one boy, one girl: taking on Chicago one kitchen at a time

MxMo: A Bird in the Bush

The fellow has followed Mixology Monday for a long time (both in its old incarnation and its new), but this is his first entry. Let’s hope he can keep it up!

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For those readers who don’t know, MxMo is a monthly blog gathering; one site suggests a cocktail theme and everyone else submits a post featuring a cocktail recipe or story along those lines. This month, MxMo is hosted by Chemistry of the Cocktail and the topic is fortified wine. While vermouth is the most common fortified cocktail mixer, there has been a renewed interest in using quirkier things like quinquina, sherry, port and madeira.

Today’s entry is a recipe that’s called A Bird in the Bush, but rather than a wholly original drink, it’s really just a personal amalgam of two other drinks… which are themselves really just tweaks on a classic.

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A year ago or so, I picked up a bottle of Osborne 1827 Pedro Ximénez sherry. It is a tremendously sweet dessert wine that is almost too much to drink straight. On the first taste, I understood all the reviews suggesting you pour a little over your ice cream as an after dinner treat, but I also thought that this sweetness could be tamed in a cocktail

The first drink I made with it was the Scottish Breakfast created by Jeffery Morgenthaler of Portland’s Clyde Common. Morgenthaler suggests a cask-strength Speyside single malt like Glenfarclas 105, but since I didn’t have anything quite like that around, I mixed mine with Yamazaki 12. It’s similar enough in flavor that it works here, even if it doesn’t pack the same proof.

Scottish Breakfast

2 ounces Scotch whisky
1 ounce Pedro Ximénez Sherry
2-3 dashes orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

A few months later, I popped into Chicago’s Aviary with some friends and noticed that their version of the Rob Roy shared some similarities with the Scottish Breakfast. Made with PX sherry – my Osborne 1827, in fact — and blended Black Bottle Scotch, the drink, however, was elevated by finishing with lavender bitters and placing the whole thing inside a bag of lavender air.

Yes. The drink was placed into a bag of air, which let out a burst of smoky, spicy floral notes when cut open.

The Aviary’s Rob Roy

2 oz Black Bottle Scotch
1 oz Osborne Pedro Ximénez 1827 Sherry
2-3 dashes lavender bitters

Stir w/ ice and strain into a chilled rocks glass. Place glass in a sealed bag filled with lavender-scented air. (And no, don’t ask me how to make a bag filled with lavender-scented air.)

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The Rob Roy in its bag. (Image source)

With smokier overtones — Black Bottle has a heavy Islay component — and floral notes, I liked where this was going, so I tried to recreate the drink at home. For the Scotch, I dug out my Johnnie Walker Black label and added a drop of rose flower water.

A Bird in the Bush

2 oz Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch
1 oz Osborne Pedro Ximénez 1827 Sherry
2 dashes orange bitters
2 drops rose flower water

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

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A Bird in the Bush

It might be missing the theatrics and the puff of meadow scent that you’d get at Aviary, but who needs that anyway. I know that after one sip the fellow usually wants to just slink away into a deep cushy chair to sip in peace.

A Cocktail Contest! Oh My!

Public Hotels is hosting a an open cocktail contest and the Fellow’s Burban Garden is in the running. Money and fame are on the line, — Really! The top prize is $1000 and a spot on the seasonal menu at The Pump Room — so go here to vote from August 7-9.

Just so you know what you’re voting for, here’s the recipe.

Burban Garden

-1 1/2 oz bourbon (Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond recommended)
-3/4 oz lime juice
-3/4 oz hibiscus simple syrup
-1 sprig of mint (or about 4 leaves)
-3 nickel-sized slices of ginger (peeled)
-2 oz ginger beer
-1 mint sprig (for garnish)

Place the mint leaves in the palm of your hand and slap to release flavors and aromas. Drop into a mixing tin and add the ginger, bourbon, lime juice and hibiscus simple syrup. Shake with ice and double strain (with a Hawthorne strainer and a fine mesh conical strainer) into a double old fashioned glass with fresh ice. Top with the ginger beer and stir gently to combine. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.

