Monday, December 30, 2013

Maine Trip #1

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  This is my favorite time of year, despite my recently acquired aversion to cold, because I absolutely love Christmas.  I am, without a doubt, the worst Jew ever, but since I grew up celebrating Christmas in Portland, ME with my step-family, I came to love it not as a religious holiday, but instead as a time to get together with family and friends, exchange gifts, tell stories, and of course, eat lots and lots of great food.  This year, in addition to the great food we had at family dinners, I went out and tried a few new places in Portland and the surrounding area.  I also hit up an old favorite, Pai Men Miyake, which has become a requirement for my Portland trips over the last year.


First up was Local 188, a fairly high end restaurant that specializes in fresh, local ingredients.  Now, before I go any further, in the interest of full disclosure my sister and her boyfriend are both managers there, front and back of the house respectively, and this meal was essentially comped.  That said, I did greatly enjoy it, as I had a classic favorite of mine (steak tartare), a classic Maine dish (mussels), and an innovative take on a true Italian classic (gnocchi with lobster).

I started off with a cocktail, the "Bergeron Sidecar," made with house infused vanilla and fig bourbon, Cointreau, and lemon juice.  Ordinarily I am not a big cocktail person, preferring either to drink beer or straight spirits, but at my sister's suggestion I went with this, and it was really tasty.  The bourbon did not overpower me, nor did it entirely mask the other ingredients, though it was definitely the dominant flavor.  I do not know what kind of bourbon they used, but it was at least decent, though I doubt it was tremendously high end.  The lemon juice added a nice citrus note to it, but since I have no clue what Cointreau tastes like on its own, I could not tell you whether it added anything.  It would probably have been a better option as a pre-dinner drink, but it was fine during the meal as well.

Since I had never been to Local 188 before, despite my sister having worked there for quite some time now, I decided to sample a few different dishes, and they were all successful, though one clearly stood out above the rest.  The mussels in red sauce were incredible, perfectly cooked (and cleaned, which even in a restaurant is no small measure of success) and delicious.  They are plump, juicy, slightly briny delights that on their own would have been delicious, but when served in the incredible red sauce were legitimately delectable, one of the best dishes I have ever had in a restaurant.  I have no clue what they put in the sauce other than that it is tomato based, and according to my sister Moroccan inspired, but my lord, it is delicious.  I ended up using the endless supply of bread my sister kept grabbing for us (also really good) to sop up all the sauce, because there was no way I was letting any of it go to waste.  Everything else could have been terrible, and this dish would have made going there worth it.

Next up were the gnocchi, which threw me for a bit of a loop.  I am used to, and partial to, light, pillow-y, but deceptively dense gnocchi, which soak up sauces and provide just a little bit of a bite, that perfect al dente.  These were definitely not that; they were absurdly light on the inside, but because they are pan seared, they have a little bit of crispness to the outside.  They were extremely flavorful, and the lobster cream sauce they are served in is great, with a pretty significant amount of lobster piled on top of the gnocchi.  All in all, I liked this, but it definitely was unlike any gnocchi dish I've ever had, and I think I would have liked it even more if they were not seared.  That said, it is nice to see a restaurant do something a little different, and the sear was perfect on each of them.

The final dish, the steak tartare, was both awesome and disappointing.  The steak itself was perfect, uniformly diced and formed beautifully into a classic disc, with capers and truffle oil mixed in that gave it the perfect saltiness and umami flavor to go with the clearly high quality steak.  My issue, however, was the quail egg on top; rather than serve it traditionally, with a raw egg yolk on top, they fried the whole egg sunny side up; this created a textural and process issue for me, as I neither enjoyed the texture of the fried white or having to cut through it while trying to get a bit of the egg with the steak.  Soft egg on top of malleable steak does not cut easily or cleanly.  Additionally, who is eating steak tartare, but has an issue with raw egg?  I would rather have just had the steak itself and no egg on top, because the steak itself was amazing, but that egg was incredibly disappointing.

Overall, I had a great experience, I really enjoyed my food, and I look forward to going back in the future to try some more things.  The paella gets raves from the variety of people I know who have tried it.

Local 188 is relatively vegetarian and gluten-intolerant friendly, with several items on the menu that are one or both already, and the ability to retrofit some others to meet dietary restrictions.


The heart of the brewery; those tanks are filled with delicious, delicious beer
Saturday, after a delicious lunch at Pai Men, my sister and I took a quick trip up to Freeport, a town best known for the Maine staple L.L. Bean, but also now the home to Maine Beer Company.  While they do not offer a brewery tour, they do have a small tap room that overlooks the heart of the brewery.  They offer eight beers on tap at a time, and sometimes (including when I was there) have beers that are "Pilot" brews, not offered for sale anywhere else.  Offering 5oz and 10oz glasses, or four and eight beer samplers of 5oz pours, you can try an old favorite or some new specialties.  I went for the four beer sampler, trying three new-to-me beers, and of course, my all time favorite, the Lunch.

Clockwise from front righ:  Pilot 5, Lil One, Lunch, Weez
The new beers I tried were Weez (7.2%, American Black Ale), Lil One (9.1%, American Strong Ale), and Pilot 5 (5%, American Lager).  The Weez was dark, heavy and very hoppy, but like all of MBC's beers, that hoppiness did not manifest in much bitterness.  The Lil One was anything but, an absurdly strong, vibrant ale that even in a 5oz glass nearly knocked me on my ass.  I would not want to have more than one of these at a time, but it is very, very good.  The Pilot 5 was a nice, light, hoppy lager, and I hope they end up producing it, because I think it would be a great session beer, in a craft world sometimes too crowded by higher ABV offerings.  Lastly (and I did save it for last, so I could savor it), the Lunch, that perfect, delightful, hoppily bright and effervescent IPA; as much as I love Ballast Point's Sculpin, Dogfish Head's 90 Minute, or any of the other truly great IPAs I have had in my life, none of them quite match up to Lunch.  I keep saying it deserves its own review, and it does, but its so hard to find, and when I do, I end up just drinking it without taking the time to sit down and write a review because it is just so freaking good.

FYI, just down the street a short ways is Maine Distilleries Inc, the producer of Cold River Vodka.


I always try to grab lunch or dinner with one or more of my dad's old friends when I make it up to Maine, people who have been very, very good to me in my life and were dear to him in his, and this trip I was able to make it to brunch with his old friend Doug and his wife Ann, who are some of my favorite people in the world.  We tried initially to go to Flatbread, a small chain restaurant that Doug swears by, but they had actually had a small fire that morning and were not opening up until after I needed to leave town, so we ended up at Ri Ra Irish Pub, another small chain that has ten locations throughout the east, plus a new Las Vegas restaurant.  Somehow I had never been there, despite their proximity to the Casco Bay Lines terminal, but since they are right next to Flatbread as well, we decided to pop in.

They are definitely a bar heavy restaurant, and with a pretty decent drink selection at that.  We were there right around noon, so we ended up, at the suggestion of our waiter, ordering brunch.  I had the Irish Benedict, an interesting play on the traditional dish wherein the English muffin is replaced by potato cakes (essentially home fries mashed together and then pan seared) and the Canadian bacon with a large rasher of regular bacon, with house-made Hollandaise on top.  It was served with very unremarkable home fries and a thick slice of grilled tomato (a concept from the British Isles that really needs to catch on more here).  The food took a long time to come out, but our waiter did come over and apologize for that and offered us some soup, on the house, to make up for it; as it turned out, the food arrived almost immediately after the soup came out, but it was nice of the restaurant (or just him?) to do that, and the soup, a tomato bisque, was pretty decent, though I make it better.  The Benedict was quite tasty, albeit kind of difficult to get all the components into one cohesive bite, but that was not a big deal.  The potato cakes were tasty, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, just like good home fries would be, and the bacon was cooked just right, as were the poached eggs.  I would definitely have it again, or the Lobster Benedict that Doug ordered.

