Monday, July 25, 2011

Buvare: Downtown LA Punch Crawl

It's a word that means different things to different people.
For some, merely a sugar-coated mouth stain from a syrupy can.
Others, a kitschy kid's party concoction of sherbet and ginger ale. Or a refreshment grail to taint with an incognito liquor source. 
And for me, punch is practically a religion.
In recent years antique silver punch bowls have been seen appearing on formidable bar tops around the world, a rediscovered gem of cocktillian culture crowned last year by David Wondrich's epic titled, aptly, Punch. Falling in line with the reemergence of Bols Genever, Thrillist LA recently threw the smartest little tastemaking party I could hope to dream up: A downtown LA punch crawl of some of the cities finest drinkeries, each creating a perfect punch for the brutishly elegant genever. With a walkable map and a steal of a ticket price there was no question. I was getting tipsy. On a school night.
Check in was at Cole's, and with a punch station right inside the front door no time was wasted.
Apparently we were starting with dessert. Not at all a problem for a versatile imbiber such as myself. Peach Cobbler Punch, they called it. A secret concoction (secret because it may yet appear on the restaurant's drink menu) involving peaches, cinnamon simple syrup, angostura bitters, and Bols Genever, of course. Served alongside a bite of actual cobbler, the impressive feat of the punch was the clear representation of buttery crust in its profile.
Not so much hidden anymore but still a treasure is the Varnish, LA's favorite "speakeasy" tucked in the back of Cole's - A convenient and economical second stop.
The ante was not surprisingly raised here with the cheekily named Dutch Pugilist Punch; A simple and pure preparation made with care and quality ingredients. As it was described, they started by making a lemon sugar. Then fresh lemon and orange juices were added along with Angosturo bitters. The final act introduced homemade grenadine, Bols Genever, and soda water. The result was strong but crisp, drinkable and refreshing. Really the definition of punch.
The smart guys at the Varnish took the opportunity to plug their table-side punch service, available Sunday - Thursday by call-ahead pre-order for $100, and serving roughly 8 people. Slick.
Several blocks away through summer evening light (rather harsh even at 8pm following the potent darkness of the Varnish) we arrived at the Falls for #3: The Flowing Bols. The bartender wracked his brain to recall the full ingredient list, but included Bols Genever, cherry heering, fresh pineapple, lemon & orange juices, raspberry syrup, and soda. The spritziest of the night, this fruity number was well suited for the warm evening. It recalled the prom night archetype in character, but redeemed itself in well-roundness. And after this one, I was officially drunk.
Good time for the longest walk between venues, and for an outdoor venue at dusk, on the patio at Drago Centro, downtown's luxurious powerhouse.
A man in a suit welcomed us beside a crystal punch bowl and a fleet of Champagne coupes, busboys in pressed linen flying past. Class act. I had to ask him to repeat the punch description slower, it was bursting ballasts in my brain. This paragon imbued Bols Genever, Aperol, Galliano, Mirto (a myrtleberry liqueur), Scotch, orange, lemon & pomegranite juices, green tea, and nasturtium blossoms. It was called Pompeii Punch. The flavor profile was far less scattered than the sum of its parts, and drank as elegantly as a fine-tuned classic cocktail. Earth, smoke, flora and a clear Italian P.O.V. were crystalline. Definitely my favorite. I bowed, and snagged a slice of pizza as I did.
Eventually night caught up with us, and thank goodness before we arrived at Caña Rum Bar - A hideaway that just wouldn't be as sexy by day. A member's only club that curiously welcomes newcomers, this was actually my first time (finally!) passing through the velvet curtain. Plenty of rum and cigar smoke awaited.
Here the well-meaning and sultry punch took a back seat to an impressive drink menu. Still, we enjoyed the Panamanian Detective, with Bols Genever, fresh guava, Averna & lime juice.
But we also stayed for a sampling of their real strengths! With incredibly warm service and a menu chock-full of laugh-out-loud descriptors and drink categories, Caña earned some extra bones. How could I turn down the Tennessee Isle? "This is what a Sazerac would taste like if the wicked witch of the west overtook Kansas and sent Tennessee to the Caribbean via flying monkey". Prichard’s Fine Rum married with overripe mango-infused absinthe and coconut Peychaud’s bitters. Hell yes. Aromatic bliss.
I think I kind of purposely saved the best for last. I have a mad crush on Bar | Kitchen in downtown's O Hotel. It's the kind of studly joint LA just didn't have before a few years ago, and with an expat genius bar (get it?) hailing from Death + Company in NYC, how can I not drool?? Even more exciting, one of the more recent additions to the bar team is an old pal from Portland who once turned me on to muddled kiwi and gin (trust me, just try it).
Because we once shared our love for sherry, I was not surprised that this bar featuring the handiwork of mister Alex Day employed Amontillado sherry in their Vondelpark Punch, along with Bols Genever, grapefruit & lime juices, ginger syrup, and soda water. And it was time to sit down.
To soak up the genever, a late night dinner was definitely in order. The crispy fried green tomatoes with spicy lump crab, sweet pepper, and corn relish saved my life. Perfection.
To ensure a hangover-less morning, the creamy shrimp & grits with Spanish chorizo ragout conquered. A exclamation point at the end of a long line of luxury for one evening. The bar began to close down, but I think I sat and stared at the hotel lobby's fire for some time before being reminded that I, in fact, did have to go home, and that this lobby wasn't it.
Which reminds me again to commend Thrillist for a full evening of awesomeness that did not require driving between locations. Safe, happy, delicious.
A lil' bit of heaven on earth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carnish Culture: Levi's Presents Big Night

