interesting fact: Booker Noe, master distiller @ Jim Beam, believes that the best barrels are located in the middle of the warehouse. Hence, "Booker's" brand bourbon is a small batch bourbon poured from barrels selected from the heart of the warehouse. It is the only bourbon in existence to be poured, unfiltered, from the barrel to the bottle) Inside the bottling hall they had a case with all of the small batch bourbons inside that were bottled at Buffalo Trace...

After a tasting of Buffalo Trace bourbon and Eagle Rare (a personal favorite of mine and a great value at about $30) the tour came to an end. Dad and I sat and talked bourbon with the tour guide and got some of her recommendations on new brands to try. She enjoyed our conversation/enthusiasm so much that she offered to sneak away for a few and give us a private tour of the fermentation process. Awesome. We headed back to the fermentation tanks via golf cart and then got a nice tour of the insides and the process.

The fermentation tanks

This bubbling is a natural reaction between the corn, rye, malted barley, Kentucky limestone water, and a little yeast that can last up to 5 days.

From there its off to the Beer Stills (the fermented product looks a lot like beer) where the product is distilled to a clear alcohol liquid. This is called "white dog" at Buffalo Trace. Jim Beam calls it "high wine". Here are the beer stills followed by a pic of the "white dog" tap. I loved the tasting glass next to the tap. The "white dog" is what is poured into the charred oak barrels to age, eventually becoming bourbon.

Oh and just for kicks they decided, since they were so good at distilling, to give vodka a try.

We took a walk around the grounds before heading on to the next stop. Here is Thunder. The plaque reads, "carved from a fallen 300 year old sycamore tree to commemorate the majesty of migrating buffalo in a wilderness past. Created by sculptor Stan Schu, June 1999"

Our final stop for the day was Woodford Reserve, just down a ways from Buffalo Trace. The ride there was pretty cool. Miles up miles of horse farms with horses EVERYWHERE. Its no wonder Woodford Reserve creates a special bottle for the Derby each year.

Eventually we arrived at Woodford Reserve. This distillery was different to me in that it had this "high society" type vibe. Maybe Im just saying that because of the Derby connection, I dunno. Pretty cool location though.

We spent so much time at Buffalo Trace that we didnt get to Woodford Reserve in time to catch the last tour. So, we walked around the museum exhibit and read up on the history of the place and the process they employ to make their bourbon. We also got a tasting and Dad got busted going back for seconds which was pretty funny.

On our way out, we met a nice couple from Utah who I recognized from our Buffalo Trace tour. They had seen a few different distilleries the day before and we decided we would have to make a return trip next year to hit up the rest of the Bourbon Trail. The husband also talked about how he has to drive to Cali to get his bourbon thanks to the laws in Utah.

We headed back to Louisville for the night and checked out Proof on Main, a spot recommend by Sara over at All Purpose Dark. We didnt have a reservation and didnt feel like waiting for over an hour so we decided to have a few bourbons at the bar and then go dominate a nice hearty steak over at Morton's across the street. I did get this shot of the outside of the 21C museum-hotel where Proof on Main was located.

A few more bourbons at the Maker's Mark bar and it was off to bed. We were flying home the next afternoon and planned to hit up the Louisville Slugger Factory before heading to the airport. You know, for a relatively quiet city, there really is a lot to see in Louisville and the surrounding area. Thats one of the things I really enjoyed about this trip outside of getting to spend time with Dad. There is so much history and so many sights and cool stuff to be seen inside the borders of our own country that most people never would think about. Sure, it may not be as glamorous as Paris or Athens but the sense of adventure is still there.