25 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part IV: Frederic Yarm of Russell House Tavern

Frederic Yarm of Russell House Tavern, Cambridge, MA
Photo courtesy of  Maggie Campbell of Privateer Rum
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the fourth one, my unedited interview with Frederick Yarm, a relative newcomer to the bartending scene whose work as a cocktail writer I’ve been reading for years, both for his blog and his 2012 book Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book, a historical tour of Boston's cocktail scene. His was another interview that space constraints forced me to slash drastically, so I’m glad to be able to offer the unwhittled version here.

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MC SLIM JB: Improper readers may not know about your Cocktail Virgin blog, or how it has found you sampling and documenting thousands of cocktails from Greater Boston bars for over six and a half years. Russell House Tavern is your first professional bartending gig. How has being a prolific cocktail blogger shaped your experience and outlook as a bartender? And vice versa: how has manning the stick professionally changed your perspective as a cocktail blogger?

FREDERIC YARM: Tasting and writing about a lot about drinks has not shaped my outlook as a bartender so much as the experience of sitting at lots of bars in the process; observing both the good and bad of hospitality, techniques, recipes, and interactions has been an invaluable learning experience. My work with the blog has given me a lot of exposure to a wide variety of styles out there and the pros and cons of each. Discussing my knowledge about cocktails, techniques, and local establishments does help with guest rapport and has helped to solidify some regulars.

Manning the stick professionally has encouraged me to be a more easy going guest, and this has caused me lighten up a bit both in my attitude and the posting rate. If I do not see something on the cocktail menu that I wish to write about, I often will order a beer. If it is a slower night, I will see if the bartender has some off menu items that they wish to make, but I will not push the issue. I definitely want to keep the blog going, but it has become one of my cocktail outlets instead of the main one.

MC: Measure or free-pour?

FY: I originally thought I was only going to jigger everything, but after working a few busy brunches, I got tired of the amount of washing it took to get all traces of serrano pepper-infused mezcal that we use in our Mezcal Mary out of a jigger. I tested out my free pour, and my count is pretty solid for a 2 ounce pour. I will not free pour for anything other than simple drinks like Highballs and Bloody Marys though.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

FY: Drinks with vermouth. For some reason, the Manhattan drinker does not shy away from vermouth nor specify the proportions, but the Martini drinker does. Fresh vermouth is delightful, and I often opt for a 2:1 or equal parts Martini at home. And many guests look confused when you tell them that vermouth and other aromatized wines are a delight to drink on the rocks with an orange twist.

MC, aside: Right on!

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

FY: I have a section in my bar notebook dedicated to “those 70s drinks.” I cannot (or choose not to) remember the difference between a Bay Breeze and a Sea Breeze, and most of them are just fruit mixtures to hide the flavor of vodka.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

FY: A beautiful inlaid three-wood ice crushing mallet made by CME Handworks that I have at home. Actually, it’s a furniture wood carving mallet and they were surprised and amused by my application. I also bought one for Ryan Lotz when he was at Lineage for I felt that he deserved better than the camping mallet he was using to crush ice at the time. At work, I have access to crushed ice from our Kold-Draft machine, so the mallet stays at home.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

FY: Impatience, feelings of entitlement, and lack of sense of humor when things get busy. If guests want a more perfect experience, they should go on the off hours and slower nights. Then again, that suggestion would fall on deaf ears to those types.

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

FY: So far there has been little that has gone too wrong bartending-wise save for a few customers who have gotten a little splash of water from our glass washer or other minor mishaps. Therefore, I’d have to say go with not refusing service to disruptive customers. There was one guest who kept harassing customers more so with each return to the bar during the day, and had to be ejected after the third return. Or the two townie drunks who made such a mess of the place. Besides sucking up a lot of my time, it can make the other guests rather uncomfortable to the point that they transfer from the bar to the table or leave the establishment completely.  I am getting better at dealing with these characters but it is sometimes difficult to switch from a hospitality mode to a more authoritarian state. And this discomfort to guests is probably far -worse than splashing a customer or spilling some drinks.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

FY: Lately, I work mostly day shifts during the week that only can get busy during the lunch burst and the pre-dinner rush. Still, I can generally find time to talk to guests at length save for some Fridays, holidays, and brunch shifts, especially if they are fine with interruptions as I attend to drink tickets and other guests.

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

FY: Yes, we have them, but they are usually tied to a bartender’s, bar back’s, or regular’s name (making it into a verb), so no I don’t feel at ease mentioning them.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

FY: When I have worked nights, it has been Fernet Branca and/or a shift beer from our bottle and cans collection. During the day, my shift drinks have to be done elsewhere. Often, I just wait until I get home, but on a bad day, it’s often stopping in somewhere close by or on the way home for a beer unless I can think of an out of the way place that has a new cocktail on their menu to check out for the blog.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

FY: Not sure I have guilty pleasures like that save for drinking High Lifes although I do that without shame. And when lowbrow things like Fireball or blackberry brandy shots are consumed, I am often with my peers. I do remember when Josh Childs interviewed me for Boston.com after Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book came out, he forced the question and I answered a Rusty Nail, although that’s a legitimate enough drink that I am not embarrassed about consuming.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

FY: Last dive I went to was Paddy’s Lunch for one of the Russell House Tavern bartenders does a few shifts there. But that falls into the realm of why I go out drinking which includes being in front of a specific bartender.  Luke O’Neil included Charlie’s Kitchen in his dive bar book [Boston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown], so I’ll add that, but I generally go there with co-workers instead of choosing it on my own.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

FY: For settling the stomach, ginger beer or Angostura bitters works well, as does dried candied ginger. For the headache, Advil and coffee will be your friend. Getting fluids is key, but water alone will not provide the lost electrolytes. I am a fan of toughing it out, but if the malaise cannot be shaken by mid-afternoon, sometimes a single drink can even things out.

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

FY: I deleted my response – I don’t want to speak negatively about anyone’s bar program or things they include in their bar program, at least publicly.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

FY: Turning over bar menus. It has become rather common at many establishments that cocktail menus stay static for great lengths of time indicating a lack of focus on the program.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?

FY: I have only made it into one Yelp review; it was more praising the brunch food and it happened to mention that the bartender was great. Between the food order and the party size, I was able to deduce it to the crew of eight who showed up to my ten seat bar on New Year’s Day a few minutes before open.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

FY: John Gertsen for having a vision and enacting on it to elevate Boston’s stature in the cocktail world, and Josh Childs for showing that keeping it simple and focusing on warmth and hospitality is just as important as what is in the glass if not more so.

