Chicago’s Story Slinger

Meet Henry and Violette. They’ve been together for an indeterminate amount of time, but long enough to give each other balance.  Henry’s a straight-laced Chicago lawyer that likes his whiskey. Violette is a French expatriate with a thirst for the whimsical. He keeps her grounded, and she prevents his necktie from becoming a noose. They live on the bottom floor of a tall Chicago building; one whose tropically-adorned rooftop evokes South American samba notes without any instruments. They just came back from vacationing in Cuba, and are ready to indulge in The Windy City’s embrace once more.

There’s only one caveat to this story. Henry and Violette don’t exist. They’re fictional muses conjured up by Jess Lambert, the dynamic head bartender behind the old-school, brown spirit-focused law library bar Vol. 39 and the Argentinian-inspired rooftop bar and lounge Boleo. Both are located within Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel; an elegant modern hotel in the Financial District framed by a structure dating back to 1894. According to Lambert, the hotel’s 19th century skeleton inspired her duo. “I created Henry and Violette because they reminded me of people who would have stopped in for a drink at a place like Vol. 39 back in the day,” she said. “They give the concept an extra level of identity. It isn’t just a bar. It represents the journey that these two take, which is also the journey our guests take.”

Jess Lambert, Head Bartender of Vol. 39 and Boleo (PHOTO CREDIT: Shin Photography)

Henry and Violette’s saga is just one aspect of Lambert’s master storytelling. Her cocktails are liquid characters that set time, space, and mood, elements that change with the shifts of the seasons and the call of adventure. As her recently unveiled fall menu shows, some characters stand out with rather unique traits. At Vol. 39, her Aurora Kiruna is a Scandinavian-themed cocktail built on aquavit, Absolut Elyx, scratch-made cranberry syrup, and candied rosemary – a concoction inspired by her own travels through Sweden and Amsterdam. Upstairs at Boleo, her First Response libation is a pisco passed through brown butter several times before being paired with lemon juice and fresh radish. This process yields a full-bodied, rich-but-not-too-rich concoction that draws a line between Peruvian drinks and French crudité. These and other singularly crafted potent potables share autumn menu space with playful spins on classic stock characters like the Old Fashioned and the Martini. Thanks to Lambert’s foresight and a little assist from the Gray’s culinary team – “they’re a great source of inspiration when it comes to working with new ingredients,” she states – the stories these drinkable characters produce come from two very distinctive publishing houses. “Vol. 39 and Boleo are two totally different concepts, designed to create totally different experiences,” she states. “One gives you the sense of Chicago’s hometown luxury through bourbon and whiskey, while the other provides a sense of escape and relaxation through the flavors of South America. Both are built appeal to Chicago sensibilities.”

It’s rather appropriate Lambert takes a storytelling approach to crafting cocktails. Her road to being one of Chicago’s most respected barkeeps almost feels like a work of fiction. She was a cardiac nurse in her native Arizona in a previous life; a profession she chose because she loved science and wanted to work with people. She soon discovered she wanted something more. “I found myself drawn to creativity, which is lacking if you’re going to be a cardiac nurse,” she confesses. “I also found out I have no emotional capacity to be working in a hospital.” When she left the medical field and got behind the bar, she initially did so to pick up fast cash. She loved the pace of the gig and human engagement it offered, but she didn’t realize it could be a bona fide profession. This all changed with a trip to San Diego. “I landed at a [craft cocktail] spot called Craft & Commerce, and it became a life-changing experience,” she states. “I was mesmerized by everything they were doing. It was absolutely incredible. After that, a friend of mine suggested I make bartending a career.”

The frozen drink Sweater Weather, currently offered at Boleo. (PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Banovic)

She took the advice to heart and never looked back. She got hired on by the Kimpton Group, where she honed her skills at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix before receiving the invitation to head to the Windy City. “They gave me the chance to do a limited run for Kimpton at their bar Sable in Chicago,” she recalls. “After I showed up, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I needed to be part of the scene. I went back to Phoenix, but I moved to Chicago eight months later.”

She’s settled in rather well in Chicago, and has the acclaim to prove it – Food & Wine proclaimed Vol. 39’s Chicago’s Best New Bar earlier this year. Perhaps more importantly, she’s made an indelible mark as a star bartender in a big-city market still dominated by men. While her talent is greatly – and rightfully – appreciated by an eclectic slew of clientele, she states she still deals with an occasional misogynistic mindset. “Unfortunately, reminders that we haven’t reached equality is something I encounter on a daily basis,” she states. “It usually comes from somebody that doesn’t think I’m educated trying to challenge me.” Because of this element, Lambert feels compelled to strive for equality through education. “I feel more of a responsibility to teach everyone that men and women are equal behind the bar,” she states. “I also feel I have a responsibility to assure young women getting into the industry that they belong. I didn’t have a lot of those kinds of teachers when I started out. I want to make sure others aren’t in that same position.”

Anyone within earshot of Lambert’s lessons should pay attention. She’s dialed into Chicago’s vibrant cocktail culture like a life-long native. This intuition couples with her skill set to design two distinct bar programs that take Chicago’s pulse with exceptional precision. It’s why she and her team can get away with offering the occasional drink that may not make sense to a non-Chicagoan like the Boleo cocktail Sweater Weather; a frozen concoction made with aged apple brandy, spicy amaro, and the grappa-esque aguardiente. “People will drink frozen or blended drinks in Chicago no matter the weather,” she says. “If you’re not from Chicago, it may look like it’s bending some kind of rule, and that’s fine. I like to bend the rules every now and again.”

Somewhere, at some time, Henry and Violette would undoubtedly approve.

(Lead Photo: Cocktails at Vol. 39. PHOTO CREDIT: David Syzmanski)

The Gram Parsons Search Project

We’re tooling down California Highway 62 on a rapidly warming Monday afternoon. The fine dust and grime of three days’ worth of camping at Joshua Tree National Forest cakes my skin, adding a couple notches to the temperature. We roll past the Joshua Tree Inn, and I catch a glimpse of an acoustic guitar sculpture propped underneath its roadside marquee. “That’s the place where Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose!” I exclaim.

This tidbit of info is all my wife can stand after hearing me periodically name drop the country rock pioneer for the past 72 hours. “Honestly, I’m perplexed,” she blurts out. “Why you’re so fascinated by this guy?”

It’s a valid question. From a musical standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I’m not a big fan of Parsons or his groundbreaking band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. I don’t dig on the genre he created, nor do I care for The Eagles, Son Volt, Wilco, or any of the other bands that draw inspiration from its seed. When The Eagles come on the radio, I’ve been known to grouse a certain line from “The Big Lebowski” before quickly changing the channel. I could say I grew up listening to him, which is valid – my parents played the hell out of the duet record he made with Emmylou Harris – but hat that won’t suffice. Thankfully, my response has nothing to do with his songs.

“Weirdness,” I reply. I’m not wrong, either. Parsons’ saga is one of the strangest in rock history, country rock or otherwise. It’s also one perfectly befitting the Southern California’s enchantingly odd high desert.

Gram Parsons did indeed die of a drug overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn. He did so in room 8 on September 19, 1973. He was just 26, one year away from the immortality that surrounds the likes of Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, and Winehouse. His demise was deemed morphine’s fault, but his insides were also well-lacquered with the barbiturates and whiskey he ingested nightly while traipsing around the high desert. It was no surprise his last days were spent here – Joshua Tree National Monument had enamored Parsons since his days in the Flying Burrito Brothers. This fascination compelled the singer to confess to his road manager, Phil Kaufman, to scatter his ashes in the park if he were to die. This eerie request-cum-premonition sparked the bizarre.

Within hours of Parsons’ passing, Kaufman found out the body was headed to Los Angeles International Airport, where it was to be flown to New Orleans for its funeral. He rounded up his assistant Michael Martin and the Cadillac hearse Martin’s girlfriend happened to own, drove to LAX, and posed as funeral parlor workers sent to transport the body to a chartered flight at a smaller airport. The plan worked; Kauffman and company intercepted the cargo and raced back to Joshua Tree, intent on fulfilling the country rocker’s wishes.

They would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for some meddling campers, who alerted park authorities to a fire burning where a fire shouldn’t burn. Rangers followed the flames to find roughly 35 pounds of the late singer left inside the casket. The men were long gone by the time the rangers came to the site, but were eventually done in by information authorities collected from various points on their journey. They were slapped with thirty-day suspended jail sentences and ordered to pay over $1,000 in fines and proper funeral expenses.