I firmly believe that the average restaurant customer goes in thinking they care primarily about the food, but in reality, people return for the service.  With that in mind, and having had some great waiters, waitresses and bartenders in my life, I have to say that the waiter at Ri Ra was one of the best.  I initially ordered the Irish Benedict, then immediately changed my mind to the Crab Cakes Benedict, a special for the day, and instead of just letting me get the (slightly) more expensive meal, he informed me that the crab cakes were not something that the restaurant does well, and encouraged me to stick with the Irish version.  Not many waiters would do that, and he saved me (and Doug, who was also going to have them) from a poor experience.  Combined with his general friendliness and professionalism, I was very, very impressed by him; even if the food had been only mediocre, rather than actually pretty tasty, I probably would still have written a positive review just because of his service.


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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

La Fiorentina (Northampton, MA)

I have discussed a few of the cafes in Northampton before, including recent posts on The Roost and The Foundry, but nothing comes close to the quality of La Fiorentina.  With three locations now (the others are in Springfield and the newly opened East Longmeadow shop), La Fiorentina presents perfect coffee, delicious pastries, ice cream and other sweets.  Most items are, of course, Italian, though they have other pastries, including my personal favorite croissant.  While I cannot speak to the authenticity of their coffees and sweets, having never been to Italy, I suspect that much of what they offer is true to its heritage, as they seem to have an attention to detail and quality that makes me think that anything less than doing things exactly right would not be acceptable.

"Banana" Marzipan; the cell phone camera does not do the beauty of it justice
I have been going to La Fiorentina since I was a little kid, getting hot chocolate, made with real steamed milk, which is really just so much better than the stuff you get elsewhere, and of course, the greatest treat of all, real marzipan.  Made with almond paste and a lot of sugar, it is slightly sticky, very sweet, and just all in all delicious; as a kid it was my favorite, and today it is a treat that I cannot resist every time I find myself on Armory St.  The marzipan is hand painted and absolutely beautiful, with bright, vibrant colors, shaped and colored to resemble various fruits and objects.  I got a couple of the "banana" treats today, which were so perfectly painted that they looked just like miniature versions of the real thing.  I am sorry to say that my new phone's camera, while pretty good, did not properly capture the colors, because these little treats really are a work of art.  If you have never had marzipan and live or work in the Northampton area, you really need to stop in and try some; if you have tried it and like it, La Fiorentina's will take that to another level.

Beyond the marzipan, they have great fruit tarts, croissant, cheesecake that is to die for, and a lot of really good Italian desserts, including the classic cannoli.  All of their cakes that I have tried are tremendous, and I look forward to trying more, despite my general aversion to very sweet desserts, because they just do such an incredibly good job with all of their food.

The coffee is, as I said, spectacular; it being a rather warm day today (47 degrees is warm in December), I went for an iced latte, and as I took my first long sip of it, all I could think was "if everyone tried this, no one would drink flavored coffee."  The espresso is amazing, rich and flavorful, perfectly roasted, and the milk mixes perfectly with just the right ratio to the coffee.  Their regular coffee is great as well; when I had a few trainings last year in Northampton, their hot coffee was the perfect thing to warm me, and as I struggled to stay awake through 24 hours of boring-ness over three days it kept me awake.  After drinking La Fiorentina coffee I cannot drink Dunkin Donuts' swill for at least a week.

All in all,  I cannot recommend La Fiorentina highly enough, and they are truly my favorite cafe in not just Northampton, but anywhere.  If anyone has a place they think could challenge it, please let me know, but it is a long shot that I will find somewhere that I love more.  FYI, though, their hours suck, not opening until 9am Sunday through Friday, and 8am on Saturday.  I want coffee at 6am, dammit!


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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ballast Point Tongue Buckler Imperial Red Ale


That was the first thing that went through my head, and came out of my mouth, after my first taste of Ballast Point's Tongue Buckler Imperial Red Ale.  It is not so much that Tongue Buckler is a great beer--it isn't--or that it is bad--it definitely isn't--it is just that it is the kind of drink that makes you think "wow."  I do not really know how to explain it, because I do not love this beer, though I do like it, but it is incredible nonetheless.  The amount of flavor packed into it is kind of bizarre, and I think it is the wide range of tastes that threw me off and also keep me from putting it into the pantheon of beers that I crave.

The first thing that hits you is malt, which you smell as the glass approaches your face, and the fact that it is a 10% ABV beer never comes into the equation, from either sense.  After the malt comes the wheat, then a burst of hops, powerful and a little citric, which takes over from everything else.  Finally, the sweetness of the malt comes back in the aftertaste, while the hops do not really linger.  There is a spicy (not hot spicy, but spices kind of spicy) note as well, though I would be hard pressed to tell you exactly from what.  It is an easy drinking beer, which is good because it is not cheap, but bad because, again, it is 10% ABV, which means that if you drink a 22oz bottle on your you may need to wait a few before driving anywhere.

It is a kind of strange looking beer; a few people on BeerAdvocate have remarked that it is not a "red ale" in the traditional visual sense, a dark, cloudy, only slightly reddish pour that has a solid head of deep tan.  I think it looks good, or at least kind of cool, but it is not quite as "pretty" as some other red ales, like the Founders Red Rye PA.  When all put together, it is definitely a beer I will buy again, but I will not crave it the way I do some others.


On a related note, Ballast Point is rapidly approaching "favorite" status, potentially overtaking Maine Beer Company.  The highs (Sculpin, a top three IPA; Fathom, a truly special pale ale; Sea Monster, a beautiful and inspired imperial stout that I did not know was 10% ABV until I just looked it up; and Victory at Sea, one of the most interesting beers I have ever had) are barely behind MBC's Lunch, and tied with or ahead of the rest of the offerings.  Neither company offers a bad beer, though the Serrano Pale Ale from Ballast Point was just plain weird, albeit in a way I can appreciate.  I see Ballast Point becoming what Dogfish Head has been for so many years; a company with a few tremendous year round offerings, some limited/seasonal beers that people seek out whenever they are released, and a revolving stable of "experimental" brews.  Hopefully, those experimental types are a little more successful than Dogfish Head's, but I see a similar level of creativity out of Ballast Point.  I really love this brewery, though, and classy San Diego should be proud of them.  Thank you to my friend Sean for introducing me to them.


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The Roost (Northampton, MA)

The Roost is one of many cafes in Northampton, MA, fighting for supremacy in a market that should be able to support them all.  Similar to last week's review, this is a place that I had seen a few times but never thought to drop in, as I did not really appreciate what it was and what it offered.  My friend Sean and I were going out to grab a beer, but wanted somewhere different than our normal haunts, so he suggested The Roost.

Offering breakfast foods like waffles, egg sandwiches, and bagels, along with soups, sandwiches and salads, they have a rather interesting menu.  Their soups and quiches change daily, but the rest of the menu stays essentially the same.  They serve several beers in the bottle and have about half a dozen taps, all but one of which were stocked with local or semi-local beers, and prices are extremely reasonable.  They had Brewmaster Jack's IPA for $12 pitchers, so we grabbed one of those to go along with a cup of soup each and the Mixed Board.

Sean had the New England Clam Chowder and I had the Butternut Squash and Yam Bisque.  The chowder was gluten free, and the bisque was vegetarian, and there are several items on the menu that satisfy each of those requirements for those with limited diets or dietary restrictions.  My bisque was tremendous, slightly sweet and definitely more distinctly recognizable as having butternut squash than yam, with a heat that was very subtle at first but built as time went on.  It was very creamy, and the texture was just right.  Dipping the bread and some of the cheese from the Mixed Board was the perfect way to eat both.

