The challenge, then, is to maximize the delight without inviting the regret. For us, the solution is the magnum. A large bottle holding 1.5 liters, or two ordinary bottles, the magnum is big enough to be impressive without edging over into mayhem. Nonetheless, produce a chilled magnum of something nice and plant it on the coffee table in front of your friends and it changes the dynamic almost as much as if you had produced the other kind of Magnum, the Dirty-Harry-do-you-feel-lucky-punk one. (In this case, the answer is "Yes, I do.") Split two ways, it will fuel an unforgettable night (and make for a morning that is, if not out-and-out rocky, at least a little gravelly); three, it's a memorable toot; four, a fine beginning. Even split among six, it offers more than a token toast. But it's not just the number of glasses it contains that makes the magnum such an engine of delight, or even the reputation it has for producing a champagne that is, all things otherwise being equal, tastier than that from a smaller bottle. It's the promise it contains.
A single bottle of champagne goes quick, too damned quick. There may be more or there may not. Even if there's another bottle at hand, you'll wonder if they're going to open it or they'll wonder if you are. With a magnum, more isn't a plan or a contingency. It's a reality, right there in the bottle. You can drink your first glass, the one that opens the afferent pathways of the brain, secure in the knowledge that the second, the booster, will follow—and if the group is a small one, so will the third, the exhilarator, and perhaps the fourth, the one that makes your head feel like it's bobbing on a string. We find that awareness to be almost as effective at loosening us up as the champagne itself.
As for the champagne: If your friends are deeply geeky in the world of wines, you can pop a magnum of, say, Bruno Paillard Brut Première Cuvée or Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, confident that they'll be impressed. (For ordinary drinkers, though, it's safest to stick to the big, famous producers.) Part of the appeal of a magnum is the extravagance behind it; if it's going to work, people have to know that it's special. We've always been partial to Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, but we hope we'll never be so snobby as to turn down a glass or three of Moët or Mumm or Perrier-Jouët or their ilk. You don't break out a magnum of champagne to celebrate connoisseurship. You do it to celebrate the joy that comes from having friends to walk beside you on your crooked path through this world.
Published in Esquire By: DAVID WONDRICH.
Photo Credit: Tim Graham
Josh Ozersky was hungry. He looked like a man who could put it away. And put it away he did, for his own satisfaction, sure. But also for yours.
Because Josh Ozersky lived to chow and tell. He was hungry for whiskey and argument (always a good pairing); hungry for validation of his work, which he received but probably distrusted (writers are like that); hungry for camaraderie and song. And, of course, just plain hungry, for the new-school and the old, the salty and fatty, the crispy on the outside and juicy in the middle—especially if it once possessed four hooves and a tail. But deeper than his need to ingest great cooking was his hunger to share his discoveries and to soak in the pleasure of affirmation from his audience. In that sense, Josh possessed a drive like that of great chefs, equal parts generosity and need for applause—not just for praise but also for surety that the rest of us tasted his discoveries and understood.
Josh chose most of the restaurants herein and devoured as many of their delights as he could, just in time to exhaust the Best New Restaurants travel budget, but not in time, sadly, to write the stories. Every death is untimely, but Josh's was especially so, happening as it did when he was just forty-seven in the early hours of May 4, 2015, the very day he was supposed to cheer on his favorite chefs at the James Beard Awards in Chicago. So a team of Esquire pros and great new voices from all over the country, including Beard Award winners John Birdsall and John DeVore, picked up the fork and finished the job.
No tribute could be more fitting, because we are as blown away by these restaurants and the cultural shifts they represent as Josh was. There is something of a New Food Order emerging—the rules, like the complexion of the country itself, are changing.
The restaurant of the year, Shaya, serves Israeli cuisine—in, of all places, New Orleans. And if you doubt that pita and tabbouleh could merit such an accolade, consider that their elevation comes at the hand of a chef, Alon Shaya, who has cooked for NoLa revolutionary John Besh since his first of (now) twelve restaurants began transforming that former time-capsule culture of Commander's Palace and Brennan's. And if that's not enough, imagine sinking your teeth into a pomegranate-lacquered lamb shank, blackened and glistening from hours at the roast.
There is a restaurant that basically serves only birds. A restaurant on a bleak block in Harlem that no sooner saw success than it was shut down by a ridiculous rent increase. Yet somehow it managed to reopen ten months later, bringing its beacon to a different careworn stretch of the city.
