All posts by Brian Bianco

Product Review: Pisco Porton

Ever have those friends who claim they cannot (or will not) drink a certain liquor after too many peer-pressured pulls from a plastic handle in college? Or they swear they will retch from a mere whiff of whiskey? Annoying, right? Well, when I was asked to do a review of Pisco Porton, my entire framework for the spirit was one of those cloying, annoying cautionary taIes had always promised not to become.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to travel to Santiago, Chile with a mix of sheltered coworkers and locals who promised to give us a well-rounded experience of the city’s nightlife in just a few days. I quickly learned pisco is mixed with everything – piscolas and pisco sours were everywhere and they were delicious, and as I would learn each morning, packed a hell of an aftershock. I came back raving to Susie about how this drink had kicked the crap out of me (in the best way possible). She kept nudging me to review it, but after a few raw flashbacks to how I felt from a week of pisco emersion, I decided it needed to wait until my memories from Chile dulled a bit. So, after some stalling, I was finally ready to go back and face my new frenemy.

For those not familiar, pisco is a white spirit made from grapes (technically a form of brandy) that, when done well, feel like the beautiful offspring of grappa and vodka. There’s a whole backstory where Peru and Chile fight over who does it best, but if you’re scoring at home, Porton is team Peru. If you do like history and South American culture, use this review and this article as a launching point because it covers it much better than I can.

I resolved to start with a straight pour served neat and was happy to find my sips did not leave me burning or second guessing what I’d gotten myself into. The drink was earthy with vanilla and fruity notes that came through as I savored it. I didn’t get the tobacco and oak mentioned in the review linked above, but it was still much easier to drink than I’d expected.

Now that I had invited pisco into my own home, I was ready to experiment beyond what had been prepared for me back in Chile. Luckily, Pisco Porton has a great website full of information and resources, including a strong cocktail library featuring both traditional and non-traditional recipes. After perusing (peru…no, I will not make that joke), I landed on three recipes that would hopefully prove how versatile the spirit is and didn’t sound too difficult so as not to be held back by my non-professional bartending skills.

Recipe #1: Peruvian Negroni

Take the classic negroni recipe and swap out gin for pisco and you’re all set. To be honest, after I mixed this, the pisco flavor was harsh and overpowered the drink. After rebalancing it and adjusting to the bite of the pisco (it’s not a mixer that’s going to disappear unless you’re making sugar drinks … and that’s just rude), it improved with each sip. If you’re looking to try pisco for the first time, stick with more traditional sour or cola mixers, but if you like the taste of pisco on its own, this will work for you.

Recipe #2: Peruvian Sidecar

Once again – we’re swapping out a traditional spirit (cognac) with pisco. Unlike a traditional sidecar that can sneak up on you before you realize how tipsy you are, the pisco version doesn’t tip toe around your wavering sobriety. However, the end product was a strong drink I could sip and enjoy and ended up being my favorite of the three. The bold profile of pisco is complimented nicely by orange and lemon.

Recipe #3: Portonero

Probably the most approachable of the three, the combination of pisco, lime juice, bitters and ginger beer was made to make every Dark and Stormy or Moscow Mule enthusiast ease into trying something new. At first sip, the pisco presence was masked heavily by the ginger beer, as ginger beer often does. Even after a second attempt with a different ratio, the ginger beer overwhelmed the spirit, making for a good drink, but not a great showcase for pisco itself.

Now that I’ve got my pisco legs back, I’ve made a few more sidecars and plan to infuse another bottle of with blood oranges and see what I can come up with.

Although I didn’t make one tonight, I think everyone owes it to themselves to try a pisco sour, because as Roy Kesey said in the previously linked interview with San Diego City Beat, “When you drink a well-made one, it feels like you’re drinking the world’s best lemonade, but then you fall down after the third one.” Salud to that!