Hibiscus Syrup

-1 cup water
-1 cup granulated sugar
-6 g dried hibiscus flowers or 3 tea bags of hibiscus herbal tea

Heat water to a boil and steep the hibiscus for 7 minutes. Remove the flowers and add the sugar, stiring to dissolve.

Tasting the Belgian Food Pyramid at Leopold

Several of our friends have moved to Noble Square and Ukrainian Village in the past few months and rumblings of recurring dinner clubs have begun. There is no shortage of good food out there if you know where to look, so there might be a future in this…

Four of us popped into Leopold recently to try the Belgian fare. If you don’t know, Belgium’s nutritional food pyramid looks a little different than our own… there’s a base of frites, then a layer of mussels and it’s topped by a waffle. As seafood unlovers, we voted the mussels out, but made up for it with extra helpings of the other two food groups.

We started with drinks and appetizers. The perogies were light and tasty, with a bright creme faiche and the endive and apple salad was crisp, fresh and — best of all — interesting with hazelnuts pocking the buttermilk dressing. But the star starter was the poutine. Fries drowned in gravy and cheese is hard to do wrong, but Leopold’s iteration is especially goopy; warm, melty curds and bits of merguez sausage top thick cut, firm frites. Intense. Filling. Delicious.

Poutine
Goopy Poutine (source)

The Fellow paired this with a solid Belgium beer, Brouwerij Timmermans, a sour lambic that was rich in complex flavor and with just the right tang. The Lady and our guests all turned to cocktails. The Rhubarb Springs was a tart, but sturdy sour built of High West Double Rye, Rhubarb Syrup and Elderflower and the Basil Sparkler mixed strawberries, basil, bitters and bubbly to excellent effect.

When our entree choices arrived, we were in high spirits. However, these plates ended up a mixed-bag. The braised short rib was generally well liked and the pretzel (considered a side) served its purpose; its coarse-ground mustard with currants split the table into gritty love and “too much” avoidance. The pan-roasted halibut was forgettable.

Short Rib
Braised Short Rib (Source)

Miracle of miracles, our shared plate strategy worked well and we ended satisfied, but not stuffed. Read another way, that meant there was just enough room for some dessert. And it’s a good thing, too, since this let us end the night back on a high note. The Callebaut chocolate pave reigned king as a decadently rich sweet offset perfectly with sea salt and olive oil, while the Belgian waffle served as a sturdy base for tart berries and creme fraiche sorbet. (The Lady felt the waffle was too hard, but the Fellow stands by it.) A scoop of strawberry-rhubarb sorbet was refreshing and a scoop of salted peanut gelato complex.

So what’s the verdict? Leopold’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of great things going on. The meal’s not cheap, but the shared plates style ensures that everyone tries several things and no one ends up with only duds. Dishes like the poutine and pave were bang on and the lure of cold Belgian ale and crisp, hand-cut frites will pull us back in again.

Chicago Foodies — Now with 100% More Cocktail!

Set you bookmarks and update your feed readers: The Fellow makes his debut today as the spirits and cocktail contributor to Chicago Foodies! This blog has been an outpost for dining, scene, drinking and home cooking for more than seven years making it older than dirt in internet years. Chicago Foodies also organizes and sponsors “Unique Dinners” experiences that use Chicago’s top chefs to make creative and original one-off meals.

The Fellow’s inaugural post follows the Gin-Gin Mule, a great summer thirst-quencher, but also an important player in the current cocktail renaissance. Check it out!

What are we going to do with this? Experiments in vermouth.

The Fellow and a friend recently tried to make vermouth at home and it was… ok. Not “Hey, I’ve had better,” but more like “Let’s not throw it away just yet.” Overly bitter and under boozy, it was a failed experiment, but one worth documenting anyway.

First, a primer. Vermouth is a type of fortified wine that can be enjoyed alone, topped with soda as an aperitif, or mixed with spirits in a cocktail. It is herbaceous, subtly bitter and slightly medicinal, deriving these flavors from a mix of botanicals infused into white wine. Vermouth’s essential ingredient is wormwood — from which the bastardization “vermouth” derives — but a blend will usually include other spices to fill out a specific flavor profile and commercial brands differ considerably. After the infusion, high proof spirits such as brandy or eau de vie are added to bring the alcohol content up to a more stable level of 15-18%, and, in the case of sweet vermouth, caramel syrup is added for both sweetness and color.

