Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On the Road: Vessel, Seattle, WA

On my first business trip to Seattle, I wasn't able to stay in the city because I had an early business meeting just outside the city in Renton the following morning.  I did, however, make it in for dinner with my sales rep and we enjoyed some sushi at a restaurant that I've forgotten.  It was pretty good "American" sushi, with flavorful rolls and such.  Since then, I've been back to Seattle a few times and on the last two trips I've stayed right in the city so that I could be in close proximity to a new customer I developed over the past few years.

Staying in the city meant having a little more freedom when it came to food and drink as Seattle is pretty easily to navigate by foot.  The first time I stayed in the city, I arrived around 2pm and checked in at my hotel and then walked around and did the tourist thing since my appointments weren't until the following morning.  After a long walk to the Space Needle and back, I decided to search Chowhound to find a place for happy hour.  It was there that I learned of Vessel, a recommended bar for happy hour that served a wide array of bourbons.  SOLD!  It was also a block away from my hotel! 

 Bartender Jim is master of his domain

I found a seat at the bar and was greeted by the bartender, Jim, who offered me a menu to look through while he made a few drinks for some other patrons.  We talked bourbon for a bit and I learned that this dude was a serious bartender, one who really appreciates his craft and has absorbed an insane amount of information to dispense to those like me who love drinking spirits.  It was tough keeping my eyes fixated on the menu because Jim was mixing up some drinks that looked crazy good!  There was the Bootleg Fizz, a traditional gin fizz made with gin, egg white, simple syrup, lemon juice, and soda, all frothed up with a hand mixer.  The Vessel 75, a concoction of bourbon, peychaud's bitters, simple syrup, orange zest, and maple syrup foam, was a favorite on my latest visit.  Then there was quite possibly the best looking Mint Julep I'd ever seen - a pile of crushed ice in a silver cup with a sprig of mint strategically placed next to the straw to charm the olfactory senses with each sip.

Vessel 75

 Bootleg Fizz

I remember on my first visit starting with a traditional Manhattan that was on the happy hour menu and it was perfect.  I decided to ditch the cocktails and go with a bourbon, choosing Blanton's to get me going.  Jim returned with my Blanton's on the rocks as requested, or should I say, rock.  This was the first time I'd ever had a bourbon served with a ball of ice rather than cubed ice.  Jim informed me that the ball of ice melted much slower than cubes so the bourbon could be enjoyed cold without becoming watered down too fast.

 Straight Ballin'

In addition to a spirits and cocktails menu, Vessel also has another menu that contains rare spirits.  On my first visit, I enjoyed an Eagle Rare 17yr bourbon that is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and also on that earned Bourbon of the Month earlier this year.  On my last visit, I tried a Willet 16yr bourbon, a brand I'd never heard of but enjoyed.  After that, Jim (who was tending bar on both of my visits) brought out an old looking bottle.  It's label read "Special Old Reserve" and Jim told me to look at the dates printed on the neck.  They read, "Made 1917.  Bottled 1933".  Yup, this was a 77 year old bourbon, 93 years since it had been barreled!!  Naturally, I had to give it a try but it was a little on the pricey side so I opted for a 1oz pour.  At 77 years since bottling, my suspicions were confirmed when I found this bourbon to be pretty sweet, almost like a port wine, lacking a strong alcohol burn.  The alcohol had most likely burned off a little bit over the years.  Still, it was pretty cool to drink a bourbon that had been around since before prohibition.

Pre-Prohibition Bourbon

In addition to all of the brews and spirits, Vessel has a pretty good looking menu of small plates.  I've yet to eat there though.  On my first visit, I told Jim I was looking for a good Japanese restaurant and he recommended Tsukushinbo.  I had one of the best Japanese meals I've ever had there and have gone back on every trip since.  More on that someday when I stop procrastinating.  In the meantime, take my advice and visit Vessel next time you're in Seattle.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Local Love: Lobster Rolls @ Linda Bean's in Delray Beach!!

Lobster Roll pic courtesy of Timeless Gourmet
I am originally from Boston and summer in Gloucester and Rockport every year where my family has a clam & lobster bake.  I know my lobster rolls and have eaten thousands of them.  I was in Delray for a wedding last weekend and was driving down Atlantic Blvd when I saw a sign for Linda Bean's Perfect Maine Lobster Roll on Atlantic.  We were starving so we stopped to grab a lobster roll.  It was expensive, yes ($15.50 for 1/4lb lobster roll w/ chips, sweet pickles, and slaw), but absolutely phenomenal and the best lobster roll I have tasted outside of New England.