Product Review: SIA Scotch Whisky

Kickstarter. what can’t it do? Whether you’re looking for a reboot of some random TV show by people who already have plenty of money but don’t want to risk their own or just some delicious potato salad, it’s there for you. While potato salad is great and all, someone decided that it was time to use the voice of the people to make scotch. (The team here at SDD was totally behind it.)

Carin Luna-Ostasekski took it upon herself to use her Kickstarter funds to create SIA Scotch Whiskey, a “brand for consumers who don’t even know they like scotch yet.” This is notable not just because she has entered a traditionally male-dominated segment of the spirit industry, but she is also doing it in San Francisco. I can’t do her full story justice here, but you should definitely check it out at siascotch.com.
TL:DR – creative type gets an itch to learn the ins and outs of something, works hard and creates a great spirit.

All of the media materials sent talked about how the goal of the product was to be versatile and approachable – not just the old, smoky, peaty stuff that makes some folks drool and others cringe and reach for the nearest cocktail menu.

IMG_4139So, with this in mind (and me badly in need of a drink at the end of the work day), I poured a glass neat and took a few sips. The vanilla taste was immediate, but it sipped much more smoothly than most and didn’t finish too strong. After a few more sips, it was clear that I had a great sipping scotch. Just to see what happened, I poured a bit more and added a drop of water and the flavors opened a little bit with some toffee notes coming out under the vanilla. I also put some on the rocks and was very happy with that as well.

I was imagining a ton of cocktail recipes with each sip – especially for fall. In fact, I’m planning to revisit a few recipes at a later date, but I was so happy drinking this neat, I didn’t want to stop. And for me, that’s probably the best endorsement I can give it.

I’ll go ahead and say it … we’re dealing with a gateway spirit (in the best way possible). I’m not sure how much a scotch purist will like this scotch, but this is a perfect spirit for someone looking to bridge between the standard Maker’s/Jack/Crown frontier into something different. If you like the standard North American bourbons, I’d definitely recommend grabbing SIA on your next trip to the store and seeing if it opens your palate for the heavier end of the spectrum.

To learn how to order or find places to buy SIA or enjoy a cocktail, visit http://siascotch.com/buy/.

Not (S)Mash’d

“Have you heard about that moonshine place?”

“Look, Sandy Glopperson checked in on Facebook and is drinking Burt Reynolds’s juice from a jug!”

One of these two sentences describes how social media first introduced me to the fact that there was a restaurant less than five miles from my house serving a bunch of variations of moonshine and moonshine-based cocktails I needed to check out. At the time, I was loosely familiar with the idea of moonshine, but didn’t realize this was the start of a quick crash course elsewhere (more on that later).

I went on a Friday night with a group of friends and was impressed at the quick transition from strip mall parking lot to a cool indoor scene and open patio. Basically, it’s about as comfortable as you can feel within a football field or so of a Twin Peaks. Our waiter was very attentive from the beginning and it was apparent he really enjoyed presenting the menu and concepts to people – which I only note because I think I would be sick of doing that in about a week.

20140530_195900For the uninitiated, the menu has three tiers of strength and flavors – ranging from sweetened sugar water with a kick to the stronger, fruit-infused flavors. We went with the waiters recommendations and quickly ran through a number of options that were on the sweet side and not too strong, but good, including the Cherry Limeade and Pineapple Bomb. The South House Cherry Limeade was listed as its own moonshine flavor, but the waiter encouraged me to try it with Sonic-style ice and mixed with a bit of Sprite to taste exactly like a spiked drive-thru drink. It was delicious and dangerously easy to drink, although I learned later getting the moonshine straight minus the Sprite is much better for those used to drinking stronger cocktails. The bomb was also a great tropical cocktail (although you have to really like coconut to enjoy it without being overpowered). There was also the Jolly Rancher that tasted exactly like a watermelon Jolly Rancher (I guess they hit that one on the head) … so high fives all around on that one.

