Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vino de Jerez sherry competition

December 9

I showed up at Clover Club around 7-ish. It kind of worked out because I wasn't really sure if I was going to be allowed into the live competition part and the live competition started at 5 p.m., so that was going to be a little hard for me to make, what with having a regular office job.

I found myself a bit confused when I first showed up because it looked like business as usual in the front bar area. I figured that the competition was going on in the back bar and that I'm supposed to hang out here after all until the after party started at 8:30.

But to make sure I wasn't there on the wrong day or something I asked the folks up front where I should be for the Vino de Jerez competition.

"Are you a friend or here to see a competitor?" the hostess asked.

Good question, I thought. "Um, hmm...well, no, I suppose. I don't know. I just got an invite and RSVP'ed so I'm kind of not sure."

But somehow it was cool for me to be back there and I got ushered to the back. I wasn't expecting to see what I saw though. The place was lit up with video cameras and dudes with like headphones and laptops and stuff. It was a huge production.

"Dude, I wasn't expecting it to be like this," I said to Daniel Eun, who'd I'd just missed.

"Yea, the presentation is part of the judging process too," he answered.

So the finalists in this competition were:

Marshall Altier, Insieme and Terroir, New York
Joel Baker, Bourbon and Branch, San Francisco
Nathan Dumas, Clover Club, New York
Matt Eggleston, The Milk of Paradise Spirits Co., Los Angeles
Daniel Eun, PDT, New York
Chris Hannah, Arnaud's, New Orleans
Perez Klebahn, SUBA, New York
Timothy Lacey, The Drawing Room, Chicago
Carlos Olarte, Jaleo, Washington DC
Antonio Trillo, Nora’s Cuisine, Las Vegas
Neyah White, NOPA, San Francisco

And our judges for the evening: Dale DeGroff, Dave Wondrich, Julie Reiner, Andy Seymour, Jacques Bezuidenhout (who won last year) and Steven Olsen.

I snuck in all kinds of awkward and quickly said hi to folks before settling down on a bar stool to see what sort of things the competitors were bringing to the table. I'd come just as contestant Matt Eggleston was getting ready to do his thing.

His El Toro en la Colina, or Bull on the Hill, cocktial made with oloroso sherry, gin and bitters demerara and chartreuse. Now, where does the "bull" in the name come in? Believe it or not, this cocktail has some demi-glace in it.

Dale DeGroff asked Matt, "How does the chef feel about you using the demi-glace?"

"He doesn't know about it yet," Matt answered.

The cocktail also uses peppers in it so it's got a lot of flavors going on, but once Matt was done with his presentation, Julie called me over and told me to try it a bit and the thing was actually balanced and subtle. And there really was a beefiness hiding in the background. Well, beefiness doesn't sound right. More like a pleasingly phantom savory meat presence lurking in the background.

He'd even brought along his own antique glassware that the judges commented on. Dale said he liked the length of the stem as well as the size of drink the glass held.

Besides the actual taste, the cocktails picked had to be featured on a "working, existing restaurant or bar cocktail program" and the contestants were also judged by their written explanations of: "Why their cocktail is great. When to serve, and how. The precise recipe, proper garnish and ideal glass. The exact preparation method and steps of assembly. The perfect (bar) food match (and why?)"

You couldn't just spit good game on paper, you had to talk it to the judges as well. They did ask questions about what food they would go with or how they'd simplify the recipe for service. Questions by the judges, cameras and lighting all sound like things that would make me supremely nervous as separate entities, but the finalists I got to watch held up pretty well.

Nate Dumas got some good-natured ribbing from the judges about his "homefield advantage" because he works at the Clover Club (and you can catch him at PDT on sometimes).

Nate said that his cocktail, The Crossing, is pastry-inspired, taking into account flavors present in the Don Nuno oloroso like molasses, cocoa and coffee. Nate also explained that it's a nod to Don Nuno, since in his research (on Google, he added), he found that Don Nuño was an archbishop in the sherry region.

Nate chose the Don Nuño because of it's nutty and molassesy characteristic, and its dryness allowed him to be in control of the sweetness. Lemon and orange juice provided acidity, demerara sugar syrup for complexity and Laird's Bonded Applejack boosted the fruit flavors of the sherry, Amaro Carciofo. And to bring out some body and richness, egg whites.

Nate explained that previous he double-strained to get rid of the coarse bubbles, but found out that if he strained slowly, there's no need for him to take that extra step.

Nate finished off the drinks with a cross of Fee's aromatic bitters as well as some nutmeg.

Miguel Trillo of Nora’s Cuisine in Las Vegas also presented an egg white cocktail, and used cantaloupe and rosemary in his as well as bourbone and agave nectar. The drink had a bit of Vegas showiness to it with some flame action and a garnish skewer of candied cantaloupe, candied lemon and rosemary.

Joel Baker from Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco intrigued the judges with his use of Scotch for his Matador cocktail (name derived from his favorite 80s movie, "The Breakfast Club"). Joel said "the writing was on the wall...or on the bottle in this case" for his idea because the scotch he chose to use was aged in sherry barrels.

OK, but you don't want to hear me yammer on and on, you wanna hear who won. So we got shooed out for a bit while the judges had time to deliberate. I do best when left to my own devices. I make a nuisance of myself. I bugged Eben Freeman about some ridiculous theories and and half-baked conjectures I had been hashing out after being presented with a random cocktail question from somewhere else, Willy Shine and I asked Matt Eggleston about cocktails in Los Angeles, Alex Day told me he sent me an email that got lost in the ether about the new D&C menu was out and I jokingly accused him that he probably didn't want to tell me, then I forgot Pegu bartender Scott's name again even though Kenta Goto introduced me to him and mentioned his name to me more than once, and I demanded that Giuseppe Gonzalez make me some alcohol.

The back bar area finally opened up people got to sample the finalists' drinks. Thomas Waugh and Leo DeGroff busily made the drinks using batches the finalists made.

After folks got a chance to try out the drinks and nosh a bit, Steve Olsen announced the winners. The scoring was tough and close enough to result in a tie for third place between Daniel Eun and Joel Baker. Second place went to Nate Dumas and first place was Neyah White.

"California represent," Daniel Eun said, since he and Nate are originally from the West Coast.

The industry party in the back bar was supposed to go on in the wee hours, but I ducked out early (seeing a pattern here?). I wish sticking around longer was an option, but it was a school night.