Sunday, 27 February 2011

3-Way IPA Showdown

Utobeer, £2.00 - £4.00

Following gallant victories over the twin mights of Canada and Holland the Indians were up next. And so I decided to toast the strong and historic friendship of our two nations by drinking lots and lots of India Pale Ale.

A 4 hour lapse in concentration at Borough Market meant that we returned home with some Bison steaks, three bottles of white Bergerac, a dressed crab, 6 avocados, a small bottle of apple juice, an Ostrich feather duster, some biltong and a rabbit's head. But most importantly we also had the required brews.

An unromantic sort will doubt the story that IPAs were created because a highly hopped, high alcohol beer was better at surviving the voyage to India in colonial times. I am not an unromantic sort, think it's a good story and will continue to imagine the beer fueling 200 years of running around the globe forcing our language on indigenous populations.

But what I had was not your regualar British IPA, with its sensible-ish alcohol levels, and pleasant malt/hop combinations. This is American style IPA, and, as I understand it, the idea is to create as strong a beer as possible and then hop it to hell so that it appears balanced. It is considered an advantage if the resulting brew turns out to a.) Have interesting flavours, and b.) Not be so bitter as to make you want to rip your tongue out. But neither of these are by any means essential.

So what I had was 6 bottles of a British beer brewed for people living in India, and recently updated by the Americans. Or at least I had five of those and something else, because Flying Dog had confused things further by throwing the Belgians into this little cultural hotpot and creating a 'Belgian-Style IPA.'

The Brew Dog lot have been causing waves in Britain since 2007 with their agressive styles, clever marketing, and irritating schtick. Flying Dog have done the same in the US since 1990 and Sierra Nevada, the grandaddies of the tasting have been going since 1980.

So on to the main act: Flying Dog v Sierra Nevada v Brew Dog. In order of preference...

Sierra Nevada Torpedo 7.2%
Another crap Sierra Nevada label hiding a fearsomely good beer. Loads of hops and some citrus creeping in. Fizz is very fine. The balance is perfect, and though it's less agressive than the Snake Dog and Punk it's possibly (just slighty) better.

Snake Dog IPA 7.1%
Really tingly green grass flavours and some malt-heft, but it's the hops that dominate giving a superb and uncompromising bitter finish.

Punk IPA 6.0%
Definite hoppy brightness, but changes quickly into sweeter peach and stonefruit flavours giving a surprisingly sweet, but not cloying, finish. Blighty more than holds its own in the field.

Sierra Nevada Celebration 2010 6.8%
Unmistakeable pine-y IPA nose. Slight maltiness balances really well on the palate and it wears the alcohol well, though the finish is a little short.

Raging Bitch 8.3%
A little of the yeast on the nose, and the sweetness on the palate. Lots of vegetable green freshness comes through and a little fruit. The combination is big in every way and intriugingly drinkable, but seems a tad incongruous. Another cracking Steadman label.

Hardcore IPA 9.2%
Too much of the bad; too sweet, too hot, too much alcohol. Not enough of the good; little hop character and only a bit of malt. No bite, balance or bitterness. Disappointing.

For the record I'd happily drink any of these beers, except the Hardcore, on a regular basis. The top 3 are very, very close, and some of the finest brews I have ever tasted.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Barista Pinotage 2009

Majestic, £5.99

Oh how I laughed the day that all the skin fell off the Russian's hand. But a year on and the same thing happening to my face seems less amusing.

A quick search reveals an astonishing 47 conditions that cause peeling skin. A few, such as overdosing on Polar Bear liver (is it that good?), seemed unlikely, but it still left a long and unpronounceable list of potential triggers.

I obviously needed some first-hand (excuse that) information from the Russian, so decided to pay a visit. And knowing that insider tips don't come cheap I made a beeline for the cellar to find some red wine to placate him.

Amongst the usual array of Syrah and Cabernet I espied an imposter from South Africa. Quite what had possessed me to buy more Pinotage I have no idea, but I can't have been in a happy place at the time. Either that or the devious bottle shape had made me think I was picking up a tasty Zinfandel. I don't think I had it before my last venture to Majestic, but unfortunately the new manager there doesn't know me well enough to have power of veto yet. This seemed like a good opportunity to make good on that mistake.

The label designer had abandoned a 'minimalist' style in favour of 'plain lazy' so I accessorised with a Cat Rabbit and made my way.