The Mixed Board itself was quite good as well, with a small, house-made baguette, ample piles of hummus and peanut noodles (served cold), a side salad, some berries, a few thick slices of cheddar cheese, and some olive oil based dressing that was probably 95% oil.  The baguette was delicious, but there was not enough of it, so we bought a second one; they make them daily, and you can really tell, so kudos to them.  Hummus is something I tend to enjoy, but not love, and this was no different, as it was very good but not something I would ever really crave.  The peanut noodles, on the contrary, were definitely crave worthy, and I do not tend to be a huge fan of cold peanut noodles, but these had little chunks of actual peanut in the sauce and it did not taste like someone had just thinned out some mediocre peanut butter.  The side salad and berries deserve no more mention other than to say they seemed relatively fresh, I guess.  Cheddar cheese being among my favorite things on Earth, I was really happy to find it on the plate, but really disappointed to find only a small pile, since it was really good stuff.  The dressing was good with the bread, but nothing exciting; they can do better there.  Overall, this was very good and I was very impressed.

If you need a quick, tasty, fresh made bite to eat and a beer or coffee, The Roost is definitely a good option, and I would recommend it a bit more than I would The Foundry, and the prices are a bit better as well.  FYI, the desserts look AMAZING.


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Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Foundry (Northampton, MA)

Located across the street from my favorite Northampton spot, The Foundry is a sandwich/coffee shop, which also offers a few craft beers on tap, including a local brew or two.  I had wandered by many a time since The Foundry opened, but never stopped in, thinking it more of a coffee bar than a place to have a meal or a drink, and figuring that if I were getting expensive coffee, I'd go to La Fiorentina, Western Massachusetts' best coffee and pastry shop.  This past Tuesday, however, I found myself with a solid hour or two of down time while I waited for Town Fair Tire to put my new tires on my car, and, wanting to try something new that was not too heavy, I decided to stop in and have a sandwich and a beer.  (**Shout out to Town Fair Tire; those guys rock.  Great deals, good customer service, and nice people in general**)

I ordered one of their hot pressed sandwiches, The Anvil, which includes turkey, sun dried tomatoes, and pepperjack cheese.  This was a very simple sandwich, but was quite tasty, with pretty decent turkey that did not taste like the processed crap you get at the supermarket, sun dried tomatoes that provided a great combination of sweet and savory, and a subtle spice from the cheese.  It did not suffer from the standard issue I find with paninis, where the sandwich is pressed into an homogeneous blob with no character or ability to differentiate between textures and flavors.  The sandwich was served with a small salad of micro-greens that was quite good, and a balsamic vinaigrette that was no better or worse than the ones I make when I'm in a rush or not motivated enough to make a good dressing.

The Foundry also has a few decent beers on their list, and I had a glass of Maine Beer Company's Mo, a great beer that deserves its own review.  They also had something from The People's Pint, a fine local brewpub (though their service sucks horrifically at the restaurant), so it is good to see them supporting local breweries.

All in all, I will almost certainly go back, and I would say it is a good place to check out if you need a quick, light bite to eat.


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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tunnel Bar (Northampton, MA) and V-1 Vodka

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Situated under the old Union Station, in--obviously--an old train tunnel, Northampton's Tunnel Bar is, on a quiet night, about the classiest place in the city, and on a Friday or Saturday, one of the most popular.  Elegant and comfortable, with the bare walls of the tiled tunnel contrasted by the comfortable leather chairs situated around small wooden coffee tables, there is a bar about twenty feet long with some stools and space to stand.  They have a few beers on tap at any given moment, but they really specialize in cocktails, and especially martinis.  With a pretty decent selection of gins and vodkas, you can get just about any variety of martini, from my rather simple personal preference (V-One Vodka with extra olives) to any number of specialty and original drinks.  Additionally, they have a wide selection of other spirits, including but not limited to Scotch (including the cheapest pour of Johnnie Walker Blue I've ever seen, at $23), bourbon, rum, and tequila.  Prices are definitely not low, but considering the incredible potency of their cocktails, they are well worth the cost.  If I am driving, I never have more than one martini at Tunnel Bar, and I make sure there's a little time and water before I get behind the wheel.

When Tunnel Bar is quiet, it is the perfect place for a drinking date, pre-meal cocktail, or after dinner nightcap, giving ample room to stretch out while still maintaining enough proximity to your accompaniment to have a real conversation without worrying about being overheard.  On weekends, it gets too busy to have a quiet conversation, and you may well end up upstairs at a regular restaurant style table, as the tunnel itself cannot hold nearly so many people as want to crowd in.  They will be crowded from about 8:00pm until close on Friday and Saturday, so plan accordingly.


V-One Vodka is somewhat a product of Western Massachusetts, the brainchild of Hadley's own Paul Kozub.  Produced in Poland, it is the winner of several awards in its short lifespan, and is my second favorite vodka, following only Cold River Vodka from Maine.  Incredibly smooth, it makes a great martini, though like most grain vodkas it lacks the flavor of the potato based versions; it lies somewhere in between Cold River and Stolichnaya for me, and is actually unique in that is uses 100% spelt.

I cannot recommend either of these highly enough.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Miami Trip (Miami, FL)

I took a trip to Miami this past weekend to take care of some family matters, but with them looking rather less bleak upon my arrival than anticipated, I took advantage of some of the happier aspects of this ridiculously hot city.  I should just mention first though that the people at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach are incredible, and anyone who goes through that hospital should be thankful.
My second night in town, my uncle and I went to a whiskey tasting event, which included Scotch, bourbon, rye and even Japanese whisky, which I had never had before.  Ten dollars got you a tasting glass (which you were welcome to keep), samples of about fifteen whiskys, and paella, plus ten percent off any of the bottles being sampled.  The paella was good but not great, featuring a variety of meats, which I enjoyed, though my uncle was thus forced to pick through it.  The liquors varied from terrible to amazing, but the real treat of the night was meeting a couple of the people who work for the distributors.
(L-R) Basil Hayden's, Knob Creek, Jim Beam Honey, Laphroaig 10yr

The folks from Beam Inc., best known in this country as the producers of Jim Beam, were the first I sampled from.  They brought Laphroaig 10 year, a Scotch that my mother loves and that I cannot stand.  They also brought Jim Beam Honey, Knob Creek 9 year (a very good bourbon, but one I have had enough times not to need to try it that night), and Basil Hayden's, which I had never had before and was very pleased to see, having heard very good things about it.  It was not quite as good as I was expecting, but that is simply an issue of expectations being raised unrealistically high; in fact, it was a very solid whiskey, and I really enjoyed it.

Heaven Hill Distilleries
"Kentucky Powerpoints"
Second up were the offerings from Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc., which included some really spectacular and unique spirits.  This is the home of Evan Williams, one of the best drinks for your money out there, so I figured they would be decent, but I was really taken aback by a couple of things.  The Rittenhouse Straight Rye was exceptional for a 4 year old whiskey, having an insane amount of flavor and smoothness despite its short aging period, nearly equal to Redemption Rye.  The really incredible drink though, was the Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey, made in the same way as bourbon or rye, but with wheat as the primary ingredient, was like nothing I've ever had before.  It was not my favorite, but it was definitely the most interesting I had all night, and I can see that it would work perfectly for its primary intended purpose, as a utilitarian but flavorful cocktail whiskey.  They also brought what they called "Kentucky Powerpoints," bottles filled with the ingredients of the individual liquors, in the proportions that each contains.  It was a neat and clever way to show what is actually in the different drinks.