It didn’t take long for Parsons’ burial site to organically transform in to a makeshift memorial; one marked by bright graffiti, deposited guitars, scrawled rock-pinned notes, and the occasional jewel-encrusted bric-a-brac. I’d heard about this memorial several years ago, well after my musical introduction by parental proxy. The sheer absurdity of the tale charged my own need for a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree. The monument’s piled stones and alien yuccas appealed, but their allure became equal to the memory of a dead singer from a genre I didn’t dig. If I’m being honest here, the latter surpassed the former on most days. When plans for an October camping session in Joshua Tree were agreed upon by us and another family, the thought of finally taking the sojourn thrilled me.

Technology in a National Landmark can be a fickle bitch. I learn this the hard way when I arrive at Joshua Tree and my phone is rendered useless.

I should have known better. I contend I do know better. I’m a veteran of camping at Yosemite and the California Sequoias; two iconic slices of nature where 21st century forms of communication and information gathering are dreams. I know how nature works. Joshua Tree may not have gigantic trees reaching toward the heavens, but they don’t have any cell towers, either.

This is problematic. I’ve read the Parsons story several times before, but never assigned the specific locale of Parsons’ would-be burial ground to my brain. The week leading up to our Joshua Tree trip was so busy, I didn’t bother to activate my Google-fu to determine the site’s whereabouts. I rapidly conclude I’m an idiot. I feel like a guest to a housewarming that coldly shows up empty-handed. Thankfully, a few hours of setting up the campsite and quaffing some beers sends my mind to a place where I can enjoy the near-mythical surroundings of our campground. Walls of majestic boulders flank either side of the site, serving as a funnel for the gusty winds that occasionally rattle our free-standing gear. The biggest stone to our north have hooks embedded in its surface. “We may get visitors,” one of my camping companions notes. This is excellent news. If his semi-prediction holds true, the folks that drop by may have info on Parson’s makeshift burial site.

A middle-aged woman and a young man do arrive around 8:00 AM the next morning. The network of ropes, harnesses, and impressive yet unrecognizable gear clutched in their hands speaks to their advanced rock-climbing skill. They set up shop in front of the hook-studded boulder, about 10 yards away from where we’re enjoying coffee. It’s close enough for small talk. We quickly find out they’re locals, they love the outdoors, and the one doing the climbing inspired the name of the “Skinny Little Bitch” cocktail served up at one of the local inns. They sound dialed in to the community. To appropriately paraphrase U2, I’ve found what I’ve been looking for.

“Where’s Gram Parson’s old gravesite?” I ask.

The woman stares blankly. “Who’s that?”

“Mom!” the young man says, revealing their relationship. “You know! The Flying Burrito Brothers!”

“Oh, that guy!” mom replies. My faith in her sense of community is fully restored.

“They buried him at Cap Rock,” the son continues. “It’s part of a looped trail, where you go around the rock. It’s around the northwest corner. The park cleans up the area, but you should be able to see something if you know to look.”

I know to look, all right. An achievement is destined to be unlocked.

Southern California’s High Desert is codified for music. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival plays just south of the National Landmark at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, where millions of music fans have witnessed everything from Prince covering Radiohead to Tupac Shakur showing up in posthumous hologram form. Paul McCartney, fresh from a major league gig at 2016’s Desert Trip (read: Coachella for Boomers) played an impromptu intimate gig at the local Joshua Tree dive bar Pappy & Harriet’s. Several local musicians join Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme in Palm Desert every year for several days of collaborative jamming on heavy, sludgy grooves. The sub-sub-sub-genre of “stoner rock” – think metal meets psychedelia – emanates from the area. And of course, the weird plant that inspired the title of U2’s seminal album “The Joshua Tree” is abundant around here. Parsons’ fantastical story is but a song in the region’s never-ending concert.

It’s still a cool song, though. He paved the way for the likes of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt; acts whose sounds could oscillate between rock and country as effortlessly as a California summer breeze. He discovered Emmylou Harris, one of country’s purest voices. He partied and palled around with Mick Jagger and (especially) Keith Richards during the recording of The Rolling Stones’ seminal “Exile on Main Street,” an album with more than its fair share of country rock DNA embedded in its grooves. (Rumors persist he’s on the record somewhere – Richards has acknowledged he’s probably on the chorus of “Sweet Virginia” – but nothing’s ever been substantiated.)  Every act wedged between the radio-unfriendly vortex separating mainstream rock and country owe Parsons a debt, from Uncle Tupelo to the Zac Brown Band, forty-four years after his demise. Without him, there may not be a vortex to be wedged into.

If you know the high-desert’s musical history, you appreciate Parsons’ story, regardless of what you think of his music or his influence. If you’re staying in Joshua Tree National Monument, your brain also becomes an inadvertent regional jukebox as you walk through its weirdly majestic landscape. The QOTSA song “My God is the Sun” cranks up within my head every time I leave the campsite and trek down its adjacent dusty highway. I don’t mind. It’s a killer song, replete with a guitar riff that makes me feel like Eastwood’s Man with No Name I go mobile, even if I’m mostly just walking to the nearby outhouse to pee. That’s the magic behind this convergence of music and ethereal weirdness. You just need a song in your head and a need to urinate to feel like a badass.

One can only speculate how much of a badass Parsons felt roaming around Joshua Tree and the high desert despite – or because of – the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol he ingested. The songs the landscape would have inspired if he’d lived also remain as mysterious as his unfinished career trajectory. Would he have broken through to mainstream success? Would a life beyond 26 diminished his legacy? Only God and the high desert know for sure. Neither of them are spilling secrets, something that only adds to both the singer’s and the region’s musical mythos.

Cap Rock is the second trail on the day’s hiking agenda. We’re kicking things off at Barker Dam’s trail, an easy 1.5-mile route whose loop passes by an eponymous water barrier. It gives us a chance to get the blood flowing. It also gives us extra time to figure out Cap Rock’s exact location.

It’s not easy to find. There are several roads weaving through Joshua Tree National Monument, but the place is indeed where the streets have no name. This makes deciphering the National Park Services-approved map we have a hardcore challenge. Cap Rock is allegedly along the route to the Barker Dam Trail, but we see no signage pointing to its whereabouts. Its presence is a mystery, which feels appropriate.

We see a park ranger manning a brochure-laden pop-up tent at Barker Dam’s trailhead, and we approach him after completing the loop. After he helps us crack the map’s code, the question must be asked.

“That’s the Gram Parsons site, right?” I blurt.

The ranger pauses. “Who?”

“Gram Parsons!” I repeat. “The musician. Died in the early ‘70s. His buddies stole his body and buried him in Joshua Tree…”

“Never heard of him,” the ranger says flatly. This immediately strikes me as odd. Granted, the story’s over 40 years old, but it’s not exactly obscure around these parts. There’s freshness to the stories of graffiti-covered rocks and makeshift memorials within the park. If they weren’t, Skinny Little Bitch’s son probably wouldn’t have mentioned the park cleaning sessions. “That guy’s totally deflecting,” I tell my friend the moment we’re out of the ranger’s earshot.

“Maybe he really doesn’t know,” my friend replies. “Maybe he’s new.”

“There’s no way in hell he doesn’t know about Parsons,” I answer. “The story’s legendary. We can’t be the first people to ask him about it. I’m guessing the rangers are instructed to play dumb to discourage people from finding and vandalizing the spot. That’s really the only thing that makes sense.”

My friend shoots me a quizzical look. He’s probably right to do so. I haven’t veered completely into tin-foil hat country, but I’m gliding along its outskirts. I can only imagine what my fervor would be if I was a big fan of Parsons’ music. It would probably make me unbearable – more so than I already am. As we climb back into our rental van, my party is probably glad we’re finally headed to Cap Rock. Doing so will finally stop my yammering about encountering this memorial, which will undoubtedly be cool, colorful, and surreal – much like Joshua Tree itself.

There is absolutely nothing.

That’s not entirely true from a certain point of view. The eponymous Cap Rock is a gorgeous massive boulder. The flowers emerging from the pointy plants dotting the 0.4-mile loop trail add pops of natural color. We spot a couple of lizards chilling in their habitat and a drone daring to rake in the park’s pricey no drone fine. Normally, these would delight. Not at Cap Rock. The natural splendor highlights what’s missing.

There aren’t any pops of graffiti on the rocks. There aren’t any cheap guitars left behind, or crosses ensconced in the ground. There aren’t any photos or sketches of Parsons held in place by jewels worthy of one of his famous “Nudie suits.” I wander off the trail and traverse the rock’s backside, in the off chance I’m missing something. No such luck. The park’s cleaned things up, and have done so with extreme prejudice. We read every sign planted along the loop. They yield gobs of information about the flora and fauna calling Cap Rock home, but nothing about Parsons’ botched final resting place. I’m miffed.

