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Merry Christmas, y’all

Peace, y'all

We’re gonna take a li’l Christmas break for a coupla days, and I hope you do too. Well, of course, after you look at the gifts we’ve got for y’all in this post!

For me, it wouldn’t be the holidays without Benny Grunch and the Bunch doing “The 12 Yats of Christmas” …

And while this is still a New Orleans Christmas classic, the sad truth is that you have to be of a certain age to get most of those references now, in post-Federal Flood days … ’cause most o’ dem places ain’t dere no more …

And, of course, the greatest Christmas song ever.

If you love this song as much as I do, you might want to watch an excellent one-hour documentary on its making, in six parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

So Happy Christmas, I love ya baby, I can see a better time when all our dreams come true …


My Dinner with Ludo

So, a little while back my new friend Noelle said some of my favorite words:  “Hey, I’m going to a fabulous dinner in a couple of weeks!  You must come with me!”  The tragedy was that Chuck would be out of town at the time, and would have to miss out.  I decided to man up and have a good time anyway.  As it happens, he ended up drinking all that same evening at Anvil in Houston, under the most excellent attentions of barmaster Bobby Heugel.  I’m sure Chuck will be writing about this in short order, so we’ll all be able to see just how much he was not, in fact, suffering.

What Noelle had in mind was a Ludo Bites dinner, a kind of guerrilla-style dining experience orchestrated by Chef Ludo Lefebvre.  The December incarnations of Ludo Bites are taking place at the Royal/T Café in Culver City, which bills itself as “LA’s first Japanese style cosplay café.”  What this means for civilians is a fascinating fusion of café, shopping and art space in an open, relaxing environment.  Which, I might add, happened to be whimsically decorated for Christmas.

Noelle arrived first, saw me drive by, called my mobile and said, “Park anywhere, it’s Sunday, the meters don’t matter!”  Yay for Sunday!  We were joined in short order by Noelle’s friends Kara and Mei-Lan, which made our party three girls to one boy, which made me the evening’s official Chick Magnet.  I’m just sayin’.

We perused the evening’s menu with high anticipation and growing fascination.  It’s a menu of small plates, larger than tapas but still ideal for sharing, which after all is the whole point, isn’t it?  (I told the story of a good friend who for a metaphorical few minutes dated a girl we ultimately never met, because at a dinner out one evening it was discovered that She Did Not Share Her Food.  It sounds like a sad story, but the ending is the best kind of happy, believe me.)  Within moments, I heard more of my favorite words, again I believe from Noelle:  “Let’s just order the whole menu, share everything and then see how we feel.  ‘Kay?”  It was perfectly ‘Kay by me–after all, it was only ten small plates plus dessert–and Kara and Mei-Lan raised no objections.  Let the games begin!

I’ll apologize right up front for my food photography, which is nowhere near Chuck’s in quality.  The lighting out our table was very dim and very warm, although we did have the benefit of the glow from more than one Christmas tree, and as you shall see there were mishaps along the way.  And I was too lazy to get up from the table to use the thoughtfully provided lightbox.

The first plate was described as “Tuna Sashimi, Sushi Rice Ice Cream, Yuzu Soy Sauce Gelée, Smoked Ginger Oil.”  (The word “Yuzu” had been scratched out and replaced with “Soy Sauce” written by hand.)  I’m not sure how different the yuzu gelée would have been, but I love me some sashimi, tuna in particular, and this dish was remarkable.  The tuna was a nice little slab, enough for four good bites (and a good thing, too).  The ginger oil and soy gelée made interesting flavor counterpoints to the rich, velvety tuna, and that alone would have been wonderful, but for me the sushi rice ice cream was what put it over the top.  It was heavy, but in a good rather than a bad way, like the luxurious weight of a goose-down duvet on a chilly Saturday morning, when you don’t have to get up, not just yet.  It was just sweet enough, with only enough sugar to register and not enough to overwhelm the subtle flavor of rice.  I think I said something like, “I’ll be needing several pints of that, to take home.”

