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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

No Ifs, Ands or Big Red Butts

As a holiday gift for pun-loving headline writers everywhere, the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement has decided to ban the distribution of Santa’s Butt Winter Porter. When we first heard this story, we figured the label of the imported British brew would be showing more of Santa than even Mrs. Claus wants to see. However, the illustration is actually Norman Rockwell-cute, featuring a broad-beamed but fully clothed St. Nick seated on a jumbo-sized beer barrel (also known as a butt, hence the name), a loaded stein at the ready while he goes through his list, checking it twice.

And that’s just the problem, says Maine State Police Lt. Patrick Fleming. The ruddy-cheeked guy might appeal to children, setting them up for a lifetime of … buying pricey small-batch microbrews with silly names? Thank goodness some beer-geek lawyers at the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation have a little time on their hands; citing First Amendment rights to artistic expression, they’ll be working overtime this holiday season to put Santa’s Butt where it belongs—right into your hot little hands.

However, it’s not the first time that distributor Daniel Shelton has had trouble with his labels. Both Connecticut and New York have tried to ban their Seriously Bad Elf ale, along with a few of their other holiday-themed brews. Says Shelton from the company’s headquarters in the appropriately named Belchertown, “Last year it was elves. This year it’s Santa. Maybe next year it’ll be reindeer.”

But we’re putting our foot down over offering Comet, Cupid, and Vixen a couple of cold ones—we’d hate to see Lt. Fleming have to arrest the fat guy for flying with intoxicated reindeer.

Blasting Rachael Ray into Space

My God. Even in space, where they can’t hear you say “Yum-o,” you can’t escape from the culinary juggernaut that is Rachael Ray.

According to USA Today, Ray’s personally prepared meals will be winging their way to places dark and cold on the December 7 launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Ray has prepared a Thai chicken dish along with two others, and when Discovery commander Mark Polansky appeared on Ray’s talk show, he opined that the chicken was “great.”

“The meals will make ‘a nice … psychological twist for our crew members,’ says NASA food systems manager Vickie Kloeris.” I would kill to know what exactly was said inside that ellipsis.

For those of you keeping track of all the space food firsts this year, the December 7 trip marks the first time that “food celebrity” meals will fly on the shuttle.

Eh, wake me up when they finally invent a bona fide food replicator.

Your Guac Is a Crock

No wonder store-bought guacamole tastes like glue: It is glue! OK, not really, but it certainly isn’t real avocados, either. As Los Angeles resident Brenda Lifsey discovered, the green glop sold by Kraft Foods is primarily composed of staggering amounts of coconut and soybean oils, corn syrup, modified food starch, and food coloring, with a minuscule amount of avocado thrown in. She was so upset that she took Kraft’s ass to court on Wednesday, and her lawyer says other faux-guac purveyors will soon be targeted as well.

How did she make her discovery? “It just didn’t taste avocadoey,” Lifsey told the L.A. Times. “I looked at the ingredients and found there was almost no avocado in it.”

But Kraft says it wasn’t out to deceive anyone:

‘We think customers understand that it isn’t made from avocado,’ said Claire Regan, Kraft Foods’ vice president of corporate affairs.

Ridiculous as this reasoning may be, the company hasn’t technically done anything illegal. While the FDA mandates that anything labeled “peanut butter” must contain at least 90 percent peanuts, anything goes when it comes to guacamole. Still, Regan said Kraft is even now in the process of changing its label to clarify that the dip is merely “guacamole flavor.”

Some Chowhounders argued that suing Kraft, the king of fake food, for this kind of thing was ridiculous; but as one user pointed out, often legal action is the only way to incite change when it comes to food regulation (or really any kind of regulation) in this country.

Good for What Ales Ya

As winter settles in and we need to pack on pounds for warmth, it’s time to head for the nearest brewpub or beer store to try out the season’s winter beers and ales.

The problem (well, not really a problem, it’s more of an issue) is that there are just so dang many of them that you could never hope to sample them all—although it would certainly be a lot of fun to try. Especially since even the names of these beers can lead to a warm, fuzzy feeling of seasonal happiness: Sled Crasher, Ho Ho Homo Erectus, Blitzen.

Happily, everyone from newspaper columnists to bloggers to our own Chowhound community is posting their impressions to help quaffers separate the unpalatable chaff from the delicious wheat.

Curry by the Book

Curry by the Book

In search of a true spice education from a new Indian cookbook. READ MORE

Body by Jim, Plus Astounding Ecuadorian Railroad Pizza

Wallingford, Connecticut

I’m at T-minus 24 hours to winetasting. Oh, I didn’t tell you: Tomorrow I’ll be drinking glass after glass of priceless Bordeaux atop a mountain in New Hampshire. I explain how the hell I ever came to be invited in this podcast, titled “The Tale of Jack and Thelma”: MP3.

