Cocktail of the Day: The Robert (Bobby) Burns

Happy Rabbie Burns Day!

Or specifically, “Burns Nicht” if you’re going to be holding the traditional celebration for the Bard of Scotland tonight, in honor of his 214th birthday.

Robert Burns

(Quite a handsome bloke, wasn’t he?)

If you were hoping for that most traditional of Scottish dishes, always served on Burns Night by those celebrating the poet’s life, prepare to unleash a joyous shout of “Gie her a Haggis!” The USDA is going to relax its ban on the importation of the real MacCoy, made of the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, mixed with beef suet, onions, oats, black pepper and stuffed into the stomach of the animal. (Mmm.)

Gie her a Haggis!

This is great news! See, thing is, though … haggis is good. I’ve had it, in Edinburgh, Scotland, no less. If you’re a Louisianian or a lover of Louisiana food who’s eaten and enjoyed boudin, then you’re pretty much there — it’s a very small leap from boudin to haggis. Think sheep instead of pork, oats instead of rice, stomach instead of intestinal casing (and the stomach is just that, a casing — you don’t eat that bit). It’s a big fat sausage, basically, no big deal, and as a waiter in a Scottish restaurant in New York said, “If you can eat a New York hot dog and not ask what’s in it, you can eat haggis.” It’s particularly good when served with the traditional accompaniments of “neeps and tatties” (mashed turnips and potatoes), some strong Scots ale, a wee dram (or four) of whisky … and, um, in my case in Scotland, a few dashes of Tabasco that I snuck out of my bag and applied when no one was looking. Untraditional but yummy nonetheless.

Of course, you’ll be needing plenty of guid Scots whisky tonight, whether you’re having haggis or not. There’s a huge world of it that I’m still only just beginning to explore, but these days I’m enjoying the maritime flavors of Islay whiskys — the wonderfully smoky Laphroaig 10-year (“like drinking bacon”), the intense “Band-Aids, sweat, leather and iodine bouquet” of Lagavulin 16-year (seen below) or the delightfully earthy, smoky, spicy, almost chocolatey Ardbeg Supernova, if you can still find it. Find a good blend too — don’t discount blended whisky, as there are many superb blends. Compass Box Asyla is a favorite, Famous Grouse is our regular mixing Scotch, and I loved the complex, nutty, spicy, fruit-and-toffee flavors of the Chivas Regal 18-year I tried recently.


If you’re a cocktailian, though, how about something (presumably) named after the Bard himself?

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Eating in Shropshire

There’s a persistent myth that the food in England is bad.

Well … years ago, such assertions might have had a basis in truth, such as the joke my friend Peter told me upon returning from having spent his junior year of college in London: “How does every English recipe begin? ‘First you bring the water to a rolling boil …’” Boiled meats, yeah, not so much.

A lot has changed since then. Over the past few decades many British cooks and chefs have been training in Europe and learning how to better use the wealth of wonderful ingredients that they’ve always had — beef, lamb, cheese and more. Sure, it’s possible to get bad food in England, but it’s possible to get bad food in Paris (and New Orleans, for that matter).

The myth reared its head quite frequently upon our return from Europe last month when I told friends how wonderful all the food was, not only in Paris and Barcelona but in England as well. I’m happy to continue to dispel that myth today.

A while back we went over the fab food we had in London, and it only got better when we left after a day and a half in London to drive out to the rural west with John and Fiona to their home in Shropshire near the Welsh border.

Shropshire arrival

At breakfast time Fiona didn’t mess around. She knew who she had in their house.

Three kinds of Welsh bacon!

Not one, not two but THREE kinds of Welsh bacon! Dry cured back bacon and streaky bacon from Llandinham, and smoked streaky bacon from Neuadd Fach Baconry in Hyssington, about 20 minutes up the road into Wales. (I just want to keep saying the word “baconry.” In fact, I want a baconry for my birthday.) The back bacon was some of the best I’d ever had, meaty and tender, and the streaky was very much like some of the artisanal bacons we get over here. Wonderful stuff.

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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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