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Troy Hightower
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troy.hightower@casto.com
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Tuesday
May212019

North Sea Cuisine

 

New Nordic Cuisine was introduced as a concept several years ago by Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer with the restaurant noma. Seasonal and locally foraged and sourced ingredients; traditional regional cooking methods (smoking, curing, open-wood fires) and innovative and creative combinations define the style. We’ve tried Baltic versions in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania; Scandinavian in Finland, and Norway; and on a recent trip, had some great dining experiences in Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden.

Sea—Copenhagen

The restaurant in our hotel, 71Nyhavn in Copenhagen is called sea by Kiin Kiin—part of a restaurant group whose flagship Kiin Kiin has a Michelin star. It is Thaï influenced Nordic cuisine and very creative. The cocktail list features gin, and runs to 30 or so varieties. We try a Copenhagen London Dry gin and tonic, and a house Osaka martini with sake in lieu of vermouth, garnished with a bit of cured plum to kick off our visit.

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Saturday
May182019

Empirical Spirits

On our first visit to Bastard Restaurant in Malmö, Sweden we had learned about some interesting distillates produced by a new company called Empirical Sprits. We returned to the restaurant the next evening, intent on a full tasting. We get lucky again with two walk-in bar seats, within a couple of minutes....the staff seems surprised—and happy—to see us again. We tell Sean the bartender that the reason is primarily to do the Empirical Spirits comparison—and as an aside to have some delicious food. So he lines up all four that are available, 2cl each in small chimney tasting glasses (these spirits are sold by the cl, in whatever amount you wish—they are not inexpensive)—he doesn’t deem there to be necessarily a proper order, and we proceed through a fascinating tasting.

Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen started the distillery in a former shipyard in Copenhagen. These are the guys who were in charge of fermentation and foraging at noma, and when the restaurant was temporarily shut down to relocate, they struck out on their own. They created a low-temperature, high-pressure vacuum still, which allows the alcohol to evaporate at cooler temperatures, enabling the retention of subtle flavors and aromas that would otherwise be heated away in a normal higher-heat distillation.

We elect to taste these "blind"— providing our own impressions before reading the lables. Left-most in the lineup is called Fallen Pony—completely clear...nose of...cherry, maybe?  A bit of spice? Cherry or some sort of fruit carries through into the taste, as well as a bit of something herbal. Incredibly smooth, round, no heat at all. Sure ‘an I’d buy this stuff! Apparently each new release sells out almost instantaneously. The official description is:

An aromatic double-fermented quince-tea spirit made from a base of quince, barley koji, Belgian Saison yeast, and pilsner malt wash. The spent fruit material is fermented into a quince tea kombucha, vacuum distilled and then used to rectify the final product to preserve the sweet botanical notes, highlight hints of marzipan, and provide balanced acidity.  

Next up is the one we sampled last night, which gave us such laughs. It’s their newest offering titled “Fuck Trump and his Stupid Fucking Wall.” It’s based on Habanero pepper, and you can smell it as soon as the bottle is uncorked. Not hot in the mouth at all, but a bit acid, which becomes clear from the distiller’s description:

Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall is a refreshingly smooth, warm, vegetal tasting habanero spirit made from a base of naked and pearled barley, Belgian saison yeast, and koji. The clear product is modified with a habanero vinegar that gives it a low 27% alcohol that imparts an intensely fruity habanero profile without any of the heat, preserving the floral and fruity notes typically hidden in habaneros.

Third in line is Helena, again a crystal clear spirit. No fruit or botanicals in the nose, but just a warm, smooth, round, unctuous, long lasting sensation in the mouth. The closest thing I could compare it to is an ultra-premium grappa. The distillery says:

Helena is our most unadorned product: a double fermented clear spirit. Made from barley koji, pilsner malt, and Belgian Saison yeast, this product blends Eastern and Western fermentation methods to create a smooth base spirit with subtle nutty aromas and a delicate sweet barley character. Koji provides a signature flavor profile that yields a sweet, umami, and floral note.

The only colored spirit, a slight chestnut hue, is called Charlene McGee. Definitely a smoky nose, but not in the sense of peat-smoked scotch...it’s an herbal smoke, with a bit of spice, and I know there’s juniper in it. It’s delightful, and would be enjoyed by anyone that likes a peaty scotch. The house line is:

Charlene McGee is a juniper spirit inspired by the Scandinavian culinary tradition of smoking. Juniper berries are smoked with their own wood, lightly crushed, macerated, and gently distilled at low temperatures to preserve the fruity, vibrant integrity of the botanical and the smoky flavor profile. The final blend is matured in Oloroso casks to impart a faintly sweet hint of woodiness. The spirit has base notes of fresh juniper, fruity blackberries, and resinous, fragrant juniper sap that leaves a smooth, smoky finish.

What an experience. Our dread-locked Jamaican waiter friend from the night before is off duty tonight but having a glass at the end of the bar, and gives us thumbs up when he sees what we are up to. When we’ve sipped each once, he announces his favorites—Fallen Pony and Helena, for sure!

The company website for more information is https://shop.empiricalspirits.co but unfortunately, they can not yet ship to the US. Domestique Wines carries some of their products—domestiquewine.com.

Tuesday
Jan222019

Criollo

Oaxaca-born chef Luis Arellano worked under Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City, where, among other things, he was tasked with perfecting the tortillas. In a partnership with Olvera partnership and architect Javier Sanchez, he opened Criollo in 2017.

Set in an old colonial mansion, the entrance is through the kitchen and into a tranquil triangular courtyard dining room, at the point of which is a large clay comal where all the house tortillas are made, and adjacent, a mesh grill where some are toasted crisp for totopos.

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Monday
Jan212019

Mezcal

Artisanal mezcal has gained greatly in popularity in recent years—production has risen more than seven-fold in the last decade— and much of the best comes from Oaxaca and Puebla, so we have a chance to get a decent introduction to this other distillation of agave heart.

Tequila and mezcal are both similar and different. Tequila can only be made using blue agave grown in specific regions of the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made with any of over 200 types of agave, known also as maguey, grown in many more Mexican states, including Oaxaca and Puebla.  These range from from the spiky-leafed espadín to the short, wavy-leafed tobala to the treelike barril. Like tequila, mezcal is made by harvesting mature agave, cutting away to the heart, or pina, roasting that—in mezcal’s case, in a wood fired stone-lined pit—hence the smokiness—and fermenting the result in open air vats with natural yeast. The result is then distilled, either in copper or clay pots, and then after a second distillation becomes joven mezcal.

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Sunday
Dec022018

Serai Desert Tented Camp

Sujan the Serai Desert Camp is a Relais & Chateau luxury tented camp set on a 100 acre private estate in the Thar desert, only about 70 km from the Pakistan border. (We will be continually confused about whether the place is called Serai or Sujan, as staff seems to use the words interchangeably)  A permanent tented camp, with golden limestone floors in public and private tents, Serai is one of the most luxurious we’ve stayed at. At the entrance, there is an enormous multi-tent housing reception, bar, library, and dining room. A large stone deck a few steps down is cut with a maze of shallow water-filled channels, which are bottom-lit at night, forming a glowing symbol. Beyond lies the elevated pool built on a golden sandstone plinth, with waterfall cascading off the back, and paths from there lead to 21 large tent rooms. Mature desert landscape fills the areas between paths and tents—austere, but beautiful. Only the photos do it justice. Each tent has an entry terrace with seating, a front sitting area with camp lounge chairs, and a writing desk. The 20 by 20 ft. bedroom features king bed, and two wooden clothing storage racks. Behind is the bathroom with enormous rain shower and double sinks.

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Friday
Nov302018

Royal Island Palace

Arriving at a hotel by water is always a fun experience. We pull up, after a complex day of travel, to an elegant pavilion at the edge of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This is actually the hotel"entrance" and the antique wooden  aunch whisks us to the serenity of the Taj Lake Palace Hotel—surely on of the most interesting luxury hotels in the world. We are escorted up the steps under a tassled sunshade by one of the Royal Butlers, a red clad turbaned fellow—this group are said to be descendants of the earlier palace retainers. As we reach the entrance, a shower of carnelian bougainvillea petals gently fall around us....kitschy, but fun. We are welcomed with a cool drink and towel, checked in efficiently, and shown to a deluxe room on the ground floor overlooking the Udaipur Palace on the near shore. The room is not huge...they maximized the number of rooms on the palace view side, but quite luxuriously appointed, with two couches, coffered ceiling, elegant bathroom and of course--killer view.

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Friday
Jun082018

David Toutain

David Toutain trained under Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and others, and made his name at the curiously titled restaurant Agape Substance.  He left there abruptly, supposedly with a disagreement with the owner, and in 2013 opened his eponymous restaurant on Rue Surcouf in the 7th—a calm and almost spartan small space in grey tones and wood containing just 22 seats. The more recently inaugurated annex IdentiT has a single long slab of oak that seats 18. Toutain is a serious and inventive cook, and likes to combine unlikely ingredients: cauliflower purée with coconut and white chocolate, and oyster purée with raspberry, for just two examples. Menus are prix fixe and courses change frequently. They have curious names such as Berce, Pansy and  Poppy,  and are 4, 6 or 8 courses, with a 3 course available at lunch. Those are deceptive, however, as they don’t count 2 or 3 amuse, and a couple of pre and post desserts. Also included is his signature poached egg yolk in corn sabayon with cumin, served in its shell along with a tiny herbed cornbread stick to dip in.

 

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Friday
Jan122018

Roman New Years

It’s 7 pm on Sunday, New Year’s Eve and all the bells in all the churches in Rome are ringing at once. And all the church domes and bell towers are lit up against the moonlit sky. This spectacle we observe, glass of chilled, bubbly Franciacorta in hand, from the enclosed rooftop terrace of our cozy Roman apartment at 13 Via della Pace—which we dub Tredici, a couple of short blocks from Piazza Navona, in which the annual Christmas market continues until the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

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