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

FY: Two sayings that stick in my head are Sam Treadway’s “Bartending is about watering down spirits and babysitting adults” and John Gertsen’s “If you know where everything lives and know how to smile, you’ll be a great bartender.” Both of those sayings remove the ego-driven ideals that plague a lot of bartenders, for a great bartender is one that makes the guests feel special and not one that reinforces the idea that the bartender is the star. And lastly, always keep learning. Read, taste, discuss. And know when guests just want a drink instead of even a hint of pleasantries much less a lecture.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

FY: I would be remiss if I did not name Sam Gabrielli who helped shape me from a restaurant industry newbie into a bartender. I am also thankful for fellow bartender Adam Hockman; when I have complained about certain situations, instead of just giving me a “that sucks” reply, he offers solid advice gathered from his years of experience behind the stick.

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

FY: Always be closing. Bartending is a job that relies on salesmanship, and less about glorified ideals.  Success at previous jobs meant completing projects by a deadline, but that was not tied to my salary which was pretty much fixed. One of the bar backs agreed that learning to close is an important life skill, whether for money or for romance, that should be learned as early in life as possible. Indeed, the movie GlengarryGlen Ross has taught me that coffee’s for closers.

21 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part III: Dan Valachovic of Vee Vee

Dan Valachovic of Vee Vee, Jamaica Plain, MA
Photo courtesy of Dan Valachovic
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the third one, my unedited interview with Dan Valachovic, co-owner of Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain. I included Dan because of his intent focus on local craft beers, a real plus at an already great little indie neighborhood place that I originally reviewed back in 2011. I’m glad to be able to publish his thoughtful answers here, which had to be cut severely for publication.

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MC SLIM JB: Vee Vee is a neighborhood joint leaning local, seasonal and sustainable, with a bar focus on small, local craft brewers. A lot of newcomers seem to be copying your template. Meanwhile, Bostonians have gotten geekier about beer, and their options in like-minded bars have expanded greatly. You were ahead of that curve: what changes have you seen in your customers, suppliers?

DAN VALACHOVIC: The biggest change in the customers has been in trusting what we are putting on our draught list. There are so many new breweries in the area just in the last several years, and many new options for consumers. Our regular customers have come to respect and trust my palate and style of beer that I gravitate towards, and seem happy to try whatever new offering might be available. 

MC: How has it changed your philosophy (if at all) and product mix? What does that rising tide mean for your bar program going forward?

DV: I have found myself digging deeper with specialty distributors and importers in an effort to keep things fresh and current. We are also in talks with JP's Streetcar Wine & Beer shop about collaborating with local breweries for one-off brews. Establishing personal relationships with the local brewers is very important to me and a key to staying on top of things.

Moving forward, I actually like the idea of paring back rather than adding more. We have only four draught lines and about 20 bottles on our list; it's a fun challenge to curate those lists in a way that is interesting and exciting. No fluff or filler.

MC: Beer that you wish more customers would order?

DV: I recently added a rare Belgian beer called De Dolle Arabier to the bottle list. While all of the other beers on the list contain descriptors conveying style and flavor profiles, I simply describe this as "Dan's favorite beer in the world". It's been very interesting to see regulars as well as first-timers order it and monitor their reaction. I've yet to encounter anyone that hasn't thoroughly enjoyed it (or, at least anyone willing to tell me they haven't enjoyed it!)

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

DV: Any of the mass-produced yellow lagers. On the rare occasion that someone asks for one, we point them to a can of Notch Session Pils. It's probably a little hoppier than they are expecting, but most are satisfied.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., tool, book, glassware, etc.?

DV: I built myself a keg fridge in my cellar at home. It's very satisfying to have your favorite beer readily available on demand.

MC, aside: I am green with envy!

MC: Beer style that more customers should be trying?

DV: I really enjoy beers that are fermented with Brettanomyces yeast. When properly used, it can give a beer a tropical, funky complexity that you wouldn't otherwise see.

MC: What’s your favorite example to introduce a newbie to it?

DV: Orval is a Belgian Trappist ale that is fermented with a traditional ale yeast and then re-fermented in the bottle with a slight amount of Brett yeast. So if you try a young bottle next to one that has aged for several months, you can begin to see its effect on the flavor profile. Belgian beer bars often offer different vintages of Orval on their menus: I've been thinking of adding this option as well.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

DV: Tuesday nights either between 5:30-7:00pm or 9:30-10:30pm.

MC: You may have seen this article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

DV: We don't have any of our own, but after that article ran we adopted the "I need you to bar back seat six for me" as a way to retrieve the forgotten name of a regular customer.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

DV: Whatever Trillium beer is currently on tap. Last night was their American Blonde ale, Pocket Pigeon.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

DV: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the Big Star documentary.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

DV: Nothing beats a shandy at the beach. Last summer I bought a case of Leinenkugel’s version, but rumor has it that Narragansett and [RI frozen lemonade maker] Del’s will be teaming up this year, which sounds awesome.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your place?

DV: Last week I stopped off at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine for a quick lunch and had a fried oyster bun and an Oxbow Farmhouse Pale Ale. The sandwich perfectly balances the airy softness of the Asian-style bun with the crunch of the fried oyster and tanginess of tartar sauce and some pickled onions. That lunch is crave-worthy and worth the trip.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

DV: The Galway House on Centre Street in JP is a go-to for a post-shift beer and bar pizza. J.J. Foley’s Fireside Tavern near Forest Hills is the place to go when we feel like darts. Pleasant Cafe is a dependable old-school classic out in Rozzie.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

DV: I keep it pretty simple: a greasy burger, plenty of water and Advil. And a nap.

MC: Most interesting current trend in beer?

DV: Beer brewers experimenting with slight variations on a style. Trillium Brewing and Mystic Brewery are two locals that I see tweaking a standard of theirs just slightly to emphasize how a different hop, grain or yeast can affect the final product.

MC? Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend:

DV: Yuengling.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

DV: Listing serving sizes and ABV of beers on beer menus. It's important to know, especially if you have a long night ahead.

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

DV: State Park. The whole place was designed around having fun and that's exactly what they've accomplished.

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

DV: There's a year-old place in Austin, Texas that I've read about called Craft Pride. They have 52 lines of Texas-only craft beers and park a bacon food truck in their back patio. I look forward to spending an afternoon there some day educating myself on all things Texas beer.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper has ever said about you or your place?

DV: I stay away from reading Yelp. Not much good can come from the anxiety it brings on.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

DV: John Gertsen. He has been a class act innovator for as long as I've been going out in Boston.

MC: Compose the question you think I should have asked, and answer it.

