Monday, February 22, 2010

Drinking Lessons

I bellied up to the bar at the Hunt Club inside the Sorrento Hotel just as the press preview of last night's Drinking Lessons with Duggan McDonnell and Neyah White was about to begin. Everyone else had a glass of water beside them, and the 2pm Seattle sunshine had made me mighty thirsty, so I grabbed the bottle in front of me, a pretty vintage alcohol bottle filled with water.

Pouring myself a full glass, I quickly took a huge mouthful as a couple of Seattle's top food writers and editors gave me the curious side-eye. As my mouth began to burn, I realized I had--in fact--poured myself about five fingers of pisco, the artisanal grape brandy that McDonnell had distilled down in Peru and wasn't even on the US market yet.

Turning bright red in shame, I swallowed the mouthful of pisco as the bar around me erupted in laughter and applause.

"Yes, Ella, that's pisco," remarked McDonnell dryly.

"Everyone, meet Ella Lawrence!" laughed Michael Hebb.

I wished myself anywhere but in front of a full bar of my colleagues, but the buzz I'd gotten from swallowing about three shots of the strong brandy in one go quickly evaporated my embarrassment and I was able to focus on McDonnell and White's lessons for the afternoon.

McDonnell's Peruvian pisco is "achelado," or mixed-varietal (like a wine from the Côte-Rôtie). Red and white grapes (some of them from 90-year-old Peruvian vines) are fermented and distilled separately and then mixed and bottled--Pisco is never aged, which is why it's always clear--like water. :-/

The taste of the new world segued into a history of the Old World as White, in full Professor Cocktail mode, discoursed on bourbon and scotch--two very different whiskys that share some common background.

Because, by Tennessee law, bourbon barrels can only be used once, bourbon barrels are used all over the world: I've spotted Jack Daniels' barrels in Argentinean and Chilean wineries, ageing reds. It turns out that sherry is a big influence in the making of Jameson, because sherry barrels are used to age that Irish tipple, and some Glenmorangie is aged in barrels that have held Chateau D'Yquem Sauternes, the "PhD of a whisky thesis," quipped White as he flamed a piece of orange rind over a custom-created cocktail called the "Barrel to Barrel," featuring Nocino, Jameson, and an Oloroso sherry.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Well Read and Well Fed

Here I am in Seattle as a visiting "Cocktail Curator," having booked Neyah White of NOPA and Duggan McDonnell of Cantina to be guest bartenders and lecturers at one of avant-garde chef provocateur Michael Hebb's symposiums at the Sorrento Hotel.

Night School is a collaboration between Hebb and the Sorrento Hotel featuring the country's leading intellectuals, musicians, bartenders, and chefs. It's a modern equivalent of the Algonquin (with Hebb channeling Dorothy Parker). This weekend the lineup includes Sean Nelson and Erin Jorgenson tonight (a sold-out show of indie rock meets chamber music) in addition to Drinking Lessons both tomorrow and Monday nights.

Last night we dined on Lesley Hazelton's houseboat. The dedicated drinker, smoker, and author ("After the Prophet" is her most recently-published title) had made Yorkshire puddings (crisp, freshly-herbed popovers that perfectly soaked up the sauce from her cast-iron pot of Bouef Bourguignon) for the group of six that spanned nearly five decades.

At the table was Jonathan Raban, correspondent for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, among many other powerhouse publications, who regaled us with stories of his undercover dealings with the Tea Party Movement and Sarah Palin.

Next to me was Nassim Assefi, who was so sweet and gracious. I told her I'd been impressed by "Persepolis" as we discussed the trials that intellectuals have (and are) facing in Iran, and she said, "Oh yes, the author is a dear friend of mine." I listened more than I spoke after that.

Deborah Jacobs had me cracking up (whoever propagates the stereotype of librarians as dry and boring has not spent any time in this woman's presence!) and left early a after a few glasses of grappa and accidentally prank-calling Rem Koolhas.

My life has been lacking in the company of older intellectuals since I amicably parted ways with the crowd at Angelo Garro's Renaissance Forge (the Alice Waters worship got old, and anyway I don't think she has very good table manners), so it was inspiring to dine with people who have first-hand knowledge of Hillary Clinton, Kofi Anaan, and Bill Gates.

Since everyone at the table had written many books, there was much gifting and inscribing (Nassim gave me a copy of "Aria" after she dropped Hebb and I off--though neither one of us had a pen handy for an inscription--bad writers!), and it made me want to step up my act so I can soon inscribe a work of merit more important than a cycling anthology at my next dinner party.

Not only is Lesley one of the foremost scholars of Middle Eastern religion, she covered the automobile industry for the Detroit Free Press for 10 years and is a licensed pilot who is extremely down-to-earth and modest about her numerous accomplishments and awards. Plus she makes a mean stew.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Everybody's Gotta Eat

Instead of lounging around eating bonbons and wallowing in roses this Valentine's Day (which is traditionally cursed for me anyway), I got out of bed and pedalled to the Tenderloin at 9am to volunteer with some friends at Glide Memorial, bagging lunches for their meal program.

When I arrived, a sparse group of volunteers was seated on hard plastic chairs, watching the beginning of Reverend Cecil Williams' 9am service on a television being broadcast from upstairs.

We were trundled down a long dark corridor by a very large black man wearing a plastic apron and missing some teeth. We shuffled past the last seated recipients of the morning's hot meal handout in the dining room, spooning oatmeal directly from a plastic tray, and were introduced to a short man with a round chin and a squinty eye.

"I'm Popeye," he said gruffly, "because I look just like Popeye." (He did). "We're going to make 1,200 sandwiches today, people, so just put these hairnets, gloves, and aprons on, and we'll get started."

The 12 or so volunteers looked at each other apprehensively. Suddenly, a group of 40 teenagers poured in, directed loudly by a brunette woman who quickly realized that we'd do well if she directed us, too.

The teenagers began opening little lunch bags on the dozens of large folding tables and dropping cereal bars and packets of mustard into each one. Over more folding tables, six of us began to open large bags of sandwich bread.

Assembly-line style, we busted out 1,200 sandwiches in under an hour. Near the end of the sandwich-building, a volunteer came out from the kitchen, where she'd been placing sliced meat into the large flip-tubs that were then carted out to the room we were making sandwiches in.

Barbara, a schoolteacher, was a regular volunteer at Glide with her husband. We asked her how the meals were allotted--Glide serves two hot meals a day, but the 1,200 bag lunches were getting packed in huge plastic garbage bags to go elsewhere. She told us that 50 here, 30 there, would go to different organizations.

"Everyone's gotta eat, you know?" she asked as she tucked a sandwich into a plastic baggie and then placed it into another industrial-sized flip-tub.

Yes, I do know.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


What better way to kick off Superbowl Sunday than with a brunch featuring beer? This morning, as part of beer week, MateVeza put on a "beerunch," a beer and food pairing brunch featuring morning-friendly brews.
At the Mission Rock Cafe, mellow hipsters in their early 30s gathered to pair MateVeza's yerba mate-infused IPA with huevos rancheros. Dogfish Head Brewery was well-represented; their spicy Pangaea Ale cut refreshingly through rich salmon.

HE'BREW ("the chosen beer") poured the Rejewvenator with a root-vegetable medley and 21st Amendment's Belgian Doom offset glazed ham nicely with hoppy bitterness complementing the ham's sweet maple glaze.

Speakeasey's Payback Porter was pleasant and cacao-infused, but the real winner was Magnolia Pub & Brewery's Smokestack Lightning Imperial Stout. The dark-roasted stout was rich and chocolatey, with a bittersweet bite that had everyone going back for seconds and thirds. Paired with bacon-y, pecan-studded roasted brussels sprouts, the ashy, intense stout became smooth and creamy.