In more restaurants than ever, Latin Americans are not just rocking the line but also running the show, with confidence and style. Witness Ray Garcia: I went to his L.A. joint Broken Spanish in its ninth week, before it even had a sign out front. He takes familiar flavors and formats from the Mexican playbook and brilliantly interweaves them with surprises like black garlic and foie-gras butter.
Perhaps most important is that after a decade of tatt-sleeved male chefs whose primary concern was building empires rather than flavors, we are entering a new era of collaboration and cooperation that focuses more on cooking and less on big-swinging solo-artist brand development. Chefs who use the pronoun we when describing their creative process, like husband-and-wife chef-owners Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza, of the Progress in San Francisco. These are craftspeople with their chests unpuffed and their heads down over their pots, developing loyal teams of homegrown cooks just as surely as they develop killer dishes—and upending the bro culture of the American kitchen.
If only Josh could have seen this through. The last memory anybody seems to have of him belongs to John Currence, a friend and the chef at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Having decamped from the Beards' annual Chefs' Night Out cocktail party in search of Jim Beam, the two, along with Charleston chef-kings Jason Stanhope and Mike Lata, found their way to a basement karaoke dive. "Nobody was singing, so Josh just started devouring the microphone and dragging people onstage." Among the selections: the duet "Islands in the Stream," with Stanhope. "It was really one of the most joyful things to watch."
Because for food, for whiskey, for one more song, Josh Ozersky was hungry. You're hungry. I'm hungry. Let's eat.
THE BEST NEW RESTAURANTS IN AMERICA 2015 LIST
Shaya, New Orleans
The Progress, San Francisco
Muscadine, Portland, Oregon
The Grey, Savannah
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, Morristown, New Jersey
B.S. Taqueria and Broken Spanish, Los Angeles
Dolo Restaurant and Bar, Chicago
The Duck Inn, Chicago
Little Park, New York
Shuko, New York
Santina, New York
Mountain Bird, New York
-Published in November '15 Esquire
It's the moment of truth. Your phone lies facedown on the polished mahogany, the relaxed pulse of the music blends with the sounds of a couple dozen voices engaged in pleasant conversation, the lights shining through the ranks of whiskey bottles behind the bar enfold you in an amber glow, your companion is amusing–or even, perhaps, charming–and the cocktail you've just taken the last sip of was cold and strong and necessary, and you can feel it reaching into each individual capillary in your body, soothing each individual nerve. The bartender stands in front of oyu, her eyebrow raised. What will it be?
Sometimes, of course, the answer is easy: another, please, just like that one. But despite their modest size, modern cocktails are strong, and there are times when you don't want another just like that. You want to prolong the experience, but for whatever reason (and that's certainly no business of ours) you don't want to double your buzz. Fortunately, there's a simple solution, and it doesn't involve punting to champagne or beer or the like. As pleasant as those drinks are, they somehow seem like a missed opportunity when you've got an expert drink mixer standing in front of you, waiting to roll up anything you desire.
Drinkers in the 19th century were aware of this problem. Their cocktails, originally made of nothing more than straight booze with dashes of this and that, had to be. The first solution was the manhattan–one of those straight-booze cocktails but with a third or half of the fuel replaced by low-octane vermouth. But if you've ever drunk manhattans, you know that while the pleasure is great, they are no aid to sobriety whatsoever. It took another turn of the wheel to solve the problem. What if you took that manhattan and replaced the remaining spirits with sherry? Mixed thus, this Spanish wine has the texture and depth of flavor of whiskey or brandy or gin (depending on the style) but the same low proof as the vermouth.
The same solution seems to have popped up on both sides of the country simultaneously, in the early 1880s. In San Francisco, little Louis Eppinger, proprietor of a popular saloon on Halleck Street, made his version with dry vermouth and called it the Bamboo cocktail. In New York, "handsome" Joe McKone, of the famous Hoffman House, made his with sweet vermouth and called it the Adonis, after a musical.
Either way, it's a great cocktail. If you like 'em dry, a Bamboo with fino sherry and dry vermouth is as cold and dry as the Atacama Desert; if you want something bordering on the plush, an Adonis with a mellow old oloroso sherry and one of the richer sweet vermouths we're getting these days is as comforting as fleece pajamas.
Whatever you call it, the beauty of this formula is that it's easy to order in any craft-cocktail bar, even if the young Picasso behind the bar has never heard of ti. Simply ask for sherry and vermouth 50-50 with a couple dashes orange bitters and a twist, up. Not an order you could get away with at McSwiggan's, but you aren't paying 12 bucks a cocktail there, either. And if they don't have vermouth, well, you were planning on moving on anyway, or you would have that next one just like the first.
