by Borderstan.com June 13, 2013 at 11:00 am 0

"Whiskey"

Black Whiskey at 1410 14th Street NW. (Jane Alonso)

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com

I have been itching to visit Black Whiskey, 14th Street’s newest watering hole, since its opening in early May, and I finally got my chance one rainy night this past week. As I sampled a shot of bourbon at the upstairs bar, I realized that every assumption I had about the place was wrong.

Wrong Assumption #1: Black Whiskey is owned by the Bethesda-based Black Restaurant Group, owners of BlackSalt Restaurant, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace/Black Jack, Black Market Bistro, Black’s Bar & Kitchen, and Addie’s. Nope — actually, despite the “Black” in the name, Black Whiskey is the brainchild of the team behind Kushi — Ari Kushimoto and Darren Lee Norris. The friendly bartender taking my whiskey order set me straight right away on this basic fact.

Wrong Assumption #2:  Black Whiskey is a typical DC whiskey destination bar. I admit, I had expected Black Whiskey to resemble Jack Rose, Againn or Bourbon both in atmosphere and in breadth of whiskey selection. Wrong again. Black Whiskey has a smaller, more intimate approach, and — ready for this — it doesn’t even have a whiskey menu! 

You have to either rely on the bartender to make a recommendation or have very good eyesight to read the labels on the bottles on the wall behind the bar. It’s a little frustrating not to be able to peruse the selection in an easy to review format, but the non-structured, free-spirited approach seems to be part of the vibe that Kushimoto and Norris are trying to create at Black Whiskey. Still, I wouldn’t mind a menu.

Wrong Assumption #3: A night at Black Whiskey will set you back a pretty penny. I have this assumption about all whiskey-focused bars, because – well, let’s just state the obvious – good scotch and bourbon are an expensive habit. But hats off to Black Whiskey for keeping its prices at reasonable levels. Most of the shots I sampled were between $7 and $8, which is not bad for a good bourbon. What is hugely annoying, however, is that you have to ask the bartender for the prices because (again) there is no menu to guide you in that department.

So I walked away with the sense that Black Whiskey, at least in its infancy, is catering to a more casual young party crowd rather than the moneyed whiskey aficionado set. Not that this is a business problem, as the Black Whiskey appears to be doing quite well in its first six weeks. The atmosphere is vibrant, and there is no shortage of customers, even on a rainy Monday night.

Note that the downstairs space (capacity of 250) is still under construction, but marked for a “concert venue and gallery space.” The team also plans to build an outdoor deck addition to the top floor for expanded dining options. Currently, Black Whiskey serves a limited menu of carved meats and bar bites designed to soak up the alcohol, but a more food-centric approach may be in the bar’s future.

At least, I assume that is the case as Norris is known as a first rate chef, having worked at the Oval Room, Red Sage, and Ridgewells Catering, and was named Washingtonian’s 2011 Restaurateur of the year. However, I remind myself not to make any more assumptions. Black Whiskey will be what it wants to be, never mind my expectations.

Black Whiskey is at 1410 14th Street NW. It is open Sunday through Thursday from 5 pm to 1:45 am; Friday and Saturday from 5 am to 2:45 am; and closed Mondays.

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by Borderstan.com May 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com

"Salmon"

Salmon, carrots and ginger. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Memorial Day weekend officially marks the beginning of the season of backyard BBQs and rooftop dining, for those of us who live in city high rises. I have to admit I look forward to these events as an excuse to chow on foods that don’t make my usual daily menu. Juicy grilled hot dogs, sweet corn on the cob and tangy coleslaw are at the top of my summer feasting list.

But for those times I want to go a bit healthier (or just want to avoid getting in line at the grill), I make dishes in my kitchen and carry them to my roof. Below are several recipes I turn to for easy al fresco dining. Measurements and serving temperatures are forgiving, so you don’t have to worry about keeping the dish hot or cold on its way to your chosen location.

Sweet Ginger Salmon

Combine in a bowl:

  • About ½ cup jam/preserves
  • 1½ tablespoons lime juice
  • 1  tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1½ teaspoons grated (or chopped) ginger
  • About 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • ½ tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce

Amounts are approximate. You don’t have to follow these measurements exactly — it will come out well in just about any combination.

Mix well and pour over the salmon — bake at 375 degrees F for about 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily.

Carrot Ginger Soup

Ingredients

  • 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 1 pound of carrots, chopped
  • 1 medium sized onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 medium sized potato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 box (about 4 cups) of chicken broth or stock
  • 2 teaspoons of fresh ginger, diced
  • ½ teaspoon of white sugar (or 1 tablespoon of maple syrup)
  • ½ teaspoon of ground cloves (can also use ground cinnamon or ground allspice)
  • ground pepper
  • sea salt
  • 1 cup of orange juice

Directions

  1. In your soup pot, heat the oil, and add the onion. Saute until translucent, then add the celery and carrots. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, mix well.
  2. This is the flavoring base of the soup — let the mix “sweat” on low-medium heat for about 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the ground cloves and ginger and cook for another minute or so.
  3. Add the chicken broth/stock, bring to a boil. Add potatoes. Add a bit more salt (to taste — be careful not to over salt). Turn down the heat and simmer (covered) for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then puree soup in batches in a blender or food processor (be careful about blending hot foods — it can cause an explosion in your blender! You can also use a hand blender and blend right in the pot).
  5. After soup is pureed, slowly swirl in orange juice with a spoon until flavors are mixed.
  6. Serve hot or cold.
  7. One tip — the soup tastes better if you let the flavors meld overnight. So make a batch ahead of time and keep on hand for your next dinner party.

Enjoy!

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by Borderstan.com May 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

"Ambar"

Worth the venture. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com

Consider the many favorite cuisines that we DCers like to spend our money on — Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, Italian. How about adding Balkan food to that list. Say what?

