12/31/09

Menu Design

[by Naveen]

A set of coincidences has made me more aware of the confluence of design, psychology, and the restaurant industry. Inspired by the release of Presentation Zen Design, I started listening to Glimmer from audible.com (a great way to make the time pass faster in the line at the RMV), to try to understand what exactly is meant by the term "design." I still don't have a concise definition, but some combination of engineering and psychology seems to be a common thread. That reminded me of a couple articles in the New York Times and New York Magazine about menu design. Both articles mentioned restaurant consultants who teach where to place items on a page, which format to use for numbers, and how to utilize descriptive language (a trend in supermarkets, too), among other techniques. Many of these same skills are involved in creating efficient, elegant slides for presentations, so I wonder if my renewed interest in slide design could eventually lead to some freelance work for menu consulting.

Deck The Halls

[by Mike]

If people hung meat instead of lights (or boughs of holly for the more classical amongst us), would anyone complain about decorations being left up all year?



12/26/09

atmosphere: case studies

[by john]

bottled ingredients are not the only constituents of a cocktail that can make it good. there's also that x-factor; the sixth man (for basketball); a je ne sais quoi; the twelfth man (for soccer and football); the indefinable (except, perhaps, via sports metaphors). the atmosphere of a bar can leave just as sour a taste as that careless extra barspoon of lemon juice, or it can bring together a drink as well as a dash of bitters. (for those scoring at home, if you thought 'ice' was the sixth man, you get half credit.)

music, lighting, warmth, menu fonts, cloth napkins...the courtesy of the staff, the obnoxiousness of the patrons, the flare of the bartender...the number of variables to control would drive me half mad if i were a bar manager.

i've already written about the likes of drink, craigie, and eastern standard with their great reverential, hospitable, and belle époque atmospheres. these three new case studies, however, serve average drinks with the equivalent of a flamed orange peel for atmosphere, reaching them out of the depths of one-visit-only bars.

the manderley - as a temporary bar in the immersive theatrical installation 'sleep no more', just the notion of a transient classy oasis amidst a mansion of murder and the supernatural delights the exegetical corner of my mind to no end. after wandering through the play, i got to sit down at one of the tiny tables (flickering candles and all) in front of the jazz band and pick apart this new interpretation of shakespeare with a friend, cocktails in hand. a gin and tonic could have tasted just as good...but it didn't hurt that they were at least classically inspired (but nothing to write home to dunsinane about).

delux - i coudln't stop grinning once i got $9 in change after exchanging my $20 bill for the manhattan and guiness. nevermind the lack of rye or the presence of the scarily red cherry...deluxe was already decidedly awesome. plus, the records on the walls, the santa and xmas tree out months early, the regulars quietly sipping schlitzes, grilled cheese on the menu, and the dr. seuss stories as wallpaper in the bathroom didn't really hurt its case, either.

beehive - cocktails at this south end establishment trespass on the uninspired region of the expensive cocktail landscape. most are bubbly ones mixed in the champagne flute. but - mon dieu - they know how to decorate a space. carpeted stairs, wooden banisters, tile floors, and thick red drapes against cliffs of exposed brick walls. very sippable, that atmosphere.

12/14/09

on barflies

[by john]

'bartender, there's a fly in my manhattan!'

'what, you think you're the only one with addictions here?'

12/6/09

Adding to the Toolbox

[by Mike]

A few years ago I started making a Good Eats inspired cranberry granita whenever November rolled around. This quick, easy dessert is great to have around not only for its convenience but for its luxurious mouthfeel. The large, pectin-infused ice crystals melt slowly and coat the tongue with the tart cranberries flavors cut by the sweetness of the sugar and brightness of the lime zest. As recommended on the show, the granita also makes a damned fine cocktail. Once the crystals melt they provide a complex cranberry flavor far exceeding that of any cranberry juice, not to mention the added body and texture.

But is there a compromise between the two service options? Tequila and Cointreau would play excellently with the flavors in the granita, but adding the spirits directly to the crystals would only accelerate the inevitable melting. I needed a way to contain the spirits, keeping them separated from the granita until service. A technique from the oft maligned molecular gastronomy offered a possibility; armed with some sodium alginate and calcium lactate samples from Jeff of Cooking For Geeks I started playing with spherification.

A derivative of seaweed, alginate doesn't do much more than thicken liquids. When the alginate solution comes in contact with the calcium lactate, however, the thickening is dramatically enhanced. Submerged in a calcium lactate solution, a weak alginate solution would form a thin skin around a liquid core. Made weak enough, the delicate skin is just strong enough to contain the liquid until popped in the mouth.

That's the theory, anyways. Use too much alginate and the liquid becomes too thick and the skin too tough, rendering the final pearls awkwardly chewy. Recipes trawled from the internet lack any consistency, so the final ratios had to be left to experimentation. Even with working proportions, forming the spheres themselves is nontrivial. Creating small caviar isn't too hard, but larger pearls takes some clever technique. The delicate membranes then require careful handling, lest they burst prematurely.

It took a few iterations, but I eventually settled into a successful recipe and developed sufficient technique that I could consistently produce large, fragile pearls well suited for the granita. I was using an old bottle of cheap blue curacao for testing, and the bright, contrasting color proved useful for illustrative purposes. Any real application would likely feature translucent pearls hiding within the red crystals.




12/1/09

Have Tools, Will Travel

[by Mike]

With holiday travel coming up I did not want to risk more cocktail disappointment. In order to guarantee a well made drink to accompany my meals at home and at relatives I would have to bring my own tools, and I would need something to carry them.

Following the recommendation of Robert Hess, I started looking for doctor bags but was quickly discouraged by the outrageous prices. If I wanted something amenable to the grad student budget I would have to abandon doctors and think students: nursing students. Bags designed for nursing students are cheap, rugged, and dense with storage possibilities. Comparing features and reviews I went with a model from American Diagnostics, and I could not be happier.


The bag is small enough to be unobtrusive but large enough to hold everything I'd ever need. A large outer pocket holds a towel, sponge, and gloves for keeping clean. The back features a thin sleeve perfectly sized for 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper, small books, notepads, or cutting boards. Deep pockets inside the bag hold small bottles, knives, and other tools, with the remaining space awaiting larger tools such as the imperative Boston shaker. There are even small zippered components just large enough to hold business cards, matches, or the like.


At the moment I've stocked the bag with everything I could possibly need,
  • A few small kitchen towels
  • Four small flexible cutting boards
  • Seven bottles of bitters plus a spray bottle of absinthe
  • Tasting straws
  • Channel and paring knives
  • Pens
  • Boston shaker, julep strainer, bar spoon, muddler
  • Mexican juicer
When traveling home I'll add my kitchen knives and a few more tools. Heading to a party I'd add freshly squeezed juices, a syrup or two, and small plastic cup for service. In the event a few of us cocktail snobs get together I could fit a few bottles of secondary liqueurs. Yes, the possibilities make me slightly giddy.

Oh, and if you're up for some drinks give me a call. I'll bring the bitters.