Stir well with cracked ice:
- 1 1/2 oz chilled fino or Manzanilla sherry
- 1 1/2 oz dry French vermouth
- 2 dashes orange bitters
Strain into chilled cocktail glass and twist lemon peel over the top.
Stir well with cracked ice:
- 1 1/2 oz oloroso or amontillado sherry
- 1 1/2 oz sweet Italian vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Strain into chilled cocktail glass and twist lemon peel over the top.
-From Esquire May '15
One of the fascinating things about wine (aside from its uncanny ability to help ease us over annoying Dow Jones industrial average related unpleasantries) is its ability to change flavor and even texture as it sits in your glass. Especially red wine. Wine, like most foods, is a complex mixture of chemicals that change with temperature and exposure to air. But wine has a particular class of compounds, called tannins, that almost magically transform from something that can seem harsh and unyielding to something softer and far more flavorful.
The name “tannins” is actually based on tanning hides – the same compounds help turn relatively fragile animal skins into more durable materials like leather. They’re part of a group called phenolic compounds and are found in the skins of red wine grapes, in coffee, tea, chocolate, and in certain leaves and vegetables. What they share is an ability to cause astringency, which is a tactile property, a sort of dry and rough feeling in your mouth, sometimes described as “puckery,” that comes when you eat certain foods. It’s not acidity, although highly acidic foods can cause a similar sensation. Think of drinking black coffee or a freshly-opened red wine – it feels a little rough in your mouth and almost leaves you thirsty. That’s because of the tannins, which also contribute some bitterness to the flavor.
The tannins bind to the proteins in your otherwise slick saliva (we know we know – eew) , and join the proteins together to form larger molecules. These larger molecules have a rougher feel to them. They contribute to what you perceive as the substance of the wine – you may have heard some wines described as “chewy,” and that’s because the larger molecules bump into each other and slow down the movement of liquid. The tannins, combined with the alcohol and some other components in wine, help create the impression of fullness of texture. They also help keep the flavor of the wine going while you’re eating food, rather than the wine being swept out of your mouth by your meal.
So what happens to wine when it’s exposed to air? Oxygen changes the tannins into compounds that are less bitter and less astringent, essentially softening them. This allows other flavors in the wine to come through, while still making the wine seem substantial. (You can also soften tannic foods by introducing other proteins for the tannins to bind with – this is what happens when you add milk to coffee, for example, and it seems easier to swallow than black coffee). Other flavor components in wine also develop with exposure to oxygen, but softening the tannins allows some of the more subtle flavors to emerge and all the other flavors to assert themselves. Aging wines in oak also helps soften tannins, both because a small amount of oxygen gets into the barrels, and also because some of the compounds found in the wood react with the tannins.
The amount of tannin people like in wine is a matter of personal preference – and what you’re serving with the wine. So if you need another fun parlor game to add to your repertoire, begin by gathering your finest leather accessories for the complete tannin experience. (And by “leather accessories,” we mean your Avallone handmade leather bag or wallet, so get your mind out of the gutter!) Then you can try an experiment with two bottles of first vine wines, the Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir and Emeraude. Both wines are 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, and both have a fair amount of tannins, mostly from the Syrah. Open them, pour a glass of each, and taste them (with a little water and bread in between to clean the palate). The Emeraude is aged in oak and will seem less tannic than the Diamant Noir, which is aged in concrete. Then let them both sit in the glass for half an hour or so, swirling them for aeration a few times during the wait. When you taste them again, you’ll find that they both are much less tannic, and some flavors that seemed muted before are now out in front. Also, the oak now seems to affect the Emeraude differently. Some describe the Emeraude as more elegant, perhaps because the oak reduces the tannins more. (If both wines still seem too tannic to you, check out the everyday reds category for wines with softer tannins.)
It isn't the fancy shmancy cocktail bar you love to order dealer's choices at. They don't have the same booze the other spots do. They surely don't have the right ice and there is not an Edison bulb in sight. A coaster slung across the wood and a "What are you havin'?" may be the first introduction to a very important drinking establishment you should learn to appreciate. Here are a few guidelines you need to know if you want your local dive to be a sanctuary and not just that neighborhood "hole in the wall" into which you've never ventured.
1. Make it yours.
Don't bring your friends here. Don't bring your girl here. Don't even talk about it. It is your secret now. Make sure it's on your daily route and a place you can frequent without having to go out of your way.
2. Pick your standbys and stick to them. Every. Single. Time.
By choosing something easy ie. generic beer, a pour of whiskey or a [insert booze] and [insert mixer], and ordering it every time they will remember you. Nothing is better than walking in and having the bartender put your drink in front of you without you having to ask for it and being able to settle up at the end without having to pay every time you order.
