Thursday, June 28, 2012

Exploring London with Beefeater

One of the things I was really looking forward to on this trip was getting a view of Olympic Stadium in London. Unfortunately, I was having sinus problems and the weather (for a boat ride) was not cooperating. I instead spent the morning resting up at the Duke’s Hotel, which left me with more energy for a full afternoon and evening.

When I finally left the hotel, I walked down to St. James park and then on to Buckingham Palace. My last two trips to London had been filled with no time for sightseeing so I hadn’t seen the palace since I was a teenager. It is more regal than I remembered, and the gardens (displaying tulips when I was there) were immaculate. I walked around the grounds so I could see it all from all angles.

As I started walking away through St. James Park’s Birdcage Walk, I noticed that there was a clearing an area of the road. I saw the guards at attention in front of a crowd at St. James Palace just before a car with Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, came out. The brief glimpse at the Duchess of Cornwall was probably the closest I will get to royalty!

I went back to the hotel in time to dress for an evening filled with activities. Our first stop was at the infamous and elegant American Bar at the Savoy Hotel.  It was quite an experience as we split up into the small tables and I enjoyed The Royal Tribute (Beefeater gin, champagne, cherries and Chartreuse) with Beefeater Master Distiller Desmond Payne and Guilt Taste Editor Jennifer Pelka.

After drinking cocktails we went on to making them at HIX Restaurant, where we met with infamous London mixologist Nick Strangeway. He led us through punch making, specifically the making of the Diamond Jubilee Punch for Queen Elizabeth II. The punch contained Beefeater gin, cassis, raspberry liqueur, cherry brandy, bitters, Twining’s Earl Grey Tea, lemon juice, sparkling wine and a black currant garnish. I also got to make another Strangeway created punch with British cassis, rhubarb, champagne and Compari. Both were delicious.

We stayed at HIX for a dinner in our own private room. During the meal I talked a bit with Beefeater Ambassador Seb Hamilton-Mudge about surfing and the many areas of England I had yet to explore.

Dinner started with a plate of Senorio Iberico Bellota Ham with grilled Catalan tomato bread, which was sweet and tasty. We then had a filet of Hereford beef on the bone (which I topped with a terrific Béarnaise sauce) accompanied by incredible Jersey Royal potatoes. Dessert was a chocolate mousse made to perfection, deep in cocoa flavor, but not too sweet. We were also given some decadent Julian Temperley chocolate truffles.

For after dinner drinks we headed to Novikovs, a very popular London club. It was noisy and crowded and we were all very happy to see we had a large table reserved. The staff brought out martinis (Beefeater, of course) in an absinthe-like pitcher, as well as bottles of the gin and an assortment of mixers. I played it safe with my usual gin and tonic, but there were some passing shots of Avion Tequila before we left at 1:00 am to go back to Duke's Hotel.

We had a very busy next day ahead of us as we were leaving early in the morning and heading to Plymouth. There we would see the spot the Mayflower left from on its journey to the United States, and learn more about the gin that bears the city’s name.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Super Tasting Day of Beefeater Gin in London

My first full day in London was a gin lover’s dream, as I tasted my way around the world of Beefeater, as only a “super taster” should.

I was up early and greeted the day with some yoga and my typical European breakfast – pan au chocolate, fruit, yogurt, and English Breakfast tea. I needed to make sure I was ready for a day filled with everything Beefeater.

We were picked up in the official Beefeater cars and took a short drive to the distillery. We were greeted by Master Distiller Desmond Payne, as well as Beefeater Ambassadors – mixologists extraordinaire – Sebastian (Seb) Hamilton-Mudge and Tim Jones. The latter two had “snappers” waiting for us,  a red that was basically a bloody Mary with gin (using sundried tomato paste for a very fresh flavor); green, with pineapple juice, coriander, mint, green tabasco sauce and lime juice; and purple, with beet, orange, carrot and lemon juice. They were all good, with a slight favor for me to the green.

Desmond took us on a tour of the distillery, explaining the history of both this company and gin itself. He also explained that gin is defined as a spirit that has juniper in it. He also declared that “today is the next cocktail era. People are coming back to gin.”

We talked about the different gins that Desmond had worked on for Beefeater: 24, full of citrus; Summer, with hibiscus and black currant for a floral flavor; Winter, spicy with cinnamon and nutmeg; and London Market, blended with pomegranate and cardamom. The point was well taken that you can use just about anything in gin, as long as there is also juniper.