At this point, it was time for a food break, and Mash’d had some good options (although food reviews tend to get a lot more positive after everyone has 3 drinks). A twitter follower recommended the beef Bulgogi tacos–which I happily devoured–and the wings were good as well. Reviews on some of the other food the group had was a bit more mixed, but everyone found at least one item on the menu that they enjoyed.

With some food in me, it was time to tackle one of the stronger moonshines on the rocks. (DUN DUN DUN.) I went with the Midnight Moon Blackberry and quickly found it was like drinking a straight infusion. All of a sudden, it was like I snapped out of some sugar-induced haze and remembered what I like about drinks to begin with – complexity, tasting the alcohol, a nice finish that lingers. (Oh yeah … and the intoxicating properties don’t suck either.) This is kind of where my review turned on a matter of personal taste. I had enjoyed everything I had earlier in the meal, but it was very much a novelty and not something I’d make a habit of drinking. I also sampled the straight apple pie moonshine and had the same reaction – this was something I would want to pour myself at home versus sampling one time with friends.

20140530_215915I had also been told to close the night with Hillbilly Moonshine, their moonshiney take on a white Russian and, if that’s a preferred drink, I can say you won’t be disappointed. It’s very heavy (which, I mean, duh), so I wouldn’t plan on more than one and I’d do it at the end of a meal only.

All in all, I enjoyed the trip out, although for future visits, I plan to only stick at the straight, high end of the menu and probably skip the cocktails altogether. I would definitely recommend at least a visit to Mash’d for a different drinking experience and a chance to try new things, but my bigger recommendation is to keep an eye out at Total Wine, Spec’s, etc. for the different flavors of South House moonshine and start building your own experience at home.

Drink strength: 3 of 5 (I mean, I had all or parts of 8 different drinks in 3 hours and, while I didn’t drive, didn’t feel remotely smash’d)
Food: 3.5 of 5

MASH’D
3401 Preston Rd, Frisco, TX 75034
www.mashd.com | Facebook | Twitter/Instagram: @Mashdfrisco
(214) 618-9440

After my visit, I had the opportunity (along with the other SDD contributors*) to visit JEM Beverage Company in Carrollton, who makes many of the moonshines at Mash’d under their South House label, as well Western Son vodka (also featured in the Hey Ginger frozen drink at Mash’d) and Red River Whiskey … and some other delicious stuff. It was here I learned what moonshine is (they make bourbon, infuse it with flavors and then don’t age it, which explains why I liked it so much straight). I walked out of the distillery that day with several bottles of each and have been enjoying drinking all of it on the rocks at home without the syrups, sugars, etc. Simplicity is key.

*Note from Susie: if you think you’re a good drinker and can speak English and spell (or if you know someone who fits that criteria), email me! I’m looking for writers both in Dallas and other cities!

Eat Creative: An Evening at Roy’s Restaurant in Plano

20140730_183218
The Pacific Rim Cosmotini

 “So why Plano?” someone asked, almost incredulously, about this restaurant that has been in place for more than a decade.

On one hand, I get the attitude about Plano. (And truth be told, I still fight it myself sometimes.) On the other hand, it was a good reminder of the prevailing idea that these darn suburbs are just out to ruin everything creative and good. Despite not boasting a Dallas (proper) address, somehow the Roy’s brand has thrived out in the ‘burbs, and that’s why a group of us were invited to a special Eat Creative dinner to showcase its new drink and food options – some of which were designed by local Chef Scott Nakachi.

The event was food-intensive, but I jumped at the chance to try the Pacific Rim Cosmotini (vodka, ginger and passion fruit syrups, egg whites, blood orange liqueur). It had a good flavor and it didn’t take long to realize how quickly (and cheaply) one could blow through these – especially during their happy hour when drinks are only $6.

We also sampled some of the food items on the bar menu (which is also only $6 during happy hour – save one exception we’ll get to later) and it was pretty damn good. There was edamame and butterfish lettuce wraps, which were both well-prepared and are must-tries. I found myself eating the fish by itself, which I guess makes me a huge jerk … but it was that good. There were also delicious steamed pork buns and, the star of the show, a giant Wagyu burger the size of my face*. It was spicy and perfectly seasoned, and for $9 on the happy hour menu, it’s a solid meal choice to balance out the happy hour cocktails and walk out feeling full. It also came with massive onion rings which were heavily-breaded and thick.