DV: "What are your top three most inspirational beer bars?" 1) The Other Side, Boston (RIP). I had my beer “Aha!” moment there many years ago when I ordered a Duvel with my lunch. That was the moment I realized there was a lot more to beer than I had thought. 2) Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn. They only have a handful of draught lines but the selection is so well thought out. It feels like a funky European cafe inside and all of the furnishings and art and knickknacks are for sale. 3) ‘t Velootje, Ghent, Belgium. I was there is the middle of the winter-- the place has no heat, just a fireplace that the owner feeds rubbish into over the course of the night. There is no beer list, he just pours you what he happens to have that day. Somehow it is just the most wonderful place to enjoy a few beers.

17 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part II: Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen

Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen, Brookline, MA
Photo courtesy of Will Isaza
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the second one, my unedited interview with Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen, an independent restaurant in Washington Square, Brookline. I first got to know Will as I was researching my review of Fairsted for The Improper, where he impressed me as a relatively new talent.

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MC SLIM JB: Will, you've probably seen my Improper Bostonian review of Fairsted Kitchen, in which I note its extraordinary hospitality ethos. You may have read my essay about the importance of hospitality to the bartender's game. Is hospitality something that can be learned, or is it purely innate? Did you come in with that inclination already built-in? How does Fairsted cultivate that attitude in the staff?

WILL ISAZA: I think that if someone wants to make a career out of this industry, hospitality should be the first priority. We are in the business of satisfying people through food and drink, but having that little extra flair to make a guest smile I don't think can be taught. I've always loved meeting new people and interacting with many different personalities, it's pretty cool to have a job where I can do that on a nightly basis. My bosses; Andrew Foster, Steve Bowman, and Patrick Gaggiano, have instilled much of that philosophy at Fairsted. They want everyone who walks through the door to feel as though they're at home having dinner/drinks amongst family. Of course that only works because of the staff, we all kind of have that family sense as a staff including management and ownership, therefore that is reflected when we are in the middle of service. Being a small staff helps a lot, but we all genuinely like each other and I don't think that was a mistake. Those guys just really enjoy creating a home style environment and having a great time with guests, which not many places in Boston can do. 

MC: Measure or free-pour?

WI: Mostly measure.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

WI: Vieux Carre.

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

WI: None, they all should be consumed by those who love them!

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

WI: Just give me ice and a Boston shaker and I'll figure out the rest. I'm not really one to be picky about that stuff.  

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

WI: To quote Mr. [Andrew] Foster, "Never really had annoying guests, just people who don't know what they want". And that's what we're here for. 

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

WI: Back when I first started tending bar, I was working a busy Friday night service bar, and the guests in front of me got into a really huge argument and proceeded to start their divorce as they had dinner. I gave them a couple shots and told them to love each other, the woman involved immediately started crying and left the bar. Whoops. 

MC: Spirit, wine or beer that more customers should be trying?

WI: Rum or rhum [agricole]. You would think people drink more of it, but they really don't. 

MC: Your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?

WI: It all depends on the individual and what flavors they naturally enjoy. Everyone is different. I never really have a "go-to" recipe without interacting with someone. 

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

WI: I would say Mondays at around 6pm or Tuesdays at around 5pm

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

WI: "Getting Crowed" is unique to Fairsted Kitchen. We treat our VIP guests to a fantastic shot of Old Crow Reserve. 

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

WI: Whisky or whiskey, that's it.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

WI: Esquire's Handbook for Hosts (1953). An awesome handbook on how to be the life of any party. 

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

WI: Daiquiris all around, please. Guests seem confused when I tell them that, but most of my peers share my affinity for daiquiris -- don't you?

[MC: Yep.]

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your employer's?

WI: In Boston I haven't really had time to go out and about because of work, but on vacation, Sylvain in New Orleans was the last great memorable meal I had and would recommend in a heartbeat. The meal was solid from start to finish and the one dish that stood out the most to me was a braised Wagyu beef belly on a bed of toasted parsnips. Just saying it makes me want to go back! 

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

WI: Sligo in Davis Square has always been great, but recently, O’Leary’s on Beacon Street in Brookline has slowly but surely become a black hole of greatness. 

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

WI: Cure? The key is to never go to sleep. 

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails, beer or wine?

WI: I would put bottled cocktails and beer cocktails at the top of the list for current trends. 

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

WI: Bars calling themselves "craft cocktail bars" as opposed to just bars. Over-hyped and bullshit. All great bars should be able to make you a great cocktail and tell you everything you need to know about the ingredients used. 

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

WI: As a guest, I wish that bartenders would focus more on helping me have a great time, rather than just feed me information on what I'm drinking. Most of the times I go to bars to drink, eat, and have a good time, not to be educated.  

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

WI: I think Boston as a whole is killing it right now. It's really tough to single out any one bar. 

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

WI: Bar High Five in Tokyo is definitely up in my Bucket List. The Floridita in Havana and Bodeguita Del Medio in Havana, which I have had the pleasure of attending were the two bars that I really wanted to go to for a long time. I remember the bartender at Bodeguita Del Medio looked at me and said, "Here is the first mojito you have ever had, all the rest have been merely an imitation". Paired with a handmade Cohiba, it was by far the best bar experience I've ever had. 

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

WI: I would tell an aspiring bartender to always keep in mind that your job is to make other people happy, not just yourself. And to enjoy every moment behind any bar, because if you don't enjoy what you’re doing or where you work, then what’s the point? Cocktails, beer, wine, etc. can always be taught and you will only learn as much as you allow yourself to learn.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

WI: The first bar manager I ever worked for definitely showed me the ropes and gave me a chance when a lot of people wouldn't. I would say that my style of tending bar was greatly influenced by what he taught me. Also my brother, Moe Isaza, currently a manager at Grafton Street, always pushed me to try new things, and from him I learned the most important thing of all: if I'm not having fun while I'm behind a bar, the people I'm serving won't be either. 

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

WI: Communication in every aspect has definitely been the most useful life skill that tending bar has taught me. You would be surprised how many people start problems and/or misunderstandings by simply not being able to communicate.

15 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part I: Ezra Star of Drink


Ezra Star of Drink, Boston, MA
Photo courtesy of Ezra Star
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the first one, my unedited interview with Ezra Star of Drink, one of my personal favorites among an absurdly talented staff at one of Boston’s most popular and acclaimed craft cocktail bars.

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MC SLIM JB: Drink (the bar) is arguably Boston’s most nationally-famous craft cocktail destination; it’s been a while since I’ve been by when there weren’t dense crowds and a line out the door. How do you balance the demands of high-volume service with the ideal of a personalized cocktail experience?