The second plate to arrive:  Egg “Meurette”, with Red Cabbage and Lardo Toast.  That’s right, lardo toast.  Sauce meurette always fascinates me because the dark flavors of its constituent red wine and stock seem like they would be well paired with meat, but traditionally it accompanies eggs or fish.  Here the egg was perfectly, perfectly soft-poached.  The slivered red cabbage added some crunch for good textural contrast, although without adding much actual flavor to the concentrated essences of the sauce.  The lardo toasts — oh, the toasts!  More great crunch against the softness of the egg, and spread with pork fat … what’s not to love?  I would gladly have stolen this whole plate for myself, but I couldn’t come up with a good enough distraction on such short order.

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Una Noche de Ponche (A Night of Punch)

The “Twas the Punch Before Christmas” punch competition at Malo on Thursday was a blast. If you didn’t make it, you missed a great night.

My biggest (well, maybe second-biggest) and best surprise of the evening was seeing someone in a 50s-style tiki panel shirt and thinking, “Wow, that guy looks like Blair from behind.” The guy turned around … and it was Blair! Yay, Trader Tiki himself! There was much rejoicing. He was kinda-sorta in the neighborhood, having done BarSmarts in Las Vegas (a mere 200 miles away), entered a punch that was accepted as a finalist (I had no idea) and made the hop to L.A. All this punch plus a nice visit too — good way to start!

It was a formidable group of competitors. Besides Blair the others were Chris Bostick from The Varnish, a good friend and monstrously talented bartender (who had Forrest Cokely as his proxy mixer-server, as he had to work that night); Zach Patterson from STK, also superb behind the stick; and someone I’d heard of but never met before, Jason Schiffer from a restaurant and bar in Seal Beach called 320 Main, and thanks to them you can get excellent Manhattans and Old Fashioneds in Orange County.

It was a lot of fun, and good experience. I’d wanted to enter a cocktail competition for a long time now, but they were either at bad times and/or filled with so many great bartenders that I would have had my ass handed to me in two seconds (which would be great experience, really), or else other competitions I thought about entering that I ended up getting asked to judge instead. That was very flattering, of course, and quite an honor, but I began to wonder how long it’d be before I could get myself into a competition which would actually accept my entry and in which I might have had a ghost of a chance. Local cocktail competitions tend to be made up of bartenders with exponentially greater skills than mine. I was over the moon to be a part of this one … although it was technically not a cocktail competition, actually, as the Bowl of Punch predated the cocktail by a couple of centuries.

There were originally six finalists but unfortunately one couldn’t make it, so the five of us presented our punches to a paying and thirsty crowd of about 100 people at Malo. Here was mine:

Ponche Relajante (my station)

Ponche Relajante

(“Relaxing Punch”)

32 ounces Gran Centenario Rosangel tequila.
8 ounces Del Maguey Minero Mezcal.
8 ounces fino sherry.
1 cup Demerara sugar.
2 lemons and 4 limes (or enough for 1/2 cup juice from each)
6 ounces Guaycura Liqueur de Damiana
2 ounces Licor 43 (Cuarenta y Tres)
48 ounces (3 pints) Té de 7 Azahares (Mexican “7 Blossoms” herbal tea)
16 ounces water
35 dashes (about 1/2 oz) Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
35 dashes (about 1/2 oz) Fee’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged bitters
Lemon, lime and orange slices
Pomegranate seeds

Peel the lemons with a sharp vegetable peeler (zest only, no pith). Juice the fruit, strain the juice and measure until you have 1/2 cup each of lemon and lime juices for a total of 1 cup of citrus. Add the sugar to a punch bowl and muddle the lemon peels in the sugar until you’ve extracted the oils, and the sugar gets a bit wet and clumpy with lemon oil. Let that sit for a while if you have the time.

Add the tea and citrus, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove the peels with a slotted spoon. Add the spirits, sherry, liqueurs and bitters. Chill. Add a large block of ice (freezing a stainless steel bowl full of water works well). Garnish the punch and ice block with slices of lemon, lime and orange, and scattered pomegranate seeds.

Serve about a 4-ounce serving in a punch cup. Garnish each serving with a lime wheel and a spoonful of pomegranate seeds.

YIELD: 34 four-ounce servings.

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Drinking in London

Given that London is one of the world capitals for cocktail culture, as well as the capital of a country that makes some of the best beer in the world, one can drink very well in London indeed.

Having only one day in which to do it is beyond frustrating.

