Spring in Spain: Four Memorable Meals

April 15, 2013

recently took a trip to Spain.  Th purpose was my son's U13 world cup soccer tournament in the Costa Brava region but I was not-so-secretly eager to have some great eating and sipping experiences both North of and in Barcelona.

Within hours of arriving at the Barcelona airport we reached, by coach, the beach town of Platja D'Aro where we settled into the Hotel Nautic Park (recommended) and prepared for five days of soccer.  We were famished and unfamiliar with the town so we lunched in the hotel's dining room that day and I was pleasantly surprised by a very delicious fish that was served.  It seemed like a cross between Black Cod or Sable Fish and Sole, and came right from the Mediterranean Sea, only four blocks away.  All these local fish seem to have so many names that I'm still confused by it but hopefully the photo below will provide some satisfaction.

The following day marked the opening ceremonies for the tournament and with that underway I began to plan an opportunity, between upcoming games, to steal away in search of a good restaurant or two which wouldn't be difficult as I was close to many Catalonian seaside towns, not to mention the region in which, now closed, El Bulli was nestled.  Thankfully, on this trip with me was my younger son Oliver and fellow soccer parents and friends Susana and Jesús, all of whom love great food.  So, while the soccer players had to hunker down and prepare, we were at liberty to explore.  

One spot on our radar, which we honed in on, was known to have been frequented by the El Bulli chefs and in fact is included in the book Where Chefs Eat.  Raffas is a small, 16 seat, mom and pop restaurant in the charming seaside town of Roses in the Girona region of the Costa Brava.  Once we'd chosen a great Albariño to start (photo below), we let the chef take over.  We began with the ubiquitous Pan con Tomate which was accompanied by some salty anchovies, bathed in flavourful olive oil.  Then, an onslaught of fresh seafood including clams in brown butter, prawns, baby squid (Chipirones) and some just-opened Sea Urchin.   At the end of the meal my friend Jesús, who knows the region well, suggested I try a digestif called Exteco Patxarana, on ice.  While I'm not terribly fond of anisette liquors, this one was not dominated by that flavour, in fact, there was just a gentle hint of it on the finish.  I learned that it is based on the sloe berry from the Blackthorn bush and as a result has a lovely deep rosé colour.  

Upon exiting Raffas that day, I saw a bucket with a guillotine-like knife over it and realized it was the tool with which they cut open the Sea Urchin - a very interesting contraption - a very delicious lunch!

My second memorable meal of this trip has been entered into the top 5 meals of my life, so far.  The day began when we took the (reluctant) boys to the Dalì museum in Figeuras, and then, couldn't get them to leave.  What young or old mind could resist the playful and warped manifestations of surrealism?  Then, while the players and coaches had to return to the hotel that afternoon to prepare for a game the next day, Susana, Jesús, my youngest son, Oliver and I set off to find a restaurant that had been recommended.  

Bo.tic is a Michelin star restaurant located on the outskirts of the Medieval town of Corçà in an old, renovated flour mill.  Upon entering the Scandinavian style dining room, we were seated and to my delight, given two vertical and two horizontal menus - what amazing attention to detail.  We were a table of four and if all menus were the same shape we could not have opened them without overlapping.  I knew at that moment we were in for a good evening.  Then, I saw the gin and tonic list.  What I hand't know until then was that Spain or at least Catalunya, the gin and tonic reigns supreme.  Bo.tic's spirit list included more than 8 artinsanal gins, each paired with a particular tonic and botanicals in the glass.  Jesùs and I love G&Ts so we each ordered different ones to compare nuances.  

Bo.tic offers both prix fixe and a la cart options; we chose a la carte and once we had ordered our appetizers, mains and desserts, the meal began with an onslaught of unexpected delights.  To our pleasant surprise, over six different and equally amazing amuse bouche were presented to us.  The highlights were a truffle maple leaf crisp, an inside out bloody mary, a ham broth over spring peas with a truffle foam and shaved black truffle atop, and an incredible melon sorbet cone with Jamón Iberico nestled inside.   But where was the bread?  I’d seen it peeking out of a basket nearby and we were hungry when we arrived but I didn’t want to ask, as this place obviously had a plan – so we waited patiently (in the flour mill, for our bread – irony...).  The three mini loaf choices and their two olive oil partners were rich, sour, malty, unctuous combinations.  

Let me just be clear now to spare you too many details (unlikely, haha), everything that night was presented in the most exquisite style, combining both molecular and traditional gastronomic techniques that amazed us, plate after plate.

Of the four appetizers we ordered, what I cannot forget are both Susana’s feather-light curls of fois gras and my supple scallops, both of which are included in the photos below.  Of our main courses, Ollie’s cylinder of short ribs, with a fois gras core and a delicate demi glace and my suckling pig with light and puffy pork rinds atop (Cochinillo and Chicharrones) were amazing.  Regarding the desserts, I must mention that my friend Susana is the most exquisite chocolatier and therefore is frequently on the hunt for deft manifestations so, normally we all have to order dessert so she can sample but I got away with saying that my dessert that night would come in liquid form.  There were too many national sherries and brandies I wanted to sample.  I tried two from producer Ximenez-Spinola, a sherry and a brandy.  It was interesting to try the two side by side as the sherry was much lower in alcohol but sweeter and the brandy much stronger and potent.  However, both had the most wonderful layers of flavours to reveal.

Upon descending from our foodie flight, we had the opportunity to visit the chef and his team in the kitchen.  During that conversation, Chef Albert Sastregener, confirmed what we had experienced, that he and his team of 5, deftly combine molecular and traditional techniques to create a perfectly orchestrated symphony of time-released flavours and textures; for a truly incredible experience.

Once the tournament had ended in the Costa Brava, our group headed back to Barcelona for a couple of days.  Easter Sunday was Jesús’ birthday so we took all our kids, plus one, to his favourite tapas spot, which happened to be in a charming part of old Barcelona, close to the Picasso museum.  Tapeo 29 was close to closing when we arrived that day but we basically ordered everything on the menu and ate as we watched the doors come down to half-mast.  The standout items were, finely shaved and flash fried artichoke hearts, crunchy-crusted, silky-centered ham croquettes, skirt steak with a red chimichurri, Black Roset ja, the most tender Jamón ibérico.  While the menu items were largely traditional and simple, chef… was sources the best quality ingredients – period, and it was evident.  I never knew Jamon could melt in one’s mouth that way.