11/29/09

pairing

[by john]

the flavor bible is my kind of non-cookbook cookbook - it's an encyclopedia of flavors and flavors that go well with them. so under 'pumpkin seeds', you'll find caramel, chile peppers, coriander, cumin... (who knew! well, apparently, a ton of chefs they interviewed.) i was showing off this early xmas present to naveen when he remarked how useful this would be for making up new cocktails. well, uh, yeah....but i hadn't thought of that.

of course we had to put this to the test. to start, i wanted to attempt a friend's challenge - balsamic in a cocktail. browsing to 'vinegar, balsamic', i found a bunch of ingredients more non-drinkable than balsamic, plus cherry and apricot. i decided on the apricot, and after a couple iterations, settled on a 3:1:1:1 rye:balsamic:apricot brandy:lillet blanc. the apricot wasn't forward at all, but it did sweeten up the balsamic enough to make its bitter ending beguilingly light. the drink, by the way, is evil black. cool. not perfected yet by any means - i really need a good apricot eau de vie - but it's a promising start.

next, another challenge, this time self-imposed. i stole some of a friend's amazing raw cranberry sauce (literally just blended cranberries, whole orange, and whole lemon) from thanksgiving. could i take a passage from the flavor bible to make it into a well composed drink? it suggested apples and (more) orange - so i thought armagnac, cider syrup, the cranberry sauce, orange bitters, and some bitter truth decanter bitters, which have big cinnamony notes. an average drink, in the end, but a good direction.

reading the flavor bible will require a lot of culinary exegesis. jesuit education, don't fail me now.

11/18/09

review: lord hobo

[by john]

mike, jim, and i were banging down the doors of (ok, waiting patiently in line at) lord hobo at 5 pm tonight for the public opening of the venerated b-side's replacement. in true insouciant b-side fashion, the bouncer waited to finish his cigarette before letting us into a fashionable, cleaner incarnation of the previous bar. the peninsular bar still exists, but the iron airplane fan is gone and all the spirits have moved to the back bar to make room for the dozens of beer taps down the spine of the peninsula.

despite the obvious beer focus, mike and i immediately scoured the cocktail menu. first observation: no classics. in a good sense, though - they can undoubtedly make them, but decided to present their original variants.

i went for their manhattan-esque offering, the rambler (rye, french vermouth, amaro nonino, maraschino). it ended up too dry and sharp for my taste, and i was somewhat appalled that the bartender shook the drink. mike chose the angelina (gin, st. germain, yellow chartreuse, lemon juice and bitters), which didn't have much at all of the advertised bitter component.

being good experimentalists, we stuck it out for another round despite a so-so start. mike picked out the sloppy possum (for the record: according to urbandictionary, not yet a sexual move) - equal parts fernet and domaine de canton with a bit of lemon juice. what a cool combination. the ginger of the canton pops early, then the characteristic bitter mint finish of the fernet, a little subdued from the canton's sweetness. i got the soylent green, which is essentially a chartreuse swizzle with lemon, cucumber and mint. really good.

so they have good drinks, at $10 a pop. and formidable beers. we also availed ourselves of some charcuterie, which i thought was overpriced at $11 (craigie's version is $15 for a creamier, more delicate offering). one nitpick: their drinks sit too low their cocktail glasses, which make me feel a bit swindled, even if i know they are the same volume as those at drink, say. but the atmosphere on the first night was great and lively, and the bartenders were amiable and helpful. it'll definitely be in the regular rotation.

a parting recipe. i was tempted by the wall st., but decided against it because i thought i had all the ingredients - whiskey, lillet, orange bitters. so i went home and tried to make it, slowly increasing the lillet, until i felt i had the right amount. but it was too dry - do these bartenders like everything dry?! i immediately thought to add benedictine, and once i did, the drink filled out, at which point i dubbed it:
c.d.o.

4:2:1 rye whiskey: lillet blanc: benedictine
1 dash orange bitters

stir and strain
only then did i look at their menu online and see that a wall st. calls for lillet rouge - ah, so my sweetening instinct was right! i suppose i'll start with that next time.

11/16/09

Martha Stewart Would Be Proud

[by Mike]

When the Tiki theme was announced for this year's LUPEC party no outfits immediately came to mind. Last year I went all out with a full zoot suit and a Hawaiian shirt just didn't seem sufficient to continue the tradition of over achieving. When the full details of the party were announced, not just Tiki but 1950s Tiki, the ideas finally starting coming.

My initial inspiration was a fusion of a three piece suit and hulu skirt. Weaving a vest out of dried straw wouldn't be too time consuming and properly executed the finished product would be both classy and unique. Dried straw, however, isn't exactly ubiquitous in the city. Banana leaves are another story.

Available in the frozen food section of any Asian grocer, banana leaves are a great freezer staple. After a quick defrost they're soft and malleable, readily wrapped around foods destined for braising or steaming to provide a sweet, fruity aroma. More importantly for this particular application, they're incredibly cheap.

Unfortunately, banana leaves provide little in the way of structural integrity. The leaves easily rip along the grain and those that do survive in one piece are extremely perishable, drying out into a brittle mess in little more than a day. My strategy was two-fold: layering and hemming the leaves would help reduce ripping along the grain while sealing the leaves in acrylic would help retain moisture and avoid fragility.

Without any experience with sealers, I eventually decided upon Mod Podge upon the recommendation of the staff at Pearl. The acrylic sealer was easily brushed onto the leaves and dried with an attractively glossy finish. It would have been perfect if not for a fatal flaw: when exposed to even mild heat the sealant would soften and become tacky again. Once assembled the vest would stick to itself, becoming vulnerable to ripping upon separation.

After initial testing and design, the vest came together in three pieces: the two front flaps and the back. The fronts were quick, almost entirely single banana leaves hemmed along the sides with folded leaves, while the back involved cutting the leaves into strips and weaving them together into a singe piece. I used hot glue for all the adhesion and then sealed the pieces on all sides with the Mod Podge.

The afternoon before the party I completed the assembly and adding some finishing touches: wooden buttons and faux pockets along the front. To reenforce the seams I added some duct tape along the interior, an addition that would prove all too insufficient.

Not long after arriving at the party, the vest began to rip along the chest. The weight of the vest, especially the weaved back, proved too much for the leaves that laid along my shoulders. Without any backup tape, little could be done to salvage the effort. Well, little beyond lots of hands holding the whole thing together. I don't think anyone caught a picture of the weaved back at the party, so I took a few after the party for posterity. You can already see the banana leaves curling up where the Mod Podge sealant failed and the surface was exposed to air.

Save for the premature structural failure, I was really happy with the effort. Immediately after assembly the vest looked great and with a few improvements it would have lasted long into the night, maybe even through a few dances.

11/15/09

It's Better With Bacon

[by Mike]

This past September I was over at a labmate's apartment for the Boston area celebration of International Bacon Day. As you might imagine, there's not much to International Bacon Day besides lots and lots of bacon, with plenty of whisk(e)y to wash it down. The brilliance of the festivities comes with the creative applications of bacon.

My initial contribution, bacon chocolate chip cookies, wasn't bad but it was quickly shadowed by the collective efforts of the revelers. The inspiration escapes me now, but it wasn't long into the party that we had set our eyes on a practical bacon straw. While the host and his friend went out for reserves I went to business, wrapping bacon around a bundle of buttered skewers. After half an hour in a hot oven the bacon had cooked into solid, waterproof tube that could be used to sip everything from rye to Bloody Mary's.

The pictures documenting that day were lost due to an unfortunately taxi incident, so the telling has had to wait until today when I finally had time to recreate the infamous bacon straw. This time I used 1/2'' copper pipe left over from an earlier project, wrapping two rashers around in opposite chiralities (one a clockwise helix, the the other a counter clockwise helix). The two layers are critical for a watertight seal.


After 30 minutes in a 400 F oven the meat had shrunk around the pipe and formed a continuous piece of succulence. I had suspected the 1/2'' diameter would be too large, but it proved just fine for sipping from the full glass; it only became a problem when trying to slurp up the final few drops.


