Category Archives: Drinks

The Manhattan Project

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The Manhattan Project – a guest post by Bear

A few of us have recently been inspired by the CMH Gourmand to turn a recreational evening or two into a quest for quality cocktails.  The Gourmand’s evening of Mojito Madness, while fun, got very confusing in the face of countless variations, so we decided to choose a well-known standard, the Manhattan:  in its most classic form, two parts whiskey, one part vermouth, a dash of bitters, stirred and served up rather than on the rocks.

To keep our wits about us, we spread six Manhattans over two nights.  We developed a scoring system based on appearance, texture, flavor, and other (a residual category that could include any bonus points that were earned for reasons not covered).  We chose six restaurants based on personal experience, their reputation, and the reputation of their house mixologists.  In the end, the individual results were not nearly as interesting as the lessons that we learned over the course of those two evenings:

Style matters.  Cocktails should be drunk while cold and shouldn’t be too watered down; both considerations argue for a smaller glass.  We were charmed immediately by Mouton’s Manhattan, a graceful cocktail in an elegant coupe, and equally happy with DeepWood’s five-ounce conical cocktail glass.  Glasses that hold half or two-thirds of a pint are monstrosities (not to mention, if filled with properly made cocktails, irresponsible to serve) and rarely show off their contents well.

Substance matters even more. All of the ingredients matter, to an extent that might be surprising.  Vermouth can be an afterthought, for example, and most vermouth is  pretty bad.  The Manhattans that were made at the Rossi, DeepWood, and Mouton with two top-shelf vermouths, Carpano Antica from Italy and Vya from California, really stood out.  By contrast, Knead’s Gallo vermouth killed what would otherwise have been an excellent cocktail.  Bitters are also crucial:  the Barrel 44 Manhattan was so light on both that it received one of our lowest ratings.  And while many of the house-made cherries we tried were truly excellent, the dense little cherries produced by Luxardo are downright amazing.  Either made ordinary Maraschino cherries seem sad by comparison.

For mixologists curiosity is crucial.  We were struck by the impact that curiosity had on the end result.  DeepWood’s cocktail list shows constant experimentation and innovation, and their Manhattan variants were dazzling.  The Rossi, too, recently rolled out an innovative and edgy list, and the focus on quality ingredients comes through loud and clear in the glass.  At Knead, the bartender quizzed us on the best Manhattans we’d had — and when we answered candidly, he grabbed a pad of paper and pen and asked us for more details.

For consumers, curiosity is crucial too. It may matter even more than choosing the right bar.  At most places we visited, the “base” Manhattan was not the best Manhattan that they could produce.  (The exception was the Rossi, which made a Corner Creek-Carpano Antica knockout right out of the gate.)  Asking about what they could do (and knowing your own taste) was the key to getting the best result.  The best example of this phenomenon was DeepWood, whose solid base Manhattan nevertheless gave no hint of the dizzying matrix of possibilities on offer with a little prodding: classic, modern, or Italian (with a touch of Fernet Branca)?  Rye, bourbon, or Johnny Walker Black?  We especially liked the rye variant at Mouton and the Italian and classic variants, with rye, at DeepWood.

These two evenings also highlighted our responsibility as consumers for the end product in the long run.  M was on our list largely because of the talent of their mixologist; their Manhattan did not fare as well as others, however, in large part because of the narrow selection of key ingredients behind the bar.  Simply put, asking about, and making, good choices supports your restaurant’s or bar’s ability to provide them.

best cocktails in Columbus

Manhattan Project — Results

Highly Recommended (and tied in a statistical dead heat):

DEEPWOOD.  Ordering a straight Manhattan will get you a very solid entrant, made from Bulleit bourbon with Vya vermouth.  Asking for a custom-made version opens the door to beverage manager Catherine Morel’s creativity.  DeepWood revels in bending the rules, but it’s hard to argue with the results.  One variant even included a dash of the (to most) near-undrinkable Fernet Branca, used to excellent effect.

THE ROSSI. Corner Creek bourbon, Carpano Antica vermouth, a healthy dose of bitters, and house-made cherries added up to a Manhattan that was hard to fault in any dimension — a delightful ruddy cocktail served icy cold, with just enough viscosity and a bitter-tinged complexity that was simply a pleasure to drink.

Recommended:

MOUTON.  Classic styling earned some of the highest marks for appearance.  One of the Manhattans we ordered, made with rye, was generally deemed excellent — a considerable step above the house-made bourbon version.  The latter were less complex and noticeably variable from one glass to the next, some much sweeter than others.

