Category Archives: Food and drink

What tequila “should” taste like

This article is kind of annoying. It’s a bunch of people explaining what tequila is supposed to taste like. Apparently aging tequila too long is bad, because you end up tasting the notes of the aging and not tasting the tequila itself.

I mean, maybe. But we went through this with coffee. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, French roast was the thing, so people loved Starbucks. Then at some point the George Howell thing took over: now we’re only supposed to drink lightly roasted coffee, because “all those oils [that you see on the outside of a French-roast bean] ought to be inside the bean.” (For the record, I think Howell’s coffees are great as espresso, because the high-pressure / high-temperature extraction process gets more of the good stuff into the cup. I’ve not yet found a way to make them work well for French-press coffee.) Now maybe we’re in the full-city-roast era.

Whatever. Drink whatever you want to drink. Then there will be people who will tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Maybe you drink Cuervo, and maybe it’s shit. I don’t know; I’m not familiar with tequila. But maybe you’ll develop a real taste for tequila, and you’ll sip it neat, and eventually you’ll gravitate to other tequilas. Maybe some of those will be aged in oak for a long while; maybe others will be on the sweeter side, and will be less oaky.

Eventually you and I will both be dead, and it won’t matter at all whether we drank the “right” kind of tequila or coffee. Drink what you want to drink. Fuck those guys.

(I guess I’m feeling irritable today?)

Restaurant recommendation of the day: Giulia in Cambridge, near Porter Square

Just like it says up top: you should go to Giulia, in that part of Cambridge that is equally inconvenient to both Harvard Square and Porter Square; in that same little area are Simon’s (formerly the best coffee in Cambridge until Crema came to town), Marathon Sports, and the West Side Lounge. M’lady and I have gone to Giulia twice now, and had an absolutely lovely time both times. They have delicious cocktails, and plenty of lovely Italian small plates that even vegetarians such as myself can enjoy. The décor is warm, cozy, and inviting, such that I’m sure Giulia will be a welcoming destination in the dead of winter.

Highly recommended.

Because Backbar, in Somerville's Union Square, is remarkably un-webbable, I give the world this

Backbar, in the Union Square neighborhood of Somerville, is on Facebook, but I’ll be danged if I can find their website through any combination of reasonable search terms. So let’s try this:

Perhaps this will do some good. I see that the indispensable Boston Restaurant Talk included Backbar’s URL, but for some reason didn’t actually provide the link.

Quick note on Boston-area ramen

I’ve had ramen now at two Boston-area establishments: Sapporo, within the Porter Exchange; and now Ken’s, within the Super 88 Market in Allston. I’d heard from multiple sources that Ken’s was the best around here, but I was sorely disappointed. One item on the menu advertised a rather more intense pork flavor, and the waiter recommended that, so I got it. It was not intense. The broth was thin and uninspiring. The only real plus side to their ramen was the combination of boiled egg and nori. Plus the noodles were maybe a bit more substantial than Sapporo’s.

Sapporo … I’m kind of obsessed. They advertise their broth as being filled with “rich collagen” after cooking for “over ten hours.” It really is an intense, flavorful, buttery, full-bodied broth. That’s broth you want to bring home to mother. But you wouldn’t, is the thing, because it is soup rather than a person.

Next time I’m at Sapporo, I’ll ask them if they can throw in a couple sheets of nori to their house ramen. With that added, it won’t even be a contest.

P.S.: I need to check out Men Tei, it seems. I’m always glad to explore the area’s ramen.

P.P.S. (14 October 2010): Verdict on Men Tei: Nice noodles, and a lot of noodles, but uninspiring broth. Also not much in the broth. I got the pork cutlet, which definitely felt as though it came from a package of frozen cutlets. This is of a piece with the octopus balls, which people on ChowHound suggests really do come from a frozen package. Men Tei seems to have very little kitchen at all, so this isn’t surprising. But in any case: nothing to write home about. I think my Sapporo homecoming will come soon.

A cocktail I'm obsessed with and another one that is somewhat like the first but also different

I’ve recently become obsessed with a cocktail they make at Drink called a Trinidad Sour (so named because Angostura bitters are from Trinidad). The recipe I use is

  • 1 part Angostura bitters
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 1 part rye. I’ve been looking around for 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye, but what I have on hand is 90-proof Russell’s Reserve and 80-proof Old Overholt; I think higher-proof ones wouldn’t hide so easily under the rest of the ingredients.
  • 1 part orgeat. I use a brand called Ferrara, which sells it as ‘orzata’. Around these parts it’s available at Capone Foods (at least at the Cambridge location near Davis Square).

