Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The 3rd Annual Burgie Awards

Burger lover and all-around good guy, Sef Gonzalez, aka The Burger Beast got quite a crew together for the 3rd Annual Burgie Awards this past Saturday at Magic City Casino.  The event was huge!  There were 40 food trucks and 12 restaurants set up in the parking lot, creating an enormous outdoor food court of sorts.  The Beastman reached out to me and asked if I'd help him by being a judge for the best burger category.  I was one of 7 judges on the panel selected to taste 22 different burgers (12 restaurants, 10 food trucks) LIVE in a blind tasting.  The rest of the panel was made up of The Chowfather, 954 Burger Boi, Carlos Acosta aka "Certified Ill", a couple of people from Copperpot's, and Short Order writer and Chowfather arch nemesis, Laine Doss.  A motley crew indeed.

At 5pm the burgers started floating into the VIP tent to the judges table and the carnage began.  Having attended the Burger Bash at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival last year, I knew that I had to pace myself in the beginning stages in order to make it to the end.  With 22 burgers to sample, any overindulgence would be sure to bury me.  I stuck to that plan and survived.  The Chowfather did not have a game plan and, against my warning, went heavy on the first burger.  By burger #9 he wasn't looking too good.  By burger 15 he was banged up bad.  After burger 22 let's just say some Magic City palms got some angus-filled fertilizer.

The quality of burgers ranged from awful to awesome.  My qualifications for a great burger start with the patty.  It's gotta be fresh and seasoned.  That Sysco crap doesn't cut it.  Matter of fact, it's pretty disgusting.  After that, the bun has gotta be solid.  If the bottom bun can't handle the juicy burger and becomes soggy, that's a partial fail in my book.  With patty and bun out of the way, it's all about the toppings.  If the toppings provide good flavor enhancement without getting too crazy and/or sloppy, we've got a winner.

Here's a look at the contestants.  First up, the restaurant entries:

Burger & Beer Joint - Judges' Choice for Restaurant Best Burger

Charm City Burgers

Cheeseburger Baby

Georgie's Alibi

Gilbert's 17th Street Grill


The Local - Judges' Choice Runner Up for Restaurant Best Burger

Tobacco Road


Sakaya Kitchen

Pincho Factory
La Camaronera's Lobster Burger was a waste of time and lobster.  It was a burger competition.
 Here are the food truck entries:

Bite Gastrotruck
Dim Ssam a Gogo

Jefe's Original - Runner Up for Judges' Choice Food Truck Best Burger

gastroPod - Judges' Choice for Food Truck Best Burger

Latin Burger was DQ'd for delivering their own burgers.  Don't worry, they didn't go to waste.  I hooked up some homeless folks on my ride home.

Miso Hungry

Latin House Grill

El Rincon del Coqui

Purple People Eatery

The Rolling Stove
My top burgers in the restaurant category went like this:

Burger & Beer Joint - burger patty seasoned beautifully.  Worthy bun.  Bacon, pickle, and just a touch of bbq enhance the flavor.  This is the one to beat.
The Local - tender patty cooked to a nice medium-rare with bacon flavor present.  Nice bun.  Went a little overboard with the mustard but not too bad.  Cheese and onion added nice flavor.  Side of crunchy fries flecked with salt were fantastic but did not factor into the scoring plus I only had two to save room.
Sakaya Kitchen - toppings rule this one with green onion, tots, cheese, and ssamjang (a thick, Korean spicy dressing) combining for an interesting flavor combo.  Just wish the patty wasn't lost in all of that.
Gilbert's 17th St Grill - this one was huge.  Patty had a great char on it but wasn't seasoned enough to survive without the nice slab of bacon on top.  English muffin was an interesting choice for a bun but worked for me.  Egg and cheese rounded out the flavors

My top burgers in the food truck category were:

gastroPod - perfect size, seasoned patty, perfect med-rare.  Runny egg, spicy mayo sauce, and thin sliced homemade pickles had this mouth party rockin'.  Potato bun held it all together.  Kickass burger.
Jefe's Original - All-American burger with decent patty flavor.  A replica In-N-Out burger with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and secret sauce.  Clean fresh flavors here.
The Rolling Stove - nice char makes the bun nice and crisp.  Equal char on the patty provided good flavor and seasoned well too.  Sauce a little strange, slightly sweet but not bad.  Onions were a little strong here but overall a standout burger.
Purple People Eatery - great med-rare temp on this one.  I disagreed with some judges who didn't like the blue cheese.  I liked it and on my burger it wasn't overdone but added nicely to the sprouts and tomato.  Seemed to have a sweetness there which after further inspection may have been onion jam but can't be sure.
Dim Ssam a Gogo - Kinda dumb to have this one again as it's the same as Sakaya Kitchen but regardless where they make the burger it's still a pretty good one.