The nose is savoury, but not funky, with a little dark fruit coming through, and something intriguing that I couldn't quite place.

The palate is initially dominated completely by coffee. How they've made fermented grape juice taste quite exactly like black coffee is another mystery not worth exploring, but with the silly name and all it's clearly their gig. Luckily it soon gives way to a bit of light fruit and some peppery herbs, not much length and only a little structure, but pleasant enough. If tasted blind I'd guess at a slightly weird Languedoc wine involving Syrah, Mouvedre and other hangers-on.

Suprisingly nice. Not as surprising as finding out I actually did have Polar Bear Poisoning would be, but definitely nicer.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Flying Dog Beers

Utobeer, £2.50 - £4.50

Firstly let's begin with a quick shoutout to Ed over at The Beer Bunker who confirmed the excellent Utobeer in Borough Market as a likely destination to encounter some Flying Dogs.

I recall little of a recent trip to the United States of America, but one thing that does stick is spending a fair amount of time staring at a number of blurry and obscene Ralph Steadman cartoons on beer bottles.

And what beer! Huge on flavour, alcohol, distinction, and faux-Gonzo copy on the labels. Good enough to stand out in the already excellent American craft brewing scene- it filled the gaps between bouts of vintage claret very nicely indeed.

And so below, ranked in order of preference, are the bottles I picked up:

1. Snake Dog IPA 7.1%
Big, bold, crunchy hoppiness balances the alcohol perfectly. Flowers, peaches, enough richness. A smidge better than brilliant.
2. Gonzo Imperial Porter 8.7%
Really heady stuff. Starts with caramel sweetness and clever, distintive smacks of coffee and dark chocolate, before unwinding with a cleansing bitterness.
3. Double Dog Double IPA 11.5%
Another cleverly balanced, hop-heavy IPA. Pretty delicious but not quite as bright as the Snake Dog.
4. Old Skratch Amber Lager 5.5%
A good interpretation of a noble US style, perhaps doesn't quite have enough of the moreish malt sweetness that makes Sam Adams so successful.
5. Tire Bite Golden Ale 5.1%
Good, refreshing stuff, but lacking swagger. A touch dilute.
6. Kerebos Tripel 8.5%
Should have left it to the Belgians. Drastically deficient in the malt-beeriness necessary to balance the sugar and alcohol. Way too hot.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Le Pont de la Tour

36D Shad Thames London, £230 for 3

Now that the dust has settled and we have time to compose our thoughts and reactions, things have got a lot more confusing. So I’ll go for objectivity, present the facts straight, and leave long and difficult conclusions to someone else.

TOD arrived by taxi at my house at ten in the morning. He had some pink champagne for my family, a waistcoat which he struggled to put on for some time before discarding along with his hat, and was wearing pyjamas. These last were specifically ‘to give the impression that I’ve been to bed.’ A valiant attempt at subterfuge but more composure, less erratic behaviour and fewer stories about the visions he had of himself cooking bacon, would have completed the illusion better.

We were due at Le Pont de la Tour at Midday, though by 11 this was beginning to look unlikely, especially as past heroics mean TOD is blacklisted at Addison Lee. But arrive we did, at some point, via a pub, a cab, a members-only gym and a walk through the rain along the South Bank of the Thames.

Le Pont de la Tour’s opening salvo was by some distance the finest I have encountered in this country. They gave us frutos secos with the Martinis. Proper ones too: mixed, and with both sizes of corn.

The food is of the type that comes littered with technicolour smears, jus and garnish. Sister’s aubergine tower starter she said tasted like pizza. Which is probably a compliment of sorts. My own ‘Foie Gras Parfait’ (a special concoction dreamed up originally to make anyone who orders it sound like a prat), tasted like liver pate, the toast like toast, the garnish wasn’t bringing much to the party, and I left the smear of orange.

For mains TOD and Sister had a piece of accessorised Salmon. The chef's deconstruction of the other ingredients means I can’t tell you much more, but the fish was cooked to perfection.

I decided on 'Daube de Boeuf' because I didn’t know what it was, and was delighted to discover it means a large slow-cooked shanky bit of cow. Another diner may not have been so happy with the situation, as the internet has since informed that, of course, that’s not what it means at all.