Beyond the novelty, the bacon straw adds some welcome notes to spirits. In addition to providing subtle smokey and savory flavors, the bacon contributes fat which dissolves into the alcohol quells some of the more astringent vapors*. It's a perfect addition for overproofed ryes such as Rittenhouse.

Of course, the bacon straw is far from finished. Additional flavors can be added by spicing the bacon before roasting; cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, chile, coriander, cardamon... well just about any spice comes to mind. Any structural issues could be remedied by the addition of transglutamtes (think meat glue) in between the two layers of bacon.

The possibilities are near endless. Who's up for some "collaborative research"?

* For those interested in the details: alcohol readily dissolves fat, and once in solution the fat binds with some of the less delicious esters in the alcohol. Once bound, the unfavorable esters don't contribute nearly as much to taste and aroma. Fat washing takes this a step further, adding much more fat and straining it out before serving the spirit.


11/8/09

fall comfort

[by john]

i associate some great smells with fall. root vegetables roasting in the oven, dead leaves, whiskey...

this autumn, i finally got to avail myself of a new england taste/smell tradition: apple cider donuts. warm, sugary, cinnamony, crispy outsides covering cakey, slightly appley comfort inside. i mean, wow. kevin, mike and i trekked to cider hill farm for some of those ambrosial delicacies, and i happened to pick up four gallons of raw apple cider as well.

i've already started a few batches of cider fermenting (another post if i achieve any modicum of success), but i still found myself left with a lot of the raw stuff. so i made two kinds of cider syrup - one i simmered with cinnamon sticks and sugar until it reduced by half, and one that i just shook cold with sugar until it all dissolved.

there're some foodie camps out there who claim that heating destroys the good, natural flavors in the cider. well, they're wrong. the heated syrup is something amazing. the apple flavors have intensified and rounded out, and come delayed after the initial sweetness.

the syrup worked great in an old fashioned. but to amp up the fall-itude, i tried a brandy old fashioned:
2 oz brandy (e&j xo, the cheap stuff)
1/2 oz cinnamon cider syrup
1 dash whiskey barrel bitters

build in a glass, add ice, and gently stir.
this one really nailed it. the apple and cinnamon were superb and autumnal on the nose, the brandy gave just the right edge (without sharp vapors), and the bitters recovered the complexity of a whiskey that the brandy couldn't provide.

to fall!

Grass-Fed Beef

[by Naveen]

Last weekend was an interesting juxtaposition of food-themed events: the agricultural sustainability sessions at the Union of Concerned Scientists 40th Annual Symposium and the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival. One of the highlights of the UCS meeting was the panel discussion featuring Bill Kurtis from Tall Grass Beef, who gave a compelling argument about how eating grass-fed beef is far superior to the current corn-fed product. Although the vegans in the Boston Vegetarian Society would likely disapprove of any sort of meat consumption, a recent article in the New York Times proclaimed the benefits of grass-fed beef. Large tracts in Brazil are being cleared for monoculture soy production that could end up in all sorts of vegan-friendly products, whereas pastures in this country could reduce soil erosion, increase biodiversity, and potentially sequester carbon dioxide. However, if the industrial meat production model in this country shifted to grass-fed beef, consumers would need to shift from viewing a burger as a convenient meal at a fast-food restaurant to an occasional delicacy to be enjoyed at a place like Craigie on Main. As a vegetarian who has never been to a ranch, I feel rather disqualified to offer any type of policy recommendation, but I would certainly be interested to learn more.

11/3/09

Random Thoughts

Your friend has his eye on a cute little number sitting at the bar across the room, and after a drink of courage he makes his way over and offers to buy her a drink. Now she can respond to her liking, shooing him away or inviting him to sit at the stool next to her, and then proceed to order that drink, but isn't that a little inefficient? Couldn't the two steps be combined and the entire process streamlined? What if she should just order a "Not Tonight" or a "I've Been Waiting For You All Night" and avoid the awkward conversation entirely?

Now I'm sure there are plenty who appreciate the opportunity to converse, but I think there's potential for a suite of well made cocktails with utilitarian names. Conversations could span loud restaurants, with drinks purchased from across the room serving as the lone communication. Instead of fighting through a crowd to tell a friend that you're leaving, you could order him an "I'm Out".

The logical generalization is to binary shots representing bits that could be combined to produce any message, but decoding binary after the last shot becomes something of a challenge.

11/2/09

Agricultural Genetic Awesomeness

[by Naveen]

Genetically modified foods have gotten a lot of bad press lately and it's too bad they don't have a better PR effort behind them. Most people are opposed to GMO due to knee-jerk associations with global corporate agriculture and view it as the anti-thesis of the locavore trend. This misses out on the efforts of plant biologists and farmers in countries ranging from Mexico to the Philippines to Australia to produce crops that are drought-resistant, salt-tolerant, and safe from the latest viral or bacterial threat (see here, for example). It has also been criticized for being over-hyped about its ability to feed the world. After several weeks of researching these arguments, I tend to agree and suspect that better farmer education and food distribution in rural areas will be more important.
I learned all this while preparing for a public talk last week for the Science in the News lecture series. Two other grad students and I explained the history and biology of agricultural genetics, presented some case studies (Bt Corn and Golden Rice), then explored the role of genetically-engineered foods in solving world hunger (that was my part). While researching this topic, for which I felt increasingly under-qualified, I talked to Peace Corps volunteers, farmers, and Friends of the World Food Program. There is so much more to the history of edible plant biology than gets mentioned in the highly-polarized debate about GM Foods, so I thought I would share some of my findings:
  • Wide crossing allows two different species of plants to breed with each other. The plant isn't too happy about this and tries to eject the hybrid embryo, but scientists can rescue it and grow it up in vitro to a viable new plant. Scientists did this in the 1970s to save the Asian rice crop from the grassy stunt virus.
  • A floral toxin called colchicine causes a plant cell to double its number of chromosomes by messing with its microtubules (similar chemicals are sometimes used as anti-cancer drugs). The confused plant cells often end up producing seedless adults (e.g. watermelon, grapes). This chromosome doubling method was also used to create tritacle, a wheat-rye hybrid that I first learned about from a Kashi cereal box.
  • During the pro-nuke days of the 1950s and '60s, a collaboration between the FAO and the IAEA sent out portable radiation sources to farms all over the world. By irradiating, for instance, 100,000 seeds, the second generation might have 30-50,000 adults, which can be whittled down to a few beneficial mutants. Supposedly much of the organic beer in Europe comes from barley that was a product of radiation mutagenesis.
The wide-crossing, chromosome doubling, and radiation mutagenesis are all decades old and (to the best of my knowledge) can still fall under the label organic. In fact, there was a debate in the late '90s about whether new genetic techniques would fall under the USDA certification, since they would not require external inputs like fertilizer or pesticides. For their credit, genetically modified organisms have done several good things for us lately, including producing insulin for treating diabetics and vegetarian rennet for making cheese.

For more info, I recommend these two books:
I'm sure there are countless other resources out there and I encourage you to learn more about this fascinating topic. Please let me know if you find out anything else interesting.

