Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ladies' Barr Hill Spirits Tasting at Eventide Oyster Co.

The ladies of the Portland Spirits Society had another great time on Monday night at Eventide Oyster Co. where we slurped oysters and enjoyed learning about and sampling Vermont's Caledonia Spirits. I may or may not have spilled vodka on the floor right out of the gate before I'd even had enough/any to justify such a thing. 

We learned about the process of making the vodka and gin, both made from honey (which must be so expensive). The vodka is distilled until it has a neutral flavor, while the gin has some honey added back into it, giving it a lovely floral characteristic. The Tom Cat gin is a "rested" gin that is aged in charred oak barrels, giving it a most delicious smoky sweetness. It's one of my new favorite craft spirits. 

Here's Jeff from Barr Hill, looking a little bit like he didn't know I was taking his picture (that's exactly what's going on here). After a brief spiel from him, we tucked into oysters on the half shell, fried fish, and some of those amazing chickpea fries (aka fried panisse)—seriously don't overlook them the next time you're at Eventide. 

Lastly, we enjoyed two cocktails with the spirits: a negroni with the gin and a gin and tonic with the Tom Cat and Eventide's housemade tonic. Negronis are not for me, I must finally admit, but the G&T with the aged gin was fantastic. It tasted almost like an Arnold Palmer. 

Many thanks to Eventide Oyster Co. and Jeff Cole for the hospitality!! Ladies, stay tuned for info about our next Portland Spirits Society event (even better, sign up for the e-mail newsletter to be the first to hear about it).

Thursday, April 21, 2016

BBF Travels: Wine and Eats in Napa, Mendocino

Of course no trip to California would be complete without exploring its wine—while I'm not a big wine person (wino?), I do at least know that other people say there's good wine there. On my recent vacation to the San Francisco Bay area, I had some time to explore the northern regions of the state, heading to Napa and Mendocino for a night each. And that country! 

On our first day in Napa, we stayed at the gorgeous White House Inn, a bed and breakfast downtown. We intended to just stop in and ask for some winery recommendations, but that turned into an early check-in, so we dropped our stuff and headed back out with a Napa Valley winery map in hand. 

For the Napa Valley newbie, the road north of town (Silverado Trail) heads right through all the federally-recognized grape growing regions, dubbed American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). And with a winery map, you can see which ones require advance reservations and which ones have tasting available on a walk-in basis. I didn't want to commit to reservations, so we limited our visits to the tasting rooms with more flexible policies. 

Our first stop was Stag's Leap, and while it wasn't my favorite, I'm glad we went as it showed us a different style of Napa Valley wineries. We sampled 4 wines for $40 each, with bottle prices ranging from $70 to $245. The wine was good and the view was gorgeous, but I thought at this rate, we'll be broke fast. 

Fortunately, the next recommendation on our list was more up our alley, with a relaxed vibe in the tasting room. We visited Robert Sinskey Vineyards, where we sampled one white and four reds for $45. This tasting came with a cute sampler of housemade treats: delicious gougeres, savory shortbread, Marcona almonds, and some Vermont cheese. Our friendly tasting room guide of course had a connection to Maine, as I tend to find a lot of when I travel. 

We liked the POV red blend here, and the prices were much more reasonable here than the first winery, so we left with a bottle. (Note: typically the tasting fee is waived if you buy a bottle of wine.) After our two winery visits, we headed back to the hotel to take a dip in the chilly pool and get ready for dinner. 

Earlier in the day we'd spent some time in Napa's Oxbow Public Market, where I was thrilled to find a local distillery's tasting room. Napa Valley Distillery makes a lot of fruit-based spirits like brandy and eau de vie. We explored the twee shop, full of bitters, mixers, garnishes, and their spirits, then tried the full line of drinks. 

The vodka is technically a neutral brandy and is only twice distilled to retain some of that grapey character. We also tried their Hollywood Ginn, pear brandy, Sidecar cocktail, Grand California (their take on Grand Marnier), and an Ancho chili liqueur. 

Several of the spirits we tried were bundled together in their Bar Club boxes, an ingenious idea I hope some of our local distilleries adopt. For $75 a quarter, the distillery sends you a box of their goodies, including spirits, liqueurs, pre-mixed cocktails (like the Sidecar), as well as mixers and garnishes like bitters, cherries, and pickles. I admittedly didn't love their line of spirits, but I'm still considering signing up anyway just for the idea. Does anyone have any good spirit subscription boxes recommendations? 

