Beverages

wistful grill

The website for McCormack's Whisky Grill heralds its own eventual arrival with a nonchalant "Coming Soon." That's funny because, while the Whisky Grill has been operating for months now, it feels like a restaurant that shouldn't be open yet. I was in the mood for trying out a couple of whiskies while I met up with some friends for a chat, and having not yet eaten, I figured I'd try the food as well. That was a mistake.

First problem: the menu. The variety was impressive, for a minute. Short of splitting whiskey (or whisky, as the case may be) in to Scotch, North American, and Irish, there was little to indicate what you were getting into if you were a newbie. I'm not, but I'm no expert, either. Which of the North American offerings were bourbon? Rye? Scotch-style single malt? Maybe this is to encourage interaction with the staff to ask for help? I'm not really sure (though the bar tender seemed knowledgable).

The menu was a bit overwhelming in general. The whole thing was something like 11x14 inches (or bigger?) and contained multifarious laminated pages held together in one corner by a little chain like you'd use for dog tags. There was a tiny page of beers (decent selection, all in bottles/cans), a half-sheet of wines ("exclusively Italian" said the waitress, but without further explanation), two double-sided full sheets of booze, and one double-sided full sheet of food ranging from humble to $20+ entrées. I saw a brisket sandwich, and after confirming with the waitress that they smoke it in-house, I decided on that for my dinner with a side of fries. Nothing fancy - just simple, stick-to-your-ribs neighborhood bar kinda food. Right?

I wish. The fries should have been cooked longer. The roll used for my sandwich had all the flavor and character of the bread served at Outback Steakhouse (looked like it, too). And the brisket? They wasted the use of their smoker. The meat wasn't tender - almost chewy in fact - had no smoke flavor, and bore no visible evidence of having been smoked (like a smoke ring). Maybe I would have tasted the smoke if it wasn't for their overpowering sauce. It's not that the brisket was swimming in sauce, but it tasted and smelled despairingly like a sloppy joe sandwich. The lack of tenderness in the meat would also have been less of a factor had they not cut the brisket into 1/2-inch thick slabs. Taking a bite felt like mandibular gymnastics as I tried simultaneously to cut through the meat with my teeth and not pull the contents out from the bread. I finished neither the fries nor the sandwich.

My two friends and I thought it might be fun to share an order of the funnel cake on the dessert menu, but no dice. The waitress explained that it's been on the menu for something like six months without ever having been available. Six months! What else are they pretending to serve at this restaurant? So instead I opted for their homemade vanilla ice cream. This was truly unfortunate, because it was almost right, but ultimately came up short. The flavor was great; complex real vanilla flavor with nutmeg and sweet creaminess. A pleasant companion to some George Dickel #12 bourbon. But the texture of the ice cream was way off. Tough, almost crumbly. It didn't taste freezer-burned, so maybe they just stored it too cold? I haven't made enough ice cream myself to know what could lead to this, but it improved as it melted down.

The interior of the Whisky Grill is pretty nice - for my tastes at least - and the four level shelving behind the bar is an impressive sight for lovers of fine spirits. But the food here makes me never want to return. Maybe it was just a case of the Mondays, but I felt like so little care was put into my dinner that I wouldn't want to try anything else on the menu. Huge list of whiskeys? Sure, but staggering variety doesn't automatically mean a good dining/drinking experience (or we'd all be eating at The Cheesecake Factory...). Give me a well-curated list and it'll be good whether there are 5 or 50 choices.

Skip this place. If you want passable bar food and some quality adult beverages on Robinson, you'd do far better at Commercial Taphouse.

wit and weiss-dom

At special request from my sister-in-law, here's a little touch of beer nerdery.

For the longest time I was pretty sure I wasn't a fan of wheat beer. All wheat beer. I know, that's like saying, "I only drink red wine," or "I only drive cars over emperor penguins," but so goes my irrational mind sometimes. The point is, having tasted a few wheat beers over the past decade, I had come to the conclusion that they all had an unrefined bite and little more than summer trend status here in the US. Silly lemon wedge. So when the warmer months rolled around I generally avoided the slim, straight-sided glasses of cloudy blonde libation and stuck to my cloying brown ales instead.

About two weeks ago, however, I sat down at the bar of one of my favorite watering holes and was offered (without asking) a taste of a new Belgian ale on tap. I still don't remember the name of it, but it do remember that it was a "Belgian white" and it was incredible. I've since tried (and quite enjoyed) a few others, and it led me to examine just what differentiates wheat beers from each other.

First off, almost every wheat beer on the market is an ale. That means it's fermented warm with ale yeast which often results in a fuller and sweeter (if only in aroma) brew. There are rare wheat lagers out there, and they're likely more crisp and light. Beyond that distinction, we have two major schools of wheat beer: the German "weissbier" or "weizen," and the Belgian "witbier."