I realize the selfishness of my reaction. This is a national park; a sacred space of beauty that should be untouched by the smear of human interference. This is the credo I hold dear in normal circumstances. Cap Rock is not a normal circumstance. The weirdness of Parsons’ makeshift burial makes normal feel impossible. To see his quasi-final resting spot unsullied makes it feel strangely vandalized. The lack of signage regarding the incident confirms my suspicions in my head, about the park wanting people to forget about the incident. I begrudgingly understand their rationale if that is their intent, but that doesn’t lessen my disappointment. The Parsons caper, and Parsons himself, deserves better.

A cleaned-up Cap Rock doesn’t diminish my love of Joshua Tree National Monument. The rest of the camping trip is spent exploring the landscape, chilling at the campsite, and absorbing a night sky unfettered by the scourge of light pollution. These things are too brilliant to experience just once, and I look forward to camping there again one day. Next time, I may even stay the night along Highway 62 before we enter the park. There’s a hotel on the road that caught my eye.

The Farce Before the Feast

The year is 2005. My wife and I are less than a week away from hosting our first Thanksgiving. The turkey occupying the bulk of our freezer will have no problem feeding the fifteen or so family members invading our small second-floor apartment. A luscious red cuvee highlights the bottles of modestly-priced wines we’re poised to pour during the meal. We’ve checked with our guests, and no side dish is being ignored. We’re in good shape, but I want something more. I want comedy.

Specifically, I want to replicate the infamous Thanksgiving meal Snoopy served to his guests during “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” It’s something I’ve wanted to pull off for years. I’ve seen the special a dozen times, and the sheer audacity of the beagle’s weird-ass pseudo-feast of toast, jellybeans, pretzel sticks, and popcorn never ceases to amuse. It deserves a real-life replication. I can’t say my family necessarily deserves to be the recipients, but they’re perfect targets. At the very least, they should understand the referential humor. Probably. At least I hope.

I already know the dish is rather gross from a culinary standpoint. That’s what makes it so funny. It’s not just that they don’t collectively belong on a plate for Thanksgiving; they don’t belong a plate together, ever. Jellybeans are the yucky lynchpin here. On their own, they’re perfectly fine. Visually speaking, they add a nifty flourish of color – something lacking in a garden-variety Thanksgiving meal. Otherwise, they’re soft, gooey nuggets whose sugary sweetness will dominate the plate with extreme prejudice. That’s where the blech factor manifests. The only way the other ingredients work well with a jellybean is when you use a pretzel rod to scrape off the residual candy guts stubbornly clinging to your teeth.

This doesn’t matter. It’s nothing more than a simple gag; one my wife willingly indulges me, provided I prepare the plates, which of course are paper. This would be problematic if the prank involved cranberry sauce, stuffing, or any traditional Thanksgiving dish. Our svelte walkway masquerading as a kitchen barely contains the counter space needed to rest a half-dozen or so items, and that’s before the turkey emerges from the oven. I must improvise. Fortunately, my office/guestroom has enough clear flat surfaces to set the plates once they’re assembled – perfect, since I also need a hiding space to store the bounty.

Thanksgiving Day arrives. I prepare the faux-feast in ten minutes and resume making last minute hosting preparations elsewhere. Everyone arrives with everything they’re supposed to bring, including the obligatory offering of pickles, olives, cheeses, and crackers that threaten to fill you up even before carving knife strikes turkey flesh. The gap separating the Detroit Lions’ loss and the Dallas Cowboys’ eventual loss is in full swing. Everyone’s happy. I’m a bit nervous. Not cold feet – the plates are all arranged and ready to come out of my office, there’s no holding back now – just the twinge of anxiety one gets before they’re ready to unleash a presentation upon an unassuming group of people. “This can’t possibly ruin their day, can it?” I think. “When the story comes up in future years, will it be remembered fondly or in dark, eye roll-inducing terms?”

The guests take their seats, and I slip into my office. I admire the plates one last time. They’re meticulously arranged – well, as meticulous as a quartet of toast, jellybeans, pretzel sticks, and popcorn can get. I scoop up a couple of plates, exit the office, and place them in front of my parents. Their chuckles indicate they’re in on the joke immediately. I’m at ease. The scene repeats itself after each presentation, along with a disclaimer assuring the real meal will commence shortly. The rest of the day feels perfect: My wife’s turkey is juicy. The mashed potatoes are sufficiently lumpy. The pies brought in from our now-defunct local pie shop don’t stand a chance. Neither does the cuvee. I feel accomplished. Not only is our inaugural hosting a success, my Peanuts-inspired prank goes off without a hitch.

We haven’t been asked to host Thanksgiving since. I’d like to think this lack of request is completely independent of my shenanigans. If it isn’t, I’ll just say it is for my own sake.

The Odd Big Apple Bite

It’s 5:15 AM New York time. Our red-eye has just touched down at JFK. It’s the first time my wife has been to New York City. I was 17 on my last visit and with a high school tour group, so that hardly counts. We didn’t sleep well – I failed to catch a single Z – but that’s irrelevant.  We’re ready to go. We’re going to New York the shit out of the city.

We have an agenda built around hitting most of the city’s major structural touristy things. We also have a list of essential eats, curated from the opinion of friends, family, and the internet’s nebulousness. A slice of pizza’s on there, so is a bagel and a street dog. Pastrami’s also on there, although I have machinations to slightly modify that requirement and devour a Montreal smoked meat sandwich at Mile End in Brooklyn (for the record, I do, and it’s phenomenal). Stuffed in between these requirements is a personal goal; one that only makes sense if you’re drawn to New York because of food and drink. I want to eat something weird.

Weird, in this case, needs to be qualified in two ways. Firstly, I’m not meaning “food as a dare” stuff like scorpion on a stick or balut. I mean it in a context of unorthodoxy, such as an obscure ethnic cuisine or a local dish that hasn’t broken free of its regional shackles. That’s the whole point of traveling – to partake in life experiences not possible near your home. It’s why the non-rural people that visit the three-story Olive Garden in Times Square deserve mockery. The other qualification for my pursuit is whatever it is, it must be something that catches me off-guard. If this asterisk wasn’t included, a place like Russ & Daughters and their quintessential New York Jewish cuisine would fill the slot with ease. I know what’s coming there thanks to the gaggle of friends that recommended it, so it doesn’t qualify – even though it is rather good.

I’m not sure what it is I precisely want. I’ll figure that out the moment it’s ordered. We have our opportunities to engage in my desired edible surprise. One colleague tells me about a Georgian place in the Lower East Side, but that section of town ends up being strictly reserved for cocktail-fueled shenanigans. Stopping by the under-the-radar French market Le District and their eclectic epicurean delights is but a whirl, affording us just enough time to drink a glass of wine and discuss the somber power of the 9/11 Memorial. We stumble upon a buzzing mall of pop-up stands in Greeley Square slinging everything from raclette to okonomiyaki (aka “Japanese pancakes”), but we find it en route to a scheduled event. This is unfortunate – the pop-up closes the next day, before we could return.

It’s now Saturday afternoon, and I’m beginning to worry. We are indeed making NYC our own, to the point where people start assuming my wife’s a local. Yet the lack of a truly unorthodox food experience hangs over me like the hollow outline of an albatross; one that doesn’t quite weigh me down, but one that will if its borders continue to get colored in with missed opportunities.

Another missed opportunity defines our Saturday evening. We have plans to brave sub 30-degree weather and take an evening boat cruise around Lower Manhattan. These plans are dashed when the navigation app we’re using directs us to the wrong subway terminal and we end up arriving at Pier 83 five minutes after we needed to be there, despite the Herculean efforts displayed by our intrepid Uber driver. It’s audible-calling time. “Would it be possible to take us to the Empire State Building instead?” my wife asks. The driver agrees and nimbly slices through perpetually beeping rows of traffic.

The change sets off a chain reaction. The extra time we gain staying on land gives us a much better shot at trying the secret three-course tasting menu at Agern, Claus Meyer’s Michelin-starred Scandinavian-inspired eatery hiding inside Grand Central Station. The same Claus Meyer behind Noma, the restaurant that became shorthand for “world’s best restaurant” earlier in the decade. This is a huge opportunity, and not just for the pedigree. Normally, a tasting at Agern here sets you back $155-$175 a person. The secret menu slices this price in half. One caveat: seating for the clandestine feast starts at 8:00 PM on a first-come, first-serve basis. There’s an outstanding chance we’ll need to resort to Plan B. Plan B is good, but it’s not Agern.

