Friday, October 4, 2013

Highway 13 Revisited: Apple Season in the Apostle Islands

'Zat You?: A Portrait Amongst the Apples by Anna Morales

My restlessness often gets the best of me in the fall. The leaves are changing, the air’s getting colder, something on the wind is gently whispering, “Get the hell out of here or forever hold your peace (at least until six months from now when you finally thaw out of the ground again).”

So Anna and I took a few days off and headed up to the peak of the Wisconsin mitten. If you need a demonstration of said mitten, ask a Wisconsinite where they live, they will hold up their hand like a mitten. Green Bay is in the crook of the thumb and Minneapolis is just off the third knuckle of the pinkie. Up just past the ring finger are the Apostle Islands, a group of 22 picturesque islands, dotted with sea caves, jutting into the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior.

We took off after work on Friday, stopping at the Farm in Hayward (I’m an honorary ‘Sconnie since I married into about 40 acres just outside of the Muskie capital of Wisconsin and therefore, arguably, the world) to drop off our dog, Joon, with Anna’s parents. After a short trip up 63 and a quick jump on 2 we reached one of my favorite of Wisconsin’s scenic byways, beginning at Ashland’s Lakeshore Drive and becoming Highway 13.

Highway 13 runs up to Bayfield and around the tip of Superior’s south shore and is chock full of scenic overlooks, campsites, state parks and farms selling everything from homemade goat cheese to apple cider doughnuts. Here are a few of my favorite things (in no particular order) that we came across this time on our trip up Highway 13:
1. Bayfield Harbor – One of the most popular mooring points for boats on the South Shore, Bayfield harbor faces east toward Madeline Island and is a great place to hang out, catch some brilliant colors of the sunset and see some truly gorgeous, vintage sailboats.
2. Whitefish Livers and Brandy Old Fashioneds at Maggie’s – Whitefish livers, breaded and fried. Yeah I said it. They’re delicious. I also gained new appreciation for the timeless Wisconsin cocktail, the brandy Old Fashioned, sweet. A friend of mine commented that her mother once ordered a brandy Old Fashioned, sweet at a bar in Seattle and the waiter returned and asked her what part of Wisconsin she was from. Classic!
3. Meyers Beach and Sea Caves – This was a new one for us. We decided to head over to Meyers Beach, almost on the other side of the point of the mitten, near Cornucopia, Wisconsin. Anticipating a fairly short hike, Anna and I soon found ourselves on a moderately strenuous one that was quite worth the walk once we reached some of the most incredible sea caves we’d ever seen. A hidden gem, for sure.
4. Lunch on the Terrace of Blue Vista Farm – Blue Vista is known for their Wisconsin Heritage Site stone farmhouse that has been lovingly restored over the past few decades, their garden of plants that promote healthy apiculture and their delicious blueberries, raspberries, apples and other manner of incredible, homegrown organic fruits. We spent about an hour hanging out on the terrace outside of the farmhouse and having some incredible blueberry preserves and blueberry apple cider from their farm.
5. Raspberry Peach Pie from Egg Toss – Fruit pies are a big thing in our family. My wife is, in fact, in the process of making an apple pie as I write this. So when Anna waxes rhapsodic about the raspberry-peach pie from Egg Toss, you know it’s good.
6. Apple Picking and Apple Cider Doughnuts from Erickson Orchards – It’s apple season on the South Shore. Next week thousands of people will flock to Bayfield to pick apples, drink cider, eat pie and participate in all of the nonsense that happens when thousands of people descend on a town of 600 (getting drunk on Miller Lite, eating funnel cakes from food trucks, etc.) Anna and I beat the rush and hit up Erickson Orchards for a couple bags full of fresh-picked apples and some of their famous apple cider doughnuts. We decided to just buy one doughnut and ended up buying six. They are amazing.
7. The Madeline Island Ferry and Rock Hopping in Big Bay State Park – The last time we were up on the South Shore, Anna and I spent most of our time on Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands and the only one with paved roads. The Madeline Island Ferry Line (or MIFL if you want to go there, which I do) will take you, your car and apparently most other things across on a bumpy 20-minute ride across the bay to La Pointe, a town of a couple hundred permanent residents on Madeline Island. It’s a fun way to get out on the open water and also get yourself, your car and all of your camping gear over to Big Bay State Park. Once in Big Bay you can either go up the Point Trail which is on the windward side of the island and has some really incredible sea caves and promontories or take the Bay View trail down the leeward side of the island and come across some beautiful stone and sand beaches.
8. Chequamegon Books in Washburn – I’m a big fan of used bookstores. Myopic in Chicago, Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, the Red Wheelbarrow in Paris (RIP). So it was surprising to find such a great used bookstore in the small town of Washburn, Wisconsin. To me, a great used bookstore should be stacked high with all manner of hardcover and paperback that lets you get lost among the shelves. Situated in an old brownstone building on the main street of Washburn, Chequamegon Books has just the right feel of book-lined austerity, complete with two of those sliding ladders, and also of a place where used books are both bought and sold (we stopped at another bookstore in Bayfield where they were selling used paperbacks for $22, give me a break!). I always come out of Chequamegon Books with my arms full of books I never knew existed.
9. Houghton Falls – I’m reluctant to talk about Houghton Falls because I want to keep it for myself. It’s a little over a half mile toward the coast from Highway 13, but this little nature walk ends in one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s hard to explain, but if you go off the beaten path a little ways you will come across scenery that looks as though it is straight out of a fantasy novel.
10. Sandwiches at Coco – We always try to stop at Coco on our way back from the South Shore. They make great baked goods, brew great coffee and have a dedication to doing things the right way. We picked up some sandwiches on the way home and ate them at the campsite just north of Washburn. Anna got a trout reuben (yes, trout) and I got a smoked turkey and pickled apple sandwich. They were both incredible. Also, remember that guy who floated with his dog in Superior because the dog had arthritis? Well we saw that guy in Coco. Bonus.