First thing I noticed was a nice piece of claw meat on the top of the roll.  Claw meat is the best meat on the lobster!!  It is the sweetest and most tender and flavorful.  Linda Bean's lobster roll was LOADED with claw meat and I couldn't have been happier.  Second thing I noticed was that they only use a little mayo so you get the full flavor of the lobster along with a little of their dry seasoning which I believe contained celery flake and a little dill.  Third, the bun.  They use authentic New England hot dog rolls that stand up on their own because they have a flat bottom.  Those are so hard to find down here that there is even a thread on the Florida Chowhound board about where to find them.  The bun was toasted on the flat top with a little butter which adds another flavor element to the lobster roll.  A lobster roll is not supposed to be hot or warm.  The bun should be toasted, that's it.

We loved that lobster roll so much that when we saw a parking spot out in front of Linda Bean's the following day, we just had to go grab a lobster roll for the road.  It wasn't the first lobster roll I've eaten behind the wheel and I'm sure it won't be the last.  I just hope they open one of these up in Miami (which I believe there is a rumor that they could be looking to do just that).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bourbon of the Month: Woodford Reserve

I knew when I first posted my Bourbon of the Month back in February that I was being quite ambitious.  It wasn't that I was afraid of lacking material for posting about a different bourbon each month.  After all, I sip a bourbon after dinner almost daily.  My timidness came from the fact that I knew there was about a 99% chance that the "Bourbon of the Month" feature would most likely be forgotten each month.  Sure enough, it's been four whole months since the last Bourbon of the Month.  Who knows me better than me?

Sipping a bourbon on the rocks (or "on the ball" as I do) at the end of a sweltering Sunday in Miami just makes sense.  And with that, I headed to my local liquor store to see if they had anything new.  They didn't, but they did have a decent price on Woodford Reserve so I figured I'd get a bottle for the home bar.  It wasn't long after I got home that I remembered how much I love this bourbon.
Gold Medal Winner of the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and Breeder's Cup, Woodford Reserve is no stranger to popularity.  This premium small batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is distilled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, located amidst miles of horse farms just outside Lexington in Versailles, Kentucky.  I had the pleasure of visiting the distillery a few years back when I hit up a few stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and it was impressive.

Built in 1838 by the Pepper family, the Woodford Reserve Distillery is one of the oldest in the country.  In fact, it has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  In 1878 the distillery was sold to Labrot & Graham who then sold it to Brown-Forman Corp in 1947.  Brown-Forman operated the distillery until 1968 then sold it in 1971, only to buy it back again in 1993, renovate it, and begin producing Woodford Reserve as a premium bourbon in 1996.  Oddly enough, the bottle that holds this rust-colored spirit still bears the Labrot & Graham name today.

Woodford Reserve distillery is the only operating distillery in America to triple-distill its' bourbon using copper stills.  The bourbon is then aged in a warehouse built of stone rather than one built of wood.  The stone helps to slow the warehouse's change in temperature as the seasons change, allowing the whiskey to slowly work through the charred oak barrels as they expand in the warmer months and contract in the cooler months.  The aging process continues for a minimum of six years before the bourbon is removed from the barrel and bottled at 90.4 proof (45.2% alcohol).

To me, Woodford Reserve is perfect in the Spring and Summer.  It's surprisingly tame for a 90-proof bourbon, lacking fiery spice notes found in other bourbons of the same proof and finishing smooth.  For this reason I have, on occasion, mistakenly labeled it an 80-proof bourbon.  The flavor notes of this bourbon are fantastic.  The nose is very woody with a hint of char, vanilla, and dried fruit.  The palate starts woody as well before yielding to a very flowery flavor.  The finish is the best - long and very full of fresh flowers.
Each year since 2005-2006, Woodford Reserve releases a limited edition batch of premium bourbon as part of the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection.  The first batch came in the form of Woodford Reserve Four Grain, a bourbon comprised of all four grains that can be used for bourbon (corn, malted barley, rye, wheat - most bourbons use rye OR wheat).  They followed with one of my personal favorites, Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, a bourbon aged in charred oak barrels and finished in barrels used to age Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay.  In 2008, it was Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash.  Usually, sweet mash is found in Irish, Scottish, and Canadian whisk(e)ys, with bourbon utilizing a sour mash, a method by which an old fermented sweet mash is combined with a new one, lowering the pH and making the yeast in the mash all happy.  I tried this one at Vessel Bar in Seattle, WA and thought it was just ok.  The last batch of the Master's Collection for 2009 was the dark-colored Woodford Reserve Seasoned Oak Finish, a bourbon aged in barrels made of charred oak that has been seasoned for 3-5 years as opposed to the regular 3-5 months.  One with a good eye will note that the bottles from the Master's Collection are shaped to resemble the copper stills from whence the whiskey is distilled.