That is what makes Ambar, a Balkan-themed restaurant and bar on Barracks Row, such a courageous venture for Ivan Iricanin (Masa 14 and El Centro partner), who hails from Trstenik, a small town in southern Serbia. He is banking that DC will not only give Balkan cuisine a try, but enjoy it enough to return for more. Enjoy it enough to choose Ambar over other neighborhood favorites like Cava, Matchbox, and Belga Café for date night or after work drinks.

Kudos to Iricanin for taking a big risk, one that appears to be paying off. Judging from the packed crowd on my two visits since opening in January 2013, Ambar has succeeded in elevating Balkan cuisine to hipster status.  No easy feat in this competitive food market.

The name “Ambar” refers to the wooden structures that hold corn in the Balkan countryside. To evoke that quaint atmosphere, Iricanin hired a Serbia-based architectural firm, Atelje AL, to design Ambar. The result is a modern, casual, inviting space that fits perfectly with the general atmosphere of Barrack Row.

What is Balkan Food?

What is Balkan food like?  It might be best described as a mix of Turkish, Eastern European, and Mediterranean culinary influences, as the region was at the crossroads of many cultures for centuries.

Full disclosure: I lived and worked in Bosnia over a decade ago, and have spent considerable time traveling in Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. So I was, understandably, excited to see how Ambar would present my favorite regional dishes that I have a rare occasion to eat these days  (there are no Balkan restaurants in DC and only a few farther afield in Maryland and Virginia.)

Ambar creatively reinvents Balkan specialties such as cevapi (kebab), sarma (rice and beef stuffed sour cabbage), and sopska salata (a mixed tomato, pepper, cucumber, onion, and feta salad) for a modern American audience. The authentic flavors are all there, but the presentation is lighter and portions are smaller (tapas style), which render the traditionally “heavy” cuisine much more appealing.

Even the karadjordjeva snicla — rolled veal schnitzel, stuffed with a type of Balkan clotted cream called kajmak, then breaded and deep fried — isn’t coma-inducing. Which says a lot for a dish I dubbed “heart attack on a plate” when it was introduced to me in Bosnia.

Not every dish was a total hit. I found the leek croquettes and panko crusted peppers too Americanized and heavy for my tastes. And there are far too many potatoes served with the cevapi (a dish that doesn’t even come with potatoes in the Balkans).

For more on the food at Ambar, check out Tom Siestma’s review, released in March, in which he gave Ambar two stars.

The Beverages

In the beverage department, I have one strong recommendation — try one of many rakias (fruit brandies) that Iricanin has imported from Serbia. I can testify that these brandies are nothing like the homemade moonshine that reminded me of gasoline during Balkan days. Honestly, I didn’t even realize rakia could taste this good. It’s a bit pricey at an average of $10 a shot, but well worth a try.

Rakia comes in many flavors — plum (sljivovitz), grape (loza), pear (vilijamovka) — though my absolute favorite is an apricot rakia (kajsija) that the bartender insisted I try. My dining mates passed the exotic drinking vessel in which it was delivered around the table so everyone could have a turn to smell the incredibly intense floral apricot aroma.

And if rakia is too strong for you, the wine list is rich with interesting and surprisingly complex Balkan sections from Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Moldova. The specialty cocktails are just as adventurous, using Balkan liquors to add a new twist to old hat cocktails like the Sarajevo Old Fashioned (sljivovitz, rye whiskey, bitters, and cane syrup) and the Zagreb Rakia Sour (loza, lime, bitters, and egg whites).

Ambar largely succeeds in making the best of Balkan cuisine accessible to the uninitiated. If your usual fare is boring you, venture cross town and give the Balkans a chance to capture your imagination for a night.

Details

  • Ambar, 523 8th Street SE.
  • Open Monday through Friday 11 am to 11 pm; Saturday and Sunday brunch from 10 am to midnight.
  • Tapas from $6 to $16; Cocktails from $9 to $12; wines by the glass from $8 to $12.

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by Borderstan.com May 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

"Margarita"

Mariachis and Margaritas. (Borderstan Collage)

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com

Margaritas are rarely my drink of choice unless I happen to find myself in a bar on Cinco de Mayo. I love tequila, but I find the margarita mix used by most bartenders to be too cloyingly sweet for my taste. However, given the chance to attend this year’s Margarita March, I decided to give this classic another look.

Organized by Beerathon LLC, the team behind the DC Whiskey Walk, the Margarita March last Saturday gave ticket-paying participants the opportunity to sample margaritas in eight Borderstan restaurants — Alero, Ben’s Next Door, Nellie’s, Bar Rouge, La Villa, Judy Restaurant, G. Stoney’s and Tabaq. Armed with my ticket, I set off for an afternoon of drinking amid the crowds.

First, it is worth noting the history on this popular cocktail. Contrary to what many probably believe, the margarita isn’t a classic Mexican drink. Like so many things we Americans conceive as “Mexican,” the margarita was actually a cross-border invention.

During Prohibition, Americans crossed the southern border in search of liquor, bringing with them their suggestions for what bartenders should serve. At the time, the “Daisy” was a popular American cocktail consisting of brandy, fruit-based liqueur, and lemon juice. Daisy, is a nickname for Margaret, which is translated in Spanish as “Margarita.”  Swap tequila for the brandy and viola — the Margarita was born.

A Margarita done right respects this history of using fresh citrus juice and good quality ingredients. Unfortunately, many bars resort to pre-made artificial margarita mix, which is why I have developed a distaste for the drink over time (not to mention too many bad headaches from all that bad mixing). There were examples of both ends of the spectrum at the 2013 Margarita March.

To call out two winners — Ben’s Next Door and Bar Rouge both had excellent Margaritas made with fresh ingredients and good quality tequila.  Bar Rouge in particular went above and beyond with a version made with fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice, cointreau, and real de penjamo tequila, proving that a Margarita can compete with the best.