EZRA STAR: Balancing the demands of high volume service and individual attention can be very difficult especially in a place that doesn't have a menu. The first way I deal with this is to not think about making drinks. We have to make a ton of drinks, but the more focused I can be on the people at my bar the better. I rely on creating and refining systems that allow the team as a whole to execute and refine the standards of Drink.

MC: Measure or free-pour?

ES: Drink uses OXO stainless steel cups for measuring, which I find to be very quick and easy measuring tools. The problem with them, though, is that as you use them, the numbers eventually wear off, so essentially we are free-pouring our drinks. My personal preference is to free pour, but I trust myself when I make a drink. At this point I have made at least ten thousand cocktails and know by sight and feel generally what a quarter-ounce, ounce, or whatever is when it comes out of a bottle. When I go out, unless the person seems as though they know what they are doing, I prefer to see them measure.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

ES: I would love to see people ordering more brandy-based drinks, especially women. Nine times out of ten, if I have someone who claims to not like whiskey or dark alcohol, I can always surprise them with a brandy-based drink and they love it.

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

ES: The Long Island Iced Tea. I love them, but come on... I know you want to get drunk; let's be a little more aggressive. How about a 151 all-dark-alcohol Long Island?

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

ES: My most prized bartending tool is my ice saw. I love the thing, I even engraved some stars on it to make it known to whom it belongs. Plus it looks pretty bad-ass sticking out of my bag when I'm walking to work. I feel like an Edo-period samurai walking through the city.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

ES: Asking about my tattoos, or grabbing my arms while I'm making drinks to ask about my tattoos.

MC, aside: Kids, remember the ice saw.

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

ES: I had been working for about ten days straight and had just finished making six Ramos Gin Fizzes when on my seventh, the shaker slid from my hand and went into the lap of the person across from me at the bar and covered her in cream and egg. She was really nice about it (though I don't think she'll ever order another one), but I was pretty embarrassed.

MC: What spirit, wine or beer should more customers be trying, and what do you suggest to introduce a newbie to it?

ES: Armagnac, grappa, Cognac, anything made from grapes. A great introduction is Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac. I love it so much I actually have a habit of signing the back of every bottle I see.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

ES: I am always down to talk about booze and making drinks, but because of how busy we get, I tend to ask people to come in early on Tuesday, Wednesdays or Thursdays (and by early, I mean when we open at 4pm).

MC: You may have seen this article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers? 

ES: My favorite one is "In the pool", as in someone who is only getting water or is too drunk to have drinks.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

ES: Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac in a glass.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

ES: House of Cards for a show, but I have been reading this amazing book called What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert and it has been blowing my mind.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

ES: Apricot Sour: 2 ounces of Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, half an ounce of simple, and half an ounce of lemon. It is so good, so sweet, and so wrong.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had other than at your place?

ES: I recently went to Fairsted Kitchen and was blown away by what they are doing over there!

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

ES: An Italian Greyhound cocktail and pho. Recently after an incredible night of birthday drinking, I had to come in at noon hungover to cut some ice. The salt rim of the Italian Greyhound and the soup were the only things that got me through it.

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails, wine or beer?

ES: Loire Valley reds seem to be popping up all over the place. Love it!

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

ES: Drinking orange bitters.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of? 

ES: Good sound. So many places have shitty sound systems or sound proofing.

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

ES: Sarma. Amazing food, wine and cocktails. I love what these guys are doing, just wish I lived a little closer to them.

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

ES: Happiness Forgets (London), Artisan (London), Callooh Callay (London), William and Graham (Denver), Honeycut (LA), Experimental Cocktail Club (Paris), The Black Pearl (Australia), Alembic (San Fran), Rick House (San Fran), Trick Dog (San Fran), Anvil (Houston).

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?

ES: "They have a line to get in. Why don't they just let more people in?"

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame? 

ES: John Gertsen and Misty Kalkofen

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

ES: Work hard, read everything you can about what you do, forget what you read, find a person who will yell at you to forget, then look at the people on the other side of the bar and get to know them.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor. 

ES: I have had the privilege to work for some of the industry's most amazing people, and I am still blown away by Scott Marshall [formerly of Drink, now at 22 Square in Savannah, GA.] The things I learned from him are still echoing in my mind to this day.

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

ES: Learning to listen to other people.

07 July 2014

My Contributions to The Improper Bostonian's Boston's Best Food & Drink 2014

Photo courtesy of The Improper Bostonian
The Improper Bostonian's 2014 Boston's Best Awards issue just came out. I encouraged the editors to create a bunch of new award categories in the Food & Drink section, helped select the winners, and did the write-ups for half of them, including many places I've reviewed in recent years. The following were my contributions:

Barbecue: Sweet Cheeks Q
Bartender: Katie Emmerson at The Hawthorne
Burger: Craigie on Main
Butcher Shop: M.F. Dulock Pasture-Raised Meats
Cheese: Formaggio Kitchen
Coffee Shop: Thinking Cup
Comeback: Delux Cafe
Deli: Moody's Delicatessen & Provisions
Dessert: Clio
Diner: My Diner
Dinner with a View: Sam's at Louis Boston
Food Truck: Fugu Truck
Greek: Esperia Grill
Hidden Gem: Gene's Chinese Flatbread
Hot Dog: Que Padre Taqueria y Mas
Indian: India Quality
Italian: Prezza
Lobster Roll: Belle Isle Seafood
Mexican: El Centro
Neighborhoods -- Back Bay: The Salty Pig
Neighborhoods -- Brookline: Fairsted Kitchen
Neighborhoods -- Cambridge, Porter Square: Giulia
Neighborhoods -- Davis Square: Posto
Neighborhoods -- Downtown Crossing / Fi-Di: Marliave
Neighborhoods -- East Boston: Rino's Place
Neighborhoods -- Fenway / Kenmore: Audubon Boston
Neighborhoods -- Fort Point: Pastoral
Neighborhoods -- North End: Neptune Oyster
Neighborhoods -- South Boston: Cafe Porto Bello
Neighborhoods -- South End: Merrill & Co.
Neighborhoods -- Union Square: Bronwyn
New Restaurant: Alden & Harlow
Pho: Pho Le Vietnamese Cuisine, Dorchester
Pop-Up: The Future of Junk Food
Salads: Stephi's in Southie
Sandwich: Cutty's
Sommelier: Theresa Paopao at Ribelle
Spanish: Toro
Thai: Thai North
Torta: Tenoch Mexican
Unwelcome Trend: Earsplitting Noise in Dining Rooms
Vegetarian/Vegan: Root
Welcome Trend: Shareable Plates

25 June 2014

From the Archives: "Leftovers: Testing the enduring appeal of some of Boston’s old-school dining favorites"

The now-closed and crumbling Anthony's Pier 4
Photo courtesy of Chris Rich
As some of my old published work gradually fades from view online -- in this case, as the archives of Phoenix Media's bygone publications The Boston Phoenix and Stuff Magazine become more unreliable -- I will occasionally reprint pieces here, like this old Stuff cover feature. Filed with the proposed title, "Your Fifteen Minutes Were Up Fifteen Years Ago", it recounted my visits to four Boston restaurants that had passed their peak of fame and critical acclaim, former "It Places" still coasting on ancient laurels. It is perhaps unsurprising that five years on, none of them remains in business. Sic transit gloria.

