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:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sonora Grill

It's been a while since I've been to a restaurant that really knocked me out. Enter 112 Eatery's slinger of drinks, Ben Wright, who dragged me to Midtown Global Market for lunch last week for some South American fare that was truly above and beyond.

Sonora Grill is the brainchild of Alejandro Castillon who cut his teeth at the formidable Bar La Grassa. Now running the show at Sonora Grill, Castillon and crew serve up mouth-watering lunch fare at a modest price.

I had the turkey chorizo (!) bocadillo, a Latin-tinged barbecue style sandwich, piled high with smoky, tender meat and capped with sauteed onions. As a connoisseur of most things meat and sandwich related, the bocadillo is right in my wheelhouse.

I also picked up a couple carmelos which are small, cheap tacos that still pack a flavorful punch. At just 2.50, you can afford to supplement your lunchtime decadence with some skirt steak, pork guajillo or 12 hour roasted lengua (mmm, lengua) without breaking the bank.

All in all, I left Sonora Grill adequately stuffed for just about 10 bucks. Not bad for a weekday lunch.

One thing that I (amazingly) managed to resist, but for which I am bound to return, is their home made, bacon wrapped hot dog. How I was able to convince myself to save this experience for another day is a mystery for the ages. Rest assured, I will be back. Oh yes, I will be back.

Sonora Grill
Midtown Global Market
920 E. Lake