We hit the Empire State Building’s observation tower and take a restrained number of photos. It’s 7:55 when we get back to earth. Grand Central’s a 15-minute walk away. Things look bleak, but we cross our fingers and sally forth. We arrive at 8:15. “We’re here for the tasting menu?” my wife asks in a hopeful timbre.”

“We have a spot for you!” The host chirps. They have plenty of spots. Most of the chairs surrounding the exhibition kitchen where the secret menu takes place are vacant, a presumed by-product of the Veteran’s Day holiday and season’s first genuine cold snap keeping the locals away. We can take a spot at the bar if we want, but we’ve already bellied up several times around the Lower East Side. It’s all about the kitchen, which is square and adorned with chairs on three sides – culinary theater in the round. In its center is Isabel Zamora, Agern’s pastry chef, methodically sculpting a fluffy meringue. It’s a surprise to see her in the space – normally, pastry chefs aren’t thrust front and center like this. Not only is the square hers, she owns the space completely. It’s cool to see.

The meal itself is remarkable. We know this before it technically even starts. A fat ball of bread comes piping to our table, ready to be slathered by house-made butter infused with skyr yogurt and apple cider vinegar. It’s worth the regular price of admission, let alone the budget-friendly cost. The first dish is a black bass hidden behind a Spirograph-patterned sheath of cucumbers, accompanied by sunflower and green garlic. It’s bright, refreshing, and slightly tart – basically a crudo. I wouldn’t have thought I wanted a crudo-style dish when the thermometer couldn’t make 30 degrees outside, but here we are. This is followed up by a duo of apple glazed guinea hen cubes and roasted guinea hen drumsticks, the latter served on the bone and doused in a Nordic barbecue glaze. The paper bound around the sticks’ bony handles prevent messy fingers and adds a little tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness to the affair. It makes us chuckle. The flavor of both dishes makes us burble and coo with deep appreciation.

We strike up a conversation with Isabel as we dine. It’s effortless, engaging chatter made more delightful by her enthusiastic smile. She casually reveals she’s a native of Mexico City, where she launched her career as the bread baker for, as she puts it, “a place called Pujol.”

“Wait,” I gasp. “Pujol?”

“You know Pujol?”

“Oh, yes,” I reply. Damn right I know Pujol. It’s considered by many to be Mexico City’s finest restaurant. No way that’s off my radar. She got her start there, and now she’s working at a restaurant owned by the Noma guy. I already know I’m in the presence of kindly grinning greatness without taking a bite of her handiwork.

“So where are you from again?” Isabel asks.

“Southern California,” I answer. “Orange County, about fifteen minutes south of Disneyland.”

“I want to get out there,” she gushes. “I’ve heard there’s some great food out there, like Taco Maria.”

I’m blown away. A New York restaurant worker just name-checked a restaurant five minutes from my house. In retrospect, her knowledge of Taco Maria makes sense: It’s been one of Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold’s top Los Angeles-area eateries for years; its Owner-Executive Chef Carlos Salgado is a James Beard semi-finalist; and the restaurant did a collaboration with Pujol last year. Her desire to go there isn’t as random as it may look. Nonetheless, it’s damn cool.

The meal finishes with that sculpted meringue; a quince dish made with lemon verbena and rice pudding. It’s sublime. It’s also a false finish; Isabel sends out a couple extra goodies, including an extra black board of bite-size victuals. One set of morsels is a pair of faint tan one-inch logs wrapped in translucent wax paper. They lead off her presentation.

“These are our beef fat caramels,” she says. I somehow contain the inevitable “wait, what?” until she’s finished introducing the remaining board members, but barely.

“I used beef fat to make a savory caramel,” she states with a smile, natch.

I’m giddy. I’ve figured out what my weird New York food is, and I’m staring at it with enough intensity to practically puncture its wax paper casing. These tiny logs are the achievement I at last get to unlock. Before I do, one question remains.

“How did you come up with beef fat caramels?” my wife inquires.

“The kitchen had accumulated a lot of beef fat, and they were just going to throw it out,” Isabel says. “Before they did, I asked if I could keep it, because I wanted to try out a few things. They gave it to me, and I eventually came up with these.”

I unwrap my log and take a bite. It’s psychological trickery on a grand scale. It contains the precise soft, chewy textural elements befitting of a proper caramel, but its ribbon of sweetness is loosened, enabling a nuanced version of the beef fat’s savory essence to emerge. It’s palpably unctuous but not overwhelmingly so. The two-bite design is perfect. Anything more leaves it vulnerable to over-speculation. As it is, it’s perfectly wild; the type of thoughtfully complex bite befitting of a place with Noma’s DNA coursing through its veins.

The caramels put me at ease. I’m no longer on the hunt for something weird, which means I can completely chill out for the rest of the trip, much to my wife’s relief. I know we’re going to return to Agern the next time we visit New York. I’m already anxious to see what unorthodox bite awaits us when we eventually arrive.

When God’s Butter Meets the Devil’s Water

My wife and I are staring at two hollow beef bones. The marrow formerly nestled in their canals were scooped, spread on crostini, and devoured less than a minute ago, and we’re talking about its flavor with the reminiscent fondness typically reserved for morsels enjoyed long ago. The bones symbolize the approximate halfway point of the “omakase” menu at Wildebeest in Vancouver, BC; a curious name considering its culinary milieu is New American and not Japanese. We don’t care about semantics at this moment. The marrow was good – damn good; an indulgent reminder why some call the substance God’s butter. I’m in afterglow mode and it’s only halftime.

Our waitress stops by our table and lets the bones linger. This is surprising. She’s been ruthlessly efficient – a definite plus if you’re doing a multi-course soiree. We gush over the quality of the marrow; how its gelatinous texture melted into unctuous magic on the palate, where its creamy earth-kissed secrets spilt over our taste buds. Her smile widens with her eyes.

“You said you were adventurous when you ordered the omakase,” she says. “Are you really adventurous?”

“Oh, yes!” I reply. “We’ll try anything.” I assume odd goodness will arrive with the next course.

“That’s great to hear!” she exclaims. She disappears, leaving the bones behind and us slightly puzzled.

She returns with two small glasses of reddish-brown liquid in her hands. “I’m so glad you said you’ll try anything,” she says excitedly, placing the tiny stemware on the table. “I’ve poured you two glasses of sherry. What you’ll want to do, is put one end of the bone to your mouth, tilt your head back, and pour the sherry into the canal.”

“I never heard of that before!” my wife says.

“It’s called a luge,” our waitress replies. “The sherry picks up all of the little bits of marrow you didn’t get, so you have all the flavor of the marrow with the flavor of the sherry. It’s wild. You’re gonna love it.”

As she explains the experience, a memory pops in my head. I’ve done a luge thing before, in San Diego at a place called Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar. There were no bones to luge in that seafood joint, but there were plenty of bivalves. There was also an abundance of Bowmore Scotch and a charismatic bartender with a generous elbow and an ability to guide us through the venue’s “oyster luge” affair. It was a five-step process: Sip the shell’s natural liquor; sip the scotch; eat the oyster; pour a splash of scotch into the empty shell; shoot the shell. The same principles of the ensuing marrow experience were in play with the oyster and the scotch. They worked flawlessly; a dance of smoke and brine with an essence of salinity that would have otherwise been forever left behind in the shell. It was glorious. I decide to keep this information to myself. I’ll drop the story on my wife later, lest I come off as a bragging bastard. Besides, while the concept is similar, I already know this is a wholly different experience.

I hold the bone to my lips and tilt my head back, the sherry glass hovering over the shaft and ready to pour. I probably look like I’m prepping to take a bong hit. I’ve never partaken, but I’ve seen enough movies and been to enough concerts to know the necessary hand placements for a proper toke approximate what’s needed for bone marrow luging. It doesn’t take long for the liquid to make its way down the canal, and it hits my palate with a near-electric kapow. As it unfurls, the sherry’s nuttiness heightens the seductive umami essence of the marrow flecks that stubbornly clung to the canal prior to its dousing. I may have said, “Oh God” afterward. It wasn’t the start of a prayer. It may have been the start of a confession.

I share the story judiciously with others when we return, reserving the tale for those that would react to bone marrow with intrigue and not repulsion. As I do, one friend informs me I can get the luge locally, without having to escape Orange County’s bubble. A second one tells me the same, followed by a third. Turns out 320 Main in Seal Beach – a restaurant roughly 20 minutes from my front door – does the bone marrow luge. They’ve been doing it for quite some time, the only difference is that they use a sherry-based cocktail shot instead of straight-up sherry. This information stokes my curiosity, but not before it makes me feel downright dumb. I’ve been to 320 Main several times. I dig what they do. It’s the first place I point people to when they ask me about a good place to eat in Seal Beach. Yet I had no idea they did this type of culinary sorcery. How could I have been so ignorant, especially when such ignorance has kept me from bliss?