To Watch:

KNEAD. Knead uses rye exclusively for their Manhattans as well, which based on other results was a good omen, but the vermouth — Gallo — did not show it off to best effect at all.  They were exceptionally curious about our results, however, and by the time we’d left had pumped us for information about the best entrants on our list.  We suspect they’ll move up a category or two very soon.

M. From previous experience we knew M’s cocktail list to be among the most creative and thoughtful in the city.  For the Manhattans they opted for a variant using rye (thumbs up) but only had ri(1), the Jim Beam premium brand, and Martini and Rossi vermouth on hand.  This lack of variety, rather surprising behind a bar with enough space for a Sherman tank, was far and away the establishment’s biggest handicap.

BARREL 44. Few establishments can match Barrel 44’s stunning advantage in whiskey.  Unfortunately, such an impressive endowment can lead to over-reliance on a single asset, and that seems to be the case here:  our Manhattans, though made with rye, scarcely tasted of vermouth, and it took multiple sips to catch a hint of bitters.  Simply put, this is a whiskey drinker’s Manhattan; even more simply put, this is whiskey.  If they learn to love vermouth and bitters, they could become a force to be reckoned with.
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Ohio River Valley Winery Tour

Wine isn’t the first agricultural product that comes to mind when you think of Ohio, so you would probably be surprised by how many wineries there are in the state, and the quality of many of the wines that are produced. June is Ohio wine month and it is a great time to explore or re-explore Ohio Wines. Restaurants such as Deepwood, Barcelona, G Michael’s and The Refectory will be featuring Ohio wines from June until November and some will be offering special menus and wine dinners.

Having been a fan of Kinkead Ridge wines since I first tasted their River Village Cellars Syrah at the 2008 Flying J Dinner, I wanted to see their vineyard and meet the producers. With the assistance of Andrew Hall, Ohio wine expert and author of the blog Oinos Nervosa I have been trying to organize a Slow Food wine tour of the Ohio River Valley (provisionally September 11th). Yesterday was a scouting trip to visit the wineries, drive the route and check out a proposed dinner venue.

Our first stop was at Valley Vineyards in Morrow Ohio which was first planted in 1969. Three generations of the Schuchter family operate the business, one of the largest vineyards in Ohio. With 30 varieties of grapes on approximately 100 acres, Valley Vineyards offer a wide variety of wines including ice wines and a vintage port.  With a large tasting room and two dining rooms Valley Vineyards cater well for visitors and hold special events and  cookouts during the summer. As we visited in the morning, with a long day ahead of us, we only tasted a couple of the wines.

Our lunch stop (and the proposed dinner venue for our tour) was at the Wildflower Cafe in Mason. A converted house, this small restaurant is run by chef Todd Hudson and focuses on local, organic and sustainable food. Many restaurants claim an interest in sustainability but Todd’s menu and sourcing make his commitment clear. This was one of two menu boards:

It was hard to choose but based on the claim that it might be the best in the world I couldn’t resist the burger. Wildflower Cafe get their grass fed beef from Webb Valley Farm 25 miles away. It was a very good burger: a juicy, well flavored patty, perhaps a little dense, in a soft pretzel roll with smoked bacon, herb mayo, cheese, greens, tomato and onion. The bacon was particularly good and the use of pretzel roll was inspired.

After lunch we headed south to Ripley Ohio. Ripley used to be an important tobacco center and is still home to the tobacco museum and festival. The collapse of the tobacco market caused some farmers to diversify into wine. Our first stop was the Meranda-Nixon winery, historically a tobacco farm and now a successful winery. As we arrived, we could see wine maker Seth Meranda out on the tractor in the vineyard.

His wife, Tina, was running the tasting room and cheerfully offered tastes quite a few of their wines. Like all of the wine makers we met yesterday she was friendly, happy to answer questions and to talk about their wines. All of the wine makers we met were very down to earth making Ohio winery tours comfortable to visitors with all levels of wine knowledge.

Meranda-Nixon are known for their Traminettes and their popular reds generally sell out. A newer experiment for them is Norton, an Ark of Taste product, more common in Missouri, and the oldest cultivated American grape. It won’t be ready until 2011 but we had a sneak preview. I particularly liked the Catawba, a blush light sweet wine from a grape that was traditionally grown in the Ohio River Valley. I think its going to make a fantastic summer spritzer.