Hefeweizen seems to be the big German player here in The States, and that's basically an unfiltered wheat beer made from at least 50% malted wheat (as opposed to all barley). It's usually quite carbonated to balance out the sweetness factor, and that may be what I don't like too much about it. But it sure seemed to be a gateway drug to Beer Land for my wife and sister-in-law, so it can't be all bad.

The Belgian witbier is often made with raw wheat (unmalted) and brewed with a spice/flavoring blend called "gruit" that is often made up of coriander, orange, and hops. This stuff is magical to my palate, and it's the style of beer that I photographed - and later consumed - in my post last week (Ommegang is the brewery, and the beer was incredible).

I wish I had some witbier right now, actually. It's hot and humid outside today, and it's well past 5 o'clock at this somewhere.

secco wine bar

secco wine bar front window

Normally after experiencing a high-quality food establishment I tend to gush about it on these digital pages rather quickly. I don't know if it's yet another sign of my dwindling energy for blogging or that it simply slipped my mind, but I've been to Secco Wine Bar in Carytown four times since May 14th and I'm just now writing about it outside of Twitter.

Secco (Italian for "dry" - hence the up-turned bottle, I think) is the long-in-the-making brainchild of Julia Battaglini, the owner of next door's River City Cellars, and it supplements RCC's fine selection of wines, cheeses, and beer with a clever dining menu. That is to say if you enjoy shopping at RCC then you probably already like about 1/2 of what they serve at Secco. What you won't find in the retail side, however, are some of the spectacular edibles such as their duck terrine with pistachios and dried cherries (wrapped in jamon Serrano, I believe), passatelli in brodo (a fresh pasta soup), pork confit sandwich, or flamenquines (pork cutlet rolled with more Serrano, breaded and fried).

The quality of the ingredients and the presentation are of a high level and, most impressively, quite affordable. The menu indicates "small plates" but the portions, while not the over-sized helpings of your average restaurant, are typically plenty for lunch. You can still put together dinner for between $10 and $20 pretty easily, and seemingly half of the excellent wines-by-the glass are around $5. Secco's menu favors sampling and sharing, and the prices make it a great entry point to fine dining in Richmond. When I consider the comfortable atmosphere and friendly staff, however, Secco also invites you to become a regular, serving equally well as a place to meet with friends or simply chat with the bar tender.

I think I may stop by for a glass of cava tomorrow evening, in fact.

under pressure, with care

I found this video absolutely fascinating. I'm a sucker for the junction of art and process, and this video highlights just such a situation that also happens to involve the making of good espresso. Here in Richmond, I've only experienced this level of care in coffee making at Ellwood's Coffee at the top of Carytown. The first time I ordered a cappuccino there last year, in fact, the barista scrapped the initial shot of espresso because she didn't like the way it was extracting. It took a little longer for my coffee, but the result was worth the wait.

Espresso, Intelligentsia from Department of the 4th Dimension on Vimeo.



(via simplebits)

Real Ale

It's just after midnight here in London, and I'm still nursing the buzz from my first taste of Real Ale. As it transitions from Tuesday to Wednesday I keep wishing that such a fine elixir existed on the west side of the Atlantic.

All of this is because of my visit, tonight, to The Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell. Here was a pub situated in an off-the-tourist-path neighborhood serving traditional English ales from casks - ales so good they were more drinkable near room temperature than many cold beers back in The States. If I could go again I would but, for now, the aftertaste of my St. Peter's Best Bitter will have to suffice.

Cheers indeed.

P.S. I'll be home soon, and there's much to discuss and much film to develop!

Of Oysters and Gin

Today was rough.

From the moment I sat down at my desk, feet still aching from the 10k, I was busy. Request after request seemed to pile up with seemingly little time to dig myself from the fast-growing pile of work in my queue. There were deadlines, questions, confusion from co-workers, and a general sense that today's pressure greatly out-paced that of my day-to-day. As 4:30 loomed I started to feel like I needed a dramatic break from the mentally cramped environment of the day but I wasn't sure how I'd accomplish that without going straight-away to bed. Not one to call it a night early, I recalled that Can Can has a weekly cocktail tasting that I had yet to attend.

I'm not going to say that I needed a drink but the prospect of good mixology lifted my spirits, so Val and I headed to Carytown for some light fare, cocktails, and atmosphere.

Can Can's cocktail tastings work thusly: from 6-7 on Tuesday nights they mix up free (!) tasting portions of the evenings tipple while the full size is a special price all night. Tonight's sampler was a Gin Rickey (theirs had Bombay, lime, soda, and simple syrup on the rocks) mixed up right, and weighed in at $6.50 if you went for a full dose. Pair that with the Fontina Fondue (which we had at our first dinner there) at $4 bucks and you have a reasonably inexpensive night out with a cocktail and a fancy snack in a classy atmosphere. This evening, however, we had a few other drinks - London Pride on tap, for example - and couldn't resist dessert.