LEFTOVERS
Testing the enduring appeal of some of Boston’s old-school dining favorites
by MC Slim JB
Stuff Magazine, February 23, 2009

Ever been to dinner and wondered, "Damn, is this the hottest restaurant in Boston right now?" The signs are obvious. Weekend prime-time reservations are like gold. The bar is four-deep with walk-ins waiting an hour-plus for a table. There’s excitement in the air, in your glass, on the plate. You spot a local celebrity or two. You can’t wait to tell your friends how amazing it is. You’re at an It Place, alright.

Of course, seasoned observers know that It Places don’t stay that way for long. Most have their moment in the sun and quickly fade. The crowd that makes it their obsessive business to patronize only the freshest of the fresh has a short attention span – after a few months, it grows bored and moves on, anointing another darling du jour. Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper.

Boston’s restaurant landscape is pocked with the craters of meteoric stars that flared briefly before crashing to earth, like Excelsior, a former Back Bay hotspot that abruptly shut down last month. The current economic freefall is partly to blame: many high-end restaurants are struggling to survive the drastic shrinkage in business entertaining. But Excelsior had already lost whatever edginess made it exciting when it opened in 2004. After a white-hot debut, it faded into the Not-It twilight, becoming just another expensively-decorated restaurant with an unchallenging menu, crazily-priced wines, and a bar prowled by plump businessmen and flinty-eyed gold-diggers. Its last-fresh-sale date was a distant memory.

So how is it that certain former It Places – restaurants whose bright, shining moment passed years before Excelsior’s – manage to survive despite the imploding economy? Knowledgeable locals may dismiss them with a, "Pfah, that place started sliding ten years ago", or, "Oh, I guess we loved it as kids when our grandparents took us there", but they’re still packing in the customers. One theory is that today’s faded-It-Place patrons are naïfs who’ve been sold a bill of goods: clueless tourists following their hotel-room dining guides, business travelers steered by graft-collecting concierges, local rubes who think the Phantom Gourmet is not only funny but untainted by sponsor bribery.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? Could these superannuated superstars still have something worthwhile to offer? How fun would it be to convince your food-snob friend that a restaurant she derides as a passé tourist trap is in fact a hidden gem? I decided to test this contrarian idea by revisiting a few restaurants that are still popular, despite not having been The Hotness since at least before the arrival of PlayStation 2.

Todd English neglected to pay his bills at Olives Charlestown
Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe
RESTAURANT: OLIVES
PEAK OF IT-NESS: 15 YEARS AGO

I checked in first at Olives Charlestown, which for a long time was one of the most critically-acclaimed and popular restaurants in town, but now inspires indifference from many once-ardent fans. (Olives failed to even crack the top 50 of Boston Magazine’s recent ranking of local restaurants, a composite of the reviews of Boston’s major food critics.) How did the first smash hit from chef/owner Todd English, one of the most successful and telegenic chefs ever to emerge from Boston, fall so far from the top of the heap?

When Olives debuted as a 50-seat Charlestown storefront in 1989, English was the smokingest young chef on the scene. His take on rustic Italian cooking was creative, fresh, and full of bold, concentrated flavors. (Some critics carped at "too many tastes on the plate", but I disagreed, adoring his dense, fiercely-flavored compositions.) With a no-reservations policy, Olives had folks lining the sidewalk before the doors opened each night; two-hour waits for tables were common. It was a brilliant, deserved success.

English got progressively more ambitious, moving Olives to a larger location and opening his first Figs pizzeria. He added Kingfish Hall and Bonfire, more Olives and Figs outlets, and eventually another dozen restaurants around the world, attaining bona fide celebrity-chef stature. But running an empire left English with little time to actually cook at his flagship restaurant; Olives’ quality suffered under the stewardship of various lieutenants.

Twenty years on, Olives still draws crowds, though it now takes reservations. A recent visit revealed a crumbling physical plant (men’s-room partitions falling off the walls) and indifferent bartenders decanting overly-sweet $11 cocktails into unchilled glasses. One appetizer was a delightful echo of Olives’ glory days: a luxurious, truffle-flecked savory flan ($15) topped with fine wild mushrooms, foie gras and a wondrously intense reduction of veal stock. Entrees were pretty fine, too, like a slow-smoked lamb shank ($25) atop a rich root-vegetable mash, and a Flintstones-esque wood-grilled pork chop ($30) so moist it must have been brined, though it arrived overdone. But an appetizer of tagliatelli Bolognese ($11) was a major misfire: overcooked fresh pasta drowning in truffle butter and sporting a crown of carmine ragú crudely overseasoned with cinnamon. It was terrible in concept and execution, a dish that would never have been served had The Man Himself been in the kitchen.

Other aberrations cropped up, too, like a neighboring couple’s side order, a football-sized mound of deep-fried onion strings ($8). This seemed better suited to a casual-dining chain like the nearby Ninety-Nine than the restaurant where English won two James Beard awards. Service was sweet and mostly attentive if a bit callow, but at $200 including a modest bottle of wine, dinner for two was a distinctly uneven, unsatisfying experience. For those of us who remember how perfectly delicious Olives was in the days before English became a superstar, when he was at the stove every night, it’s a cautionary tale on the perils of expansion. Maybe Gordon Hamersley, a chef/owner of lesser fame and fortune whose single, far-more-consistent restaurant still makes the top ten lists, is onto something after all.
Olives, 10 City Sq., Charlestown, 617-242-1999


Harbor view of the forlorn Anthony's Pier 4
Photo courtesy of Chris Rich
RESTAURANT: ANTHONY’S PIER 4
PEAK OF IT-NESS: 30 YEARS AGO

I moved on to Anthony’s Pier 4, which my dad, back when he was a high-flying salesman, favored for celebrating his big business deals. Anthony’s was the reigning king of Boston fine dining in the 1970s, an oversized temple to Americanized Continental cuisine and fancy New England seafood whose football-field-sized parking lot was always full. Pretty harbor views, one of the city’s biggest and best wine lists, the bustle of a cavernous dining room, and an always-throbbing bar scene made it the preferred haunt of the city’s movers and shakers. For a long while, it was the It Place for the thousands of Bostonians who would never (or could never) set foot in the stuffy French restaurants and Yankee private clubs that otherwise dominated fine dining at the time.