The final memorable meal on this trip was fittingly in a café on the beach in Barcelona.  While many of those seaside spots in the city are cheesy nightclubs that pose as cafes by day, Sal Café is not.  Some dear friends, living in Barcelona, had planned a family get together that Easter Monday for a casual lunch.  While the children threw the Frisbee on the beach in front of us, we began with some Rosé Cava, Chipperones those shaved, crispy artichoke hearts I'd had the day before at Tapeo.  We then enjoyed a myriad of entrees that included Arros Negre (rice with squid ink) and fresh, local fish which you just don't get tired of.  It was a meal that highlighted what I had come to understand was both fresh, local and familiar in this region of Spain, at this time of year.  We had a wine expert with us, my friend Alex, who after the rose bubbles, chose a local white, Neno de viña Somoza 2011 made from Verdelho which a blend usually predominately Godello.  Then we had a local red, a 2011 Biu Negre, a Pinot Noir from the western reaches of the region.  Both great with all we ate.

This trip to Spain was limited to both time and a particular region, which enabled me to enjoy both foods and some drinks that were local.  I was delighted to try some things again and again as each preparation varied slightly which reflected personal taste and heritage.  I think its important to remember when traveling or even at home, not to see what is most exotic or out-of-season but rather what is local, fresh and abundant.

To conclude, below are some lovely "Gaudì" scenes from Barcelona including a couple from our visit to FC Barcelona's Football Stadium tour.  


A Charming New Dining Room

March 26, 2013

I had the pleasure of dining, this past Saturday, at The Cypress Room, the newest creation from Michael Schwartz and his Genuine Hospitality Group of humble, super-talents.  The space, formerly The Wine Bar at 3620 NE2nd Ave, has been transformed into a warm and intimate dining room that harkens back to an old Florida hunt club.   To achieve this warmth, accents such as old-rose, toile wallpaper were used along with salvaged, Pecky Cypress wood paneling, crystal chandeliers, lots of dead animals on the walls and a long banquette covered in turquoise linen, as the perfect contrast. 

The main, and only, dining room seats a comfortable 40 denizens, not including the 10 or so that can belly up to the very thoughtfully stocked cocktail bar.  So now let's start with the cocktails, as I was genuinely impressed with not only what I drank but how "The Beverage Book" was presented;  looking forward to more.   I began the evening with an Aviation, so named for the grey/violet hue that the lemon juice and the Crème de Violette lend to the gin.  Then, I tried a cocktail that profoundly impressed me, the Nick Nack,  so I cornered The Genuine Hospitality Group's beverage director, Ryan Goodspeed that evening to geek out on the details.  

Let me just say as a side note that one may think a cocktail is just a cocktail, you put a few ingredients in a glass or first a shaker and voilá.  Not so. Like cooking, the art is in choosing good ingredients and blending them well so they compliment and allow each other their "5 minutes".  

So, not surprisingly, I learned Ryan had spent some time developing what I saw as a beautifully layered cocktail both visually and  on the palate.  The components of The Cypress Room Nick Nack are: Gin, Damson plum liqueur, lime juice, drops of a smokey Scotch whisky, a scant of cardamom and a basil sprig.  

As you may imagine, judging by the decor, there are some good carnivorous choices on the food menu.  We began with the grass- fed, beef, on-the... bone marrow that was perfectly complimented with a pretty, crunchy and citrusy Nasturtum salad and some crispy toasts to atop.   What followed was lamb tartare which was sublime, a smoked baby beet salad and then an Antelope chop.     Many of us now know that Michael and his team's food is always of the highest quality but as importantly, the few ingredients that are used in each dish each have a "say",in succession, on my palate, which is an art.

Although I would rarely pass up desserts made by Hedy Goldsmith, I decided to end the meal with coffee, as I needed a pick-me-up if i was going to stay awake to see a concert later. Additionally, because The Cypress Room is serving Panther coffee exclusively, its hard to pass, up so I ordered a cold pressed with a side of Galliano liqueur and cream. It's a great combination that I recalled from my days at Remy Martin when they touted the "Gallichino"  (Galliano in a cappuccino).

The Cypress Room opens to the public this coming weekend. I would highly recommend a visit.  

Spirited Sirens: Beers, Bites and BABES

MARCH 13, 2013

Last night, the inaugural edition of the Spirited Sirens' tasting series was launched:  Beers, Bites and BABES at The Federal restaurant in Miami.  We were 12 women, 4 craft beers, 2 craft beer cocktails, great food pairings, a lovely al fresco setting and had lots of fun!

When conceiving of this tasting series, as far back as last year, I realized the impetus was pretty simple:  create small-scale tastings at great local restaurants and bars that encourage women to connect with craft spirits and craft beers.  I wanted the group to feel comfortable to ask questions, share experiences and learn in order to expand their imbibing horizons.

To be honest, initially, I was really just focusing on spirits but when I started talking to Aniece Meinhold, owner of The Federal, we began leaning toward craft beers, due to the excellent selection at her restaurant.  We then knew we were onto something unique and fun for women.  

The tasting began with a welcome cocktail and snack, for the early birds.  Aniece expertly put together a really refreshing version of the Mechilada, a savory Mexican beer cocktail, in this case comprised of Narragansett Lager, lemon juice, Bittermens bitters, a secret spice rim along with celery and Thai basil flowers to garnish.   The crunchy, savory texture of the khale was a perfect contrast to the Mechilada and a great way to begin - it was an especially good ice breaker when some of us told each other we had khale in our teeth!  LOL  

Once most of the group had arrived, we moved from the bar to The Federal's charming patio where we had a lovely, long table set with tasting glasses (Bordeaux wine glasses, a favourite tasting vessel of mine) and share plates for the food pairings.  The first beer I chose for the tasting was Michael's Genuine Home Brew which I did for a few reasons.  As a Blonde or American Ale and therefore a lighter beer which is very low in hops, I knew this would be widely appealing, especially to those who didn't consider themselves fond of beer.  For this reason also it pairs very well with all kinds of food such as the smoked Mahi dip with house-made chips.  In addition, MG Home Brew, although brewed in Alabama with the Back Forty Beer Co., is pretty much a true-blue Florida beer as it not only uses Sem-Chi rice as the malting starch, but it's also only available locally.  