I will admit it was rough getting bites from all of these burgers down the hatch and after the competition was over it was even harder to stand amongst the food court smelling nothing but burgers.  Luckily, a buddy had brought some Maker's Mark which aided the digestion process.  In the end, I was happy to have participated in my 3rd consecutive Burgie Awards ceremony (2nd straight live).  It was a great event and much congrats due to the Beast himself for putting it all together.  Another victory in his battle to raise more awareness to the American food that he loves best - the burger.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Return to NAOE

I had the pleasure of returning to NAOE last night, joined by the venerable Mr. Frodnesor and the always awesome "OMG" Jackie for another round of "Beer, Bento, Sake, Sushi" with Chef Kevin Cory and the most hospitable Wendy Maharlika.  It had been a short while since I'd dined at NAOE and I was eager to return.  It really is a great feeling - knowing that you're returning to a spot where you get a unique experience each and every time and that experience has you energized from the time you sit down to the time you stride through the exit door.

After a draft Sapporo and some chatter at the sushi bar, the bento box arrived before us and "Storytime with Chef Cory" began.  It went like this...
  • Quadrant 1
    • Steamed cobia, mountain yam, gingko biloba nuts and mitsuba
  • Quadrant 2 
    • Sake simmered cod milt with sansho pepper sauce
    • Marinated whelk
    • Chilled eggplant, lotus root and sweet potato on baby organic spinach
    • Salt broiled saury pike and mullet roe chestnuts
  • Quadrant 3 
    • Sardine rice with daikon pickled in koji
  • Quadrant 4
    • Cobia on shiso with fresh blanched wakame, kazunoko (herring roe), and fresh grated wasabi
  • Soup
    • Shiitake kumamoto oyster clear soup

I always find amusement in the way I systematically take down the bento box, quadrant by quadrant.  It's almost always the same routine where I begin with the "warm" (in this case the cobia) quadrant and move on to the one to it's right (which is usually tempura or something shellfish related and contains the most variety), taking bites of the rice quadrant dipped in shoyu every so often.  I finish the sashimi quadrant and then wash it all down with the soup.  That's a winning game plan right there.  When all was said and done, this was one of the best bento boxes I've had at NAOE.

Next up - Sushi Time!
  • Scottish salmon belly nigirizushi with fresh grated wasabi (Japan)
  • Poached Maine lobster (I passed on this round)
  • Golden ring octopus (Portugal)
  • Kumamoto oyster (Humbolt, CA)
  • Live scallop (Boston)
  • Live aoyagi
  • Cuttlefish
  • Aji (Japan) with fresh grated ginger
  • Iwashi topped with white seaweed
  • Uni (Hokkaido)
  • Unagi with sea salt
  • Shrimp omelet
  • Unagi kabayaki with narazuke (Japanese melon pickled in sake lees for 2 years)
This was some of the best octopus I've ever had (took pic after I dominated most of it)

Kumamoto oysters

Live scallop

Live aoyagi clam

Hokkaido sea urchin - shamelessly creamy, fantastic fresh flavor of the sea

Oh, and of course there's dessert too...
  • Watermellon, honeydew, longan, pluot, blueberry, blackberry, dragon fruit and persimmon
  • Organic honey sponge cake and NAOE ice cream
It's no wonder how NAOE has garnered quite the list of accolades.  They've earned every one of them.  Chef Cory is always trying to improve.  Timing was always his biggest adversary but since switching to 6:30pm and 9:30pm seatings it's gotten much better.  Two years ago, I related dining at NAOE as an experience rather than just dining at a restaurant.  I'm happy it's still the same.  And it gets better...  At the end of the year, NAOE will be moving from Sunny Isles down to Brickell Key.  That means instead of having to drive 30-45 minutes to get there, I'll now only have to go about ten minutes.  Dangerously close...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

2011 Woodford Reserve Master's Collection

Fall is a season where the temperatures drop a little bit, the air gets a little drier, days a little shorter, nights a little longer.  Up north, leaves begin to change color and by this time they have fallen to the ground.  For bourbon lovers, fall is a time for celebration.  Many, if not almost all, limited edition bourbons hit the market at this time.  First phase was the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Second phase was the much anticipated release of this year's Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.  Now comes the release of this year's Woodford Reserve Master's Collection, a limited edition of what I would call "calculated experimental" American whiskey.  Normally I'd be saying "bourbon" instead of "American whiskey" but this year Woodford Reserve Master Distiller, Chris Morris, decided to put out a pair of ryes for the 2011 Master Collection.

Woodford's two rye whiskeys utilize a 100% rye grain mash, something very rare in the industry that only a few craft distilleries are putting out.  Whistlepig Rye, engineered by former Maker's Mark Master Distiller, David Pickrell, is one example of a 100% rye whiskey.  Woodford is the first major distillery to use 100% rye grain in their mash.  This was then triple-distilled in Woodford Reserve's copper pot stills; the only difference being in maturation.  One is aged in a new, charred oak barrel which makes it Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey.  The other is aged in a once used (aka "aged") barrel used to make rye whiskey. 