Before we went out to dinner in Napa, we had a drink at Cadet, an adorable beer and wine bar I fell a little bit in love with. We tried several other places before we stumbled upon this one, but eschewed them because of the cheesy vibe, so when we found a chill place with a good local beer and wine list, we were happy. After all the wine that day, I wanted a sour beer, so I ordered a Flanders red ale from Cismontane Brewing Co. in Santa Ana. We also shared a charcuterie plate with cheese and olives. 

Cadet seemed hip and cool, with its vinyl collection and mid-century modern light fixtures. Basically I was in heaven. But I couldn't tell if this was a spot that just ordered the "hip lounge" decor from a catalog or was legit. When A.'s friends from high school showed up—East Coasters who moved west to run a winery—they asked how we knew to come to Cadet, confirming that it's a spot for those looking to enjoy some local wine in a low-key spot. 

The next day, we packed up and hit the road for more wine en route to Mendocino. On the way (I think where 128 runs into the 101), we drove past a food truck in a really random-seeming spot. Nothing else around, just a freeway ramp and an intersection. Since we were hungry, we pulled over and joined the fair number of cars stopped for this truck. It had no name, no cutesy branding, just a menu of tacos, burritos, and tostadas. I ordered up chorizo and pastor tacos, and we ate standing by the car, leaning over so the red grease dripped onto the ground. Those were some delicious tacos.

After our night in Mendocino, we made our way back to the Bay area, but with plenty of time to explore, we went stopped in Healdsburg for lunch and a beer. My friend recommended Shed to me, and I now recommend it to you—assuming you have a high tolerance for all things bougie or at least a sense of humor. The sleek market/café is a bit over the top. Very Martha-meets-Kinfolk. Lots of bakers' twine and preposterously expensive candles.

But the food was very good! We loved both the white pizza with nettles, asparagus, Meyer lemon and ricotta and the farro salad with beets, wild mustard, bread crumbs, and sprouting broccoli. 

As a parting shot, some ceviche we made the weekend before at A's brother's house. We picked up rock shrimp at the farmers' market and tossed it with lime juice, diced red onion, mango, cilantro, and some chile flake. After an hour or so in the fridge, the shrimp had turned opaque as they were "cooked" by the acidic lime juice. We devoured it with corn tortilla chips. It'd make a nice snack here in Maine the next time you see some local shrimp for sale. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Drizly Alcohol Delivery Service Comes to Portland

I've got the most exciting news for you, just in time for the weekend. If you live in Portland or South Portland, you can now have alcohol delivered to your house. That's right, only a few minutes after you tap a few times in an app on your phone, some nice man will knock on your door, scan your ID, and in exchange, hand you a bag full of booze. No trip to the store, no lugging cases of beer up the stairs, no pants required (OK, put on pants when for you open the door). This is revolutionary, people. 

I received a press release about Drizly the Boston-based service's expansion into the Portland area, and I laughed out loud. A shitty thing had happened to me that morning (car vandalism) and then someone offered to send me a gift so I could try out the service. Champagne delivery? Yes please. 

I also thought back to the time that I wanted to enjoy a bloody mary during a football game. Problem was I didn't have any vodka and it was only a short while until kickoff. I went to several stores in the West End looking for one that sold spirits (now I know better and know exactly where the hard stuff is sold), wasting precious minutes before the game started. You know what would have been a lot better? If I'd just been able to pick up my phone, order a bottle, and then gone back to frying up shrimp or whatever. No frantic race around town, more time for relaxing. 

Drizly works by partnering with a local retailer (in Portland the Craft Beer Cellar and Old Port Spirits) and charging the retailer a membership fee. So users pay only $5 delivery fee, plus the optional driver tip (but tip your driver). The alcohol is the same price as in the store and you've got the great selection that's available at CBC and Old Port Spirits. 

To try the service out, the Drizly rep offered to send me a gift (you can send gifts too!) of some bubbly. I was able to schedule when I'd be home to receive my gift and then received a text when the driver was at my door. I went down to meet him, he scanned my ID, and cheerfully handed off my bottles of wine. I'm sold.