All in all, though, we did a fairly good job imbibing on our whopping one whirlwind day in London, culminating in some truly fabulous cocktails. Before all the tippling began, we started our day with a non-alcoholic beverage which was memorable enough not to get lost amidst all the ciders, beers, bitters, ales, porters, stouts and cocktails.

Copella Apple & Elderflower Juice

Fiona made us breakfast both mornings at Hampton Court (and for the next three days in Shropshire too!), and her breakfasts featured a wonderful product called Copella Apple & Elderflower Juice from Boxford Farm in Suffolk. Holy bejeebies, that stuff’s good — fresh-pressed and filtered apple juice, not from concentrate, and very gently infused with elderflowers. It makes me want to get out the Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy and St. Germain and start making cocktails. I now want this for breakfast every day, but it seems that I’ll have to move to the U.K. to do it. Sigh. (You lot across the pond are lucky to have this!)

While we were omnomnomnomming on our bacon and sausage baps, pork belly butties, bits of black pudding and tastes of curries at Borough Market, we sampled another of the great British institutions — cider. Specifically, New Forest Cider from Hampshire, who had a lovely little shop in the market. Hard ciders these were, of course, in varying strengths and varieties, including the wonderful pear cider that’s called “perry.” As it was a bit nippy that day we had a hot mulled cider with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice (oh boy), plus I sampled the perry as well. Wonderful stuff that, fairly hefty at 7% ABV, which can sneak up on you. Just a bit of a fizz, light and peary (perry!) and very refreshing.

We couldn’t be in London without going to a pub, of course, and although I could spend days doing nothing but pubbing we kinda had to pick just one. John’s first choice had closed for the afternoon, and then we found a fairly traditional place called The Mudlark, near London Bridge. Not the world’s best but perfectly nice, a small inside with a much larger heated outdoor seating area, what looked to be quite good pub food (bangers and mash with a variety of local sausages available) and some truly excellent beers. The ones we had were all from Timothy Taylor, a Yorkshire brewery. John and Fiona had their Landlord Bitter, a strong pale ale. Wesly got an Autumn Brew by a brewery which escapes me (care to fill that in, Wes?), and I had another Taylor’s brew, the Golden Best, an amber-coloured brew classified as a “mild.” A bit lower in alcohol that what the others were drinking, nice citrusy notes and hoppy bitterness … yum.

Sadly, I didn’t get pictures of any of the beer. Ah well. I guess I was too busy drinking it!

Whirlwinding around London the rest of the afternoon finally took us to the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. One of London’s nicest hotels, they’ve revamped their bars a few years back and are now one of the city’s top cocktail destinations. Our gracious guide for the evening was our friend Jay Hepburn (cocktailian extraordinaire and author of the superb weblog Oh Gosh!). Of the hotel’s two bars he suggested we meet at The Connaught Bar, and we did, only a few minutes late — highly uncharacteristic of us! Well, when cocktails are concerned, we can surely walk a little faster.

It’s a beautiful space — a wonderful Art Deco look, gorgeous sparkly-silvery walls, mirrors all around, etched glass panels, a beautiful bar, very comfortable leather furniture in the booths and around the tables, and a pretty stunning cocktail menu. The main sections of the menu are “Revisited,” featuring classic cocktails, often done with the Connaught’s own twist; “Seasonal,” featuring the best of what’s in the markets now, and “Fusion,” which is kind of anything-goes, old-meets-new, and the like.

Typically difficult choice when looking at a menu like this, but after some hemming and hawing I decided on my first drink, from the Seasonal section:

The NJ Sour


1 fresh fig
35ml applejack brandy (I’d recommend Laird’s bonded)
10ml orange curaçao
10ml Averna amaro
20ml fresh lemon juice
15ml homemade pomegranate grenadine

Muddle the fruit and shake all the ingredients with ice. Double strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a dry lemon wheel.

Oh man … absolutely delicious! I’m kicking myself that I didn’t do more with our wonderful Black Mission figs from our backyard (other than eat them) and that I didn’t learn this drink while the tree was about to fall over with the weight of all our figs, because I would have made this a few times a week. Beautiful sweet fresh fig flavor, nice touch of bitter from the amaro, just enough balance in the sweet and sour, and very refreshing.

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Remembering John Lennon

October 8, 1940 – December 8, 1980.

John Lennon

War is over (if you want it).

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