*If you want to read more about the Brandy Old Fashioned, Jeffrey Morganthaler has a great article on the merits of the Wisconsin classic.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Roatan Retreat: Barefoot Cay

We had a rocky landing in Roatan. A cold front had come down from the States and whipped off the coast of Honduras, creating some rough turbulence for our little plane. For some reason, whenever I travel by plane these days I bring along some kind of media about aviation disasters. Last year, when we went to California, I was working on transcription for Sole Survivor. I was working on subtitles for Sole Survivor again when I flew to Chicago. This year I was reading a passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “Wind, Sand and Stars” about a pilot crashing his plane in the Andes. So far these stories of catastrophe in the air haven’t proven to echo into my life, thankfully. Makes me wonder about my subconscious, sometimes, though.

Our first stop was at Barefoot Cay, a resort on the landward side of the island near French Harbor. Due to a strange layover situation necessitating an overnight stay in Cleveland, Ohio, Anna and I had completely missed breakfast. By the time we reached Barefoot Cay we were famished. Luckily, the kitchen at BFC is open almost all day. But resort food? Yuck. It’s generally the most of tasteless, bland crap that they can get away with, seeing as how you’re already roped in to staying there.

Barefoot Cay, however, is different. They’re not particularly fancy or imaginative, but what they lack in creativity they more than make up for in technical skill. For instance, I had a chicken wrap for lunch. It was the best damn chicken wrap I have ever had in my life. The chicken itself was cooked to perfection, moist on the inside and lightly charred on the outside, the lettuce was fresh and crisp and there was just a hint of gorgonzola sauce drizzled throughout. For lack of trying, I never thought I would categorically announce the best chicken wrap of my life, yet here I am.

Simple, well-executed meals abound on their menu. This morning we had a ranchero breakfast. Succulent beef tenderloin, eggs cooked to perfection (I asked for over-medium, one of the most notoriously difficult egg temps to nail, their cook hit it right on the head) homemade tortillas and a savory ranchero sauce without too much heat on it.

I’ve overheard other travelers say that the food at Barefoot Cay is the best on Roatan. I’m inclined to believe them, but that’s not going to stop me from doing more research.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Loop, The Loop: Downtown Chicago

A few months ago I went on a business trip to Chicago to tighten up the subtitles on a film called Sole Survivor, whose immanent debut I am anxiously awaiting. While waiting at the gate at MSP International I mused in a notebook about the hustle and bustle of Chicago. It's always been one of my favorite cities in the world and is home to some of my favorite bars like Weeds, the Skylark and the Old Town Alehouse. Despite all the time I've spent haunting the dives of Chicago, the Loop has generally eluded me. Gastronomically it's a mix of high-concept restaurants whose chefs have put a lot of time into the philosophy of food and chop shop chicken shacks and burger joints. The former is generally too expensive for me, the latter has yet to show up on my radar although I have still yet to try Rick Bayless' downtown taqueria, Xoco, which remains near the top of my list.