On the other hand, the Margaritas at Judy Restaurant were being poured by an overworked bar hand from a ratty-looking plastic jug filled with a sickly, greenish color liquid. Tequila was apparently already mixed into the jugs. Hmm. Okay, so presentation isn’t everything — I tried to give the drink a fair review on taste…

But alas… it was pretty bad. Artificially sweet and hardly a hint of tequila. Perhaps the restaurant was too overwhelmed by the crowds to put their best foot forward. Indeed, the poor bartender seemed to not know how to handle the increasingly frustrated patrons waiting for the staff to send more of the ghoulish liquid up from the kitchen.

I suspect that Alero’s Margaritas were also made with an artificial pre-mix, but the festive atmosphere made me feel less critical. Who can be grouchy with lively salsa playing in the background amid piñatas and the smell of fajitas? Even the worst Margarita tastes good in these conditions, which is how most American Mexican restaurants get away with serving such poor versions without a backlash from customers. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

I have one regret from the Margarita March — I very much wanted to try Tabaq’s Margarita, but I was too impatient to wait in the very long line to get into their tiny bar. It’s on my list for next year.

Happy Cinco de Mayo – and if you find some truly excellent Margaritas in Borderstan, we want to hear about them!

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by Borderstan.com April 24, 2013 at 10:00 am 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com

As the weather heats up, the season of gin is upon us. Who doesn’t enjoy a cold, refreshing gin and tonic while lounging poolside or watching a sunset on the back porch?

The herbal nature of gin is symbiotic with hot weather. All gins have juniper as a flavor base in their distillation, which is what provides the spirit’s distinctive herbal scent and flavor. Most brands also add in citrus and spice flavorings called “botanicals” — the mix of these flavorings is often closely held by each distiller as a trade secret. Because our sense of taste is connected almost exclusively to our sense of smell, and we smell botanicals more intensely in hot weather, gin is absolutely tailor-made for the warm weather months.

Gin and Hot Climates

And then you have the spirit’s historical connection to hot climes. The army of the British East India Company created the first gin and tonic when they discovered that gin was an effective masking agent for bitter flavor of quinine — the only effective anti-malaria drug they had access to as the empire expanded into tropical climates. Quinine was typically dissolved in carbonated water to create “tonic water,” which went down better with a shot of gin. Lucky for us, we get to enjoy the modern-day gin and tonic without worrying about a malarial fever.

As good as a regular old gin and tonic is, why not branch out this spring and summer into new territory? All too often, we default to ordering what is on the menu (or the list of rail drinks we became familiar with in our early drinking days) when our local bartenders — especially the talented ones we are lucky to have in Borderstan — are ready to show us their best work, if only asked.

First Stop: Masa 14

"Gin"

Anthony Marlowe at Masa 14. (Jane Alonso)

So one recent night, I set out in Borderstan to issue a “gin challenge” to local our bartenders. First stop: Masa 14‘s rooftop bar, where I asked bartender Anthony Marlowe to give me his most creative signature gin concoction. Marlowe, who used to be head mixologist at Againn on New York Avenue NW, enthusiastically accepted my challenge. He quickly whipped up a drink he has had in his repertoire for years called “Little Sister” — gin, St. Germain Liqueur, simple syrup, sour mix and a splash of citrus juice.

It was light and refreshing as I expected from a gin drink, but a bit more fruity (and less bitter) than a gin and tonic. The St. Germain adds a floral note that balances the herbal gin perfectly.

I enjoyed it so much I completely forgot to ask Anthony what type of gin he used (though I am sure it was top shelf)… which means I now have a good excuse to go back and ask. Ah, the sacrifices I make in the name of research for my Borderstan column…

"Gin"

Collie at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace with his cocktail “Last Word.” (Jane Alonso)

“Last Word” at Pearl Dive

Over at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, bartender Collie (he only goes by one name, like Madonna or Prince) mixed Plymouth gin, green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and lime juice in a cocktail known as the “Last Word” — a prohibition-era cocktail originally developed at the Detroit Athletic Club and making a comeback in modern-day speakeasies.

What sets this drink apart is its use of the distinctive tasting Green Chartreuse, a French liqueur made by Carthusian Monks and composed of distilled alcohol aged with 130 herbal extracts. The use of Green Chartreuse amplifies the herbal nature of the gin, creating a unique experience. The lime juice and liqueur accessorize it nicely with sweet and sour notes.

I also sampled a drink from Pearl Dive’s regular cocktail menu called the “Pearl Cup” (a play on Pimms Cup) with Plymouth gin, Pimms, Cucumber, lime juice, mint, and housemade ginger beer. The ginger beer made the drink very spicy and overwhelmed the other flavors, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Take the gin challenge with me this season!  Walk into your nearest Borderstan bar and ask your bartender to make you a creative gin cocktail. Then report back to us here at Borderstan.com and tell us what you have found. No reason to keep these hidden neighborhood gems secret any longer…

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by Borderstan.com April 11, 2013 at 12:00 pm 1 Comment

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com

"oysters"

Oysters on the half shell. (Luis Gomez Photos)

When it starts getting warmer as spring approaches, there aren’t many things as satisfying to consume than freshly shucked oysters paired with an ice-cold Martini. Head to Hank’s Oyster Bar, a Q Street mainstay since 2005, to explore how well these Mad Men-era favorites go together in the balmy weather.

Vodka or Gin?

The first order of business is to choose a Martini: vodka or gin, flavored or unflavored. If you want to let the delicate flavor of the oysters shine, it is best to go with a strong and clean classic, so choose gin or vodka “up very cold and very dry” as my Dad used to say.

I prefer the blank canvas of a smooth vodka, but the herbal floral notes of gin often draw out and highlight the unique flavors of certain types of oysters. You cannot go wrong pairing briny with briny; a dirty Martini will always partner well with the lovely saltiness of an oyster.