Based on the conversation at the table, a few of us who were more into onion rings in general enjoyed them and the others seemed to think it was too much. (Who isn’t into onion rings? They must be communists.)  The fat kid in me loved them, but I had to maintain composure as an official SDD representative and not smoosh my face into the plate of them. Ebi rolls followed, which were also battered and tasted like one of the heavy rolls Americans love to eat while onlooking foreigners cringe. It was tasty, but there’s just too much fresh seafood on the menu to opt for a roll unless you’re really in the mood to ruin your dinner.

Alaea Salt Crusted Bone in Ribeye
Alaea Salt Crusted Bone in Ribeye

What we’d eaten to this point quickly became an afterthought when the main courses came out – especially the Maine lobster pot pie. The crust was flaky and delicious and the giant pieces of lobster were swimming in a curry sauce that was hot and delicious. It came in a giant tray that could easily feed three people (or even two going all out pig-style.) You need to eat this dish. I don’t mean to shortchange the other entrees that were all delicious (including an Alaea salt-crusted, bone-in ribeye first introduced by Plano’s Chef Scott), but this was the dish that inspired Susie to email me and say “I want to lick my screen to taste that lobster business!!!!” I have to make sure I capture the magic.

Roy's Restaurant - Signature Lobster Pie
Signature Lobster Pie

^^ Put this in your face ASAP. ^^

Finally, we finished with two delicious desert options: pineapple upside down cake and Roy’s signature molten lava cake. Both were devoured by the sharing table and, while chocolate never fails, the pineapple upside down cake was not too sweet and just different enough to stand out.

Melting Hot Chocolate Souffle
Melting Hot Chocolate Souffle

In summary, allow me to summarize this with a forgotten, but aptly named, SNL Digital Short – Roy Rules. If you need a happy hour spot in North Dallas or Plano, you really can’t beat the value offered here.

ROY’S PLANO
2840 Dallas Parkway, Plano, TX 75093
(972) 473-6263
WebsiteFacebook

Happy Hour Specials: Every Day, 4:30pm-7pm
$6 specialty cocktails, wines
$6 – $9 appetizers

*my face is a normal size for a man my age. Just FYI.

An Open Letter to Suburbia from a Suburbian

To Whom it May Concern:

One of the best parts of living in the ‘burbs has been my slow realization that living out here is not the end of the world socially. Every time you look up, there’s a new import of a Dallas favorite, a side project from a chef you already love, or places that have helped us move beyond the downtown/uptown view that we’re all watching MMA fights at wing restaurants between trips with the kids for unlimited breadsticks and a dip in a chocolate fountain.

As this has happened, I’ve noticed two distinct feels for these northern concepts. The first (let’s call it the “right way” to do business) is to create a restaurant that will be part of the neighborhood with a great dining/drinking experience that stands on its own. This seems like a really easy concept to grasp and a general key to success … right?

There’s a second troubling approach I’m starting to notice and it can be summed up as “Hey, you suburban Neanderthals, put down your slop for a second and come have the honor of dining on what us city folk eat.” Sometimes this comes through from a server; other times you can just feel it permeating the entire restaurant the moment you walk in. It’s not limited to second locations – in fact, most of the biggest offenders I’ve encountered are places that have opened out here only. For a few of these, you can almost circle the date on the calendar in 12-15 months when the novelty will wear off and everyone moves on to the next big thing.

Now, I’m not going to name names or turn this into a list – different places have bad days, sometimes a waiter from the Dallas location who feels this way takes a shift and does a poor job of hiding an attitude or, being frank, there are (gasp) exhausting suburban stereotypes in suburbia that reinforce the whole outlook. I love that I can hop over to a second Lockhart’s and walk out with ribs and some of the most underrated turkey you’ll ever see at a BBQ joint and I certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful, especially as someone who spent my childhood in a town that didn’t get a Chili’s within 30 miles until I was in high school.