10/19/09

geek bar

[by john, mike, naveen, david, aviv, and te]

get a couple drinks in any of us and soon we'll be fervidly discussing science or cocktails, and often both. science (science!) tells us why we like the tastes we do, how to make them better, and how to predict what you'll like next time. bold claims get bolder with each sip until we know that we (we!) can do those things better. yeah, we assert, we could totally open a bar, and apply science to make it amazing. psh, nevermind the economy and all those entrepreneurial hazards...science works.

thankfully, we always sober up, and none of us has quit his day job yet. good ideas have distilled out, though. here are the initial (feasible) ones; feel free to add your own.

atmosphere
overall: open, not too dark, led lighting, no kitschy beakers or lab coats
  • back-lit plates of glass along the walls for scrawling equations
  • bunsen burner mood lighting
  • graph paper napkins
  • low-key plasma screens showing real-time drink trending, and possibly kubrick or bergman flicks (or nova documentaries)
  • polarized microscopy posters
  • flash cards with tips/conversation starters for shy geeks seeking to chat up their attractive bar-neighbors
  • bookshelf of textbooks
  • overly simple web site hides the contact info and menu in the html comments
drinks
overall: lots of bartender interaction, backed with powerful statistical methods; restrained use of lab gadgets; precisely made classics and science-enhanced originals
  • menu formatted in LaTeX
  • touchscreen at tables with machine learning software to suggest drinks
  • discreet use of liquid nitrogen when suitable
  • vortex mixers
  • titrated absinthe cocktails
  • pipettes for busy nights
  • geeky original drink names: 'feshbach resonance', 'mcmc', 'sag a*', 'mixture of gaussians'
  • cocktail shakers with built-in thermometers and timers
  • endothermic glassware (an r&d project for now...)
  • pH meter for analyzing individual citrus fruits
  • bartenders speak perturbative field theory ('i'll have a next-leading order manhattan.')

makes me dizzy just theorizing about it...

10/10/09

september budget

[by john]

it's getting to be the same old story, but i managed another month under budget. to get more fine-grained about it, though, i spent roughly $90 on schmancy cocktails, $45 on wine and beer to bring to friends' parties, $30 on a new bottle, and $15 at the beer-after-work sort of places.

huh, that's a 6:3:2:1 ratio; is that a common one for drinks? some people swear by a 2:1:1 spirit:citrus:syrup portioning for sours, or a 4:3:2:1 weak:strong:sweet:sour for punches, so perhaps. well, not really. after looking through my recipes, the 6:3:2:1 really isn't in vogue. i did find one drink, however, from a weekly blogger think (drink?) tank:

1 1/2 gin
3/4 green chartreuse
1/2 orgeat
1/4 carpano antica
1 dash angostura

(call the tiny portion of bitters extra tips or something, if you want to be strict about it.) what kismet, though - it uses carpano antica vermouth, the bottle i just got. unfortunately, this one goes down in the average column, despite looking so tasty on paper. too sharp and too sweet, i'm afraid.

at least my spending was in tasty proportion...

review: trina's starlite lounge

[by john]

trina's, the newest neighborhood joint, opened to wildly enthusiastic glittering reviews and hype. justifiably so. i went with mike and others this past wednesday and thoroughly enjoyed myself. it was a perfect night to soak up the place's charm - no weekend crowd to wrestle with, and plenty of time to talk to trina herself (on vermouth, pie, tattoos...), who was holding down the second bar.

their menu really typifies the place. a page for cocktails and beers, a page for food, and nothing taken too seriously. the drinks are free-poured, so none of the poindexterism or reverence you'll find at drink. the bemusing, coma-inducing choices for eats included hot dogs (plus a daily kind at market price), gravy fries, mac & cheese with ritz crackers, and chicken and waffles. $9 tax-included cocktails and $5 corn dogs were fairly easy on my budget, so i was happy.

now, reviewers will tell you that the best thing about trina's is the southern diner atmosphere, or that it's part of a southern food resurgence, or that it's opening when everybody else is closing. but i think they're missing the greatest part: the cheap drunk food. not since devouring a fried kimchi dog at pdt in new york have i had the perfect greasy complement to my drink. bone marrow doesn't really cut it at craigie or eastern standard, and drink's food menu is just offensive - expensive, tiny portions. in the end, trina's drinks are above average, but i'll be going back for the pepperoni rolls.

10/4/09

Visual thinking for gastrophysicists

[by Naveen]

After spending too much time last week sitting through PowerPoint presentations, staring at math equations, and reading technical papers, I decided on a trio of visualizations for this post:

I. Insatiable curiosity is a desirable trait for a scientist, but can lead to problems in everyday life. Mundane tasks expand to fill valuable time as I ponder what brand of toothpaste or breakfast cereal (or granola or museli) to buy in the store. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has written extensively about the Paradox of Choice (see his TED Talk here), which prompted the idea for this table:


II. Since taking a class at the Harvard Business School this semester, I am more frequently brainstorming for business ideas. Here is one that I had a while ago for a customized mini-muffin bar. It would have the personalized, "just-in-time" feel of a good cocktail bar, since batter could be quickly mixed and baked within minutes. Multi-grain muffins could appeal to the more health-conscious crowd, seasonal ingredients could attract locavores, and decadent chocolate options could draw people from the cupcake demographic. This idea seems full of potential, but I know enough about opening a restaurant (i.e. don't do it), that I'll stick with grad school for now.


III. After outings to several of the numerous beverage establishments in Boston, I see potential for numerous synergistic restaurant co-localizations that capitalize on the modified palate after a night of imbibing. Many types of global cuisine can be tailored for this particular market, as illustrated below. I know it's far from comprehensive or accurate, but I hope it gets people thinking. As diners explore more cuisines, I think that we could see an expanding definition of what is considered "drunk food." I could go for some South African food after my next cocktail adventure, or perhaps just make peanut butter-Fluff-banana sandwiches back at home.


9/28/09

To Each His Own (Bar)

[by Mike]

As John just wrote, new inductees into cocktail culture are always curious about the best way to start their own bar. But $100? You're never going find a solution that placates everyone, and John's recommendations certainly raised my eyebrow halfway to the ceiling.

The reason? No tequila! My own tastes hold tequila above the other base spirits, and I think a good bottle (Azul, Sauza Hornitos, Milagro) opens a world of cocktail possibilities more appealing to a beginner. Good tequila, for example, blends wonderfully with fruit (from berries to melons to stone fruit), encouraging experimentation while introducing seasonal ingredients. When the bar is ready for expansions, moreover, tequila provides an ideal base for new spirits. Benedictine, Maraschino, Cointreau - they're all prime additions to the agave liquor.

But where does tequila fit in? Honestly, I think gin can be overwhelming to new enthusiasts. Save the gin drinks for the professions, at least until you've trained your wrists for brisk stirring, and start with sweeter drinks that can be more forgiving in their ratios and exact preparations.

My list, then, goes as follows:

Tequila - $25 (Azul, Sauza Hornitos, Milagro if you can find it cheap)
Rye - $20 (Rittenhouse, etc)
Rum - $20 (Sailor Jerry, Old Monk)
Sweet Vermouth - $10 (I think Martini and Rossi is fine to start)
Bitters - $15 (Angostura and Peychauds, for comparing and contrasting)
Citrus Juicer - $10 (In the Mexican style)

Pick up some limes, whip up some simple and ginger syrups, and you'll have plenty with which to play. Oh, and my hardware goes as: bar spoon, Oxo 2 oz measuring cup, Boston shaker, julep strainer, muddler (I'm currently using the end of a rake handle), and a set of Tovolo ice cube trays.