Woodford Reserve is pretty easy to find at most liquor stores and many restaurants and bars in South Florida.  Retail price on a 750ml bottle usually falls in the range of $32-$40 though I've seen it as low as $25 and as high as $45.  A fair restaurant prices it around $8/glass.  Unfortunately "fair price" doesn't compute in Miami and most places charge $12-14 per glass.  The Master's Collection typically retails for $78-$90.  While I like my Woodford neat or with ice, it does make for a pretty stellar mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.  In fact, each year Woodford Reserve puts out a $1,000 mint julep for the Derby.  Here's the less expensive recipe in case you'd like to try:

Woodford Reserve Mint Julep

3-5 mint leaves
1 tsp powdered sugar
2 tsp water
2.5oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Crushed ice

Muddle (stir/gently crush) four mint sprigs and sugar in the bottom of a julep glass.  Add water and continue to muddle.  Add Woodford Reserve Bourbon.  Pack the julep glass with crushed ice.  Add a mint sprig for decoration and sipping straw.  If a metal julep cup is used, be sure to use a wooden muddler (bottom of a wooden spoon) instead of a metal spoon. This will eliminate the possibility of any metal shavings getting into the drink or scratching the julep cup.

Since this post, I was fortunate enough to find a bottle of the Woodford Reserve Master Collection Seasoned Oak Finish.  A truly fantastic bourbon that shows the effects of this bourbon being finished in barrels with seasoned oak wood staves.  A nice balance of sweet and spicy.  Through two tastings I have found this bourbon woody with a sweet hint of black cherry on the tongue that finishes with notes of caramel and vanilla.  Plenty more tastings in store...  :)

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Taste of Area 31

A few weeks ago, I heard from Chef Critchley, head chef at Area 31 at Brickell's Epic Hotel, that he was revamping the Sustainable Seafood Tasting Menu.  So, I gave a call to my good friend Jackie (@ktchntrvwr) and foodie power couple David (@djkmia) and Paula (@mango_lime) and suggested we check it out.  It had been quite some time since we all got together and I was looking forward to catching up over a good meal.

I've dined at Area 31 a few times and have always liked what the kitchen puts out.  Fresh seafood enhanced with flavorful components and sauces is what they do best though they recently have added some new dishes for the landlubbers out there.  We all decided to stick with the aforementioned seafood tasting menu ($55) and also decided to go with the wine pairing for an additional $35, choosing the sommelier's option to "step outside the box" with pairing selections.

We started out with a refreshing tuna and escolar dish, the fish served raw with citrus that had a bit of a spicy kick to it.  It was a great way to start the meal and also allowed me to share my funny fact about escolar.  This dish was paired with a Japanese Tozai Junmai Daiginjo Sake* which was a perfect compliment to the clean tastes of the dish.

Next up were some clams sourced from our state of Florida (I forget exactly what kind they were and didn't make note of it either) that were fried crisp and served with fresh tomatoes and a Tabasco crunch.  At first I was worried that the small clams would lack flavor after being fried or that they would get tough but I came around after my first bite.  The chef did a great job showcasing the flavor of the whole clam even if it wasn't like the big belly fried clams I'm used to in New England.  The Tabasco crunch was a nice element, starting off sweet and then finishing spicy.  We enjoyed a 2005 Schramsberg Brut Rose, a sparkling wine that was ok but I say that because I'm not really a sparkling wine fan.

A pasta mirepox dish was placed before us as the third dish, it's flavor and nose reminding me of a chicken soup or a Thanksgiving dinner.  I thought this was very light for a pasta dish and appreciated that with the understanding that we had three dishes to go.  The sommelier paired this dish with a wonderful 2006 Bodegas Mauro Crianza, Tudela del Duero (Tempranillo, Syrah.  I love tempranillo and this one was big and bold but smooth without being overly fruity or acidic.

