Christmas surprises and Christmas drinks
Well folks, the Christmas season is joyful indeed. I successfully executed two gigantic surprises this past season in pursuit of joy for my family (and myself!).
The first was picking up sister-of-the-Maestro Georgia and her beau Jonas in Chicago, fresh off a flight from Vienna, to surprise Mom for Christmas. I brought them to the family Christmas party in Cedar Rapids, and they snuck through Aunt Sallie's house to give Mom her most important Christmas gift on the back patio.
As part of this, I had a second surprise up my sleeve for Georgia and Jonas.
Star Wars came out the weekend before Christmas, as you probably know, and so I told Georgia and Jonas I would take them to Star Wars while we were in Chicago awaiting our journey back to Iowa.
The morning we were supposed to go to "Star Wars," I gave Georgia her annual "America care package," a collection of generally useless USA-themed trinkets to keep her nostalgic for the motherland while amongst all those socialist, godless Europeans.
The last item had a little surprise hiding in an envelope.
Georgia, a lover of Broadway, never got the chance to see Hamilton in NYC, and the Chicago show, her best chance to see it, will call it curtains in January. So what was "Star Wars" was, in fact, two tickets for Georgia and Jonas to see Hamilton.
Yes, they were excited.
I booked an Italian restaurant for pre-theatre gestation one block from the theatre, Trattoria no. 10, which specializes in house-made ravioli, a particular love of both Georgia's and mine. We settled in to the warm, intimately-lit basement restaurant and opened a bottle of 2007 Brunello di Montalcino from our Dad's cellar, just coming to perfect maturity at 12 years old. The aggressive tannin had given way to a silky dried fruit characteristic, with ripe cherry and leather still abundant. And look how pretty it is in portrait mode!
We started with an appetizer-sized ricotta gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and pistachio, which was just sooo good, and there was far too little of it. A field green salad with goat cheese, candied walnuts, and sherry-raising vinaigrette was delicious, and about the only healthy thing we ate all evening.
We split three entrées––a truffled pork belly angolotti with chanterelles, corn purée, scallions, and bacon jus; cavatelli with duck confit, butternut squash, mushrooms, pearl onions, pine nuts, and chive; and some big and beautiful sea scallops with saffron-rutabaga purée, radicchio, pear, shallots, and fried basil. All of them were excellent, and we easily cleaned all three plates. I was a particular fan of the duck pasta, which had a unique combination of flavors, and was a pleasant surprise since it didn't sound uniquely appealing on paper.
We killed a dessert (can't remember what it was!) and drained our wine and headed back up to street level to take a little enchanting stroll along the lit up city streets to the CIBC
* * *
I have seen Hamilton. The show is incredible. The tickets are also very expensive. I didn't need to see it again at that price. So I shooed them off to see their show and went to a show of my own.
The Office is the tiny speakeasy below Aviary, Alinea's acclaimed bar, and one of my favorite destinations in Chicago. I went to The Office the first time I visited the Aviary complex, at the behest of and with my fellow dinners at the now-defunct 42 Grams. My favorite thing to do here is the "Dealer's Choice" option, giving the bartender a spirit and a mood and letting them make you something wonderful. This time around, I opted for their new "Dusty Bottle" experience, which gives you three classic cocktails made with selections from their wildly complete collection of vintage spirits, along with some bites alongside.
I sat at the bar and was greeted by my INSANELY cute bartender, Kyle, who I could tell was excited on my behalf for the experience to come. He welcomed me and I melted back, and told me he'd be starting me off with a classic gin martini, one of my favorite cocktails.
The spirits in this drink included a Gordon's gin from the 1970s, Martini dry vermouth from the 1960s, and orange bitters from... wait for it... the 1900s! Depending on when in the 1900s, this might be the oldest thing I've consumed, alongside the 1908 Madeira I was fortunate enough to sample at Mélisse in Los Angeles for Christmas Eve Eve dinner several years back courtesy of Matt Luczy, my favorite som. The drink was so complex that it was difficult to wrap my head around––certainly there was something to the botanicals that emerged in the gin from 50 years of age.