I had noticed early on that this is one of those places that, rather pretentiously, does not give you salt or pepper. I’m not too keen on this practice at the best of times, but here it really serves to highlight the complete lack of flavour of everything that we ate. The ability to braise a bit of beef to melting perfection, but make both it, and the accompanying jus, taste of paper and water respectively is a peculiar skill to cultivate.

There are various reasons that my memory of the events is a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure that being unable to tell what most ingredients were using the traditional means of seeing and tasting it is quite high on the list.

Still, the obsolescence of sensory perception probably wasn’t making much of a difference to TOD who I established at one point was neither thinking about nor hearing what he himself was saying:

TOD – “Is everything OK man? There seem to be a lot of lulls in the conversation”
CV – “What? No there aren’t.”
TOD – “Well then I must have been asleep. Did I fall asleep?”
CV – “What? No. And when were these lulls?”
TOD – “They’re happening all the time. You know… when you and your sister aren’t talking.”
CV – “You mean when you’re talking?”
TOD – “Yeah.”

Our unblemished palates may not have required a trio of superb sorbets (rasberry, apple and a third which Sister correctly identified as Ribena), but these silences clearly needed filling. Initially I was a little concerned as they looked exactly like most of the other stuff we had just been served, but accompanied by homemade Lengua de Gato biscuits (not as good as out of a packet), they were brilliant.

A jolly post-prandial game involving throwing sugar cubes at each other was frowned upon by service which occupied a hinterland between frosty and hostile. Apart from the sommelier, who was quite good, but this was just as well because it was she who was tasked with the job of explaining the most staggering fuck-up of the day…

The week before we dined, D&D restaurant chain (of which Le Pont de la Tour is part) had spent a fair amount of time merrily issuing press releases claiming that they were slashing the prices of 100 of their top wines by up to half.

Needless to say that upon entering the restaurant I had commandeered the list from TOD, to prevent any daft choices, and set about it excitedly. Repeated assurances that it did contain up-to-date prices may well have been true, what it did not contain were any of the quite large selection of wines in their Top 100 which I was thinking about ordering.

Eventually we settled on a bottle of IGT Toscana (I do not use the ‘S-term' because I'm not keen on coming across as a tosser, and this one was pretty ordinary anyway) which was subject to their usual 400% mark-up. Not cool.

The very beginning and very end of our meal were pretty excellent, but the best that could be said of the middle was that it was extremely inoffensive. Mediocrity is a terrible criticism, but here I feel they've got away pretty lightly as the another way of describing it would be bland, souless, cynical, cold, outdated, imprecise, stuck-up and absurd.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Les Deux Salons

40-42 William IV Street London, £50 pp

In the Great Greasy Gourmet International Cuisine Derby, the French have it by a nose.

Theirs is the only cooking that pervades our cultural consciousness to the extent that it has become memetic, the French bistro or brasserie– all red and white and menu du jour and vin de table – is a universally shared false memory.

The food is both pompous and peasanty, rich, hearty and clever. We all know the dishes; escargots, coq au vin, cassoulet, beef bourguinan; they are food as Platonic Ideal.

The Italians come close, but the use of olive oil rather than animal fat lets them down. The Spaniard can do clever things to a pig, the Japanese to fish. Closer still is American fast-food, a deep-fried buffalo wing smothered in hot sauce is a tasty mouthful indeed. But it is a base modern equivalent: yes it is food for the people and the ingredients are cheap and plentiful, but there’s nothing in its head.

And herein lies the secret to the French success. You can think of any raw ingredient, any primary food product, and there’s a country that does it better than France. Their cuisine has evolved out of necessity. Both the alchemy and the inclination required to elevate the snail to the status of a national dish are attributes peculiar to the French, and neither could exist without the other. Nobody does the addition of fat, salt and heat quite like them.

The menu at Les Deux Salons is a joy; andouillette and off-cuts and all soaked in the memory of unspeakable things done to geese. But this sets an ambitious pace, as these are dishes we have all eaten a million times in our minds, and reality is always going to suffer by comparison.

So much here is right; the décor is a tasteful fin-de-siecle take on a classic brasserie, and the wine list, pretty much all of which is available in 250ml carafes fuels a buzzy atmosphere.

We kick off with the least French thing on the menu, a special of scallop tartare with lime and pickled ginger. When it arrives the ginger has been withdrawn from the card and substituted for some coriander, which probably worked better and made a delicious light dish spiked with lime in the form of caviar-like balls.