Before having more Beefeater Gin cocktails, we tasted some other gin brands (like Hendricks, which adds cucumber and rose petal) to see just how different gins can be. Then we walked into the warehouse where the smell of juniper permeated the air. There are also other ingredients here, and they make sure they get the finest of everything: juniper comes from Italy; the angelica root and seed from Belgium; the coriander is from Bulgaria; the liquorice is Chinese; almonds are imported from Spain, as are the lemon and orange peels.

We were soon back at the bar tasting a selection of Beefeater cocktails with everything from green tea to Lillet Blanc. It was fun watching (and sampling) the creativity of Seb and Tim before it was time to head out and take a short break prior to our next outing.

There were so many interesting aspects of the Drink Factory, where Tony Conigliaro creates some of the magic that has earned his reputation as one of the greatest mixers in London. The space also happens to be located in a building that (is owned by and) houses a Pink Floyd recording studio, where the infamous The Wall album was produced so that added some nostalgia.

Tony C. led us through a molecular cocktail class in his laboratory filled with herbs and spirits (he also makes perfumes here). It reminded me a lot of my father’s laboratory, which I used to visit when I was a child. He made us a delicious Walnut Martini with woodland bitters, Beefeater 24 and pua tea. We also got a preview into the Fig Leaf Collins and Truffle Martinis he was working on.

Before leaving the Drink Factory, we had a little fun when someone in the group asked Tony C. about being a “super taster.” It seems there is a piece of chemically treated paper that only “super tasters” can truly taste. I wasn’t quite sure if I believed it, but when I could barely keep it in my mouth from the bitterness while a few said they tasted nothing, I became more of a believer and acknowledged that I am, indeed, a “super taster.”

Dinner was at Pinchito Tapas, an East London hotspot where we enjoyed a selection of tapas. While a lot of the offerings were fish, owner Tobias did make me some vegetable and meat dishes to enjoy with my Beefeater and tonic.

I hadn't been to the Tower of London since I was a kid, and never at night, so it was a unique experience to be there for the Ceremony of the Keys. We happened to be with a group of British dignitaries, so it was even more special.

We finished the evening with some nightcaps at Callooh Calley, a fun and unusual spot downtown, where the menus are made in old cassette tape holders. I had a Jasmine Fizz and settled back for a bit before returning with the group to the Dukes Hotel.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Heading to England with Beefeater and Plymouth

I have traveled to many places in the world checking out wine and spirits, but when the invitation to go to England with Beefeater and Plymouth came, I was more excited than you can imagine. Gin is my go to spirit and the thought of spending a week drinking it as part of the job was a good one.

I’ve worked with Pernod Ricard on a number of trips, including Jacob’s Creek in Australia and Perrier Jouët in Paris. They always do things top notch and this trip was no different. They sent a limo to take me to the airport for the short flight to Chicago, where I was flying British Airways. Since I had a business class ticket and had a few hours, I went straight to the BA lounge. I hadn’t had lunch so I was hoping to catch a snack. I found a lot more in a large buffet with many choices. I settled on a little spinach lasagna, which was excellent, and a small, fudgy brownie.

When it was time to board, I saw my first airplane “pod.” It was a bit odd at first and took a while for me to adjust, but once I figured it out I was very comfortable with a draw to keep things I was using close, a foot rest that moved and enough positions to go from sitting to lying flat to make anyone comfortable. I also had a privacy screen between myself and the seat next to me.

The service on British Airways was excellent. They took care of whatever I wanted. I started with a Kir Royale before dinner, where I enjoyed the peppers with crumbled gorgonzola, asparagus and truffled cream. The main course was a wonderful manicotti stuffed with roasted butternut squash in a lemongrass sauce, and I finished with an elderflower cheesecake on a graham cracker crust with fresh raspberries. The only problem was that was served with the salad instead of after the entrée, so it was a bit warm by the time I ate it. With my meal I had a glass of Sancerre 2010 Domaine Bardine from the Loire Valley. It was 100% sauvignon blanc and full of citrus, but a bit grassy like the fantastic New Zealand ones.

I watched a few movies before a fell asleep for a short while. It almost seemed as if the flight wasn’t long enough since I had just settled in for two hours. For breakfast, I passed on the warm bacon roll with ketchup and just had a yummy smoothie made from guanabana, raspberry, cantaloupe and wheat germ.

Our arrival at London’s Heathrow was in fact early, but it took a full hour to get through customs. My car from Beefeater was waiting and Meghan Kelleher (from Beefeater and Plymouth’s public relations agency, Access PR) met me in the lobby of the Dukes Hotel and encouraged me to rest up and order something from room service for breakfast.