The answers to this inquiry is unimportant. What matters is, a bone marrow luge experience like the one we had in Vancouver is some 1,300 miles closer to my home. I can’t wait to indulge. At the risk of sounding greedy, I hope they also have some oysters and scotch to share.

Whiskey from the Heartland

Jeff and Murphy Quint know as a state, Iowa is perceived as uncool. The father and son duo also know it contains pockets of coolness. They’re aware of this because they’re responsible for Cedar Ridge Whiskey, one of the deepest reservoirs of hipness to be found in the Hawkeye State.

“We don’t overplay the Iowa card when we market our whiskeys, but the fact that we do come from Iowa does have a cool kind of cachet on its own,” states Murphy, Cedar Ridge’s Director of Wholesale Business Development. “It’s the kind of coolness that probably wouldn’t exist if we weren’t producing whiskey in a fly-over state.”

The cool vibe stemming from the whiskeys, ryes, and bourbons Cedar Ridge produces from their Swisher, Iowa facility is indeed hip, but it’s not hipster like some small-batch American whiskeys. It’s simply an organic by-product of a familial passion spanning generations and continents. The Quints are ninth- and tenth-generation farmers and fermenters whose adult beverage-making heritage traces to Germany; specifically, the tiny Mosel River-hugging city of Wintrich (population: 954). The family established the Weingut Quint winery there in the early 1700s, and it’s still one of the Mosel region’s most respected viticultural establishments. “Doing what we’re doing at Cedar Ridge is in our blood and hearts,” explains Jeff, a former CPA who heeded his lineage’s call when he and his wife Laurie opened Cedar Ridge in 2005. “We’re very lucky we get to act on our passion. Normally, people can’t.”

Cedar Ridge’s Facility in Swisher, Iowa

He’s doing his bloodline proud – not to mention the spirits industry. The American Distilling Institute named Cedar Ridge “Distillery of the Year” this past April, and their Single Malt Whiskey hauled in “Best American Craft Whiskey” honors – not mention a double gold medal – at last year’s prestigious New York World Spirits Competition. Jeff states that the secret to their award-winning success stems from their unique distillation process, which includes distilling at a higher proof and aging in non-temperature controlled barns, a process that relies heavily on Iowa’s natural temperature fluctuations.  According to Murphy, these tactics allow them to infuse the state’s personality into each bottle. “Our whiskeys represent Iowa well,” he states. “They’re not loud, harsh, or rude. They’re mellow, approachable, and inviting, like your average Iowa resident.”

While passion, heritage, and state pride provide inspiration, the actual fuel for their spirits-making process comes from an abundant local source: corn. Contrary to what the University of Nebraska’s nickname may lead you to believe, Iowa is the king of U.S. corn production. In 2016 alone, the state produced a whopping 2.7 billion bushels of the grain. Jeff’s attached to this massive production by proxy, in a way that indirectly connects Cedar Ridge to his farming roots. “My wife’s family still farm 800 acres, and that’s where we get our corn to make our whiskey,” he says.

Cedar Ridge relies heavily on Iowa’s weather for their aging process. (Cliff Jette/SourceMedia Group)

To an Iowa resident like Jeff, using Iowa’s corn to make whiskey is only logical, and its ubiquitous nature was a big reason he wanted to make the spirit in the state. Those outside Iowa’s borders may not readily make this link, which is something the distillery’s staff is prepared to handle. “It’s important that we educate our customers on why a whiskey from Iowa makes sense,” Jeff explains. “Bourbon whiskey is made from corn, and since Iowa’s the leading producer of corn in the country, there’s no real disconnect between what the state’s known for and what we’re doing here.”

Murphy also admits they also encounter whiskey aficionados that approach Cedar Ridge’s products with a cynical eye, thanks in part to Daily Beast’s infamous 2014 article on craft distillery production. “Almost every day, we get people asking us if Cedar Ridge is actually made in Iowa or if we get our bourbon from Indiana,” he says. “Some will even question whether or not what we’re making is bourbon. These questions don’t bother us in the least, though. We always see them as an educational opportunity.”

They have plenty of opportunity to teach the masses. About 85,000 visitors swing by their facility every year, and their grounds have become a hot spot for wedding ceremonies. And as more whiskey lovers become aware of Cedar Ridge’s story and their spirits’ drinkable excellence, the temptation to expand their production to reach the ever-growing throng of fans seems poised to loom larger every year. However, the Quints firmly state their desire with Cedar Ridge is to keep things small. “We want to remain craft and 100% privately owned,” Murphy states. “Our artistic vision would be interfered with the minute we sell out to someone, and that makes us uncomfortable. You can’t compromise on quality.”

Spoken like a true Iowan.

The Repeal Reserve Conundrum

Like many Los Angeles-area residents, I’ve been watching the World Series. It’s been fantastic so far, on par with the Fall Classics of 1960, 1975, and 1986. Since I’m tuning in live, this also means I’ve been viewing commercials as an unfortunate by-product. Most of them oscillate between bad and annoying, which is to be expected. One commercial, though, defies classification in this range every time it runs. It’s the ad for the Budweiser 1933 Repeal Reserve, and it confuses me.

If you’ve avoided the ad by fast-forwarding your DVR or just by not being a baseball fan, the limited-edition beer being promoted is a red lager supposedly based on a recipe the brewing giant hasn’t touched since 1933. It looks like a Bud but doesn’t. The bottle is stubbier, the label has a gold tint. Its ABV is roughly a percentage point higher than the flagship brand. It’s gotten surprisingly decent scores at aggregate sites like BeerAdvocate and Untapped – at least, decent by typical Budweiser standards – but whether it’s good or not isn’t the source of my befuddlement. That solely stems from trying figure out why Bud’s parent company AB InBev would put themselves in an unwinnable situation with their foes in the craft been community – even more unwinnable than normal.

Let’s ignore the fact that the beer is hovering around 3.5 to 4 stars in a typical 5-star rating system. Let’s say this beer flops hard. All the Bud haters (read: practically everyone you know who’s got craft product in their fridge) will point and laugh a smug, hearty chuckle because Budweiser is still bad regardless of what they attempt. They’ll probably also make fun of Bud for trying to put together a brew that suspiciously looks like a craft beer from one of those artisan breweries they’ve mocked through their ads for the last couple of years. At least, the artisan breweries InBev haven’t bought out.

Now let’s bring those scores back into the mix. Let’s say the score bumps up by a few tenths as more people try it out of curiosity or as a dare. The reaction from the craft beer folks wouldn’t necessarily be one that praises Bud for finally producing something for the serious beer drinker. A more realistic reaction – one that daresay is more apropos – would be to bitterly grouse about why Budweiser has tucked an actual good recipe into its archives and chosen to serve horrendous swill instead for over 80 years.

Budweiser appeared to address this latter issue in their press release, saying that Prohibition killed the chance to distribute a beer made with the recipe beyond the greater St. Louis area. Even if it’s true, it sounds like marketing hokum. Bud manufacturer Anheuser-Busch has been part of AB InBev since 2008, and AB InBev’s the most powerful force in the beer industry – powerful enough to acquire rival brewing titan SAB Miller last year with straight cash. It’s almost impossible to believe they didn’t have the wherewithal to produce this beer on a larger scale prior to 2017, which is why their explanation is probably going get under the skin of the dedicated beer geek in your life.

The existence of the Repeal Reserve also continues Budweiser’s/AB InBev’s unique love/hate relationship with craft beer. This is more than just a craft beer if you believe the company’s story, which frames the beer to sound like a home brew Adolphus Busch made for his friends. That’s about as far removed from Bud’s “macrobrew” movement as you can get. This is not a beer designed for the typical Bud drinker. It’s the type of brew their ads routinely poke fun at, theoretically aimed for a demographic their ads mock. This hasn’t stopped their derision of craft product and fans, either. They’re making fun of both in that Bud Light “dilly dilly” ad campaign that’s also running during the World Series, albeit in different breaks. If the Repeal Reserve was indeed meant to be an olive branch of sorts to craft beer fans, the Bud Light ad assures that branch is wrapped around a middle finger. They’re apparently hoping nobody notices. But craft beer fans aren’t that stupid. They’ll notice. The ones that watch baseball already have, because the company’s behavioral pattern makes it so easy to spot. For all the shade Bud throws at craft beer aficionados, their simultaneous gobbling up of craft breweries indicates they want a piece of their business badly. The dual ads are visual manifestations of what can be parsed into a weird business dichotomy.

