Wednesday, March 5, 2008

March 3, Pt. 2

Flatiron Lounge and Rayuela

After the jizake seminar and tasting, I got back in the office and had about an hour or so to get any work done before I had to run to the Flatiron Lounge for the Tales of the Cocktail New York media reception. Because I only had Monday morning to finish coding and send out our Weekly E-Newsletter before the seminar and tasting, I had been up late on Sunday night getting the bulk of it done. As I always like to tell people, "The internet is always open," so doing things on the weekend isn't anything new. Even so, by the time I got back in the office I was pretty tired and was wondering where the day had gone. I told my friend the day before, "I really don't know if I can do three events tomorrow."

He was not amused. "My heart bleeds for you," he retorted with dripping sarcasm.

While this might sound a bit lame and "Oh, poor me," the truth is event-hopping is not as glamorous as it sounds when it's your job. If you're going just to hang out and take in the sights, it's extremely fun, but I'm there with my antennae at attention and my notebook and pen always at hand in case I hear or see something. I guess I could take it a bit more easy, but call it an occupational quirk if you will, as soon as I hear something that makes me go "Ooooohhh," out comes the pen. Not to complain or bellyache of course. I actually think it's one of my job perks. I like to think of it as playing Harriet the Spy for my real job, what with my furtive looking around and jotting things down.

Flatiron Lounge was PACKED when I got there. The crowd was an interesting mix. Within the first five minutes of getting through the crowd I squeezed past two keffiyehs (worn by a too cool for school Lower East Side looking girl-guy set), a set of quite possibly not ironic mutton chops, and an older gentleman with a bristly mustache that looked like it could handily take out Wilford Brimley's walrus 'tache in a knock-down drag out brawl not unlike the Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David fight scene from "They Live." All these different people of different ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds and scenes brought together by the powerful magnetism of alcoholic beverages.

I figured penetrating the dense crowd could take place later, since I was more interested in seeing what the bar was serving up. I spotted Flatiron's owner and cocktail expert Julie Reiner behind the bar. She was a blur of red in her crimson shirt. The bartenders worked overtime to churn out drinks. I managed to grab myself a Southside Fizz (mint muddled in simple syrup, Plymouth gin, lime juice, simple syrup, shaken and strained into a glass, then topped with soda and garnished with a mint sprig).

I got to chat briefly with Ann Tuennerman, Founders of Tales of the Cocktail, who informed me that there would be a collaborative beverage blog going on during the entire event.

I tried to scan the crowd to see if there was anybody I knew and literally found myself face-to-face with Fodor's restaurants and hotels editor (and former NRNer) Erica Duecy who introduced me to her friend Marshall Altier.

Erica excitedly told me about a book idea she was shopping around about what she liked to call her "adventures with aperitifs." With a lot of anecdotes and stories talking about innovations and recipes. As she put it, sort of like "Eat, Pray, Love" but with aperitifs.

She also told me about the beverage program Marshall was working on for Terroir included cocktails using beer and wine.

I'd seen Marshall behind the bar from when I stopped by Tailor previously, and he works with beverage programs for other locations around the city. I asked him if there were any particular reason for creating a cocktail list based on wine and beer, and he explained that Terroir did not have a license for serving liquors. Also, it worked with the restaurant's seasonal wine bar concept. (The restaurant's opening met some previous delays, but I got an email from Marshall this afternoon saying that Terroir is set to open tonight. However the cocktail menu won't be up and running just yet.)

I snagged a New York Sour (Rittenhouse Rye, lemon juice, orange juice and simple syrup shaken and strained into a double rocks glass. Topped with red wine and garnished with an orange slice and cherry), and we talked a bit more about cocktails and about Tales of the Cocktail specifically when I noticed it was almost 7 pm and I should probably head over to Rayuela. I excused myself and made my way towards the door when I ran into Mr. Bret Thorn who introduced me to photographer Jennifer Mitchell and I got caught up in a conversation as we joked about combining food photography with paparazzi photography. I entirely forgot why I was headed towards the door in the first place.