From Meranda-Nixon it was a short drive to Kinkead Ridge. The actual vineyard is just outside of town, but the winery, only open to the public a couple of weekends a year,  is on a quiet residential street in Ripley. Kinkead Ridge does not have a tasting room and we were warmly greeted in their production room surrounded by tanks and barrels, with the smell of fermenting grapes that you only get in a cellar.

Kinkead Ridge is run by Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley and you can follow Nancy on twitter @wineladyohio or read their blog. Ron was a wine maker in Oregon for many years but was looking for a new challenge and determined that the SW of Ohio had potential to produce world class vinifera. They first planted vines in the Ripley area in 1999 and had their first vintage in 2001.

Kinkead Ridge released two 2009 white wines this weekend, a blended River Valley Cellars white and a Viognier Roussanne. Their harvest of white grapes last year was very small and only produced 168 cases in total. If you want to try one of them you’ll have to act quickly. I thought the Viognier Roussanne was a lovely dry white, lightly fruity and floral.

Our final winery visit of the day was to La Vigna, a vineyard with a picturesque view set high up in the valley (first picture in the post). There was a live band and a large tent set up for people to relax and enjoy a glass or two of wine.

As at Kinkead Ridge, tasting was in the production facility and we were able to compare two different vintages of their red and white proprietary wines as well as see where the wines are made. The La Vigna white is 100% Petit Manseng and the 2008 oak aged vintage was much sweeter than the steel tank 2009. Of the reds I preferred the younger 2008 cabernet blend to the more heavily oaked 2007 vintage.

From La Vigna we had a beautiful drive along the river towards Cincinnati. We had a fantastic dinner at Local 127 that deserves its own post.

More photos from our trip can be found on flickr.

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Happy Hour at Alana’s

If you ever have the chance to go to Alana’s for a happy hour, you should go.  Alana’s has one of the best cocktail menu’s in town: creative and seasonal, just what you would expect from Alana. This one was a CD101 happy hour, part of a partnership with Dine Originals and each month they host a happy hour in a different Dine Originals restaurant.

I tried the guavarita which was an easy to drink mix of not-too-sweet, salty and fruity with tequila as the dominant flavor; but my favorite was the spring tonic. I’m a sucker for champagne cocktails and this one is wonderful. Floral elderflower with its sweetness cut by the aromatic bitters, perfect.

There were about eight different appetizers served over the course of the evening, a couple of which I have had as amuses at the restaurant before. We kept being enticed back to see what new dish had arrived and because we couldn’t resist just one more taste. They included beef wrapped around a creamy beet slaw, Asian fish balls with mango coulis, tiny rice cakes with wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe), crackers with pate, deep fried balls of daikon radish, feta and sun-dried tomato tapenade on pita, chocolate brownies with black walnuts and brie with focaccia. My favorite was probably the pate – a creamy liver pate (braunschweiger?) topped on unpretentious ritz crackers with an aromatic Indian chutney.

It was a beautiful evening and long after happy hour ended we were sitting on the patio chatting with friends and drinking wine. We had planned to relocate, but it was hard to think of anywhere better that one could be. Eventually we were unable to resist more food and we shared Moroccan spiced lamb in a zucchini crespelle; scallops with sauteed mushrooms in a decadently truffled porcini cream sauce. If only all Thursday evenings could end like this.

If you haven’t been to Alana’s sitting at the bar with an appetizer (or two) and a cocktail or a glass of wine is a great introduction. Alana’s serve all their wines at retail prices which is a rare and wonderful thing. The early bird special is another great way to try Alana’s. On Saturdays at 5pm you can have a 3 course dinner for $25. We did this last summer and had a very pleasant dinner on the patio.

Here are some more CD101 photos from the event.

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Middle West Spirits: a micro-distillery in the neighborhood

We had an interesting evening at Middle West Spirits open house, a new micro-distillery that has opened in the Short North. Sadly they are not allowed to sell any of their product yet, but they hope it will be available in May, and we will be eagerly awaiting it. This is the first micro-distillery in Columbus and it is very exciting that there will be a local artisanal product available.

You can learn more about the owners Ryan Lang and Brady Konya and hear about how and why they started the business in the in-depth interview they did with Walker Evans from Columbus Underground. Ryan comes from a long line of bootleggers. On the tour we learned about their high tech German still, the lengthy and labor intensive process of distilling vodka and why their product won’t give you the hangover that cheaper industrial vodkas will.

