Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Scallops and schooling

After a brief layoff due to moving and the trip to Copenhagen, my grilling column is back on D.C. Foodies. It's the first one I shot in the backyard of my new house. Although I've upgraded my grills, I had to use my tiny grill for this one, but the new equipment will make an appearance soon enough. I also got a chance to try out Abita's latest beers, both were good, one was great.
So I ran my first beer class at CulinAerie last night. I've been volunteering at the D.C. cooking school for the past few months, mostly helping the chef instructors set up, break down and run the class. But thanks to a scheduling conflict with a guy from Dogfish Head, one of the owners, Susan, needed a beer guy to fill in. I'm a beer guy.
For the class, a private event for members of the National Potato Council, Susan taught the attendees how to grill salmon, bison and lamb sliders, and make homemade potato chips (they are the Potato Council after all), and I got to talk about beer. More importantly, I had an audience that seemingly enwrapped by what I had to say about beer. Well they were enwrapped or stuck because they'd paid for the course.
It wasn't such a bad night for the potato folks, though. I brought props and good beer, and Susan gave them the tools to cook some pretty solid burgers. I opened the class talking about the basics of beer, and passed around some fresh Silver Leaf hops and malted barley to give them a better idea of what goes into beer. Then there was the beer. We did a tasting of three beers: Oscar Blues' Mama's Little Yella Pils, Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale and Stone's IPA. Not everyone liked all three beers, but everyone liked at least one and most liked a couple. The Dogfish Head just wasn't working for them. However, we blew through Oscar Blues' pilsner.
The lecture portion of the class didn't last too long, maybe about 20 minutes. Then Susan took over with the cooking instruction and I spent the rest of the evening going around the room filling glasses and chatting about beer. Man, if only I could get paid for a gig like that.
Fortunately, Susan was happy with my performance, so I'll get to prattle on about beer again. Can't wait.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mikkeller is a phantom brewery. I'm scared.

This brewery doesn't exist.
Well, clearly Mikkeller exists. I'm drinking the beer after all. But when I went to find the Danish microbrewery, all I found was a tiny apartment on a tiny street. No mash tun, no bottling line and definitely no brewery.
As I was getting ready for my trip to Copenhagen, I stuck Mikkeller on my list of places to visit. The beer has garnered a lot of positive attention during the past few years and I figured it would be an interesting contract to the Carlsberg tour I also had on my schedule. Besides, I'd discovered that Mikkeller was in the very shadow of the mega brewery.
Yeah, there's no brewery in Carlsberg's shadow. Just elephants that hate Jews.

I was explaining my trouble finding Mikkeller to my new friends at Den Tatoverede Enke, one of the few bars in Copenhagen that doesn't pour Carlsberg, when it was explained to me that I never had a chance.
"It's a phantom brewery."
Mikkeller is run solely by self-described gypsy-brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. Rather than maintain a permanent location, Bjergsø rents space around Denmark, Europe and the U.S. ... and periodically shuffles on to a new location. He also partners with a number of craft breweries, including Three Floyds, De Struise Brouwers and Stone, for specialty collaboration beers.
This is all well and good. Interesting, in fact. But consider that this dude produces more than a dozen beers in multiple countries and continents. That's amazing. Imagine how productive this guy could be if he'd stay in one place.
And Bjergsø isn't just displaying a feat of productivity that's clearly of a higher order, he's brewing award winning beer. Although these beers aren't widely available, I was able to pick up a couple at The Wine Specialist. The Stateside IPA is delicious, hoppy without too much of a bite, rich without being too sweet. Santa's Little Helper 2008 is a fantastically made Christmas ale that's just as good in April as it is in December.
The woman at Den Tatoverede Enke said Bjergsø rents space to avoid paying business taxes. I don't know whether that's true or not. Maybe all the wandering keeps Bjergsø's creative juices flowing. Maybe without a staff and plant to look after, Bjergsø can focus on his beer. Who knows? Who cares?
The guy's making quality beer. He's just not offering tours.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Days in the Danes' land