Following a little paella, I moved on to Bowmore 10 year.  It sucked.  Avoid at all costs.  Enough said.

Dewars' Aberfeldy 12yr
Dewars followed that, with their Aberfeldy 12 year; it was not my thing, but they made up for it with a drop dead gorgeous young woman presenting it, and they gave out free flasks.  The Aberfeldy was a bit too harsh and biting for me, without providing any of the really wonderful oak-y, vanilla-y flavors that I look for to balance that out.

The final company represented was Anchor Distilling Company, and they were by far my favorite of the night.  Bringing some that I had already had and loved, including Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace bourbons, each of which I brought to a couple weddings over the last few months and
(L-R) Hirsch Bourbon, Nikka 12 yr "Pure Malt," Nikka 15 yr single malt
(L-R) Templeton Rye, Macallan 12 yr, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace
which led to some seriously impressive hangovers--worth it--and which are classics at a very reasonable price.  Macallan 12 was present, a classic Scotch, as were Templeton Rye Small Batch and 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select, the latter of which was less impressive than I was expecting.  The real winners of the evening, however, were the two Japanese whiskys and the Hirsch Reserve Small Batch Straight Kentucky Bourbon.  The Hirsch was deliciously smooth, oak-y and sweet in the most pleasant way imaginable, a truly spectacular example of what bourbon should be.  The two Nikkas, however, were just really cool to try, as it was my first foray into the Japanese interpretation of Scotch whisky.  The 12 year, which is labeled as a "pure malt," a blend of malts from Nikka's two distilleries, was really good, but once I tried the 15 year old single malt that was the only thing I could think about.  It was as good as almost any Scotch I have ever had, with a character and smoothness that showed the true craftsmanship of the master distillers.
(L-R) Buffalo Trace, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Four Roses Bourbon, Four Roses Single Barrel


Saturday evening was spent with my cousin and her friends at Grovetoberfest, an annual beer festival in Coconut Grove, Miami's oldest neighborhood.  Far more of a festival than a beer tasting event, this was a lot of fun, but definitely targeted a different audience than the American Craft Beer Fest, where almost no one is trying to get drunk; at Grovetoberfest, that seems to be the predominant intent among attendees.  There were some very good beers there, including some local options that I had never had, but the best were from Founders Brewing Company, which was no surprise whatsoever.  All in all, it was a fun event, and I really enjoyed myself, but I prefer the ACBF.

Following the festival, which concluded at about 7:00pm, our group headed to Sandbar Grill, a ridiculously loud and over-crowded tourist bar that nonetheless was a pretty fun place to hang out, as it was loaded with televisions tuned to various sports; plus, they had Yuengling on tap, and that's...well...awesome.  (Yuengling is coming back to Massachusetts!!!)  An old friend of mine from college who lives in the area joined us there as well, along with his best friend from childhood, and after a while of shouting at each other to be heard, the three of us, plus a friend of my cousin's friend adjourned to Vinos in the Grove, where we had a glass of wine each.  Their wine list is pretty impressive, including some really good by the glass options, and they also serve a few cheese platters that sounded pretty damn good.  Next time I am in Miami, I will definitely head back there, and it seems like a great place to take a date if you do live in the area.


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Monday, October 21, 2013

McLadden's Irish Publick House (Northampton, MA)

I first went to McLadden's Irish Publick House's Northampton location after a wedding at the nearby Hotel Northampton, already a bit tipsy from my part of a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon, and a shot of tequila was involved, so my opinion was not reliable that night.  The second time I went was a much more memorable event, having a late dinner there with my cousin and her boyfriend a couple weeks back when they visited from New York City.  My cousin's boyfriend is an up and coming beer fan, and I have enjoyed taking him to a few other local beer hotspots and trying some great beers with him over the last few years, so when my cousin said Rick wanted to go somewhere with good beer again, McLadden's came immediately to mind.  With over 100 taps and nearly as many bottled varieties, not to mention a very solid list of Irish, Scotch, and American whisk(e)ys, I figured the food did not need to be that good to still be a good choice.  Thankfully, the food held up well, and I suspect that this will be among my go-to options in Northampton in the near future.

McLadden's is a very small local chain, with just three locations (the others being in Hamden, MA and West Hartford, CT), Northampton being the newest.  When they opened there was a decent amount of buzz about them, but I heard very mixed, at best, reviews about the food, and with The Dirty Truth a tenth of a mile away, I honestly did not see much need to go there.  Following my post-wedding trip, which gave me a view of their thoroughly impressive array of taps, I figured it was worth a shot.  They advertise having 105 taps, but not all of them are active at any given moment.  When I went with my cousin and her boyfriend, they had 102 running, and because they change options so often they do not have a printed menu; rather, there is a display that rotates through the options, or you can use your smartphone to scan a UPC or to go to a website that provides a full list of the available beers on tap, bottle or can.  You can select the beer and it will give you some information about the beer and brewery, as well as where it is available near you.

We arrived around 9pm and still had to wait about ten minutes or so to be seated at one of about ten booths; the place was packed, especially around the bar, but the wait was not a major issue as it allowed us to browse the beer list online and pick out what we each wanted.  I went with Founders Brewing Company's Imperial Stout, a specialty beer available as a "winter warmer," while Rick had a Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits Sculpin IPA at my recommendation; I do not remember my cousin Hana's beer selection, but I believe it was a pretty solid choice.  Mine was spectacular, similar to the Lagunitas Brewing Company Imperial Stout I had at the 2013 American Craft Beer Fest, but not quite as sour.  It was sharp, heavy and deeply flavored, malty as can be, and very much an alcohol-heavy beer but without feeling like it was overpowering the hops and malt that make it such a tremendous beer.  It is a 10.5% ABV beer, though, so they served a smaller (I believe 10oz) portion in a goblet, and that was just right to go with my food.  The Sculpin was as good as ever, one of my top three IPAs, and really deserves its own review, which I will take care of in the near future.

Guinness Lamb Stew, with Rick's and Hana's dishes in the background
The food did not quite live up to the beer, but that is by no means a negative; it is very difficult to match an insanely impressive beer list.  We all went fairly simple, which the menu seems to do best, mixing some classically Irish dishes and some pretty standard American pub food.  Hana had a Turkey Panini, which was delicious, with a small amount of spice, and a ton of flavor from both the bacon and the kale, which for once was not an unnecessary fad ingredient.  Rick had the Shepherd's Pie, a childhood favorite of mine (though technically I always had Cottage Pie, I suppose, since it was made with beef), and he enjoyed it a great deal.  I went with the Guinness Lamb Stew, served with two pieces of grilled bread, which is perfect for dipping in the gravy.  The lamb was tender and delicious, the vegetables soft but not mushy, and the whole thing was just really delicious.  My only complaint was that, unlike Hana's giant sandwich and Rick's generously sized dish, there did not seem to be a great deal of food in my bowl.  Maybe that was because I had not eaten all day, but an order of truffle oil french fries at The Dirty Truth followed to ensure that I was full.

Prices were properly in line for the beer, nothing out of the ordinary, while the food was a little overpriced for such an establishment.  That said, it was not so overpriced as to make me not go there again, I just may not pick it as my primary beer establishment.  The service was fine, except that while we were waiting the waitress who said she would be back to get our beer orders never rematerialized, but since we were not waiting an insanely long time that is not much of a problem.  All in all, I would highly recommend at least checking the place out, for the beer if nothing else, but the food is a good option as well.