Why would they do this? The only answer I can come up with is because they practically print their own beer money, and they can experiment like this without causing too much damage to their bottom line. Bud drinkers are gonna Bud drink, regardless of what the company attempts. This gives the company a sense of freedom the little guys don’t have. If it crashes and burns, they won’t care. They’ll just raise a glass, cry out “dilly dilly,” and send more cases of their most popular products to the nearest liquor store.

I’m admittedly curious. Then again, I’m also curious what it would feel like if I put my face in a bucket of eels, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to act upon that intrigue. I’m not going to decry it as awful and nobody should give it a shot – like any form of food and drink, beer is subjective. For me, though, there are too many genuinely good – and genuine – craft beers out there to try, made from breweries that won’t sell me something and snicker at me in successive breaths. Besides, the World Series ends tonight. The beer will probably drop from my consciousness after the final pitch is tossed. At least, that’s my hope.

Meaningful Food: Contemplating the Generation Gap of Dining

“I used to be ‘with it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you…” –Abe Simpson

I have long considered myself to be a garden variety food snob. I enjoy voicing my disdain for chain restaurants that misuse the word ‘artisan’ and fast food joints that seem to spend more time marketing to kids than they do making good product. I know holding such an opinion is not exactly earth-shattering stuff. I suspect that anyone that routinely visits a gastropub or a restaurant where the Executive Chef looks like the owner of a motorcycle repair shop feels the same way.

I’ve also come to terms with the fact that sometimes, I can be a bit of a jerk when it comes to food and restaurants in a way that goes beyond the low-hanging fruit. The biggest example of this: I have developed some sort of weird sense of schadenfraude whenever a restaurant that defined high-end dining through white tablecloths, tuxedoed waiters, and anachronistic cuisine bites the dust. Whenever an old-school joint closes down, I tend to arrogantly chalk it up as a victory for those of us who “understand” modern food. You know our type– we’re the kind of diner that worships at the Church of Bourdain and will drone incessantly about how a minimally arranged pile of bones filled with rivers of gelatinous, unctuous marrow can blow our minds. I also have developed a habit of assuming that the only thing these shuttered vintage joints needed to do to survive was to put the flaming tableside steaks aside and cater to the contemporary diner’s sensibilities – for diners like me. It’s total jerk stuff, and I will not-so-begrudgingly cop to it.

I did not, however, peg myself as a culinary existentialist.

Then I met Dan.

My encounter with Dan takes place on a Friday afternoon at the bar at Charlie Palmer’s, the eponymous now-defunct Orange County restaurant concept overseen by the James Beard-award winning guy behind New York’s acclaimed Aureole. I’m there for reasons of journalistic integrity (read:  I’m taste testing libations on a Friday afternoon for a story on cocktails). The bartender and I are comparing and contrasting the bartending scenes of Orange County and San Diego when Dan slowly ambles up to the bar and takes a swivel chair near me, leaving an empty spot between us as a buffer zone. The slight blush bursting out in flourishes behind the age spots on his cheeks and bald head as he smiles toward the barkeep indicates that he might have made his slow saunter here before. The bartender disengages mid-sentence, gives Dan a shout-out, and immediately starts prepping Dan’s drink before he can reciprocate the greeting, confirming what his ruddy complexion hinted.

“Do you know Rich?” the bartender asks as he whirls toward his customer, martini fully brandished.

“I do not,” Dan replies as he extends his hand to lock with my already outstretched one.

I pick up some context as Dan’s conversation starts to fluctuate between me and the bartender. He’s probably in his 80s, originally from the East Coast, came this way due to a stint in the military around World War II, and stayed after the enemy was defeated. His effusive charm convinces me that he’s the kind of guy that is loaded with stories that may come out on occasion; I start silently hoping that I caught him on a day that he is willing to share.

I get my wish as Dan begins spinning snippets about restaurants of Orange County’s past. He smiles warmly as he recalls taking his wife to an elegant place called The Hurley Bell.  He botches the name of a long-vanished French place named Chez something or other, where he and his business associates would meet for drinks (at least, he may have botched the name – my beverage may have impaired my hearing). He brings up a place called Omar’s in the beachfront city of San Clemente “where they used to let you bet on the ponies off-track,” he says with the kind of one-note guffaw that indicates that he cleaned up at Omar’s a couple of times. All of this is great stuff.  He’s throwing out names of restaurants that I never knew existed here; venues whose footprint is buried under the avalanche of time and poorly archived historic record. I’m hanging on every word, partially because I feel like I should. I realize his tales are really the main thing that is keeping the memory of these long-dead restaurants alive. When he and his contemporaries are gone, these places may cease to exist. That’s how time works. It’s in cahoots with death, especially when it comes to shuttered business ventures.

The bartender stops Dan mid-anecdote. “Do you know that Rich is a food writer?” he asks.

The green in Dan’s eyes seems to get a little more emerald. “No, I did not,” he replies as he slightly shifts in his chair to face me even straighter. The lurch in my own back disappears in anticipation of something important.

“Let me ask you something,” he says.

“Of course.”

“Have you heard of El Bulli?”

My mind slightly melts over the fact that an octogenarian just dropped the name of Ferran Adria’s legendary Spanish eatery; the one that served as home for his pioneering molecular gastronomic voodoo.

“Yes!” I eagerly reply. “Yes I have!”

“I’m glad that place closed down,” he snaps. “What the hell was that? That wasn’t food!  The guy’s not a chef – he should have been a chemistry teacher!”

I don’t dare admit to thinking that Adria’s an epicurean genius. It is not because I lack confidence in my own opinion. It’s because I sense the conversation is about to give me the clearest example of the gastronomic divide that separates modern dining snobs like myself and old-school types that I have not seen in, well, possibly ever. I don’t want that to slip through my fingers because I end up defending Adria’s post-modern take on cuisine. I’m in no mood to be perceived as a young punk who looks like he knows eff-all about food in this guy’s eyes. I am, however, in the mood to see how far down the rabbit hole I can get him to burrow.

I ask him what his favorite restaurant is in Southern California. “Musso and Frank, up in Los Angeles,” he quickly replies. “They haven’t changed the menu in 100 years. I know what I’m going to get every time I walk in there, and I like that. They don’t mess around with anything new.”

“See, that’s where you and I differ,” I reply cautiously, hoping my words from my mouth don’t double as a tip of my hand. “I’m on the lookout for different places to eat.  I always appreciate going to a new place and having a new experience.”

“Experience,” Dan half-mutters. “If I wanted an experience, I’d hire a hooker.” We both laugh for what I can only assume are wildly different reasons.

I counter his call-girl barb by asking if he thinks if a dinner could be ruined if he had bad service, or if the atmosphere stunk, or if some other non-food part of the meal suffered severely. “Not if the food is good,” he replies almost urgently. “If the food is good, then it doesn’t matter if the service or anything else is crap. I’ve waited in long lines to get into a restaurant before, and I didn’t do that because I was excited about the service.” Well, then.

Eventually, the conversation drifts over to New York, as these types of discussions are wont to do. I placate him somewhat by making sure the “Peter Luger’s vs. Keens Steakhouse” debate rears its old, doddering head by mentioning that I wanted to hit the latter venue on my next New York trip.  “Well, Peter Luger is in Brooklyn,” he replies through a demure smile. “Why the hell would anyone go over to Brooklyn to eat?” I smile politely as my brain works overtime to prevent the names of the three-dozen or so white-hot eateries that have flooded the trendy borough in the last decade from spilling out of my mouth.

The banter peters out as we resume our initial intended purposes. I finish my final beverage and thank Dan for his conversation as I get up to leave. I’m brimming with excitement on the way home. I have talked to the only type of person left to prevent culinary dinosaurs from meeting their inevitable fate as epicurean oil deposits, and I know it. All of the other aspects of his persona – member of the Greatest Generation; World War II vet; local culinary historian – all sink into a blob of aspic because he dug the selfsame routine of Musso & Frank and didn’t get Ferran Adria. I go home and eventually annoy my wife with a gleeful recap of our conversation. I hear my voice’s mocking tone; I know I’m being a snobby food jerk. I also know I somehow don’t care all that much, because the guy intoned that Brooklyn was a culinary graveyard.