Just about any Martini offered at Hank’s will pair well with an oyster (not surprising that their mixologists know their customer base).  Two choices that will not fail to complement any oyster: The Vesper, consisting of two parts Plymouth Gin, one part Grey Goose Vodka, and a splash of Lillet with a lemon twist; and the Dry and Dirty: Cold River potato vodka with a splash of olive juice.

I decide to go off the path just a bit and choose one of their original Martinis, the “Cold Smoke,” which includes Ketel One vodka, a “float” of ice-cold Ardbeg scotch (a peaty Islay scotch I adore) with a flamed lemon rind.

Sample All the Oysters

The combination proves to be a perfect complement to the half-dozen oysters I order from Hank’s blackboard menu, which changes daily. The light touch of the smokiness from the scotch warms up the cold, strong vodka, but does not overwhelm or compete with the flavors of the oysters.

  • My recommendation is to sample at least one of every oyster available. The oysters will come out on a tray, along with a card listing their names.
  • As you work your way around the tray, start with a sip of the Martini, then dislodge the oyster with your fork, pick up the shell and slurp down the oyster from the wide end to suck in the juices.
  • Follow with another sip of the Martini, and wait for the flavors to mingle in your mouth. The Martini will add a wonderful zesty charge to the taste of the oysters, almost like an additional dipping sauce.
  • As you sample the oysters, you may want to consult your smartphone for some additional information on where the oysters come from and their flavor profiles (check out the Oyster Finder for a handy guide).
  • The Dragon Creek oysters on my plate turned out to have an interesting story: produced at Nomini Creek on the Eastern Shore, these oysters are hand-delivered to restaurants by the grower, Bruce Wood, who also recovers used shells and returns them to his waters, where new oyster reefs can begin to replace those that were over-harvested centuries ago.

Incidentally, my favorite oyster on this particular night was the Malpeques from Prince Edward Island — sweet and briny, almost like an ocean pickle.

While the weather is perfect for oysters and Martinis right now, don’t forget that oysters are wonderful any time of the year.  Enjoy.

The Details

  • Where Am I Going: Hanks Oyster Bar, 1624 Q Street NW.
  • When Am I Going: Weekday happy hour specials from 5 to 7 pm. Dinner service begins at 5:30 pm.
  • Paycheck Pain: Oysters on the half shell $2/each; Martinis priced at $11. Half-price oysters every night from 11 pm to midnight.
  • Say What? A lively atmosphere, but it’s not too loud for a conversation.
  • What am I eating and drinking: Oysters and Martinis! But Hank’s offers a variety of seafood and meat dishes for those who want a broader selection.

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by Borderstan.com March 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm 1 Comment

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

"Daikaya"

Daikaya Ramen Bar. (Jane Alonso)

The highly-anticipated Daikaya ramen bar introduces the art of traditional Japanese ramen to an American audience familiar mainly with the styrofoam microwave cup variety.

Opening to long lines in February, Daikaya is the latest in a new wave of hip noodle shops hitting the DC foodie scene, joining Toki Underground (H Street NE) and Ren’s Ramen (Wheaton, MD) in showcasing authentic Asian noodle bowls in a fast-paced, open-kitchen atmosphere.

Worth the Long Wait

What makes Daikaya worth the long wait? The noodles are the real deal — long, tender, wavy, yellow strands made by Nishiyama Noodles in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Yes, you heard it right — the noodles are actually imported from Japan, shipped directly to Daikaya.

It seems unbelievable that the ramen would not made in-house given that it is what the restaurant showcases, but Chef Katsuya Fukushima believes that ramen is such a unique commodity it has to be made in Japan to be truly authentic (note that Ren’s Ramen made the same decision – it also gets its noodles from Nishiyama). 

The delicious and rich broth is all Fukushima’s making. Daikaya’s stock is “chintan” style — mostly pork-based, with some beef and chicken thrown into the mix. As noted in a fascinating interview with the former Minibar chef in City Paper, Fukushima uses a bit of the stock from the night before in every new batch of stock he makes, just as a bread starter might be used for years. This gives the stock its deep complexity.

Three Choices of Ramen

Three choices of traditional ramen are offered at Daikaya, each featuring a different flavor added to the stock: shio (salt), shoyu (soy), and mugi-miso (barley-miso). All bowls come with ground and sliced pork, vegetables (bean sprouts, onions, and chashu) sautéed in a wok, and several pieces of nori seaweed. There is also a vegan bowl of ramen for non-meat eaters. The soup is served made-to-order and the server will urge you to eat it right away, before the noodles become soggy or the broth too cloudy. This isn’t a venue to linger over your food.

For an appetizer, try the beautiful fried, made-to-order gyoza (fantastic, though I wasn’t a big fan of the vinegary, slightly bitter dipping sauce). Wash it all down with a sake, a Japanese beer, or calpico, a milky drink. And that is it for the simple, straightforward menu. Like in Asia, you go to a ramen bar for ramen and not for sushi or steak or even conversation with your fellow diners. The mantra here is to order quickly, eat quickly, pay quickly and move on with the rest of your day.

Fukushima is serious about ramen — despite his years of training in molecular gastronomy (including an apprenticeship at El Bulli in Spain), Fukushima spent three weeks in Sapporo under the tutelage of a ramen-master before opening Daikaya. The results show. The ramen is satisfying and delicious, and according to friends who have spent time in Japan, about as authentic a ramen experience as you can get in Washington, DC.

And there is more to come. On March 29, Fukushima and his business partner, Daisuke Utagawa (who also owns Sushiko), plan to open an izakaya, a type of Japanese drinking establishment, which also serves food to accompany the drinks, on the second floor above Daikaya.

Will Fukushima use the space to showcase some of his creative abilities honed in the Jose Andres empire? Keep watching this space for a future report.