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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Boston Trip #3 (Cambridge, MA)

So I have been to Crema Cafe a couple times before, and wrote briefly about it back in March, but after going again at the end of September, I decided to add a quick post about my last trip there.  I was meeting a couple old friends in Boston, and had some time to kill so I figured a stop in Cambridge at my favorite little cafe was a good idea.  One cold brewed iced coffee and an English muffin with jam later, and I was happy as a pig in...well, you know.  The iced coffee was spectacular, even better than their regular iced coffee which is already better than most, and the English muffin was to die for.  I know what you're thinking, how good can an English muffin really be?  When made at Crema Cafe, pretty damn good.  Homemade, a little sweeter than a traditional (aka Thomas') variety, it was served warm with butter and raspberry jam that was delicious; I strongly considered ordering another, but decided that it would ruin my appetite.  It was a poor decision.

A quick walk to Charlie's Kitchen followed, where I had a couple beers and some appetizers, and introduced a friend to the glory that are their burgers.  Nothing crazy to report, just another plug for a great little bar.


Dinner at Chilli Duck Thai followed a few hours later, after wandering around the area of the Park Plaza hotel netted no positive results and Yelp suggested it and my friend wanted to have Thai, Viet, or some other eastern Asian food.  I had the Panang Curry with chicken, and my friend had the Tom Yum Noodle Soup.  Mine was very tasty, subtly flavorful and just a little bit spicy.  The soup was apparently good as well, with just the right amount of spice.  I introduced my friend to Singha, which is one of my guilty pleasure beers; sort of like a Thai PBR, it has a little too much sweetness and not enough real beer flavor, but for some reason I just love drinking it nonetheless.  Sadly, I do not really remember much more about the meal, but it was quite tasty and not unreasonably priced.


The night concluded at Penguin Pizza in Brigham Circle, and while I cannot speak to the pizza (which looked pretty good), their beer list is insanely good.  Hundreds of beers, many of which I had never heard of, including a lot of foreign options, made decision making very difficult.  I ended up with a Warsteiner, which was a light Westphalian beer, similar to a Czech lager but with a little bit more body.  I had ordered something else, but they were out, so I told the waiter, a friendly Irishman with a thick brogue, to pick me something light and refreshing, and he brought this and something else that I do not recall.  I am glad that I went with this, and I really want to go back to this place to try their pizza and start making my way through their beer list.


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The Brass Buckle Cafe (Greenfield, MA)

Located at the corner of Main and Chapman Sts. in Greenfield, The Brass Buckle Cafe is just one of many small cafes or coffee shops that have existed in this location over the last fifteen years; some have been good, some bad, but none has managed to last more than a few years.  The Brass Buckle hopefully will not break that trend.

In the interest of full disclosure, apparently my step-dad and the owner of the cafe have a bit of a feud going on after an extremely negative post on Yelp or one of those sites, which the owner saw and ended up confronting my step-dad and screaming profanity at him, and then banished him from the cafe.  I figured I should give it a shot however, and I was really hoping that my step-dad simply had a bad experience, and while mine was not nearly so negative as his, I was really not pleased.

To start, you walk in and the place is actually nicely set up, very clean looking and with enough room everywhere.  It has a pretty standard cafe set up at the counter, with some cookies and other pastry types behind glass next to where you order, and a couple of giant blackboards behind the counter list what your options for drinks and food are.  The "kitchen" is open and you can watch your food be made if you are so inclined.  The prices are very reasonable, and their coffee menu is pretty good, including a few things that I do not often see, such as Vietnamese Iced Coffee.  So far, so good.

Chilaquiles and an iced coffee
From there things went down hill.  I waited several minutes to order despite having just one person ahead of me in line, and while the young man who took my order was perfectly friendly (which goes a long way with me), I hope for his sake he is new because his lack of familiarity with the cafe's offerings was a serious problem.  I ordered the chilaquiles, a classic Mexican breakfast dish which typically uses leftover corn tortillas which are fried in quarters and then baked with a sauce and topped with crema or queso fresco, and of course served with the requisite refried beans.  This iteration of the dish lacked the beans, had some crema (they say queso blanco on their website, but I am really doubtful about that) drizzled on the top of a giant pile of fried tortilla.  The red and green salsas they used were fine, nicely spicy, but nothing special.  Adding radish, which may have been pickled, was a nice touch, but none of the other vegetables were particularly good, and the tortillas were inconsistent as far as texture, which had some appeal to me in that I like contrast of textures, but it was too inconsistent, with some pieces completely soggy and others completely brittle.  The crema, or whatever it was, was actually the best part, but there wasn't enough to get on every bite, and while drowning the dish in it would not have been good either as far as presentation or to eat, adding a bit more would be a good idea.

Coffee being a big part of any cafe, and it being morning when I went, I had myself an iced coffee, served black, and it was...okay.  I drank the whole thing, and it was fine, but it was not great, certainly not up to the level of Greenfield Coffee, much less Cambridge's Crema Cafe or Northampton's La Fiorentina or Haymarket Cafe.  If the food was better, the coffee would be more than good enough, and if the coffee was better I could probably deal with the food that was not up to my standards.  The service is an issue, but again, if it were not one of multiple problems I could get over it and return.  Sadly, I do not believe that I will return.


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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ferrara's Kitchen + Bar (Boston, MA)

Some of the better meals of my life have been in Boston, including the best I'd ever had prior to going to Bouchon Bistro at Mamma Maria in North Square, and now I've been fortunate enough to add another hit to the list.  Ferrara's Kitchen + Bar, located a short walk from the Haymarket MBTA stop on the Green Line, and just down the street from the famous Neptune Oyster Bar, is but one of many fine examples of Italian cuisine in Boston's North End, but there are a few things that set them apart.

The first thing that drew my dinner companion and I to Ferrara's was its open front; they have a large bay window that opens out onto Salem St., and in nice weather they open it up and allow the place to breathe a bit, a feature that I thoroughly enjoy.  Upon entering, I noticed that, while it was not bright inside by any means, it was not so dim as to nearly require a flashlight to even read the menu, a trend that I cannot stand.  It was, in fact, perfectly lit, allowing a good view of the entire dining room and bar, where we sat, but without any glaring lights.  Behind the bar are a pair of flat screen televisions, which offered a chance to watch Peyton Manning kick his little brother's butt all over the field; always an enjoyable experience.

Our bartender was friendly, knew at least a bit about beer and was happy to engage with us without ever becoming, in my mind, overly intrusive or omnipresent.  Speaking of beer, they had only a few options on tap, including a Sam Adams seasonal and the Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, which had just been added.  Since there was nothing new or exciting, we both went with the Dogfish.

As for food, the kitchen kept up well with the positive impression the layout and bartender had given initially.  I ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara, among my favorite dishes in the world, and my date
Spaghetti Carbonara served in a stainless pan
ordered the Gnocchi alla Sorrentina.  We both thoroughly enjoyed our meals, which were prepared very well, but there were a couple critiques that I had.  My Carbonara was delicious, though the menu describes it as being in a cream sauce; I do not know if that means they actually used cream in the preparation, or if they are simply describing the sauce as creamy.  It tasted right, and felt right, as an egg and cheese only sauce, and at least the bartender knew that a proper Carbonara lacks cream, but it is something that I am left wondering about.  The pasta was perfect, and the flavor and texture of the sauce was spectacular, with the taste of the Parmesan (not sure if it was actual Parmiggiano-Reggiano or if it was the impostor we usually find here in the USA, but the menu says Parmesan) and some garlic coming through beautifully.  The pancetta was delicious, but served in very large chunks, which was unwieldy; I like my pancetta cubed to about one centimeter, because it keeps a better texture that way I have found, but that is about my only real critique of this dish.