They paired this with a massive but sort of generic cheese plate, which was wildly different from my expectations based on what I'd read in online reviews (which indicated I'd have a chilled shellfish platter) and hence far too much food to consume after the substantial carb-fest that preceded. I asked if they could box the rest, and I was rather flabbergasted that they didn't really know how to box it up in any sort of cohesive way––perhaps it was rather gauche of me to even inquire! But the way I found it the next morning in the box was comical: all of the accoutrements were just mixed in with everything else, leaving a big sloppy mess of cheese, charcuterie, pickled cauliflower, quince paste, honeycomb, and yuzu jam. So bizarre for a place of this magnitude. I will say, however, that the truffled salami and wagyu bresaola were top notch, even the next day slathered in the free-floating yuzu.
Due to my experience in Puerto Rico back in January 2017, during which I consumed an insane amount of Puerto Rican Don Q rum, I was excited to see a vintage bottle of Don Q Silver rum emerge for the next tipple. A classic daiquiri was the selection, and while it was cool to see the 1970s Don Q in front of me while consuming the beverage, and while the daiquiri was very good, I'm not sure I could have discerned a significant difference between this vintage rum and another excellent, non-vintage plata. I had daiquiris that were equally as satisfying for $3 in Havana. I asked to taste a tiny bit of the rum on its own, but was rebuffed. This place is kinda weird sometimes.
The bite served alongside was a maitake mushroom tempura with mustard seed, which was tasty but forgettable. By this point I'd become lubricated enough to begin to make friends with the folks around me, as I am want to do at the Office, and they started taking a serious interest in the nature of the vintage spirits experience. Turns out the folks to the right of me were on the cusp of a move to Salt Lake City, so I was able to give them recommendations!
The last cocktail consisted of spirits that perhaps most benefitted from the age of the bottle. A Rob Roy was the drink, and it was made with Ballantine's scotch from the 1960s paired with a Carpano Punt e Mes also from the 60s. Nice and bitter with depth and complexity from the aged scotch. Note that the scotch left the cask in the 1960s, so there is a significant difference between this scotch and one that was aged that long in the cask (not sure I'd want to drink a 50-year-aged scotch... might taste like pencil shavings).
The winner of this little course, however, was Aviary/Office's stunning beef tartare. Served with all sorts of glorious things, such as Calabrian chilis, mustard aioli, pickled bits, a runny egg yolk, and four grams of Alba white truffle (omg), this was an inspired, decadent masterpiece and, interestingly for a bar, the best part of the experience. I also sorta love the photo I got of it, which makes the candle's light magnified through the water glass look like the light of God shining on it.
I had a handful of minutes after they brought a sweet bite to snag a "dealer's choice" cocktail from the adorable Kyle, who made me his take on a Bijou, his favorite drink, with Chartreuse, sloe gin, and some other delicious things. Herbal, spirit-forward, and with just a slight fruit tang, this is my ideal gin cocktail. I'll bring Kyle with me to make me these all the time.
* * *
We'd arranged to go out to a bar after we saw "Star Wars," so I was all set up to meet Georgia and Jonas after their show at a bar I've heard a great deal about recently called Kumiko. Both of my loyal readers doubtless know of my love for all things Japanese––this bar focuses on Japanese ingredients and inspiration for their drinks. Helmed by Julia Momose, who lived in Japan until age 18, and formerly worked at Aviary and vaunted cocktail bar GreenDoor, the cocktails are just as elegant as a course in an omakase meal.
I hit up Kumiko before Georgia and Jonas arrived so that I could get a taste of the morsels coming out of their kitchen, with food designed by folks from Chicago's second-most famous culinary temple, Oriole. All I needed to see was "Ora King Salmon Sashimi" to know that I needed to get there before the kitchen closed at 10:00 and bide my time sipping one of Momose's elegant tipples and chowing down on some of the most glorious salmon imaginable while waiting for Georgia and Jonas.
