Restaurants: Blackbird, Chicago

Aged meat and dishes merging surf and turf are two of the most challenging concepts for a kitchen to pull off without a hitch. Something almost always seems to go off the deep end for both.

That precious half year aged chateaubriand might taste more of provocative black garlic than sensuous, relentless meat. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a lobster and filet mignon dish where the filet is grilled as long as the lobster is steamed, and you end up wishing you just ordered twice as much lobster? Or that pork belly and scallop concoction where the poor subtle scallop is dominated by overwhelming smoky bacon notes because that’s what pork belly does to everything?

IMG_1958For those who are weary about aged meat, surf and turf, and the state of 21st century fine dining in general, now is an ideal time to head over to Chicago’s red hot West Loop neighborhood for a visit with what must be considered one of the definitive restaurants of this generation, Blackbird.

Did I mention that Blackbird opened in December of 1997 and is just as engaging now as it was on that (probably very cold being Chicago) night back in the Clinton years. Back when Michael Jordan was in the midst of his final Bulls championship season and back when the Cubs had recently won a World Series. O.k., that last remark obviously isn’t so true, but come on, you can’t write a Chicago article without mentioning the Billy Goat curse. Hey, Sammy Sosa’s record home run year with Mark McGwire still hadn’t happened yet.

There is no Billy Goat or usual restaurant curse for Blackbird, extraordinarily defying the odds for restaurants to survive beyond a decade without becoming stale and irrelevant. Nor is there any goat on the menu currently at Blackbird, like at a certain nearby, just as popular, but much younger neighbor on West Randolph.

However, there is aged duck breast currently being served. It is majestic. There is also a handsome dry-aged striploin with the common pairing of chanterelle mushrooms, and the not- so common, seaweed pesto.Continue reading “Restaurants: Blackbird, Chicago”

Tasting Notes from Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego

Having visited Stone Brewing’s out of the way location at an industrial park north of San Diego in Escondido, Green Flash and nearby Alesmith’s obscure industrial park locations in Mira Mesa, well south of Escondido and just north of the Miramar Naval Air Station, it was only fitting to visit the other major nationally known heavyweight of San Diego County’s 50 plus craft breweries: Ballast Point Brewing Co.

And where might you find the brewery and tap room for Ballast Point? No, not on the coast at some scenic spot with a lighthouse called Ballast Point. The brewery can be found of course in yet a different industrial park near Scripps Ranch, just east of the 15 Freeway. Apparently, the FAA has a major operation nearby.

Ballast Point Brewing Co.
Ballast Point Brewing Co.

It seems these days that the best cocktails to be found are at dimly lit, sign-less, below ground speakeasies. For terrific craft beers, at least in San Diego’s case, it’s all about the non- descript industrial parks. Pete Coors would always claim that it’s the pure Rocky Mountain streams that make Colorado beers so special. For San Diego, perhaps it’s the purity of the industrial parks.

Like with its fellow neighbors and rivals around San Diego, Ballast Point is best known for its IPA. There are some exceptional other traditional varietals and some eye-opening experimental brews to be found for the better, and for the habañero driven fiery worse.

Cutting to the chase, did the Sculpin IPA, Ballast Point’s regal flagship, live up to its exalted reputation on draught at the brewery’s tap room as one of the country’s premier beers period according to numerous beer sources? This is the beer after all that won the World Beer Cup’s gold medal for IPAs just three years ago.Continue reading “Tasting Notes from Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego”

Cocktail of the Week: The “Saladito,” The Varnish, Los Angeles

The Varnish doesn’t have a signature cocktail.

You don’t need to when you’re arguably the most important cocktail bar of the decade or so old speakeasy- craft cocktail movement. It seems as if this hidden, but very well known Downtown Los Angeles and its chief mixologist Eric Alperin are to cocktail “best of” lists and awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars: they are always nominated and almost always win.

Things are no different again this year. The Varnish is one of four finalists for this week’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards in New Orleans (nobody ever drinks in that city…), in many ways the Oscars or James Beard Awards for the cocktail world. While the entire bar is up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar, Alperin is also one of four finalists for the premier American bartender.

"Saladito" on the right
“Saladito” on the right

With these expectations, wouldn’t you expect nothing short of drinking magnificence when you’re standing at The Varnish’s sparkling glass bottle backed bar or sitting snugly in one of the wood paneled vintage booths in the dark as night speakeasy room? You won’t be disappointed. The hype is fulfilled. At the same time, if you’re looking for the “wow factor” so in vogue these days (think The Bazaar, The Aviary, Booker & Dax…), this isn’t your place. Sip your high quality beverage and don’t be too loud. There aren’t any sideshow frills coming your way. Only the perfect Gin & Tonic, maybe with a slight evolution.