Now I'm off to go brainstorm uses for my bottle of Midori. When it's tequila time, it's Suntori time?

a bar of one's own

[by john]

in the span of just a few days i received two requests - nay, cries of help from the depths of impoverished abstemiousness - for advice on stocking a bar. hyperbole or not, i felt honored, since these two guys have greatly shaped my attitude towards cocktails. tony, in sf, who defines classy debauchery, made me my first ever mixed drink, and steven, in nyc, gives me field reports on (and occasionally entry into) the best bars in new york. and so, i was obliged.

let's set the constraint: $100 to stock a bar from scratch. thankfully, the simplest and most classic cocktails enjoy a large intersection, and can be made with a minimal set of ingredients. think the martini, the manhattan, a gimlet, a pegu club, or a julep. minus the cheap, background cost of fresh citrus and simple syrup, my initial list would be:
gin - $30 (plymouth, greylock, junipero, beefeater...)
rye - $20 (rittenhouse, old overholt [sazerac for a bit more])
french vermouth & italian vermouth - $30 (-not- martini & rossi - go for dolin or noilly prat)
bitters - $10 (start with angostura)
barspoon - $10 (try to seek out a nice one)
all the essentials are there - spirits, vermouths, bitters, and barware. i'm not trying to cover the gamut of base spirits, nor liqueurs. those can all come later. and don't forget about the barware. i'm assuming there's already a pint glass handy, but with each paycheck acquire, in order, a boston shaker metal tin, an oxo hawthorne strainer, an oxo 2 oz slanted measuring cup, and a citrus reamer.

above all, though, a bar should be stocked drink by drink. find a cocktail you like enough to make it regularly at home, then get the cointreau or benedictine or rum or even absinthe necessary to make it. put aside some money each month to get a new bottle to expand your repertoire. for instance, steven, with his penchant for last words and variants thereon, might consider splurging on some chartreuse and maraschino liqueur. and then last words will cost $3 instead of $12.

if only i had given my callow past self the same advice - then i wouldn't have that damn useless bottle of midori sitting around...

9/26/09

Beasties

[by Mike]

One of the more engaging elements of the cocktail movement is participation. An amazing drink can inspire you to pick up a new bottle, cook up a new syrup, or prepare a juice you would never have thought of otherwise.

When house made ginger beer started sweeping across Boston bars last year, however, I didn't succumb. I was intrigued, but hesitant to start pushing syrups through my soda siphon lest the increased viscosity cause premature wear on the valves (when you're a grad student on a budget, these are nontrivial considerations). It wasn't until I watched some old Good Eats episodes that a yeast-fermented ginger beer became obvious.

I started with the basic Good Eats recipe (sadly not available on the website), adding cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom when steeping the syrup, and waited anxiously as the two bottles stood on my counter fermenting over the course of a few days. Once the bottles started hissing I had a pretty good idea that the beer was ready. Releasing the initial pressure proved to be slightly chaotic, but otherwise the process was painless.

Unfortunately the ginger flavor didn't really live up to my expectations; while significantly spicier than most commercially available ginger beers it lacked the strong bite to which I have grown accustomed. The texture, however, was a pleasant surprise. Slower, more delicate carbonation produced smaller, softer bubbles that tempted the tongue instead of smacking it around as injected carbonation is wont to do.


The first application was an attempt to recreate a drink from Tom at Craigie,

Blueberry Cobbler
Muddled blueberries
2 oz reposado tequila
0.5 oz benedictine
Top with ginger beer

While it could have used stronger ginger flavor, the more delicate carbonation added a nice, dare I say, sophistication?

The beauty of fermentation is that its applications are near endless. As the beer was charging I sat out a slurry of flour, water, and sugar next to my window and waited for Cambridge yeast to make a home and do their thing. It didn't take long for the characteristic bubbles to make an appearance and hopefully I'll have a proper starter by next weekend.


9/24/09

Smart Choices Program for Bacteria

[by Naveen]

The blogosphere has been swept by an epidemic of debate regarding the new Smart Choices program laid out by the country's major food corporations. Critics point out that Froot Loops, over 40% sugar by weight, gets the green check mark of approval. Proponents claim that it will help consumers navigate the plethora of choices in the grocery store aisles. Since I'm an applied physicist and microbial enthusiast, rather than a nutritionist, I'll offer my unique perspective on the issue:


Growing biofilms in a petri dish isn't easy. The label above is adapted from the mix of nutrients that I use to feed the Bacillus subtilis that I study. It's a pretty odd assortment: the controversial flavor-enhancer MSG, the supposedly sleep-inducing protein tryptophan, the diet drug component phenylanaline, the B-vitamin thiamine, and various metal ions.

Not growing biofilms outside of a petri dish is also difficult. If we aren't careful to keep things sterile in lab, an invasion can sweep through the incubator. Pretty much every surface around you (e.g. your teeth, contact lenses, intestinal linings...) can be a home for a symbiotic coalition of bacteria.

If it's this hard to know exactly what makes a single, well-studied species of bacteria survive (one of the vanishingly small minority that we can actually culture in a lab), I think that we still have quite a ways to go to catalog all the substances in the plant and animal kingdoms that keep us healthy. On the other hand, human beings seem to be pretty adaptable, capable of surviving on diets ranging from raw vegan to arctic carnivore. Evolution may need a little help, though, when it comes to new creations like KFC's Double Down "sandwich" or deep-fried butter.

the new england society for the promotion of vice

[by john]

as threatened earlier after our history lesson, we've founded an organization to combat the nosy killjoys over at the watch and ward society, also known as the new england society for the suppression of vice. (nevermind that they're all dead.)

after a soft opening for a week or so, the new england society for the promotion of vice officially flung its arms wide open to cocktail-clutching prospective members at eastern standard's speakeasy this wednesday. laughter, stories, recipes, and pins were all exchanged. yes indeed, vice-sanctioning buttons:


drop us a line if you want one, and wear it proudly.

9/20/09

The Fine Art of Reviewing Books

[by Mike]

In order to add some variety to my usual load of summer reading (a stack of textbooks), I took advantage of our last trip to the Boston Shaker to pick up a book on cocktails. While John vacillated on the Jerry Thomas tome, I jumped on one of the new reprints of David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drink. Expectations were high: rarely have months passed without hearing fawning praise or stories of old copies reselling for outrageous prices.

Written not long after the appeal of Prohibition, Embury's text oozes of a definite quaintness, complete with a veiled condescension towards women and authoritative pseudo-science. Not to mention a total disdain for tequila. Pushing on, however, it's easy to see why it was so treasured by the early cocktail revolutionaries. Embury held strong opinions towards cocktails and how they should be made, demanding fresh ingredients and careful thought towards construction instead of blind devotion to recipes.

For someone already indoctrinated into the cocktail movement, however, much of Embury's impassioned arguments are redundant; those likely to pick up a copy of the book are already likely to share his philosophy. The real value of the text, then, becomes something for which Embury is not shy in expressing his hatred: a recipe book. While few of the recipes are immediately phenomenal, they serve as wonderfully fertile grounds for experimentation and play. Armed with calibrated ingredient ratios, an enthusiastic reader can readily attack the recipes and quickly develop an array of diverse, well balanced drinks.

Contrary to what some might claim, The Fine Art of Mixing Drink won't change your life, but it does makes great summer reading.

9/13/09

the original jello shot

[by john]

you know how each generation thinks it's the one that discovered sex? or the word 'guesstimate'? well the same can be said for jello shots, apparently.

yes, that horrid fixture of college house parties was already old news by 1862, when jerry thomas published his book entitled 'how to mix drinks, or the bon-vivant's companion, containing clear and reliable directions for mixing all the beverages used in the united states, together with the most popular british, french, german, italian, russian, and spanish recipes, embracing punches, juleps, cobblers, etc., etc., etc., in endless variety.' (brevity, jerry, brevity.)

witness:

there you have it. and you wondered how you could use all that leftover isinglass! the last sentence is one of the better i've encountered in the english language. equal parts quaintness and hilarity, and a damn accurate description of modern day jello shot drawbacks, too.