Ryan and Brady have all sorts of exciting ideas including vodkas flavored with local fruits and herbs and are planning to expand their range into gin and whisky. They try to source as many of their materials from within a 100 mile radius as they can, and most of their raw materials are organic. They are also trying to close the supply chain by returning the spent mash to farmers for animal feed and selling some of the by-products for organic cleaning products.

The first product to be launched is OYO vodka (O-Y-O) with a very Ohio theme. Oyo is derived from the Native American name for the Ohio River meaning beautiful and the botanical drawing of a tree on the bottle is the buckeye, synonymous with Ohio.

You can follow Middle West Spirits on twitter. More photos from the event are on flickr.

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Birthday Feast

A French 75 is one of my favorite cocktails. A classic concoction dating back to the first world war and named after an artillery gun, for reasons that become apparent should you drink too many.  It is made from gin, champagne, lemon juice and simple syrup, and is topped with a jaunty lemon twist. It is perfect for celebrations and my birthday happens to be the day before New Year’s Eve, what more excuse does one need? When AD asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said that I wanted to eat cheese fondue and drink French 75s. This was with our visit to the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland still fresh in my mind. When I found a beautiful Bodum fondue set under the Christmas tree I knew plans were promising.

Few things are more delicious than a piece of crusty bread dipped into Swiss cheese melted in wine. The Velvet Tango Room gave us the inspiration to serve pretzels as well as bread and crudites to dip into the molten cheese and we even tried our hand at making our own soft pretzels.

I also made some mushroom vol au vents with chestnut, beech and shitake mushrooms, truffle oil and a splash of madeira, and some roasted pumpkin squares marinated in sesame, honey and soy sauce.

We also let the guests sample some of the products from our pig fest earlier in the week – torchons of pig head and pork belly served with David Chang’s pickled mustard seed sauce.

It is probably not too much of a surprise that many of my friends are as enthusiastic about food as I am, and everyone brought treats to share. These included: homemade stuffed vine leaves

Goat cheese balls rolled in sesame, seaweed or paprika – which by  happenstance went prefectly sandwiched between the pumpkin squares.

There was also home smoked pastrami and sauerkraut for making sandwiches. The pastrami made from the recipe left by Details Chef Drew Garms before he left Columbus and the sauerkraut was made with wine.

And just to make sure we balanced our the cheese with meat, some home cured prosciutto style pancetta.

Late in the evening we kept our cheese quota topped off with some gorgeous gougeres. The perfect accompaniment to a champagne toast at midnight, in addition to a bottle rocket and a rousing, albeit slightly untuneful, rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

I am thankful for wonderful food, gifts and friends. Happy New Year and best wishes for 2010.

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Whisky Tasting at Wings

This was the second formal whisky tasting I have been to at Wing’s in Bexley. The first, last year was a Slow Food Columbus taste education event. This was organized by Wing’s owner Ken Yee in conjunction with Jeffrey Topping from Wild Scotsman Whisky, with guest of honor John McDougall.

John McDougall is the only man alive to be both a master distiller and a master blender. One of his other claims to fame is that he has produced whisky in all five Scottish whisky regions. He has had an esteemed career spanning almost 50 years and is now a freelance consultant and mentor. John McDougall is a spirited raconteur (excuse the pun) and he shared anecdotes as well as knowledge.

The whiskies we drank were:

  • Wild Scotsman’s blend 888, a whisky aimed at the Asian market with 30% single malt scotch and 70% single grain scotch.
  • Balvenie 12 year old Doublewood. The two woods are the casks and are white oak casks and sherry casks. Balvenie was one of the first distillerieswhere John McDougall worked.
  • Laphroig 10 year old. One of the most heavily peated malts (meaning that the barley is dried over a peat fire). McDougall worked at Laphroig in the early 1970’s, eventually becoming general manager.
  • Wild Scotsman Black Label. This is a vatted malt with no more than 4 separate Casks which come from 4 separate distilling regions (Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, and Islay). The casks are ex-bourbon and ex-sherry. This won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits competition this year.
  • John McDougall’s Bladnoch 18 year old single cask whisky. Single cask means that this whisky all came from the same barrell. There were only 106 bottles. 106.6 proof.
  • John McDougall’s 13 year old cask strength Islay blend made from Ardbeg, Laphroid, Bowmore and Bruichladdich.