The background history and the quirks of The Varnish are very well documented. There might even be a Hollywood screenplay in the works about the rise of cocktails in America and the rise of Skid Row’s Sixth Street because of The Varnish (I’m only guessing about this).

Continue reading “Cocktail of the Week: The “Saladito,” The Varnish, Los Angeles”

Wine of the Week: 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Vogelzang Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, CA

The Santa Barbara area is known best for its pinot noir (thanks “Sideways”) and Dragonette Cellars is no exception. The formerly Lompoc based winery with one of the more handsome Los Olivos tasting rooms you’ll find frequently hits the headlines for its pinot noir.

Dragonette’s 2011 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir was indeed a stellar representation of the differences between Central Coast pinot noir compared to Oregon and the Sonoma Coast. Down south, you’ll find much more in the way of dramatic and sharp tannins, stone fruits, spice, and dried herbs, compared to the plush structure and berry mixed with earth palate elements of the Pacific Northwest.


Even better is the unique 2011 “Black Label” Pinot Noir from a quartet of Santa Rita Hills vineyards. The very cool growing season for this vintage yielded a much lighter, almost blush colored wine that not surprisingly had many more of the berry notes and tenderness of an Oregon version.

Except driving through the rolling golden hills of California, you know you’re not in the Willamette Valley.Continue reading “Wine of the Week: 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Vogelzang Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, CA”

Tuesday’s Project: Beef Brisket? Which Way?

About a year ago I made the pilgrimage to Lockhart, Texas for some barbeque grazing in the heart of the brisket belt. The trip really was themed around baseball in Dallas and Houston, with sightseeing and dining in Austin and San Antonio to break up the sausages and beer at ballparks (well, so I ate at Fearing’s, Feast, RDG…not exactly ballpark fare). With a drive scheduled from Austin to San Antonio around lunchtime, it was a natural to visit the “capital” of Texas barbeque, Lockhart. Even though I visited Austin, I passed on the opportunity to wait three hours in the Texas summer sun for barbeque at Franklin’s, even though the Texas Monthly named it the state’s premier barbeque spot a few months later. In Lockhart, you can visit multiple spots…without the wait. And, there’s a cool “Back to the Future”- like courthouse on the town square.IMG_6794

Now I’m not here to tackle the debate of who makes the best barbeque in the Lone Star State, nor am I any sort of expert on the best spices for a brisket spice rub or the best wood chips to use when slow grilling the meat. That’s literally what the Texas Monthly hired Daniel Vaughn to do earlier this year as their barbeque editor. Yes, a barbeque editor. I don’t know if I’d even want that post. Every article probably incites more debate than New York Yankees managerial decisions. Continue reading “Tuesday’s Project: Beef Brisket? Which Way?”

Cocktail of the Week: Tequila Punch, Novela, San Francisco

Forget about the old cliché that always tied together coffeehouses with the intellectual nature of literature. It used to be that at the coffeehouse, you would either write the next great novel or be reading one, not hacking away on the next great software program over your third espresso.

The romantic rapport of coffeehouses and literature is close to extinct, if not already. Just walk into Four Barrel or any Starbucks. Besides, did Hemingway ever write his important works over a café au lait or a bottle of Vin de Pays? Even Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure bolstered by pints of mead, not pints of lattés.

L to R: Rum Punch, Tequila Punch, Hemingway Punch, at Novela, San Francisco
L to R: Rum Punch, Tequila Punch, Hemingway Punch, at Novela, San Francisco

The real relationship between writers and the dining/drinking world is of course that most inspirational ingredient of all: alcohol. How many times, fellow writers, have you had your epiphany for that next book or article over a glass of wine or after that third Margarita?

Now that the whole Barbary Coast/ pre- Prohibition classic cocktail style bar has run its course nationwide, restaurateurs and bartenders are taking a page from those who write page after page after drink after drink: the literary themed bar. Continue reading “Cocktail of the Week: Tequila Punch, Novela, San Francisco”

The Ten Winning Wines From WBC 13

Earlier this week we examined the lessons brought home from last weekend’s 2013 International Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Penticton, B.C., Canada.

As with any conference, the talks and networking are of utmost importance. But, nobody leaves Cannes without watching a film or the Superhero Conference without collecting some new comic books.

This is a wine conference as much as it’s a conference for writing about wine. You can’t write about the wine without…sampling the vino of course.