Dogfish Head Aprihop, an India Pale Ale, was next and illicited some turned up noses.  For those who are not fond of hops, India or any Pale Ales for that matter, are probably not for you...initially.  I happen to be fond of the rich, sharpness of them and especially the lychee you get on the nose.  Once we discussed some of these points, I feel, perhaps we'd brought a few of group to the "considering" side of IPAs.

The third beer we tried, looked as if it should have been the last one (based on the typical progression of light to dark) because it was as black as night.  Left Hand Milk Stout has been a favourite of mine for some time and I was eager to show it off to the group; I was happy to learn that some already knew of it.    The word "Milk" is used as an indicator that this Ale is made with lactose (a milk sugar) which is unfermentable and results in a sweeter stout.   In the future we will do some blind tastings in this series; tasting this Ale was a perfect example of why "blind" would be useful.  Although LHMS has chocolate and deep roasted notes, its carbonation is very fine and the sweetness prevails over bitter notes to result in a seemingly lighter-style stout.  Therefore, this too was a surprise favourite amoung the group.  It was paired with a smoked tongue tostada which married very well with the stout.

The fourth and final beer of the evening was Ommegang's Three Philosophers which is a Quadrupel Belgian style ale at a whopping 9.8% ABV.  We were now approaching wine country in terms of alcohol level and that really makes a difference both on the palate and in one's head.  This was a delicious beer, garnet in colour, with deep cherry, roasted malt and a slight bitterness. A crunchy goat cheese croquette with cranberry compote was paired with this and really, I think this was the match of the evening.  Both the beer and and cheese had strong personalities and complimented and enhanced each other well.  


We concluded the tasting with another beer cocktail that again was created by the lovely proprietor of The Federal, Aniece.  This one was on the sweeter side and therefore, we all deemed it "dessert".  It was comprised of Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale, pineapple juice and maple syrup over ice.  Again, a refreshing drink and low in alcohol.  

This evening was a great success as we managed to discuss different styles of beer and some enjoyed beers they wouldn't have thought to order normally.  However, what was as important was the idea of pairing food with beer.  We often associate foods such as pizza, wings and jalepeño poppers with beer.  The truth of the matter is there are so many styles, flavours, textures and potencies of beers that are truly delicious and pair well with the most elegant of foods.  A basic rule of thumb is the darker the beer, the richer the food HOWEVER, just experiment on your own because some pairings will surprise you.  At this point you may ask, "what does a good pairing mean?", well it means that the food and drink compliment each other.  You want to be able to taste the nuances of both, all the way through.  What you don't want is a bad aftertaste.  

I'd like to thank all the ladies who attended the inaugural Spirited Sirens tasting.  I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to bring together people who share a curiosity and an interest in craft beers.  

Stay tuned through the "Calendar" section of this blog to learn the when, where and what of next month's tasting.

The End


Drink Yourself Healthy...well, kinda.

February 22, 2013

Many of us enter a new year with the idea to refresh and renew, trying to implement resolutions and stick to them.  The end of the year is usually a festive time, one which brings with it lots of eating and drinking.  Here in Miami, the games begin in early December with Art Basel and end sometime just after New Year's day - hopefully.  By that time, we're usually feeling some guilt and fatigue, and therefore a desperate desire to correct the error of our ways.  In order to get healthy, fit and back into certain clothes, we usually go through a period of abstinence and detoxification and we say "bye-bye" to booze for a while.


Around that time of year, in early January, it is increasingly common to hear the word "juicing", to the point of annoyance.  It perhaps bothers me in particular, because I have never fully adopted juicing and it makes me think of the "quick fix," which is so common these days.  It's like going to confession if you're Catholic - do all the damage and be afforded absolution by repenting or in this case juicing/cleansing.  I digress...  

I've owned a juicer for years and have used it on occasion but not with any long or short term consistency.  This year however, I decided to take the plunge and juice my meals for a few January days.  I started with a day's worth of juices from Jugo Fresh, this excellent new juice bar in Miami Beach.  Then, I made my own juices for three more days.  By the fourth and final day, I felt very, very good and had come to some conclusions.  The first, was that a juice cleanse wasn't an annoying period of abstinence, it was bearable, even enjoyable with a righteous feeling of doing something good for my body.  I also came to realize that there were infinite combinations of vegetable, herb and fruit juices that would mix very well with spirits like gin or tequila or even brown spirits such as rye whisky or brandy.    

I started experimenting at home one evening with my juicer and citrus press.   I had an abundance of cucumbers and some dill so I threw them into the machine and what resulted was a vibrant, beautiful green juice and just screamed for gin!  I put some St. Georges Botanivore gin and the cucumber juice into a shaker with ice, along with a little fresh-squeezed lime juice, et voilá, a really stunning, delicious and heathly cocktail was born.  


While the words healthy and green don't cry out tasty to everyone, I can assure that this cocktail was delicious.  It was so refreshing and a perfect summertime cocktail.  However, the addition of some form of sugar, either a syrup or a sweeter citrus such as orange or grapefruit could be added to suit one's taste.  

Consider the health benefits of mixing your spirits with freshly pressed vegetable and fruit juices.  Cucumber and dill for example are full of vitamins such as B and A, not to mention minerals such as iron.  

...and there's more:

Surely we are all familiar with citrus juice cocktails such as vodka and orange juice, the Screwdriver, or grapefruit juice for the Greyhound.  Fresh citrus of all kinds should be considered for shaking with all your favourite spirits as they have been since the beginning of (cocktail) time.

Recently, TS (the bff) invited me over for some cocktail-making, to implement some of her Christmas gifts, which included a set of gorgeous coupes and a cocktail shaker.  We have started to each host these "cocktail-making sessions" which, are inspired by a newly acquired spirit or a fruit of the season.  

