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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.

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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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Sex, Death and $1 Oysters

I recently finished reading Robb Walsh’s book Sex, Death and Oysters and am now obsessed with oysters on the half shell. If I could, I would be on my way down to Galveston Bay. I have always enjoyed oysters but have never eaten them with great frequency or in large quantities. Now, I want to learn to shuck them, and I want to eat enough so that I can differentiate between different species and tell whether I am eating a great oyster or just a good one.

I found the book both informative and entertaining and as with ‘Are you really going to eat that?‘ it made me want to travel, as well as eat. I would have liked a little more of the world – possibly Japan and South Africa but perhaps I couldn’t have handled the jealousy. The book contains destinations and practical information for oyster tourism but also a guide to shucking oysters and holding your own oyster party. There are also recipes for some of the famous oyster dishes.

There are a few places you can find oysters on the half shell in Columbus, but often they are a pricey proposition. Earlier in the year Deepwood was serving Oysters on the half shell (pictured below) on their Tavern menu but sadly they are now offering fried oysters instead.

Luckily for me Rigby’s Kitchen have just started a Monday oyster night with $1 oysters in the bar. This week the oysters hailed from Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury Massachusetts and using Walsh’s book as a field guide, I would hazard a guess that they are C. gigas. They were served on a bed of ice with a mignonette (shallot and vinegar sauce), cocktail sauce and lemon as well as two kinds of the wonderful Eleni Christina bread. The shucker wasn’t the speediest, so expect a wait – especially when word gets out, although I’m sure he will get faster with more practice.

We paired our oysters with a happy hour $4 gin martini (well-gin which wasn’t great, but you can’t complain too much for $4). Pairing oysters with a gin martini is London style and in my opinion a match made in heaven. Twelve oysters and two drinks set us back $21 – definitely a bargain. I’m tempted to keep it a secret because there aren’t that many seats at the bar and I want to make sure there is one for me, so if you go next Monday have fun but save me a seat.

You can follow Rigsby’s on twitter and keep track of their specials and events.

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Foodcast: Ingredient Driven Chefs

I wanted to draw your attention to the latest Columbus Foodcast. In this episode we interviewed two local chefs and explored the term ‘Ingredient Driven’. When Skillet Rustic Urban Food opened last fall their menu proclaimed that they were ingredient driven. That made us curious and we wanted to find out more. It seems that there are an increasing number of chefs in Columbus who make an effort to source locally, build relationships with farmers and discuss sourcing on the menu. For this episode we visited Skillet and interviewed the Chefs Caskey (father and son). We also interviewed Brian Pawlak the head chef of Deepwood Restaurant. Pictured below is one of the signature dishes he mentions in the interview, scallop wellington. We are hoping to make this a series and have a couple more interviews planned.

If you haven’t tried Deepwood or Skillet yet I encourage you to do so. Skillet is open for lunch during the week and brunch at weekends with meat centric hearty food. I posted this after my first visit there. Deepwood is one of my favorite places for happy hour, as their bar menu is excellent. They are also open for lunch and usually have a good value set menu for gallery hops. I have also been to a number of interesting special event dinners at Deepwood, including most recently a snout to tail dinner.

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This little pig went to DeepWood

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DeepWood hosted ‘The Pig Who Went to Market’ dinner on Monday night. To be precise there were two prime Ohio hogs involved in the preparation of this 7 course porcine feast and DeepWood is a restaurant. But otherwise the name was fitting, this dinner was truly a celebration of all parts pig. A true snout to tail meal, it had been months in the planning and involved 5 chefs as well as beer and wine experts to select the pairings.

I have been to several dinners that pair wines and beers with food, including one excellent one at DeepWood last year, but I have never been to a dinner that uses the same animal for such a succession of courses.

The tone was set with a buffet selection of hors d’oeuvres which included head cheese, a chunky terrine and gougeres filled with pulled pork. An espresso cup of salty ham hock consomme whetted my appetite as well as my palate.

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The hors d’oeuvres were accompanied by a choice of drinks and while I did sample a little of the bacon infused bourbon manhattan, I plumped for the excellent (and pig themed) Charkoota Rye smoked doppelbock lager from Holland Michigan.

We moved to the family style tables in the front section of the restaurant and had a chance to peruse the menu. In addition to the menu descriptions, each course and pairing was introduced by head chef Brian Pawlak and owner Amber Herron who along with Sous Chef Colin Vent and Beverage Director Catherine Morel had selected the pairings.

The first course was a ‘Pig in a Blanket’ with sherried rillettes covered with a house-made pasta sheet and topped with braised fennel and a pungent currant gastrique. The flavor of the fennel was a little lost against the gastrique but this was a sound dish. The wine pairing was a Noel St. Laurent, Rhone Valley Marsanne/Roussane/Viognier (2006) imported by United Estates.  It was very smooth, well balanced and its mild acidity was a good foil to the dish.

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The next course was my favorite, a citrus glazed pork belly perfectly cooked and served on a bed of autumn apples and celery root salad with a subtle whole grain mustard vinaigrette. The pork belly was crisp on top with its layers of tender meat and succulent fat. The apples, a mix of Granny Smiths, Jonathan and Honey Crisp and the celery root were a well chosen accompaniment, refreshing, crunchy and clean tasting.

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With this course there was both a wine pairing from my favorite Ohio Wine producer Kinkead Ridge (their 2008 Riesling) and a beer pairing – Saison, Dupont from Belgium.

The belly was followed by the check (we were not eating in anatomical order) and this was pot roasted in white wine and served over cannellini beans with natural jus. This was paired with a sparkling Malbec rose which challenged my assumptions about sparkling roses (it was much less sweet than I expected) but in my opinion did little to complement the food.

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The next dish was a winner. The ‘trotter’ course was described simply as a cake and was therefore the subject of much speculation during the meal. In reality it was mostly shank, seasoned with mustard, moulded, topped with panko and grilled. It was served with a citrusy hollandaise sauce that reminded me of lemon curd (but less sweet) and mache. The sauce did not win universal approval but the trotter cake (for the less squeamish at the table) was truly a treat.

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The penultimate course was tenderloin stuffed with port-braised-shoulder and wrapped in house-made pancetta. It was served with beurre rouge and roasted baby carrots. The pancetta was very thinly sliced, salty and crispy. The tenderloin could have been a little moister but the stuffing was very good. This was a great pairing too with a Portuguese Duoro wine – Apegadas (2005) – made from port grapes and the first release from the winery. Actually it was another double pairing and was also served with the robust Rogue’s Imperial Stout.

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Stuffed though I was, I was still powerless to resist the lure of bacon. Dessert was a banana-bacon-pecan-strudel with a caramel sauce, paired with a Triple Imperiale Belgian beer. Caramel and banana is a classic combination but the crunchy bacon and light flaky pastry raised it to another level. It was a fitting end to a gluttonous meal. I have said before that DeepWood is often overlooked in Columbus’s culinary scene. Tomorrow is a great opportunity to try it, with a $25 3 course special for the gallery hop.

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