I slept for a few hours, enjoyed a cheese omelet, and decided to take advantage of the hotel’s perfect location (between Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus) to explore a bit. The streets were a bit crowded from a marathon and I couldn’t get near the palace so I headed in the other direction and walked up and down Piccadilly window shopping.

I was back at the room around 5:00 and dressed for dinner. I met the group downstairs at the Dukes bar and had my first Beefeater 24 gin and tonic in London. We had a lot of fun getting to know each other as we headed in vans to Ox Brasserie. The views from the restaurant were just incredible in this all glass venue on top of the tower. I had another g&t before the meal. During dinner we drank a very good Domaine Rougine Vin de Pays from Languedoc Roussillon (where I’m heading in November).

The meal was by far the best I’ve ever had in London: Grilled English Asparagus on dried cured ham with Ragstone cheese, vanilla oil, roasted hazelnut and toasted brioche (a great mix of different flavors); Jasper Roast Lamb with parsley fregola, feta, hazelnut yoghurt and honey lavosh (perfect with the yogurt); Roasted Pumpkin Parmesan Salad; and a Chocolate Trio of a bitter chocolate tart, milk chocolate honey nougatine parfait and buttered pears.

I finished off with some Jasmine tea before we left. My head hit the pillow and I was out by midnight, dreaming of the gin drinks I would have at the Beefeater distillery the next day. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

More Tasting Through the Hamptons

New York appears to have been on the receiving end of some of the worst weather this year and my friend Lynn and I felt some of that on day two in the Hamptons, but it didn’t put a damper on the spirits we needed to sample.  

We met Andrea from the Hamptons Visitors Council at the Golden Pear in East Hampton. It was one of four locations for this bakery/deli/coffee shop which seemed to have quite the selection. 

I settled on a blueberry scone and we talked a bit about the Hamptons, which encompass quite an area that includes towns such as East Quogue, Hampton Bay and Sag Harbor. As she said, each hamlet has its own personality and it’s one of the few areas in the world where celebrities often mingle with locals because they consider themselves locals here.

Lynn and I drove around a bit before our lunch at Indian Wells Tavern in Amagansett. I have to admit that I thought it was just a local pub, but I was very impressed with the food and drink selection.

We started with a few cocktails, the first of which was a nut/fruit combination called a Bikini Martini (Malibu Coconut, Absolute Vodka, pineapple juice and grenadine). Then there was the Premium Skinny Margarita (that uses agave nectar instead of sour mix to cut calories) and the Fresca Tina (Grey Goose L’orge Fresca with a splash of cranberry).
The first food item was one of the simplest creative dishes I had seen – Baked Chili. They simply bake their chili topped with cheese in the oven and then top in with sour cream. It was just outrageous and I had to use my self-control to keep from finishing it! 

Next, we had a great Arugula Salad topped with apples and nuts, followed by a tender and flavorful Prime Rib Sandwich with mozzarella cheese and horseradish sauce on a ciabatta roll. There were also some sweet and spicy ribs that were a little smoky.

We were thoroughly stuffed, but the staff (and patrons) all insisted we had to try the Banana Taco with an Almond Mocho, a rich and nutty coffee with amaretto. I’m glad they did because it was worth the extra calories.

It was a good thing I was full before hitting the next stop. Tates Bakery is known throughout the country as both Consumer Reports and Rachael Ray magazines have named their chocolate chip cookies No. 1. They make one million cookies per week (including whole wheat and gluten-free ones), but most people don’t’ know that they also sell plenty of muffins, birthday cakes, cupcakes, fruit pies, ice cream sandwiches and homemade marshmallows – for hot chocolate in the winter and s’mores in the summer.

I had a great visit with Kathleen King, who began her famous bakery by making cookies to sell at her father’s farm stand when she was only 11. I left with some samples and met back up with Lynn.

We spent some time resting at The Maidstone, where we had stayed the night before. There are plenty of comfortable chairs throughout this Swedish-owned hotel and we also got to see some of the Norwegian items they had for sale, such as clogs and beauty products.  It’s definitely a unique place to stay, with only 19 rooms and unusual extras like yoga in the garden, room service and spa treatments.

Our last stop before leaving the Hamptons was the Red|bar Brasserie.  We had a nice chat with Patrick, the bartender who is in his ninth summer working out here. It’s an interesting place, with French music in the background and some tasty homemade potato chips at the bar. He made us a light and crisp Venetian Spritzer (prosecco and aperol) before we tasted the tender Braised Pork Belly with Celery root, that had a bit of sweetness from the pork rind and green apple. Then, we sampled their homemade Foie Gras Terrine, served with brioche toast and fig jam. 