The recipe I started with used 3 parts orgeat, 3 parts bitters, 2 parts lemon juice and 1 part rye. Another variant used 2:2:2:1. I found that 1:1:1:1 suits me best; it’s a bit more astringent than the other recipes. Not that the Trinidad Sour is actually sweet; it’s really quite tart. It’s some bizarre magic trick whereby a full ounce or more of bitters lands in a cocktail that is … not bitter. One night I forgot to put in the orgeat; that was bitter. So the orgeat is the thing, I guess.

Last night Drink constructed for me a variant on the Trinidad Sour called Don’s Little Bitter, or DLB; it apparently originates at a pretentious bar I’ve been to in New York City called Please Don’t Tell, or PDT. Its recipe is

  • 1 part Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1 part Angostura orange bitters (available around here at The Boston Shaker, along with the Peychaud’s)
  • 2 parts Angostura bitters
  • 2 parts lemon juice
  • 2 parts Fernet
  • 2 parts simple syrup
  • 4 parts Barbancourt 8-year rum

It’s like a Trinidad Sour, but you can taste the bitters much more decisively — still not overwhelmingly, but they peek out over the top just a bit. If I had more of them, or had mulled more over the one I had last night, I might be able to tell you more about it. Fernet, for instance, has a distinctive taste, and I imagine I should be able to spot its effects more.

(My buddy Jon and I have a longstanding, lighthearted debate going over whether Fernet is, as the kids say, “narst.” In my queue is a novel called Cooking with Fernet Branca, which I gather is based around the absurdity of trying to cook with something which The New York Times describes as “bottled bile.” Anyway, I really enjoy the stuff. After-dinner bitters are great for the stomach. Trust me on this. Or go buy a bottle.)

The idea of using more than a splash of bitters — of, in fact, making bitters central to the drink — is novel and awesome. I approve.

Some questions about acquired taste

(Attention conservation notice: Wherein I think out loud for about 900 words on the subject of acquired taste, with particular reference to espresso — not because that’s the most important example, but rather because it helps me make things a bit more concrete.)

I’ve had this nagging question in my head for a long, long time: how do you judge what something is “supposed” to taste like when it’s an acquired taste for most everyone?

This isn’t a rhetorical question; it may be reasonable to demand that, say, scotch taste a specific way. But there are a number of tastes that virtually no one enjoys when they’re young; black coffee and wine come to mind immediately. This may be just an American thing; I don’t want to universalize it too much. But childhood food tastes tend to the sweet. I’d hypothesize that sugar is not an acquired taste, but espresso is.

So what I’ve wondered for a while is: who decides what espresso is supposed to taste like? Some possible standards:

  • It’s supposed to taste like what the average consumer likes, including those who at present don’t drink espresso. Imagine, for instance, that you gathered people at random off the street and put a number of different espressos in front of them. The best espresso, by this standard, is the one that the most people liked.

    The trouble here is obvious: you’re appealing to the average, and that may not be what defines “the best espresso.” The average person may, in Dave Barry’s words, not be able to distinguish between red wine and melted popsicles, but that doesn’t mean that melted popsicles are what wine is supposed to taste like.

  • It’s supposed to taste like what those who’ve tasted many espressos say it should taste like. The trouble here is that their perception of what it should taste like may be colored by what the community they’re in says it should taste like. I seem to recall that French-roast coffee was all the rage 10 or 15 years ago; nowadays lightly-roasted coffees seem to be on the upswing. Does this mean that those coffees are objectively “what coffee is supposed to taste like,” or does it just mean that master baristas are driven by fads like everyone else?

  • It’s supposed to taste like what those with highly perceptive senses — think Robert Parker, the “man with the million-dollar nose” — say it should taste like. The trouble here is a bit of the last bullet — the Parkers of the world probably spend their time conversing with like-minded folks — but also that it’s not clear how much I have to learn from someone whose palate is that finely honed. Yes, one day I hope to be able to register as much as Parker does when I quaff a fine wine, but in the meantime most of the subtlety is lost on me. Should I be drinking espresso that appeals to people with far different tastes from mine?

  • There’s no right answer; it’s supposed to taste like whatever you like drinking. This is a fine standard, and in fact in some ways it’s probably ideal. But it does demand discipline from the drinker: if you’re going to make your own standards, you owe it to yourself to drink many different kinds of espresso (or wine, or scotch, or whatever) and decide which you like best.