For this experiment, the boys loosely followed two similar recipes — one from the Tippling Bros. published in the January/February issue of Imbibe and one from the blog Cocktail Virgin — and aspired to make two vermouths — a dry and a sweet. Cobbling together the recipes, the herbal layout included bittering agents like gentian root, wormwood and dandelion, as well as aromatics such as angelica root, ginger, citrus peels, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, chamomile, clove, peppercorns and cinnamon.

A few of the ingredients. Clockwise from top left: gentian root, angelica root, dandelion, cinnamon stick, wormwood, peppercorns.

So where did things go wrong?

First, both recipes seem to go a bit overboard on the ingredients list. One or two bittering herbs and a few aromatics will almost certainly be enough, at least for a simple first attempt.

Next, the Fellow and his friend didn’t exactly measure things. An 1/8 of a gram is hard to figure without a digital scale and when you’ve got a bundle of roots, measurements like 1/4 of a teaspoon don’t make it easy. Whatever amount they put in, it was certainly too much.

Finally, the infusion happens quickly. Both recipes suggest boiling, then simmering the wine, but too long on the burner and the 750 mL bottles quickly became 375 mL. A constant low simmer would probably bring out flavors without burning off precious juice.


The final products: dry on the left and sweet on the right.

In the end, the work just didn’t pay off. Most of the aromatics were buried, while the bitter was overpowering; neither vermouths made very good cocktail ingredients. On ice, the dry vermouth was harsh and mouth-drying, with too much saltiness coming out from the fino sherry used to fortify. The sweet vermouth, however, was more palatable. The caramel helped to soften and mask the more jarring parts of the profile and the fortification with white whiskey, Pedro Ximenez sherry and water seemed to meld things better than with the dry.

A failure? Maybe. A catastrophe? No.

For the adventurous out there, here’s what the Fellow plans to try next time. Let us know if you have any luck!

INGREDIENTS
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1 750 mL bottle dry white wine (e.g. Pinot Grigio or dry Riesling)
-1 tsp wormwood
-1 tsp dried floral herbs (e.g. chamomile, lavender and/or elderflower)
-1/2 tsp additional bittering agent (e.g. gentian root, dandelion and/or cinchona bark)
-1/4 tsp angelica root and/or ginger
-2-3 pinches of Italian herbs (e.g. thyme, tarragon, rosemary and/or oregano)
-2 whole cloves
-peel from half an orange
-peel from half a lemon
-1/2 small cinnamon stick
-1/4 vanilla bean
-2-4 oz fortifying spirit (*)
-1-3 oz cold water
-4 oz caramelized sugar syrup (if making sweet vermouth) (#)

PROCEDURE
1. Combine half the wine with the dry ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a medium-low simmer.
2. Allow this to simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Let the mixture cool and infuse for an hour or more.
4. Strain through cheesecloth into a clean container.
5. Add the fortifying spirit, cold water, syrup, and remaining wine to taste. Stir to combine and refrigerate in a sealed container.

(*) Fortify dry vermouth with white spirits such as eau de vie, white whisky or fino sherry. Fortify sweet vermouth with white or dark spirits such as brandy or dessert sherry.

(#) For the caramelized sugar, heat up 2 oz sugar until medium-dark brown without stirring. Add 2 oz of boiling water and stir until smooth.

Delicious Drinks in Denver: Williams & Graham

We’re spoiled. It’s pretty easy to find a good drink in Chicago, so when we travel, we are used to tempering our expectations.

Not so, however, on our recent jaunt to Denver where we stumbled across Williams & Graham. The newly opened spot in the Highlands neighborhood seems to introduce new territory to the beer-drinking Mile High City, but it sates that quality cocktail niche we find blissfully ubiquitous here. The look is unabashedly 1920’s prohibition — dark, secretive and bookish — while the hospitality is over-the-top Midwestern. 