Our fourth course of the sustainable seafood dinner was a seared cobia with chestnut puree, roasted chestnut, and caperberries.  This was my favorite dish of the night.  Simply incredible flavor in this dish.  The fish was cooked perfectly and I liked the crunch of the roasted chestnuts countering the moist flesh of the fish.  The chestnut puree was a huge hit at the table as well, so much so that Jackie asked for some extra on the side.  This dish was paired with a 2003 Jacques Puffeney Melon Queue Rogue, a variety of chardonnay that I loved.  It was my second favorite wine of the night, even better than the tempranillo we had tasted with the previous dish and I'm not really a chardonnay fan.

Our final dish before dessert came in the form of a dorade plated with lentils.  The dish seemed to have an anise flavor to it along with a little pepper zest which helped offset it's fishiness a bit.  While this dish was not my favorite, the wine certainly was.  A 2008 Flowers Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast proved to be a stellar finish to the meal and the sommelier left us to have our way with the rest of the bottle because we all enjoyed it so much.

Dessert was a similar dish to the one Chef Critchley prepared at the Dinner In Paradise that I attended earlier in the year.  A flexible chocolate sprinkled with a little sea salt and paired with a mango sorbet.  It was a nice way to end a fantastic meal.

I'm glad I finally made it over to Area 31 to try the tasting menu and I'm happy to report my streak of good-to-great meals at the restaurant is still alive.  It was nice to see the restaurant fairly busy, with service attentive and knowledgeable without being intrusive.  Between their happy hour offerings, the view of the bay from their outdoor terrace, and their incredible seafood dishes (I'll have to return for some of the new landlubber fare but that will be tough because I really like their seafood dishes), Area 31 really is a terrfic spot.

*I'm not sure about this as I couldn't find any listing online for "Tozai Junmai Daiginjo".  This might've been incorrectly transcribed by the sommelier when he wrote down our winelist as a favor post-dinner as I'd like to think the internet has all the answers...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A New Club In North Miami Beach

Miami Beach is no stranger to clubs but most are classified as dance clubs or country clubs.  Enter The Water Club, a new player on the club scene providing edible beats to those arriving by land, sea, or maybe even air (there was actually a helicopter taking flight from a patch of grass at the Intercoastal Mall when I arrived to visit).

After a multi-million dollar renovation to the old "Miami Shooters" location, Chefs Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo of Miami Beach's Talula were brought in to renovate the menu with flavor.  I've had some fantastic, more-than-memorable meals at Talula, so I was excited to see what the chefs had in store for The Water Club.  I sampled a few things on my visit, most notably a pulled pork slider topped with pickled onion and sliced chili peppers.  Savory with a nice spicy kick.  I also tried some steak skewers and a bit of roasted chicken salad on a crostini that was studded with dried cranberry.  The chicken salad was very light on the mayo and had nice flavor.  All that said, the winner of the night for me came in the form of a bite-sized potato croquette.  Well, I'm not sure if that's what it's called but that's what I'm calling it, dammit.  A little disc with a fried-slightly-crisp exterior gave way to a creamy explosion of potato flavor with a hint of salt that reminded me of the orignal flavor Pringles.  I managed to eat two and then gave the server specific instructions to stay away from me to ensure more than just I would sample their awesomeness.  I'm not sure if these items will be on the regular menu as this was a preview night but hopefully those potato croquettes and pork sliders will be there.

The space itself is massive.  That's probably the only word to describe it.  Two separate dining areas indoors and an enormous outdoor space fully covered by an awning, making it perfect for staying dry during our rainy season.  There are two large bars, one inside and one outside, both with a team of flatscreen TVs hanging above them.  I especially enjoyed this as my Celtics were battling the Magic that night (the C's got their asses handed to them in this game but then rebounded and destroyed the Magic in the following game to head to the NBA Finals).

The Water Club also features a dock for boaters to tie up to and head in for a bite and some drinks.  The dock space can accommodate up to 50 boats with a full time dockmaster so bring your friends.  They also have a nice sundeck and a swimming pool!  Check it out sometime for yourself.  Methinks it'll be hard not to enjoy.

The Water Club
3969 NE 163 St.
North Miami Beach, FL 33160