If you are a frequent ChocoMeat reader then you've probably noticed my recent posts about the Levi's Film Workshop inside the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and this past month's extensive FOOD X FILM programming all over town. This past Thursday saw the culmination of the food/art/film/music awesomeness with the live premiere of the three short films that were created entirely during the run, each focusing on a different aspect of the local food movement: Growing, Preparing, and Serving.

To illustrate these points, notable filmmakers were matched with food world heavyweights, and with the help of class participants at the Workshop produced the following films, available now to view online. Enjoy!

GROWING: Wild Goodness from Levi's Film Workshop on Vimeo.
Art in the Streets associate curator Aaron Rose and acclaimed music supervisor Randall Poster celebrate the Margaret Kilgallen Memorial Farm (built outside the Workshop at MOCA), a site-specific edible “bike farm” that includes organic fruit and vegetables and utilizes a combination of traditional planter boxes and mobile planters on bikes. The farm was designed by San Francisco-based artists Futurefarmers and is tended by Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms.

PREPARING: The Sound of Heat from Levi's Film Workshop on Vimeo.
Italian-filmmaker Lorenzo Fonda focuses on Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s experimental cooking and the unusual – but delicious – dishes that have resulted.

SERVING: Feast of Fury from Levi's Film Workshop on Vimeo.
Director Dugan O’Neal and traveling LA landmark Kogi BBQ truck team up to create an action-packed short film, about serving high-end food on a budget.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gala Parfait: Octo-Q

One byproduct of co-hosting The Table Set that I'm really enjoying is that - as it is a podcast about entertaining - I am hosting gatherings more than ever! I recently co-hosted one of my favorite bashes to date, and forged a new friendship with an old familiar face.

Some things are just fated. Natalie and I went to art school together in Eugene, Oregon, but didn't really know each other. When I waited tables at Portland's uppity Pearl District hot spot Bluehour I recognized Natalie dining with the PICA and Wieden+Kennedy power lunchers. (I later found out Natalie too had worked at the restaurant before me). Five years later, I discover that we are both working on flip sides making a DEVO record in Los Angeles. We couldn't ignore this any longer. We joined forces. A barbecue on Natalie's Hollywood Hills deck was decided upon almost immediately. A blending of our friends; food lovers, art lovers, and music lovers... But what would we serve?

Ever since Natalie's recent trip to Chile she told me she's been obsessed with finding out how to make octopus tender and flavorful like she had tasted there. What she knew was that barbecuing is part of the secret. The proposal: An octopus BBQ?! Obviously I was down for the challenge, so we started to brainstorm the plan. Octopod culinary research went underway. A smoker was purchased and assembled. In the meantime I whipped up an invite to encapsulate the vibe. Natalie only has a turntable, so we would ask guests to bring a record. Other secret surprises were concocted.