The Details: Daikaya

  • Where Am I Going: Daikaya, 705 6th Street NW.
  • When Am I Going: Sunday through Monday, 11:30 am to 10 pm; Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 am to 11 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 am to midnight.
  • Paycheck Pain: Ramen bowls run between $11.50-$12.75.
  • Say What? Daikaya is not a destination for a quiet romantic dinner; the small space is packed and rollicking.
  • What am I eating and drinking: Ramen, gyoza, beer and sake.

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by Borderstan.com March 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

"Rogue"

R.J. Cooper and Jane Alonso at Rogue 24. (Courtesy Jane Alonso)

Will the multi-course tasting menu become an artifact of the 2000s?

This past February’s edition of Vanity Fair featured an article by James Beard award-winning food writer Corby Kummer entitled, “Tyranny – It’s What’s for Dinner.”

In the article, Kummer makes the case that an increasing number of chefs are holding diners hostage to their artistic whims — and any interest in what (or how much) the customer wants to eat is ignored.

He writes, “Mercy is a rare commodity at restaurants like this where the diner is strapped into a chair and expected to be enraptured for a minimum of three and often four or five hours, and to consume dozens of dishes.”

Fate of the Tasting Menu Experience

So, that got me thinking about the fate of the tasting menu experience — will it survive the test of time or will diners ultimately tire of giving themselves over to the whims of a chef dictator? As luck would have it, I had a reservation at Rogue 24 on the calendar in later February to test the waters on Kummer’s theory myself.

Rogue 24 is the brainchild of the brilliant R.J. Cooper, a 2007 James Beard Foundation award winner for Best Chef (Mid-Atlantic) and Iron Chef competitor. The “24” in the name is the number of years he worked in the restaurant business; the “Rogue” is a reference to his desire to defy the traditions of the traditional fine-restaurant experience.

True to form, Rogue 24 is nothing like other restaurants in the DC area. It is located in an old industrial garage in an alley behind 9th Street, NW. The exposed brick, high ceilings, and piping make it clear that the space has not traveled far from its origins, though the solid wood tables and elegant lighting civilize the space.

The most striking part of the set up — the kitchen is smack in the middle of dining room, allowing the diner to see the action from a 360 degree angle. It’s akin to watching a dinner-theater where the kitchen takes center stage.

There is no menu to order from — which is actually sort of nice, freeing you the usual decision-making process that can be burdensome. You choose either four, 16 or 24 courses, and you get what Cooper wants you to get (no substitutions are allowed, although they will make accommodations for vegetarians or food allergies if told ahead of time.) Cooper’s style is a sort of home-spun molecular gastronomy — not quite as structured as Jose Andres’s Minibar, but also not the sort of comfort food you find in a Restaurant Eve.

Is That Tyranny?

Is that tyranny? Personally, I like the high-drama of having a master cook for me and not knowing what intricate surprise awaits next around the corner. I also thoroughly enjoy tasting delicious food for hours on end — as long as it isn’t an everyday occurrence, and I can do it on a weekend evening when work is not on my mind.

Rogue’s dishes are highly creative, which make dedicating this type of time and stomach space an easy sell. Highlights: spongy sea urchin surrounded by a fragrant broth of cumber and grapefruit; a hen egg surrounded by crispy chicken skin and garlic threads (a bonanza of chicken flavors); tender lamb collar with a flourish of broccoli and dabs of yogurt dipping sauce; a “churro” with sides of parsnips and hazelnut sauce for dessert.

One minor complaint — the avant-garde plates used to serve the food made the act of eating the food a bit awkward. It was nearly impossible to “mop” up any of the delicious sauces given the plate design. And enjoying every drop of a sauce is undoubtedly one of the best parts of an expensive dining experience.

And There’s Price

Ah, did I mention expensive? You pay for this level of artistry and attention to detail. Sixteen courses will put you under $116, plus alcohol, tax, and tip. Conservatively, plan on spending about $200 per person at a minimum to experience the best of Rogue 24.

Is it worth it or will diners ultimately turn away from this type of “tyranny”? I think there will always be a place for Rogue 24 as a special occasion destination (I was celebrating a belated Valentine’s Day when I visited) for omnivores who love to eat as sport. Sometimes being held “hostage” to the whims of a master chef can, in reality, be freeing thing.

The Details: Rogue 24

  • Where am I going? Rogue 24, 924 N Street NW (rear, Blagden Alley).
  • When am I going? Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 pm (closed Sunday and Monday).
  • Paycheck pain? Sixteen courses for $116; Twenty-four courses for $135; four courses for $75 (available only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday).
  • Say what? Despite the garage space, the tables have an intimate feel and you can hear your dining partner clearly.
  • What am I eating and drinking? Whatever R.J. Cooper wants you to eat and drink.

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by Borderstan.com February 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

"Oscar"

Looking for the perfect Oscar cocktail? Jane has some ideas and one involves the bubbly. (Rachel Nania)

Sunday is Oscars night, and if you are hosting a red carpet watching party, you may wonder what type of original cocktails you can serve to set your event apart from the rest. Here are five cocktails inspired by the top film nominees of 2013.

Happy drinking (and dress critiquing)!

Argo

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief for our American comrades upon hearing he words, “We have cleared Iranian airspace and alcohol can now be served” onboard the Swiss Air flight that evades the capture of the Ayatollahs at the end of the movie, Argo.

What better way to celebrate this victory than to serve a Persian Rose made with Canadian whiskey to honor Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who risked his life to hide the Americans for 79 days in his residence in Tehran?

The Argo Persian Rose

  • 2 oz Canadian Club Whiskey
  • ½ oz lemon juice
  • ½ oz cherry-flavored liqueur
  • ¼ oz rosewater
  • ¼ oz simple syrup
  • 1/8 oz of Pistachio liqueur (such as Dumonte Verdenoce)

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarrantino’s portrait of the brutality of slavery certainly erases any chivalrous fantasies of life on a Southern plantation. Part of the brilliance of the movie is how Tarrantino makes us realize that our preconceived notions of the period — fed to us by generations of films like Gone with the Wind — are not in keeping with the inhumanity of slavery.