While working at Foundation Content in downtown, however, I spotted a fairly interesting looking place called Sayat Nova, which promised Armenian cuisine. Before I could check it out, though, I was whisked away by Maison's resident mezcal maniac, Liz Pearce, who brought me to a bartending competition featuring free Casa Nobles tequila. Needless to say, all memory of Sayat Nova went out the window. 

Several days ago, Anna and I were in Chicago for a party celebrating the engagement of two of our very dear friends. Finding ourselves hungry and with a distinct lack of free tequila, we took a walk down Michigan avenue to Sayat Nova. 

We were looking for a nice, quiet spot for dinner on a monday night and in that respect Sayat Nova delivered. We got an intimate little booth (all of their booths are in little alcoves carved into the wall) and when we arrived we were almost the only customers save for a long table of positively demure professor-types. For those of you who read this regularly, it will come as no surprise that I had to order the Armenian Sazerac which is pretty true to the original, but the rinse replaces absinthe with an Armenian anisette called arak (why they didn't just call it the Sazarak, I'm not sure) which is lighter than absinthe and gave the sazerac a nice, mellow balance. 

The food was decent, although I was expecting a more middle-eastern tinge to the food. It was very similar to Turkish cuisine: kebabs, baba ghanouj, koefta and lots of lamb. Nothing really stuck out as over-the-top amazing, though, maybe with the exception of the chicken kebabs which were seasoned and grilled to perfection. 

All in all it was a pleasant if slightly underwhelming dining experience topped with a decent cocktail and a lovely walk back to the hotel. Consider my curiosity sated.

Sayat Nova
157 E. Ohio St
Chicago, IL

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Birthday and the Boar

Well, it's happened. Another year down the drain and nothing to show for it but a few fantastic meals, some good stories to tell around the campfire, a wedding and a couple more miles on the odometer. Not bad for a ne'er-do-well such as yours truly. So what should we do to celebrate such a momentous occasion as the anniversary of my glorious introduction to this earth? Some do it with cake, some with skydiving, me, I prefer to do it the old fashioned way, with whiskey and egregious amounts of meat.

Luckily for me, my better half knows when to indulge me. No I am not referring to spending a night home alone eating microwaved hotdogs and drinking Jameson out of the bottle, my lovely and talented wife managed to secure us a table for two at that garden of Earthly delights residing in an unassuming storefront on Hennepin avenue, the Butcher and the Boar.

One thing I look to when giving my own personal snap judgement of a restaurant is their bar. A bar can give you insight into everything from the philosophy of the restaurant to the type of experience you can expect to have. Butcher and the Boar's is certainly a statement. Two tenders behind a dark wooden bar packed top to bottom with rye and bourbon divided by a fairly impressive local, craft tap line. To me this says two things. The breadth of whiskey represented evinces a desire to discover and deliver the best of this specific niche, the locally sourced brews show care for the source, the origins of what they serve. So far, color me impressed.

Then we see the menus. There are almost too many menus at Butcher and the Boar. One for the whiskey, one for the wine, one for the entrees and one for the...well, you know how it goes. It was almost difficult to manage so many menus at once, but Anna and I managed to wrangle them to the point where we were able to order a couple drinks. She ordered a sazerac and I ordered a Basil* Hayden's neat. I was nonplussed by the sazerac which seemed like lazy lip-service to a classic cocktail, however it's pretty hard to screw up high-rye bourbon in a glass which I enjoyed immensely. 

We ordered grilled oysters which were immaculately prepared, followed by fried green tomatoes and smoked olives (which included pickled caper berries and garlic) nice, delicate, smoky with a nice vinegar bite. 

The trouble with a la carte menus is that I could order sides all night long, fortunately our server prompted me to order an entree. I opted for the pork chop which I found out was actually the size of a small child. Immaculately cooked with sour cherries and pecan relish, this double-cut chop could feed an entire village of petits gourmands for several days and, indeed, lasted at our household longer than most delicious cuts of meat make it despite the best efforts of my midnight snacks and lunchtime refrigerator sorties. 