3. Tip 100% to start.
These drinks don't cost anything comparatively. You are drinking a beer for two bucks and change when you are used to paying six or seven. Just hand the guy a fiver and say we're good. Do it again on the second one and he will probably pick up your third. He'll also remember you next time.
4. Cash is king.
Pay in cash. The drinks are dirt cheap and it makes the transaction much faster and looser. The point is not to be a nuisance. The bartender is not waiting on you in the service sense. He's actually waiting on you so he can get back to the game or a better conversation.
5. Be quiet.
Don't talk other than ordering and stay off your phone in every way. You are new. Everyone else in the bar has been bellying up there for years. No need to spout off what you heard on ESPN yesterday—they watched it sitting where you are sitting right now and probably discussed it in length then. You will earn your spot to talk when you can be trusted. And it will likely start by someone saying "Hey I've seen you in here before. Let me buy you a drink (see rule 2)?"
6. Say "thank you."
When you leave, look the bartender in the eye and thank him or her by name. This and this alone goes a very long way. The whole point is to be remembered so next time you walk in they say hello, pour your drink, start you a tab and start up the conversation where you left it.
You can have multiple spots around the city at which you use this regimen. If your place serves burgers for lunch, stop in once a week and have one with a cold beer. They will remember you over time. When you get done with work, stop in and have another before hoping on the train. Before you know it, you'll have reached regular status just by being polite and having a few drinks. Use your spot before a date by stopping in and relaxing with some liquid courage. And maybe some great tips from the old timers for after dinner. What you are doing is creating a space that is different than your normal reality because it isn't your scene and it isn't what you normally drink and the conversation is not what you usually partake in. If you are anything like me, it will become a peaceful sanctuary in no time.
For a long time, Canadian whisky has been the boss of the bottom shelf. Out of the 200 million or so bottles that are sold in the United States every year (ranking it behind American straight whisky - bourbons, ryes, and Tennessees - as a category), about half are destined for shots and high-balls at the local dive bar. Proof positive of the good sense of the price-conscious American drinker: Canadian whisky is a much better product than it's American blended equivalent.
Generally, American blended whisky is made by diluting straight whisky like bourbon or rye with vodka: unaged neutral sprits and water. Blended whisky from Canada, however, is made like Scotch and Irish blends, in which the diluting agent is instead a true whisky, albeit a very light one, that has been aged in barrels - base whisky, they call it. In Canada, the straight whiskies mixed with this are, of course, not Scottish malts or Irish potstill whiskeys, but rather local "flavoring whiskies," many of which bear a familial resemblance to our bourbons and ryes. A smoother and richer blend is the result.
Since it's not 1950, specializing in blended whisky is no longer a great commercial strategy. The American market has now left this category to our northern neighbors, with a focus instead on higher-priced, higher-intensity straight whiskey, whether it's small batch, cask strength, wine-barrel finished, or just plain bourbon or rye. Just about all the rye that previously went into American blend, for example, is now being sold as straight whisky. Up until now, this all seemed to be fine with the Canadians. They continued focusing on their standard shot-grade blends, along with a couple of very popular, equally traditional high end ones, letting the whole 21st-century whisky renaissance pass them by.
Finally, Canadian distillers are realizing that's not a smart idea. For the first time in years, we're starting to see interesting new whiskies out of Canada: straight whiskies (those flavoring whiskies bottled without blending), richer blends, whiskies aged in innovative ways.
For example, the brand "Lot No. 40" ($57), is a legitimate rye (by law and tradition, Canadian whiskies are allowed to call themselves "rye" even if there is no rye in them). It's made from a mix of malted and unmalted rye and it's spectacular: dark, spicy, and very, very grainy - liquid pumpernickel.
"Collingwood" ($27) is a traditional Canadian blend that has had staves of toasted maple put in the barrels for a time. These give it pleasant maple notes.
Canadian Club and Crown Royal I thought I knew all too well until taking another look at them. The regular Canadian Club ($15) might be a little spirity, but it's clean, smooth, and pleasant. Then there's the Small Batch Classic 12 ($22) from Canadian Club, which throws off appealing hints of maple and fig newton and fresh-split oak. Crown Royal Reserve ($40) is similar to Crown Royal, but adds dark chocolate rye to the mix making it elegant and perfectly balanced.
So, next time you take a trip to the local liquor store, keep an eye out for the above mentioned brands, and try one out for yourself.