For example, take the scene where Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) sips a mint julep in debonair fashion (oh, how southern!) but moments later, watches with amusement as two slaves tear each other to pieces in the middle of his elegant living room.

As we root for the revenge that Django extracts from these despicable characters, consider sipping this mint julep with a fiery shot of habanero bitters that perfectly embodies the comeuppance doled out by this spaghetti western.

The Django Unchained Mint Julep

  • 2 oz. bourbon
  • 2 tsps of sugar
  • 8 mint leaves
  • 2-3 droplets of Bittermans Hellfire Habanerno Shrub
  • Crushed ice

Les Miserables

Who didn’t cry at the end of this tear jerker? Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen because I saw the play a gazilion times in the 90’s (and listened to the music for hours on end in high school), I still bawled my eyes out as Jean Valjean says his final words in this beautifully adapted film.

Such is the power of French-inspired melodrama to touch our emotions — and what better way to commemorate this beloved musical than with a French-inspired cocktail featuring champagne, cognac, and Grand Mariner?

The irony, of course, is that the impoverished inhabitants of Paris — the “Miserables” of the novel/film’s namesake — would not have a chance of ever sipping these luxurious ingredients.

The Not-So-Miserables Champagne Cocktail

  • 3 oz Champagne
  • 1/3 oz cognac
  • 1 tsp Grand Marnier orange liqueur
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

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by Borderstan.com February 7, 2013 at 11:00 am 1 Comment

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

Local Whiskey Begins to Get Top Billing

"Whiskey"

Local whiskey is gaining recognition. (Jane Alonso)

Could the DC area be considered the next bourbon trail one day in the future?  A local movement to revive pre-Prohibition liquor production appears to be in its infancy stages. Local bartenders and marketers are taking notice.

First we had the establishment in 2009 of the first legal distillery in Loudoun County since before Prohibition — Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, located in Purcelville, Virginia. Around the same time, Mount Vernon Plantation opened its long-mothballed distillery to produce and bottle whiskey following George Washington’s own recipe.

And since last summer, DC itself now has its own distillery — New Columbia Distillery, which opened in a 3,500-square-foot warehouse in Northeast DC and now produces its first signature brand, Green Hat Gin, named after a local bootlegger.

Social networking services and club promoters are beginning to incorporate these spirits into their marketing pitches to local bar goers. For example, in January, Gilt City promoted an event at the Huxley featuring Rogue 24 mixologist Bryan Tetorakis using Catoctin Creek liquors as a base to teach participants about gin and whiskey and the art of creating balanced cocktails.

Tetorakis used the distillery’s gin (which, is, by the way, the best gin I have tried ever… sweet, aromatic, smooth. A far cry from your Dad’s Beefeater…) and crème de violette, simple syrup, egg white, and lemon ash to create a drink he called the “Beaureguard.”

He says that using local liquors in his cocktails is one way he can help highlight the revival of regional distilleries. “It is hard to make a bad cocktail with top-quality liquor like this,” he says. He insisted that participants at the Gilt City event try the liquor “neat” first before drinking it in the mixed cocktail so that they can get a true sense of the flavor of the spirit.

The DC area once had dozens of distilleries. Before Prohibition, distilling was a common practice — there were no laws regulating production and use of alcohol, so farmers and mill owners who had ready access to grains such as rye and corn commonly ran a still. Taverns also commonly had their own stills.

Perhaps DC’s long-established reputation for drinking (our city is ranked one of the booziest in the nation) will translate to production in the near future. Cheers!

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by Borderstan.com January 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

"Hogo"

Check out Hogo on 7th Street NW. (Jane Alonso)

Heard of Hogo? If you haven’t, don’t feel like you are out of the loop… this tropical “rum bar” near the Convention Center opened only a few weeks ago in December and hasn’t received too much attention yet. But judging from the mid-week crowd on a cold January night, this one of a kind watering hole is slowly picking up a regular crowd — and for good reason.

Hogo is the brainchild of Passenger owners Tom and Derek Brown, attempting a creative rebirth for the dreary space formerly known as Rupperts right next store to next to their property.

According to the Brown brothers, Hogo is a slang Caribbean term for “high taste” (shortened from the French “haut-gout”) and is often used to describe the “inexplicable taste that you find in traditional aged-rums.”

As you might expect from the name, rum is the theme here – Hogo offers 16 varieties of rum (eight mixed drinks and eight straight shooters) as well as other “cane spirits” such as Cachaca and pisco and an impressive array of tequilas.  And the drinks are absolutely delicious – every bit the high quality of mixology I have come to expect from the Derek Brown’s masterful concoctions at Passenger’s speakeasy, the Columbia Room.

I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t take to the atmosphere in Hogo when I initially walked in. The walls are painted black, with murals of skeletons and assorted biker symbols. Together with the ’80s themed rap/rock music (think Beastie Boys), the décor reminded me of a goth high school reunion that I would rather not attend.

I was expecting a tropical themed Tiki bar – am I in the right place?

But then the drinks came from our attentive server and every one was a knockout.  The “Blackheart’s Punch,” made of Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, lime, cinnamon syrup and Fever Tree Tonic Water, comes in a Tiki glass.

“Jasper’s Jamaican,” made of Smith and Cross Jamaican Rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice dram, lime and Angostura Bitters, delights with its balance of sour and sweet.

The “Tom’s Rum Punch,” with El Dorado White Rum, Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, Domaine de Canton (French ginger liquor), Velvet Falnerum (a sweet syrup used in Caribbean and tropical drinks) and fresh grated nutmeg, just wowed me with its complexity.