I did get to Rayuela eventually. The restaurant was hosting the official launch of The Liquid Team and had some other previews going on, but the star of the hour was the Liquid Chef, mixologist Junior Merino. Bartender Magazine honored him by inducting him into the Bartender Hall of Fame.

I tried to see if I could spot Junior to offer my congratulations but ran into Akiko again who was talking to Peter Pioppo. Peter, a foodie turned food photographer, was responsible for the photos of Junior's cocktails that were decorating the second level of the restaurant.

I caught up with Junior and congratulated him. I asked him what being inducted into the Bartender Hall of Fame entailed and he showed me his sparkly ring set with what looked like an aquamarine.

Junior's signature cocktail, Coming Up Roses, was available, but there were also nine other cocktails he created for other locations served at tables throughout the restaurant.

The cocktails I sampled at Rayuela (recipes provided at the event):

Rising Star (Rayuela)
3/4 oz. Inniskillin Ice Wine Vidal
3/4 oz. Boiron Lychee Puree
3 oz. Moet & Chandon Brut Champagne

The ingredients are poured into a Champagne flute, stirred, then garnished with star fruit & red currants.

Passion-Kumquat Mojito (42 Restaurant)
2/6 lime
3 halved kumquats
3/4 oz. Boiron passion fruit puree
3/4 oz. simple syrup
7 to 10 mint leaves
2 oz. Leblon Cachaca
1/2 oz. Fever Tree Bitter Lemon

Muddle first five ingredients, then add cachaca, Bitter Lemon and ice. Shake and pour, then garnish with kumquat flower and mint sprig.

Adelita (Cafe Frida)
2 oz. Hine Cognac
1/2 oz. Monin Cinnamon
1 whole egg
1 oz. evaporated milk
1 oz. fresh orange juice

Pour ingredients into shaker, and shake with ice. Strain into martini glass rimmed with crushed cookies and garnish with blood orange slice.

Monday, March 3, 2008

March 3, Pt. 1

Jizake tasting at the official residence of the consul general of Japan

As I walked up Madison with Bret Thorn I spotted a lanky man with dark shaggy hair and distinct facial hair structure I'd recognize anywhere. As he and his female companion each pushed a stroller with a young'in strapped inside, I hissed to Bret, "That's Chris Cornell! From Audioslave!"

Bret answered, "From who?"

"You know, the guy from Soundgarden?" I clarified, reaching back into the depths of murky memory to the sixth grade when I wore a pair of tattered pilling generic work boot rip offs and a highly ill-advised green flannel vest.

This was just the beginning of "sightings" for me at the Japanese ambassador's residence, where a seminar on jizake (artisanal) sake was taking place with a tasting of several products from Japan. The event was being held by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and The Conference of Japanese Food Distributors in New York in anticipation of the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show.

At the tasting I managed to spot the ubiquitous Akiko Katayama and even ran into Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club, who was there scoping out the sake with a tall serious looking young gentleman with spiked black hair who looked dead earnest as he talked to the vendors about the different sake they had on hand.

Bret let me know that Zak Pelaccio (Fatty Crab) was there as well, and having not seen him before, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the tasting, there was a brief seminar, and I was pretty glad for that. All I knew about sake was sometimes you drank it warm, sometimes cold. It's made with rice. Some are sweet, some are dry. I've had some aged sake before, and it kinda tastes like sherry. That was pretty much it.

However, as Michael John Simkin started his presentation on "Sake 101," I noticed the opening slide had one label that clearly said "supahkuringu" in katakana. Yes, sparkling sake. I did not know such things existed. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.

Mr. Simkin drew attention to the fact that sake consumption in Japan was decreasing. The number of producers was decreasing as well.

He said that in before World War II, there were 30,000 producers of sake in Japan. After the war, there were 6,000. In the early 90s, 3,000. Today there are about 2,000 that hold sake producing licenses and every year four or five breweries are closing.

Bret later on asked during the question and answer session what factors might be contributing to this decrease in sake consumption in Japan, and Mr. Simkin replied that he felt the answer was two-fold.