The Béatrice

The Béatrice

That night we used fresh kumquats to muddle with tequila, red vermouth and bitters from the bar.  What resulted was an excellent cocktail that we named the Béatrice for fun but the point here is that we used a fresh ingredient that added health benefits to the cocktail.  Kumquats are unique in the citrus family as you are to eat them whole, skin and all and therefore the health benefits are greater, for example they are very high in vitamin C, carotene and the peel provides us with essential oils. 

Tequila & Coconut Milk

Tequila & Coconut Milk

One of the most interesting cocktails I've had so far this year was during a trip to L.A. (see previous blog post).  This very simple drink of tequila and coconut milk was served with a Maraschino cherry which, we changed out for a wedge of lime to add an acidic dimension and then a sprinkle of sea salt on top.  

This is such a tasty drink, reminiscent of the Piña Colada, but healthy because of the coconut milk and lack of any added sugars or chemicals.  You can make coconut milk, but the canned version is easiest, just read the label to make sure you're buying nothing but coconut milk.   By using coconut milk in some cocktails, you will be affording yourself an abundance of Vitamin C, B and E as well as  a plethora of antioxidants and Lauric acid.   

I really enjoy experimenting with cocktail making, the opportunities are endless and if you focus on using good artisanal spirits, liqueurs and bitters, along with fresh pressed or squeezed juices and nut milks, there will be a significant health benefit to your imbibing.

The End

Reconnaissance Mission: The Ladies Take L.A.

February 7, 2013

For a few years now I've been watching the cocktail culture and craft spirits & beer appreciation grow in L.A.  I was eager to get out there and spend a few days on reconnaisance.   

I've always harboured a fondness for L.A. and California in general.  While I live in Miami Beach, I grew up in Vancouver, B.C. and as a family we drove to California usually once a year to visit relatives.  I feel comfortable when I get to L.A.  It's pretty easy to navigate - yes the traffic is frustrating but I don't live there.  I love the Mediterranean climate and its flora and fauna - especially those iconic Mexican Fan Palms that line the streets and skies.  What resonates deeply though is a feeling of being teleported back to sometime in the Golden Era of film or the music scene of the 60s & 70s, especially when driving around West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the Canyons.


So, instead of braving this trip alone - visiting cocktail bars, restaurants and more -  I asked the BFF (TS) to join me.  A girls trip - yay!  To prepare, we compared notes, whittled down which places were must visits and reached out to some unique industry contacts and friends.  

We landed mid day at LAX and were presented with a POWDER BLUE Grand Marquis in the car rental lot.  After a few laughs, we changed it to something grey and headed to the SLS Hotel, all the while thinking fondly of that big (2oz), beautiful gin and tonic they have made their headliner cocktail.  I was delighted when I first heard of a hotel restaurant (The Bazaar) going out on a limb and positioning a Gin drink as their lead - I am a fan of Gin, and realize how the Gin and Tonic pairs very well with a lot of food.

It was 5 o'clock, at least back in Miami it was...

Once settled and unpacked, we were eager to start checking some places off our lists.  What happened that afternoon was really the highlight of our trip because it was such a 'find', and not on a list.  I believe it had much to do with divine intervention, the Tiki gods and most definitely, some good Rastafari love!

We had a couple of hours to kill before dinner and drinks downtown that night and The Thirsty Crow in Silverlake is known to have a pretty solid Whisky list, so we chose that as our first stop.  What we didn't remember was to call first as it was only 3:30pm.  Next time lil crow...  Driving back along Sunset a small standalone building caught my eye as did a gentleman who was walking toward its front door.  He motioned that yes, it was open I looked up to see the name TIKI TI on the side.  Really?  We had stumbled onto a tiki bar?  It opened at 4pm - it was 3:55pm, perfect timing!

Walking into the Tiki Ti was like walking into a Polynesian museum and the bar was a shrine to Tiki culture.  The place was spotless and ready for service with Mike Buhen Jr., grandson of founder, behind the bar.  The gentleman who coaxed us out of the car was comfortably perched at the end of the bar with a welcoming/knowing smile.  Mr. Jim Marshall (Rasta Jim) must be one of the biggest supporters the Tiki Ti has, as not only did he kindly explain the Tiki Ti's history to us but he co-created one of the most popular drinks on the menu, Jim's Special.  TS and I ordered ONE Jim's Special to share and were given glasses of ice water while we waited.  I'm not a fan of terribly sweet cocktails so I'm wary of punch-like cocktails but this Mai Tai ended up being one of the best I've ever had.  I believe that was due to the Tiki Ti's secret Mai Tai mix and the addition of a unique ingredient in Jim's Special - Tequila.  The somewhat vague recipe is below.

The Tiki Ti has been owned and operated by the Buhen family since 1961.  Check out the website and read the hours and rules before you go.  This is a must stop in LA but is no nonsense.  The Buhen family and supporters of the Tiki Ti have much RASpect for their craft and legacy.

Jim's Special (a unique Mai Tai):

24-32 oz glass, 2 1/2 oz Meyer's Dark Rum, 2 oz Cazadores Tequila, fresh lime and passion fruit juice, Tiki Ti's special Mai Tai mix.  

That first night we'd decided to focus on downtown L.A. as its quite a distance from West Hollywood so the cab in and out was significant.  Drago Centro (DC), is both a fine, modern Italian restaurant and cocktail bar on the ground floor of a downtown L.A. skyscraper which opens to a business-district courtyard setting.   For some time now I have been eager to get there to sample their seasonal cocktail list which they post on social media sites - teasing me.  What impressed me most after checking out the cocktail bar list (including food and drinks) was the 'sips' section, which were standard, classic cocktails, beer and wine for only $5-$8 - so approachable!  I was interested in starting with a savoury cocktail that evening, so the Sangrita on the Sips menu seemed perfect and came highly recommended by the bartender, as she personally made the 'sangre' side.  A Sangrita is a two-part drink consisting of a good quality tequila shot and glass of 'tomato' juice which you take alternating sips of.  DC's Sangre was particularly delicious, consisting of fresh tomato, orange, cucumber and ginger juices.  