The drink that may best embody the spirit of Hogo is the”Queen’s Royale.” This clever drink is a tropical “high taste” version of a champagne cocktail with honey syrup and citrus notes.

While Hogo’s food offerings are not extensive, it is certainly not your standard bar fare. Hogo touts itself as part of a project called “Temporary Works” that “gives talented chefs a platform to cook bar food with their own twists.” The menu states that the kitchen will be helmed by a “cast of rotating chefs from DC and other nearby cities.”

The current chef in residence is Javier Duran, formerly of Cork and Passenger, where he had a reputation for creating dishes that could stand up to the strong flavors of Derek Brown’s drinks. For Hogo, Duran has created a Hawaiian-inspired menu featuring grilled spam sushi, Kalua pork (served over more shred pork), a burger with a fried egg and pork sausage gravy and a pork belly noodle dish with bok choy and carrots.

Ever in search of a culinary adventure, I tried the spam sushi and yes, it was delicious, even if it did sit in my stomach like a rock afterward.

So, don’t let the depressing décor turn you away – Hogo’s tropical drinks, creative food, and warm service will transport you to a “high taste” spring break experience just over the horizon from our freezing winter temps.

The Details:

  • Where Am I Going: Hogo, 1017 7th Street NW (between New York Avenue and Mount Vernon Place)
  • When Am I Going: Tuesday-Thursday from 5 pm to 1:30 pm.; Friday-Saturday 5 pm to 2:30 am.
  • Paycheck Pain: Mixed drinks from $9-12; specialty bowls (serving four) priced at $25/bowl. Rum and liquor shooters (1-2 ounces) from $5 to $38.
  • Say What? Beyond the quirky rap-themed rock mix, sound is not an issue.
  • What am I eating and drinking: Six creative Hawaiian-inspired grazing options, priced between $7 and $13.

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by Borderstan.com January 10, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

"Chicken Soup"

Easy Chicken Soup. (Luis Gomez Photos)

One of my New Year’s resolutions in 2013 is to eat more homemade meals and drink a bit (notice, I said “a bit!) less – and trust me, that is hard for someone like me who lives in the city and whose professional life involves lots of business meals at restaurants. Not to mention my obsession with scotch and speakeasies – sigh!

But since we are only a few weeks into January, it is too soon to give up on those resolutions quite yet…so I am spending some time reacquainting myself with my kitchen and remembering that, indeed, I DO love to cook. In that spirit, I thought I might share one of my easy go-to recipes: quick and easy chicken soup.

This is a recipe I “created” through trial and error, and like all recipes, it steals liberally from others that came before it. When I initially learned to make chicken soup, I followed my grandmother’s instructions to a tee – but found the process of cooking a stock from scratch to be too time consuming for everyday life (though I still make homemade stock sometimes on a cold weekend when I have time). You can concoct a pretty decent chicken soup by using a good quality box broth (I like Pacific brand) along with a mirepoix base (a mirepoix is combination of sautéed onions, carrots, and celery).

Another short cut – canned chicken. I know, I know… I hear you scowling as you read this. But dear reader, I tell you that a good quality canned chicken (I like to use Valley Fresh 100% natural chicken breast in water) is just fine to use in a chicken soup that you are making for an everyday meal. It is easy to use, stores for months, and tastes good in a soup.

Finally — my secret flavor weapon – tarragon!  Tarragon imparts a sweet herbal quality to the soup that will give it depth, leaving the impression that the stock was simmered for hours on your stove… when in fact, you threw the meal together in an hour.

This recipe has very little fat, lots of healthy veggies, fiber (if you use barley or certain types of rice) and the broth is proven to help you get over that nasty cold virus circulating in mid-winter.

Enjoy – I hope this recipe helps you ring in a healthier 2013!

Jane’s Quick and Easy Chicken Soup

  1. Saute diced onions, carrots, and celery in a large pot in oil (either canola or olive oil). There is no set guide for how much to use but try for a 3:2:1 ratio of onion, carrot, and celery – it doesn’t matter if you get the proportions wrong though – it’s soup and you can’t mess it up!  I use roughly one large onion, one medium size carrot, and one stalk of celery.
  2. You can add salt if (you like) to the veggies as they cook.
  3. Sweat the veggies until onions are translucent and carrots and celery are soft, about 10 minutes.
  4. Add a clove of diced garlic (can be from a jar or fresh) and sauté for another minute.
  5. Add a box of chicken broth (roughly four cups) and another 2-4 cups of water.
  6. Add chicken from a 10-12.5 ounce can (the 99% fat free white meat variety – such as Valley Fresh — works well).
  7. Add a cup of pearl barley (can substitute a half cup of rice or pasta or matzah balls).
  8. Add about a tablespoon of dried tarragon (can use fresh if you have it).
  9. Salt and pepper to taste. I prefer to use sea salt. Because it is a soup, you have to use a bit more salt than you would normally put on cooked food in order to get a good flavor.
  10. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30-45 minutes tailored to the ingredients you use (longer if you use barley – less time if you use pasta).

Enjoy!

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by Borderstan.com December 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm 1,116 0

"bourbon"

Rare Bourbons are here. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

Now is the time of year when rare, small batch, highly-sought Bourbons whiskeys are released to liquor stores throughout the country. If you can get your hands on some of these prized concoctions, savor them (or auction them off for some extra cash!) — the limited supply and increasing demand is creating a consumer craze for these bottles.

Pappy Van Winkle — only 7,000 cases of the spirit are made every year, with small batches released in the late fall. Pappy Van Winkle is officially made by “The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery,” which is – in realty – just a brand name. The whiskey is actually the Sazerac Company at its Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

“Bourbon is a type of American whiskey – a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name of the spirit derives from its historical association with an area known as Old Bourbon, around what is now Bourbon County, Kentucky (which, in turn, was named after the French House of Bourbon royal family). It has been produced since the 18th century.” – Wikipedia

A blend of bourbons from several distilleries, it comes in 10-, 13-, 20- and 23-years old batches. The distillery describes it as being made from a family recipe from corn, wheat and barley, instead of corn, rye and barley. They say the “wheated recipe gives the bourbon a much softer, smoother taste and it also allows the whiskey to age more gracefully.” For more on Pappy Van Winkle, reference this recent Washington Post article.

