Cocktails

Quick: simple syrup, and then a margarita recipe.

You can burn 20 minutes making simple syrup. Or you can burn just two. I prefer two, as I can then spend those other 18 minutes drinking.

Most people will have you bringing water to a simmer, adding the sugar, stirring occasionally until it's fully dissolved, letting the syrup cool, and then putting it in a container for storage. It the grand scheme of things, this is not much of a hassle. But when you can just put water and sugar into your squeeze bottle, and shake it, why go through the boiling/cooling process?

Here's what you should be doing:

  • Fill your squeeze bottle halfway with sugar.
  • Fill up the rest with water.
  • Add a splash of vodka, as this will help preserve the syrup and keep stuff from growing in it.
  • Shake the heck out of it for a minute or two. If shaking is something that you don't care to do, then you are likely making cocktails incorrectly to begin with and should pack everything in.

Simple syrup

And that's it. The sugar, I assure you, will dissolve. Some may settle to the bottom, but you've still got plenty of syrup to use until you get around to another quick shake. This will keep in the fridge for months.

Simple syrup comes in handy for a variety of cocktails and applications. I sometimes mix a bit in with cut-up tomatoes when they aren't up to par. And, of course, a bit of simple in a margarita rounds out the drink and makes it more approachable, especially for morning drinking. And also for your friends who may not be as enamoured of the acidic zing of margaritas as you and me.

Put away that sauce pan and get shakin'.

Margarita recipe.

In a shaker filled with ice, add

  • 3 ounces silver (100% agave) tequila (please, people, only 100% agave...it'll say so right on the label).
  • 1 ounce Cointreau (accept no substitute).
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice (that's juice, from a lime, that you squeezed).
  • A squirt of simple syrup if it's before noon, or skip it if it's after noon.
  • Perhaps a pinch of salt.
  • Shake the balls off of it. At least 20 shakes. You want the water to incorporate into the cocktail.
  • Strain over fresh ice (or up in a cocktail glass if you're sophisticated).
  • Enjoy.
  • Repeat.

 


Eating in Barcelona: Part IV: Avesta for absinthe and Hisop for lunch

Avesta bar

After that wonderful paella at Merendero de la Mari, we started wandering through the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic), still very excited to be in day one of our visit to Barcelona. The Gothic Quarter reminded us very much of Bairro Alto in Lisbon. Stumbling onto a tiny bar, curiously playing American music from the 70s on the sound system, just as we did in Lisbon one night, reinforced that feeling.

The oddly small door to the oddly small bar called Avesta caught our eye. Well, factually, the sign out front that included the word "absinthe" caught my eye. In we went.

There was a bartender, and a single patron, watching some sort of sporting event on the TV. I didn't concern myself with the game, but inquired on the absinthe directly. I don't know much about absinthe, other than I drink it quite often in cocktails. I was advised that they carry several Spanish absinthes, and when in Rome...

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Chakra: Paramus, NJ

Boy oh boy, I can sure hold a grudge.

I was an early supporter of Chakra (shit music autoplay alert), the large, square, windowless "romantic" restaurant on Route 4 in Paramus, when it opened 10 years and several owner/chefs ago. Unnnnnntil. During one visit in 2004, we finished up our dinner, and wanted to take dessert home to enjoy on the couch in front of the TV. Here's what I wrote about this back then:

"we were a bit fatigued by the end of the meal, but we wanted to take home dessert to have with some sherry on the couch. i asked the waiter if we could take home dessert, and which ones would travel for 5 minutes, and we made our decisions. he came back and said he was sorry but "the chef won't do take-out."

i asked him if he told the chef that we had dinner and ordered wine and the whole deal, and he assured me that he did but the answer was "no." he then said that if we wanted to order dessert for the table, he could then wrap anything that we didn't finish, effectively suggesting that we order it, he brings it to the table, he then brings it back and has it wrapped to go. i told him to "tell the chef that i don't want to play games." i can appreciate "rules," but this one seemed to be applied without a consideration for customer service. tsk tsk."

For some reason I begrudgingly returned two additional times, each getting worse than the previous. I didn't return to Chakra, largely based on that chef's handling of that situation, and the rest of the ensuing kitchen and management issues, for many, many years after 2004. He simply did not deserve my money or support.

Under the latest chef/owner, Thomas Ciszak, I did visit once a few years back with a large group, and more recently about a year ago solo, but wasn't compelled enough to return. I think the above transaction was still in the forefront of my mind, tainting my opinion of the place, even though it was under a different chef and management. In fact there's no denying that's the case. Not to mention the spicy margarita was much too spicy, and the tuna tartare had an unpleasant bitter flavor.

Fast forward to Chakra's recent 10 year anniversary party, when local bloggers/media and regulars were treated to a Monday night party in celebration of the dance of receiving free meals for publicity, in the case of the media/bloggers, and being regulars, in the case of the regulars--as I sat at home making Chinese food, completely not invited. Intent on tempering the water of any gushing reviews coming out of this warm oil massage of an event, Chakra went back on my list.

More importantly, a few people whose opinions I trust are regulars and tell me that they're really, truly, doing a good job at Chakra, even when you have to pay for the food. Based on this recent visit, I can largely agree, with the exception of a few missteps.

But first, a cocktail.

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The Flying Fig: Ohio City, Cleveland, OH

Flying Fig exterior

I would have, in a second, returned to The Black Pig for another meal on this Sunday afternoon. But they're not open during the day on Sundays. The Flying Fig was on my radar, and seemed like a good plan B. A Chef-owned restaurant with an interesting cocktail list and an appreciation for local farmers always always seems like a good combination to me.

Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation

So after a stroll through the Ohio Erie Canal Reservation to take a look at the underbelly of Cleveland's infrastructure, off I went for lunch.

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The Black Pig: Ohio City: Cleveland, OH

Black pig exterior

Update (2014/10/21): The Black Pig will be moving to a new location at 2801 Bridge Ave), where they plan on reopening mid-November, 2014.

As we finished up lunch, I mentioned to the bartender that if people eat and drink this well in Cleveland, then I want to move there.

The Black Pig was our first stop during a recent trip to Cleveland, and, as it turned out, the best. The Black Pig was such a standout that we couldn't help but want to return to again. It's just as well that we couldn't make a return visit happen, because I wouldn't want to tarnish the memory of a near-perfect meal during that one lunch.

Black Pig interior1

A more welcoming and comfortable restaurant you'd be hard-pressed to design. Great stools, lots of leg room at the bar, hooks under the bar for your bags, soaring ceilings, original artwork on the exposed brick walls, two great big mirrors framing the booze, an open kitchen overlooking the dining room, and outdoor deck seating as well. 

I got the vibe of good management and training, which is so refreshing. A chef-driven restaurant with a good, strong, supporting cast is a combination that can lead to magical results. The Black Pig illustrates this.

Black Pig corpse

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Velveteen Rabbit: Las Vegas cocktails

Wall

It wasn't but a few years ago when you'd be hard pressed to find many options for decent cocktails in Las Vegas. During a visit back in '09 a friend and I ended up at the bar in the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at The Paris. I think that was the only place we could come up with in that area that had any sort of cocktail program.

Thankfully, this has all changed.  The improbable explosion of new hotels and casinos, and the influx of celebrity chefs' restaurants, have brought with them lots of opportunities to drink very well in Vegas. The Cosmopolitan alone has several great options, not least of all being Comme Ça, which also has an excellent burger I should note. The bar at the Mandarin Oriental is no slouch, and offers spellbinding views of the strip. At the bars and restaurants right off of the casino floor at Aria you will find tequilas and cocktails and glorious fun oh my. If you find yourself at the Paris, skip the Eiffel Tower Restaurant bar and go directly to Gordon Ramsay Steak, for fine cocktails indeed (and, as it turns out, another excellent burger).

This is all well-and-good if you want to drop 14-18 bucks a drink, and putter around the strip. But if you're looking for something a little more low-key, a little more organic, a little more less corporate, a lot more less expensive, then you might want to check out Velveteen Rabbit, in what is called the Arts District, near downtown (old Vegas). A reader tipped me off to this place and off I went.

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Best Dishes of 2013: The not-necessarily-NJ edition

It's time for a list, right? End of the year type thing? Wrap-up? Is that what they call it?

Every now and again I'll put together a year-end wrap-up thing, generally focusing on the most notable dishes that I ate (rather than the "best" restaurants). When I started reviewing Amex statements and photos for this year's list, I quickly determined that we enjoyed a greater number of memorable meals outside of New Jersey than we did inside. And this list reflects that fact. So if you're not interested in ever leaving NJ, you should probably close your browser's tab now.

For those still reading, I present to you, my completely self-indulgent list of the Best Dishes of 2013: The not-necessarily-NJ edition.

Let's start with a cocktail, shall we?

 

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Fishing with Dynamite: Manhattan Beach, CA

Manhattan-Beach
Fishing with Dynamite (FWD) is a restaurant that I'd visit very week if I lived in the neighborhood. This bold proclamation is being made based on one visit.

How could I come to this conclusion from just one visit? Because everything was right at FWD. From the cocktails to the interesting room with 3 different seating options (bar, raw bar, tables) to the bottles of still and sparkling water to the warm service to the friendly hosts to the sun flowing in through the large windows to the wines from all around the globe to the fresh and delicious fish to the excellent oyster selection, it's all right. Did I mention those great desserts? 

I think I've said it all, so I guess I'll just post some pictures.

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The Strand House: Manhattan Beach, CA

Strand-house-exterior
I kept saying that I was going to LA. And when I got back I kept referencing the "trip to LA." I'm not really sure how the geographical and cultural boundaries work out there, but it occurred to me that spending time in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Laguna Beach, perhaps meant that I wasn't in Los Angeles at all.  Is that the case? Someone tell me.

Either way, after landing in LA (I assume LAX is considered to be in "LA"), I knew the one between me and lunch was getting the rental car. I had been obsessing over this transaction since sitting in Newark. This is just about always a hassle (SFO has to be the absolute worst that I've experienced), for some reason that is beyond me. However, being a Hertz Gold member actually paid off this time: the car was waiting with the keys in it (although my name wasn't on the board, and I had to go inside, and get on one of the virtual customer rep things, and then go wait in the Gold line after that). Will wonders never cease. Then it was off to the very lovely Beach House in Hermosa Beach to unload, and off to lunch.

I was looking for something near the water, with tacos, cocktails, a view, some local beers, interesting food, a clean and focused menu, and bar dining, because bar dining is always preferable. I'm very easy to please. Some quick googling yielded The Strand House, in Manhattan Beach. The menu looked pretty damned interesting to my starving eyes, and included a burger, fish tacos, hamachi crudo, charcuterie, and a few cocktails ta boot.  Turned out to be very pleasant.

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