The the front of house is a tiny faux bookshop where you exchange the usual “Can I please see your ID?” pleasantries. Nonchalantly, however, the host is noting names and passing sly notes, so that when the bookshelf opens — Agatha Christie style — and you are ushered down the back passage, it comes as a great surprise to be greeted by name by another host you’ve yet to meet. Inside, a backlit bar and low wattage vintage lamps give off a soft glow, but the dark wood and high, deep booths suck the light back up. For those standing and sipping, a well-stocked bookcase runs through the center of the room to serve as a countertop.


These books aren’t for sale. Do you see the “secret” passage? (Source)

OK. Classy ambiance is a check, but how are the drinks? Bang on!

Williams & Graham’s menu is deep. There are more than a dozen pages, individual spirits are listed and categorized hierarchically, and full paragraph introductions penned by mixology celebrities top each page. We’ve come to learn that more is not necessarily better, and here the menu probably comes off as too much for all but the biggest cocktail nerds. Most, however, will — and should — stop on the first page highlighting originals.


The cocktail tome. (Source)

For our first round, the Lady picked the Blackberry Sage — a slightly savory “smash” made with Single Barrel Knob Creek — and the fellow picked the Smoking Frenchman — a light Cognac and Domaine de Canton mix with a rinse of Talisker Scotch; both demonstrated that these guys aren’t just playing classy, but actually owning it.

Suitably impressed, the Lady felt comfortable to riff. When Steve, our server, returned, she asked for something delicious with Hendrick’s Gin — a request he did not bobble. “A little tart? How do you feel about absinthe?” Steve’s pick — a Corpse Reviver #2 — was a brilliant choice marrying the softer, cucumber Hendrick’s with Lillet Blanc, Cointreau and lemon wrapped in an absinthe rinse. It’s a drink the Fellow has championed before, but the Hendrick’s swap for what would typically be a harder gin was an impressive coup that tacked the drink right to the Lady’s heart.


The two-handed double hard shake… the Fellow approves. (Source)

Williams & Graham serves a small menu of food as well to sop up the stiff drinks. The pulled duck confit sandwich had pleasantly vinegary pickled peppers and  the croque madame melded cheese, egg and bread into one wholly unforgettable package that the Lady hardly paused long enough from enjoying to praise. These plates were hand-delivered by founder and co-owner Todd Coehour, who apologized for what he considered an unduly wait. (Ten minutes more than we expected, maybe? Nothing to complain about, for sure.) But to make doubly sure we held no hard feelings, he gifted us with an order of warm bacon beignets. The delicious, savory dessert demonstrated a genuine desire to please and showed how remarkably in-touch Coehour is with the goings-on of his guests.

When done right, cocktail craft is fun and welcoming. It is unshielded nerdiness brought to you by passionate people sharing what they love. Williams & Graham strikes that chord well and brings the guest in, delighting in the experience right along side them. 

and our tomatoes are hyper-locally grown

Amuse-Bouche: Two Bite-Size Reviews

Two outstanding meals summed up in two quick reviews.

Girl & the Goat

Stephanie Izard’s restaurant still remains one of the hardest reservations to score more than a year and a half after its opening. The open space is warm and inviting while the small plates menu is staggeringly packed with flavor.

Take the goat empanadas, for example. Richly flavored, the moist filling was nuanced with savory seasonings we never paused long enough to identify and stuffed into light and flaky, feta-topped dough. Or consider the loup de mer, a tempura fried Mediterranean bass made sweet and sour. Yes, made sweet and sour, through the lovely combination of pineapple and tiny bacon bits that conveyed the perfect saltiness on top. Placed atop a potato aioli, it suggested a cheeky fish ‘n chips of sorts, but as un-British as one can get.

The taut drinks list also features stellar choices in all categories. The Agave Fleur — a crisp elderflower and tequila sour — made a great start and a minerally Greek Domaine Sigalis Assyrtiko 2010 white wine paired perfectly with the fish. Dessert was inventive and filling and we tried the butternut malasadas — squash and chedder donut balls — and the rich Thai chili chocolate cake that came with two styles of ice cream, one of which seemed to be liquid peanut brittle.