Tasting notes on the New Cask Rye denote an aroma of cinnamon, mint, apple, vanilla, and caramel, a taste that balances between sweet and spice, and a smooth finish of fruit and spice.  The Aged Cask Rye tasting notes call out a more grain-forward flavor with a nose of grain, citrus, vanilla and spice, with a taste of rye and malt grain, oak, and vanilla that finishes with a fresh and clean rye grain along with a little candy apple.

The two 375ml bottles come packed together and offer the consumer the opportunity to do a side by side comparison.  Pretty cool if you ask me.  What will be more interesting to see is if Woodford moves forward and puts out rye whiskey on a consistent basis.  Research indicates this pair will set you back anywhere between $90-$100 which is on par with previous Master's Collection releases.  It's a little steep and hard to justify for two experimentals considering one may not be favorable with me.  On the other hand, I've found I've enjoyed three out of the five releases so far so maybe I'll give these a shot.  Recon of the Miami area shows that Total Wine is carrying the pair so once my self-imposed ban on going there is lifted, I may make the purchase.  If you happen to give this pair a try, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for reading and please remember to enjoy your spirits and drink responsibly.

Monday, November 14, 2011

APBB (All Points Bourbon Bulletin) - 2011 Pappy Van Winkle in Stores!

Yes, bourbon fans, it's true.  The 2011 batch of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon hit the shelves towards the latter half of last week and yours truly made sure to get some before it was gonzo.

Making my usual rounds last week for dinner, I noticed that the Van Winkle Rye had made its way to some bar shelves and wondered if the bourbon would be coming soon after.  Rumor had it that the release was to be later in the month.  I called Total Wine to see if they had their allocation in yet and a woman there informed me that they indeed did and that they were already sold out of the 20 year.  Time was of the essence - to the Bourbonmobile!

You see, each year there is a very limited amount of the Pappy Van Winkle brand released.  Why?  Because that's all there is!  Think about it - these bourbons have been aging in barrels for 12 to 23 years.  That means that the distillery has paid for the production and then has to wait 12 to 23 years before they can recoup their expenses and hopefully make a profit.  Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle would not compromise on his product.  His famous quote: "We make fine bourbon.  At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must.  But always fine bourbon."  That mantra has been carried out by the Van Winkle family, whose family involvement in the bourbon industry has now hit its fourth generation.

Pappy started as a salesman for spirits wholesaler W.L. Weller & Sons before eventually purchasing the business and then the A. Ph Stitzel distillery, combining the two to form Stitzel-Weller.  During Prohibition, Stitzel-Weller was licensed by the US Government to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes.  The distillery would survive Prohibition and thrive afterwards, culminating with shareholders forcing its sale and the sale of its brands, with the exception of the brand that carried the family name - Old Rip Van Winkle.  Pappy's son, Julian Jr, resurrected the Old Rip Brand before he passed away in 1981, handing the reigns over to his son, Julian Van Winkle III.  Julian III brought the Pappy Van Winkle brand to market in the mid-90's, creating a demand for aged bourbons using his family's wheated recipe, rather than the traditional and less costly rye, the wheat imparting a smoothness to the flavor while retaining the bourbon's character flavors.  It's history in a bottle and it's fantastic juice.  Today it's distilled, aged, and bottled by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, a place I visited a few years ago.

I picked up the 15 year old bourbon as that is my favorite for the money.  I actually like the 20 year the best but at $120 a bottle down here, it's $50 more than the 15 year.  Total Wine also was out of the 20 year after a woman came in and bought all 12 bottles (yeah, that's about $1500 after tax!) on the first day they got the shipment in.  The 23 year is going for $299 at Total Wine but that is out of my league given all the bourbon I could drink for $30 or less.  If I were to spend that much on PVW bourbon, I'd go for 4 of the 15 year ($70) or two of the 20 year for that price and wouldn't really miss out on too much.  The 12 year Van Winkle Special Reserve also sits on my bar and it's another good buy at $60 though if given the opportunity I'd spend the extra sawbuck for the 15 year every time.

As for the bourbon itself...  The alcohol is there but not strong on the nose, giving scents of leather, vanilla, and caramel, without being overly woody.  It's got an average viscosity that coats the tongue nicely before giving way to a nice sweetness with hints of vanilla, caramel, apple, milk chocolate and a hint of dried cherry.  The finish is smooth as ever with the vanilla flavor really holding throughout.  That is also the predominant scent that was left in the empty glass after I left out overnight.  A truly fantastic bourbon to sip neat.

If you are into bourbon and haven't tried a Pappy Van Winkle yet, there are many spots in Miami to give it try before you make the decision to buy.  Zuma, Bourbon Steak, Michael's Genuine, Sustain, Yardbird, and new spot The Dutch all have it on the shelves.  Total Wine is the only spot I know that's carrying it and their stock on the 15 year was extremely limited in the North Miami store.  Don't take too long to make your decision.  It'll be gone before you know it!