Here are the port wine tasting notes mentioned in the podcast.

My friend Jim (who’s also attending) helps explain exactly what we’ll be tasting in this podcast: MP3.

I’m facing a massive ingestion of foie gras and buttery food—plus all that alcohol (we’ll only be spitting merely wonderful wines; the rest will go down the hatch … after much swirling, swooshing, and furrowed eyebrows). Looking ahead to an umpteen-zillion-calorie weekend, I clearly need a vigorous workout, and Jim has agreed to whup my chow-touring butt into shape. We met at his gym, where he put me through a series of tortures specifically tailored to the rigors to come. We did exercises to firm me up for cork pulling, glass hoisting, etc.

Click on the photos and video (below) of Jim demonstrating the “wine-lover’s workout” while you listen to this podcast (MP3), a pastiche of treasured moments from my pathetic follow-through (yes, that’s me howling like a wolverine):

In this short video, Jim works “to failure”: Movie file.

I tortured Jim back by making him try some yoga:

+ + +

Armed with a cardio mandate from my triumphant workout, I’d earned some capital and intended to spend it. My thoughts turned to pizza.

Wallingford, Connecticut, just north of New Haven, is an interesting area I’d been wanting to check out. I got incredibly lucky, stumbling upon Trackside Pizza (118 Dudley Avenue, Wallingford, Connecticut; 203-697-1081). It’s invisible from the main road (Route 5), hidden in a ravine down next to the railroad tracks.

Trackside has it all. You dine in a real railroad car, alongside the tracks …

... and the pizza is superb—the equal of any in New Haven (I had the seafood combo, brimming with impeccably fresh shellfish) ...

... and the owners, sweet folks from Ecuador, are very friendly and genuine. The sheer unique coolness of eating phenomenal pizza in a charming, tidy railroad car staffed by Ecuadorans stuns customers out of their dining glaze. Strangers talk to each other. A couple of chowhoundish truckers even let me take a photo of their pie:

Here’s my theory (to be verified on some future visit): I think the owners worked at top pizzerias in New Haven, saved up, and have applied their pizza know-how here in their own place. And I’m thrilled. It’s dismaying that so many Mexican, Central American, and South American chefs cook so much of the most highly regarded food in this country with nary a speck of credit. How fantastic to see a few breaking out.

Whatever their origins, this much is clear: These guys are preserving the New Haven pizza tradition far more diligently than the present regimes at Sally’s, Pepe’s, or Modern (the Big Three), all of which are shadows of their former selves.

I also quickly sampled Louie’s Pizza (552 North Colony Road, Wallingford, Connecticut; 203-265-0161), which has been baking pies since 1960. Like Tony’s Baltimore Grill of Atlantic City (see report #6), it makes lived-in pizza. You can really taste the tradition. But it’s no match for the riveting grandeur of Trackside.

Grand Apizza North (448 Washington Avenue, North Haven, Connecticut; 203-239-5786) looked good but was closed when I passed it.

There’s so much good pizza around here. South-central Connecticut is like a ride—one ought to be charged just to enter the region. Why don’t more New Yorkers ply through here to recontact with the sort of proud pizza heritage we’ve so utterly lost?

+ + +

As mentioned in podcast #1, here are my

Grahams Port Wine Tasting Notes

Please bear in mind that the tasting described below took place in 1995, so significant changes have occurred with all the more recent vintages. In other words, these notes are for entertainment purposes only!

I started with the ‘77. Very young, syrupy, and grapey, the fruity taste about a mile away from the alcoholic kick. A good port to chat over (which people did quite a bit of, although they inexplicably were able to keep up their patter even over the older, more artistic ports. I don’t understand how—I retreated to a corner as I reached older vintages, my ecstatic grin reassuring the concerned hosts that all was well).

The ‘70 was a bit drier and cleaner tasting, though the alcoholic kick was still somewhat crude and unbalanced. The port hadn’t found itself yet, though there was a bit of a story in the finish, which receded with a plum taste.

The ‘66 made one nod one’s head: OK, here we go. This is port. An incredible aroma, the mouthfeel all silky and subtle. The alcohol played games—pulling and retracting throughout the story like a crazed taffy-pulling machine. Finish was elegant and left no fruitiness, although like the other young ports, there was a bit of cloying cotton candy hovering over everything.

My host Eugene seemed excited about this one, and I understand why. Fine port, though not so venerable as to be exorbitantly expensive. Much better, also, than the two older ports that followed.