So is Butcher and the Boar worth the hype? They clearly think deeply about what they are serving and why. If they continue on this path, you can expect more great things from this shop, there are a few edges that need polishing but by-and-large the Butcher and the Boar gets my wholehearted seal of approval, not simply for catering to my specific love for earthy brown liquor and cooked meats, but for their philosophical interaction with the food and drink that they serve. Cogito ergo eo e bibo.

This picture does not do justice to how enormous that pork chop was. If I would have fought this pork chop it would have won...

*Pronounced "baw-sil" not "bay-sil" Hayden, for all of you out there in TV-Land who are keeping score, thanks to the effluvious Matt Smith for the professorial pronunciation participation.

Butcher and the Boar
1121 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pastie Pastorale - Randall Bakery - Wakefield, MI

Autumn is one of my favorite seasons. The leaves turn and fall to the ground, scarves and jackets come out, Nick Drake and Tom Waits are almost always appropriate for road trips and hearty food abounds to ward off the chill in the air. Recently, Anna and I were driving through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (whose denizens, the Yoopers, have given it the somewhat unfortunate portmanteau of "The Yoo-Pee") where we stopped in the small town of Wakefield where, at her insistence, we went to the Randall Bakery for pasties.

Yep. Pasties. Pronounced "paw-steez" not "pay-steez" the latter being what strippers use to cover their unmentionables in more prudish establishments, the former being a delicious type of meat pie perfect for a chilly October day.

A pastie is a Cornish pastry dish filled with  diced beef, onions, potatoes and rutabaga in a pastry shell that should be, "hearty enough to survive a drop down a mineshaft." In other words, ideal fortification for outdoor activity in a convenient, handheld package.

I've had pasties once or twice before. There's a food truck in Minneapolis called Potter's Pasties that does an updated version of the pastie with all kinds of different meat replacing the traditional beef (Jamaican jerk chicken, mmm) and The Anchor which is one of my favorite restaurants in Northeast Minneapolis does a pastie with pork and curry that, while good, in no way approaches their perfect fish and chips. This pastie, however, was different.

While the other pasties I've had concentrated on building a better mousetrap, Randall Bakery has been making pasties the same way for well over half a century. It's not light or flaky, it's real, hard working food. It weighs as much as a brick and sticks to your ribs, fuel to keep the fires lit. In other words, it's delicious.

If you're ever on your way east through the Upper Peninsula to spend a few days in the Porcupine mountains (and might I recommend the Escarpment trail if you do) Randall Bakery in Wakefield will have a nice, hot pastie waiting for you.

Randall Bakery
505 Sunday Lake Street

Wakefield, MI

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sazerac Solitaire: Eat Street Social

So in my previous post I got too sidetracked by the origins of the Sazerac to describe my Sazerac experience at Eat Street Social. Since we here at Vagabond Appetite are nothing if not desirous of an experiential analysis of a culinary or mixological (just made that one up) affair, I am going to devote this whole post to Eat Street Social and their delicious take on the Sazerac.

As I had previously mentioned in my previous post, I visited Eat Street Social after a long day of Art-A-Whirling last week and it was devilishly muggy outside. Let me mention first that this was my third attempt at going to ESS, the first two having been foiled by their complete lack of signage which I totally appreciate, but made it especially difficult to locate from the street. Despite this fact, they were packed, clearly others were much more astute than I.

One thing I like to see when I walk in the door of a new restaurant is a staff that is methodically hauling ass. Especially behind the bar, and ESS features a pretty incredible bar, the bartenders were obviously old hands at efficiently moving at top speed. To me this implies a healthy respect for the craft of bartending itself which is not only mixology, but also customer service, both from the tender's perspective and keeping the server well up to date.

The bar itself is enormous, taking up a good third of the front room, it dominates the initial view of the restaurant which must be on purpose. It's got about 25, 30 seats and at least 3 bartenders behind it, one of whom, from what I saw, only worked the craft well, which is pretty amazing.