Our friend Ross, an L.A local,  joined us that evening and after our drink at the bar we sat down to dinner.  The decision to dine at DC that night came on suddenly when TS was recognized by the sommelier who had worked in Miami.  The deconstructed Osso Bucco was excellent and Spencer kindly paired all our dishes that evening with wines he'd discovered on a recent trip to Italy.  

While we had a few post-dinner cocktail bars in mind, we only had steam left for one, considering our jet lag.  Although Ross was reluctant, we decided on The Varnish.  He warned "I'll go again but I hope you don't mind waiting 1/2 hour for a cocktail".  "I can't wait" I rebutted - Ross is a big brand Vodka on the rocks guy...  How could I pass up a chance to visit what had been named "America's Best Cocktail Bar" of 2012 at The Spirited Awards during Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans last Summer?

The Varnish is a small, classic cocktail bar, hidden in a cozy and dimly lit back room of Cole's P.E. Buffet, the over 100 year old downtown establishment and originator of the French Dip sandwich.  To me, The Varnish was impressive through and through.  From the controlled number of patrons thus allowing elbow room, to the impeccably maintained mis en place at the bartender's side.  We waited patiently, excitedly, Ross rolling his eyes all the while, and were presented with some beautifully crafted cocktails.  TS had a Left Hand which is a Negroni/Manhanttan combo (a strong order girl!), I had a Captain's Blood which is like a classic Daiquiri with Angostura bitters and Ross went out on a limb and had vodka on the rocks.

Drago Centro:  525 South Flower Street, L.A., CA

The Varnish:  118 East 6th Street, L.A., CA

Day 2, Friday

A couple of years ago I had the unique pleasure of meeting Meg Gill at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic.  I learned, during the seminar in which she was speaking, that Meg had co-founded a craft brewery in L.A. named Golden Road Brewing, she was the youngest, female brewery owner in the world and a Yale graduate.  Impressive.  I had to see her in her element so we drove to Glendale that morning to meet Meg and try some of Golden Road's brews.  We were given a tour of the facility which included, in addition to the public beer garden, a new industry-only, speakeasy-style bar and then a brief tasting of some of their current brews.  During that seminar where I met Meg, her message was simple but perhaps not yet well understood by all:  good beer should be fresh beer.  To maintain freshness, put it in cans, control its temperature and don't ship it too far.  Thanks Meg!

Our next stop was a bit of a departure from our general mission on this trip, but what trip to L.A. would be complete without some silver screen action?  Kato Kaelin, celebrity and friend, had invited us to sit in on the taping of his variety show.  It was entertaining to say the least.  

We were famished by this time and had our hearts set on The Ivy for a nice Friday afternoon, girlie lunch.  The Ivy is a classic Hollywood establishment with great food, drinks and a lovely, feminine Provençal décor.  All those boxes were ticked that afternoon for us but one stood out more than the rest.  We ordered a drink that made us stop and say WOW!  It was a simple drink and needed only a minor change but we were hooked.  Tequila and coconut milk - not the sweet coconut cream or syrup, not the coconut water, the canned milk.  It was a great combination but served with a maraschino cherry which we switched out for a wedge of lime.  So yummy.

Thanks to TS, we had managed to get a reservation at Animal on a Friday night in L.A.  I was really looking forward to tasting what these Florida boys were getting all the good press about.  At first glance, Animal is simply presented, from the unmarked, storefront to the unadorned, single dining room.  But the food is anything but simple.  As the name suggests, most dishes are centered around some - often unique - animal part.  What really resonated with me however was the flavour combinations and textures each dish offered.  The spicy beef tendon chip, could be a likened to a lighter, larger pork rind and the charred onion Pho dip it was served with was amazing.  Some of our other dishes included a shrimp and rabbit sausage spring roll and Poutine with oxtail gravy and a sharp cheddar cheese.  We paired our dishes with an aperitif, Petal & Thorn's vermouth, on the rocks, by Oregon craft producer Imbue.  

Food coma...

Golden Road Brewing:  5410 W San Fernando Rd, L.A, CA

The Ivy:  113 N Robertson Blvd, L.A., CA

Animal:  435 N Fairfax Ave, L.A., CA

Day 3, Saturday

The L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) is and undeniable gem in L.A. and worth a visit every time.  I especially love the Japanese Pavilion but we were fortunate on this trip to see a small Maplethorpe exhibit and Michael Heizer's Actual Size photographic exhibition.  

Brunch that day was at a place I had to return to from a past visit to L.A. called Salt's Cure because the food is so good.  We met up with some girlfriends there and perched our five tushies around the corner of the kitchen bar.  Their menu is created daily, presented on a chalk board set high up on the wall.  The food is all prepared - most notably the cured and pickled items - in house.  I think the burger was one of the best I've ever tried, the cured Steelhead Salmon (shown below) was divine and their pâtés and rillettes are always excellent.

After lunch we headed to Silverlake to meet up with Louis Anderman, founder of Miracle Mile Bitters.  I had been a fan of Louis' bitters for over a year now and was looking forward to talking more about his work and, as he'd promised, being taken to the epicenter of L.A. cocktail culture, Bar Keeper.  We met up at Intelligentsia Coffee, only a few doors down from Bar Keeper, and while sipping our perfect Macchiatos Louis took the time to explain the creative process and painstaking details involved in creating a line of bitters.  Known primarily as digestive aids, bitters are enjoying a resurgence these days.  In fact, a whole book was recently written on bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons, entitled Bitters.  I am particularly fond of adding bitters to cocktails because while they add great flavour and dimension, they don't add sweetness.   

After coffee Louis took us over to Bar Keeper to meet the guys that are passionately supporting the craft cocktail culture.  Their small but carefully chosen spirits portfolio includes some of Chip Tate's Whiskies from Balcones in Waco Texas and St. Georges Gins from Alameda California, bar ware, new and vintage glasses, a large selection of bitters and they conduct tastings on occasion.

Nap time...