I don’t really treat Dan’s sentiments as nothing more than comic fodder until sometime later that evening, after the kids have been tucked into bed and my wife calls it a night. The quiet of my patio directs my brain to start really pondering his statements and the conditions that may have caused them. I recall the names of the Hurley Bell and that may-or-may-not-have-been-mispronounced French restaurant he mentioned. I conjure up what they may have looked like back in the day. That I cannot shake the contrast of white tablecloths set against a deep red interior and vaguely foreign accented gentlemen behind flaming gueridon stations doesn’t exactly shock me – based on Dan’s love of things that stay stagnant, it’s the expected imagery. Yet I also imagine Dan in these restaurants – a younger version of the man; at least, a rough on-the-fly representation of what he may have looked like five decades ago. This iteration of Dan is a badass, almost as if he had just stepped out of the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners. His retro pseudo presence forces me to ponder the inconvenient truth that he is not some doddering curmudgeon that doesn’t get modern food as much as he and those of his age range are merely keeping hold of what was the culinary apex back when they were hip. And going back four or five decades, the pinnacle of dining was represented in much simpler terms than they are now. Nobody knew all that much about whatever they were eating back except what animal it was sliced from and what the names of the sides were. But nobody cared, either, because unlike now, nobody knew that they were supposed to care about such things. The only thing that people like Dan possibly took stock in was that going to these places dramatically increased the chances of getting laid.

I filter Dan’s opinion of Ferran Adria and his ignorance of the Brooklyn scene through this light. Doing so leaves me glaring at a philosophical quandary. The unapologetically old-school restaurants that people like Dan likes – the ones that seemingly refuse to change with the times – tend to fossilize when enough of their loyal patrons die (at least, that has always been the default reason we wiseacres tend to ascribe to such closures). But as I think of what Dan may have been like some forty years ago, I’m left to wonder if the reason these shuttered places choose to stand pat instead of tweaking things to placate the modern diner is at least partially borne from a desire to stick around as long as possible for the Dans of the dining scene, so they can enjoy a form of dining that was the absolute bee’s knees back in the day before they call it a life. I’m still not sure one way or the other, but the mere fact that this even pops into my head makes me feel like a horrible for insisting that changing to my tastes was the only move they should have made – even more so than what I freely acknowledge.

This act of pondering morphs into a paradox I imagine myself in the comfortable loafers that Dan was wearing during our chance encounter at Charlie Palmer’s, where I am sitting at a bar sitting next to some young punk-ass that is trying very hard not to laugh at me, even as he is engaging what may appear to be a meaningful conversation. Frankly, it terrifies the hell out of me. There are a lot of things to the culinary landscape that have yet to be formed; different concepts, unique flavor combos that nobody’s tried yet, cocktails that taste splendiferous despite their alien hues. Will I be ready to make that transition into these as yet to be foreseen trends? Or will I turn tail, make some derisive comment involving a reference to prostitution, and try to find one of the few places in my region that still serves, say, bone marrow with an oxtail marmalade before it gets shut down to make way for a new, hip eatery with a menu that I don’t get? On a bigger scale, at what point will my opinions rooted in modern food snobbery switch into the ramblings of an out-of-touch epicurean? Will it ever get to that point, and if so, will I even give a damn?  Will my future consist of me discovering that the local Denny’s or IHOP has figured out how to make a decent shortib dish and I’ll end up with a Cialis-aided boner for the Early Bird special? Since life can only be understood backwards but demand that its events must run forward, I honestly don’t know. But in the wake of meeting Dan and dealing with all of this epicurean existentialism, I know that I’m not a fan of the unknown.

However, I have somehow managed to provide myself with a slight glimmer of hope to carry with me into this uncertain future. A few days after our encounter, I hop over Musso & Frank’s website, just so I can peruse the archaic nature of a menu that hasn’t changed in decades. The musty earmarks are present all over the site: the Art Deco font; the relentless callbacks to its near 100 year-old history; photos of older waiters decked out in red jackets and bowties. I start scrolling the menu, Dan’s comment about the menu not being changed for decades tucked into my brain. I come across an entrée of calf’s sweetbreads right after I see a plate of grilled lamb kidneys and bacon (“Charlie Chaplin’s favorite” according to the menu). Both entrees are listed in the menu’s “classics” section, and the latter plate’s Tinsletown clue implies it’s probably been around since the place opened its doors in 1919. These offal-centric plates have become the kind of stuff that adventurous food snobs – read: buttholes like me – would not only actively seek out at a gastropub, but would also heap praise on such a hip eatery for having the stones to serve them. And yet here they are, being served at Dan’s favorite restaurant, just like they did when they were the coolest restaurant in town – back when a guy like Dan was the coolest dining patron around.

Maybe turning into a guy like Dan forty odd years down the road isn’t that scary after all.

The Fest within Fest: GABF’s Fantastic Food Sideshow

Within three hours of flying into Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, I witness someone nearly choke to death. “Don’t fucking give him the heimlich! He’s taking in air!” yells the guy at the bar next to me. The hostess speed dials 9-1-1 as the poor bastard horks air, bent over like a jackknife, drooling like a bloodhound. The chef, hearing the commotion from kitchen lumberjack-pounds the guy on the back. “He’s choking worse than John Elway in the 1990 Super Bowl,” I say, desperate to use humor to lighten the situation. He holds his curly hair under the bar, making one last gasp as the chef jabs at his back. He must have hit just the right spot, as a distinct splatter-noise on the ground precedes the sound of his lungs filling with air.

The girl next to me at the bar goes back to checking her phone.

“I’m okay…water just went down the wrong pipe,” he says, stroking moisture down his beard with a purple face, dripping with sweat and embarrassment. His buddy plops down a fifty at the bar as they collect themselves and leave in a hurry. “Thankfully I didn’t have to see a motherfucker die right before GABF,” I say to the bartender. “Indeed,” he says, polishing a glass nonchalantly, “I’d hate to see him choke on something substantial, like an empanada or something,” he continues.

As the scene of the crime is cleaned up, I think back to every year I head to this 60,000 person four-day beer event, and this is the first pseudo-barf I’ve bared witness to, and it happened at my first-stop go-to. You see, I always stop in The Kitchen Denver and order the lamb burger before the Great American Beer Festival. This practice started around five years ago, the time I sat next to Dave Chichura, the “HBIC” of Oskar Blues Brewery at the time and split some littleneck clams over canned beers and fishing stories. The burger, dolloped with roasted red pepper relish and bitter greens, is a call to Denver, and more importantly, a great base to lay before drinking fifty-or-so one-ounce beer samples.

Back to the splatter at hand, my appetite has completely vanished. Good thing too. I scored a Farm to Table Pavilion ticket inside the GABF for tonight. Think for a second about the odds of getting a ticket to GABF that sells out in minutes, then nabbing an elusive ‘Paired’ ticket. It’s a fest inside the fest, except filled with award-winning beers paired with chef-driven food. It’s a genuine Wonka golden ticket moment.

I leave half of my lamb burger uneaten, slam the rest of my Blind Pig and walk straight to the Colorado Convention Center a few minutes walk away for press credentials. Denver’s fall gusts sweep me down the busy 16th street mall towards the giant blue bear on 14th and Stout. I wonder if anyone has a beer named 14th and Stout.

“I’m not going to fuck it up like I did last year,” I say to the press booth gals, recounting the side-trip I took to Fort Collins that took eight hours instead of two. “A crane fell over the goddamn freeway causing a backup for miles…some drunk guy on our bus peed out of the bus window.” This year, ‘Paired’ is my bitch. Badge around neck, I speed walk through the empty hall to get my appetite back. The fest starts in fifteen minutes and once filled, can often take a half-hour to get from one side to the next.

The scene at GABF

 

The Great American Beer Festival is exactly how it sounds. Four sessions of the event sold in a measly thirty-two minutes; 60,000 tickets in all. 3,900 beers are poured. There’s the American Cheese Society, there’s a silent disco led by wireless headsets…then there’s Paired…the Farm to Table event inside the festival costs an additional $140 per person – 22 tables in all. The area’s best chefs are paired with award-winning breweries to create one of the best food festivals in America. The only catch is that it’s hidden inside the festival, and not a two-day event in downtown Denver.

Denver itself buzzes during GABF. With beer events from 8 AM til 2 AM daily, one doesn’t need to even bother with the festival. Just show up and get crazy at the many walkable breweries, taprooms, and brewpubs. My short list includes places like The Source, Prost Brewing, TRVE Brewing, Falling Rock Tavern, and Star Bar. If weed is your thing, it’s legal.

Just like the fat kid running to the lunch line in junior high, I’m the first guy at the Paired Pavilion. A brief memory of raspberry coconut zingers and fruit punch-stained lips flashes through my head. I was totally that dork. Crazy to see thirty years later I’m still that kid, now entrenched in the beer world doing the same shit, except now it’s a Raspberry Berliner Weisse from DESTIHL Brewing or a coconut porter from Maui Brewing Co.