I also crossed a gustatory threshold; I tried, for the first time, oysters on the half shell.

consumed oyster on the half shell

I chose to have my first oyster at Can Can for two reasons. First of all, I'm pretty comfortable with the freshness and quality of this restaurant's food. More importantly, I was able to snag oysters one-at-a-time for $2.50. Steep? I don't know yet. But I do know that I didn't have to commit to a plate of bivalves with the possibility of hating them.

It turned out, however, that raw oysters aren't scary or slimy. They taste...well, they taste like the sea. Nether fishy nor smelly, the oysters and their liquor (the briny liquid in the shell) went down the hatch easily with a quick burst of flavor. The bartender, hearing it was my first experience with oysters, helped me out. I was first served a little guy which was a bit more intense in flavor. I ate this small serving unadulterated since it was my maiden voyage, and the experience was good enough for me to order a second. My next oyster was considerably larger and I spiked him with a squeeze of lemon for a touch more brightness that worked well against the ocean flavor.

All told we were in and out of Can Can in about an hour with some quality eats in between. It was the perfect week night diversion to take my mind off a brutal day in the cubicle farm.

Bacon Vodka

Those crazy-awesome crazies at The A.V. Club made and tasted bacon-infused vodka.

My only problem with the whole enterprise is that they couldn't figure out a simple way to get all the fat out. All you have to do is pour the whole thing into a parallel-sided container and pop it in the freezer. The fat solidifies and floats to the top and the vodka would clarify quite a bit. THEN you could strain it to make it even more clear if needed.

Also, I'm in favor of adding maple flavor (unless it's already maple bacon...) and some vanilla to the infusion. Shake with some butterscotch schnapps and cream, and you have buttered pancakes with syrup and bacon in a glass. Maybe :-)

Red Bull Cola

Ever since I was at VCU I always noticed the Red Bull vehicles driving around campus, or their less fortunate employees hoofing it around the student commons with cases of the energy drink. It was a free can from one such over-enthusiastic Red Buller that introduced me to what I consider a putrid beverage. I think I've had one more can since as a test to see whether the first was a fluke. It wasn't - it tastes as if somebody crushed up a bottle of Flintstones vitamins in some Kool-Aid and threw in a splash of club soda for carbonation.

I don't know why, then, I paused in the 7-11 this afternoon when I saw a can of Red Bull Cola.

can of red bull cola

I suppose it was curiosity to see whether they made some "energy cola" to supplement their product line. Seeing the "natural" tag on several parts of the can made me chuckle considering the somewhat engineered flavor of their flagship beverage, so I had to glance at the ingredients. Here I was surprised to find real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup (like nearly every other cola in the USA) and a lack of high-wattage extracts. What, not an energy drink? So I decided it was at least worth trying a new cola.

Cracking open the can I could already smell the difference - this was definitely a cola, but not your average Pepsi or Coke product. There was a real fragrance that smelled like something mixed up fresh. Tasting the drink confirmed what my nose suspected - there were hints of citrus, licorice, and some spices on which I couldn't put my finger - so I had to take a closer look at the ingredients. Sure enough, there were extracts of lime, licorice, vanilla, lemon juice concentrate, ginger, cinnamon, cacao, and a host of others. Heck, they even get the caffeine from coffee beans!

I don't think I ever expected a can of cola with this complex a flavor...now I want more.

Champagne Expands

I caught a story on NPR's Morning Edition on the way to work about France expanding its Champagne region (and thus potential production acreage) to about 40 more villages in the area. This is, apparently, the first time in around 100 years that more territory has been brought into the appellation.

I can't imagine how an eleven per cent increase in production will meet the soaring demand for genuine Champagne wines, but at least its a start. I'd be interested to find/read opinions from people and producers within the classic boundary.

Boylan's Soda

boylan creme soda bottle

As is often the case, it was my wife who suggested going to Buzz and Ned's barbecue when we headed out for lunch with her mom yesterday.

When I placed my order, I decided I'd try a Boylan's Creme Soda - something I'd never had before. In fact, I failed to recall any time when I'd had a Boylan's soda. When it came to specialty root bears I tended to reach for Stewart's first (they were all over the place in Jersey when I was a kid) or a Root 66, and a variety of creme sodas always seemed hard to come by in Virginia. So try I did.

And you should, too.

Boylan actually uses real cane sugar and pure vanilla extract in the creme soda, so it was smooth, the right kind of sweet, and delicious. It turns out they produce a completely natural version of several of their sodas, the creme included (with Bourbon vanilla, chocolate, and coffee extracts). I hope to find some of these this week.
(image via Flickr user Kawika Takara)