Voilà, from among hundreds of tastes spanning across Canada to Uruguay and Argentina to California and Oregon to the far reaches of Greece, here are the ten winning wines from WBC 13. Some were sampled at formal meals and tastings. Others were brought out by the winemakers themselves at after-parties. Either way, you’ll notice the list has five whites and five reds. That’s not on purpose. It just happened to be a very balanced roster of wines. You’ll also notice no straight-forward chardonnay (I only sampled a few over the weekend and they never moved me) and shockingly, no ice wine (in Canada!).


It’s a great list from a very special wine- filled conference. Cheers! Continue reading “The Ten Winning Wines From WBC 13”

Lessons Learned From The 2013 International Wine Bloggers Conference in Penticton, B.C., Canada

It was a whirlwind weekend full of connecting, writing, talks, stand up paddleboarding and most of all, hour after hour of tasting for wine bloggers and winery representatives who descended upon Penticton, British Columbia, Canada. This was the fifth edition of the International Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) and the first for yours truly.

Amidst the splendor of what must absolutely be one of the world’s most underrated wine tourism treasures, the Okanagan Valley, and its various lakes, an emerging wine region emerged to the global wine writing community. Who knew that Canada produced wines that don’t taste like sugar (or maple)? Well, a small part of the wine community did and bravo to them for choosing this formidable site as hosts. Next year’s conference is much more on the beaten path in “Sideways” country, also known as Buellton, California (Santa Barbara County).

Okanagan Valley from See Ya Later Ranch. Stunning.
Okanagan Valley from See Ya Later Ranch. Stunning.

With some 250 participants, plus numerous winery representatives, this was a real success in more than just trending on Twitter (not sure why this was a goal, but it was, and they succeeded in it).


Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the real details from the WBC: the ten wines that really struck me as vital for everyone to know about. In the mean time, here are the crucial lessons I took back with me south of the border from WBC 13. Perhaps they might be worthwhile for you to learn as well!Continue reading “Lessons Learned From The 2013 International Wine Bloggers Conference in Penticton, B.C., Canada”

Liquid Farm, 2011 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, CA

Poor California chardonnay has been taking a beating in recent years, sometimes deservedly so, and sometimes unfairly. If you open a bottle of chardonnay from the Golden State, you tense up and fear for the butter bomb worst. Headaches are not far ahead, as is a complete palate destroyer. You expect more butter than in a top tier Parisian croissant, mingling with absurd amounts of oak in a completely unbalanced proportion. Forget about pairing with food. These chardonnays often can’t even pair with water.

Let us not forget however that not all California chardonnay is like this. A few sips of any of the formidable chardonnays from Liquid Farm, one of the Central Coast’s young chardonnay (and rosé) voices, and you’ll be a fervent believer in no time.


Just by the winery name you can tell that Liquid Farm means business. There’s no pastoral label evoking the rolling hills and happy cows of California. This is about the wine and good times celebrating the beauty of gorgeous grape liquid.

The current vintage of Liquid Farms’ “Golden Slope” Chardonnay is truly a golden benchmark of chardonnay production for the Golden State. You can guess which color medal it would win in the Wine Olympics.Continue reading “Liquid Farm, 2011 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, CA”

Plat du Jour Tuesday June 4, 2012: Is It Rising Formality or Declining Formality?

On this first Tuesday of June, this week’s news of one of San Francisco’s most highly regarded restaurants (and its most expensive) commencing an à la carte food menu in its adjacent lounge area got me to realize about just common it is now how these highest end gastronomic restaurant are starting to de- formalize, at least partially. Saison only has 18 seats in its main dining room, where diners pay $248 a head for the tasting menu. Now you can sit at the bar and graze upon various smaller dishes, adding a completely new meaning to the term “bar bites.” A full meal might end up being $200 each, but it can also be a $40 apértif.

Saison isn’t the only one in the country, or even the Bay Area doing this. Manresa in Los Gatos and Meadowood in St. Helena recently started similar concepts. San Francisco’s La Folie built a lounge with a lounge menu not too long ago. Across the country, Le Bernardin last year did the same after its extensive re-model, and Matthew Lightner’s Atera has a similar separate bar concept. Jean-Georges in New York has entire casual restaurant, Nougatine, that serves as the main room’s “lounge.”

No lounge here...yet
No lounge here…yet

It’s certainly a form of the high-end restaurant starting to de- formalize itself. At the same time, you have more casual restaurants raising the bar (literally bars) within the set restaurants via chef’s counters with much more pricey, extensive tasting menus.

The two directions are completely contrasting with each other. So are we seeing a rise in formality or a decline? Continue reading “Plat du Jour Tuesday June 4, 2012: Is It Rising Formality or Declining Formality?”