We learned a lot about filtering and coloring of whiskies, the use of wood barrels and the difference between single malts and single casks. John told us that a single cask whisky will only be bottled if it is superb. In a blend you can hide imperfections but not in a single cask. We also learned that the age on the bottle means that it can contain nothing younger than that age, so a 13 year old scotch might contain whisky from some barrels that was a lot older.

It is always a privilege to be able to listen to someone with so much experience and knowledge in their field. John was very willing to answer questions. He emphasized that there is no ‘right way’ to drink whisky – the best way to drink it is the way that you like it, and he added that everyone’s palate is different so we all taste different things in whisky. He held that there is a whisky for everyone. If you think you don’t like whisky, you just haven’t tried the right one for you.

There was plenty of food too:  a buffet of savory food and some dessert offerings as well. Dark chocolate with a touch of salt and some almonds proved a perfect pairing for the Islay (pronounced i-la) whiskies. Thanks to Ken for organizing another educational and fun tasting event.

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Cleveland Weekend

A trip to the Fabulous Food Show was the perfect excuse to spend the rest of the weekend exploring Cleveland. Our last visit following in the steps of Anthony Bourdain was a lot of fun, but only scratched the surface so I was excited to see and taste more. We were lucky with both trips: sunny weather, good friends and lots of great food. Cleveland is a wonderful destination for food lovers with lots of Slow Food friendly restaurants, a wealth of ethnic eateries and interesting neighborhoods to explore while you work up an appetite for another meal.

Cleveland is also a good destination for cocktail lovers. The Velvet Tango Room lived up to every superlative I had heard lavished on it, and was so enticing that we could not resist a second visit. The VTR serves classic cocktails in an appropriate setting and the menu, which you can’t help poring over, is a lesson in cocktail history. Not a flirtini in sight. The fact that they make their own grenadine, bitters, vermouth and ginger beer is one of the reasons that the cocktails cost $15 a pop (or $10 during happy hour). Many of the cocktails are made with egg whites and the amount of shaking involved also commands a premium. You should see the bartenders biceps! It wasn’t just the cocktails that were at hit. I would gladly go back just for the cheese fondue. I wish there was an equivalent to the VTR in Columbus, but for the sake of my bank account its probably good that there is not.

Highlight number two was the bakery On the Rise, which can be found in Cleveland Heights. You can see how sunny it was – hard to believe it was November.

On the Rise has a wide variety of breads and pastries and there was much to tempt us. I chose an almond croissant and it was definitely the best I have had since my trip to France in June. I am sure the pain au chocolat would have been equally good, but you have to get there early to score those.

Croissants weren’t the only baked goods of the day. We stopped at Presti’s bakery in Little Italy for an afternoon snack. I had a buttery buccalati with chocolate, almond and candied peel filling. I also bought some of their homemade panettone to bring home. I was assured that it would keep until Christmas but I have no illusion that it will last that long.

I mentioned Slow Food friendly restaurants and Cleveland seems to have more than its fair share including The Greenhouse Tavern, Luckys, Fire Food & Drink and the Flying Fig.  The Greenhouse Tavern is actively involved in their local Slow Food convivium and will be hosting a special dinner in honor of Terra Madre Day on December 10th. We had a wonderful meal there which included steamed clams with foie gras and a contender for the best chicken wings ever: Crispy chicken wings with roasted jalapeño, scallions and garlic, first confited and then deep fried. Many of the foods including the fantastic frites were cooked in a combination of duck fat and suet – a victory for flavor over calorie concerns. A four course chefs tasting menu is $37 which is extremely good value for the quality of ingredients, execution and portion sizes.

The Greenhouse Tavern also won a place in my heart with their food lovers loo. The restroom came equipped with shelves of food magazines and cookbooks. I’m not sure how wise it is to encourage people to spend any longer than strictly necessary in there but I admired the choice of reading matter.

I don’t think a trip to Cleveland would be complete with out picking up some treats at the West Side Market. This time we headed to Dohar Meats for some of their homemade sausage and bacon. Leaving it in the car is not advisable unless you want to dream about being stuck inside a sausage but it is very tasty.

It seemed that we saw and ate a lot – but I am still left feeling that Cleveland has a lot more to offer. Luckys and Lolita are high on my Cleveland wish list and I want to try Fire: Food and Wine for dinner (I just had a salad on this trip). I also purchased a copy of Cleveland Ethnic Eats which I look forward to using. You can probably tell that I am already plotting trip number 3. More photos on Flickr

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