‘63 was cagey, overly subtle. You had to find the port yourself, but with effort you could uncover virtually anything you sought inside the guarded flavor. Sipped absentmindedly, it had as much interest as the cardiogram of a corpse. Dig down for alcohol, and a cannon shoots straight for your nose. Look for a finish and ye shall find. I managed to deeply concentrate on about 2 of my 20 or so sips, and found a delicate, rippling effect in the finish that was quite beautiful; it lasted far longer than the in-mouth flavor. The only word for this port is Japanese—it was as elusive, delicate, provocative, and fleetingly beautiful as any Japanese brush painting.

But I didn’t want to work so hard. I wanted waves of cresting flavor to knock me over. I’m American, not Japanese.

Weird note: I’m a musician, and I find that when port is good, it has a tempo. I can nod my head to it; I can almost dance to it. The pace at which the flavors crest and fall in a great port is very rhythmic to me. The ‘66 was bopping, but the ‘63 didn’t swing at all.

‘55 had a big wallop of cotton candy, and I found it listless and inelegant.

‘48 was bliss. I poured myself into my glass and swallowed. Smoky, buttery, huge landscapes of crazy sensual flavors, some big, some almost subliminal, all changing and switching around. Still the cotton candy, but that was just the outside layer of a hugely complex petticoat. I noticed the stuff was rather brown, so it may be that I just LIKE oxidation (hey, I’ve enjoyed some infected beers as well), but great cheese ain’t so pure and sterile either, folks. My only complaint: The finish was a bit sudden. The show’s over before you expect, but it’s cool because you WANT to be left alone to work through your feelings about this sublime stuff.

Eugene seemed amused—and understanding—of my happiness at this point, and was excited for me to try the ‘45 (I was anxious to get some before it was all gone; wine honcho after wine honcho had gone straight for the good stuff, which they drank in a blasé fashion—do wine people always condescend to ports like this?).

I was amazed to find no brown in the color of the ‘45. As purple as last year’s batch. The aroma was stately, and the flavor described a straight line to me: no fireworks and digressions like the ‘48, just a controlled, direct path, shimmering with refined, bristling energy. Strange thing: This was one of the only drinks I’ve tried where I could send the alcohol up to my nose and then rein it back in in full bloom. Response like a Ferrari’s. The finish, like the ‘48, went thud, but then further waves came, so subtle as to call into question whether they were drink based or psyche based.

What a difference three years makes! The ‘45 and ‘48 were utterly different. The ‘45 was incredibly strong in its statement, never wavering, never yielding. While the ‘48 seemed capable of being experienced in subjectively different ways by different people (though not so much as the mirrorlike ‘63), the ‘45 took you on its trip and planted you firmly on the ground. The kind of thing that wins contests and earns the praise of experts.

I liked the ‘48 better.

After all this, I returned to the ‘66, which Eugene was touting as the poor man’s ‘45 (with talk going on like “If I spend less than a thousand on a bottle, I have no problem just drinking it,” I figured this vintage had my name on it). Revisited after the good stuff, the ‘66 seemed crude. All the elements were all there, but nothing had come together yet. Sort of like a country street lined with not-quite-mature trees, their branches struggling to touch, to provide a canopy, but not quite making it yet.

A snob for the evening, I discarded my 1/4 glassful and called it a night.

Top Schmuck

Watch out, Top Chef kvetchers: If you happen to think host Padma Lakshmi’s expanse of exposed skin in a working kitchen is a pinch inappropriate, you might be as anti-Semitic as Mel Gibson.

Well, not really, but in a claim that’s just as ridiculous, Bravo VP Andy Cohen has announced in his tiresome blog that he’s fed up with comments about Padma’s wardrobe:

Being Jewish, I was raised to believe that models who know about food should look as white-hot as possible while tasting and discussing food. Thus, I am hereby putting it out there that anyone who thinks Padma looks inappropriate just might be cloaking some form of anti-semitism in their comments and might want to look within instead of at Padma.

But how … I mean, why … ? I’m just so confused. However, Defamer hysterically attempts to clarify Cohen’s incendiary statement:

Before assuming Cohen is a) completely insane or b) making light of current heated, race-baiting Hollywood trends, it’s worth mentioning that his claims of a scantily clad model/chef tradition in the Jewish faith aren’t entirely without merit. What the persecution-complex-suffering cable executive was probably referencing was a snippet of scripture mentioning someone known only as Bath Tyra, largely thought to be the first Israelite supermodel, who wore only cleavage-enhancing tunics and clingy harem pants when she cooked what Torah scholars insist was the tastiest goat-and-date stew in all the tribe.

The blog NoControl hazards that Cohen might be kidding, adding, ‘But who knows, because layered irony is only decipherable by Hollywood insiders like himself.’