First, that for a long time Japan was a homogeneous culture with little outside influence, so sake was naturally the national beverage since there wasn't anything else. Then came the influx of new beverages and brewers were not ready and did not know how to market their product in an open market.

The second reason is that for those between the ages of 20 and 30, they had seen how as a national drink sake was drunk by their fathers and grandfathers, so naturally it just seemed "uncool" to drink sake. In relation to the first point, instead beer started taking a foothold as well as other alcoholic beverages such as bourbon and scotch that chipped away at sake's monopoly of the beverage market.

I asked what the perception was on sake being used in mixed drinks, and Mr. Simkin answered that he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the idea, but he added understood that some people enjoy mixed drinks and the idea of some operators buying more sake, even if it was to use in cocktails, was for the greater good of making sake more popular.

It was interesting to hear that Japanese sake consumption and producers were going down in numbers, considering that the availability of sake brands in the United States increased the past 30 years according to JETRO president Kazuo Okumura. In his opening statement before the seminar, he said that the number of sake brands available in the United States went from five in the 1970s, to 500 in the present day. Not that brand availability equal consumption, but an interesting comparison nonetheless when going back to the numbers giving by Mr. Simkin about the dropping number of sake producers.

We got a helpful chart describing the sake classification. The basic levels of classification depends on how much of the rice is polished before it is sent off to be fermented to make sake. The more polished the rice is (getting rid of the husk, and even further polishing down the white of the rice), the more refined it is. Besides the level of refinement, sake is also divided between the different varieties where no additional alcohol is added, and the varieties where a small amount of distilled alcohol is added.

However, Mr. Simkin pointed out that sometimes a little education is dangerous for American consumers. When they learn about the added alcohol versus no added alcohol versions, they believe latter to be the better variety and refuse to drink the former. Some don't take into account that adding alcohol or not is treated merely as a stylistic difference in Japan, and not a comment on quality.

After the end of the seminar, we made our way to the second level of the building where tables of sake was set up. I tried different varieties to see if I can utilize what I learned earlier, and there definitely were moments of "Oh, see, I do notice that this one has a bit of a more pronounced alcohol taste compared to this one," and "This smells a bit more fruity than floral," but in the end there were just too many.

I tried two varieties of sparkling sake. One was in a very pink bottle, with a very pink label. The person I spoke to explained that it was developed especially with women consumers and those who aren't particularly into drinking sake in mind. A special team of developers worked with a team from a women's magazine to come up with the concept of the drink, the bottle's design, and even the sake quality. It definitely had a refreshing kick and was on the sweet side.

Another sparkling sake I had was less sweet and less carbonated, but it had a savory aspect to it that had an interesting contrast to its fizzy mouthfeel.

I even tried a sake with yuzu. I was told that it was pretty popular in fusion restaurants where its used for making food such as desserts. Which made sense considering how yuzu has been cropping up here and there in food and beverage.

And there was sake...IN A CAN. Well, I wasn't as surprised as I made that sound, but it was like the first time I heard about wine in juice boxes and champagne in cans. A general outburst of, "These exist? That's pretty genius."

Another interesting side track was trying out unfiltered sake that was cloudy from the bits of rice in it. On producer had a product of both filtered and unfiltered versions in little lamp-like bottle. Another unfiltered variety I tried (the same sake producers of the second sparkling sake), had a light pink, plum blush.

"Where does the color come from?" I asked the brand representative.

The redness was from the mold used in fermenting the rice for sake. Rice used in the making of sake need to be inoculated with mold because, as Mr. Simkin explained earlier, you cannot make alcohol straight from carbohydrates. You can from sugar. So the mold helps break the carbohydrates in the rice down to complex sugars so that fermentation can begin. As someone who eats a lot of rice and who has forgotten about a bit of rice stuck in the corner of the fridge, only to pull out the container after a certain amount of time only to find the rice turned into a rather shocking bright red/pink, I thought it was entertaining to see it reflected in the color of the sake.