Thirty years later, Anthony’s remains pretty much a fly in amber, exactly what it was in its heyday. Formally-clad waiters still wheel out trolleys laden with lobster bisque ($11.95), New England clam chowder ($6.95), and bouillabaisse ($12.95). The deluxe raw bar platter ($49.95) is a showy pile of local raw oysters, cherrystones, littlenecks, shrimp, mussels and lobster on a mountain of crushed ice. Popular entrees include scrod ($24.95), baked stuffed shrimp ($27.95), grilled swordfish ($27.95), a pound-and-a-quarter boiled lobster ($32.95), and prime rib ($31.95). The a la carte menu boasts old-school sides like char-broiled onions and ratatouille Provençale (both $7.95). You can even order a proper Grand Marnier soufflé ($9.95).

If all this sounds like a short step up from the dinner buffet on a mid-market cruise ship, you’re not far off. Anthony’s crowds might be the oldest in town; its tables are spaced widely enough to accommodate walkers. Every other party seems to be celebrating some golden anniversary or diamond birthday. Boston’s dining scene has become a UN of global influences, but you’d never know it here, aside from a lonely sashimi platter ($19.95). We recently took my now-wheelchair-bound dad there, and you could see him reliving his glory days, when his expense account would let him order fine French wines and that giant raw-bar platter for his clients, then grandly commandeer the check. At Anthony’s, it’s still 1979 in the kitchen, and that’s exactly how its nostalgic, snowy-haired customers like it.
Anthony’s Pier 4, 140 Northern Blvd., Boston, 617-482-6262


The bygone Locke-Ober Room in its goldenly glowing glory days
Photo courtesy of The Hub's Metropolis
RESTAURANT: LOCKE-OBER
PEAK OF IT-NESS: 45 YEARS AGO

Next I visited Locke-Ober, which opened in 1875 as the kind of hushed, formal, mahogany-and-old-mirror-lined room then favored by our dwindling Brahmin class. You’ve seen them around town, those gaunt old WASPs with good Beacon Hill addresses and family fortunes dating to the 17th century. One family at a nearby table was prototypical: mom in the Hermes scarf, Chanel suit, and helmet of white hair resembled an 80s-vintage Barbara Bush, while her son, fortyish in brown tweeds and a hand-tied bow tie, probably played squash with Tucker Carlson when they prepped at St. George’s.

Locke-Ober’s peak of national fame occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy (the Hope and Change candidate of 1960), whose family loved the joint precisely because as arrivistes they coveted its aristocratic sheen. In a token of his clan’s belated acceptance by the Palm Beach set, the superb lobster stew ($18) is now named after JFK. But by the 1990s, this grande dame was distinctly threadbare: I used to worry that the ceiling paint might flake off into my chowder. The 19th-century menu looked like a worn relic, too. Bostonians were flocking to nouvelle French and New American cuisine: Dover sole Meunière and Wiener Schnitzel a la Holstein seemed about as hip as Burt Parks singing Auld Lang Syne.

Then along came Lydia Shire, one of Boston’s most original and beloved chefs, who decided to rescue Locke-Ober and renew its former luster. With a deep-pocketed partner, she bought it in 2001, restored the space’s fin-de-siècle elegance, and subtly refreshed the menu in her signature style, adding bits of offal here, unusual vegetables there, and Mediterranean accents throughout. The old formal flourishes – rolls served on silver salvers, individual salt-cellars, the flattering glow of Art Nouveau sconces – remained. (One regrettable holdover is the 1970s-vintage bartending; if any place ought to catch up to the current revival of Golden Age cocktail craft, it’s Locke-Ober’s handsome little bar.)

Despite the recent, much-buzzed-about suspension of lunch service -- a terrifying omen for local restaurants -- Locke-Ober continues to host big parties of trophy-wine-swilling Financial District types celebrating whatever remaining deals they’re still winning. One nearby table full of navy and gray suits overflowed with slurred toasts to Mammon, racks of lamb ($42), prime strip steaks ($44), and gargantuan lobster Savannahs ($62). I ordered one of those old-school classics that isn’t much seen anymore, a perfectly-tender, barely-seared calf’s liver ($28) with two beautiful, oversized onion rings, bacon, carefully fried parsley, and (thanks to Shire), a balsamic/fig reduction loaded with toasted garlic.

My server, in his traditional vest, bowtie and apron, was a steely, dignified old pro who monitored his tables like a hawk, swooping in with finesse to fulfill his customers’ whims, something he’s been doing here for thirty years. I finished with baked Alaska ($11), another bygone classic: a spiky, flambéed snowball of meringue encasing a thin layer of cake with strawberry and vanilla ice cream, flanked by strawberry sauce and fresh berries. Grandma would surely have oohed at that one.

So on reflection, maybe Locke-Ober doesn’t belong on this list. Its resuscitation under the loving eye of a certified celebrity chef brought it some brief attention from trend-scenting exurban lemmings. But mainly it resists the strongest tides of modernity, holding out as the last dining room in town where patrons in sneakers or jeans are firmly refused a table. Locke-Ober abides more as an indispensable fixture, a Mecca to which faithful habitués of the dining scene should make at least one hajj. Not ever really an It Place, I hope it remains as an Always There Place.
Locke-Ober, 3 Winter Pl., Boston, 617-542-1340



Seasons, once a great incubator of chef talent, disappeared and nobody noticed
Photo courtesy of the Boston Business Journal
RESTAURANT: SEASONS
PEAK OF IT-NESS: 25 YEARS AGO

My last stop was Seasons at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel, which in the early 1980s was an essential station on the Boston food-geek circuit. The owners had a knack for hiring immensely talented, fast-rising chefs to execute the restaurant’s innovative New American menu; many left to attain local and national stardom on their own. Seasons launched the independent careers of Jasper White, Lydia Shire, Jody Adams, Gordon Hamersley, Scott Hebert, Peter McCarthy, Tony Ambrose, and many others.

