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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