The gnocchi in my date's dish were sublime, perfect little pillows, with just enough density that they felt substantial but not nearly so much that they felt heavy.  The mozzarella in the dish was solid, but nothing amazing, though it worked well in combination with the sauce and the gnocchi.  The sauce itself was a little sweet for me, so when I first tasted it, with just the gnocchi and no cheese, I was not super thrilled.  After adding some mozzarella, I enjoyed it more, as the salt of the cheese did help balance the sweetness of the sauce, but if you are not going to have cheese in every bite (which you will not with this dish) then that is not a saving grace.

The last thing to say about the food is that I must comment on how they serve it, supposedly in the dish it was cooked in.  While I highly doubt this, as the pan mine was served in was far too clean along the sides to have really cooked such a messy meal (trust me, I've been trying for a while now to make a proper version; I'm at about a D+ right now, passing but nothing to be proud of), but it looks neat.  It is a gimmick, but sometimes gimmicks work, and I must say, I really liked this one.  The price was ridiculously reasonable as well; before tip, we were at $39, which for two entrees and two beers is insanely cheap in this neighborhood, especially when the food is so good.  Admittedly, we did get the two cheapest entrees, but that was purely accidental, as they just happened to be what we wanted.  I would have gladly paid significantly more for the same meal, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the check.  All in all, I highly recommend Ferrara's, and I will absolutely consider a return, though with the incredible breadth of options in the North End, it may be hard to justify not trying something else.


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Monday, September 9, 2013

The Front Room (Portland, ME)

I have previously discussed my affinity for The Corner Room, and in that review I mentioned having had brunch once at its sister restaurant The Front Room, which was very good.  This morning, I had brunch there again, this time with a couple of my siblings and their significant others, The Front Room being one of a rare group of restaurants that offer a brunch menu every day.  Once again I enjoyed myself, though it fell short of my memory of just how good the shrimp and grits with poached eggs I ate all those years ago (back in 2008) was; this could well be because of the natural tendency to inflate memorable experiences over time, whether good for bad, but I suspect it was just a better meal that time.

Today I went with poached eggs again, but this time they topped homemade corned beef hash, with an English muffin on the side.  I love corned beef hash almost as much as I do grits, and I honestly love it in all forms, including the stuff from a can (I know, I am pathetic, but if you griddle that up so it's crispy and a little burnt, it is just flat out delicious, especially with some maple syrup mixed in after cooking), so when I see it on a menu, it is very difficult for me to avoid making it my order.  This was legitimately homemade, no cans here, and it was really enjoyable, but it could easily have ended up better if there had just been a few alterations.  The beef was flavorful, but a little stringy, with a pulled pork like look and feel.  The potatoes, which are the key part of any hash in my opinion, were far too soft, which led to a very homogeneous mouth feel when combined with the essentially pulled beef.  Add in the poached eggs and all you have is soft, soft, soft; my teeth barely felt needed until I got to the English muffin (which was...well, an English muffin; may have been a Thomas', may have been homemade, but it did not have anything distinguishing about it).  The best part of the meal was absolutely the poached eggs, which were just right, with the shape, consistency (firm but pliant exterior, super runny interior), and flavor you want out of poached eggs that are clearly fresh.

As I said, I ate here with a couple of my siblings, including my sister who works at another one of Portland's upscale restaurants, and her boyfriend, who is a cook at the same establishment.  Among the things that came up multiple times this past weekend as I visited was the owner of the "Room" restaurants, Harding Lee Smith, who has recently been the subject of two scathing articles in The Bollard, a local independent publication in Portland.  See below for the links.  These articles allege verbal, physical, and emotional abuse of employees in both public and private, while acknowledging the continued patronage of Smith's now four restaurants (including the newly opened Boone's Fish House and Oyster Bar) by people who can find nothing positive to say about Smith as a human being.  Personally, I feel that every story has two sides, and I have a very hard time giving much credence to the articles in The Bollard because of the clear intent of the author; while every story may well be true, it is hard not to be skeptical of much of the issues because of the clear axe-grinding nature of the stories.  I've put the link to another article, this one in the Maine Sunday Telegram (aka the Portland Press Herald) from a few months ago, that is much more complimentary, though it does not give much mention to the negative allegations The Bollard focuses on.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but my one interaction with the man, when he was working the antipasti bar at The Corner Room my first time there, was incredibly positive and I really enjoyed the brief time my sister and I spent talking to him, not to mention the unanticipated free cheese he added to our order without any reason to do so other than that he seemed to think we'd like it, and of course the accompanying good will that comes from such actions.

July 1 Article from The Bollard
September 2 Article from The Bollard
June 2 Article from the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald


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Monday, August 26, 2013

J&M Diner (Framingham, MA)

I am always searching for good new breakfast joints, but they are unfortunately few and far between, and especially rare are good old fashioned diners.  J&M Diner fits both to a "T," providing very good, and incredibly generously portioned, food in a classic diner atmosphere.

I drove past the diner on my way to pick up my friend I was having breakfast with at about 10am, and there was an extensive line of people waiting outside; sadly, this line had not dissipated at all, and in fact probably had grown, by the time we arrived about an hour later.  Another hour of waiting passed, and I was glad for the mimosa I had had prior to heading to the diner; I was starving anyways, but at least there was something in my stomach.  The wait, however, was completely worth it.

Sadly, they were out of Sauce Hollandaise, which they make only on Saturdays and Sundays for Eggs Benedict, and when they run out, they're just out for the day.  Since my preferred breakfast was off the table, I went with the special, a "Jack Daniels Omelette," which consisted of a gigantic omelette stuffed with pulled pork and a maple syrup and Jack Daniels reduction, along with a large portion of home fries and four thick slices of toast.  The egg was good, though it was not as fluffy as some I have had, but it was the pulled pork that was clearly the focus of the dish.  I went away with mixed feelings about it, but they were mostly because of the maple syrup glaze, which was, in my opinion, far too sweet.  The pork itself was tender, fairly juicy, and had great flavor, and the glaze was tasty until the super sweetness hit me, at which point it became cloying.  The toast and home fries were perfect however, and while I left a significant amount of omelette on the plate when I left (not because it was unpleasant, but simply because I am not a sumo wrestler and cannot eat my body weight in a single sitting), I ate all of the toast and just about all of the home fries.  I cannot recall better home fries being served to me in all my life; in fact, I cannot recall better potatoes of any variety!  Crispy outsides, tender and fluffy insides, perfectly salted and seasoned, and really just perfect, I cannot imagine how home fries could be better.  The toast, which was cinnamon swirl, was either homemade or from a top of the line bakery.  The crumb was exactly what you expect the variety to have, with a crisp exterior and, like the home fries, a tender and fluffy interior, with gooey, drippy, sweet cinnamon filling pouring out of of the swirls.  This was tremendous, and as a self-confirmed connoisseur of cinnamon swirl bread, I can confidently say that this is as good as any you will ever have.  Along with my own meal, my companion for breakfast had a pancake with fresh strawberries, blueberries and banana, and whipped cream and powdered sugar (aka the "USA" toppings), and she said they lived up to their billing as some of the best pancakes ever.

There was one negative aspect, and that was somewhat unavoidable with a place this busy.  While very friendly, the waitresses were a bit scatterbrained.  While my coffee (which was...well, coffee...nothing special there) was brought quickly and refilled often, my breakfast companion was delivered a glass of orange juice she did not order and it took several more minutes until she got the water she had actually requested, and the hot sauce I asked for was never delivered at all.  Not the worst offenses ever, but if you are super concerned about the wait staff, you should prepare yourself for disappointment on that front.

This boils down to one simple thing for me; I will drive 90 minutes and wait another 60 in have home fries and toast.  I cannot recommend this diner enough.