As I walked up to the hotel, I thought, "Nobody talks about Seasons anymore, but maybe it’s hiding the next Tony Maws or Barry Maiden. Hmm, where did the entrance go?" The doorman ruefully informed me that Seasons had closed nine months ago, converted into a ballroom. I felt a pang: a wellspring of Boston’s culinary renaissance had vanished, unremarked and unlamented. I mentally lit a candle for Seasons, wondering how a former It Place could fade away with most of us not even noticing.

That experience left me hoping that restaurateurs remember to cherish their regulars, the folks who come in on a Tuesday night when it’s snowing, and will still be there when the trend-moths have fluttered along to the newest sparkly light in town. And I reminded myself that it’s never good as a diner to get too wrapped up in the pursuit of novelty – especially when the pressures of the economy now threaten to put many worthy restaurants out of business. While you’re out scrambling for a table at this week’s Miss Thing, you’re neglecting a solid old standby in your back yard that may be dying. And guess which one you’ll miss more if they both disappear?

11 April 2014

From the Archives: Squeegee Your Anomie with Rye Whiskey

Max Toste of Deep Ellum decants a Rye Manhattan
(photo courtesy of The Boston Herald)
As I rarely have time to create original essays for this blog, I occasionally reprint ancient pieces of mine, including articles I wrote long ago for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig (now known as Dig Boston), many of which became unavailable online after its mid-2007 website makeover.

Here’s one of a series of cocktail pieces I did for The Dig focusing on little-known and underappreciated spirits, in this case, American straight rye whiskey. Rye was just making its comeback in Boston bars with the help of the scene’s best craft cocktail purveyors; few local food writers seemed to have noticed. I also suspect this is a very early mention in the Boston press of a raw-egg cocktail.

SQUEEGEE YOUR ANOMIE WITH RYE WHISKEY
It’s a film noir world: drop that Technicolor cocktail
First published in Boston’s Weekly Dig, February 21, 2007

Rye commands reverence among booze historians as America’s oldest whiskey, the original base of ancient cocktails like the Manhattan. Yet despite cultish adherents and growing press attention, rye cruises in the blind spot of most Boston bartenders. Order it and you’re liable to get a blank stare, or an unassuming blended Canadian whisky like Crown Royal, a substitute that Americans had to settle for during Prohibition. Repeal came too late to restore American rye’s fortunes: bourbon had usurped the American whiskey throne, relegating the impoverished surviving ryes to the plebian front-end of Boilermakers.

Philip Marlowe, the archetypal private detective of 1940s hardboiled crime fiction, slugged rye from bottles stashed in his desk and glove box. Preferring brash rye to sweeter, mellower bourbon flagged Raymond Chandler’s protagonist as an old-school hard guy. The assertive bite Marlowe favored is distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain (where bourbon uses sugar-rich corn) and aged in charred-oak barrels. Respectable ryes under $40 are still produced by venerable brands like Van Winkle and Sazerac, but this roughneck is also getting the super-premium makeover: you can now drop $100 or more on 21-year-old ryes from boutique producers like The Classic Cask.

As for cocktails, rye’s emphatic character is ill-suited to the sickly-sweet concoctions that rookies order when they graduate from Goldschläger shots. Crafting a well-balanced rye cocktail demands a certain scholarly, 19th-century rigor and inventiveness. Such precise bartending chops are cultivated at only a handful of local bars, like Cambridge’s B-Side Lounge, which spearheaded Boston's vintage-cocktail revival and has trained some of our best mixologists. At these elite establishments, rye is one tool in the campaign to hoist Boston drinkers out of the dark age of chocolate “martinis”. When you’re ready for a grown-up drink with some grizzled authenticity, try curling your lip like Bogart and ordering a rye cocktail from one of these expert purveyors.

Green Street. Dylan Black, proprietor of this recently-remade Central Square restaurant that serves robust New England fare, is an accomplished barman and savant of American imbibing history. His long cocktail list prominently features rye. The Daisy Black ($7.50) – named for his great-grandfather, himself a bartender in rye’s original heyday – softens the burred edges of Old Overholt rye with fresh lemon juice and honey syrup. More adventurous tipplers might try the Toronto ($8), a prize fight in a cocktail glass: jangly rye duking it out with blackish, poisonously-bitter Fernet Branca, with simple syrup trodden underfoot. You might flirt with the cross-dressing weirdness of the Double Standard ($8), which drapes rye in fruity, Cosmo-pink togs of Plymouth gin, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. Or you could just savor some Michter’s rye ($6) plain with a bit of water, a better match for this gastro-tavern’s bluff, unaffected charm.

Green Street, 280 Green St, Cambridge. 617.876.1655 www.greenstreetgrill.com/

Deep Ellum. This Allston newcomer serves a creative pub-food menu, but is foremost a connoisseur’s beer bar with 22 drafts, 90+ bottles, a cask unit, and lots of brew-specific glassware. Fortunately, co-owner Max Toste is also a devotee of old-time cocktails like the Sazerac ($7): Old Overholt rye, Peychaud’s bitters and simple syrup stirred with ice, decanted into a cocktail glass rinsed with anise-scented Absente pastis, finished with a lemon twist. After just one, I feel like an honored guest at a particularly well-appointed French Quarter brothel. Less complicated but also delightful is the Rye Sour ($7), rye and a house-made sour mix of fresh citrus juices and sugar. With several brands to choose from, including Old Potrero, a 100%-malt-rye straight whiskey from San Francisco that Max declares “better for sipping”, we’ll return to explore obscure corners of Deep Ellum’s vintage bar guides. Maybe that beer list, too.

Deep Ellum, 477 Cambridge St, Allston. 617-787-2337, www.deepellum-boston.com/

No. 9 Park. The cocktail cheffery practiced at this luxury Italian/French restaurant near the State House may be the best in Boston, worth suffering the obnoxious company of its toffee-nosed Beacon Hill regulars. Occasional twee flourishes of molecular gastronomy, like toppings of nitrous-oxide foams, are forgivable: the bar staff executes the classics with integrity and impeccable ingredients. A Green Point ($11) takes Old Overholt rye and Punt e Mes, an intensely-aromatized Italian sweet vermouth, and adds Green Chartreuse liqueur for herbal complexity and a faint sweetness. The result is a multi-faceted, mahogany-hued riff on the Manhattan, gorgeously trimmed with a fresh cherry steeped in Maraschino liqueur (no horrific candied-clown-nose garnishes here). After dinner, I order a Rye Flip ($10). Heads swivel as Courtney [Hennessey] cracks a raw egg into a dry shaker, agitates it, adds ice, Rittenhouse rye and simple syrup, shakes it again long and hard, strains it into a claret glass, and grinds some fresh nutmeg on top. Half the bar watches my first swallow; the effete blueblood-wannabe on my left cringes with nausea. I grin. This is what real nog is supposed to taste like: rich, potent, just barely sweet. I feel virtuous, vigorous, like a star in my own black-and-white movie. While I agree with Chandler that “It is not a fragrant world,” the right rye cocktail can certainly refresh it for a moment.