Julia is terrifyingly classy––poised and austere, but gently warm––in her service at the bar, and the bar was helmed that night by Julia and her hubby Sammy. I was a shade late to my reservation so I had only a few minutes to order some of their food, which left me to neglect photographing my first beverage. The Sea Flower, graced by a rim of "ocean dust," consisted of a delicate blend of Nikka Coffey (not coffee) gin, Berto Vermouth Bianco, yuzu kosho (citrus and chili paste), kabosu (Japanese citrus), and lime. Absolutely beautiful, and a wonderful pairing with the food that was now rapidly emerging from the kitchen.
The first bite was the highly anticipated sashimi of Ora King salmon, the most magnificent in the world, with sea grape, toasted lardo, and genmai (a green tea and toasted brown rice spice mix). The salmon was delightful, but the combination of the accompaniments atop were, tragically, much too salty for the delicate fish.
A beautiful kusshi oyster was next, with a rice granita (essentially shaved ice), compressed melon, and a bit of coriander. Fresh, complex, and delicious. Love me some kusshis!
Next was probably my favorite bite––an aged kanpachi (amberjack) with sturgeon caviar atop. The aging takes place in a Japanese spice that is a component of making miso, and gave the fish a compelling, but subtle, additional flavor, while the caviar imparted its signature brine. Really lovely.
My last bite was a hand roll, served unrolled with the nori alongside, which is an excellent idea to keep the seaweed nice and crunchy, with Hokkaido uni simply prepared with shoyu and sesame. My loyal readers know uni is my favorite thing, so no need to dwell on how stunning this was.
Now that the kitchen was closed, it became time to focus exclusively on the cocktails. I will try to remember these as best I can, because by the third one, things were getting just a bit foggy, even for a man of my robust constitution!
I'll just post brief descriptions and my impressions of the last six (!) cocktails of the night, remembered well in the moment, but fading by the day!
1) Daiquiri: Can't remember why this one was as awesome as it was, but damn it was awesome.
2) New Wave: Akashi ‘White Oak’ Japanese whisky, Pineau des Charentes Rouge (omg),
Chiyonosono ‘8,000 Generations’ Kome shochu, Mugicha, Verjus Blanc,
and Combier Kümmel. On the menu, it says "...nostalgia to some: the flavors of Japanese curry rice." Sammy's favorite drink, and definitely the most interesting and complex of the evening, with deep, sippable flavor and savory notes.
3) "Martini": Bought for me by the Doctor sitting next to me (Doctor to Doctor!). A rum "martini," as clear as water. No photo available but... damn.
4) Salt-roasted sweet potato old fashioned: Hatozaki whisky, Japanese sweet potato, kuromitsu (black sugar syrup), kinmokusei (olive flower), and green cardamom. Just stupid good, and so pretty with that maple leaf!
5) Gin and tonic: Monkey 48 (yes, 48) gin, a variation on Monkey 47, my favorite gin, with an extra botanical atop their already absurd 47 botanicals, tangerine and sea salt drinking vinegar, Top Note tonic. Easily the best G and T I have ever had. Julia told me the drinking vinegar is a good tangy substitute for lime, gives the drink more complexity, and highlights the botanicals.
6) Dealer's choice: Take on "scotch and soda" with two types of Nikka whisky, Barolo Chinato, and sake. Julia joined me on this one, saying she ends her nights with it.
Holy shit, that was ELEVEN cocktails total over the course of the evening (literally just realized this as I am writing)! Luckily, the amount of time between them and enjoying them, and my alcohol tolerance/extra poundage resulted in a limited level of inebriation, so I was able to savor each one!
Kumiko is probably the best cocktail bar I've visited. Every drink is nuanced and well-thought-out, and the emphasis on the beautiful Japanese ingredients elevates it to the next level. I will be back, certainly, and hopefully visiting the restaurant, Kikko, as well.
Sorry for the delay on the post, but stay tuned for a look back at 2019 in the Big Drunk Gay Awards!