Drizly is available for Android and Apple phones, but you can also order through the website.

Disclosure: I received the wine free of charge from Drizly, but the opinions and words in this post are my own.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

BBF Travels: Hog Island Oyster Co. Marshall, CA

Two weeks ago, I jetted off to San Francisco to spend a week with my boyfriend, his brother, and his brother's family. It was the perfect antidote to Maine winters, something I've realized that I need after 8 winters in this lovely, but at-times frigid state. Spring (break) fever is real and contagious. Since spring in Maine (or should I say "spring") is lacking to this somewhat-southerner, heading south where there's green grass, sunny days with warm breezes, and loads and loads of flowers helps me retain my sanity until Maine spring fully kicks into like June. 

We arrived on a Wednesday night, and after generously taking the next day off to entertain us, everyone had to go back to work on Friday, which left A. and I to our own devices. We hopped in the convertible (yesssss) Saab and headed for the coast. My mission: oysters al fresco. 

My friend Tessa had recommended checking out Hog Island Oysters near Point Reyes, where you can have oyster picnics right by the water. As soon as I'd heard even those limited details, I'd put that activity on our agenda. 

The odds were in our favor that day, since while a picnic requires advanced reservation, the oyster "boat" bar was open that day and did not. (Note: if you plan to visit the farm, they have since started a new reservation-only policy for the bar as well.) 

Both the bar and the picnic tables are located on a slice of land between Route 1 and Tomales Bay, where the oysters are grown. You eat and relax next to the oyster processing facilities, where men in Grundens and sea boots toss around giant bags filled with shells, hoisting them, emptying them into a sorter, and at times even whacking the bags with baseball bats. It's definitely a working farm and the workers serve as "edu-tainment" while you're eating. 

The oyster bar serves the Hog Island Sweetwaters on the half shell and broiled, as well as some non-shellfish offerings like charcuterie and some salads. We had a friendly server offer to take our order while we stood at our communal high top table, but you can order at the bar as well. A. and I ordered both the raw and broiled oysters and a charcuterie plate to make it a substantial lunch. Some bottles of IPA from local Drake's Brewing Company rounded out our meal. 

The Hog Island Sweetwaters were instantly my new favorite oyster, offering all of the things you love about oysters and avoiding the flavors that can turn people off of them. They were clean, well-shucked, and incredibly sweet with very little briney or funky seaweed flavors. 

The broiled oysters were amazing as well, slightly larger than those served on the half shell and topped with a BBQ bourbon chipotle butter. They disappeared quickly, all warm and buttery, but we stopped by the oyster window on our way out to order a few dozen to take home with us for a Saturday afternoon grill out. 

The next day, we shared our newfound love of grilled oysters with A.'s family - of course, being hip to all things hedonistic, they were already experts at home-grilled oysters for a crowd. After exhausting our enthusiasm for shucking, we decided to grill up the remainders, recreating the spicy garlic butter ones we'd had the day before. 

Although it may seem more complicated, preparing grilled oysters can be easier than shucking raw ones, at least for those among us who aren't expert shuckers. By heating the oysters for a while, they steam and soften (ok, ok, die) and are much easier to open than when they're alive. Lacking a barbecue grill, we improvised with the broiler and it worked great. Later we moved on to topping the oysters with garlic butter, arugula, and Parmesan cheese, all of which went superbly with local sparkling rosé and ample amounts of sunshine. 

Grilled BBQ Bourbon Chipotle Oysters
Adapted from Hog Island Oyster Co.

One stick unsalted butter, softened to room temp 
1/4 cup brown sugar 
1/4 cup bourbon 
6 cloves finely chopped garlic 
Several chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, chopped
2 dozen raw oysters

To make BBQ bourbon butter:
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mix well. To save for future use, scrape butter onto wax paper, close wax paper around butter, and shape into a log. Freeze for up to 6 months for best quality.

To make barbecued oysters: 
Preheat oven's broiler or grill to very hot (500*F). Spread oysters on a broiling pan and place in oven (or directly on grill surface) for 5-10 minutes or until several have popped open. The oysters should be very easy to shuck; if not, heat until they are. 

Shuck oysters, leaving meat in cupped half of oyster shell. Add 1-2 tablespoons compound butter and return to heat source. Grill for several more minutes, until butter has melted and is bubbling.