Mother’s pork belly was good, flavourful and nicely layered, but not I thought as heady and hedonistic as it should be. A little like a reconstructed chop.

My own veal shin was braised to perfection, soft but not sloppy, and served simply with some greenery. There was definite potential here, and at the least it would have been very nice if it hadn’t been so extravagantly over-seasoned as to make it almost inedible.

I plumped for a carafe of Spanish Monastrell off a list that is better than the website’s. It was intensely typical of the variety, and absolutely lovely. It did wear its ‘naturalness’ rather aggressively though, which left a muddy feel in the mouth and a thick black sediment in the carafe.

Cocktails were well made, though I’m pretty sure my Daiquiri involved Tequila, and absolutely certain they put a glace cherry in it. Neither are were offensive moves, but both a little weird.

Les Deux Salons is a welcome addition to theatreland; maybe the waiters are a little too charming but generally they’ve got the Frenchy bit nailed pretty well, all the way down to the inevitable slightly over-priced, slightly disappointing food. And in the end that’s all they really need.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Loimer Riesling 2007

Waitrose, £17.50

The proferred Prosecco had certainly taken an interesting Dadaist approach to the closure debate in opting for a beer bottle style cap, but being a man of both class and taste I was obviously not to be tempted.

Several years' worth of field data suggests that my life will be far, far too short to drink cheap fizzy wine. And I've never been one to argue with empiricism, even when I need an aperitif.

Happily a freezer and a bottle of posh Austrian Riesling were on hand, so I dug out the required receptacle and set about it.

I drink little white that isn't Riesling. I like the petrol, the acidity, the freshness, the variety, the intensity, and above all I love the smug confidence that I'm drinking something better than anybody else.

I love the grape but hate the way its complexity means I spend an evening smelling rather than drinking it, but with this example it seems I had struck gold.

Subtler on the nose than some; mineraltiy, oil, and a little green vegetable. In the mouth however is everything anyone could want: Tropical fruit, citrus fruit, apples, sugar (not cloying), acid (but no astringency), and beautifully balanced.

In an amusing, blurry, art-imitating-life kind of way, the bottle went imperceptibly quickly.

For the moment brevity's definitely got its upside.

Friday, 11 February 2011

12v 2009

£20.10, The Sampler

I am an ill man, both generally and in the immediate present.

That February is a good 10% shorter than many months is entirely necessary. Leaving it much longer would pose serious health risks to the population- plague, pestilence and bouts of suicide would sweep the land. Leap years are difficult.

My current malady meant that 4 Kilos 12v's promise that it was a wine that "connects to the central nervous system and recharges the batteries" seemed appealing.

In 2006 Francesc Grimalt, then of Bodegas Anima Negra, uprooted and set off on his own viticultural adventure. And along with a musician by the name of Sergio Caballero, lumped 4 million pesetas (hence "4 Kilos") on a winery of their own.

I have an inkling that on the previous occasion I had this I thought the 2008 markedly less interesting than Anima Negra's equivalent offering, AN/2. But then again, I don't remember if I remember that situation particularly accurately.

The website lists a composition of 40% Callet and Fogoneu, 30% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. Throwing a few 'noble' grapes into the mix strikes me as shorting varietal character as a hedge against obscurity. But vamos a ver...

When treated well Callet can produce good, deep, pure wines with the structure for ageing. Vineyards are small and scattered and vines reporduce sexually rather than clonally. Which leads to a helluva lot of variation and seeming confusion about which are Callet and which Fogoneu.

The colour is a pure dark purple, with perhaps a slightly lighter rim. Cabernet is apparnt on the nose, with lots of cassis, some mint, and maybe a nostalgic whiff of VA, harking back to their garage-bodega days.

Drying tannins, good acid and some pepper make this a fairly savoury, almost austere, wine and I think a little more Callet or Merlot might have done favours. It's clearly young, but I'm not sure it has the intensity of fruit to stand up to much time in bottle.

Clearly a quality product, and far more interesting than many Mallorquin reds, but not quite what I was after. Any potential nerve-calming effect was comprehensively decimated by the "Michelin-Man-on-acid" label, and it may be March 'til I recover.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Fonseca 1985

c. £55

General high spirits and the start of the Six Nations had put me in the mood for some scientific investigatin’.