9/9/09

a bad review

[by john]

a rather well respected cocktail blogger reviewed drink (i'd say my favorite bar in the world), and just excoriated the establishment. being a boston cocktail nut, i feel like the review attacks me personally, however ridiculous that notion is.

an apologia. the experience matt had there sounds plain terrible. it sounds like going out for cocktails at...legal seafood, or on boylston street. a cocky, bad bartender. pitchers of premixed drinks (side note - i noticed these getting prepped the last time i went to drink - 5pm on a saturday night. i was disappointed, but misty was adamant about their necessity for high throughput nights.). a four-deep bar. free pouring. shots?! ugh.

but, let me be clear - i have never been to the drink that matt went to.

i've always enjoyed drink on off hours, so that i can talk to the bartenders, let alone get a seat. i thought it was a rule among cocktail geeks to avoid bars on friday and saturday nights, unless you want a beer.

i've never seen someone shoot a shot there.

i've never seen free pouring (modulo champagne floats).

i've actually gotten a boothby manhattan no problem.

and yet, matt's experience exemplifies something i've been sensing - that the level of professionalism at drink is slipping... unlike the first generation of bartenders who started the place, not every new bartender (and there are lots of them, with drink's growing popularity) knows their shit, let alone their classic shit.

and i feel like the bartenders effectively are creating a menu - instead of listening to each patron - by pigeonholing tastes into the friday/saturday pre-mixed drinks. it takes the magic out of drink, and it saddens me to think that a no-menu kind of bar can't do big business.

as for his remaining critiques - no doorman, no menu, no liquor shelf - well, i'd rather sit down and have a drink to talk about them. i believe that an open (we're not speakeasy nyc), interactive (for minutes at a time during off hours), and unostentatious (bars are not liquor churches) bar is the new paradigm.

matt is clearly not one of those confused yelpers who can't get a bud. drink should listen up and get its shit together.

9/8/09

Hygroscopic biscuits

[by Naveen]
"These are like dessicator packets!" - my self-assessment of a recent baking experiment
An amazing batch of cinnamon rolls from my housemate inspired a spree of haphazard ingredient substitutions. I still had brown rice flour, coconut oil, flaxseed, and other such ingredients from my previous adventure in vegan baking, so I thought that I would use them to recreate his decadent breakfast. However, I neglected to realize two points:
  • The melting characteristics of coconut oil are totally different than shortening. I didn't mix the dough enough to break up the chilled blobs of coconut fat, which led to pools of liquid when transferred to the oven.
  • Brown rice flour is good for shortbread cookies, when the purpose of the flour is mainly to turn a large quantity of butter (or other fat) into a cookie that doesn't melt in your hand, but crumbles easily. When the fat:flour ratio is scaled back, the starches are no longer fully occupied, so the resulting quick bread loses structural integrity and appears to seek out any source of water (e.g. your tongue).
In an attempt to console me, my housemate explained how he had hundreds of years of collective cooking experience with wheat flour, butter, and sugar against my couple years of amateur interest in gastroscience. To catch-up, I need to be more systematic and purposeful in my experimentation. Although I lack the resources of America's Test Kitchen, I'll strive to apply my physics skills to the culinary realm.

9/6/09

a saratoga patch

[by john]

cocktaileers haven't ended their honeymoon just yet with tequila and mezcal. they're reinventing classic drinks (witness the oaxacan old fashioned), they're making new ones (q.v. misty kalkofen's maximilian affair or anything coming out of mayahuel), and they're finding their favorite brands to mix with.

i've been dipping my own barspoon in, with the flux bias and ho(a)rfrost, but hadn't yet tried a tequila twist on a classic. so here's a new take on a saratoga. i forget when i was first introduced to the saratoga, but it was for one notable feature: it mixes two very different base spirits together, rye and cognac. it's kind of one of those average cocktails, better in concept than execution. i wondered if tequila's flavors could improve it:

the saratoga

equal parts: rye
cognac
italian vermouth
two dashes of bitters


the saratoga.2

1 oz rye
1 oz tequila
1/2 oz italian vermouth
3 dashes xocolatl-mole bitters

i like this better than the original. the earthy/herbal flavors of the rye and tequila play well together, whereas cognac is easily subdued by rye. plus, the x-m bitters get their voice heard in the herbal parley. it's not great, though - and it was highly dependent on ingredients. rittenhouse was too strong, punt e mes was too overpowering, and any more vermouth (dolin in the end) is too sweet.

but for now, it can serve as a patch, saving a classic drink from averageness.

august budget

[by john]

after a raucous july, my alcohol spending took a break while i played with a bunch of new bottles leftover from the party at home. more on that soon. in all, i spent $115, and a good chunk of that was on a book! i picked up a reproduction of jerry thomas' 1862 compendium 'a bon vivant's companion' from adam at the boston shaker. more on that soon, too.

my reduced spending helped absorb the excess from some other categories, however. a lovely dinner at no. 9 park during restaurant week, plus some enthusiastic splurging at the grocery store (on $10/pound butter, for instance. possibly inspired by 'julie & julia'?) put me over the edge. totally worth it, though.

in other monetary news, our graduate stipend has gone up to $2130 per month, a $60 increase. but like any conscious spender, i won't let it affect my budgeting; rather i'll save the excess for my ira and a flight to bkk.

8/30/09

Laplace Would Marginalize Over Red and White

[by Mike]

It would be odd if we had come so far in academia without being passionate about science. Unfortunately, this means that after a drink or two some of us (i.e. me) find it difficult to keep from talking physics and data analysis. While I'm working to avoid random outbursts of science, especially in mixed company, I can't do it without at least one cocktail memorializing my some aspects of my research.

How do you make the optimal cocktail? One approach would be to find your single favorite recipe, the selection and ratio of ingredients, and stop there. Another approach goes further, considering not just your favorite recipe but also perturbations away from that recipe. You may prefer a 6:1 martini, but how much more do you prefer it to the 5:1 or the 7:1? Or the 1:1 for that matter? The second approach would advocate serving an infinite number of cocktails, the amount of each serving weighted by the preference for that ratio. A similar approach would be taken towards ingredients.

This approach is not as foreign as it might immediately appear. Stripping a cocktail down to a single ingredient, someone with no previous experience would try the same amount of each different variety. But this is just the flight commonly used to taste spirits, beer, and wine.

In practice, preparing more than one cocktail is often prohibitive. When trying to optimize a recipe, however, it may not be a bad idea to compare the different possibilities directly. Consider the choice of bitters in the Monte Carlo,

Markov Chain Monte Carlo

In four shot glasses prepare
1 oz rye whiskey
0.5 oz benedictine

Add to individual glasses
1 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dashes Whisky Barrel Aged bitters
1 dashes Peychauds bitters
1 dashes Xocolatl Mole bitters


Now let's see how long I can go without talking about work...

8/26/09

Unsolicited Advice

[by Mike]

Father's Office, sit down. Look, you have an amazing selection of craft spirits, nearly perfect sweet potato fries, and a decent burger (sorry, Andy, nothing close to the burger at Craigie). But this whole community seating schtick? And having to order from an understaffed, chaotic bar? At least consider designated ordering areas so that lines can form and some semblance of order night be restored, and then we can talk about seeing each other again.

8/25/09

City of Angels

[by Mike]

Having spent the four years of my undergraduate education here, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Los Angeles. While the diversity, culture, and weather rival any other city, the cocktail scene has always left much to be desired, especially when compared to the renaissance in Boston (and all the other players in the cocktail movement). The last year, however, has seen a slew of new ventures promising to bring LA back into the game and I was eager to try a few out while visiting some friends.