I knew I just touched the surface of the Hamptons on this trip, but before I could come back, I had to head over the pond to spend some time with my favorite spirit, courtesy of Beefeater

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hitting the Hamptons

As a teenager growing up on Eastern Long Island, I spent my share of time in the Hamptons. I even did the summer weekends as a young adult for a while. As the years went by, I wasn’t out there as much as I’d like, so when the opportunity came up to write for Hamptons Magazine on a weekly basis this summer, I figured it was a great excuse to get back in the habit of going out there.

Trip number one was with my friend Lynn. Wordhampton, a public relations firm that specializes on Long Island, set up an incredible schedule that would allow us to taste my way around the east end for three days. I don’t suggest a non-professional attempt this. Instead, make plans to visit these places (all great) when you have a chance to spend more time at them.

Stop one was at Little Red in Southampton and we were scheduled for a full lunch.  This is a cute little place in town, just off the water. They serve lots of seafood and Paninis, as well as salads and main dishes.  We sipped a few good cocktails, such as the Silver Tulip and the Southampton Sour, and enjoyed some salads, my favorite of which was the Roasted Beet, with Roquefort and goat cheeses in a port wine reduction.

When our “grilled cheese” arrived, we weren’t sure what it was, but we soon learned that the slow roasted duck, braised cabbage, Dijon and brie on sourdough was as good as it tasted. We finished up with some bites of two perfect desserts – Vanilla Cream Caramel and a Toasted Pecan & Honey Tart.

We left Southampton for East Hampton and checked into The Maidstone.  This beautiful old mansion had rooms in all directions with Norwegian touches (it's own by a Swedish company). I especially loved our “Out of Africa” room, modeled after the book written by Danish author Karen Blixen.  It truly looked like it was in the middle of an African safari, but had modern touches (like an IPod docking station and Wi-Fi).

After we changed, it was off to restaurant two, Muse on the Harbor in Sag Harbor. The place is brand new and they’ve got quite a bit to offer for their first season. We walked into to the sounds of Long Island’s own Billy Joel singing “Only the Good Die Young.” The décor was modern, bright and comfy. The bar is large and complete – they even make their own infused vodkas, as well as some unusual offerings (try the Basil Raspberry Beret).

We had some yummy Apple Smoked Pulled Pork and then were blown away by the day’s vegetarian special (chef/owner Matt Guiffrida has a vegetarian dish each night).  It was a Mushroom Parmigiana, a cutlet made from mushrooms that was breaded, pan-fried, covered in marinara sauce and mozzarella and served with a salad made from arugula, artichokes and gigante beans.

As much as we wanted to finish that dish, it was time to head off to Almond in Bridgehampton. The atmosphere there was totally different, with the restaurant on the main road and much more classic, complete with Nat King Cole playing in the background.

We sat at the bar and took a taste of “Fire in the Hole,” a drink made with jalapeño puree that was much too spicy for me, but a favorite of many customers. The Ruby Kiss was a bit milder and fruitier, with Ruby Red Absolute, grapefruit juice, lime, cranberry juice, St. Germain and a bit of simple syrup. We also tasted three incredible dishes – Brussels Sprouts Two Ways, La Gran Mac & Cheese (with black truffle and lots of cheese) and Goat Cheese Ravioli.

We got a bit lost trying to find Fresno, but that gave us a chance to digest before the next food (and also see a great sunset over the water).  When we walked into this cozy restaurant we were surprised to be greeted by Diego the bartender, making us a Cucumber Caipirinha in the style of his native Brazil!

The drink and Diego were the only things at Fresno that are from South America. The menu leaned toward the French, as illustrated by the asparagus and poached egg in truffle oil with shaved parmesan we first ate. The menu is filled with seafood (which both Lynn and I are allergic too), but we also were told the French fries here are famous and agreed. We passed on trying any as we were off for dinner, though we weren’t quite sure how we’d get through a full meal.

Dinner was at The Living Room, a beautiful fine dining room at The Maidstone.  We didn’t end up finishing our meals, but certainly not because we didn’t like them. The mushrooms on toasted brioche with a brandy cream sauce were full of flavor, as was the Ricotta Gnocchi, in a garlic broth with Swedish lamb meatballs (that were also stuffed with ricotta).  The Ginger Vanilla Crème Brulee was also something we hated to leave, but we were as stuffed as the meatballs!