As there were five of us, we snagged a booth on the north side of the barroom where we could see most of the action, but also had enough privacy from the high-backed booths that we didn't feel as though we were completely out in the open. The vibe was a wide-open take on Speakeasy Nouveau. Intimate but busy. Where nobody knows your name unless you want them to.

And the Sazerac. It diverges just barely from the classic recipe, replacing the sugar cube with fennel pollen syrup. I tend to shy away from using simple syrups in drinks that are not served on the rocks, it can thicken the drink to a point where it resembles, well, syrup. That combined with absinthe can give a Sazerac an almost Robitussin-y feel. I hope I don't need to explain to you that Robitussin-y should be avoided at all costs. However, as I had mentioned before, the guys at ESS are pros and they did not disappoint here. The drink was very well balanced, just a hint of anise, Bulleitt Rye, served extra cold.

They even went so far as to deliver half of the drink in a separate vessel so that it would remain cold while I drank the first half. Now that's thinking. My only gripe with the Fennel Pollen Sazerac lies in the name. If fennel pollen is going to be your opening drink descriptor, you'd imagine that there would be some kind of fennel flavor to the drink, or perhaps I don't know what fennel pollen tastes like. Unless it tastes like the other ingredients in a Sazerac, however, it wasn't able to make its presence known in my drink. What I had at Eat Street Social was a well made Sazerac without any bells and whistles, which suits me just fine.

Eat Street Social
18 W. 26th Street

Sazerac Solitaire

Friday night I finally made my way to Eat Street Social after a long day of Art-A-Whirl-ing in the muggy 90 degree heat of Northeast. I arrived, as is my wont, thirsty. After hearing from many sources that ESS' craft cocktail menu was a force to be reckoned with, I was not disappointed with my options.

While I am not opposed to any particular kinds of alcohol I definitely tend to immediately go for the whiskey cocktails. ESS' menu shares my proclivities and has four or five whiskey cocktails to choose from. My problem, then, was finding a whiskey cocktail that would at once be savory while still refreshing in the swampy 9 o'clock heat. What better, then, to fight off the sweaty bayou blues than the official cocktail of New Orleans?

The Sazerac, one of the oldest known cocktails, gets its name from the original type of brandy which was used in the cocktail, Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils. In 1838, a creole apothecary named Antoine Amedie Peychaud created a specific brand of toddy using Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy and his family's own special bitters recipe. Fifty years later, the Sazerac was immensely popular in Louisiana and throughout the south, two notable changes happened to the official recipe, transforming it into the cocktail we drink today. First the base liquor was changed from brandy to Kentucky rye bourbon, giving the cocktail a slightly more aggressive and alcoholic flavor. Second, an absinthe (or similar anisette flavored liqueur, such as the New Orleans based Herbesainte) rinse of the glass gave the cocktail a slight licorice nose which, in my opinion, is what makes this drink so refreshing.

So what's the main idea behind a Sazerac, you may ask? There are several components to the drink, all of which are essential. The drink requires two glasses, one empty and one filled to the brim with ice. Set the glass of ice aside, I will even put the glass of ice in the freezer to get it nice and cold. Next, take a sugar cube (white sugar is just fine) and add several dashes of Peychaud's Bitters to the cube. Bitters bottles are usually outfitted with an inset pour regulator so just give it a good two or three shakes. Then crush the bitters soaked sugarcube, I usually use my muddler, but you should be able to use the back of a spoon to similar effect. Add 1 1/2 oz of rye whiskey on top of the bitters and crushed sugar, stir. Here's where it gets kind of tricky. If you've been keeping your other glass in the freezer, transfer the ice into the glass with the bourbon and bitters mixture and quickly coat the inside of the freezer glass with absinthe. The idea here is to make the cocktail cold without letting any of the ice actually melt into the drink, diluting the cocktail. I find that doing a quick swirl around the inside of the glass and pouring out the remaining absinthe (I like to save mine in a separate glass for later, but the point is you should only have a light coating of absinthe on the inside of your chilled glass) gives me enough time to give the cocktail a quick stir with a bar spoon, just one or two will suffice. Strain your mixture into the chilled, absinthe rinsed glass et voila! Sazerac time!

And here's the proportions:
1 1/2 oz rye bourbon
3 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
one sugar cube
1/2 oz absinthe

Just to get you in the mood for Sazeracs, some turn of the century Bechet: