Friday, February 13, 2004

Bourbon Tasting
Guest Notes from Harry V

[Bourbon is one the preferred beverage choices of the Chowhounds, myself included. Through the encouragement of the poster ab, and extra efforts of AaronD, a tasting was arranged at Delilah's bar in Chicago. I could not attend to my strong regret, but I am lucky enough to be able to share Harry V's detailed tasting notes.]

If no one else cares to weigh in, I'll take a crack at describing the
tasting. Samples were 1.5 ounces (i.e., one shot), poured into
straight-sided glasses tall enough to capture their aromas. The lineup was
as follows:

1. GEORGIA MOON CORN WHISKEY. Mike Miller, owner of Delilah's and emcee for
the event, began with this whimsical selection so as to demonstrate the
flavor of 100% corn whiskey (of course bourbons, to be labelled as such,
must be made of more than 50% corn). It was the color of pale straw, to my
senses it smelled of weak tequila and tasted like very light rum. A ringer.

2. W.L. WELLER 12-YEAR BOURBON. The first three actual bourbons sampled
represent those in which corn is supplemented with wheat, rather than the
more usual rye. To me this one had a bright, pleasantly acidic aroma with
hints of honey, and a very wheaty flavor suffused with black pepper. Very

3. MAKER'S MARK. Another wheated bourbon, this long-time favorite (of mine)
had a nice woody aroma, and a more well-rounded flavor than the Weller, less
wheaty and a little more .. well, "fruity" is what I wrote down, even though
there's no fruit in the stuff. (Surely I was still sober at this early

indicated that this bourbon was derived from the Van Winkle line of bourbon.
This was the last of the wheated bourbons we tried, with an elegant, well
balanced aroma (i.e., it smelled simply like bourbon), with a flavor that
was less bright than the previous two, but richer, deeper, earthier and more
well-rounded, with a much longer finish than anything we tried all night
except the two Old Potreros at the end. Excellent.

Disclosure: the next seven whiskeys, all featuring rye rather than wheat
(and most of them very modest amounts at that), didn't do much for me. So my
comments on them should perhaps be taken with more than usual dosage of

5. OLD FORESTER BOURBON. Strongly alcoholic, turpentine-like aroma; very
middle-of-the-road flavor (it should not have followed the Delilah house

6. WOODFORD RESERVE BOURBON. Aroma of apples plus turpentine; flavor was
much like that of a youngish, indifferent Speyside single-malt.

7. BASIL HAYDEN BOURBON. This had a mild, "fruity," slightly sweet aroma;
very mild, smooth flavor. Aptly described by Mr. Miller as a "ladies'
bourbon" (Joan: his words, not mine).

8. VERY OLD BARTON BOURBON. Aroma similar to the Basil Hayden, but not as
sweet, a little more turpentine (due, I would assume, to a stronger proof);
flavor was exceedingly mild, akin to Canadian whisky.

9. BUFFALO TRACE BOURBON. The least successful whiskey we tried, in my
opinion (apart from the leadoff corn squeezins). I thought it had no smell
at all, with a watery, corn-whiskey-like flavor.

10. WILD TURKEY RUSSELL'S RESERVE BOURBON. This was a good one, with a
strongly malty aroma (first sign of maltiness in the tasting; but stay
tuned) and a dark, rich, buttery flavor, slightly reminiscent of a superior
dark rum.

11. ELIJAH CRAIG 18-YEAR SINGLE BARREL BOURBON. Sweet, appley aroma with a
mellow, slightly clove-like flavor.

Last came the two Old Potreros. Initially Mr. Miller planned to serve only
the Single Malt Whiskey (from toasted barrels); but in the middle of working
himself, and us, into an ecstasy of expectation while he described its
glories, he noticed that his assistant had poured out the other Old Potrero
(from charred barrels). After a parliamentary exchange of ideas between
ourselves and he, Mr. Miller eventually came 'round to providing a sample of
the toasted-barrel Old Potrero as well.

Not much finesse here but what a blockbuster! Intense aroma of pine cones
and pine forest; a rye plus black pepper flavor of intense fullness, depth
and length; kind of like drinking a liquid Ry Krisp (but better).

(TOASTED BARREL). This, in my opinion, was undoubtedly the finest drink
tasted. A very well-rounded, sweet, fruity, piney smell (but not
monochromatically piney like the charred Potrero); flavor of intense
maltiness - sweet, rich and peppery - just great! (And strong!)


After the official tasting was over, a few of us decided we needed to
supplement (ahem) our findings.

S1. BAKER'S. Gary Wiviott's bourbon of preference entering the tasting,
Baker's was smooth with nice flavor, a fine all-around bourbon.

S2. EVAN WILLIAMS. Aaron's preferred mixer bourbon - and I can see why.


Harry V

P.S. It's too bad Mike Miller did not himself participate in the tasting, or
else by the end he might have been willing to pass around shots from his
semi-legendary 1916 bottle of Old Mock. Maybe next time.

On the Same Page as the Chicago Tribune

Sometimes I do agree with the hometown news. From the lead editorial in today's Chicago Tribune:

..."Why a jurist of Scalia's extraordinary intellect won't exercise simple good judgment is a mystery. Maybe he has concerns about setting a precedent that could overly constrict other justices.

But as is, he risks being part of what many Americans will view as a tainted decision. That can only undermine the respect and trust citizens invest in the Supreme Court.

Without question, Scalia and Cheney are entitled to a warm and loyal friendship. Under codes of conduct in other courts, Lubet says, they still could spend time together and dine at one another's houses--even with Cheney's case before Scalia's court. But an elaborate hunting trip is too tight and valuable a bonding experience for citizens to discount as simple chumminess.

