What To Do For the Winter Olympics

So I haven’t posted in about a month. What can I say? Travel’s a bitch. But not a bad bitch. It’s actually one of the betters ones. Except when you’re in coach. Then flying is miserable. Anyway, I spent two weeks in Chicago until New Year’s and then spent another two weeks in the 2010 Winter Olympic host cities, Vancouver and Whistler, BC. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but I’ll try and give you a decent recap.

Chicago:

Hopleaf: As I’ve said before, the Hopleaf is my favourite beer bar in the city. And they serve more brews than any other Chicago bar.  Check out my lengthier review for more. While there, I enjoyed the Delerium Tremens Ale, reputed to be the finest beer in the world. It’s good. Real good. But as Belgian sours go, it’s not too special.

Chief O’Neil’s: The Chief’s is our favourite Irish pub in the city. The have acceptable craic, and pour a good, but not perfect, pint of plain. Standard Irish pub fare and a good location for when we are out shopping round out what makes this bar good. They have a wonderful whisk(e)y selection with both old and new world distillates. Of course, they focus on the Irish whiskey but good selections Scotch, Bourbon, and rye can all be found behind the stick. Their pint of stout is quite good, and fairly opaque, but doesn’t compare to Nash’s in the Pale.

While there, I learned that Guinness is holding a competition for “best pint.” Their scoring rubric seems to have more to do with prominently displaying the Guinness logo than anything else. Of course, given Guinness’s long history of marketing genius, I don’t know why we should expect anything else.

Park 21: This new restaurant from the same people behind Carnivale, a restaurant sensation is practically the same. While the service is impeccable, the atmosphere pleasant and vibrant,  and the wine list good, the food is mediocre at best, and the bar program leaves much to be desired. I suggest if you must eat there, you stick with vine, beer, or neat spirits.

O’Hare Airport: It is a sad truth that while traveling, we must spend a good deal of unpleasant time in airports. For the drinking public, however, it is getting better. While Patron has become de regour at most bars, I saw many airport bars making a concerted effort to stock at least one premium offering in each category, including Hendrick’s gin, a variety of sippable rums, good Bourbon and rye and belike.

Vancouver:

The Chef and the Carpenter: We only spent one night in the city, and we went to this wonderful French restaurant after the old school. The Caesar salad is still made fresh, tableside, and with a real egg yolk. Quite possibly the best Caesar I’ve ever had. The rest of the food was equally good. Their cocktail program was outstanding. The maitre d’hotel was a competent barkeep, and while they did not have a bar menu, he could mix up all the classics with a practiced shake or stir from a surprisingly well stocked bar. If you find yourself in Vancouver, I recommend you visit this outstanding Robson street establishment.

Chow: While I was there a year ago, I never mentioned this fine and progressive restaurant serving the fine Pacific Rim fusion cuisine. Another restaurant with an impressive drinks program including fine beer, wine, and, of course, classic cocktails. You certainly can’t go wrong here.

The Cat’s Paw: Another gem from last year, this Granville Island bar has innovative cuisine and reasonable prices, and is, by and large, filled with locals. Another great place to take a load off.

Whistler

The Dubh Linn Gate: This has been our longtime apres hangout. The best beer bar in Whistler, though that doesn’t say much, with a good selection of Scotch whiskies as well, and excelent food, this is as good a spot for dinner as for taking a load off after a hard day on slopes.

Black’s Pub: A reasonably indifferent bar with little to speak for it. While it has good bar staff, an indifferent drinks program and reasonably standard beer menu, as well as non-distinct food doom this to my “eh” list (and not in the way the Canadians say it either).

Milestone’s: A step up from Black’s. A fairly nondescript cocktail menu at least is supplemented by interesting local microbrews and better food. They offer the Wild Horse Winter Ale a refreshing, medium bodied beer with just a hint of winter spice. It is much less spiced than most American winter offerings which is quite a bit more refreshing.

The Cinnamon Bear Bar: Hotel bars tend not to be good, and whether I hit them on an off day, or something else, this is no exception. There are literally no redeeming features to this bar. Avoid it.

Merlin’s, The Girabaldi Lift Company, and Dusty’s: These three mountain-owned bars are surprisingly good. While the beer selection isn’t what it has been in years past, they still stock the Alexander Keith’s Pale Ale, a reasonably standard pale ale after the British style, and their Amber Ale, a heartier, more flavourful brew on tap. This, combined with good food, make this a reasonable place to recover. Dusty’s is supposed to have wonderful barbeque, but I admit to never having tried it. Similarly, both Merlin’s and the GLC have distincive personalities and menus. All have live music and are steps from the slopes.

Ceeta’s Bistro: This bar has a reasonable beer selection, and good, relatively inexpensive sandwitches. We were there for the Canada-Russia game of the World Youth Hockey Championship, which was epic. We also had the Okanagan Spring Pale Ale, a relatively non-descript pale, and the Okanagan 1516, an even less flavourful brew. Unfortunately, Ceeta’s is likely closing soon, so Whistler will loose this quarter century old establishment.