All of these, I suspect, could be taken beyond the realm of food and into art or literature or comedy. What makes Andy Kaufman funny? Picasso is harder to get into than Thomas Kinkade; is the latter better than the former? I have less to say about those disciplines, because I know less about them.

In general, I certainly hope that interpersonal comparisons are possible. If they’re not, that makes life more boring; I find it fun to discuss food and literature and whatever, and you probably do too. I doubt you feel as though there’s an impassable wall between you and me that makes it impossible for us to compare foods. We read various critics; sometimes they call our attention to aspects we might not have noticed in books we’ve just read or coffee we’ve just drunk. Then we decide for ourselves whether the standards that they use to judge books or food work for us.

Is that the most we can say about acquired tastes? That there’s no right or wrong taste for espresso or wine or whatnot, but only whether someone else’s standard rings true for you? That doesn’t feel quite right to me, because it’s likely to be driven by fads. Fads are less a measure of what’s good than what’s popular. Yet I don’t want to go to the opposite side, either, and assert that there’s no right answer other than what you yourself enjoy; there are people who know more about a given product than I do, and I owe them some deference.

I decided to write all of this down after reading a piece about American espresso that crystallized a lot of what I’m wondering. The argument that American espresso is a different breed from what Italians like certainly makes a lot of sense to me. Though I’d want to see it confirmed empirically, by putting the same espressos in front of Americans and Italians and seeing whether there’s really as little overlap as Milos would suggest.

One fellow on Twitter is rather more decisive than I am in his feelings about Milos; he says, “This man is a dick with ears.”

The abridged O Ya report

Stephanie and I went to O Ya last night, one of the items on the Laniel 2K10 Post-Full-Time World Dominance (aka Y’All Just Rentin’ This World From Me) Tour. [1] [2] I hope it’s not gauche of me to sum it up as “good, but not $267.56-per-person-with-drinks-and-tax-and-tip good.” I mean, a meal has to be pretty over-the-top good to be worth that. I’ve not yet had a meal at that price range that justified itself.

The last time I was in that price range was at L’Espalier, where the meal ended up costing about $750 in total for two people — so far above and beyond the realm of the comprehensible that we could only laugh. In fact Stephanie and I laughed about that one for the next 20 minutes as we walked away from the place. And the food wasn’t even that outstanding: of the 10 or so courses that L’Espalier brought us, two were really outstanding; they overwhelmed us with tastes and textures flowing over our palates more quickly than we could process them. There was smoky, crunchy, popping, astringent, smooth, fatty, liquid, and dense, all at once. This little one-ounce morsel was something I wanted to spend the next hour eating, though it would still have left me in the same dazed state.

But still, I must return to the moral: $750 for a meal that was 20% overwhelming?

O Ya was similar, though less absurd for a couple reasons. First, I knew going in that it would cost about what it came to. Second, O Ya doesn’t try as hard to make you think that you’re having a Fine Dining Experience: rather than L’Espalier’s sumptuous opulence, O Ya looks like a relaxed Japanese bar. O Ya’s exterior door is, on first glance, so dingy-looking that I assumed it was the entrance to a run-down warehouse rather than to an exalted restaurant. (On closer inspection, the door is supposed to remind you of the entrance to a humble Japanese home. It’s a very nice touch, in retrospect.) Inside, they’re playing rock music, and the chef is bouncing his head in time with the music.

The chef, I should note, isn’t doing all the things you expect a sushi chef to do: he’s not assembling rice balls or cutting large filets of fish from a newly dead animal; those jobs are left to the servants, who are off in a mostly obscured kitchen. They would periodically come out and receive a scornful glance from the chef, who clearly functions as the prima donna in this opera.

Anyway, to the food: 16 courses, each two bites (one for me, and one for my lovely dining companion). Most were standard sushi-sized pieces of fish, drizzled with oils, topped with preserved Japanese oranges, and so forth. They were delicious. But (and again, I feel like a clod for saying this) not $500 delicious. One particular dish was a few pieces of Japanese beef, seared, dressed with just the right amount of salt, and served atop a special (artisanal? heirloom? sous vide?) potato chip. This dish on its own was $61. There is just no reason for that.

