Dec
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

Faith & Flower -

Faith & Flower – sipping a Harry Winston

The Best (& Less Than) LA Cocktails 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Melrose Umbrella Co.

Melrose Umbrella Co.

A few weeks ago, I returned to LA (past years of recommends here), a region where I spent 12 years of my life and still have family — where I used to frequent music venues and continue to dig into its endless (vastly spread out) food enclaves.

Drink research is easier to manage. For a city that has vastly improved in terms of quality cocktails in recent years, it’s still not exactly overflowing with dream drink destinations as many of my favorite cities in the world are. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of standouts, but I find it pretty easy to keep up on the notable newcomers each year.

Sassafras in Hollywood

Sassafras in Hollywood

Let’s get the not-so-stellar out of the way. My recent returns have yielded a number of spots that fall into underwhelming or decent — and sometimes even bad — categories. Sassafras in Hollywood charms with live Dixieland-meets-soul bands playing from a balcony overlooking a bar that is decidedly Disney-ified New Orleans under a sprawling faux oak tree with interior walls painted to look like an old Southern mansion. Enter this “house” and linger over a drink on vintage furniture. The cocktails are fine – of the simple ginger beer or soda or basic classics kind – but they have definitely improved from what they were when they first opened. The place is more about the kitsch and invigorating-but-deafening live music, although beware: you won’t be able to speak a word to your friends right next to you when bands are playing.

Melrose Umbrella Co.

Melrose Umbrella Co.

Melrose Umbrella Company, open since January in Fairfax, is absolutely beautiful. They win big points in my book for being decidedly chill and not obnoxious, even on a weekend, which can be hard to come by in LA. Unfortunately, drinks can be unbalanced as with a far too sour (and you’re talking to the queen of sour who can’t stand too-sweet cocktails) Romance Without Pressure ($14), a mix of Oxley gin, passion fruit, cucumber and grapefruit — a hint of simple syrup would have let the flavors sing instead of the whole thing coming of as puckeringly sour and flat. Twig & Berries ($12) fared much better in terms of balance, however, with a vibrant garden mix of muddled red grapes, red and orange bell pepper and lemon with Dos Armadillo Reposado Tequila, perked up with little heat from Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur.

The Commissary at the Line Hotel

The Commissary at the Line Hotel

Worst service award goes to The Commissary, upstairs from Roy Choi’s new POT restaurant at the Line Hotel (more on POT in my next LA dining article). I was eager to see what Matthew Biancaniello, who created the menu, has been up to since the 2011 days when he first impressed me as one of LA’s real standout bartenders at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, realizing it wouldn’t be the same without him behind the bar (he’s been doing these intriguing pop-ups). Though the garden atrium setting next to the pool on the Line Hotel rooftop could be seen as “magical” from some angles, the experience is also a bit odd, while serving cocktails in plastic tubs (to take poolside) is not merely odd but annoying.

Cocktails in a plastic tub at The Commissary

Cocktails in a plastic tub at The Commissary

Far worse were female bartenders who acted disinterested to downright rude with the women among us yet fake-friendly with the men.

The cocktails ($13)? They tended towards herbaceous and garden-fresh as one would expect with Biancello recipes (like passion fruit and Calisaya liqueur in a White Fir), but in the case of a Gin & Juice, it was frustrating to pay $12 for basic well gin (City of London) mixed with one juice in a plastic tub, even if earthy-fresh beet juice and gin is tasty. With literally no other components – and without being a more complex gin like St. George Terroir or the like — it felt like a case of one of those little-effort cocktails that costs the same as labor-intensive cocktails.

And now for the 3 standout new-ish bars, 2 of them in restaurants and all 3 of them in Downtown LA, which as far as I’m concerned has become one of the very best parts of LA for food and drinks lovers:

BAR JACKALOPE inside SEVEN GRAND

Bar Jackalope

Bar Jackalope

After my recent mind-blowing travels around Japan, I more than appreciate the concept and inspiration behind Bar Jackalope, opened in January and hidden in the back of Seven Grand (one of the first better cocktail bars that opened in 2007 after years of hunting for quality cocktail spots in LA – it’s way too mobbed for me to bother going any more but it was one of the early signs of change in LA. It’s also home to over 400 whiskies, among LA’s largest).

Bypass the noise of Seven Grand (although you’ll still hear its live bands through the wall in Bar Jackalope) and ring the back doorbell in the hallway. Despite the speakeasy nature of such a set up, Jackalope is not pretentious and the intimate bar is blessedly mellow and chill, like the great (and often tiny) Japanese bars. In fact, what the doorbell and regulation does is exactly what it needs to do, which is keep the space intimate and relaxed.

Bar Jackalope's cozy few tables

Bar Jackalope’s cozy few tables

One key difference from countless incredible bars in Japan is certainly the whisk(e)y selection, although it is still a broad and in-depth selection, covering all whisk(e)y categories from American to Scotch. But as those of us who have traveled around Japan know, the bottles available behind so many of the best bars in Japan are unreal, rare and shockingly affordable — bottles we would never see elsewhere or if we did, would be at a huge premium for a taste. So for those of us who “have tasted it all” or have extensive whisk(e)y selections at home, it can be disappointing to pay a lot for a dram that is not that rare.

View from my LA loft rooftop (thanks, AirBnB)

View from my LA loft rooftop (thanks, AirBnB)

But the plus is that Jackalope’s attentive staff are very helpful with recommendations, there are options by smaller pours, allowing people to create flights or taste a few — and there is a cigar porch, another very welcome aspect. Besides whiskies, there are three basic cocktails only: The Highball, which is ubiquitous everywhere in Japan (and served beautifully here), an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.

All black leather, dark woods, mounted jackalope heads and candlelight, this place is wins high marks for seeking to bring a touch of Japan to the US.

FAITH & FLOWER

Faith & Flower cocktails

Faith & Flower cocktails

Coastal Luxury Management (CLM) — the group behind Los Angeles Food & Wine, Pebble Beach Food & Wine and my Monterey favorite, Restaurant 1833 — opened Faith & Flower this Spring. It’s one of the more striking dining rooms in LA (a city with plenty of striking dining rooms): lush with greens, leather booths, velvet, crystal chandeliers, feather fans and, as at 1833 in Monterey, absinthe and amaro carts.

F&F's bar

F&F’s bar

Chef Michael Hung came from San Francisco’s La Folie and Michael Lay moved from bar manager at 1833 to oversee the program here. His cocktails ($10-14) are a key draw at Faith & Flower and some of the most refined in LA, whether a perfect English Milk Punch (Jerry Thomas’ 1862 recipe, utilizing the fantastic Smith & Cross rum, among other spirits, for added funk and complexity) or a classic Adonis cocktail from Harry Craddock’s 1933 recipe, layered with Fino sherry, Royal Combier orange liqueur, house orange bitters, angelica root tincture and subtly bitter, aromatic Bigalette China-China Amer.

F&F's

F&F menus arrive in specially designed books & vintage books

The Harry Winston cocktail is a favorite and one of the best showcases for Japanese blended whiskey I’ve tasted in a cocktail in any city (including Tokyo and Kyoto!). Nikka 12 year Japanese whisky is combined with King’s Ginger liqueur, kuro sato (an Okinawan black sugar) and house teapot bitters (various herbs and spices), garnished with a flamed orange twist. It’s bracing and elegant, bold and balanced.

While you can savor the drinks over lunch or dinner in F&F’s gorgeous dining room, there is a separate bar area that is first come, first served along the long, inviting bar housing an excellent and wide-ranging spirits selection.

Faith & Flower's dining room

Faith & Flower’s dining room

BESTIA

Bestia's bar

Bestia’s bar

Bestia has been at the top of every kind of restaurant list since it opened in 2012 and is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in town. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I’d recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with the full menu available.

Bestia — from chef Ori Menashe (former chef de cuisine at the wonderful Angelini Osteria), his pastry chef wife Genvieve Gergis and restaurateur Bill Chait — succeeds on all fronts in what can easily be a tired category: modern Italian. The food and the wine list (thanks to wine director Maxwell Leer) are all impeccable and I found not a misstep anywhere (note: the wine list has a section just for Riesling, God bless ‘em. There is also a strong list of whites from my favorites like Croatia, Slovenia, Loire Valley, Austria, Hungary, as well as reds from Italy, France, Spain. I loved a dry 2013 Falkenstein Spatlese — $16 a glass — from Mosel, Germany).

Bestia cocktails

Bestia cocktails

Likewise, service is attentive and servers are far more knowledgeable than many an LA hotspot. Though I am used to servers who know their wines and cuisine (and are often sommelier level) here at home, that is not the average server in a destination Los Angeles restaurant. Here, the staff know their food and drink. The bar staff are crafting impeccable cocktails created by LA bar great Julian Cox. Thankfully, execution follows suit and the many drinks I tasted have that all-important sense of balance — and are delicious. In fact, I was most impressed by these cocktails over most LA offerings namely because of a sense of harmony and sophistication.

A twist on a classic Toronto

A twist on a classic Toronto

Our adept bartender served us off-menu twists on a Toronto cocktail and and one of my all time favorite cocktails for nearly a decade, an Old Pal (bartender’s choice drinks are $13).

On menu (Cox’s recipes), I was impressed with the refreshing yet complex layers of Buena Alli ($14), mixing blanco tequila, espadin mezcal, lemon, quince jam, orgeat, bergamot bitters and seltzer. The Vermonster ($14) was another elegant standout, served up, martini-esque with Barr Hill gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Strega, orange bitters and a fig leaf as garnish. If only Bestia wasn’t so hard to get into, this would be one of my top LA hangouts for food and drink.

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Nov
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

Square Root, an ambitious new restaurant

Square Root, an ambitious new restaurant

8 Best Meals in New Orleans in 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Rooftop pool at the centrally-located Omni Royal Hotel

Rooftop pool at centrally-located Omni Royal

Back in my beloved New Orleans. During my annual visits, I am able to catch up on my many newcomers since the prior visit. I returned to spots like Sylvain and Café Adelaide, ordered sandwiches for my flight home from St. James Cheese Company, and in coffee, and went daily to my favorite Spitfire Coffee near the ideally-located Omni Royal Hotel, where I returned for another stay. When I moved to the mellow Maison Dupuy Hotel, I was delighted to find a fantastic new coffee newcomer — also a vintage barware and bike shop — just around the corner, Arrow Cafe, serving Four Barrel Coffee from SF to make me feel right at home.

Last issue, I covered the best of new bars and cocktails this year in Nola, and here are my top New Orleans meals this year from both newcomers and repeat favorites:

Liquid nitrogen preparation at Square Root:

Liquid nitrogen preparation at Square Root:

Tasting Menu Extraordinaire: Square Root

Artful foie gras course

Artful foie gras course

Square Root is easily the most exciting New Orleans’ newcomer on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge and cocktails. The historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around upstairs bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root. Downstairs is a 16-seat bar surrounding a live kitchen where executive chef Phillip Lopez and team turn out sophisticated, international dishes (sometimes with molecular touches) right in front of you. It’s a 12-15 course dinner ($150 per person) and changes constantly so each experience is unique.

Shaved white truffles over eggs

Shaved white truffles over eggs

What I appreciate most, besides occasional “wow” moments — when New Orleans flavors and classic dishes are reinterpreted with a Mexican, Asian, global slant — is Lopez’ vision to bring something to Nola that isn’t already here, attempting to be on par with visionary tasting menus found all over NYC, Chicago, LA or SF. There is much possibility and artistry here and I can’t wait to see how Square Root unfolds.

Square Root: mole and cornbread

Square Root: mole and cornbread

Square Root's intimate dining room is up & close & personal with the cooking of their multi-course meal

Square Root’s intimate dining room is up close & personal with the kitchen

Oh, Those Beignets: SoBou

Beignets

Duck Confit Debris & Foie Gras Beignets

Since the week it opened, I’ve been drawn to SoBou for lovely Abigail Gullo’s cocktails, but the food keeps up, maybe even more than in its initial opening days.

Summer was showcased in one of my favorite regional specialties: Creole tomatoes. Akin to amazing heirloom tomatoes at home in Northern California, these juicy red, yellow and green tomatoes ($13) come from Covey Rise Farms ($13), piled high with spicy legumes (black eyed peas, etc.), grilled summer corn and arugula in sugarcane vinegar made into caviar-like pearls. But all bets are off with decadent sweet potato beignets ($12) drizzled in foie gras fondue, filled with duck confit debris and accented by chicory coffee ganache. Sigh.

Out of the Way Surprise: Treo

The best part of Treo may be its clean but funky design & warm service

The best part of Treo may be its clean but funky design & warm service

On a sweltering, hot day, I went well out of my way to try newcomer Treo in Mid City because the menu called to me. Cocktails were intriguing but some came in surprisingly miniscule portions (half the size of a typical cocktail), especially at $10-11 each — and flavors weren’t always realized either though I loved the ingredient combination, as with Phet Nit Nawy (translates to “a little bit spicy” in Thai) mixing Genepy des Alpes liqueur, Ransom dry herbal vermouth, tarragon syrup and Thai chilies. But the Southeast Asian influence is not much seen (and thus needed) in these parts.

Treo's gumbo

Treo’s gumbo

Food was the highlight, particularly on the “pie” front. Crawfish empanadas ($8), a Spanish twist on classic crawfish pie, were a delight, while Nola’s legendary Hubig’s was the inspiration behind a fried blueberry pie ($8) accented by crème anglaise and fresh blueberries.

Even Better 1 Year In: Peche

Surprisingly excellent fish stick

Surprisingly excellent fish sticks

Since I first visited Peche right when it opened last year, chef/owners Ryan Prewitt, Donald Link and Stephan Stryjewski have been garnering a heavy dose of accolades, including being named Best New Restaurant in the US at the 2014 James Beard Awards. While all that feels a bit exaggerated for the large, deafeningly noisy space, returning this year, it was clear in terms of food, Peche has come into its own.

Whole fish

Whole fish: Louisiana speckled trout

Over rounds of seafood, it’s a pleasure, whether ridiculously good fish sticks ($11), oozing, warm shrimp fontina croquettes ($10) or grilled corn on the cob ($5) smothered in Alabama white sauce (hell, yes!) It works best as a shared plates kind of place, particularly with whole fish specials like grilled Louisiana speckled trout ($36) with pancetta and celery or smothered catfish ($16).

Creole tomatoes at their peak in summer at SoBou

Creole tomatoes at their peak in summer at SoBou

Brunch Perfection: Ralph’s On The Park

Brandy Milk Punch

Brandy Milk Punch

Facing massive City Park in Mid City, Ralph’s On the Park is one of my favorite classic New Orleans brunches, a ritual I partake in every year (for over 7 years) at different places around the city. Though Ralph’s doesn’t have live jazz and I prefer jazz brunch when I can get it, their food is among the best brunches I’ve had in Nola — and a deal at $28 for a 3-course brunch.

Ralph's on the Park

Ralph’s on the Park

While sipping a classic Brandy Milk Punch ($8 – brandy, milk, simple syrup, nutmeg, vanilla extract) — also a key part of my Nola brunch tradition (along with a Cafe Brulot) — I start with pickled beet salad ($6.50) accented by baby arugula, red onion and creamy feta with an unusual touch of orange blossom vinegar. Fried smoked oysters ($11) are excellent in Buffalo Trace tomato jam and white remoulade sauce, while chicken & waffles ($15) are given a twist with the chicken wrapped in country ham, all in red eye gravy. Their turtle soup finished with sherry ($8) is the best I’ve ever had after trying many versions over the years.

Elegant Comfort: Herbsaint

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Crab in watermelon gazpacho

While I might prefer other Donald Link restaurants (namely the aforementioned Peche; Cochon is wildly popular, but after a few visits over the years, I enjoy but find it overrated), the older Herbsaint turns out a number of lovely dishes, thanks to Link and Chef de Cuisine Rebcca Wilcomb. While pricey sparkling cocktails like the Herbsaint Champagne ($13) are disappointing, the wine list offers plenty of acidic, Old World whites to accompany seafood.

Herbsaint's massive, delicious, slow-cooked lamb neck

Massive slow-cooked lamb neck

Jumbo lump crab ($14) is lively in watermelon gazpacho dotted with lime-jalapeno aioli. Louisiana shrimp and fish ceviche ($12) is perked up with cucumbers and pepitas. I love tender rabbit fricassee ($14) over garganelli pasta, decadent with bacon and pumpkin, the clincher being a rich Madeira sauce.

One of the dining rooms at SoBou

One of the dining rooms at SoBou

Not-Your-Average-Nola-Dive-Bar: St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence' burger

St. Lawrence’ burger

Dive-y but not dingy, St. Lawrence is a welcome addition to the Quarter. It’s open all day and night, offering affordable comfort food made with quality ingredients and the best damn boozy slushies in a neighborhood famous for bastardizing the category. Just try their bracing, delicious Pimm’s Cup slushies and try not to be converted.

Sip a slushie on a hot day alongside a platter of heartwarming fried chicken ($15) mashed potatoes and braised collard greens or an 8 oz. Creekstone Angus beef burger ($12) on a Kaiser bun with white cheddar ($1).

Drinks & Southern Goodness: Kingfish

Kingfish's fried green tomatoes & Hoppin' John

Kingfish’s fried green tomatoes & Hoppin’ John

Kingfish is all about bartender legend Chris McMillian and his few-but-utterly-perfect classics, included the best Suissesse ($12) — a classic, creamy absinthe cocktail, here made with Herbsaint, orgeat and cream — you’ll ever have.

But it’s also about fun food, my recent favorite being a top notch version of Hoppin’ John salad ($9) accompanied by a fried green tomato with remoulade sauce. On the entree front, shrimp gaufre ($22) is Nola-style BBQ shrimp atop a cornmeal waffle pirogue on sweet potato puree.

The courtyard of Nola's Maison Dupuy hotel, one of a few places I've stayed in the French Quarter - this hotel is a quiet respite in the Quarter with a pool in the coutryard

The courtyard of Nola’s Maison Dupuy hotel, one of a number of places I’ve stayed in the French Quarter – this hotel is a quiet respite in the Quarter with a pool in the courtryard

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Nov
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

Square Root

Square Root’s Private Dancer

Best Cocktails in New Orleans 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

The new Barrel Proof

The new Barrel Proof

Back in my beloved New Orleans. Newcomers are minimal enough in a given year that I can catch up on them on my annual visits. Restaurants open at a steadier clip (though not at all like the pace at home), while new cocktail bars are few. Alongside the likes of Treo (better for food than cocktails) and Barrel Proof (a very cool, expansive space, ideal for groups of friends and boasting a good whisk(e)y selection, though mediocre cocktails), I visited bars that opened between late 2013 and 2014 and returned to a number of favorites, like Sylvain, Kingfish, SoBou, Bar Tonique and classic greats like Napoleon House and French 75.

Here are my top New Orleans cocktails this year from both newcomers and favorites:

Square Root

Square Root's upstairs lounge

Square Root’s upstairs lounge

Square Root is easily the most exciting newcomer to New Orleans on the dining side — and the same holds true for its upstairs bar/lounge. The lovely space in a historic building boasts a balcony and a wrap-around bar from which bartenders turn out impeccable cocktails, dishes and bites akin to the creative quality I love at their parent restaurant, Root.

Two initial delights? Zwack to the Future (love that name), a mix of funky-beautiful Smith & Cross rum and Hungarian Zwack herbal liqueur with Cherry Heering (a cocktail by NYC guest bartender John Henderson) and house cocktail, Private Dancer, a light, refreshing-savory mix of blanco tequila, Cocchi Americano, lime, hibiscus and pink peppercorn.

Cane & Table

Cane & Table

CellarDoor

CellarDoor

CellarDoor

Romantic and ethereal, the multi-roomed CellarDoor, tucked down a CBD (Central Business District) street in an 1800’s brick building, would be my other strong recommend of the newcomers. It feels oh-so-New-Orleans with its historic, candlelit, chandelier-draped look, yet it stays current with playful, Asian-influenced food, like curried plantain chips in Malaysian satay sauce ($5) or ginger shrimp heads ($7) doused in scallions, miso crème fraiche and wasabi roe.

Since 1797, the great Napoleon House

Since 1797, the great Napoleon House

There’s a strong wine list of Rieslings, Txakolina from Basque region, wines from Rioja, Spain, and Jura, France, and the fantastic Movia Rebula from Slovenia ($75 bottle). Cocktails stick to the straightforward classics, like an Old Fashioned ($9) with hand cut ice, while house concoctions might by the likes of Summer Sling ($11), a bracing combination of Rittenhouse Rye, Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, Licor 43, Herbsaint (an anisette similar to absinthe), hopped grapefruit bitters and lemon.

St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence's Pimms Cup Slushie

St. Lawrence’s Pimms Cup Slushie

Dive-y but not dingy, St. Lawrence is a welcome addition to the Quarter. It’s open all day and night, offering affordable comfort food made with quality ingredients and the best damn boozy slushies in a neighborhood famous for bastardizing the category. Just try their bracing, delicious Pimm’s Cup slushies and try not to be converted. Or there’s straightforward, refreshing drinks like Beet Belief ($8), a blend of Junipero gin, lemon, beet syrup and sparkling wine (I wish there was more earthy beet taste).

Sip a slushie on a hot day alongside a platter of heartwarming fried chicken ($15) mashed potatoes and braised collard greens or an 8 oz. Creekstone Angus beef burger ($12) on a Kaiser bun with white cheddar ($1).

Always a must-stop when in Nola: Loa

Always a must-stop when in Nola: Loa

Loa

Loa

At Loa, a mix of Diplomatico rum, tangerine, grains of paradise, rosemary

I can’t be in Nola without returning to Loa, which I first wrote about in 2012, for Alan Walters creative cocktails, among the best — and certainly the most visionary — in the city.

This year I savored the gorgeous, extreme bitter of Amaro Dell’Erborista mingling in a wine glass with watermelon, citrus and Stappj bitter soda. I was fascinated by Walters use of grains in a Toasted Wild Birdseed Old Fashioned ($12), where he toasts millet, quinoa and other grains, infused in Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon and accented by xocolatl mole bitters. The Twice Worn Kilt ($12) is an earthy, booze-forward combination of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon, saffron, sage, Bitter Queens Marie Laveau tobacco bitters (from my hometown of SF) with a smoky Scotch rinse. Loa is a not-to-miss cocktail destination in New Orleans.

Bellocq

Bellocq

Bellocq’s Improved Jefferson Bamboo

Another spot I return to each time I’m in Nola, Bellocq is a haven for all things Cobbler, with many variations on a classic Cobbler cocktail, including a nutty, refreshing Sherry Cobbler ($8.95). But they go well beyond. This year I was delighted by Tomato, Tomato ($9.95), showing off their house tomato lemongrass shrub, vibrant and lively with a splash of Champagne. Another standout was an Improved Jefferson Bamboo ($14.99), showing off my beloved Madeira with bitter Italian Montanaro bianco vermouth.

Cane & Table

Cane & Table's Boss Colada

Cane & Table’s Boss Colada

Back at Cane & Table again, I like it better as it passes the year mark with strong bartenders and an Old World vibe.

One their most popular drinks is the Boss Colada ($12), a long, tropical mix of pineapple, lime and Baska Snaps, a bitters Swedish malort. But I particularly enjoy a rosy, pink Eastern Cottonwood ($12), essentially a Madeira punch punctuated by herbal, citrus notes from Curacao and Yellow Chartreuse. They do right by Madeira here with another off-menu standout (when I asked for more Madeira) made with a Bual Madeira, funky-beautiful Smith & Cross rum and house falernum (and almond, ginger, clove syrup).

Ever-inspiring architecture

Ever-inspiring architecture

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Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Oct
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

The great Canlis - head to the lounge for jazz and Scotch with a view

The great Canlis – head to the lounge for jazz and Scotch with a view

Where to Drink in SEATTLE

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Overlooking Canlis lounge & dining room from the stairwell leading to private dining rooms upstairs

Overlooking Canlis lounge & dining room from the stairwell leading to private dining rooms upstairs – but be aware: the cocktails run around $18

Though I’ve visited a number of times over the past 15 years, it’s 3 visits to Seattle within a 7 month period that had me up-to-date on restaurant and cocktail/bar newcomers as well as caught up on some classics I always meant to visit (hello, Canlis!)

Though many visits later, I don’t find myself having that “soul connection” I can feel so intensely with my favorite places around the world, I have dear friends who live here and have, over time, experienced more of the gems in many neighborhoods of the city. Last time, I covered Seattle food — now it’s favorite cocktails and bars.

_________________________

Artusi aperitifs

Artusi aperitifs

Being required to serve food at all bars, most bars are restaurants and some great cocktails can be found at restaurants (like a couple I covered last issue, Barnacle and The Whale Wins). I’ve also had good cocktails, if not as noteworthy at my top choices outlined below, at Artusi, an Italian aperitivo bar and restaurant where an off-menu request resulted in a delightfully bitter-refreshing cocktail of Amaro Sibilla, Broker’s Gin, lemon, soda and Nardini’s Aqua di Cedro citrus liqueur with Italian bites.

Spur cocktails can be hit-and-miss with some, like an ambitious combination of tomato, honeydew, strawberry syrup, Rhum J.M., lemon and house dandelion tincture, sounding more interesting than it tasted. Still, there is a well-curated, smaller spirits collection at the intimate bar.

Clever Bottle

Clever Bottle

Odd (and high) fellow patrons rather ruined the vibe at Clever Bottle late night (which seems a general problem in Belltown), but the staff and cocktails are otherwise pleasing, particularly a house dark fruit peppercorn shrub ($9), bracing with rye whiskey, rosemary and peppercorn. Early hours might bring a better vibe?

Triumph Bar's Big Ciao

Triumph Bar’s Big Ciao

A place that still felt like it was finding itself when I visited in April (it is now one year old) is the restaurant Triumph Bar, in the shadow of the Space Needle. Heavy on Italian wines, charcuterie and cheeses and gastropub fare, Triumph’s cocktails show promise, with subtle culinary and molecular touches, as with Big Ciao ($11), mixing gin, Green Chartreuse and lemon, garnished with poached apple and washed with olive oil. I’ve had some brilliant olive oil-washed cocktails, like Alligator Alley on Trick Dog’s menu when it first opened, that were better integrated where there was a welcome, creamy texture from the olive oil. This one was not quite there — but it was close. Other drinks that showed promise were Runoff ($12), a bracing mix of mezcal, Cynar, beer syrup, egg white and lemon, and a gratifying Rye Witch ($12) of rye whiskey, Strega and carbonated sherry (love that aspect!)

Radiator's striking barrel bar

Radiator’s striking barrel bar

Radiator Whiskey is my top Pike Place Market bar choice — and they also serve strong food (playful offal dishes like cornflake-crusted chicken livers). Their strength is a robust whisk(e)y collection alongside good cocktails like a Renegade ($10), a blend of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Yellow Chartreuse, Angostura and orange bitters. I loved a cocktail special, a tart, subtly bitter Aperol Rhubarb Smash ($10) of Buffalo Trace bourbon, mint, Aperol, lemon, rhubarb bitters.

Gorgeous: Bastille

Gorgeous: Bastille

A notable Ballard duo? Bastille charms, hidden in the back of popular Stoneburner. It’s a massive, romantic, brick-walled space, made even more romantic with live jazz sets (Django-esque, gypsy jazz on my recent visit) under sparkling chandeliers. The drinks aren’t amazing but they are well-crafted, like a Skiff Club ($10), combining gin, grapefruit cordial, rhubarb amaro, lemon, ginger and truffle salt — I wish the rhubarb and salt would have been apparent.

The Gerald

The Gerald

The Gerald is memorable for its mid-century, 1960’s look and blonde wood walls. Cocktails are ambitious and utilize small batch spirits, even if they don’t always quite work, as with a Draper Point ($10), imitating elements of Pennsylvania’s Root, a root beer/sarsaparilla liquor: bourbon, black tea, sweet vermouth, Root, apricot liqueur, Angostura bitters, orange peel and nutmeg. The drink neither tasted like Root or root beer, lacking had a distinct flavor profile. Still, I appreciate the vision behind it. A stronger cocktail was Don’t Stop the Bete ($11), using Sidetrack Distillery’s excellent Bete liquor (an earthy beet liquor I wrote about months back), mixing it with Krogstad Aquavit, simple syrup, lime, cucumber and dill for a still somewhat muddled but ultimately vegetal, bright drink.

Sun Liquor's beautiful bar at the distillery (see below)

Sun Liquor’s beautiful bar at the distillery (see below)

My Top 12

LIBERTY BAR, Capitol Hill

Liberty's back bar

Liberty’s back bar

I’ll just say it: Liberty Bar is the bar I’d rather be at any day than Canon (see below). The vibe is chill, there’s sushi and a rock star-esque hidden back room (like a green room), and the spirits collection is in the hundreds with one of the most extensive selections of Japanese whisky, American whiskey and mezcal you’ll find in Washington, thanks to owner Andrew Friedman.

Point of No Return cocktail

Point of No Return cocktail

Most importantly, one won’t find attitude in this laid back spot for excellent spirits and wonderfully affordable cocktails. On occasion, cocktails can wow, as with Keith Waldbauer’s Point Of No Return ($9). Gin, Chartreuse, absinthe and lime juice are poured over a mini-rosemary wreath in a glass and set on fire, releasing rosemary aromatics. The drink is herbaceous, almost alive with fresh, green life. Friedman’s Seattle Sour ($10) is a playful duo of bourbon, lemon juice, Stumptown Coffee Liqueur, and egg white, topped with beer foam and served with a shot of beer. It goes down all too easy.

ROCCO’S, Belltown

Rocco's

Rocco’s

Don’t let the casual vibe with (quite good) pizza by the slice under a pressed tin ceiling fool you. Rocco’s serves some seriously great cocktails, thanks to bar manager Leroy Thomas, who knows his regulars and gives everyone a hearty welcome. Visiting bars around the world, I find Thomas one of the great Seattle bartenders: he knows his spirits and cocktails, runs his bar without pretension, setting a fun tone for his customers.

Build

Build-your-own-cocktail

Rocco’s spirits and beer selection are top notch and Thomas’ cocktails ($9-12) shine, often with classic, 3-4 ingredient simplicity and perfection, like a mix of Underberg, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Cardamaro and Zucca aperitif. I particularly like Thomas’ build-your-own cocktail ($12), exquisitely served on a silver tray with shrub, spirit and soda to mix to your preference. House shrubs are bracing (thank you, vinegar) and delicious. Combinations might include a strawberry shrub with blanco tequila or a cherry coffee shrub with Courvoisier Cognac.

ESSEX, Phinney Ridge

Cocktailing at Essex

Cocktailing at Essex

Tucked away on a quiet, suburban-like street next door to pizza favorite Delancey is its sister bar, Essex, a real respite of a cocktail haven with soothing setting, friendly bartenders, a ’90s hip hip soundtrack some late nights and a mix of creative cocktails (generally $10) that aren’t fussy and often shine on the bitter side.

Cozy Essex

Cozy Essex

Bar manager Niah Bystrom serves beauties like Pink Drink 0n tap mixing Lillet, Cocchi Rosso, Dolin Blanc vermouth, spiced brine and — a pleasing surprise — a splash of Gruner Veltliner wine. Beer cocktails are also well done, like Little Rascal, mixing Espolon blanco, Burg’s Extra-Special Orange (a house citrus liqueur – read about it here), Campari, lemon and Avery White Rascal beer.

In the “off menu test,” which I often try after sampling a range from the menu, Bystrom did not disappoint — and won points with the Cash song reference — in Boy Named Suze, a bracing blend of bourbon, Cocchi Rosa, barrel-aged gin and Suze. Another standout was Dennis the Menace, a mix of rye whiskey, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, lime and soft touch of watermelon puree, balanced by an IPA beer reduction.

Back Door at Roxy's (see below)

Back Door at Roxy’s (see below)

ZIG ZAG CAFE, Downtown

The great Zig Zag

The great Zig Zag

The great Zig Zag. Though legendary Seattle bartender Murray Stenson may no longer tend there (now at The Elysian Bar), the low key bar with a touch of jazz era elegance has no shortage of great bartenders and an impeccable spirits collection.

The cocktails are solid but that’s not so much the point here. At Zig Zag it’s the vibe, the classy, warm welcome and the spirits knowledge of the bartenders that draws me back.

BA BAR, Central District

Ba Bar

Ba Bar

Ba Bar‘s cool, modern Vietnamese vibe and artwork glows late into night (the bar is open until 2 or 4 am, depending on the night), a laid back yet hip backdrop to creative cocktails sometimes with Asian touches. Try the beautiful Cherry Rose & Apple Blossom ($10), a tart-refreshing combination of Tieton Cherry Apple Cider, Aperol, BroVo Spirits Rose Geranium Liqueur, lime and egg white.

SUN LIQUOR, Capitol Hill

Grain sourced for distilling at Sun

Organic wheat sourced for distilling at Sun

Sun Liquor has two bars, the lounge and the bar and distillery. I’m all about their mid-century decor and design aesthetic. And having the distillery in-house is a huge win at the Pike Street location.

Sun Liquor's copper pot still

Sun Liquor’s copper pot still

I spent a lovely afternoon with Head Distiller Erik Chapman walking through his distilling process and future plans for the expanding Sun Liquor businesses. While Sun is known around WA for their gin, I much prefer their rum, which has an unexpected rhum agricole funk and liveliness with a dry sherry finish from sherry casks. Their barrel-aged rum uses 100% cane juice, fermented for ten days before being distilled twice in their lovely copper pot still, then aged in American oak and French oak sherry casks for 2 years.

Hand-cranked cardamom goes into orange bitters

Hand-cranked cardamom goes into orange bitters

Another surprise is Chapman’s aromatic orange bitters. With an unmalted, non GMO organic wheat base, the bitters taste intensely of orange blossom, fresh and bright, with a touch of juniper, coriander, cardamom.

At the bar, drinks are simple but well done, like The Artemisia ($9), an ideal aperitif of Dolin Genepy des Alpes, Salers Aperitif, lemon peel, Sun’s aromatic orange bitters and a splash of Zardetto champagne.

RUMBA, Capitol Hill

Rumba

Rumba

When it comes to rum, blessedly colorful Rumba bar and dining room (though I found the food mediocre) is Seattle’s rum bar of choice, featuring over 250 rums available in themed flights ($13-21) from my beloved rhum agricole to “spice”.

Cocktails stick to classic, 3-4 ingredient perfection (never too sweet), using impeccable ingredients, as in the case of Scarr Power ($10), featuring the great Smith & Cross rum simply mixed with nutmeg syrup and lime. Daiquiri du Bresil ($10) is another pleaser with great Banks 5 rum, Gifford’s Creme de Banana liqueur and lime. As an agricole girl, I go straight for a classic Ti Punch ($9-11) mixing a choice of agricole rhum with cane syrup and lime. Each transports to a tropical island.

NEEDLE & THREAD, Capitol Hill

Needle & Thread

Intimate Needle & Thread

Upstairs from the ever popular Tavern Law, I find less attitude than downstairs, despite the exclusivity at the sexy den known as Needle & Thread. Bartenders custom craft cocktails that are sometimes from the downstairs menu. One visit, I was particularly impressed with cocktails from bartender Tim Nguyen, including a drink he won an Averna cocktail competition with, A Whole New World (yes, an Aladdin song reference): Averna, lemon, jasmine-infused Old Overholt Rye Whiskey and honey simple syrup.

N&T's romantic setting

N&T’s romantic setting

Another standout drink of Nguyen’s from the Tavern Law menu was All Bets Are Off ($13), an herbaceous-bitter-sweet mix of rye whiskey, Genepy, Cocchi Americano, Cynar artichoke liqueur and peach bitters. Likewise, I enjoyed bartender Amanda Reed’s Honey Badger ($12), a bourbon-based drink subtly sweet with Giffard’s banana liqueur, spiced with Becherovka, balanced by dry vermouth and lemon.

Leon Baham’s Dusky Hummingbird ($15) also delighted, a bright-meets-smoke blend of mezcal, lychee liqueur and lime with an absinthe rinse. An off-menu bartender’s choice standout? A pink-dry-herbaceous blend of Genepy, Campari and lime made effervescent with Prosecco.

ROB ROY, Belltown

Rob Roy cocktails & animal foot lamp

Rob Roy cocktails & animal foot lamp

Though Rob Roy was one of the early bars on the cocktail renaissance map in Seattle, thanks to the talented Anu Apte, my recommendation comes with a caveat. Visiting on different nights during various times of year, the crowd — namely on a Friday night — can be downright creepy (think girls laughing about date rape that they audibly claim happens after encounters at this bar). Such a crowd almost turned me off forever to this bar and I only returned with industry friends from other cities who felt they had to go. On a mellow weeknight it was a different vibe entirely.

Rob Roy has consistently crafted some of Seattle’s best creative cocktails and the staff are quite friendly and knowledgeable, ready to chat when not mobbed by an absolutely awful Belltown party/pick-up crowd. Classic Rob Roy/Apte drinks like a Saffron Sandalwood Sour ($12), a soft but distinctive mix of gin, lemon, lime, saffron sharbat, Angostura bitters and egg whites, put this bar on the map.

WITNESS, Capitol Hill

A twist on a Toronto cocktail

A twist on a Toronto cocktail

I was there on Witness‘ opening night last year and back again this year. With its old country church decor — including quotes from historic preachers like Jonathan Edwards lining the back hall leading to the bathroom — immediately charmed me about this place. Serving the likes of Dixie Poutine ($8) laden with bacon gravy and pimento cheese, or savory-sweet cherry onion fritters ($6), I was hooked since opening night.

Witness church-themed decor

Witness church-themed decor

Cocktails are likewise a good time, whether dreamy dessert Root Down ($9), mixing Fernet Branca, iced chicory coffee and condensed milk, or simple drinks using local spirits, like Soul Tonic ($8) featuring Seattle’s Big or Sun Liquor (see above) gin with tonic and house aromatic lime cordial. The Jonathan Edwards ($12) tributes the preacher with a listed ingredient as “Wrath!” (referring to his legendary “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon). The drink combines Angostura bitters, Cognac, Cointreau, lemon, sugar and egg whites. An off menu pleaser from my last visit one mellow afternoon was a Divine Intervention (aka bartenders choice – $8-12), a twist on a Toronto cocktail: bourbon, lemon, Cherry Heering, spritz of Pacifique absinthe.

BARRIO, Capitol Hill

Emerald City Daiquiri at Barrio

Emerald City Daiquiri at Barrio

Multiple visits and Barrio has done me right on the tequila and mezcal front each time I drop in and sit at its huge, wrap-around bar. Though in Washington one typically does not find the vast range of agave spirits California bars have long had access to (due to liquor law differences and, of course, California’s long-dominant Mexican population and proximity to Mexico), Barrio is one of the strongest agave spirits selections I’ve found in Seattle — with plenty of whiskey besides.

Friendly staff bring out bowls of guacamole and pour housed aged spirits like a woody and warm Aha Toro Anejo aged in Woodinville rye barrels for 6 months. I like the hint of heat behind Death in the Rio Grande ($10), which comes from a ghost chile-infused reposado tequila, lime, grapefruit, Campari and agave nectar. Though it’s not a rum bar, I love their Emerald City Daiquiri ($11), showcasing neighboring Sun Liquor’s (above) silver rum, Genepy, sugar and lime.

HAZELWOOD, Ballard

Hazelwood

Hazelwood

With two floors oozing intimate quirk and romance, Hazelwood is my kind of hangout. There are merely four stools at the tiny bar, while upstairs couches are the other seating options under crystal chandelier and mounted animal skulls and horns.

Bartenders tend to be friendly, able to craft something interesting from the small but thoughtful spirits collection.

The striking bar at Back Door at Roxy's

The striking bar at Back Door at Roxy’s

Dives & Quirky Spots

Hattie's Hat

Hattie’s Hat

In the Fremont district of Seattle, Back Door at Roxy’s has drawn me back a couple of times, not so much for the solid (if at times slightly too boozy-sweet) drinks, but for the unique atmosphere. The exterior belies a flashy interior that borders on gaudy kitsch and retro elegance simultaneously. It exemplifies a sort of Rat Pack Vegas swagger though entirely laid back.

On the dive bar front, Hattie’s Hat is a heartwarming kind of dive — certainly not for high quality drinks (think kitschy, like a smoked salmon Mary using smoked salmon vodka), but for its atmosphere, musty with vintage paintings and hearty platters of fried chicken and egg scrambles. The tunes (which can often be ’80s pop and rock classics) are just right and the booths spacious, ideal with a group of friends.

Not So Much

Quirky-elegant Back Door at Roxy's

Quirky-elegant Back Door at Roxy’s

I won’t win any friends giving anything other than glowing praise for Canon, considered by Seattle-ites and many “in the industry” a temple to spirits and cocktails, winning numerous awards and on “best bar” lists everywhere.

The most notable aspect is its famed 1000+ spirits collection, which is excellent… but honesty compels me. It’s not the spirits collection, listed on an iPad (as is common for wine lists at fine dining restaurants in many cities). The spirits selection (and the fantastic whiskies in the bathroom!) is a delight for any spirits aficionado. Nor is it the cocktails, which, though overpriced, can be memorable, like Milk ‘n Cookies ($16), which when I first tried it in February before it was on the menu was a mix of Bols Genever, dark chocolate, Averna, black tea and egg cream with a mint rinse. Returning to Canon in April, I noticed it was on the menu combining Cognac, Ardbeg, chocolate, milk and Angostura bitters with a Fernet Branca rinse.

Canon's impressive spirits selection

Canon’s impressive spirits selection

The detractor each visit is the service. Unlike some of the great cocktail and spirits temples around the globe, the attitude here feels more about the “look at me, I work here” variety with a bit of disdain towards the customer rather than a warm, unpretentious air that makes bars with impeccable knowledge and collections truly great.

Oddly enough, each time I’ve been in (and I have not wanted to return but every industry visitor to Seattle feels they must check it out), it has been with key drink industry figures — master distillers, bar managers, spirits writers and the like, from around the world — and yet service has still been cautiously friendly at best, generally aloof and “too cool” for its patrons, no matter how knowledgeable they are, as a rule.

There are many places to find well-crafted drinks and solid spirits selections in this city alone — and globally there are countless bars with profound spirits collections and truly warm service. Frankly, though you will doubtless hear the opposite from everyone else, there are many better bars in Seattle and I would recommend saving your time (and money) and going elsewhere.

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Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Oct
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

Seattle view out to the mountains

Seattle hotel view out to the mountains

Where to Eat in SEATTLE

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Mamnoon's dining room (see below)

Mamnoon’s dining room (see below)

Though I’ve visited a number of times over the past 15 years, 3 visits to Seattle within a recent 7 month period has me up-to-date on restaurant and cocktail/bar newcomers as well as caught up on some classics I always meant to visit (hello, Canlis!)

Though many visits later, I don’t find myself having that “soul connection” I can feel so intensely with my favorite places around the world, I have dear friends who live here and have, over time, experienced more of the gems in many neighborhoods of the city.

This time around, we’ll talk food, next time, cocktails and bars.

Seattle Favorites

BARNACLE, Ballard

Intimate Barnacle - one bar with one table in the back

Intimate Barnacle – one bar with one table in the back

In my many visits to Seattle, there have been countless restaurants that have been disappointing. Many are overrated or some are just not memorable in the scheme of restaurants nationally and internationally.

But there is a quartet of restaurants from Renee Erickson that have been consistently amazing, three of them taking up my top Seattle recommends (the fourth is Boat Street Cafe). I visited each of Erickson’s restaurants with low expectations and every time have come away impressed and delighted, finding each to be “quintessential Pacific Northwest cuisine,” or what one hopes that term would exemplify. Wherever you live, I highly recommend Erickson’s just released (on 9/30) book, A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, a striking tome to the seasons and the style of cooking his restaurants showcase.

Barnacle amaro cocktails

Barnacle amaro cocktails

None more so than Barnacle, the newest of his restaurants which had just opened during my February visit. Sitting at one long counter in an intimate space hidden upstairs across the hall from the Walrus and the Carpenter (see below), Barnacle is an intimate seafood lover’s treasure serving a short chalkboard menu of daily changing small plates, all seafood focused, and ideak parings of Italian amaro in simple but well-executed cocktails.

Sardines in Calabrian chiles & slivers of butter

Sardines in Calabrian chiles & slivers of butter

Think the likes of whisper-thin octopus terrine ($10), drizzled in luxurious Ligurian olive oil and lemon, or spanking-fresh sardines ($8), perked up by Calabrian chiles and thick slivers of butter (shockingly fantastic when mixed together), served with Saltine crackers.

Pair these with a bracingly bitter-refreshing Chinato cocktail ($10), mixing one of my favorites, the ultra-bitter Amaro Sibilla with Italian Chinotto soda. End the night with a Calabrian cafe ($10), an Amaro CioCiaro-based coffee cocktail laden with cream and chocolate bitters.

THE WHALE WINS, Fremont

The Whale Wins

The Whale Wins

The airy, white space of Whale Wins calls out to me at lunch, and an idyllic lunch it makes, when it’s easier to get a table due to no reservations. A big hit from Renee Erickson, it’s another restaurant where seafood shines — like plump Matiz sardines on toast ($10), slathered with curried tomato paste, shaved fennel and olive oil. But  vegetables likewise star. Possibly my favorite dish here? A decadent toasted broccoli ($12) — yes, decadent. Doused in pine nut dressing, ricotta salata and olive oil, the greens are redolent of orange, what broccoli might taste like if it were dessert.

Cocktails at Whale Wins

Cocktails at Whale Wins

Cocktails ($10) are also strong here, with balanced beauties like the Resucitador, a blend of mezcal, orgeat, Cocchi Americano, lemon and Pernod for an absinthe perk, or a Normandy Old Fashioned showing off Calvados apple brandy with black tea syrup and Old Fashioned bitters. Happily, crisp Austrian and French wines dominate on the wine list.

WALRUS & THE CARPENTER, Ballard

Walrus & the Carpenter chandelier

Walrus & the Carpenter chandelier

Opening before the other two aforementioned Erickson restaurants, Walrus and the Carpenter has been a destination Seattle restaurant for years. And with good reason. Though the no reservations policy is maddening anywhere (many of us who care the most don’t have hours to wait for a seat anywhere, especially, when marathon-ing multiple meals a day), a seat at the wrap-around counter at Walrus is another pleasure of a journey through Pacific Northwest seafood, with plenty of oysters  — I tried Flapjack Point oysters from Eld Inlet, Boomstick & Sea Cow from Hammersly Inlet.

Grilled sardines ($12) walnuts, parsley, shallot

Grilled sardines ($12) walnuts, parsley, shallot

Perfect white anchovies ($10) taste brighter with beets and orange, while giant Weathervane scallops are luxurious raw as tartare ($14), vivid with grapefruit puree, vanilla oil and basil.

Cocktails didn’t exactly wow but they were solid and work with the food, a better option of the 6 I tasted being The Scottish Breakfast ($10), a blend of Scotch, Caol Ila marmalade, Nardini and cider.

Il Corvo's

Il Corvo’s almond green pesto percatelli

IL CORVO, Pioneer Square

Tables marked with the restaurant name

Tables marked with the restaurant name

Lines form early for this small, weekday lunch-only Seattle favorite, Il Corvo, where the offerings are three daily changing pastas (generally around $9) and some antipasti options as well as vermouths on ice. Word has long been out about this classic which nails what it does with simple perfection. I wondered if the spot would be worth the lines and got there just before opening at 11am. It is one of Seattle’s unique gems that doesn’t mimic greats in another cities but stands alone as a destination pasta stop. Pictured above is a dreamy almond green pesto percatelli pasta.

RESTAURANT ROUX, Fremont

Shrimp and grits with grilled bread

Shrimp and grits with grilled bread

Restaurant Roux is one of my Seattle favorites not so much because it transports me to New Orleans (it doesn’t) but its New Orleans-influenced, West Coast cooking has heart and it comforts, while the bustling, ever-packed space engages, particularly around a giant, square bar that surrounds the center kitchen and bar.

I savored frog legs ($12) and fried chicken gizzards ($5), crispy pig ear in Buffalo sauce ($6) and shrimp and grits ($16). In addition, cocktails are also a draw, thanks to Ian Cargill (formerly of Canon). Think Nola tributes like Battle of New Orleans ($10), mixing bourbon, anisette, orange bitters, Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe.

KEDAI MAKAN, Capitol Hill

Kedai Makan

Kedai Makan

Hipster, it is, but there are more than a few things about the walk-up window and bright red sidewalk stools at Kedai Makan that remind me of my months traveling around Southeast Asia. Apparently that was the inspiration from owners Kevin Burzell and Alysson Wilson who opened the place in 2012 after traveling around Malaysia.

Think Malay-style peanuts roasted with crispy anchovy, kaffir lime leaf and chilis, or murtabak, Malaysian roti filled with mint and spice-laced lamb with spicy dhal curry for dipping. It’s all fresh, alive with flavor and affordable, with little over $10.

REVEL, Fremont

Revel's carrot pancake

Revel’s carrot pancake

One of the hip Asian fusion spots we’ve known for years on the West Coast, Revel stands out in Seattle for its fresh, fun food and on my visit, a rousing ’90s hip hop soundtrack, especially appealing on a sunny day on the back deck.

A cumin-heavy carrot pancake is studded with pecans and roasted lemon yogurt ($10), while dumplings get creative in forms filled with pork and coconut ($9) in green curry. Larger plates also work, like Dungeness crab over seaweed noodles ($16) in a spicy red curry cooled by creme fraiche.

FUJI BAKERY, International District

Fuji Bakery pastries

Fuji Bakery pastries

Though Fuji Bakery is a bakery and thus should belong in my bakery section below, I include it here because it is one of my favorite Seattle stops (with another location in the Bellevue area of Seattle).

This humble shop is a gem of a bakery serving Asian-inspired pastries done in French (read: buttery) style. There are savory curry buns, classic French croissants and matcha azuki, which is sweet matcha dough filled with red bean paste, drizzled in sesame seeds and Italian salt.

MAMNOON, Capitol Hill

Mamnoon beet tahini dip

Mamnoon beet tahini dip

Mamnoon is a chic, Middle Eastern restaurant on Capitol Hill that doesn’t so much wow as consistently please, particularly on the small plates and on the lunch front with dips like shamndar bi tahini ($7), a vivid pink-purple dip of grated beets, yogurt, garlic and tahini paste (pictured right).  

It’s hard to resist cilantro and aleppo chili-dusted harra frites ($7) dipped in house ketchup and za’atar-spiced mayonnaise with a refreshing mint lemonade ($4). I like Mamnoon best as a stop for snacks and shared small plates rather than on the entree side.

MOMIJI, Capitol Hill

Momiji maki

Momiji maki

Dining at Momiji with food/drink industry friends from Japan certainly made it a better experience. I wouldn’t put it close to a favorite sushi meal among my global favorites but it was all-around a gratifying meal with Japanese whiskies and sake to savor alongside monkfish liver (ankimo, $10) dotted with citrus ponzu and cilantro aioli and yellowtail hamachi sashimi ($13) in garlic, jalapeno and yuzu ponzu.

View from my hotel room at the Sheraton Seattle

View from my hotel room at the Sheraton Seattle

Cheap Eats

Bahn Mi Unwrapped

Bahn Mi Unwrapped

The U-District’s (University District) Bahn Mi Unwrapped was one of my under-the-radar Seattle gems awhile back, especially as someone who spent a month in Vietnam and is surrounded by countless spots for authentic bahn mi in SF.

For $4 or less, their bahn mi is hefty and pleasing in classic pork pate and duck forms, but my top choice is their delicious catfish bahn mi with a Vietnamese iced coffee — it drew me back multiple times.

Beth's Cafe

Beth’s Cafe

Greasy spoon it is, but Beth’s Cafe, a greasy diner in Phinney Ridge since 1954, famous for their ridiculous 12-egg omelette, is a memorable stop for 3am cravings of scrambles and hash browns.

La Cocina Oaxaquena

La Cocina Oaxaquena

La Cocina Oaxaquena does not even come close to scratching the itch one has for real Oaxacan food after traveling in Oaxaca (instead, try Agave Mexican in Healdsburg, CA, La Oaxaquena in SF, or Moles La Tia in East LA), but its warm, familial welcome and affordable dishes give it some cheap eats appeal, even if the mole negro is a bit flat or essentially not as multi-dimensional as the great moles of Oaxaca are.

Although the mole negro still didn’t wow, I prefer Mezcaleria Oaxaca (I visited the quirky Queen Anne location) both for its mezcal selection and its more authentic nods to Oaxaca in its straightforward dishes.

Taylor's Shellfish oysters & more

Taylor’s Shellfish oysters & more

Though there wasn’t a standout dish during my two visits two Taylor’s Shellfish Farms, I love its plethora of fresh oysters, geoduck, clams, crab and seafood swimming in tanks, fresh for the picking all day long on Capitol Hill, best savored with a crisp rose or white wine.

Kisaku

Kisaku

In the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, Kisaku is pretty nondescript when it comes to sushi. You won’t experience anything here you haven’t had before as a sushi lover, but its lunchtime deals work (even sashimi combos are no more than $11.95), its dated atmosphere mellow and its fish fresh. Wild sockeye salmon sashimi (pictured left) is a silky, local highlight.

Tsukushinbo

Tsukushinbo sashimi platter

Also on the affordable sushi front, I like Tsukushinbo in the International District, though the fish offerings are basic.

You won’t find any surprises here, just hunks of raw fish in a tiny, crowded space (there are often lines so go early for lunch or right when they open, as lines are not worth it). The sweet staff make the whole experience better.

Breakfast & Bakeries

Morsel

Morsel

Biscuits ($3.25-6.50) in the morning at Morsel in the U-District are a pleasure. From friendly staff in a tiny storefront with long lines, order buttery biscuits under the names Gravy, Cheesy (roasted garlic butter, local Beecher’s cheese curds, roasted tomato jam) or Spanish Fly (proscuitto, fried egg, manchego, arugula, mama lil’s pepper aioli). They’re all delightful and Morsel serves top notch coffee to boot.

For a bit of Parisian charm in downtown Seattle, I like Belle Epicurean. Coffee (espresso, etc.) veers old school Italian-style, while I love tarts like the Walla Walla feuillette ($6.95), which plays like a classic Alsatian tart but with local, sweet Walla Walla onions, layered with bacon, Gruyere cheese and fresh herbs.

Chaco Canyon on a snowy February day

Chaco Canyon on a snowy February day

Up Capitol Hill way, go off hours to avoid lines at grab-and-go bakery, Crumble & Flake, a gourmand’s favorite, with daily changing offerings like chocolate lavender or True North Coffee & Irish whiskey macarons. On the savory side, there might be the likes of smoked paprika cheddar croissants.

Hippie, it may be, but when in the U-District (plus two other locations), Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe offers vegetable juices and the likes of avocado toast on dense bread for breakfast, a welcome, healthy antidote when I’ve been judging/tasting spirits for days nearby.

Mighty-O Donuts — they’re organic but still gratifying sans lard. I like flavors like grasshopper, peanut butter chocolate or a tart lemon poppy seed.

Coffee

Victrola Coffee

Victrola Coffee

Thanks to my Seattle friend Rocky Yeh for numerous reliable Seattle recommendations, including Belle Epicurean and nearby, classic Seattle, top notch coffee at Cafe Fonte, one of my favorite stops for coffee in the city.

Though coffee in Seattle is a whole other subject that could call for a more in-depth exploration (as many have done before), I’m going to stick to food here. A couple other regulars for me as I stayed in various parts of the city in my last 3 trips: a Capitol Hill mainstay for over a decade is Victrola (which I much prefer to Caffe Vita up the street). Try Analog if you love espresso and cold brew.

A Mixed Bag

 — Places I Can’t Quite Recommend

La Bete

La Bete

I wanted to love La Bete. Atmosphere-wise, I do. It charms with a quirky-chic (yet relaxed) setting, cocktails in vintage glassware and friendly service. The dishes likewise sounded like an easy win but whether a plump merguez sausage or a mole verde braised beef shortrib, I found myself recalling more interesting versions in other parts of the country (same with the ok-but-not-great cocktails). The one dish that did jump out was a starter of piquillos rellenos ($12) stuffed with albacore tuna and squid ink rice in lively tomato pepper sauce.

Seafood appetizer at Miller's Guild

Salmon appetizer at Miller’s Guild

Miller’s Guild follows (a couple years later) the open fire cooking approach of places like Saison and TBD here in SF (my take on the trend in the London Times in Feb. 2014), but without the delicate, creative vision. It’s more straightforward grilling here. I wanted to love Miller’s Guild with its urban vibe that feels like a bigger city — as do the high prices for solid but not amazing food.

Miller's Guild steak

Miller’s Guild steak

Pricy steaks — whether Niman Ranch bone-in ribeye (service for two is a whopping $135), bavette, Okanagan beef, Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork chop ($32) or shell-on, wild Alaskan coon-striped prawns ($18), it doesn’t feel worth the hefty price tag. This extends to elegant-sounding cocktails ($8-13) that don’t quite sing, including what sounded fantastic but was a bit nondescript, a Remolacha ($13): Dos Armadillos Silver Tequila, Rossbacher herbal liqueur, red beet juice, lime, agave and golden beet foam. Surprisingly, house Turkish coffee ice cream ($8) to finish is the gritty (with grounds, like proper Turkish coffee), sweet standout.

Grilled fish at Staple & Fancy

Grilled fish at Staple & Fancy

In theory, Staple & Fancy, one of Ethan Stowell’s popular restaurants (housed in the same building as Walrus & the Carpenter – see above) is a notable Italian spot serving house made pastas, sardine appetizers and killer fried oysters, whole grilled fish. It is solid but far from superlative (other than those fried oysters) many dishes later. Since this rustic-gourmet Italian format has long been popular in many cities (including my own) and with my frequent travels to Italy, it fails to entice when many others work in the same category to more memorable effect.

Tanglewood's rutabaga apple beginets

Tanglewood’s rutabaga apple beginets

Tanglewood Supreme, in the removed, residential neighborhood of Magnolia, is described as a “fisherman to table” experience. I valued the warm service in the cozy space and the inventiveness of the dish concepts. Not everything worked, including rather imbalanced cocktails, but the $45 seven-course tasting menu is a steal and when it works, it works, as in the case of cinnamon-laced rutabaga apple beginets ($6) with baby kale and cranberry aioli.

Sitka & Spruce

Sitka & Spruce

The famed Sitka & Spruce has made so many top restaurant lists over the years and has been a pioneer of Pacific Northwest cuisine in Seattle for some time.

That is why I was even more disappointed in having its clean, fresh, highly seasonal food (a concept that has been a Bay Area standard longer than I’ve been alive) to find every single dish I tried, from marinated summer squash ($9/15), to wild chamomile cured salmon ($16) was surprisingly bland, understated to the point of irrelevant and not one dish was memorable.

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Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Sep
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

“It [Italy] must be inhaled wholly, with the yielding of the whole heart… It is really something transcendent, both spirit and body.”
Margaret Fuller by Megan Marshall

Amarene (cherry) tart at Atti & Figli in Bologna

Amarene (cherry) tart at Atti & Figli in Bologna

9 Places To Eat And Drink Incredibly Well
In And Around Bologna, Italy

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller [This article was published in Food Republic on September 3, 2014]

Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar — these staples of Italian cuisine all hail from the flat Emilia-Romagna region, a place often recognized as the best area for food in a country where the cuisine is fantastic everywhere. In our recent explorations through the region, the food and drink (including Europe’s best Tiki bar!) is superlative. Bologna, a city of roughly one million, dates back to at least 1000 BC. Famed for being home to the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088, the city retains a rich academic culture and an impressive architectural landscape that includes medieval prison towers and endless porticoes. Arguably, Italy’s greatest food markets are here. Within those walls of ancient Bologna and in the surrounding countryside and neighboring towns of Parma and Modena, you can find many unforgettable places to eat and drink. Here are nine of our favorites:

Truffle and mushroom season at Da Cesari

Truffle and mushroom season at Da Cesari

1. Da Cesari, Bologna
Stroll down a narrow street off Piazza Maggiore to find this cozy, intimate restaurant serving traditional Bolognese dishes in a dark, shelf-lined room filled with dusty wine bottles. The Cesari family has run the place since 1955, with Paolino Cesari charming customers while his wife, Irene, brings out fantastic Bolognesi dishes, including her divine pumpkin ravioli melting in butter and shaved Parmesan. In the fall and winter, truffles and mushrooms are piled in baskets and featured in numerous dishes. Many ingredients, wine and even pigs (the rare mora romagnola pig) hail from their family “Umberto Cesari” farm. Via de’ Carbonesi 8, Bologna, 40124, +39 051-237710da-cesari.it

2. Nu Bar, Bologna
Nu Bar is a shocker — and not just because it is a Tiki bar in Italy. But also because it is an excellent one, thanks to Bologna native Daniele Dalla Pola, whose passion for Tiki stems from his time in Miami. Tucked away in the medieval city centre of Bologna, there’s an outdoor patio with pizzas and pastas to dine on. But, really, it’s all about the cocktails. Don the Beachcomber Tiki classics abound, set to a funky painting of Elvis, a chic lounge and an impressive collection of vintage Tiki mugs. Dalla Pola offers a choice of sugars from varying islands and different rums from which to craft your cocktail. In the mix with the classics, his creative creations stand out, like a rum, chamomile and matcha green tea drink made with sugar from Guadalupe, lime and a house pimento dram. Or, the Smoked & Spiced Colada, set alight with house cinnamon and cloves. You won’t find another bar with this unexpected congruence of cultures anywhere in the world. Via Dè Musei, 6, 40124 Bologna, +39 051 222532, nuloungebar.com

Nu Bar, an unexpected Tiki and rum haven in Bologna's medieval city centre

Nu Bar, an unexpected Tiki and rum haven in Bologna’s medieval city centre

3. Osteria Francescana, Modena
We would easily call this one of the best meals of our lives. Yes, it’s one of the world’s top-rated restaurants, boasting three coveted Michelin stars — and, for good reason. Here, amid the intimate five-table dining room, Chef Massimo Bottura cranks out works of art that are also sigh-inducing delicious. His playful personality shows in his avant-garde, modern menu, as well as more traditional offerings. He may start with oyster and anchovy macarons, serve lush cuts of rare culatello and assign whimsical names to courses. Consider: “How to Burn a Sardine in 3 Days,” and the popular “Oops we dropped the lemon tart!” dessert on a plate made to look as if it cracked into many pieces. The wine list is stellar. Try flights of the region’s famed Lambrusco in a wide range of a varietals, which are too often sorely misrepresented. Prepare for chef Bottura’s stories: an eel course represents the river Po with elements of salt water. Meanwhile, “snails in the vineyard” is a delightful combination of snails in balsamico, white truffles, beetroot and chlorophyll sauce. For food lovers seeking to push the boundaries, Francescana is worth the great expense. Via Stella, 22, 41121 Modena, +39 059 223912, osteriafrancescana.it

4. Ristorante Badessa, Reggio
In the countryside, between the towns of Reggio and Modena, sits a striking, multi-roomed building from the 1600s that once housed a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dairy. The multi-room structure moves from the elegant, vaulted ceilings of the center room to the comfort of humble back rooms where salt crystals are crusted on the walls from centuries past. It’s a family affair: gracious Alberto Ruozzi runs the place with his grandmother, mother and sisters rolling tortelli in the back as he and his cousin bring out rounds of fantastic dishes. It’s hard not to sigh over the sublime goodness of risotto cooked in mountain butter and leeks or stunningly fresh pumpkin ravioli, while they open up a treasure chest and pour their own house balsamico, dubbed “black gold” by locals. Post-dinner, order a pour of house nocino (walnut liqueur) in unorthodox flavors like mint. Via Case Secchia 2/a 42013 San Donnino di Liguria, Casalgrande, +39 0522 989138, ristorantebadessa.it

Sardines and squid ink - artful and delicious at Osteria Francescana

Sardines and squid ink – artful and delicious at Osteria Francescana

5. Trattoria Gigina, Bologna
More than 50 years old, Trattoria Gigina owes its legacy to Gigina herself whose recipes are still the focus of this cozy spot outside the medieval city centre of Bologna. Here you can try signature dishes of Bologna, like the rustic, hearty tortellini in brodo (broth) best doused in fresh-grated Parmesan. Lasagna Bolognese and a signature rabbit entree are other standouts. This old world respite is an ideal space in which to linger over a glass of amaro after dinner. Via Henri Beyle Stendhal, 1, 40128 Bologna,  +39 051 322300, trattoriagigina.it

6. Cremeria Funivia, Bologna
Gelato is one of the greatest pleasures of Italy and is excellent in countless places. But Bologna’s Cremeria Funivia is one of the best we’ve had anywhere in the country. The texture is of creamy silk. And, in the bright white shop, flavors range from tart limone or amarena (made from the Emilia-Romagna’s famed cherries) to boozy chocolate rum or “Alice,” mascarpone ice cream over melted chocolate in a cone or cup. Note: they even list nut sources for their fabulous nutty flavors from buttery pistachio to toasted pine nut. Via Porrettana, 158, 40135 Bologna, +39 051 614 5062, cremeriafunivia.com

7. Emilia Cremeria, Parma
In keeping with the superb gelato of the region, Emilia Cremeria is one of the great edible moments in the city of Parma and anywhere in Italy. Made from organic milk and finely sourced ingredients, the luxuriously creamy gelato is displayed in a charming, white shop with whimsical drawings of ingredients. All scoops are served in house-made, gluten-free waffle and sugar cones filled with fresh, dripping warm chocolate. Via Emilia Santo Stefano, 21, Parma, +39 0522 430532, cremeriaemilia.com

Ristorante Badessa in a 1600s former Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy

Ristorante Badessa, in a 1600s former Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy

8. Atti & Figli, Bologna
Dating back to 1880, family-run Paolo Atti & Figli is a quintessential Emilia-Romagna bakery, a prime stop for an intro to regional baked goods. Original furnishing and décor make it feel as if you’ve stepped into a 19th-century movie set. Look for traditional panettone, meringue shells filled with whipped cream, preserved fruits or chocolate, loaves of bread and rare local pastries like tortine Bolognese con le tagliatelle, an almond-based tart covered in crispy tagliatelle noodles. Our favorite is the amarene tartine, a tart loaded with juicy, sour cherries of the region. Via Caprarie, 7, 40124 Bologna, +39 051 220425, paoloatti.com

9. Zanarini, Bologna
Where Atti & Figli is classic and full of old-world charm, Zanarini is chic and modern, despite its 1928 origin. Look for brightly colored macarons (some better than others – try cioccolato arancia/chocolate orange), creative chocolate truffles and elaborate cakes in the windows created to look like everything from piano keys to owls. This bakery institution evokes the grand cafes of Italy, complete with seating in the square, ideal for an afternoon aperitif or espresso. Piazza Galvani, 1, 40124 Bologna, +39 051 275 0041

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Sep
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos, in all its magical color

New York: My 8 Top NY Cocktails of 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Golden Caddilac

Golden Cadillac

Working on a video project this Spring for Tastemade, I was asked to hand-select food and drink destinations to include in a Top 100 round-up of NY spots. This meant I was able to return to a number of my older favorites, like Amor y Amargo (my favorite amaro bar where, this time around, I enjoyed their iced coffee weekend brunch cocktail menu), Raines Law Room, Mayahuel, Cienfuegos, Brandy Library, Saxon + Parole and The Daily (the latter two of which I get into further below). Fine cocktails and spirits were had at each of these locations. Of course, I packed in some newer spots, too.

Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos

Sadly, the Golden Cadillac closed after my visit, though it hadn’t been open long. I appreciated the cheeky fun of the bar’s improved 70s cocktails, like a Golden Cadillac mixing Galliano, coconut cream, creme de cacao and orange bitters, or a Disco Daiquiri using almond milk instead of coconut milk (not to mention seeing great bartenders behind the bar, like Mathew Resler formerly of Empellon and Lulu Martinez, formerly of also-closed Painkiller. The East Village space will reopen as Boilermaker next month, involving none other than SF’s Erick Castro, who opened Rickhouse and the highly-lauded Polite Provisions in San Diego.

In the meantime, here are my 8 best cocktails in NYC this year (past years here), plus commentary on a couple newer cocktails bars.

ZZ Clam Bar's gorgeous vintage glassware

ZZ Clam Bar’s gorgeous vintage glassware

1. SAXON + PAROLE, NoHo

Masa Urushido

Masa Urushido

Saxon + Parole has been one of my favorite NY bars for years since Naren Young used to oversee the program. It remains a favorite in its current days under the able hands of Masa Urushido, a gracious bar manager who came from some of Tokyo’s top bars to NYC in 2008.

Raisin & Rum

Rum & Raisin

His seasonal cocktails can be stunners. This spring, I was wowed by a Spring Daiquiri ($14) combining Cana Brava rum, sugar snap peas, a house lemon-thyme cordial, lemon and tarragon salt. Topped with fresh pea pods, it tastes blissfully of crisp peas, backed with rum’s spice and sweetness, perked up with thyme and lemon. Another standout on the creamy end of the spectrum is Rum & Raisin ($14), a blend of Appleton Reserve rum, Greek yogurt, vanilla, cinnamon and Perrier to cut the lushness with a bit of effervescence.

Spring Daiquiri

Spring Daiquiri

The Daily-Virginia Miller

“Nacho” Jimenez

2. THE DAILY, Nolita

One of the great bar managers from the couple hundred NYC cocktail bars I’ve been to over the years is Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, at The Daily, who crafts well-balanced drinks in a seductive, mellow urban respite of a space featuring straightforward, daily changing cocktails and bites.

There’s one cocktail daily in each category, like bottled, “on the rocks” and aperitif. Returning this visit, a standout was a bottled La Perla for two ($26), served in a Daily flask (pictured below), a tequila, pear, sherry recipe from SF local, Jacques Bezuidenhout.

3. MOTHER’S RUIN, Nolita

Mother's Ruin's carrot gin slushie

Mother’s Ruin’s carrot gin slushie

Mother’s Ruin is a bartender/industry favorite and one of New York’s good-time hangouts where you’re greeted with a smile, elevated slushie and beer cocktails, and particularly during the day, a laid back, restorative vibe. Recently, Rabbit Done Died was the bracing slushie churning in their slushie machine, a combination of gin, carrot, lemon, cucumber and bitters, reminiscent of a Pimm’s Cup but icier and bolder. Fun was also had with a tequila and Cholula hot sauce cocktail partnered with a can of Tecate beer.

The Daily's bottled cocktails for two, La Perla

The Daily’s bottled cocktails for two, La Perla

4. ZZ CLAM BAR, Greenwich Village

Produce lining ZZ's bar

Produce lining ZZ’s bar

ZZ Clam Bar, a 12-seat, reservations-only seafood and cocktail bar is an intimate oasis in The Village that sings of island breezes and upscale Tiki culture circa 1940s with its romantic setting, soundtrack of lounge, exotica and other musical treats. Sounds like my dream spot, right? In many ways it is. Opened Summer 2013 by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone of neighboring Carbone, it is, like that red sauce Italian haven, vastly overpriced. It can easily cost a few hundred dollars here for dinner and cocktails, the latter of which are $20 each (more on the food here).

Romantic & intimate: ZZ Clam Bar

Romantic & intimate: ZZ Clam Bar

ZZ’s sole bartender didn’t seem interested in engaging or explaining the cocktails we tried, despite the fact that we have many friends in common as he came from SF and The Alembic (where he used to work and where I bartended for a few months – I did not present any of this information but should not have had to to receive quality service). Even a bit of genuine engagement would have made the difference between a mediocre and a fantastic experience commensurate with merely 12 diners and the fine dining price tag. Thankfully, service was warm from our waiter, which should be a given from all staff.

It’s hard to say $300+ is worth it for a non-fine dining experience where portions are tiny, although in making reservations, one could request a couple seats against the wall and go just for drinks and a bite or two. At the same time, ZZ is such a one-of-a-kind spot that imparts romance in its size and decor, worth experiencing if you can afford it and desire something different, as those of us do who dine and drink at hundreds of places annually around the world. While we’ve seen seafood crudo and raw fish menus before, ZZ’s interpretations are imaginative and the cocktails maintain tropical flair, each visually striking in gorgeous vintage glassware.

A ZZ cocktail of pear, white rum, Fino sherry and green tea

A ZZ cocktail of pear, white rum, Fino sherry and green tea

I tasted six cocktails, intrigued by combinations like Plymouth gin, creamy with pistachio and honey, tart with kumquat, or a reposado tequila-based concoction mixed with squash, thyme and allspice. I crave this type of creative, culinary experimentation in cocktails. While some combinations worked better than others, I truly appreciate drinks with a vision beyond the usual. Kudos also for an anejo tequila cocktail implementing butter, pineapple and ras al hanout spices, and another with crème de menthe, apple brandy, mandarin orange and mole bitters.

5. BETONY, Midtown West

Betony's lush interior

Betony’s lush interior

Betony is an upscale Midtown restaurant that comes with a price tag as high as its gorgeously chic décor would suggest. Cocktails run $15-17 but are elegantly made with the type of sophistication one might expect from an Eleven Madison Park alum, namely GM Eamon Rockey. Betony is known for their lovely, regularly changing Milk Punch ($17 – read more about this in Robert Simonson’s NY Times article published around the time of my visit).

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

Their Milk Punch during my visit had a Del Maguey Vida Mezcal base, combined with a Moroccan spearmint, cocoa nib tea and lemon. Another impressive drink was Coco Chanel, inspired by Chanel No. 5 perfume and made in collaboration with a master perfumer across the street. Though the drink seems to have evolved (note this earlier iteration in Town & Country), when I tried it, Rockey combined Cocchi Americano, lemon oleo saccharum, a dry French rosé wine and a spritz of rose water. The aforementioned master perfumier created a mixture including bergamot, roses, jasmine and citrus, which was rubbed on the garnish of mint leaves for enhanced aromatics.

My take on two newer bars:

2nd FLOOR on CLINTON, Lower East Side

2nd Ave's chilled out space

2nd Ave’s chilled out space

I was immediately smitten with the 2nd Floor on Clinton space for its removed, mellow vibe hidden upstairs in a Lower East Side space filled with mismatched couches and a lived-in, Victorian living room feel. The vibe (not the look) reminds me of the relaxed, non-trendy “speakeasy” days of Angel’s Share back in the 90s or the early days at the original Milk & Honey. One hopes the word doesn’t get out and make the space obnoxious or impossible to get in to.

d

Blessed Thistle cocktail

Too bad the cocktails ($15) don’t quite keep up with the romantic space. Despite how intriguing they sound, the cocktails I tried from listed “mixologists” Ektoras Binikos and Sarah Miller seemed to lack focus coming across “muddled” or confused, with no distinct flavor, like the Mistral (Martin Miller’s gin, Averna, verjus, sage and yuzu), or Blessed Thistle, a combination of Michter’s Sour Mash, Cardamaro, honey liqueur, lemon, Meyer lemon zest, Dutch’s colonial and cardamom bitters.

NITECAP, Lower East Side

Nitecap

Nitecap

David Kaplan and Alex Day are big names in the cocktail world, opening NYC’s Death & Company and more recently Honeycut in Los Angeles. They opened their intimate basement bar, Nitecap, just a couple weeks before I was in NYC in April so I caught it in early weeks. With brick walls and plum leather banquettes, the dim space is seductive and appealing. I just missed head bartender Natasha David, but tasted a few cocktails on their playfully-designed menu. They were pleasant though soft cocktails where the alcohol was barely a whisper (making some drinks feel more for the spirits novice rather than the aficionado). Service was aloof and unengaged, making it less fun than Portland’s Pepe Le Moko, which also opened this spring in Portland with a similar basement vibe and look though it is decidedly more fun. Kudos, however, for Nitecap’s late night, early ‘90s hip hop soundtrack.