After going through the various articles written in the past few years, I narrowed down the possibilities to the Edison and the Varnish. A few of my friends had visited the Edison before and spoke well enough to pique my interest and place it first on the list. Unfortunately, the Edison's odd hours (closed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday) exactly conflicted with my stay.

I was initially hesitant about the Varnish because of their sparse website; how could I make a reasonable judgement without seeing the menu? Browsing through Yelp!, however, I discovered that the Varnish is a creation of the Milk and Honey team and my initial hesitations evaporated.

The Varnish executes the speakeasy theme with exquisite detail. Behind a discreetly marked door in the back of a downtown LA restaurant, the bar features wooden walls and booths dimly illuminated by metal fixtures. A sound system hidden from view plays period music, although we were treated to live piano music most of the night. My only criticism of the design is the lack of stools at the bar which has the effect of discouraging patrons from engaging the bartenders directly. Not to say that it stopped me from heading over to the bar to chat.

More impressive than the atmosphere was the menu. About half of the drinks were a little bit conservative and welcoming to the uninitiated, with the second half more creative and intriguing combinations. Of particular note was the "Remember the Maine", bringing together rye and absinthe in an interesting twist on the Manhatten. After sampling most of the menu between the four of us, I went off menu for my last drink and was pleasantly surprised by a "Medicina Latina" that combined tequila, ginger, and lime with a mezcal (must have been del Maguey) float and an impressive chunk of ice.

An unexpected bonus was Tal, the Lucas/Bols VP of marketing, behind the bar, fresh off of his release party in Boston. We chatted a bit about the new Bols Genever while I partook in samples of the spirit neat and in a punch. Andy had brought back a bottle of the Bols Jonge Genever from Europe a few months ago that was less than impressive, but the new genever based on the 1820 recipe was a marked improvement. Unlike a dry gin, which infuses the herbal flavors in the second distilling, the 1820 recipe adds the herbs directly to malted grains, resulting in a malty almost bread like flavor that pushes the herbal flavors to the back of the palette, almost like a sweeter sake. The spirit was sufficiently intriguing that I decided to try it in a classic Aviation where the malty base almost completely changed the way the herbal flavors hit the palette.

I can't wait to see what the city of angles has to offer the next time I'm in town.


8/23/09

three gimlets

[by john]

the gimlet is one of those perfect summer drinks - crisp, simple, and cold. it was the first thing resembling a cocktail that i ever mixed, in fact, three summers ago:
the adolescent gimlet

build in a rocks glass over ice:

1 large eyeball pour of vodka
1 smaller eyeball pour of rose's sweetened lime juice

rattle the glass around to mix.
ah, how far i've come. i've eschewed vodka (though a vodka gimlet is a bona-fide variant...for when too much taste gets in the way), i've started measuring ingredients for replicability, i've gotten a proper shaker, and, goodness, i've abandoned high fructose corn syrup products like rose's. now, to be a little fair, there are cocktail snobs who insist that rose's is required to make a 'real' gimlet. i'm not one of them.

a real gimlet should be something close to this:
the gimlet

1 1/2 oz gin
1 oz lime juice
1/4 oz simple syrup (can go more, to taste)

shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
now that is a proper drink. enjoy on the porch just before sunset, when the humidity is still hanging in the air. or just about any other time, really.

there is always room for improvement, though (nevermind a statewide dehumidifier):
the adult gimlet

1 1/2 oz gin (this version used berkshire's ethereal gin)
1 oz lime juice
2 barspoons thai basil simple syrup
1 barspoon absinthe
1 barspoon green chartreuse

shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
mmm, all my favorite (liquid) green things together in one glass. the different herbal flavors dance in the background while the gin, lime, and sugar play their familiar tune.

to progress, kanpai!

8/18/09

a not-so-dry history of boston

[by john]

mike and i were treated last night to a history lesson like no other by lauren of drinkboston and adam of the boston shaker. the topic: drinking in boston through the ages. surprisingly, the lecture couldn't be summed up into 'the puritans frowned upon it and that dour streak continues to this day.' rather, lauren was able to spin a winding tale of intrigue, ups and down, colorful characters and...what's the word...hooch.

no offense to any of my past history teachers, but i have never been so absorbed with dates and dead people than with a drink in my hand. yes indeed, while lauren was serving up her narrative, adam was shaking ward eights and maharaja's revenges for all of the students. an apropos pair, too - the ward eight is boston's most famous cocktail invention, and the maharaja's revenge represents the new wave of cocktails (and uses rum, hearkening back on boston's huge rum trade).

here's the gossip column rundown of four centuries:

the early-bird puritans hit the scene, starting a church in 1632, the first tavern in '35 and some silly school in '36. priorities, people! taverns multiply like drunk rabbits, and function as inn-cum-courthouse-cum-post-office-cum-banks. the red lion is founded in the north end. george monk of the anchor embodies to the hospitable, community pillar image. women are seen behind the stick but not tippling, except for prostitutes! people drank ~6 gallons of pure alcohol per year, compared to modern day's measly ~3. applejack is the new it! just skim the ice off your cider... no wait, madeira is the new it! it ages well under harsh conditions... no no, rum is the new darling, yes rum has the title! boston gets the rum bug big because of the great shipping center. proto-cocktails form...punches and flips, but no ice yet.

we're just getting started - on to the 18th century! halfway through, there are 25 rum distilleries in the area, with medford's being best by far (what a little quality control does, folks). drink it and be seen with paul revere, that rabble-rouser. speaking of which, the beginnings of revolution get goin' when the brits want to tax the sugar we're using for allllll that rum. rebel! all the colonies meet for a photo-op saying they hate the brits, together. some little tea party (you didn't hear about it? very exclusive.) goes down with help from tavern owners. the first masons lodge is founded at the bunch of grapes. the royal exchange sees bostons first sword duel, and then the boston massacre on its steps. talk about bad press!

the 19th century hits boston hard, with growing pains, immigration, and (egad!) statewide prohibition. yes, prohibition swept massachusetts like a 23 year fad starting in 1852, with a little two year break where people could drink beer. underground drinking (in private club$ for the rich, and tenement jug rooms for the po' folk) drove crime and social ills underground with it. afterward (phew) taverns have windows, so you can see the debauchery. much better, ahh. the concept of a 'free lunch' with a drink starts up, but has nothing to do with the anti-happy hour laws today. liquor license numbers are limited, and still so today. doyle's starts up in jp. the new england society for the suppression of vice (new blog name coming!), aka the watch & ward society starts in 1884. basically beer 'n' burlesque hatin' busybodies. oh burlesque! boston had lots. believe it. fancy grand hotels like the parker house and the (now merged) locke ober open doors. the ward eight gets itself invented there. a hot ice craze hits, and ice begins export from new england ponds to britain, martinique, wherever! proper cocktails get invented in new england, joy!

the 1900's see the great molasses flood (not an onion headline - a humongous tank broke and killed 21 people), national prohibition (old hat by now, right, boston?), bohemia in beacon hill, creative bootlegging, and the rise of women visiting bars. finally. tragedy strikes again with the conflagration of the glitzy coconut grove. modern fire codes ensue. tiki was huge in boston in the 50's, fine dining catches on in the 80's, then wine, then craft beer, then cocktails at last when the b-side opens in 1998. and observational gastrophysics was founded in 2009.

whew, you would think i took notes! the audience, i should mention, was also rather knowledgeable with medford rum and speakeasy trivia.

i have a tad more respect for this town, now. not bad, boston. just fix the t schedule already.