While we were at Intelligentsia Coffee earlier that day, Louis introduced us to a friend, David Kupchinsky, who happened to be the bar manager at Eveleigh, which was coincidently where we were having dinner that night.  David kindly caught up with us that evening at Eveleigh and took care of all our cocktail desires.  At one point we dried classic Daiquiris, one made with Smith & Cross, the other with Wry & Nephew, two of my favourite rums.   There are so many delicious things on this dinner menu but all I wanted that night, and all I can remember was the sea urchin.  Lobe upon lobe came piled high and beautifully presented, with the black, spiny shell for effect, with yuzu for dipping.  

Our late night cocktail reconnaissance included Bar Marmont, which was such a scene and finally The Roger Room.  Both worth a return visit, but especially The Roger Room in terms of the cocktail program and its attention to detail.  We en

LACMA:  5905 Wiltshire Blvd, L.A., CA

Salt's Cure:  7494 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, CA

Intelligentsia Coffee:  3922 W Sunset Blvd (Silverlake), L.A., CA

Eveleigh:  8752 W Sunset, West Hollywood, CA

Bar Marmont:  8171 W Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA

The Roger Room:  370 N La Cienega Blvd, L.A. CA

A Negroni at the Four Seasons' 'Monkey Bar' (Windows)

A Negroni at the Four Seasons' 'Monkey Bar' (Windows)

Day 4, Sunday

TS left earlier than I did that day so I managed to squeeze in one more visit to an iconic lounge that makes excellent cocktails and above all, is wildly entertaining in terms of its patrons.  Windows or 'The Monkey Bar' in the Four Seasons on Doheny in Beverly Hills, in addition to its hotel guests, seems also to be a neighbourhood destination, it's just that this neighbourhood is Beverly Hills which makes this place like a Woody Alan movie or night of the living dead, depending on the hour.


L.A.'s food and drinks scene continues to impress me on each visit.  There were so many places that we didn't get to on this trip so I look forward to getting back out there soon.

The End

Drinking our Calories

coming next week... L.A.

coming next week... L.A.

January 28, 2013

There is something that has been bothering me and I must address it, therefore,  “The Thirsty Girls’ LA Reconnaissance” post I had originally planned for this week will be postponed until next week.

I recently founded Spirited Sirens, both the blog and the tasting series, because I have great interest in, and some issues with, the world of spirits.  At the core I have a desire to educate and be educated, while bringing women imbibers together. 

I wanted to focus on women; both to reveal the community of women already interested in artisan spirits, but also to grow that community.  However, in order to grow, we must overcome an obstacle, that comes in the form of CALORIES.   I think its safe to say women are more concerned with their calorie intake than men and I think this concern prevents some from exploring spirits and stick with those touted to be ‘low in calories’.

A question I’m often asked is, “What spirit has the least amount of calories?”.    To which the inquirer, or someone else in the room, often rhetorically answers (with another quasi question) “Vodka?”.  The short answer is “no” and the long answer is interesting.

How alcohol gets in the bottle (a GENERAL synopsis):

The copper pot still @ Victoria Spirits, BC, Canada

The copper pot still @ Victoria Spirits, BC, Canada

Alcohol is produced through fermentation, whereby a base of carb-rich ingredients such as fruits (e.g. grapes) or grains (e.g. corn) or vegetables (e.g. potatoes), in liquid form, is mixed with yeast.  The yeast then feeds on the sugars and when all the sugar is consumed and the yeast dies off.  What results is, in part, alcohol.  Beer and wine come from this stage. 

To make spirits, the fermented juice is distilled, which means using heat to separate the alcohol from the other liquid (mostly water) in a column or pot “still” and thereby concentrating it.  

Once distillation has taken place, the distillate is either, put in a cask, redistilled for purification purposes and/or infused with botanicals.  However, at this stage, spirits are very concentrated and have a VERY high ABV percentage (Alcohol By Volume).  Therefore, they are often are diluted or “proofed down" to lower the ABV.  This is done for a few reasons but one is to make them lighter to drink.  

The minimum allowable level of alcohol in spirits is 40% ABV or 80 proof and is the most common on shelves.  However, it's not impossible to find spirits (mostly whiskies) bottled at Cask Strength, which can be up around 65% at times.  While usually pricey, they are quite a treat, but beware of their strength.

An example of a Cask Strength Whisky.

An example of a Cask Strength Whisky.


The higher the ABV in a spirit, the more calories it has. There is little to no sugar in most distilled spirits and if there is, it is then called a liqueur.   Therefore, when pouring the same measurement of a “neat” spirit - (that means no ice or mixer added) of equal ABV - there will be little caloric difference whether it’s a rum, vodka, tequila, gin or whisky.  

That means, generally speaking, one fluid ounce (29.6 ml) of a 40% ABV rum, vodka, tequila, gin, or whisky, that is not flavoured or mixed into a cocktail, will have approximately 65 calories per fluid ounce.

Why watch the calories?  Because a beach awaits somewhere...

Why watch the calories?  Because a beach awaits somewhere...

How do calories add up?  

A few ways include the obvious - sheer quantity consumed; the not so obvious - if you are drinking a higher proof spirit; or the most common by mixing the spirit into a cocktail and adding juices, syrups, sodas, etc.

Above, I used the measurement of one ounce (35ml) = ~ 65 calories, as an example, so, be mindful of how much liquor is poured into your glass.  Then, depending on whether your drink is made with 1 ounce, a jigger (1.5 oz) or 2 ounces, you will have to calculate accordingly. 

In addition, I used the standard, 40% ABV or 80 proof above when providing calorie equivalents.  However, as we now know, when the ABV/proof increases, so do the calories.  This is not where I tell you to beware, because there is great beauty in and creative pleasure from trying over-proof spirits; more on that in a future post.

Finally, the calories also begin to add up in cocktails.  Many cocktails are made with juices, sodas, liqueurs and syrups all of which can carry a substantial sugar content. 

Dubbed the 'Beatrice'.  A tequila, vermouth & kumquat cocktail.  YUM

Dubbed the 'Beatrice'.  A tequila, vermouth & kumquat cocktail.  YUM

The bottom line here is, don’t be reluctant to try different spirits for fear they carry more calories than those touted to have the least amount.   The truth is they rarely do and, if they do, the amount is negligible.  If you are concerned with calories then be mindful of the strength of the spirit, what you mix it with and of course the quantity you consume.