No. 9 Park, 9 Park St, Boston. 617.742.9991 www.no9park.com

17 December 2013

RIP, Peter O'Toole. Glad I Got to Review You in "Ratatouille"

Image courtesy of Picture Show Pundits
I was sorry to read of the passing of Peter O’Toole, the great old British actor I much admired in films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Stunt Man, The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year. But I was especially tickled by one film performance that many obituaries omitted: his icy Parisian restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s 2007 animated feature Ratatouille.

Aside from O’Toole’s vivid voice work, I loved the fact that -- six-year-old-movie spoiler alert -- the chef/hero, a rat from the provinces who improbably ends up running a restaurant kitchen, manages to win over Ego’s hard-hearted professional spoilsport with an artfully-prepared Provençal comfort-food dish that hits the critic’s nostalgia button.

When the film debuted, I was writing only restaurant reviews and food/drink features for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig; doing a film review was a lark. As it happened, I loved the movie, even though its depiction of restaurants critics is a bit problematic.


The Dig redesigned its website in the summer of 2007 and in the process accidentally blew up its online archives, so I’m running it again here.
RIP, Mr. O’Toole. It’s not the size of the life, but the size of the liver.

From Boston’s Weekly Dig, 27 June 2007

RATATOUILLE
There’s a rat in me kitchen, thank goodness
Review by MC Slim JB


When the Dig asked me to provide a Chowhound’s take on Ratatouille – Pixar’s new computer-animated feature about a rat who aspires to be a great chef – I thought, what business does a food writer have reviewing movies? But as a restaurant habitué and cinephile, I’ve noticed the worlds of film and food have much in common. They’re collaborative efforts: a film’s scenarist, director, actors and other contributors mirror a restaurant’s chef, maître’d, servers, et. al. Enjoyment of each requires a couple of hours’ time and benefits from comfy seats and boon companions. Whether dining or viewing is the main event, discussing it afterward is part of the fun.

As you might expect, I love food-themed movies. I went in prepared to measure Ratatouille against the greats of the genre. It’s up against some stiff competition. My all-time favorite is Tampopo (1985, Japan), in which a trucker helps a young widow save her failing ramen stand by guiding her to the quintessential noodle soup recipe. It both respects and satirizes genre films, movie lovers and obsessive foodies, and it features some jaw-dropping scenes that deliriously conflate the pleasures of food and sex.

Another standout is Big Night (1996), in which two immigrant brothers struggle to keep their authentic Italian restaurant afloat in philistine-saturated 1950s New Jersey. The climactic feast, prepared for a VIP who never shows, looks like the giddiest, tastiest dinner party ever, while the wordless final scene is a lyrical reminder of how cooking and sharing a meal can express love and forgiveness.
Does Ratatouille belong in this rarified company?

It certainly has the bona fides. The film got the foodie community buzzing by hiring Thomas Keller – chef/owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, two of America’s mostly highly regarded restaurants – as a consultant. Keller assisted the filmmakers’ painstaking efforts to realistically re-create the look of a Parisian haute cuisine restaurant, how its kitchen works, and especially its cuisine. Co-writer/director Brad Bird – of The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) – has created a hero any food obsessive can identify with.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat with a hypersensitive nose, a refined palate and dreams of culinary greatness. He admires human cooking and covets people-food, to the bemusement of his garbage-scavenging family. Separated from them during an emergency evacuation of their nest in the French countryside, he lands in Paris in the kitchen of Gusteau’s, a down-at-the-heels fancy restaurant. The ghost of the late Gusteau himself (Brad Garrett), whose cookbooks and cooking shows have made him Remy’s hero, pops up periodically as mentor and conscience.

Remy forges a symbiotic relationship with the kitchen’s garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy doofus utterly bereft of cooking skills. Like Cyrano turning an inarticulate hunk into a silver-tongued Romeo, Remy becomes Linguini’s literal puppet master, making him a talented cook by proxy. With the rat guiding his actions, Linguini earns acclaim for himself and the enmity of the gnomish, scheming Skinner (Ian Holm), the restaurant’s current chef/owner.

Remy and Linguini’s other antagonist, restaurant critic Anton Ego (imperiously voiced by Peter O’Toole) may cause food writers everywhere to squirm, and not just because he looks like a refugee from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. The real affront is how the film misrepresents their profession. Ego’s a pompous aesthete, insufferably certain of his power and infallible taste. Wait, that’s not the error: it’s his announcement that he’ll dine at Gusteau’s the following evening to review it. I know that every local restaurateur recognizes the critics from Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald, ensuring they get fabulous meals, but good critics still cultivate anonymity, seeking the same treatment as their readers.

That’s a quibble in a film where the food looks so fabulous, the culinary technique so true to life. Ironically, another false note belongs to Keller, who designed the film’s dishes – most notably the titular specialty that Remy creates to impress Ego. Unlike most of Remy’s soulful, instinctive cooking, his ratatouille is a fussy, post-modern abstraction of the humble French peasant stew. Looking like a Bundt cake made of poker chips, ringed by a careful smear of sauce and crowned with a tiny sliver of basil, it’s the least appetizing entrée in the movie.

Mercifully, Ratatouille eschews the obnoxious pop-culture riffing that has plagued recent animated films, which should help it age much better than anything involving Robin Williams. The CG looks gorgeous: wet rat fur is a lovingly rendered as the sleek, Anna Karina-esque bob worn by Colette (Janeane Garofalo), the kitchen brigade’s feisty lone female cook. I’m grateful that Remy and his clan aren’t Disney-cute; they look especially rat-like when running for their lives, as they frequently must do, since most of the human characters loathe them.

Ratatouille features thrilling action sequences, abundant slapstick, nefarious intrigue, comic misunderstandings, a romantic subplot, lovely Parisian scenery, and ghostly homilies about daring to follow your dreams, however improbable. I particularly enjoyed Colette’s Anthony Bourdain-like description of Skinner’s dubious kitchen crew, as well as Remy’s musings on the ecstasies of well-matched flavors. Even non-foodie grownups should find Ratatouille funny, exciting and moving. With any luck,
it will also inspire them to cook better, and maybe eat a little less garbage.