Saxon + Parole cocktails

Saxon + Parole cocktails

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Aug
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room in the morning

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room in the morning

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room at night

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room at night

New York: My 10 Best Meals of 2014

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Working on a video project this Spring for Tastemade, I returned to my old stomping grounds, a city I’ve long and intimately known, to dig in again, this time staying in the Flatiron district.

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

I kept fueled on coffee at the delightful Happy Bones in Little Italy/Nolita, shakeratos from Zibetto Espresso Bar, and faced perpetual coffee lines at the Stumptown downstairs from my room at the Ace Hotel. Next time I will share cocktail bar discoveries from this visit, but here are my top 10 restaurants/meals in NYC this year (years of additional recommendations here).

1. ELEVEN MADISON PARK, Flatiron

Eleven Madison's Baked Alaska set alight tableside

Eleven Madison’s Baked Alaska set alight tableside

One of the great fine dining restaurants anywhere in the world, this 3-Michelin star restaurant is as spectacular as the best restaurant visits of my life, like Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. I’d also easily call it my favorite NYC splurge (second place would be the modern classic Gramercy Tavern). Here is my full review and photos from this year’s visit.

2. RUBIROSA, Little Italy

Rubirosa pizza

Rubirosa pizza

At his cozy, low ceiling Little Italy haven, Rubirosa, Angelo (A.J.) Pappalardo serves recipes inspired from his father Giuseppe’s Staten Island restaurant, Joe & Pat’s, since 1960. A.J. opened Rubirosa with his father and chef friend Al Di Meglio. His paper-thin, almost cracker-like pizzas are dreamy, laden with cheese and meat, among my favorite pizza in Manhattan (slices available at lunch only). The family-friendly, rustic space begs for an amaro cocktail and hearty bowl of fantastic “Sunday sauce”, a changing weekly option of pasta and red sauce. Recently I had the choice of spaghetti or rigatoni ($21) in a downright fantastic red sauce, savory from multiple meats: braciole, meatball, braised rib and sausage, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

3. ZZ CLAM BAR, Greenwich Village

Romantic & intimate: ZZ Clam Bar

Romantic & intimate: ZZ Clam Bar

ZZ Clam Bar, a 12-seat, reservations-only seafood and cocktail bar is an intimate oasis in The Village that sings of island breezes and upscale Tiki culture circa 1940s with its romantic setting, soundtrack of lounge, exotica and other musical treats. Sounds like my dream spot, right? In many ways it is. Opened Summer 2013 by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone of neighboring Carbone, it is, like that red sauce Italian haven, vastly overpriced. It can easily cost a few hundred dollars here for dinner and cocktails, the latter of which are $20 each.

The sole bartender didn’t seem interested in engaging or explaining the cocktails we tried, despite the fact that we have many friends in common as he came from SF and The Alembic (where he used to work and where I bartended for a few months – I did not present any of this information but should not have had to to receive quality service). Even a bit of genuine engagement would have made the difference between a mediocre and a fantastic experience commensurate with the fine dining price tag and merely 12 diners in the place for hours. Thankfully, service was warm from our waiter, which should be imperative from all staff.

s

Shimaji tartare

It’s hard to say $300+ is worth it for a non-fine dining experience where portions are tiny, although in making reservations, one could request a couple seats against the wall and go just for drinks and a bite or two.

At the same time, ZZ is such a one-of-a-kind spot that imparts romance in its size and decor, worth experiencing if you can afford it and desire something different, as those of us do who dine and drink at hundreds of places each year around the world. While we’ve seen seafood crudo and raw fish menus before, ZZ’s interpretation is imaginative and the cocktails maintain tropical flair, each visually striking in gorgeous vintage glassware.

Cherry trout, trout roe, fried leeks crudo ($27)

Cherry trout, trout roe & fried leeks crudo ($27)

Menu highlights included uni toast on pretzel bread ($30) vivaciously accented by apple, mustard, horseradish, and also seared live scallops ($18), silky in brown butter and nutty with Sicilian pistachios. We splurged (big time) on rare shimaji tartare ($98), a square of lovely raw fish, with thick layers of ricotta and caviar. I tasted six cocktails, intrigued by combinations like Plymouth gin, creamy with pistachio and honey, tart with kumquat, or a Reposado Tequila-based concoction mixed with squash, thyme and allspice. I crave this type of creative, culinary experimentation in cocktails. While some worked better than others, I still appreciate drinks with a vision beyond the usual.

4. CAFE KATJA, LES

Cafe Katja's Emmentaler sausage

Cafe Katja’s Emmentaler sausage

Café Katja transports me straight back to Austria, owned by Austrian native Erwin Schrottner and business partner Andrew Chase. Though bustling with a Lower East Side vibe, it’s refreshingly comfortable for Manhattan, with a warmer welcome than at the majority of Manhattan restaurants, enhanced by plenty of woods and a candlelit glow. Most importantly, it’s a source for actual Austrian schnaps, expensive though a pour may be. While I have been bemoaning the lack of importation of real schnaps into the US compared to the amazing producers I tasted in Austria last fall, Katja pours a few of the greats, like Reisetbauer and Golles, albeit at high prices, $25 or more a pour. But there’s nothing better with a mountain of marinated herring ($11) and cucumber potato salad, or plump house sausages like an Emmentaler sausage ($14) – yes, filled with Emmentaler cheese, served with savoy cabbage and quark dumplings. Lovely food, drink and setting make this an ideal neighborhood restaurant.

5. THE SHAKESPEARE, Midtown East

The Shakespeare's burger

The Shakespeare’s burger

The Shakespeare just opened in December 2013 as a multi-room, wood-walled restaurant that evokes the classic pubs of England, Scotland and Ireland, serving all manner of cask ales and English drafts, from Jason Hicks and Yves Jadot who also run Jones Wood Foundry. The best part is that the food is top-notch gastropub fare, thanks to British chef Robert Aikens (from none other than London’s Le Gavroche). Despite the exhaustion of the gastropub category the last couple decades, this is one of the better ones in NY, serving flaky, beer-battered cod fish and chips ($23), and an excellent burger ($19) with a patty of aged NY strip and skirt steak, short rib and chuck, slathered in cheddar, smoked bacon and Brooklyn brine pickles.

6. DESPANA, SoHo

Afternoon tapas at Despana

Afternoon tapas at Despana

One of the great Spanish grocers (a Queens-based importer), Despana is not only killer source for all foods Spain, from cheeses and meets, to cockles and chocolates, it’s a winning tapas stop with changing Spanish wines by the glass and a few communal tables from which to enjoy a quick bite of fresh boquerones (anchovies) or octopus drizzled in silky olive oil.

7. LOUIE & CHAN, LES

Louie & Chan's Peking duck calzone

Louie & Chan’s Peking duck calzone

I almost jumped for joy when I heard about the opening of Louie & Chan in late 2013, a China-meets-Italy (due to its perch near both Chinatown and Little Italy) with an upstairs Neapolitan trattoria and a candlelit, downstairs Asian cocktail lounge. It’s the kind of mash-up I’d like to see more often, despite the heavy DJ and dance action in the downstairs bar (with thankfully good cocktails, like the Chinatown Daiquiri, a blend of Appleton’s Reserve rum, lime, ginger and honey syrups, Sriracha sauce and muddled strawberries). But the place still feels like its finding itself. A Louie & Chan calzone ($16) is a brilliant idea: a giant calzone stuffed with buffalo ricotta, mozzarella, tomato sauce, shiitake, bok choy – and, yes, Peking duck. It lacks cohesive unctuousness and the mushrooms are bland but the concept of an Asian-Italian calzone begs to be further explored.

Aperitifs and bites

Aperitifs and bites

The other very smart concept here is the Aperitivo menu, a pairing of aperitif cocktails with a bite, like a Negroni Blanco ($13 for drink and bite) with choice of bites like polpettine al limone (lamb/beef fried meatball in lemon, Parmigiano, herbs) or montanarina (fried dough, pomodoro sauce, mozzarella, Parmigiano). I’d love to see more of this kind of creative clash of cuisines happening everywhere.

8. MAHARLIKA, East Village

Maharlika's Filipino fried chicken and purple ube waffles

Maharlika’s Filipino fried chicken and purple ube waffles

This funky little Filipino spot, Maharlika, breathes life and even hip factor into the cuisine, honoring the authentic and playful (bottles of Jufran banana sauce – a Filipino banana ketchup – and black and white photo artwork of Filipina Miss Universe 1973). Nicole Ponseca, Enzo Lim and Noel Cruz’ intimate restaurant shines at brunch/lunch with traditional dishes like sisig (pig ears, snout, belly) and pancit bihon (rice vermicelli noodles). But it’s the funky, unusual entrees that make it a draw. Case in point: excellent, batterless fried chicken and purple yam waffles ($17). Filipino chicken and waffles are fun enough, but ratchet it up another level by dousing them in anchovy-bagoong (fermented fish/shrimp) butter and caramelized macapuno (a variety of coconut) syrup.

9. SKAL, LES

Skal's salt cod croquettes

Skal’s salt cod croquettes

I’m ever on the hunt for great Scandinavian food in the US. Skal (open since Summer 2013) is one of the better in the category I’ve been to in NY, although over the years, I’ve not found a Nordic menu I like near as well as Aquavit in its older days. Skal is a nod to Iceland (the name means “cheers” in Icelandic) serving the likes of pickled smelts on antique china in a cozy-chic space. The dishes don’t always wow and neither do the cocktails, yet both are consistently gratifying. Recent highlights: salt cod croquettes ($7) with horseradish remoulade, charred broccoli ($11) doused in green garlic and breadcrumbs, sugar snap peas ($12) artfully accented by crushed radishes, whey and Mangalista lardo, and smoked mackerel ($19) contrasted by sour onions, walnuts and shaved, frozen foie gras.

10. THE LIBRARY at the PUBLIC THEATER, NoHo

Inviting: The Library at The Public

Inviting: The Library at The Public

Upstairs above the Public Theater is The Library, a spacious, soothing restaurant lined with vintage theater posters. The place is refreshingly mellow, classy and half empty — until the theater lets out and all the actors and theater crew head upstairs, applauding each other over drinks and bites. While the food didn’t exactly impress, it is still good, and after a particularly hard day, I couldn’t imagine a more soothing setting in these parts of NY – with gracious service to boot. Andrew Carmellini (James Beard Award-winner behind Locanda Verde) and chef Michael Oliver (also of Locanda) keep it simple but comforting in dishes like smoked cauliflower cassoulet ($24) and crispy calamari and shishito peppers ($14) dipped in chipotle sauce, accompanied by decent cocktails.

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