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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

La Veracruzana (Northampton, MA and Amherst, MA)

With two locations in western Massachusetts, La Veracruzana serves up a mix of fairly standard American style Mexican food and some dishes more specific to the owners' native state of Veracruz, from which the restaurants derive their name.  The primary and original location is on Main St. in Northampton, conveniently right next to my favorite spot in the city, The Dirty Truth, while the second is in downtown Amherst on South Pleasant St.  As a kid, going to the Northampton location was a fun treat, and in college (and after) the Amherst location has provided me with a fix for occasional cravings for enchiladas, tamales, or chiles rellenos.

La Veracruzana is best known for its salsa bar, where over a half dozen homemade salsas are available to serve yourself.  From mild to burning hot, tomatillo to borracha, the options are plentiful and delicious, enough to make anyone happy and accompany any dish they serve.  Chips are available--a change from when the restaurant opened-- and are a great way to try the salsas, but they are expensive at $3 a serving, though they are fresh made; no Tostitos here. 

The menu is written on large blackboards at both locations, and is rather varied; you can get anything from a quesadilla to pupusas, the delicious Salvadoran stuffed masa cakes.  I love their mole, that most spectacular of sauces, slightly sweet with chocolate, slightly spicy, and just overall so delectable that it improves anything and everything it touches; served on their enchiladas con pollo (chicken) it
Enchiladas con pollo y mole
is absolute perfection.  Tender, flavorful chicken wrapped in corn tortillas, topped with melted cheese and a sauce (mole, a slightly spicy red "enchilada sauce," or a tomatillo sauce), and served with refried beans and rice.  The rice and beans are fine, though they do not stack up with the addictively spectacular varieties at Tacos Lupita in Lynn, MA.  The beans are pretty standard, like you would get just about anywhere, but the rice is actually pretty good; I tend to mix them together with some salsa, and it tastes just fine.

Along with the enchiladas I had horchata, my favorite Central American drink, rice based and sweet without ever being cloying.  They also serve really great lemonade, a variety of aguas frescas, and during the winter, Mexican hot chocolate.  Their flan is supposedly good if you are in the mood for dessert, though I have not had it and I only know one person who has, though he enjoyed it.

All in all, La Veracruzana is an old favorite making solid if mostly unspectacular food; there are a few things on the menu that you may not recognize, and if your exposure to Mexican food is Taco Bell, you probably will be pretty shocked by what comes out.  As far as Mexican/Central American restaurants in the area, it is about as good as you will get, except possibly Mi Tierra, a Salvadoran owned eatery in neighboring Hadley.


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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Founders Brewing Company Double Trouble

Founders Brewing Company has deservedly been getting some great press in the last few years, making numerous "best of" lists, attracting hugely positive reviews and, it seems, expanding their operations, as I am now seeing their beers at more and more shops these days.  After trying four of their six year round beers, I picked up a four pack of the specialty Double Trouble, an imperial IPA, at the local Whole Foods, of all places.

Double Trouble is not the hard hitting, super powerful double IPA that, say, the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA is, or the aggressively bitter variety like Stone's Ruination IPA; instead, it is a subtle, but engaging beer, hoppy without bitterness as you drink it, and a malt undertone that gives just a hint of sweetness.  The Founders website claims that it has a bitter finish, and I can see how this could be argued, but it is more of a bitter aftertaste, in a really pleasant way; it sort of feels like the beer is cleansing your palate after you drink it.

The beer is a beautiful, foggy golden amber, with a weak head that disappeared after just a minute or two.  The flavor, as with most beers like this, becomes more pronounced and vibrant as it warms slightly, so it is worth letting it sit for a couple minutes after pouring it.  I'll admit, I was surprised by both its ABV (9.4%) and IBU score (86), as it drinks like a 5% beer and the bitterness is just not that powerful.  I think this is actually a really fantastic option because of those two things; many beer drinkers, even those who are aficionados (or wanna bes) still don't like the taste you can get with super high alcohol contents or really high IBU values, so they avoid the imperial IPAs; this will allow them to enjoy the other aspects of the genre, without the drawbacks.  Highly recommended, I can see this becoming a much loved beer for me during the summers.  Sadly, it is only produced in May and June, so get it while you can.

You can find my reviews of Founders Red Rye PA here.


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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Butternuts Beer and Ale Heinnieweisse

I'll admit, I purchased the Heinnieweisse, a weissbier (spelled weissebier on the can) by Butternuts Beer and Ale (check out the website, it's probably the best I've ever seen from a brewery) of Garrattsville, NY, accidentally.  Cans still being a bit of a rarity in the craft beer section, these were situated next to a variety of Oskar Blues beers, so I, not paying much attention, assumed these were as well.  It turned out not to be so bad, as the beer is enjoyable and refreshing, and based on the description of weissbier on BeerAdvocate it is a fine example of the variety.

Similar in taste and feel to a classic saison, the entertainingly named Heinnieweisse is a light ale, lacking hops, but with a pleasantly sweet malt flavor to it.  The head, which looks impressive enough when poured from the bright green can, dissipates quickly, which is a classic trait of the weissbier, though it is delightfully foamy while it remains.  Once it disappears, it does so almost entirely, leaving simply a ring around the edge of the glass of lacy white bubbles.  It is a cloudy looking brew, rendering it nearly opaque, though the light golden color would lead you to think it should be nearly clear.  The taste of the beer, besides the malt, is rather simple, just a wheaty flavor that the two sprigs of it on the can promise; I did not really notice the clove taste that some of the reviewers on BeerAdvocate mentioned, though I could agree with a light citrus taste if pressed.

At just 4.9% ABV, this is a fine option for a warm summer's day spent grilling or hanging out with friends, and it goes well with summer food; while writing this review I was drinking one while eating stuffed patty-pan squash, a laughably shaped summer squash grown just a short way up the road from me by Atlas Farms.  While it is not ever going to be a favorite of mine, I would say it's worth a try.


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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Farm Table at Kringle Candle (Bernardston, MA)

Having grown up in Bernardston, a small town that until a few years ago was best known for being the last exit on Interstate 91 before Vermont (aka, not known at all), I was extremely excited when Kringle Candle Company came into being, adding a major business to a town that otherwise lacked for them, especially following the closure of the much beloved Aldo's Harley Davidson.  Kringle, which is the brainchild of Yankee Candle Company founder Michael Kittredge, was opened almost as soon as the non-compete agreement Kittredge signed when he sold Yankee Candle expired.  In building it, along with his son, Kittredge brought not just a factory, but a showroom and a fine dining restaurant, following a similar path to the Yankee Candle flagship store in South Deerfield, MA. 

The Farm Table at Kringle Candle, colloquially "Farm Table" follows the theory espoused by its name, where ingredients are sourced locally and the food has very little diversion between the farm and your table.  Like Chandler's Restaurant at Yankee Candle, Farm Table is a high end restaurant, and thus expensive; unlike Chandler's, Farm Table will allow you to get in and out without spending your entire paycheck if you order properly.  Farm Table's menu includes a half dozen brick oven pizzas, all of which are somewhat reasonably priced ($12-16), and the entrees include several relatively affordable options.  The appetizers are somewhat expensive, but a few of them can be ordered as a smaller, and thus cheaper, portion.  Since I was going with my mother, who does not have nearly the appetite I do, I had both my own entree and a couple slices of her pizza.