Copenhagen was not on my short list of places to visit. But thanks to a bit of serendipity, I got the chance to spend a week there, so I tried to make the most of the time. I saw the sights, I ate the food, I drank the beer. Then I came back and wrote a travel piece for D.C. Foodies.
Of course, I didn't get everything in the travel post, and so I've been chronicling a few of the items here that I either glazed over in the D.C. Foodies piece or simply skipped all together.
One thing I didn't bother mentioning at all was Christiania, a commune of hippies, kids, garbage and graffiti in the Christianshaven quarter of Copenhagen.
I love the story of Christiania: a bunch of hippies taking over an abandoned military base a couple decades ago. When land prices began to rise 10 to 15 years ago, city leaders tried to eject the squatters from the land. To date, however, the residents of Christiania (and their legal team) have fought and won the right to stay.
As a free-spirit commune, prohibitions on drug use is pretty lax. Apparently there was a time where there were really no restrictions at all. But the rise of hard narcotics and the problems that often accompany such pharmaceuticals brought an end to that era. Now, it's down to the Deadhead staples of marijuana and like botanicals, which seems to suit the original Christianians fine.
All this is well and good of the community. In fact, it's that story that led me to wandering though. What I found, however, was a neighborhood that graffiti threw up on.
Dirty, tagged and in seeming disarray, Christiania looks far from the utopia the original community surely envisioned. Oddly enough, I place part of the blame on the youth who are drawn to this head shop of a neighborhood. Streaming in before and after me was a swath of teens and young twenty-somethings. Certainly some were tourists looking to discover the place. Many others were kids looking to score a bag and hang out. Frankly, the place was simply a mess.
Honestly, I'm neither trying to judge or be a prude. I simply didn't get the point. The commune the original Christiania settlers were trying to create was now a dingy, graffitied neighborhood. If that was the goal all along, they didn't need a legal team.
I will say there were bright spots. Amid the clutter were homes that displayed their owners' imagination. There was art. And the idea of a group of people living in a community of their own making was evident, if not ideal.

The other destination I'll mention here is the royal gardens. Surrounding Rosenborg Castle, these lush grounds flecked with flowers and Danes made for a beautiful spot to picnic, which the missus and I did with a few of her coworkers.

The rest of the places I visited are covered in the D.C. Foodies piece or will be in an upcoming post here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Beers, bars and Denmark

You go on vacation, you check out the tourist sites, right? The historic this, the cultural that. Sure.
During my recent trip to Copenhagen, I saw Rosenborg Castle, the Danish Design Center, the Viking Ship Museum, which were all great. But these places can only teach you so much about Copenhagen and the Danish people.
Visit a few bars and restaurants frequented by locals, and you'll get a better idea of what the locals eat, drink and think. Besides, I like bars and restaurants.
However, I've written about the bars and restaurants I visited for my travel piece on D.C. Foodies, so I'm not going to dwell too much on them. One of the bars I visited that I didn't give nearly enough time to in my D.C. Foodies post was Charlie's Bar, a great British pub in the heart of the Danish capital.

Two things about this. I love British bitters and the place had free wi-fi. I never thought I'd care about this (the wi-fi, not the beer). But it is a pain in the ass to find a place in Copenhagen that doesn't bleed you for a few desperate minutes of Internet access. Even the hotel we were staying at charged a kroner a minute to get online.
So when I found a place that pumped bitter from beer engines and allowed my to check my e-mail for free, I was ecstatic.

It shouldn't have been as much of a surprise to me as it was, but I was really taken aback by the Danish craft beer scene. Carlsberg is the king hell beer in Denmark and Copenhagen. The beer's sold in every store and nearly every bar. Given this, I should've expected that a group of people would begin to push against Carlsberg's dominance.
Fortunately, the bars I sought out (thank you Beer Mapping Project) specialized in the other Danish beers. In fact, they specialized in craft beers from around Europe and the United States. One of these places, Den Tatoverede Enke, had Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA on draft and tipped me off to Charlie's Bar, and you gotta like a bar that will recommend another bar.
As solid a selection of European and American craft beers as Den Tatoverede Enke had, Ørsted Ølbar was better.

Double digit taps, including one with Great Divide's Yeti, a refrigerator case full of beers I've never heard of and a Danish bartender with an American girlfriend. I was so enamored with the place and enjoyed talking beer with the bartender that I'm pretty sure I walked out without paying my bill.
Just to be safe, I swung back by the bar later that night, bringing a group in tow. And here's another reason Ørsted Ølbar is a good bar: the bartender I was talking too was no longer there and the one on duty wasn't concerned about my fiscal lapse. Nice, huh?
The group of us responded to the hospitality by staying for a couple rounds. One of the folks who joined the missus and I was Rob, a U.N. consultant and Dutch beer geek. I don't know much about Rob or what he does professionally, but I do know he was president of his college beer club, a member of the European beer union, PINT, and grew up with the guys who launched the De Dolle Brouwers brewery. Once the mutual appreciation of craft beer was discovered, Rob and I began to swap stories, tips and information on all things beer. This back and forth happened time and again in the beer bars I passed though in Copenhagen. It's like we share a secret beer geek code that works just as well overseas as it does here at home. I'm sure we'd have our own handshake as well, if our hands weren't already occupied.
Finally, here are a few beers I tried and liked. Don't worry, I can’t pronounce most of these either.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Spaniard and the Dane