By the time we were done eating dinner, we barely made our way up to our rooms before falling asleep. It had been a really long day and we had another one ahead of us. I had neglected the Hamptons for two long and it was time to make that up. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Society Fair, George Washington’s Whisky and DC Treats

My entire trip to Virginia had been packed to the brim, but no day proved to be busier – or more interesting – than the final one.

The morning started at Society Fair Epicurean Emporium in Alexandria. I cannot begin to tell you how impressed I am with this place. I have never seen anything like it and can’t imagine that I will again. The Eat Good Food Group has managed to put together in one spot a combination of food and drink items like no other, many of which are from their venues.

Did you love the bread pudding at Virtue? It’s here. Can’t live without Todd Thrasher’s Tonic from PX? Buy it at Society Fair. Craving the birthday cake served at Restaurant Eve or the coconut cake from Majestic? You’ll find it on the shelf.

In addition to supplying the homemade products sold in the restaurants, you will also find a full bakery, cheeses, a selection of sausages from Julian the butcher, a wine bar and a coffee counter. You can take out or stay (I enjoyed a latte and a delicious egg and cheese sandwich on a biscuit). Whatever you have, you can guarantee that nothing has ever been frozen and as many local businesses as possible have been supported.

My friend and colleague Julia Coney picked me up at Society Fair and we headed to Mount Vernon, the former home of the nation’s first president. I was there on a mission to do more than just check out the grounds.

I had been to the George Washington Distillery two and a half years ago at the start of my press trip on the American Whiskey Trail. I had been anxious to make it back to see (and taste) the progression of the products. It remained mostly the way I remembered it, which is the whole point here – to show the public how Washington made his whiskey. It is authentic from the gristmill that grinds the grain to the blend it is believed the former president used.

Project Manager Dennis Pogash is still around running the place and he was kind enough to take time out to give Julia and me a private tour. We then tasted some of the whiskey and rye, which could stand up to any made in a modern facility. Pogash also told us that they had also made small quantities of peach and apple brandies that should be available for sale in the fall (all of the GW Distillery products are only for sale at Mount Vernon). 

After the tasting, we walked over to the museum and learned about the food the Washingtons ate here at the “Hoecakes & Hospitality” exhibition. We took the exploration of food it one step further by taking “Dinner for the Washingtons' Walking Tour.” We walked through the greenhouse and the garden, where we saw all the vegetables that Martha Washington would have had in her kitchen. When the tour was over, Julia and I had worked up quite an appetite, so we had great lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant.

We had some time before our next stop and I asked Julia if she minded driving over to see some of the monuments. I couldn’t remember the last time I was in DC and I had never seen the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. I was as memorized by the statues as I was by the quotes all around it, taken from speeches King had made.

After a brief walk around in the rain of DC, we headed to the just opened Sugar Magnolia,  next door to its sister restaurant Ripple. We had wished we had a lighter lunch as pastry chef extraordinaire Allison brought by some of their special treats.

The specialty here is ice cream sandwiches and they are definitely not the kind you usually get. My favorite was the Ginger Beet (ginger cookie; beet ice cream), but the waffle cookie with maple bacon ice cream was also quite good. Allison was continuing to concoct her next treats as we sat there (balsamic with strawberry, anyone?) while some of the waiters from Ripple brought in a little food for us to try. It was very hard to walk away without more than a bite of superb dishes like Black Quinoa Risotto, but we actually had another restaurant to go to.

We left with some of the best granola in the world (also Allison’s specialty), as well as a bag of their famous Bacon Pecans and headed to another part of DC for dinner at Graffiato. This very popular eatery has only been open a year. It is the brainchild of Top Chef Mike Isabella.

Graffiato was packed with people standing, sitting and generally smiling. We were escorted to our table and began to decipher the menu of small plates. Julia had been here previously and right away told me I had to try the Crispy Potato Gnocchi with wild mushrooms and stacciatellia. She wasn’t kidding. It was great. We were also blown away by the Suckling Pig Lasagna, filled with sweet and tender pulled pork and topped with lots of cheese.

The waiter recommended the Roasted Cauliflower with pecorino and mint and I’m glad we took him up on the idea. I also thought the Tortellini with butternut squash, goat cheese and walnut was delicious. They only thing I have to say I wasn’t thrilled with were the wines on draft. We tried a few, but nothing worked well.

Even my sweet tooth couldn’t get me to consider a dessert after a very full day of eating, but I’m glad I got to see Alexandria, Mount Vernon and Washington, DC, from a foodie’s eye.