I do have to admit, I’m a cynic when it comes to big food/beer pairing taste events like this. Out of the twenty-two tables set out today, I bet seven will be some kind mediocre slider with way too much bun. Four will be some kind of poke/wagyu/whatever on a partially stale chip. The rest? A plastic salsa cup with pork belly, short rib or some other wild game some hip new chef shot in the wild, cleaned and rubbed with granny’s famous ten-spice blend. Bonus points if there’s some duck confit, terrine, or foie. At basically $10 a table, anything is possible.

In before the beer-soaked horde, it’s fun to watch chefs putting the final touches on food prep. Beer bottles at each station are poking their necks out of coolers looking like refreshed kids at a public pool…perhaps saying, “hey guys, what’s going on inside this GABF?”. The hall smells vaguely like bacon amid the high ceilings. I circle the hall quickly and see where to drop anchor first, then chuckle as my statement quickly turns into a stupid pun.

Two guys, possibly twin brothers in their forties unload a mesh bag of oysters on a bed of dark, moist seaweed right in front of me. I pause and admire the avalanche of oysters falling from the bag, mouth agape and salivating. The twin with sideburns grabs an oyster from the pile, shucks it like a pro, and slides it over to me on a black cocktail napkin, grinning. Without saying a word, I sip the liquor off the top, tilt the shell back and chew it up…naked. My GOD. Do I whip out my phone to take a photo? Do I ask for another? What’s the fucking beer pairing, man? Who knew my first sip of liquor inside the GABF would be sweet and briny oyster juice?

The table sign reads, “Triple Rye IPA paired with Marin Miyagi Oysters on the Half Shell.” I grin and nod, thinking the pairing is a joke. “Pairing contains shellfish, hahahah!” I snicker. “A Triple Rye IPA paired with oysters? Who the fuck does that?” I say to myself just a little bit too loud. “I know, right?” replies the beer rep, batting her lashes with a grin.

Is she implying that the pairing might possibly be terrible? Does she know if it’s crazy good? As I witnessed the bag opening, I assume she doesn’t actually know…right? I’ve had oysters with fresh Guinness off the coast of County Clare, Ireland. I’ve had oysters with a light and spritzy Prosecco in Ortica. I’ve even had oysters with an old-fashioned cocktail in New Orleans. These experiences makes my mind race. Wherever this brewery is from, do they prefer 125 IBU palate-wreckers to wash down a delicate bivalve?

Tom Montgomery, partner at Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco, turns the key and unlocks the second Miyagi shell, scooting it my way for another slurp. I’ve always found that eating oysters is like kissing someone for the first time. With beer? It’s like kissing someone for the first time while drinking beer, which makes it exponentially more titillating.

The first oyster a mere peck, my goal for number two is to get to second base. I lick my lips and bite the corner of my lower lip while lifting up the marbled-patina shell and attempt to make eyes with the palm-sized creature. Edging closer, I admire its plump-pearlescent body shining back, eyes now crossed as I sip the liquor off the top and swish it around my mouth. My salivary glands burst, then take the slightest sip of beer to chase: rye spice, sweet malts, juicy hops and salty oyster brine flavors combine as I swallow…eyes rolling, licking my teeth clean.

I pour a little bit of the beer into the deep oyster shell, replacing the brine now in my belly. I give a nod to the beer rep and slurp it back without hesitation; somehow maintaining awkward eye contact.

Around oyster number eleven, a line starts forming behind me, so I grab one more, just to be sure I understand the pairing. Should I feel guilty? This is a $200 event after all. Miyagi oysters are firm, yet slick, sort of like actor Pat Morita. Are these oysters named after the Karate Kid? Their slick texture waxes on and waxes off a subtle melon-cucumber note with a slight metallic twang; similar to tasting a Moscow mule in a copper mug. Sea salt washes over my memory, causing a good three-second daydream of duck-diving a wave while surfing back home. Before gulping it down, I add one last sip of the IPA to the cement-mixer that is my mouth and pause with the Denver sunset suddenly blinding me outside the thirty-foot tall glass windows.

With the dozen complete, I somehow utter the words, “Spitters are quitters,” to the stranger next to me in line while tossing the shell in a trashcan. “Triple IPA and oysters, what the hell?” they reply. I down the rest of the beer and say, “I know, right?”

With twenty-one tables to go, there’s food to eat, and beers to drink. The thought of joining the 14,999 person roar outside in the fest hall sounds like torture. With three more sessions, I’ll hit it tomorrow.

As for the typical slider with too much bun, stuff on a stale chip, 2oz cup full of stuff with a toothpick type of food festival, there was plenty of that to be had, but overall done well. Things like smoked brisket sausage, green curry duck pastrami, and just a table full of Cypress Grove cheeses make this event worth it. Not only did I get a chance to slurp a dozen oysters, where else can you check out what twenty-two gastropubs in America are up to all in one spot?

Greg Nagel is the booze writer at OrangeCoast Magazine and the founder of the Firkfest Cask Beer Festival. He also is part of the Four Brewers Podcast.

The Roll of Tradition

Family road trip traditions are weird. Ours is taking a trip to Cracker Barrel. At least, it is for now.

Whenever we’ve loaded up the rental van and headed east from Southern California, we’ve known the downhome, Southern-inspired restaurant going to be on the agenda, interspersed between the oddball hole in the walls off the interstate and gems buried deep in the cities we’re passing through. There’s no justification for this from a culinary standpoint. The food’s decent enough, and like any chain, some locations are better than others – the one in Kingman, Arizona outshines the one in St. George, Utah, for example. A few of my friends contend none are better than others, because they’re all bad. I don’t share that sentiment. It’s not gourmet of course, but a morning dose of biscuits and gravy provides enough fuel to satiate me before a long day of driving.

Kitsch, on the other hand, is an especially bright and shiny lure. Cracker Barrel is a megawatt beacon of Hee Haw-grade cheese, and I’m a but a moth. It’s been this way ever since my former roommate used the venue as an incentive to help him chaperone a day trip to Yuma for his church’s youth group. It worked, and the restaurant’s been an integral part of my road trippin’ ways ever since. Now that I’m a parent, though, it’s enjoyed lofty status because of uncanny ability to cultivate personal nostalgia.

I still get a dorky kick from Cracker Barrel’s rocking chair-strewn front porch and its general store, even though the only thing I’ve ever brought from the shop is a pack of gum. However, going to the place with the family in tow creates powerful touchstones; incidents that will hopefully cause our daughters one day to tell their kids, “That was what we did. That was our thing.”  On the road, touchstones look like memories, but they’re slightly different. The latter is oftentimes part of a fleeting point in time that may or may not be captured again. A touchstone is grounded in routine. It provides something constant to look forward to whenever one feels compelled to accept the charges of the interstate’s call. While this can be a final destination, it works best when it’s only a stop along the greater journey. In that sense, it becomes the consistent anchor that binds vast memories of terrific road trips together. Our trips to Cracker Barrel have created a through-line that links various family getaways to Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. All three sojourns provided wildly different experiences, but the obligatory excursion to Cracker Barrel provided a sense of safe harbor along each trip. This has yielded substantially more value than a piece of chicken fried steak or fried catfish.

I’m worried this may change. There’s a Cracker Barrel opening in Southern California next February. Granted, it’s launching about 90 minutes from our house in the high desert community of Victorville, but that still puts it within the Golden State’s borders. This is slightly disconcerting, because it blasts apart a vital component to the Cracker Barrel touchstone. Up to now, the only way for us to partake in its rustic folksiness was to leave the state. It wasn’t even about exiting California, either – Oregon and Washington are also Cracker Barrel-free, so heading north was futile. It was all about going eastbound and down. This made going there special. Seeing my kids pretend to play checkers on the venue’s requisite front porch checkerboard or watching them dart between aisles spilling with mini Kincaid prints, stuffed animals, and local college apparel was something I could only witness when we were in the grip of the road, far from the relative predictability of home.

This won’t be the case anymore come February. We could hit it on the way to Vegas. Hell, we have family less than 30 minutes from Victorville. Theoretically, it could be a place to eat before or after a visit. This has left me struggling to fathom whether its presence disrupts its status as a road trip touchstone for us in the future. It will almost certainly make seeing one on the road significantly less special. Perhaps it will be time to consider something else. Lord knows there are options – I admittedly have a soft spot for the crisp burritos from Taco Time, and they’re located in both Oregon and Washington.

But even if a California Cracker Barrel affects future road tripping decisions, it doesn’t change the past. A touchstone is a touchstone, and there’s comfort there. I’m sure I’ll never set foot in the new location, but I’d like to imagine that when I zip by it while I’m tooling down I-15, I’ll think to myself, “That was what we did. That was our thing.”