George T Stagg – Often referred to as “liquid gold,”  George T. Stagg is a limited-production bourbon whiskey distributed by Buffalo Trace Distillery, as part of its “Antique Collection ” series. It is a high proof (between 140 to 150 proof) uncut and unfiltered bourbon, aged for approximately 15 years. Tasting notes highlight vanilla, fruit, and caramel. It is distributed twice a year — in later fall and early spring. After release, it is typically gone from store shelves within one month.

Don’t expect to wander into your local liquor store and score one of these bottles. Local liquor stores such as Schneider’s, Potomac Wine and Liquors, and Calvert Woodley typically have waiting lists for their limited allocations. If you can’t get your own stash, sample a glass of one of these bourbons at Borderstan favorites such as Jack Rose, Smoke and Barrel, or Rogue 24.

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by Borderstan.com November 29, 2012 at 10:00 am 1,036 1 Comment

"Hanoi"

Hanoi House at 2005 14th Street NW. (Natalie Pinto)

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

The DC suburbs usually have a lock on the best choices for Vietnamese food, but now Borderstan residents have a new option close to home — Hanoi House, which opened its doors on November 26.

Located in the space formerly occupied by the Hilton brothers’ Blackbyrd Warehouse, Hanoi House showcases the traditional northern Vietnamese cuisine of Marvin Executive Chef James Claudio and his grandmother, Lap Claudio, who taught him the art of Vietnamese cooking in their family home. The restaurant builds on the pho “pop-up” concept that Claudio experimented with last spring at the Montserrat House on 9th Street.

Hanoi House gives us a more extensive look into Vietnamese cuisine beyond pho, adding several categories of food to the pop-up’s menu — four different Banh Mi sandwiches (Vietnamese pork sausage, beef, chicken, slices pork), vermicelli rice noodle bowls with a variety of toppings, spring and summer rolls, green papaya salad, and Banh Xeo, a type of rice flour crepe.

Though serious about its food, Hanoi House has a distinctly lounge feel. As with The Gibson, the cocktails are created by master mixologist Brendan Murphy, and the music engineered by the wonderful Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation. The drink menu features Asian-themes ingredients like tea, coconut milk, ginger, Thai basil, and tamarind; a limited but interesting list of beers from Vietnam, Brazil, and Beligum, and wines meant to complement the cuisine. And of course, a fully stacked bar for all other requests.

The décor is so different from the Blackbyrd you have to remind yourself you are in the same space — the walls, bar stools, and even the cozy booths are splashed with red and lacquered black, the color of luck in the Far East. Perfect for anyone trying to close a lucky deal with a date at the end of an evening out in the neighborhood.

Hanoi House: The Details

  •  Where Am I Going: 2005 14th Street, NW
  •  When Am I Going: Monday-Friday, 5 pm – closing; Saturday and Sunday 12 pm – closing.
  •  Paycheck Pain: Your pocketbook won’t hurt too badly. Cocktails, beer, and wine from $8-$12; Food from $5-$11.
  • What am I eating and drinking: Vietnamese chow washed down by Asian-inspired cocktails.

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by Borderstan.com October 18, 2012 at 10:00 am 1,032 0

From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com. 

"Scotch"

The Scotch Extravaganza. (Jane Alonso)

As some of you know by now, I have a passion for scotch, and I relish converting others to join me in that passion. But despite the fact that whiskey is growing in popularity around the globe and interest in the spirit has never been higher in the U.S., scotch continues to be shrouded in mystery for many people. They simply don’t know where to begin the process of accessing the drink and understanding the nuances of the craft.

If you are one of those people, an excellent place to start is the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society of America’s DC “Extravaganza” at the JW Marriott on October 30. The extravaganza is easily one of the best events of the year – for the price of one ticket ($150), you can taste samples from over 30 distilleries, representing nearly all of Scotlands’s major whiskey producers.

And it’s not the cheap stuff either – you will be able to try some truly fantastic whiskies you might never even knew existed. It’s a great way to compare and contrast different scotches to determine which ones you prefer – and distillery representatives are on hand to explain regional variations, production quirks, and tasting notes.

There is nothing like all-you-can-drink saturation for two hours to kick start your scotch know-how. And to help soak-up all that whiskey, there is a buffet dinner included in the ticket – in addition to premium imported cigars, raffle prizes, and other Scotch-oriented swag (tip: keep your souvenir “snifter” glass, as it makes a handy implement for drinking scotch on a regular basis at home).

To make the most out of the event, jot notes in your smartphone (or in a notebook) as you taste each whiskey. With so many samples to try (and so much whiskey in your bloodstream), you don’t want to find yourself forgetting which ones you liked the most after the event is over. Make sure you try a range of regions and characteristics.  For a crash course in scotch before the event, check-out this handy website as a reference.

For those who aren’t novices, check-out the “Whisky Panel” that starts at 6 pm. It’s a one hour symposium prior to the major event that is composed of whiskey experts, where attendees submit questions to panel members about individual brands, whisky production and other topics relating to the “whisky world.”

The Scotch Malt Whiskey Extravaganza: The Details

  • Where Am I Going: JW Marriott Hotel, 1331 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
  • When Am I Going: Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 7-9 pm.
  • Paycheck Pain: $150 per person for Non-Society Members; $135 for Society Members.
  • Dress Code: Business casual, jackets preferred; no denim or athletic attire allowed.
  • What am I eating and drinking: A lot of scotch, and food to blunt the buzz.

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