taking the edge off tax day

[by john]

i just submitted my federal and massachusetts taxes. fairly painless, actually, except for the fact that i couldn't file online. (why schedule d screws everything up is beyond me. but it was worth it; i sold some old stocks and put the proceeds straight into my roth ira.)

to celebrate, i made an income tax cocktail. this is a true cocktail in the classic style: a variation on gin plus vermouth plus bitters. all very cheap ingredients (sub-$20 bottles), and versatile ones to boot. the cocktail itself is decent; a little flat of a taste profile, but balanced enough. (clearly, the only reason i'm writing about it is because of its name.) the linked recipe calls for a bit more orange juice, but since i'm not a huge fan of that citrus, i only use 1/4 oz of it. to compensate, i garnish with orange oil to bring out the hint in the drink.

income tax cocktail

1 1/2 oz gin {i use plymouth}
3/4 oz dry/french vermouth {i heart noilly prat}
3/4 oz sweet vermouth {martini and rossi for now}
1/4 oz freshly squeezed orange juice
1 dash angostura bitters

stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. squeeze an orange peel over top and discard. optional garnish: flamed dollar bill.

(i should give a shout out to these adorable oxo measuring cups, which get down to the 1/4 oz. now indispensable in my bar.)

cheers to that.



[by Mike]

One of the inevitable aspects of studying high energy physics is travel. The size of modern particle accelerators relegates them mostly to national labs, which have an awkward tendency of being located in dreary, depressing locations. My own research is focused on the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Lab, which is located right in the middle of Long Island. That giant circle on the map? That's the atom smasher.

Creature comforts are few and far between at Brookhaven but, given that the majority of one's time is spent working or sleeping, it's rarely a significant issue. The one exception, sadly, is food. Perhaps to be expected, the cafeteria at Brookhaven is terrible. With experience one can find a few options that are somewhat less terrible than the majority, but not enough to last more than a few days. The search for food then takes you off site, to brave the wilds of Long Island.

A fifteen minute drive will take you from the front gate to the first strip malls, but the initial options are mostly limited to pizza and disappointing Chinese food. Driving further reveals row after row of strips malls, but rarely a break from the monotony of choices. The one notable exception is a hole in the wall serving authentic Oaxacan cuisine that I try to visit every time I'm down.

This last week I was down for a collaboration meeting, and after a long day of meetings some fellow grad students and I drove up to Port Jefferson in search of a good meal. Now Port Jefferson is dense enough to a refreshing break from suburbia, and as you reach the city limits the strip malls start to recede and the restaurants start to show increasing promise. Our final destination, however, was out on the water. Chosen with the miracle of technology that is the iPhone, the restaurant featured a seasonal prix fixe menu and everything. I was hoping for the best.

It's funny how the signs are so obvious in hindsight. Our tables were upstairs, past a small dining room that had been rented out for a pharmaceutical presentation. The waiter didn't mention the (many) changes in the menu until after our first attempts ordering the relevant dishes.

In the end, the three dishes of the prix fixe took over two hours to be served. Bland potstickers, horrendously dry and underseasoned pork tenderloin, and a mediocre chocolate lava cake were not worth the price of the meal, let alone the outrageous wait. The sickeningly sweet Sidecar that bided my time didn't help.

Trips like this make if vividly clear how spoiled we are in Boston. The luxurious selection of quality food and drink are have the power to make a grad student think about working less to delay the inevitability of graduating and having to move to another city. If only subconsciously.

Figure 2: Formaggio's Kitchen

[by naveen]

bourbon and branch

[by john]

a glorious day of rooftop dim sum, dan tat from golden gate bakery, theater, a trip to bourbon and branch, and formidable amounts of thai food capped my sf adventure.

bourbon and branch is a speakeasy bar in sf's sketchy tenderloin district which prides itself on, well, being a speakeasy. yes, it's pretentious. but yes, it's cool. you get a password with your online reservation to use at its unmarked door. a rare experience, at least. and a stark contrast to alembic's wide open front door. there are so many competing pros and cons, in fact, that bullet points are required:

  • fruit drawer - a roll-out drawer full of fresh seasonal fruit, awesome.
  • cloth drink napkins - embroidered and all.
  • seasonal menu - our night was the first for the spring menu.
  • gorgeous - tin ceiling, cloth walls, elegant modern chandelier, tractor seats at the bar.
  • ditzy waitresses - good thing we sat at the bar.
  • expensive - $2 more per drink than alembic, pushing justification.
  • bad speakeasy - their front door opens up directly to the street, so there's no anteroom to hide the bar from passers-by. when it's still light out, it ruins the mood. take a page from milk and honey and use two heavy curtains.
  • branding - they measured from shot glasses emblazoned with their logo. settle down, guys. not to mention the glitzy flash website.
alright, enough of that, on to the drinks. b&b is very menu-heavy. seasonal cocktails, champagne cocktails, classics, favorites from other bartenders, whiskey list... we must have sat there for 10 minutes poring over it. that's a con on my scorecard, because i'd rather be interacting with the bartender, but some could find it helpful.

we decided on two creations from the new spring menu. me: a mariachi, my first drink with mezcal, an extremely close relative of tequila which has gotten a bad reputation lately with the worm-in-the-bottle gimmick. yellow chartreuse, cointreau, fresh lemon juice, and orange bitters rounded out the cocktail. delightful! i enjoyed the whiskey-esque, smokey profile of the mezcal, which gave way easily enough to the citruses. my only complaint is that the last half of the drink was rather sweet; somehow the mezcal lost its magic by then.

my guy got the delicious 'devil's advocate', with gin, lime, ginger syrup, 3 fresh muddled raspberries, and a couple dashes of absinthe on top. i mean, just plain awesome and drinkable. i wish the absinthe had stayed longer than the first couple sips, though.

our bartender had the same hipster getup (by that i mean newspaper boy hat) as our one at alembic, so i had to put him to the same off-piste test, something bitter and spirit-based. he really pulled through, outdoing his rival: rye, licor 43, and fernet branca. for once, the fernet's long finish was subdued, and the bazillion combined herbs and flavors in the three ingredients worked perfectly together. wildly surprising and tasty, and with a working name of 'friends of ours'.

'i want something with st. germain and fire.' my boyfriend's request set the bartender back on his heels a little bit. after tasting his initial attempt with gin, green chartreuse, and the requested ingredient, he poured it out because the elderflower didn't shine through. restarting with the blank palette of vodka, he added peach bitters and a flamed grapefruit peel to complement the st. germain. an airy finished product, well done under the constraints.

now i just wish i could work there so i could fix all those nagging cons (plus get those expensive drinks for cheap).


Figure 1

[by naveen]



[by naveen]

I would be a terrible restaurant critic: I'm terribly swayed in my perceptions by my dining companions, the atmosphere of the venue, the anticipation leading up to the actual meal, and so on. For instance, my dining companions on this expedition were two post-docs in my lab. I had heard for weeks about their kitchen adventures ("I made the most amazing curry last night.."), so I knew they had good taste in food. The restaurant was located in Charlestown, a nice neighborhood that I had yet to visit, and, as I describe below, I really liked the vibe of the place. To prep for the evening, I read the introduction to Todd English's cookbook, which contained an interview about his cooking philosophy.

Service/atmosphere: I loved the subdued lighting, the techno music with the heavy bass (even in the restroom), and our friendly server who I could easily imagine as being Bill Nye's brother (maybe it was the bow-tie). We had a table next to the open kitchen, which was fascinating to me. I could have spent hours just watching the ongoing culinary ballet. I suspect that it would be hard for the antics described in Kitchen Confidential to occur in such a setting.

Bread: The bread here was outstanding and served with a duo of tapenades (made me think of this post by Mark Bittman) and a small sampling of olives (of course).

Sweet pea angnolotti: Fontina fondue, favas, peas, pea tendrils: What is the proper way to eat pea tendrils in a fancy restaurant? This was just as perplexing to me as the lack of bread plates at Rialto (classic Italian style). I need ettiquette training.

Zatar flatbread hummus: Mediterranean salads, hummus, feta cheese: This was served diagonally on a spectacularly large square plate with a cross-wise zig-zag of saffron-infused sauce. It reminded me of the mezze sampler at Sofra Bakery and the bread was reminiscent of really good naan. There were portobella mushrooms, roasted red peppers, a cucumber-yogurt salad, and watercress arranged on an elegant line. I was happy.

Lemon chiffon and passionfruit mousse: coconut nougat, passion & papaya sauces, whipped kiwi cream: That's what the menu said, but the dessert itself had a few variations. First were the lemon-infused dollops of curd with chunks of freshly-made marshmellows. How do they do that? I foresee future culinary experimentation. One of my dining companions said that the whipped kiwi cream was like the marshmellow, but without the cross-linking. The main part of the dessert was served in a pyramid that was like a light cheesecake with more intesnse citrus flavors in place of dairy. I feel inspired to learn more about the art of pastry, possibly from this book by Johnny Iuzzini.

After all that I've raved about the plating of the food, why didn't I take any photos? I recently watched this video by Bourdain and David Chang about picture taking in restaurants.

When people ask me "what did you think of [a restaurant]?" I never know what to say, which is yet another reason why I would be a terrible restaurant critic. Is the food good? I don't know if the flatbread that I got is "better" or "worse" than in a much less expensive Middle Eatern eatery. For me, going out to eat is just as much about the anticipation and preparation, the immersion in the atmosphere of the venue, and the ensuing culinary inspiration. I can barely wait to get back to the kitchen, read more cookbooks, and continue to expand my culinary horizons.



[by john]

i've been reading line cook religiously since i found it. i love the candid style, the cursing, and the peeks into one of california's up and coming kitchens, nopa. so naturally, i had to take my guy when i came to town.

the word from my sf friends is that it's a damn hard reservation to get. and i'd believe it. i made one a couple of weeks ahead for 10 pm (they serve dinner 6 to 1...) and there wasn't a lull for the entire two hours we were there. it's been accruing mad press, so no wonder.

we sat at the 'chef's counter' overlooking the open kitchen, right in front of the wood fired oven. the decor was fresh and hip. enormously high ceiling with windows and mirrors to match. good noise level from the spirited conversations all around.

i had read good things about their bar, so went straight to their cocktail menu. for me: a sloe samba (cachaça, sloe gin, ardbeg [an islay whiskey], lemon juice, egg white), and for him, a last word*. i was actually disappointed by both. the samba had a bad tequila smell going on - maybe the islay ardbeg vapors mixing with citrus. and the last word - while a pleasure to see on a menu - was...off. bad lime wedge garnish, and a gin that competed too much with the green chartreuse.

but those false starts were soon forgiven. we got the calamari salad, which was made right in front of us in the wood oven. perfectly roasted calamari, greens, jerusalem couscous, spicy dried chickpeas, and a sort of middle eastern spice 'vinaigrette'. we could not stop gushing long enough to get two consecutive tasty bites in.

next, the sausage and kale floret (what!) flatbread (or 'pizza' as we so uncouthly termed it). perfection. crispy crust, sweet fennel flavor, and wonderful texture on the florets. also made right in front of us.

and then the pork chop. oh my, the pork chop. obscenely delicious. sweet seared crust, juicy meat, and just the right amount of bitter zing from the whole mustard sauce. simply plated, with a handful of roasted vegetables. a life-changing dish, as far as the pork part of my life is concerned.

i pounced on the skillet bread/whiskey-praline ice cream dessert because it had (wait for it) bacon brittle. like peanut brittle, but with bacon. the savory flavors worked well together, though in the end everything was distractingly sweet.

a fantastic experience, reminding me, as naveen has noted, why restaurants are still pertinent to at-home-foodies. i just can't make these dishes. i should mention, finally, that the service was impeccable, always charming and never obtrusive enough to keep my smile of content from fading.

(the view from the counter.)

Initial Conditions

[by Mike]

Given the prolific posting by my compatriots as of late, I should probably start with my own contributions. Following Naveen, I'll begin with my own introduction to the finer bits in life.

Having been emphasized growing up, food never really interested me until high school when my mind was blown by the first season of Good Eats. You have to remember that this was before the recent upswell of nerd love in popular culture, so Alton Brown's foray into food wasn't just one of the better science shows on television it was one of the few. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked on the science of cooking and the anthropological history of the ingredients. Any focus on the food itself, though, the flavors and textures, was absent.

Once I started undergrad, my adolescent yearning for science was quickly satiated by the torrent of coursework in the core curriculum, but the application of science to food still intrigued me. There was something fascinating about the complexities of something I had taken for granted for so long. I still remember the day I walked to the local bookstore and picked up a copy of Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" (proudly before it was cool). Over the next few years I read, watched, and slowly started to do some cooking of my own. By the time I graduated I was beginning to develop an appreciation for not only the science behind the food but also the interplay of flavors and textures of each ingredient .

That timing was fortuitous, because the most important aspect of graduate school outside of academia is getting yourself fed. While other students embraced the cheap (and occasionally free) food characteristic of the graduate environment, I took advantage of having my own kitchen to cook as much as possible. Slowly I discovered the culinary scene in Boston, and it's been a joy ever since.

Oh, and how could I forget imbibing? Quality alcohol was never really available in undergrad, so my exposure to liquor up until graduation was mostly Amaretto Sours and terrible cocktails. Once settled into grad school I started to build a bar, experimenting with spirits and drinks and fostering an appreciation for the good stuff. The serendipitous explosion of cocktail culture in Boston has been a treat.



[by john]

even though i lived in the sf bay area for 4 years (3 of which with a car), i left much of the region criminally unexplored. i'm trying to right that - at least a little - this week, and the first stop was the haight, a cultural mecca for hippies and architecture buffs alike. to think the closest i had come to the district previously was running bay to breakers...

alembic, a cocktail bar smack in the middle of haight street, has been getting a lot of attention. rather than make a beeline for it, though, me and my guy slurped down a humongous bowl of noodles at the citrus club (above) before heading in. (delayed gratification mixed with alcohol poisoning prevention, in noodle form.) great noodles, fresh tofu, and heaping amounts of tom yum paste. simple and filling.

we found two seats waiting for us across the street at alembic. their verbose, jocular menu featured about eight classic drinks (sazerac, pisco sour, ward eight, bee's knees...) and the same number of originals. their bottle display is gorgeous - long shelves three bottles deep with no repeats (or so it seemed from my vantage). and they didn't push the weird liqueurs to the back.

my guy started off with a gilded lily: gin, yellow chartreuse, orange flower water, bubbly, and freakin' gold dust as garnish. the surface of the drink was shiny, awesome. the nose was all chartreuse, but the gin definitely took over for the taste. a little two dimensional, in my opinion, but he claimed it was merciful on his tongue and tasted full of courage, heh.

i had a vow of silence: rye, benedictine, bitters, and two barspoons of creme de griotte, a cherry brandy. a fine manhattanesque drink.

my ex-roomie joined us for a couple more rounds, including a pisco sour and one of alembic's molecular mixology creations: still life with apples. bourbon, maple syrup, and a smoked apple cider foam in a double shot glass with a sprig of thyme. we noted that the thyme was rather superfluous, not adding to the sensory experience like, say, the mint in a julep does.

i went off-piste for my final cocktail, asking for something herbal. ended up with a cognac + cynar + orange bitters + lambrusco, a red sparkling italian wine. cool combo, but i think the last ingredient smothered everything (that can be the problem with 'floats'). it did taste like a carbonated sangria, though - mmmm, spain.

i was not blown away by alembic by any means, which may be a function of high expectations. i should mention one cardinal sin: they poured almost every drink into fairly big (6 ounces?) coupes, which made the 3 ounce cocktails look miniscule. but in all, i was impressed with the level of craft, as well as their neighborhoody feel.

(citrus club.)

Tremont 647

[by naveen]

Although I wrote earlier about the difficulties in creating an "elevator speech" for a chef, Andy Husbands has carved a niche for himself as the fearless chef. If my culinary style had to be reduced to one word, I would be pretty satisfied with that description. As usual, here's the course-by-course overview:

Service/atmosphere: What a contrast to Harvest: this was a fun place, as opposed to a monument to high-end cuisine. The staff was genuinely outgoing, the decor was distinctive, and the music was lively. It set a great mood for the rest of the evening.

Bread basket: Each bread basket keeps getting better. This place had the largest assortment, with Parmesan crisps, rye bread, cornbread, and more. It would have been even better with some butter, jam, or other condiment, but I was still happy.

Black truffle risotto with mushroom and greens: The restaurant switched up their Restaurant Week menu and made several additions, including this exceptional dish. They were clearly trying to impress the diners and entice repeat customers, so they pulled out all the stops this week.

Kabocha-Udon Winter Stew with kombu, shitake, tofu, pumpkin and more: I think this qualified as the "adventurous American" cuisine that the restaurant advertises. I loved this dish, although I am probably biased due to a craving for noodles and my preference for anything with seaweed and mushrooms.

Tater tots with Fontina cheese: These giant monuments to the fried potato rival those at Garden at the Cellar. One was enough to fully satiate me.

Donuts: I've never thought of myself as a donut person (I still haven't tried a DD donut, despite their omnipresence in the city), but these were amazing. They were freshly baked and were served in a brown paper bag, which the server shook to coat with powdered sugar before dumping them on the plate. This would not have happened at Harvest. As the server explained, these had no filling, they were just balls of dough-y goodness.

My dining companion and I both rank this as one of the most enjoyable restaurants in Boston and would love to return. If anyone wants to go for $2 tacos on Tuesday (or for any other reason), please let me know.


[by naveen]

After months of eating lunches at the Dudley House Dining Hall, I took advantage of Restaurant Week to dine with a friend from the dorms as Harvest (interestingly, it wasn't that much more expensive than the average meal cost on the Harvard dining plan). I chose the restaurant since I read about one of the chefs in the book How I Learned to Cook. The website advertises "contemporary New England cuisine focused on the region's finest ingredients," which seems to be what is trendy in the Boston dining scene right now. Below is the play-by-play of the meal:

Service: I didn't write about the service at the Rialto (which was friendly, efficient, and uobstrusive), but it was quite noticeable at the Harvest. The wait-staff were polite, concise, and formal at a level that I've never experienced before. It made me want to read Waiter Rant and learn more about what goes on behind-the-scence at the front of the house.

Bread basket: This was actually one of the highlights of the lunch. The cornbread and raisin-walnut bread were so good that we actually ordered a second basket.

Market Greens salad: Granny Smith Apples, Walnuts, and Sherry Vinaigrette: The salad was good, but the salad bar at Dudley has considerably raised my standards for what I consider a salad. I am still on the lookout for a restaurant that does something really spectacular with the salad course.

Forbidden Black Rice Tart: Baby Carrots, Baby Turnips, Boy Choy, & Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: My first experience with Forbidden Black Rice - the grains of rice stuck together in a tart, but were well-lubricated with sauce to slide smoothly past each other (I've been spending too much time are rheologists in the physics labs). It provided the perfect substrate for a pile or artfully arranged veggies, with a spicy red sauce that accentuated their individual flavors.

Roasted Apple Pain De Genes: Vanilla Creme, Apple Conserve: I didn't plan on getting dessert, but I shared this with my friend and was quite satisfied. It's hard to go wrong with a combination of apple, vanilla, and creme and I don't really have much more to write.

This probably represents the opposite end of the spectrum from the hoardes of Harvard students who take out food from the dining halls to be consumed while keeping their eyes glued to a computer screen and their fingers never far from a keyboard.



[by naveen]

For my first Restaurant Week experience, I went to Rialto with a group of six fellow graduate students. To prep for the meal, I looked through Jody Adam's cookbook at the Harvard Coop to try to understand her culinary viewpoint. Like many chefs, she has an ingredients-driven philosophy that was inspired by time in Europe. She now tries to combine traditional Old World recipes with New England ingredients in a process that she compares to jazz, which I thought was an interesting analogy. However, a lot of chefs have similar viewpoints, so I'm still trying to figure out her "elevator speech."

Here's my review of the meal, which reviews as much or more about my personal biases than the food itself:
  • Bread with olive oil and salt: Excellent. I wonder wonder where they get their bread from. It's just as good as the bread from the Clear Flour bakery.
  • Hearty greens…caciotta cheese, walnuts, balsamic: The dressing seemed a bit overpowering, which was surprsing, considering the emphasis on ingredients in Jody's cooking. To me, hearty greens brings forth images of pots of sauteed kale or chard, like at Garden at the Cellar, so this wasn't quite what I expected.
  • 3 big spicy sweet potato ravioli…sage, brown butter, blood orange: My favorite course of the meal - the sweet potato was clearly the star in this dish. There were also some greens and sun-dried tomato to offer a nice contrast to the pasta. I would have a difficult time replicating this dish at home, which is one of the reasons to dine out.
  • Chocolate espresso torta…walnuts, bourbon cream: I couldn't resist the chocolate, especially with the addition of espresso. It was quite good and possibly one of the most calorically-dense things that I've ever eaten. The bourbon cream partially provided a much-needed counter-point, along with some mint leaves.
If anyone else has dined at the Rialto, I would love to hear their thoughts.


Restaurant Week is Coming...

[by naveen]

I'm looking forward to Restaurant Week, but the anticipation is reminding me why I'm not a food critic. I'm so fascinated by the psychology, science, history, and logistics of a meal, yet rather deficient when it comes to rating food on any type of meaningful scale.

In contrast to a search for the perfect meal, I seem to be relentlessly driven to find new connections in the gastronomical universe. I can talk at length about my fascination with mozzarella, from the local Farmer's Markets, through the New England Cheesemaking Comapany's starter kit (three failures in a row), to a cheese-making class sponsored by Slow Food Boston, followed by a visit to the Fiore di Nonno workshop, and culminating in burrata appetizers at Oleana, Garden at the Cellar, and the Rialto bar. The Farmer's Markets also featured a cooking demo by Jody Adams, which led to the meal at the Rialto, as well as numerous tastings of Taza Chocolate, which inspired a final project for my Intro to Soft Matter physics class and an ongoing research interest. Coincidentally, Taza Chocolate and Fiore di Nonno are located in the same building in Somerville and Taza Chocolate was featured in my birthday treat at Garden at the Cellar. All of the meals that I had were exceptionally tasty and highly recommended, but I have no hunger-inducing photographs or mouth-watering descriptions to offer.

My latest projects include home-made yogurt, shiitake mushrooms from Fungi Perfecti, and reading everything on the linecook blog. Additional suggestions or ideas are always welcome.


cities and their drinking personalities

[by john]

while steven was here, i pushed him to contrast nyc and boston cocktail bars. nyc: speakeasy-er; more expensive; knowledgeable cocktail waiters serve you. boston: louder; more face time with the (knowledgeable) bartenders, more suits (seriously guys, a manhattan is more manly than beer). i'd agree based on my two data points in new york. and, being biased, i value the bartender interaction the most. boston's not a bad drink town after all, minus the puritanism and t schedule.

i'm heading to san francisco tomorrow to visit with a lot of my old stanford friends, and at least two anticipated new friends: alembic and bourbon and branch. i have great expectations, and am also anxious to see how the sf cocktail feel differs from boston and nyc.


weird shit

[by john]

steven and i headed to eastern standard for our second night on the town, and twisted the arms of mike (of this blog) and andy (roomie) to come along. hard sell. the eventual and unintentional theme of the night was 'weird shit'.

we noticed early on (we were all e.s. virgins) that e.s. maintained a dazzling array of original syrups and in-house liqueurs and bitters; the bartenders clearly knew their way around the kitchen. this must have set something off in our heads to order non-standard drinks. (is that a pun? i can't tell.)

these included, but were not limited to: an absinthe and xocolati mole bitters pairing, e.s.'s grapefruit liqueur experiment (made that day), muddled cucumber and salt, vegetable vodka, cayenne syrup, mirto, offal, and bone marrow (those last two not in cocktails).

my final drink - which these bastards ordered for me while i was in the bathroom - was actually on their menu, but was some certifiable strangeness. beet-infused vodka, greek yogurt with horseradish, tarragon syrup, and orange juice. a bizarre, yet remarkably well put-together drink. i felt healthy afterward. [3/15 edit: apparently this style of cocktail is officially a style.]

we were lucky enough most of the night to have nicole, an e.s. expert bartender, put up with our shenanigans. witty as hell. at one point, for instance, she called out andy for performing some questionable acts on his last piece of bone marrow. and she was cool enough to send us on our way with a complimentary fernet flip. the cool minty-ness would have lasted all the way home had we not singed our taste buds at the delicious pad thai cafe.

oh and a p.s. - nicole gave us a nip of the cynar - so that's what it tastes like.

and a final p.s. - some guy stopped his car on the street to compliment steven's hair. think mad scientist meets yves saint laurent.

How I Learned to Cook (2)

[by naveen]

The title from my first post comes from my latest subway reading, How I Learned to Cook: Culinary Education from the World's Greatest Chefs, edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and David Meehan. Each fascinating essay by a different chef was an inspiring interlude between T-stops. Many, including Ferran Adria, never intended to become a chef and viewed cooking just as a way to make money to support their hedonistic lifestyle. Some, such as Mario Batali, became enchanted by cuisine after a trip overseas. Others, like David Chang, underwent grueling training for months on end to master their craft. This book was similar in scope to Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, edited by John Brockman, which was similar in scope, except with scientists instead of chefs. It makes me wonder about the divide between the academic bubble where I reside and the culinary universe where I often find inspiration.



blogger is a little bit broken and not displaying comment feeds. advancing the case for migration...

[3/15 edit: seems to be halfway working now, so comment away!]


burying the lede

[by john]

at the risk of living up to my own title, i'll put my point up front: i went to drink last night and tried two new spirits, but had them in cocktails with other ingredients that, well, buried them. lesson learned.

my friend steven is visiting from nyc for the weekend, which is more than occasion for a trip to drink. i was excited to show off boston's best to steven, who had taken me to some great nyc speakeasies last month.

we found perches at the ice peninsula, where misty was holding it down. we held her captive for a while, asking her what she was working on (a lot, it turns out, but no names yet). steven went for the laphroaig-rinsed apple brandy cocktail, with some benedictine and muscovado (molasses-like) simple syrup. my interest was piqued when misty mentioned dolin vermouth (this stuff is hard to get).

the dolin drink was mostly dolin blanc (not your typical cocktail), with smaller amounts of rye and green chartreuse. the effect was intriguing - a pale colored drink with ebbing hints of rye. but the chartreuse (one of my favorite spirits, don't get me wrong) cut through everything, leaving little to taste of the vermouth. we got to try some of the dolin alone, and i think its delicate profile would be more suited towards a gin drink like the marguerite. steven's cocktail, incidentally, was fantastic - the dry, peaty hint of scotch acted as guardrails for the driving, complex sweetness of the rest of the drink.

for our second round, we both went the digestif route to settle our dinners from the south street diner. i had been eyeing the cynar bottle the whole night, having never tried the artichoke-based liqueur. when misty said a ponte vecchio contained equal parts cynar and fernet (the you-drink-it-if-you're-in-the-industry drink), and a bit of citrus, i was sold, on curiosity alone. the fernet's sharp, minty elbow overpowered the body of the cynar, but the drink was easier to sip than a shot of fernet, for sure.

steven, again, chose inspiredly and got an appetizer l'italiene: 2:1 punt e mes to fernet, with dashes of absinthe and simple syrup. the nose on this drink was crazy...sort of savory, reminding me of bacon. the taste, though, was sweet and nicely rounded. cool.

so to set this extended metaphor to rest, the next time i try to discover the story of some new alcohol, i'll have it in a drink that doesn't make me read between the lines.


the budget

[by john]

like any (obsessive) hobby, drinking well constitutes a nontrivial part of a monthly budget. a graduate student stipend will put food on the table, but not necessarily drink. (thankfully i've grown out of my other expensive hobbies: road biking, numismatics, and owning a car, most notably.)

i learned a good deal of fiscal responsibility from my dad. keep a budget, never carry a balance on a credit card, save, save, save; all basic rules, but all good rules. consequently, i budget each month down to the subcategory.

for full disclosure, here's a rather rough breakdown: each month i earn $2000 after taxes. half of that is rent and utilities (*shake fist* at boston real estate), then after food, my roth ira, and other assortedness, i allow $200 for libations ($40/week and some room for new bottles). that's not much. i can't do after-work drinks every night and i certainly can't go to some of these cool cocktail events around boston. but i've built up a great ~60 bottle bar with a couple bottles a month (or more around the birthday and xmas windfalls, plus help from my like-minded roomie), so most of my liquid experimentation comes from that stockpile.

i'm going to try to report on this $200-a-month limit as i go along - i feel it's a unique boundary condition for an avid cocktailian. this past month, actually, i missed the mark and went over by some $30 (that's three drinks, don't laugh!), which i'll readily attribute to julio's unexpectedly stocking plymouth sloe gin. and visiting friends in nyc...milk & honey and pdt were well worth it, though.

excuses aside, i have developed some means to meet this budget:

  • i grow my own bar. you can get 15+ good manhattans (or martinis) out of a $20 bottle of rittenhouse rye (plymouth gin), $5 worth of italian (french) vermouth, and paltry amounts of bitters. can you imagine if your friendly neighborhood bar charged $2 for one of those?
  • i make converts. my roomie is now more than willing to put in for cachaça, multiple ryes, st. germain, or sloe gin. the (converted) friends i go out with all share tastes of drinks. (so that now i know what a blue blazer tastes and looks like, without the absolute necessity of finishing ounces of cask strength scotch...)
  • i drink slowly. heh, yes, in the end, there aren't really any magical methods to drink less once you're under that certain judgment-hampering spell...so i make it a rule to savor. self-restraint is a skill.
  • i tip my bartenders well. okay, this has nothing to do with staying on budget, but these knowledgeable bartenders and bartendresses deserve good money, especially for the knowledge i ply them for.

high class parsimony - ambitious, but i shall endeavor, and drink slowly...


How I Learned to Cook

[by Naveen]
"How did you get so interested in cooking?"
people ask me as I try out a new recipe in the communal dorm kitchen or tell about my latest gastronomical adventure.

I always liked to cook. It was fun to try out new recipes that I stumbled across in random cookbooks. However, a year in Singapore changed me and cooking took on a much deeper meaning. It was my first time truly living overseas and I wanted to explore as much as I could. A friend advised me to buy the Makansutra guidebook, which led to every corner of the island in search of the next "die die, must try" cuisine. Each week I became fascinated with a new food: durian, natto, soba noodles, Thunder Tea Rice. I covered the widest spectrum that I could, from a twelve-course raw vegan cooking classes to devouring a full order of soup toulang by myself. I worked through dozens of Heidi Swanson's "Quick Recipes" on 101Cookbooks.com in my free evenings.

It wasn't about the food - it was about seeking connections with other people. In Singapore, I was living in an apartment with roommates that I rarely saw and worked in a lab with almost entirely native Chinese speakers. Since I wasn't part of a formal exchange program like the Fulbright, I was somewhere in the no-man's-land between a student and a staff member, so I sought out connections in other ways. I became intrigued by the similarities and differences between the culinary world and the scientific world. Both groups of people are insatiably curious and love to experiment. Were lab rotations and post-docs like stages in a restaurant? On the other hand, the timescales are totally different. In a professional kitchen, a line cook gets immediate feedback that is far from subtle. In grad school, a PhD candidate can spend months navigating through potential thesis topic, with no clear answers. I read The Soul of a Chef, The Reach of a Chef, Heat, A Cook's Tour, The Nasty Bits, and whatever other culinary-themed books I could find. As I wandered around the island, I met a couple of investment bankers who became LifePak representatives, a EE student who became a baker, a software start-up founder who set up the first Ben and Jerry's on the island, several food bloggers, and many other great people.

Now as a grad student Harvard I can't fully assimilate myself in the academic lifestyle. The time in Singapore awakened a hunger inside me that food alone can't satiate. It's a curiosity of the world outside my day-to-day existence of class rooms and lab benches.

So how did I get interested? After revisiting these experiences in my head during a pause, all I can usually say is,
"It's a long story."
because I now understand how little I know about cooking and how much more of the world I have yet to explore.

to start

[by john]

the question comes, predictably, after the necessary rituals of hanging coats, tossing down napkins, and pouring water: 'what can i start you off with tonight?' no matter what current cravings are floating around my mind, i'm always paralyzed. order off the menu? revisit a classic? sample one of those top shelf bottles?

a couple weekends ago, i went down to craigie with my boyfriend. i had given a little pre-thought to the 'starting off' question, and had determined to try tom's vermouth. this hardly helped me decide on a first drink any quicker - tom informed me that he was making two vermouths in house, deflating my simple line of questioning. but he steered me towards the red vermouth, letting me try it as we parleyed back and forth, weighing options from a martinez to a negroni to a marconi wireless. after minutes of vacillation (my guy had already decided - 'something creamy'), i fell back on the touchstone of the manhattan. what better way to calibrate a sweet vermouth, after all?

and so i begin this blog with the same sorts of hesitations and false starts. i might as well start simply then. me: i'm john, a graduate student in physics, as are my cohorts, naveen and mike. intent: to write about drinking, drinking in boston, drinking on a grad student budget, and other things i haven't thought of yet. mike and naveen sits on the food end of the gourmand spectrum. we might even talk about science!

alright, those are enough ingredients for now; we'll see what literary equivalents of chartreuse, flaming orange peels, and absinthe drips come later...