So, all in all, I resolve that these CRAFT SPIRITS have distinctive tastes all their own which you may find pleasing without wanting to mix them into a cocktail, thus keeping the calories down.

Coming soon...Spirited Sirens' The Tasting Series, in Miami.

Coming soon...Spirited Sirens' The Tasting Series, in Miami.

The Spirited South

January 15, 2013

An introduction to a moveable thirst...

Earlier this year I wondered how to start a blog connecting women and fine distilled spirits.  That is, women not only in the industry and those who are passionate for good spirits, but especially those intimidated by them.

I urged myself to think of ways to connect and engage women.  What would be interesting for myself and others to experience, through the mere use of words and photos?  My goal with Spirited Sirens is to familiarize and educate women on artisenal spirits and a primary passion of mine is travel.   So, I thought, why not diarize travels that lead me from one bottle to the next?

I decided to take a 7 day trip this past July, primarily, to visit the famed 'Bourbon Trail' in Kentucky.  I would begin this blog with Whisky, American Whiskey, not just because I love it but because it is growing in popularity amoung many women.  I wanted to bring both adventure and greater familiarity with spirits distilled here in our own back yard to these pages, to women.  I planned to visit a series of distilleries in both Tennessee and Kentucky, over that week; some visits were arranged in advance, some were just drop-ins.   In any case, all were educational in some way and a great way to further educate or familiarize ones self.

In an effort to be frugal I flew in and out of Atlanta, GA which tacked on some driving time but allowed me to see a little more of the region and to visit a friend on the last day.  I drove over 1,200 miles that week, happily alone -just my little rental car and I, rolling over the beautiful green hills down into knolls, towns and cities all of which had some imbibing pleasure in store for me.  Here are my tales...

Day one & two:  Atlanta, GA to Nashville, TN to Frankfort, KY

July 11 & 12, 2012

450 miles

I don't think i have ever had a more ominous start to a trip.  I landed in Atlanta, GA that first evening to a very intimidating thunderstorm, but if I was to make my 11am meeting the next morning in Nashville, TN, I really had no choice but to get some miles under my belt.  A highway-side Holiday Inn was the choice for the night. 

That next morning, as I set out north toward the GA/TN border, the anticipation of driving into Nashville, TN was exciting.  Maybe the music history, maybe the first stop on my tour but with Ben Harper crooning a similar sentiment, I entered into an old warehouse district on the outskirts of town, in search of my first distillery visit on this trip, Corsair Artisan Distillery.   Once I found Corsair within the building, I was greeted by their distillery ambassador, Will Atkinson, a charming guy with an excellent palate.  I was given a tour of the distillery which houses a 240 gallon, 1920s still and where most of their traditional and experimental Whiskies are made.  Note that in addition to whisky, Corsair also makes a great gin and an 'Old Tom' style gin, in their Bowling Green, KY facility, both of which I was soon to try.

Shortly after, Will led me into the Corsair tasting room where, for the first time, I had the opportunity to taste some of Corsair's traditional and experimental spirits.  Of the whiskies, I tried Triple Smoke, Wry Moon (a white Rye),  Ryemageddon and Old Punk an interestingly pumpkin and pumpkin spiced whisky.   

While starting Corsair only a few years ago, friends Darek Bell and Andrew Webber have soon become well known on the artisanal whisky map in the USA.  

As shared directlyfrom their site, Corsair offers “hand crafted, small batch ultra-premium, booze for badasses.” Love it! 

Website:  www.CorsairArtisan.com

Day three:  

July 13, 2012

50 miles

Part 1: Frankfort, KY

After checking into the local Holiday Inn Express on the outskirts of town the night before, I drove down into charming Frankfort, KY in search of a place for dinner.  Serafini's seems to be THE place in town for good food and a GREAT Bourbon selection.  I sat at the bar and quickly met the manager Carlos Ceballos who handed me one of the best spirit lists I've seen.   I enjoyed the evening which included meeting local celebs (Daniel Boone's 10x great granddaughter?), eating a fried green tomato caprese with smoked tomato relish and sipping through an unparalleled selection of Bourbon.  Thank you Carlos! 

Part 2:  Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY

Master Distiller:  Harlan Wheatly

Brands:  Buffalo Trace, Blantons, Van Winkle, Sazerac & Eagle Rare ... to name a few.

This was a very special visit for a number of reasons:  It would be my first Kentucky Bourbon distillery on this journey; Buffalo Trace is the oldest distilling site in the USA; their vast portfolio includes some of my favourite Bourbons out there; and a connection was arranged for me thanks to John Kunkel & Eddie Acevedo of www.50eggs.com & David Anthony of Sazerac. That arrangement led to a much appreciated, behind-the-scenes look at operations and revealed the charm that is present-day Buffalo Trace and the history of Bourbon.  I send special thanks to Meredith Moody and Amy Preske, who took time out of their day to show me around.

Most notably that day I was fortunate enough to see Blanton's being hand-bottled, sealed, labeled and packaged.  We then entered one of the buildings into which barrels were run on little train tracks from a nearby Rick House, suspended, drained, filtered through charcoal (which was chipped from the insides of Bourbon barrels) and then transported in vats off to the bottling line.  Note that thus far I was in olfactory heaven.  The aromas of Bourbon vapour or 'Angel's Share' in these two areas were dreamy.  Next, and to my surprise, we entered the Bitters production room.  Buffalo Trace now owns and produces Peychaud and Regan's Orange Bitters.  The filtration or sieve system is what I found most interesting here, in that the tincture of botanicals and base alcohol are pushed through over 25 perforated metal sheets (see photo below) to result in the clear, concentrated Bitter, ready to then bottle.

As BT was my first true Bourbon distillery visit, and one of Spirited Sirens' first posts, I'm going to provide some details of 'what is Bourbon?'.  The basics are that it is a distilled spirit, therefore alcohol by volume is set at a minimum of 40% or 80 proof.  It is a whiskey, an American whiskey that must be made in the USA, but anywhere in the USA.  The 'mashbill' or grain recipe used to create the white distillate must have a minimum of 51% corn, the rest is usually a combination of wheat, rye or barley.  Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in NEW, American oak barrels that have been charred on the inside.  Look for further information on the details of spirits production in the '101' part of this website in the future.