Twenty-four hours later the Bravo exec backpedaled:

Here’s the deal—I am a very sarcastic person with a sense of humor that is at times a little left of I don’t know what. People have been getting upset by a joke I made on the blog the other day making light of an issue—and it has raised the ire of some Top Chef fans … I was attempting to answer the issue while lampooning the intensely sensitive, PC world we live in today, like a very low-rent, blog version of Borat. It didn’t work and I am sorry.

Cohen also responds personally to a few angry commenters with more apologies and tail-tucking. It’s not as embarrassing as when Aaron Sorkin started a fight on the Television Without Pity forums and was subsequently given an Internet time-out by his handlers, but it certainly made me smile.

Shop ‘Til You Drop

Quick, someone call Reverend Billy! Reporter Stacy Finz of the San Francisco Chronicle needs an intervention from the self-ordained pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping before the holiday season ka-chings any closer. Without it, she just might keep loading up her garage with spectacularly useless kitchen gadgets.

Like that tackiest of all wedding-hall items, the chocolate fountain—or, in Finz’s case, a

$200 Sephra 19-inch Elite Fondue Chocolate Fountain—a device of such epic proportions that just talking about it makes me giddy. Who cares that I’ve only used it once. You never know when you might have to throw a bar mitzvah or a quinceañera for 150 guests.

Then there’s the $39.99 Cocoa Latte machine, whose sole function—the making of hot chocolate—is easily trumped by the use of a saucepan and a whisk. (How did she miss the Octodog?) Did the Chron’s food-section staff really crowd around the $130 Cuisinart Soft Ice Cream Maker (complete with sprinkler dispenser), “stuffing their faces” and crowing “I’m so getting this!”?

And let’s not forget her wholehearted embrace of silicone cooking gadgets, from collapsible colanders and measuring cups (“more room means I can get more stuff!”) to pastry brushes and baking pans. According to the FDA spokesperson quoted in the article, it’s “reasonably certain” that silicone’s safe for use in the kitchen. After all, if it’s good enough for your boobs, surely it’s just dandy wrapped around your muffins.

Unablogger

The funniest thing I read this week? “Ted Kaczynski Could Have Been a Food Blogger.”

Jen over at Life Begins at Thirty decided this after reading CBS 5 in San Francisco’s report about “exclusive new information” concerning the Unabomber. You might well wonder what decided Jen—well, it was this particular tidbit of written evidence:

“He wrote about everything. He wrote about what he had for lunch on May 5, 1979, where he got the food, how he prepared it and what did it taste like.”

I really hope it was a cheese sandwich.

Sundae, Bloody Expensive Sundae

Well, we live in a world that conspicuously consumes a $5,000 burger and a $10,000 martini, so why not a $1,000 ice cream sundae?

Serendipity is one of those schlocky romantic movies that I hate, yet feel inextricably drawn to whenever TBS, TNT, or one of those other Saturday afternoon movie cable channels airs it. Serendipity 3, which is heavily featured in the movie, is a historic restaurant and ice cream bar in New York that just happens to serve the world’s most expensive sundae.

A thousand bucks and a two-day advance reservation will get you the Golden Opulence Sundae, created to celebrate Serendipity 3’s 50th anniversary two years ago. What melting pile of sticky sweetness could possibly warrant such a huge price tag? According to luxury-goods newsletter Pocket Change, which also has a photo of the sundae in all its gory glory, your $1,000 buys the following:

Five scoops of rich Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream wrapped in edible 23 karat gold leaf. Fauchon pears, and exotic red figs, star fruit, angelique, and delicious pineapple combine with a 3.5 oz mixture of melted, chunked and flaked Amedei Porcelana and Chuao chocolates (made from rare cocoa beans grown only on the Venezuelan coast) to take any and everyone to ice cream nirvana. And what’s more, twelve gold dipped dragées and salt-free Grande Passion caviar infused with Armagnac and juices from blood oranges and passion fruit add sophisticated texture and a gush of bold sweetness.

The Golden Opulence Sundae is plated with four French marzipan cherries paired with four creamy white and dark chocolate truffles. To top off the hour-prep time required to serve specialty cake designer Ron Ben-Isreal’s design, eight more hours are invested in hand crafting the delicate and splendid edible gold leaf sugar flowers. And what better way to delve into a $300 Baccarat Harcourt crystal goblet than with an 18-karat gold spoon, with none other than a mother of pearl inlay. Even if you can’t polish off the Kilimanjaro of sundaes, the crystal goblet is yours to keep.

Do you get to keep the spoon, too?

So, if you have that person on your holiday gift list that has everything, including the voice-activated R2-D2 from the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog, AND the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra (which is $12.5 million worth of chafing), think about dropping a few large ones on this Guinness Book of World Records sundae. Just make sure they aren’t lactose intolerant.