Some time ago I had committed to a blind comparison of Cheap vs Expensive port, a wine style that I have drunk very little of and which has never tickled me. And my lunching companion's unashamed declaration of her preference for sticky-sweet wine seemed as good an excuse as any for a first foray into the world of double-decanting.

Up for review were a frankly weird-looking bottle of M&S "Special Reserve PORT DECANTER", which I reckoned at (a generous) £10, and one of my own 1985 Fonsecas.

'85 was very highly rated in its day with decent summer sun and no rain meaning that pretty well every major house declared a vintage. Tastings since then however have divided opinion.

My first discovery of the evening came with the confirmation of the much-debated hypothesis that scientific rigour has a strong inverse correlation to the amount of alcohol consumed. Which meant that this particular experiment ended up being conducted non-blind, blindfolded and blind drunk.

Still... I've often had fun in that kind of situation before...

Despite these impediments it was immediately apparent which was the quality product. The first wine tasted more like wine gums than many wine gums do. Brazenly jammy and no length- a neat trick in a Willy Wonker-ish way, but not worth worrying about.

Wine number two had more on the nose; liquorice, toasted wood and maybe blackberries. In the mouth there was noticeable structure and some drying tannins. Less sweet and better balanced, but the real giveaway was an astounding long warming damson finish. Lovely stuff. Continuing a well-established tradition of voicing opinion on matters that I know feck-all about; I'd say this was a little closed at the moment but not dying, a good thick fruit flavour and firm tannins hinting nicely at future potential.

Our Lady Friend also picked it without hesitation. 'Though the Russian, who though no wine snob normally has a reasonable palate, immediately declared the M&S number to be the superior wine. And needless to say we were happy enough for him to be the tick-eating bird in this particular symbiotic ménage.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

La Bastide Blanche 2008

£12.30, Waitrose

Last week I bought a smartphone. And not just any smartphone, the smartest and smuggest of all: an iPhone 4.

I became dribbingly obsessed with it pretty much instantly. I love it all; its tactile ergonomics, the near-constant buzzing and beeping, the million downloadable apps to solve problems that no one has.

This is not to say, of course, that it hasn’t made me profoundly depressed. Not for the most obvious reason, that I now have a small box in my pocket that is quite evidently much cleverer than me, but because I am now the same as everyone else.

The incorrigible plurality of life is what gives people vim. Difference is refreshing and exciting and cuts through the formulaic flabbiness of our working lives. I was close to letting a door shut, something needed to be done…

Grenache is probably the most widely planted red wine grape in the world, with over half a million acres of the earth’s surface given over to it. Its thin skins and long ripening period produce high alcohol and lively red fruit in difficult hot, dry areas. Its nobility can stand up to varietal wines, but mostly it’s blended; with the dozens of other grapes allowed in Rioja or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or, all over the world, with Syrah and Mouvedre to produce the only blend to seriously challenge Bordeaux-style wines in the global popularity stakes.

This blend is widely produced in the south of France, in the Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon, in California by the wankily self-styled “Rhone Rangers” and in Australia where it’s so popular that they’ve initialised it to simply GSM.

But always in that order. Proportions vary greatly of course, from vineyard to vineyard and from year to year, but generally you're looking at around 70% Grenache for alcohol and fruit, 25% Syrah for smoke and spice and 5% Mouvedre for a heady farmyard nose and acid structure. The wine is big, fruity, fleshy, food-friendly, easy-drinking, complex, clever and fun… everything really.

Thank god then for the small French appellation of Bandol striking a blow against this homogeneity. The bottle I held in my hands listed those same familiar grapes but in a thrillingly different order: Mouvedre, Grenache, Syrah.

This is immediately apparent on a pleasingly austere nose dominated by animals and herbs. The palate is heavy on the acid, but there’s just enough summer fruit to give the wine life and grippy tannins for a balanced structure, some smokiness but no pepper. Rarely has the drunkeness of things being various felt so good. Almost savoury itself, this is real food wine and could be no happier than next to lamb roast with rosemary. Good stuff.

Unfortunately I had no lamb to realise the wine’s full potential, but perhaps that wasn’t the problem at all. Maybe what I really needed to know was: can I pull a Dom Perignon style trick and Warhol-ise it using a clever app on my lovely new shiny thing?

Yes, I can.