Nightwood

This Pilsen outpost exemplifies farm to table. Simple yet elegant. Seasonal and satisfying. Dine in the semi-enclosed patio for a cozy backyard greenhouse feel or saddle-up for a seat along the open kitchen bar for a front-row seat to the show.

The hand-written menu changes daily, and the evening we dined began with mind-blowing fried Meyer lemons with a dollop of creme fraîche and caramelized carrots topped with breadcrumbs. Each had just three or four ingredients, but the execution was precise. Entrees on the menu frequently included the term “spit-roasted,” — a suggestion of slow-cooked sensation that should be making you salivate with hunger right now — and we found the spit-roasted Swan Creek Farms half chicken juicy with crispy skin and delicate seasoning, while the spit-roasted Michigan duck came swimming in a pig skin stew that had cooked down and concentrated to a deluge of savory gusto.

Nightwood’s cocktail program maintains their simple, yet well executed attitude. House-made mixers and liqueurs feature prominently, as do infused spirits like the rotating infused Italian vermouths served as aperitifs. These worlds collided in the Ten O’clock Scholar, a delicious concoction of coffee-infused tequila, Carpano Antica vermouth, house-made nocino walnut liqueur and chocolate bitters.

"I should consume the last bottle on my last day on this planet"

"If I live to the average life expectancy of the American male — 78.9 — and I consume one bottle of wine every day, I should consume the last bottle on my last day on this planet."

-Charlie Trotter, when asked what will become of the world-famous wine collection at his eponymous restaurant after it closes later this year.

“That factored into it.”

-Charlie Trotter, when asked if this played a role in his decision to close.

Charlie Trotter put Chicago on the map as a food destination and trained an obscene number of the city’s current top chefs. Just off the top of our heads, his kitchen has at various times included Homaro Cantu (Moto and iNG), Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot), Giuseppe Tentori (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster), Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next and Aviary), Curtis Duffy (Avenues and Grace) and Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate).

Set to travel and to pursue a Master’s in philosophy when his vaunted restaurant closes, Trotter has earned the right to toast each meal with the best wine. Cheers.

(Quotes via The New York Times)

Gold Coast Italian: Cafe Spiaggia

Chef Tony Mantuano has been steadily expanding his Chicago empire with recent outpost Terzo Piano in 2009 and brand new Bar Toma in 2011. But Spiaggia remains his Michelin-starred prize and Cafe Spiaggia its more approachable little sister.

Same Spiaggia chefs, but priced more affordably? Sounds like a win, and for the most part, Cafe Spiaggia was exactly what it claimed to be. But it turns out that second fiddle Spiaggia isn’t much to write home about. It’s very good, mostly authentic Italian with good service in a nice space, but it’s hardly unique. And though the check is slim compared to Big Brother across the hall, the price tags push the upper edge of what is appropriate if you look beyond Michigan Avenue.


The carpaccio (source) and the gnocchi with wild boar ragu (source).

The carpaccio was well made and nicely flavored with black truffle oil and the gnocchi with wild boar ragu was a hit at the table, if a little heavy on the meat. The polpette were solid meatballs and the zucca was nice, but neither necessarily moved us. For dessert, the panna cotta veered light with several nice spice accents in the crumble topping, but the tiramisu was universally panned by the table as average.

No one opted to add fresh shaved truffles to their dinner for $45.

We will quit parsing our words, however, when it comes to the wine. If someone looks over the glass selection and asks, “These are prices for the bottle, right?” the restaurant might be overcharging. Take the most popular glass at the table, a 2008 Avignonesi Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano. This widely available wine can be had for $25 a bottle elsewhere, but was $20 a glass with dinner. With robbery of this caliber, no one ordered a second round.

So, it seems that Cafe Spiaggia keeps up that lacquered feel that pervades so much of the Gold Coast Michigan Avenue stretch: appearance first, with food good enough to impress those who don’t know better. It’s a fine place, but better deals are out there, and this just par showing has pushed Spiaggia proper down — and maybe off — the “To Visit” list.