I wish I didn’t have to spend this much time discussing the money aspect. I actually didn’t spend much time during the meal thinking of it: I knew going in that it would cost that much, and I didn’t want to spoil the mood. Plus I was there with my girlfriend, who is my favorite dining partner in the world [3]. And in one or two cases, the dishes were so good that my eyes actually rolled back into my head. But for $500, your eyes should do something even more awesome, like evaporate and re-coalesce, or colonize Mars.

Honestly, if you’re looking to have a really special meal around here with a loved on, there are better bets: Craigie on Main for extraordinary food (Excuse me? 10-course vegan tasting menu?) in a boisterous atmosphere with some of the best cocktails in the city; Oleana for a more subdued, self-consciously exquisite meal; or Number 9 Park if you want to go all out.

When O Ya sets its prices that high, it gives itself an entrance exam that it then proceeds to flunk.

[1] – Uh, yeah, I might could have mentioned that they hired me full-time.

[2] – We’re going to the Bahamas at the end of this month — the second bullet on the Y’all Be Rentin’ Tour.

[3] – You also will never find a better person with whom to watch a movie on the big screen. There’s a particular “Stephanie’s jaw agape” photo that I’ve surreptitiously taken five or ten times now in the theatre; it never ceases to make me smile.

Boston Phoenix, you need more best-coffeeshop nominees

Dear Phoenix:

Here’s your list of available local coffeeshops:

  1. Ula Café
  2. 1369 Coffee House
  3. Diesel Cafe
  4. 2nd Cup Café
  5. Espresso Royale Caffe
  6. True Grounds

You are missing so many cafés. 1369 isn’t even the best café in Central Square; that honor has to go to Toscanini’s. Up in Harvard Square is Café Pamplona, which possibly had the first espresso maker in Cambridge. A bit further into Harvard Square is Crema. A 10-minute walk up the street toward Porter is Simon’s.

Head the other way, into Boston. In Post Office Square you have Sip Café. Right next to North Station you have the world-class Equal Exchange Café. It’s a particularly egregious sin to leave out EECafé.

J'accuse! and other such condemnations. Waggy finger of disapproval and all that.

Some recent, scattered discoveries about Boston bars

  • I’m half-convinced that the notion of a “bar” is like a “nation” or a “corporation”: a conceptual fiction masking lots of variety underneath. The real atom of a bar is the bartender. This rather shocking discovery came to me after visiting Clio with a friend, and encountering a bartender who was not-Todd. Todd is amazing. All Clio bartenders who are not-Todd are now suspect.

  • I get the feeling that Drink is, in the above regard, sui generis. Every bartender at Drink makes spectacular cocktails. I have ordered many a cocktail from Drink, from many a bartender; all have been amazing. I like having the confidence to order from any of their bartenders and know that I’ll enjoy what I get. Though try to get Scott. Scott is awesome.

  • I should note, by the way, that if you’re reading this blog, if you’ve not met me, and if you’re in the Boston area, we should grab a cocktail at Drink.

  • I ordered a rye flip from the not-Todd bartender at Clio. It was pretty poor; she confessed that it had been a long time since she’d made one. I had never had one before, but I could only assume that rye flips had to be better than that. It tasted like a thickened and diluted glass of whiskey. When I ordered the same drink from Drink last night, they made it with rye, a raw egg, and a blend of spices that they concocted on their own; it tasted like a very eggy — in a delicious way — glass of eggnog. This seems more in keeping with how J. Random Website describes a rye flip.

  • My friend Scott tells me to try this experiment:

    Try making a familiar drink, such as standard margarita — 2:1:1 of tequila, cointreau, lime juice. Now make another one with an egg white in it (shake very vigorously). Taste them side by side to see the effect.

  • Speaking of shaking drinks vigorously, that seems important to the egg-based drinks. Without a vigorous shaking, the alcohol and the egg separate. Some bar around here made me a pisco sour that was insufficiently shaken; I got a cocktail that was half egg, half pisco, never the twain meeting.

  • Eastern Standard Kitchen also never harmed anyone. Though I’ve not plumbed their depths nearly as much as I should have.

  • Rendezvous in Central Square was earth-shatteringly good one night when illustrious SteveReads contributor mrz and I went there together. The drinks were spectacular but the food only so-so, so the next time we went back we decided to sit at the bar and only consume their drinks. The bartender was supercilious and not all that great at his job. Plus they were missing the cigar bitters this time around. I was disappointed. If I’m going to spend $10 on a drink, it practically ought to contain precious metals, and they ought to deliver it with a striptease. Or at least a smile.

    I think the moral from that second trip to Rendezvous is a restatement of the first bullet: get to know your bartender.