8/17/09

Cocktails in the Rough

[by Mike]

Last week I was down on the Cape, spending the days listening to lectures about particle physics and the nights socializing with other grad students from New England universities. While free beer was provided every evening, I could not leave well enough alone and decided to attempt a cocktail.

Brainstorming began on the drive to the local liquor store. Azul would provide an inexpensive but quality base spirit, but secondary spirits could I find without pulling too much from my wallet? Browsing around the store I found a four pack of local ginger beer, and I jumped on the idea of a tequila/ginger/lime rickey akin to a Dark and Stormy. By dinner I was mixing together my first trials and trying to contain my disappointment.

Marked by a pungent bitterness, the limes were clearly past their prime and the ginger beer was weak and watery. No matter the ratios, the drink ended up less than appetizing. The only redeeming quality was that it was so watery to dilute the off flavors.

Through dinner I contemplated alternative plans; azul is great in a drink, but mediocre sipped by itself. Recent exposure to "Famous New Orleans Drinks and how to mix 'em" and Good Eats inspired thoughts of a punch. The basic recipe (one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak) laid the foundation and some quick thinking filled in the details. With the lime juice, ginger beer, and tequila providing the first three ingredients I brewed a few bags of Earl Grey tea to provide the weak and went back to the make shift bar.

The lime juice proved too terrible to be salvaged, so I quickly dropped it and focused on the ginger beer, tequila, and tea. Warm ice and weak ginger beer necessitated altered ratios, but eventually I iterated to a half-way decent recipe. Overall, not quite a success but a fun adventure none the less. Given fresh juice and homemade ginger beer, the basic recipe might even have promise.

8/11/09

the flux bias

[by john]

some truths are hard to swallow - tonight it was that cryogenic experiments can require late nights in the lab, so that precious liquid helium doesn't run out. but thankfully, quality homemade drinks are easy to swallow.

here's what i played with tonight after getting home:
the flux bias

1 1/2 oz tequila (azul reposado)
1/4 oz green chartreuse
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur

stir and strain.
very sippable, with the different earthy flavors taking turns. the name is a bitter (hah) reference to the little electronic things i was trying to keep cold and characterize - squids.

another hard-to-swallow one: mike may have been right all along - the tequila trend is definitely here, with a new tequila-heavy bar mayahuel in manhattan, the spirit's re-christening at tales (according to misty, tom, and many a blogger), and the great popularity of my sole tequila drink at the party. i'm rolling with the trend, and it's fun. azul, it's worth mentioning, has a great flavor (and no nasty vapors), with a great price point ($23 for my bottle).

p.s. - it is hard to quantify the excitement between mike, andy, and i over the (early, in time for the party [the 1919 was a house special saturday night], thanks to adam) arrival of the xocolatl mole bitters. good things shall come.

8/6/09

how to throw a cocktail bash in four easy steps

[by john]

this past weekend, i threw a two night cocktail fête. it was perhaps the closest i will come to opening a bar, with different guests every night, waves of drink orders, and gourmet bar food. (mad props to mike and andy for the crispy shredded pork awesomeness, gravlax, and bone marrow.) i had tremendous amounts of fun without drinking anything, save for a few dozen milliliters from test-straws. homing in on each guest's taste proved to be a delightful challenge. i will certainly do this again.

now, easily:

create a menu

i put up my menu last time, but gave no indication of how hard it was to make. i tested tens of drinks over the course of a week to see which would appeal to a wide sample of palates. and, in addition to the pet pet, i created two originals - a st. germain/applejack marriage (la pomme rouge), and a constantly varying - popular, too, it turned out - tequila cocktail (the ho[a]rfrost).

everything on the menu got great attention and compliments, except for the poor martinez. being the oldest drink on there, maybe it couldn't hang with this hip crowd. noted. but otherwise, i am elated for converting many guests to the wonders of sloe gin, regular gin, spicy finishes, and flamed chartreuse.

go into debt

having settled on a menu, i then biked around boston/cambridge for another week trying to gather the necessary ingredients. the word is out on rittenhouse, quality bourbon, and old monk rum, apparently, because i had to discover several new liquor stores to hunt them all down.

after all my shopping, i went (a predicted) $200 over my normal budget for the month. i calculated the cost of each drink: usually around $3, and $4 for the tipperary. i figured each guest would go through ~3 rounds, so asked for $10 donations. in the end, i recouped exactly $200, perfect!

for the nth time, i'd like to reiterate how cheap home bartending is, compared to going out.

focus on the freezer

at some point, maybe 10 days before the party, i realized with growing dread that i would need a lot of ice. like, 200 cubes per night. only the brute force solution was viable: i bought two more tovolo trays and pushed out batches each day and night into ziploc bags. by friday morning, i was satisfied with five gallon bags, four trays in reserve, and five non-cubical trays in super-reserve.

some further creative maneuvering allowed me to fit cocktail glasses in there, too, so they could chill before service. good thing we weren't serving gelato or something.

stand around

the hard parts are done. now you only need to stand in one place for three hours and shake or stir the shit out of lots of drinks. stand, and also listen, steer, cajole, charm, engage, introduce, rinse, muddle, crack, and pour.

i had not expected the rush i got from bartending. it's like being on a kitchen line, but colder and solo. some hardcore multitasking - remembering orders, mixing, chatting people up, and monitoring the glassware situation all at once, with outward aplomb. and the repeated delight on guests' faces with the first sip made it even better.

8/4/09

More thoughts on Menus

[by Naveen]

John's forays into menu analysis have sparked my own curiosity. While looking through various options for Restaurant Week, I visited several of the venues' websites to examine their offerings. One of the first things that came to mind was a recent post on Presentation Zen about typography, a ubiquitous and often overlooked aspect of presentations. The top restaurants generally showed restraint in their menu design, with a limited color and font scheme coupled with a fearless use of white-space. For comparison, I also checked out some totally different dining establishments, with different economic considerations. The contrast between places like L'Espalier and Rialto, as opposed to The Cheesecake Factory and Taco Bell was quite striking (see here for another example). I realize that my small sample size does not come close to any type of systematic data analysis, but it did make me think more seriously about menu design, as well as the use of graphic design in my own presentations.













At the end, I decided to have a little fun, and made a hypothetical menu (inspired by this):


8/3/09

my menu

[by john]

after criticizing several types of bar menus, i had to make my own for this weekend when i threw a two-night cocktail party. more on the fête and the drinks themselves later; for now, i want to share the menu (pdf):



imagine it with a fold down the middle, so that you have the option of deciding based solely on ingredients, or solely on description (name and my musings), or on the combined knowledge.

if i owned a bar, it would be called 'aliment' (not usually applied to drinks, but i like the word and the connotation), and if it had a menu, it would look like this one. clean, elegant, brief, and the ingredients-plus-description style. and hopefully enticing enough to obviate any gin and tonic knee-jerk requests.

8/2/09

Teranga: a meta-review

[by Naveen]

After reading several recent reviews about the restaurant Teranga in the South End and talking with a computer visualization-savvy friend, I thought of showing the articles as a word cloud (generated by www.wordle.net). This is far from scientific, but could be the start of a new way to read about local dining establishments.


From top top bottom:
(1) June 6th, 2009: Teranga report on Chowhound
(2) June 16th 2009: First Bite: Teranga post on on Chowder
(3) July 29th, 2009: Teranga review on the Boston Phoenix
(4) July 29th, 2009: Teranga review on Boston.com