I went with the Summer Pasta, which can also be ordered as a small or large portion (though at just a $3 difference, I question why anyone would order the small), and it was a little disappointing.  It is a simple dish, just some penne pasta, nut free pesto, grilled chicken and confit cherry tomatoes with Pecorino Romano shaved on top, and some aspects of it worked exceptionally well, but it was completely undone by the chicken.  Cut into bite sized and smaller pieces, the chicken was overcooked and dry, making it completely unappetizing and hard to eat.  The pesto, which tasted quite good, was far too oily, leaving a greasy feel to the chicken and pasta at the bottom of the dish.  The pasta itself was good, well cooked, though I strongly suspect it was not homemade.  The best part of the dish was the tomato; as a huge fan of cherry tomatoes in general, and of almost anything confit, it was a really nice addition, as the sweetness set off the earthiness of the pesto and pasta, and almost made up for the failure of the chicken.  Overall, I'd say this is a dish I would not order again, simply because of the chicken, but if they could rectify that issue it would be solid, and at $18, it is the cheapest entree on the menu, and not out of line with what you would pay at many other, less "fancy" places.

My mother's pizza, on the other hand, was very good, likely the best north of The Hungry Ghost in Northampton; in fact, I suspect that most people would prefer Farm Table's, as it is a little further from true Neapolitan.  The crust is a little thicker than my ideal, but is very tasty, and the texture is just right for its thickness, crisp on the bottom and chewy on the inside.  The Spanish Pizza that my mom got has house made chorizo, fresh garlic, egg, smoked local mozzarella, Manchego and fresh herbs over a roasted tomato sauce.  I'll admit that I could not really taste the egg, even when I knew I was biting directly into it, as I felt it was overshadowed by the sauce and especially the chorizo, and I would never have guessed that the mozzarella was smoked, but it tasted delicious nonetheless.  The chorizo is great, though not spicy as I expect with that sausage variety, but it does not suffer for that.  Overall the pizza is very well done, and I would strongly suggest getting one of them, either as an appetizer to share, or as a meal.  Be aware, however, that they are not large, around six to eight small pieces; I would have eaten the entire thing easily, and as it was we finished it despite the fact that I only had two pieces.

Farm Table's beer list is decent, with a good mix of local and national craft breweries represented at the taps and some very good bottle options.  The growing number of gluten free eaters will be pleased to know that many of the items on the menu either come gluten free or can be made gluten free for a small up-charge, including the pizza.  The spirits list is fine, and includes some higher end whisky, like the massively overpriced Johnny Walker Blue ($50, despite going for only about $200 wholesale, or less) and Macallan 25 Year ($75; this is an exceptionally rare scotch, and I have seen it as high as $125 a shot, but still, this is absurd, as it takes about a third of the bottle, at most, to recoup the cost), and some really good options on the more affordable end like BenRiach 16 ($10) and Talisker Distillers Edition ($19).  Whistle Pig Rye ($10) is probably the most intriguing American whiskey option, but there are several good ones to choose from.

All in all, for the price you are paying, I think there are probably better options food-wise in the area, but the ambiance is nice, the location is beautiful, and the option to sit outside in nice weather is not to be under-appreciated.  I will likely go again, as I would like to try some more things, but it is not somewhere that I will find myself drooling over.


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Monday, July 8, 2013

Cockeyed Gull (Peaks Island, ME)

Located a short walk from the Casco Bay Lines ferry landing on Peaks Island, the Cockeyed Gull restaurant offers decent to good food, acceptable alcohol, and some truly stunning views from their back deck.  A beautiful place to sit and enjoy a meal, my step-family and I had a very nice Independence Day dinner there, and as long as you order the correct things, it is my best recommendation if you are visiting Portland and make a trip out to the island, or are vacationing there already.
**Full disclosure:  my step-sister worked as a waitress at the Gull for a couple summers, but then, she's worked everywhere else on Peaks Island as well, so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the restaurants, of which there are only a few, and can offer an unbiased opinion.

We started by sharing a few appetizers amongst the table, including a couple orders of oysters on the half shell, a beet salad, and a scallop special.  The oysters were, I believe, from the Damariscotta River, my personal favorite locale for oysters, where they do not grow to be very big, but are exceptionally flavorful, with a vibrant sweetness and brininess.  They were served with a "deconstructed" mignonette sauce, some traditional cocktail sauce, and my favorite, fiery and pungent horseradish.  The beet salad was delicious as well, but it was the scallops that were truly remarkable.  Perfectly cooked, something that rarely occurs, they were not seared but rather, I presume, poached, and had such a delicate texture that it is difficult to describe it.  It was served with tomatoes and other vegetables that were wonderful as well.

My step-sister encouraged me to stay away from the more Italian inspired dishes on the menu, so I went with the Potato Crusted Haddock.  I love haddock, which along with cod and hake is one of a few thoroughly fantastic, completely under-appreciated fish, and potato crusting is both a neat concept and really tasty.  The Gull did a nice job with this, as the fish was nicely cooked, possibly just a hair over, but barely enough to even notice it; the potato crust was crispy and succulent, and while it pulled a little away from the fish, it was much better than how I have had it in other restaurants, where the crust barely stays attached past the first bite.  Served with roasted acorn squash, which was exactly what it should be, sweet and savory all at once, it was a good side dish.  The dish was huge, with a giant slab of fish and about half of a squash.  My step-sister got the same, and enjoyed hers as well.

The other two entrees at the table were a special scallop dish and a lobster pasta dish, the first of which was successful while the latter was a failure.  The special thinly sliced scallop crudo served with basil and crostini, which was delicious, but the basil overwhelmed everything.  It was a very small amount of food for an entree, but considering how much food we had ordered, that was not a problem.  The lobster pasta dish had far, far too much sauce (a simple red cream sauce) and not nearly enough lobster, so that everything seemed drowned and overshadowed.

Carrot Cake
For dessert, I went with carrot cake, which I was promised would be the best I had ever had; it was not.  It was, however, quite good, but could not live up to David Burke Prime's version, which had far less sweetness and far more actual carrot to it.  This did not have anything that felt like carrot texturally, and the frosting, of which there was an abundance, was sweeter than I would have preferred.  It was still probably the second best I have ever had, but that is not necessarily saying much.

This was a very nice meal, but for four people, it was not cheap, even with a couple bottles of wine, a beer for me, a couple cocktails and some port to end the night, so I would not recommend this for those who do not have high end prices in mind.  That said, if you order the right thing, and go at the right time, it is well worth it, as you can see from the pictures below.  There was a nice view of the fireworks at the end as well; unfortunately, Portland really dropped the ball on the show this year, but the view was still beautiful.


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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Great Divide Heyday Belgian Style White Ale

Great Divide Brewing Company is a great brewery, putting out some fantastic beers, including the spectacular Claymore Scotch Ale, the light and refreshing Nomad pilsener, and the second best beer I had at the 2013 American Craft Beer Fest, the Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti, an imperial stout that beats out almost anything else in the category.  Their Heyday Belgian Style White Ale, though, is only okay, an acceptable but not particularly special example of the witbier category.  I personally love witbier, including the always delicious Allagash Brewing Company White, and I think it is among the best options for introducing non-beer people to "real" beer, showing them an alternative to the Budweiser and Coors products that many think represent beer.

The Heyday is just a little bit too sweet, with a bit more fruitiness than I typically expect.  I expect a little bit of citrus flavor in my witbier, but this just goes a bit too far on the fruit scale.  That said, it is pleasantly wheaty, and an easy drinking beer, than went nicely with the Greek pizza (feta, black olives and tomatoes) I drank it with.  I think this would likely appeal to many who are on the fence about beer, and would likely be a good segue into craft beer for the Blue Moon crowd, but it is not going to hold its own against the top tier examples of the style with major beer fans and aficionados.  This is sort of the sweet white wine of the beer world; it won't offend anyone, but it probably won't thrill anyone either.


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