Part 3:  Barrel House Distilling, Lexington, KY

I made a quick trip/dip down into Lexington, before heading up and out to Paris, KY for the night in order to visit a small urban distillery that had caught my attention when planning this trip.  As quoted from their website:  'It began when a group of long time friends, playing poker, tossed around the idea of starting a small batch distillery in Lexington, a city rich in distilling heritage'.  One of those friends, part owner, Peter Wright, kindly met with me that afternoon and we tasted through their current portfolio:  Pure Blue Vodka, Oak Rum and Devil John Moonshine.  On the horizon is also a much anticipated Bourbon, set for possible release in 2014.


Day 4 

July 14, 2012

160 miles

Part 1:  Woodford Reserve, Versailles, KY

Master Distiller:  Chris Morris

I woke up to a lovely morning in horse country, and with a huge jar of local honey cradled in my arm, I set off for my day along the actual Bourbon Trail to visit Woodford Reserve and Four Roses.  To be clear, the actual Bourbon Trail is also named the Blue Grass expressway and is a stretch of highway that runs from south west to north east Kentucky, on which a number of Bourbon distilleries exist.

My first stop was Woodford Reserve, which is a brand Brown Forman created with the famed Master Distiller, Lincoln Henderson, now of Angel’s Envy Bourbon.  Beautifully nestled in horse country, the distillery, also situated on the Kentucky River, has had many owners since its first days in 1812.  Generally speaking, Woodford Reserve makes just one bourbon, whose mashbill (or grain recipe) is 72% corn (to be qualified as Bourbon and not simply whiskey, the mashbill mush have a minimum of 51% corn) and 18% rye (gives it that spicy kick!). 

Without prearranging my visit to WR, I attending the general public’s tour which costs about $7 and includes a tasting and the glass at the end.   I really enjoyed visiting WR for many reasons:  the drive to the distillery is beautiful, the site on which it exists is historic, the rick houses and copper pot still system provide a good education on bourbon distillation.


Part 2:  Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, KY

Master Distiller:  Jim Rutledge

Once I had finished up at Woodford Reserve it was after 1pm and I realized I was running out of time if I was going to make it to Four Roses (4R) before the last tour of the day.  I was really looking forward to this visit as I’m not only a fan of some 4R’s bourbons but I’d heard about 4R’s unique architecture and interested in the infrastructure knowing that it had been owned by a Japanese company for some years now. 

The Spanish-style buildings that make up the 4R distillery are surely unique in Bourbon country.  Its really a lovely almost feminine touch that perhaps endears more women to bourbon….who knows?   The tour was pretty straightforward but the tasting did include their Small Batch and Single Barrel for which I was thankful.  4R is known to have one of the highest Rye contents in their mashbill (which as a Canadian, I like) and results in a 'spicier' bourbon.  


Part 3:  Louisville, KY

for the night...

 The great thing about this trip is that I really had no set schedule but for a couple of meetings and arranged distillery visits, so I was at liberty to go where I pleased.  In anticipation of my first stop the next morning, and craving some urban stimulation, I decided to stay in Louisville for the night.  I’d heard of a great hotel and bar/restaurant there called the 21c Museum Hotel within which I found Proof, a restaurant and bar.  This is a must visit for the hotel, the art collection, the food and the cocktails!  I had a memorable experience at the bar that night.  Liking rye as I’ve mentioned, the very knowledgeable bartender made me a drink that she said she makes often for her 84 year old grandmother, The Margie Manhattan which included, Rittenhouse Rye, Cynar, Carpano Anitca, Angostura & orange bitters & orange zest.  It was very very good.  


Day 5

July 15, 2012

255 miles

Part 1: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY

Master Distiller:  Fred Noe

Brands:  Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Booker's, Basil Hayden's, Baker's ... to name a few

As I drove into Jim Beam on the fifth morning of my trip, I was immediately aware it was clearly the largest producer of Bourbon, just for the sheer expanse of the property and the size of the badass looking black rick houses.  The tour at JB is pretty straightforward and it includes a tasting of their latests but I was pleasantly surprised to try their, just then released, Knob Creek Rye.  The sweet entry and consistent spice with a nice caramel finish makes the KC Rye a great premium cocktail rye.  



Part 2:  Maker's Mark, Loretto, KY

Master Distiller:  Greg Davis

While I wouldn't have wanted to do this drive at night, the rolling, winding road to Maker's Mark was increasingly picturesque and ended in what I think was the most beautiful distillery I visited.   From the descending drive along a low rock wall into a knoll of manicured perfection to the babbling brook running through the grounds, to the handsome historic dwellings and black (with red accents) commercial buildings, I came to understand very quickly that this was a special place and worth a visit.

Maker's Mark is easily recognizable for its dripping red wax top and is a ubiquitous Bourbon component of most bars around the world.  MM is a known 'wheated' Bourbon and therefore is 'sweeter' and possibly more agreeable to the masses, over, say one which has a higher rye content and therefore 'spicier'.


Part 3:  Knoxville, TN

for the night... a really lovely hotel and I was due for a good beer, and a half!


Day 6:  Knoxville, TN to Atlanta, GA

July 16, 2012

250 miles

A bar reconnaissance...

I was lucky enough to reconnect with a friend on my last night of the journey.  It happens she had opened a restaurant while living in Atlanta, Three Blind Mice; one that is surely worth a visit.  Then, I was taken on a tour of some notable cocktail establishments in Atlanta.  Two worth putting on your map are Holeman & Finch (bakery and restaurant too) and Top Floor which had a fine, hand selected spirit list.  This was my first visit to Atlanta and it won't be my last.  There are some great things developing in the culinary and craft cocktail arena there.




Day 7:  ATL -->  MIA

Homeward bound... 

This was a remarkable week.  I met some wonderful people, working wholeheartedly at creating true artisanal american spirits.  I embarked on this adventure alone, but returned, having forged new relationships and friendships and with a desire to tell their spirited stories and mine.

I look forward to the next, be it in a local restaurant, bar or distillery, or hopefully a trip to another spirit making region in this world!