I'm a lucky man, twice over.
I landed reservations at Minibar, Jose Andres’ six-seat restaurant/chemistry demonstration. Two weeks later, I found myself in Noma, Denmark’s den of molecular gastronomy.
In many ways, both restaurants are quite similar. Both are headed by a chef known for pushing the traditional understanding of food -- the way it's prepared and the way it's consumed. Both earned their chops working for Ferran Adria, the king fish of molecular gastronomy and chef/proprietor of Spain’s El Bulli.
That’s about where the similarities end. Sure René Redzepi has a few clever dishes on his menu at Noma, but nothing to match the unending assault on the senses Andres throws at his Minibar patrons. I don’t know if it’s Redzepi or a Danish thing, but for all the imagination at work in Noma’s kitchen, the restaurant (i.e. service) is quite staid. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Staid is the standard for the high-end restaurant industry.
Restraint is the other difference. Of the seven courses and four amuse-bouches the missus and I had at Noma, half were playful creations meant to surprise as much as please. The smoked quail egg served in a smoking ceramic egg, the carrots planted in a tiny pot filled with edible dirt, the razor clams sheathed in asparagus skin, served with shaved frozen horseradish root and a warm broth of dill and mussel juice, and the “snowman” made from carrot sorbet and strawberry meringue cookie. The other dishes were much more straightforward: marrow with pickled vegetables, black radishes served with seaweed and egg yolk, short ribs with beets. Although all of Redzepi’s dishes utilize Danish ingredients, the less theatrical ones in particular seem designed to showcase the products. This local focus may have been something Redzepi picked up from his other famous former boss, Thomas Keller.
The restaurant, itself, looks like a polished ski lodge. Although situated on the water, there are few seats that can appreciate the view.
Minibar, on the other hand, knows no restraint. For two and a half hours, a pair of Andres’ chefs stands before you serving up whatever his and their imaginations could come up with. The food is delicious, but you’re there for the ride. Maybe it’s Andres’ Spanish influence or the fact that the group I was with that night took up all six seats at the sushi bar-like restaurant -- or the ass jokes Peter Falk and I were making -- but the evening and the restaurant was much more lively than Noma. Our group was talking and laughing. The chefs were talking and laughing. It was hardly a staid evening.
Whether it’s my taste in restaurants or the experiences I had, but it’s only Minibar that I’m eager to return to. Noma was nice, but Minibar was an experience.
Now, I took no pictures of the food. I’m uncomfortable doing so, particularly at Minibar when the chefs are four feet from you, but after watching a discussion between Tony Bourdain and David Chang on the subject, I decided it’s best to enjoy the food and tell the story.
I will, however, share the menus:

Munchies: Pisco Sour; Beet “Tumbleweed”; Olive Oil “Bon-Bon”; “Mojito”; “Bagels and Lox”; Blue Cheese and Almond; “Dragon’s Breath” Popcorn; “Cornbread”; Boneless Chicken Wing; Steamed Brioche Bun with Caviar; Cotton Candy Eel.

Flavors & Textures: “Sun Dried” Tomato Salad; Zucchini in Textures; “Caesar Salad”; Parmesan “Egg” with Migas; “Guacamole”; Salmon Pineapple “Ravioli” with Crispy Quinoa; Smoked Oysters with Apples and Juniper; New England Clam Chowder; Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad; “Philly Cheesesteak.”

Pre-Dessert: Kumquats & Pumpkin Seed Oil

Dessert: Frozen Yogurt and Honey; Thai Dessert.

Sweet Endings: Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts; Mango Box; Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper.

Amuse-Bouche: Smoked Quail Egg; Rye Bread, Chicken Skin and Smoked Cheese; Carrots, Soil and Herbs; Toast, Herbs, Cod Fish Roe and Apple Vinegar.

Main Courses: Razor Clams and Parsley, Dill and Mussel Juice; Cauliflower and Elderberry Capers, Fresh Cheese and Brown Butter Sauce; Radishes from Lammefjorden, Sea Weed and Egg Yolk; Marrow and Pickled Vegetables, Herbs and Bouillon; Short Rib of Beef and Roses, Beets and Malt; Snowman from Lammefjorden; Caramelized Milk and Yogurt, Golden Sorrel and Rape Seed Oil.