Rim Rock Cafe: This is not somewhere you go for the drinks, not because they do not have a wonderful bar, outstanding wines, and good beers, but merely because the food is so good. One of Canada’s top ten restaurants, if you are in Whistler, and can remotely afford it, you need to try it. One of the best meals of my life.

Hope this list has helped you if you are traveling out there. There are a lot of positives on this list, but I have been to Vancouver and Whistler enough to avoid many of the bad apples, though not all, as the list suggests. Again, I apologize for the lack of pics.

May wind fill your sails,
The Scribe

Mixology Monday: The Search for Peychoud’s Bitters

So, there are no Peychoud’s bitters in Boston, at least none that I can find. This proved a bit of a determent to my New Orleans inspired cocktail, but more on that in a week. Yes, indeed, MxMo has been postponed for a week. However, I will give you a mini-MxMo. Pfiff says I to those who need time to “recover” and “travel.” I need none of those things! Okay, so I wasn’t at Tales, but I can, you know, pretend…

Anyway, my mini-MxMo is a review of the Maple Tree Inn in Chicago. It truly is a little piece of the Big Easy in the Second City. They have all sorts of New Orleans specialties from crawfish etouffee to barbecue shrimp, and, of course, classics like fille gumbo and jambalaya. The bar, meanwhile, serves probably the most authentic sazeracs and hurricanes in the Windy City, and has an excellent beer selection as well with twenty brews on tap. This is a bar that never put “appletinis” or even cosmos on its menu, but would be more than happy to serve you an old fashioned with your choice of Angostura or Peychoud’s bitters, and probably has a bottle of orange bitters behind the bar as well. With that said, I doubt the barstaff have ever even heard of Jeffery Morgenthaller or Paul Clarke, or anyone else who writes online about the resurgence of classic cocktails, but they cannot imagine a world where you cannot get a properly made negroni or Manhattan, and have been making them the same way for thirty years.

Charlie, the owner, is a great guy, and is vaguely reminiscent of the walrus that serves as the inn’s mascot, and, if you give him notice, is more than happy to mix up specialties that aren’t on the menu. My parents swear that one of his shrimp dishes is the best example in the world. I call it “shrimp beyond veal” since I have absolutely not idea how to spell it. My best shot would be shrimp bingion vie. If you have any idea about the dish to which I refer, please let me know in the comments.

The restaurant is liberally decorated with various Marti Gras style decorations, especially during that time of year, as well a folk- or liberal posters and slogans. A recent visit had signs suggesting that January 20th, 2008 would be the end of America’s great mistake. Other signs suggest that you drink more, though only quality hooch. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s motto is “Sit long, talk much.” and if you aren’t talking enough, Charlie will come talk with you.

Good food, good drink, good service, good atmosphere, good prices. What else can you ask for? Check it out:
Charlie’s Maple Tree Inn and Louisiana Brasserie
13301 S Western [That’s Old Western, there are two Western’s in Blue Island]
Blue Island, IL 60406
Or give them a call at (708) 388.3461.

I bid you good eating,
The Scribe

A Hop-ining Place

Two nights ago we went to the Hopleaf bar in Chicago. The Hopleaf is Chicago’s best beer bar. It features a whopping 45 beers on tap, which rotate regularly, and a bottled beer list of eighteen pages. Now, you might assume that with such a huge number of beers, people probably only come for the beer, and don’t worry about the food. Not so! Our onion rings were exquisite, as were our oysters, which are the house specialty. My father enjoyed his Montreal smoked meat. Moreover, the prices are reasonable, with sandwiches around $12-$13 and appetizers a few bucks less.

But the beer! Oh the beer is wonderful. It’s a lot of fun to pick random beers to try. I had a Crooked Tree IPA from the Dark Horse brewery, a Tripel Karmeliet and a Special Block 6 from Brouwerij de Block. The IPA was a nice IPA, quite bitter, and a little sweet. The Karmeliet was probably my favourite of the evening. It had interesting citrus and mint notes and was vaguely reminiscent of the Woodstock Inn Pemi Pale Ale I reviewed last month. As for the #6…well…I remember it was fairly subtle and a little sweet, but not much more than that.

My mother had the De Koninck and the Kwack. Both are Belgian beers (as were the Karmeliet and the 6). At this point I should point out that one really cool thing about the Hopleaf is that they serve beer in its proper serving vessel. The Kwack and the De Koninck were fairly similar with fairly subtle flavours, though the Kwack was a bit sweeter and brighter. They had pleasant citrus notes. I would say I preferred the Kwack. The Kwack also came in a yard glass which made it ever so much cooler.

This brings us to the beers enjoyed by my father. He had North Coast’s Old 28 Stout, a Duppel 8 from Maredsous, and a Gulden Draak from Van Steenberge. While I don’t recall the latter two too well, since I only had a sip of each, I really enjoyed the stout. It had nice berry-raisin and chocolate notes.

The End of London and the Grenadier

On returning from Dublin, we saw even more sights: The Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrods (where we had an amazing vodka and blood orange juice), the Changing of the Guard, the Cabinet War Rooms and the Winston Churchill Museum (which I really enjoyed), and we also saw Chicago at the Cambridge Theatre.

We also had the opportunity to go to the Grenadier. The Grenadier is a pub by Hyde Park. It’s on an alley, off an alley, off an alley behind the French embassy. We stopped there for lunch on my father’s recommendation. Back when he used to work at Lloyd’s of London, the Grenadier was his favorite lunch spot. In his memory, I ordered the fish and chips. After a bad experience in Dublin, my companions weren’t willing to make the same choice. I also ordered a beer (and yes, there will be a mini-review at the end of this article). I discovered something I really should have learned earlier in the trip: To eat the food of the British Isles, you really need beer. With that said, the Grenadier was a great pub with friendly service.

While at the Grenadier, I enjoyed Fuller’s London Pride Ale. This bitter ale is the flagship beer in Fuller’s lineup. While it is sold in the States as a pasteurized bottled beer, on the other side of the pond it is served as a cask conditioned ale. It makes a gorgeous accompaniment to most standard pub food. To me at least, you need a nice bitter to cut through the oiliness of even the best fish and chips, and London’s Pride did that perfectly. It had a pleasant bitter tartness with just a little sweetness in the middle. While it is advertized as “mahogany” colored, I found my glass much lighter, perhaps a dark pine. Further, while I found this to be an outstanding accompaniment to my fish and chips, I think it is a bit more bitter than what I would ideally like to sip on its own.

An Irish Day in an Irish City

Three quick scenes for you all:

I went to the St. James Gate Brewery and the Guinness Storehouse. Now, personally, I think the tour was a little on the pricey side. You got to see how they make Guinness Draught Stout. The one really cool thing is that during the tour you get to taste Guinness that has not been through the secondary fermentation (“unconditioned”). You can taste the amount of flavor that the conditioning adds to the so-called “mild” beer. Afterwards, we were treated to the Guinness Storehouse annual St. Patrick’s Day festival. This involved all the Guinness you can drink, learning to pour the perfect pint of Guinness yourself (which may be available all the time, I’m not sure), and tasting random dishes like Guinness-bread with salmon, some dish based on Guinness sour cream, and so on. Not too much needs to be said on the brew itself. If you don’t know what Guinness tastes like, you should. It’s quite a heavy beer that reminds me of coffee with a bare hint of sweetness and a fair bit of bitter. An Irishman informed me that the whole “perfect pour” thing promoted by Guinness is a load of tosh (surprise! surprise!), but that there is one surefire way of knowing a good pint: Hold your glass up to the light, and if any regions appear brown or red, or anything other than flat black, you should order something else for your next round.

I also went to the Old Jameson Distillery. The distillery tour was even pricier than the Guinness tour, and shorter. However, I think from a functional point of view, it was a much more informative tour. They show you the process of fermenting the mash, distilling it in pot stills, and aging it. The aging was the most interesting as they displayed barrels that were aging Jameson at one, three, five, ten, and eighteen years. You can see the angel’s share (almost 50% for the eldest cask), and how the color changes, and also how the color is leached from the wood. Then we got to taste. Some members of our tour were given the opportunity to do a tutored comparative tasting of several products of Irish Distillers. The traditional drink of Irishmen (nope, it’s not Guinness) is whiskey. Unlike their neighbors to the east, they spell it with an “e.” This is a surprisingly good whiskey, given its price point. Sipping it neat, on the rocks, or with a little water was a completely inoffensive experience, despite the fact that this dram is a lot younger than anything any single malt Scotch whisky drinker would ever consent to putting in his or her body. As to how it tastes, well, let’s just say it was a nice, complex whiskey, and I may have had a few too many drams for anything more sophisticated than that.

Lastly, we went to the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the city center. There was a fun parade, though I saw far too many American marching bands for my preference (including the Fighting Illini!). Afterwards we went to the Irish Folk Music and Dance festival where we learned Irish dancing. We stopped in a number of bars, including the Palace, the Temple Bar, and Dublin’s oldest pub, the Brazen Head. However, the highlight was a little pub on Thomas Street known as Nash’s. If you have the opportunity, I would definitely stop in there for a bit of honest “craic.” Unlike the other pubs we visited in Dublin, where the only Irishman in the place was the publican, at Nash’s, the only ones in the pub who weren’t locals was us. There was a lot of singing. They’d sing us their songs, and then make us sing them ours. Unfortunately, coming from all over the wold, we didn’t have too many of our own songs to sing them, but it was still good fun.

And on that note, I take my leave. Next up: A review of some cider.
The Scribe