Scalia needs to embrace a basic axiom of public life. An apparent conflict of interest has one thing in common with a duck: If it walks like one, it is"

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Eat Fire
Thai Avenue

When I was lucky enough to hook up with the LA hounds, I was most pleased with the restaurant choice proposed. Renu Nakorn. While no longer considered the most worthy of Thai restaurants in LA, it was still considered a top choice. More importantly, I eagerly anticipated my chance to eat fire. Food God, Jonathan Gold told me the Issan specialties at Renu Nakorn would sear my nostril hairs. I would eat fire. Oh how wrong he was. Renu produced a few fine dishes but not an overall great meal. And I did not eat fire.

Chowhound Zim, however, had been hot on the trail of a newish Thai place in Chicago, Thai Avenue. Zim sussed out that the people behind Thai Avenue were Issan. Well, I was convinced I could pull out of them, an entirely Issan meal. A meal that would burn down my goatee. During the course of a meal by me and a meal by the brilliant one, and several phone calls, I did manage to arrange a small banquet dedicated to eating fire. The brilliant one, though, added an especially interesting aside. While the owners of Thai Avenue were Issan, from the Northeast of Thailand, the cook was from the North. Our final menu was to include dishes both North and Northeast.

On our night of eating fire, Thai Avenue delivered three categories of dishes. Dishes on the English menu but sometimes not translated from Thai, dishes on a menu with Thai script and dishes made for us. A lot of the food featured heavy doses of red chile, but no one walked away from a dish crying. Eating fire served a bettor purpose. It woke us up to a full range of flavors, bits of sweet, near rancid, quite-pungent. Also, the fire came fast and furious early, so later in the night, as course after course came by, it seemed a something that never really happened.

From the menu written in English but not necessarily translated, we had the following spicy dishes: beef salad, exploded catfish salad, chicken laab, bamboo shoot salad, and papaya salad with preserved crabs. The crab gives the salad a taste almost of bilge water, but actually, unlike other times when having the dish this way, the sea did not overpower. Instead, looking like a bad case of measles, the papaya salad's cover of red chile made it too hard to focus on any other taste sensations. I really liked Thai Avenue's exploded catfish salad, Thai Captain Crunch as we have come to call this dish of crispy catfish essence. At Thai Avenue, the crunch seemed to float above the salad and dressing, so that you got both parts but at separate moments. I also liked the beef salad totally intertwined with fresh mint, a great duo.

From the menu written in English but not necessarily translated, we had the following non-spicy dishes: fried chicken, grilled pork neck and Issan sausage. Some of the other reports of the dinner on Chowhound say the meal was not really spicy. I think it was just the changing in dishes mid-meal. After so many dishes infused with so many herbs and spices, we took a big turn to dishes of fat and chew. All three of these things were fantastic, but I liked best, the pork neck. It combined the best features of pork, the fat of bacon, with a muscular chew of a good chop. The fried chicken, nearly all wings but a stray leg, was good but not quite as good as Spoon Thai.

From the menu written only in Thai script, we had a very interesting and different dish for me. Northern style laab, done with pork. When I ate this dish, I said, in a good way, it was weird. It really had a spicing I could not quite put my finger on. I looked in Thompson's book. He has a recipe for this dish. He notes that Northern Thai cooking uses a spice from the Ash shrub that gives a numbing flavor like Szechuan peppercorns, and he actually suggests Szechuan peppercorns as a replacement in the recipe. I wonder if Thai Avenue used Szechuan peppercorns to produce that "weird" flavor. The other characteristic of Northern laab is the lack of lime in the marinade. While people scoffed at me, I call this dish, Thai sloppy joes.

Finally, Thai Avenue cooked for us, a few dishes not normally on any menu. I prodded them into "kha-nom-jean-ngyow." This is a most typical Northern Thai dish. Served, I understand, mostly as street food. It was the last dish served that night, and because of that, it lost some pizzazz. It is something that could stand on its own as A meal, like some skewed Thai version of cassolet of something. The dish consists of three components. First, there is plain, bland vermicelli noodles, a base. Second, there are assorted garnishes included flash fried chilies, tiny shreds of preserved mustard, bean sprouts and cabbage slivers. Last is the dish itself, a large pot of alternating shades of red and reddish gray. Ground pork, rectangles of pork blood, squishy cut-in-half cherry tomatoes, and the chile soaked witch's brew that bound it all together. The overall taste was mostly sour notes, the pork chunks had tang, but also, each spoonful was dominated by whatever condiments you grabbed that time.

Pic by Gwiv

The other made for us dishes, were two nam priks or chile dips. One was green from roasted jalepeno, the other red nearly entirely of shrimp paste. The former dip was served with expertly carved raw and steamed vegetables including long beans and bamboo shoots; the latter came with small fishes. Vegetables with dips are a most standard part of Thai meals, Thompson's book has a whole chapter on them, but they are something rarely seen and ordered in Thai places in Chicago (at least). A few things, I believe, limit their availability on menu's. These are hard dishes to make. The require a lot of roasting and grinding and such. Then, I think eaters often just look at these dishes as basically crudites, party food, not as something serious. Last, these can be the most aggressive, hardest tastes to handle. While the green chile dip was surprisingly mild, the red was intensely stinky. For me, these dishes are really make the meal, "Thai."


Pic by Gwiv

We finished with two desserts, one hot one cold, as our waitress suggested. Thai Avenue brought us two large punch bowls. Cold was a mixture of red jello, water chestnuts and soon-to-be-watery condensed milk. Seemed easy, but it was surprisingly good. Hot was the classic dish of steamed taro balls in coconut milk, the balls possessing that, chomp- your-gums-many-many- times-texture, that I find about ideal.

Thai Avenue clearly joined the ranks of great Thai places in Chicago. Lots more reactions to the dinner can be read starting here.

Thai Avenue
4949 N Broadway