Sunday, May 30, 2004

Regrettably, thanks to my companion's ruptured patella tendon and the ensuing surgery and recovery time, I have not had time for either blogging or tequila tasting. Until last night, that is.

Imagine my surprise when I closely examined the bottle of Hacienda de Chihuahua Anejo I mentioned a couple of posts ago, and discovered the drink was not tequila at all, but rather, a Sotol.

Sotol, it turns out, is a new product made from a plant know as Desert Spoon -- in the agave family but not quite blue agave. It is being billed as an alternative to the very expensive tequilas, which as everybody should know, shot up in price a few years ago thanks to the combination of an agave shortage and a surge in popularity. More on Sotol and its invention can be found here.

I was quite concerned while opening the bottle that we had mistakenly bought a cheap tequila imitator and entirely prepared to be dissapointed but, instead was pleasantly surprised by a unique, smooth and very light tasting liquor. The article I linked to claims that some people actually prefer Sotol to tequila. Now, I wouldn't go quite that far, although it would be fair to say that I prefer it to some tequilas.

Perfectly enjoyable drink and, considering the price, bound to become a widely enjoyed alternative to tequila. Not available in Ontario, of course.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Chicago v. New York

Well, the answer's kinda obvious. And it's certainly unfair to compare any North American city to New York. They're going to fall short every time.

Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed myself in Chicago and would certainly go back. I would go back to eat the delicious high-end fast food at Chipotle and Big Bowl which, incidentally, had the best chichen potstickers I have ever had. I would go back for the best steak I have ever had, the corn-fed filet at the embarrassingly corporate Ruth's Chris Steak House, accompanied by a supoib creamed spinach. And I would definitely go back to shop at Nordstrom Rack, which was the best discount designer fashion store I've been to.

I would also return to Andy's Jazz Club, which was first rate. It came highly recommended by a friend who is quite the expert on bars around the world and what specific beer to drink in said bar. Wonderful jazz quintet that night and a decent bourbon sour.

Similarly I saw some good blues at Kingston Mines and Chicago B.L.U.E.S. across the street. The highlight was the guest star harmonica player that night, who provided a little variety from listening to those same damn 12 bars over and over again. Chicago Blue on Clark Street was a bit of a wash. There was a very good female vocalist at the end of the set but the bar was remarkable for having only three black people in the entire establishment and all of them on stage. A little unnerving for a blues club and certainly a different atmosphere from the North Halsted clubs we'd been to the night before.

I'm happy to report having had a very good mint julep (a rarity) at Redfish while I watched Smarty Jones win the Kentucky Derby, upsetting the favoured Lionheart. I had Smarty Jones and Imperialism in a boxed trifecta, but didn't have the foresight to put the obvious favoured Lionheart on the ticket, so therefore lost with Read the Footnotes coming in around sixth. What can I say, I like the longshots.

From there, I tore up my ticket and went over to the Mambo Grill. Now, the Mambo Grill is remarkable in that if you could go into my brain and extract the perfect bar, that would be it. 1940s Havana decor, a bowl of limes on the bar, a selection of tequilas that I've never seen collected together anywhere outside of Mexico, excellent service, a great ceviche and I'll admit it, a mojito ever so slightly better than my own. In fact, I have to revise chapter two of Mondo Cocktail, "The Mojito and the End of the World" to accomodate my new experience and a new technique. They also make a very good margarita (not quite as good as mine), and an excellent caipirinha.

The Clark Street Ale House was a very nice place for a civilized after dinner drink (also recommended by our beer expert)and Pippin's was a pretty good bar as well. Dubliner's, well, not so much. An Irish bar that primarily serves pizza is always suspect.

I would definitely return to re-visit The Lodge. It's an absolute must-see. I can only vouch for what goes on there on Thursday around three a.m. but, crap, that's either the worst bar I've ever been to or one of the best. Pure, unbridled insanity and I'm fairly certain Springer recruits directly from the place.

Captain George's Under the Sea bar at the Cass Hotel deserves a mention, in that it was one of the only normal bars I managed to find in the whole place. Smaller than my kitchen, it was just the sort of seedy respite we needed from all the high-end places.

Don't bother with Howl at the Moon, unless you happen to be an idiot. It's Marie's Crisis gone wrong. Really wrong.

At any rate, this all sounds extraordinarily fun and, don't get me wrong, a 38-bars-in-five-nights tour is always great. What was odd about the city was that practically every bar and restaurant occupied a corner, was huge, corporate and cost at least a million dollars to erect. There's no organic neighbourhood of small, unique joints to enjoy. Now, that would never bother me in Las Vegas, but in Chicago, with a few glaring exceptions, there's no row of bars to hop around amongst and, consequently, a stunning lack of people on the street.

As I travel primarily by myself, meeting up with my companions around midnight when they finish working, a big component of me liking a city is feeling free to wander around by myself, which just isn't quite as comfortable in Chicago as it is in Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore even, and, of course, Manhattan.

So there you have it, the definitive answer.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Cinco de Mayo

Many believe this day is in celebration of Mexican independence, but they are mistaken. On this day in 1862, the Mexican armies beat off the invading French at The Battle of Puebla. The marauding French apparently also had designs on the Southern United States and were planning to work their way North, taking advantage of the turmoil the Americans were in (they were in the midst of a wee skirmish at the time).

Mondo Cocktail is full of interesting facts like these and connect more thoroughly how this event connects with the invention of the Margarita. So call your local publisher and demand that somebody publish my book if you want to read more.

So tonight for dinner we shall start with my own personal brand of Margarita and later indulge in fresh made salsa, guacamole, camarones in garlic, cilantro and shallots, and beef and chicken flautas. We shall hopefully have time to get flan for dessert, which will be followed by a flight of our new tequilas recently bought on our trip to Chicago.

We picked up a platinum El Tesoro, which is a very distinctive tequila that smells almost like cheese. Sounds disgusting but the flavour mellows as you get used to it. Also, Del Dueno, our most expensive foray this time, a very smooth reposado and another I'd never heard of called Hacienda del Chihuahua. Will report it's merits or lack thereof at another point.

We didn't need to pick up a bottle of our staple, Cazadores, as a bottle is arriving straight from Mexico on Friday, so we were free to buy some of the harder to find brands this trip.

We drink our tequila followed by sangrita, but much like the proper method of making a margarita, I cannot reveal the secrets on how to make these beverages for fear of scooping my own book.

Blogging will obviously be light tomorrow, but stay tuned for the definitive answer to the question of which is the better city, Toronto or Chicago. In the meantime, there was a nice little book review in The Star on Sunday which people might enjoy.