Like any proper party, we needed to conceptualize a cocktail that would stand up to the smokey char of a crispy tentacle. Natalie brilliantly suggested the inclusion of smoked ice(!) Several tests on her part found that smoking water over cherry/mesquite wood and then freezing it produced subtly satisfactory results. In the spirit of the wood we ran with cherries and I made a brandied batch to muddle with orange in a Smokey Cherry Old Fashioned.

Macerating the cherries before tossing with hot water and submerging in Brandy.

The afternoon of the party, I was led up the steps to Natalie's deck by the scent of tantalizing smoke. Crows were eying the smoker, cawing at me as I approached the house. Inside I could hear a commotion. "Hello?..." I called stepping gently toward her open door, like a marked slasher victim. The grisly scene I walked into was not what I expected.
Whack. Whack. Whack. It takes 99 from a hammer to properly tenderize an octopus, they say. Natalie was just finishing up, and wiped her brow following the workout. The beast beneath her was HUGE, and the gravity of our endeavor finally sank in. "WOW," was all I could say.
The marinated creature went in a boiling pot next, where it began to reanimate and coil about in the simmering liquid. Then Natalie took a blade to it and carved it up for the grill.
Out back she gave me a peek of the little guys she had jerkifying in the smoker, spicy marinated buggers peppered with crackling chilies. While she breaked for costume change, I set up the bar.
Sure, our guest list had grown (and still was unbeknownst to us), but Natalie insisted on china and silver (bless her!) We set the table for... 15 or so, with a back-up stack of plates on the sideboard.
Our first guest arrived, which meant records, and cocktails! To have enough glasses for all, I picked up a couple crates of Kerr half pint wide-mouth mason jars, which make a pretty swell old fashioned tumbler. (Naturally I failed to photograph a finished cocktail, I was too busy cranking them out!)
The Smokey Cherry Old Fashioneds and a lovely contribution of cheese and salumi from one guest busied our happy hour revelers while we continued to ready for the main event.
We plucked the jerked octis from the smoker and joined the table with the tasty dishes our guests provided.
Michael's spicy shrimp were a hit. Luckily some cucumbers were handy to quell the heat.
The spread of vegetables was staggering... From kale salad to watermelon n' feta to spiced potatoes to fiery Sriracha slaw. I made two salads - One of chickpeas, chorizo, and arugula, and another of radicchio, Italian parsley, apricots and shaved fennel with a minty olive vinaigrette.
Natalie stood watch at the grill, turning the big boy's legs.
The flavor was robust and delicious. "Next time more char," Natalie said, tugging at the outer skin. Regardless, everyone waited with patient curiosity while I sawed the leggies into medallions.
What to drink with grilled octopi? Well I leave that to the experts. Luckily Whitney of Brunellos Have More Fun and DomaineLA was present with a few fitting bottles. My favorite was La Dilettante, Domaine Breton‘s 2009 Vouvray moustillant. A delicious crisp chenin blanc with light, moussey bubbles.
"Hey, that's from the store!" Whitney called at another guest's contribution of Causse Marines Marcillac, a... funky, earthy, inky red. Joy the Baker's fabulous peach & blackberry cobbler dessert (gobbled up before it was photographed) was geniously paired by Whitney with a Frantz Saumon Gamay Moelleux, a sexy, lingering yet tangy pomegrante, strawberry and pine masterpiece. (Read Whitney's account of the BBQ here).
But the cherry on top was our secret surprise guest, Luz Elena Mendoza, singer of Portland's beloved Y La Bamba. She graced the hushed patio with a short set of passionate arias ripe with duende.

Come dusk, we walked up the hill to a nearby viewing point and sat with circling ravens, watching as the sun sunk into the ocean. The way every perfect summer dinner party really should come to a close.

For those hoping for some more in depth octopus cooking tips, here are Natalie's four simple steps to making killer tentacles at home!

Just do it.