So, why am I ranting? Because as a person who moved out here after 7 years in Dallas “proper”, it’s exciting to me to not only kill my own misconceptions and judgments, but bring friends out here and have them do the same. I won’t pretend to not still venture to Dallas when I can, but it is very satisfying to have a community feel up here that also captures some of the best things about living near the city. There are people who plan their lives around the Lakewood house and the job downtown, which is awesome, but there are also plenty of great opportunities (and parking spaces, yards, less congested roads, etc.) outside of the bubble as well.

There’s nothing worse than convincing a person to come out all this way, taking them somewhere that sounds great on paper and then watching them get so turned off they either find a way to never come again or just suggest making a few drinks and ordering in at your place. So, please, if you’re an owner of a restaurant, bar, cocktail lounge, house of wine, illegal moonshine bathtub or anything else that lets us eat, drink and be merry, please remember to keep treating customers the way you would want to be treated and help us to continue to build up a real food and drink scene north of 75.

Yours (somewhat ungratefully),

Brian

Cubierto’s

Hi. My name is Brian, and I have a confession that will be hard to hear for most Texans: At some point in the last 5 years, I gave up on Tex-Mex/Mexican. I didn’t stop eating it or anything, but after hopping from place to place, it all was beginning to run together to the point where seeking out new places or menu items lost all appeal. I think this came about from excessive exposure – especially when every night out in Uptown had to be started with a group of 12 (8 girls, 2 beaten-down dates, 2 single guys usually) headed to Primo’s (RIP), MiCo’s or Chuy’s. It’s not that I don’t like it – I just sort of realized that if I went limp and stayed real still, Mexican food would still find me.

Picture courtesy of Cubierto’s
Picture courtesy of Cubierto’s

That’s why when Susie asked me if I’d tried Cubierto’s, I made a note of it, but didn’t rearrange any immediate plans. To her credit, she didn’t give up, and kept telling me that I wouldn’t regret the trip. Finally, as the polar vortex welcomed me home to DFW from a work trip, I felt the long-dead Tex-Mex craving knew it was time … time for Tex-Mex.

As I walked up to the building, I had hesitations. The patio looked great and expansive, but it was still early in the evening and the happy hour crowd hadn’t quite been replaced by the night diners. Then, there was a note on the door about following a dress code. This was obviously a chance to write my own Addison/North Dallas joke, but instead, I opened the door and found a very happy hostess, a great atmosphere and live music going on by the bar. The service was extremely welcoming and pleasant (not always a given during this time of night on a weekend as folks recover and gear up for the second wave.)

For drinks, I tried two different margaritas – the house-made frozen one as this experiment’s constant, and then the higher end offering on the menu. The frozen one was good – not too sweet, the tequila came through and it was very refreshing, but there’s only so much you can say about a frozen house margarita. The top shelf one with cointreau was perfect. The overbearing sweetness that usually limits me to a margarita or two every few months had been replaced by a balanced taste of tequila, lime and orange that was equally enjoyed by my margarita-eschewing fiancée. I found myself wishing I had just started with this one and couldn’t even bring myself to try the sangria or the pepper cocktail, but have both of those on my list for next time.

For a meal, we had the chicken mole and the tenderloin quesadillas, which were both excellent. I had a friend in college who had family in Mexico City and was obsessed with finding the perfect dish, and this was about the closest I’d seen anything come to the homemade attempts we’d all split after being disappointed elsewhere. The quesadillas were also fantastic and replaced the ones at Tupinamba’s as my favorite, rarely-mentioned quesadillas in Dallas.

I owe Susie for convincing me to check this place out and definitely recommend the trip to anyone looking for something a little bit different than the usual Dallas spots.

Drink strength: 4.5 of 5 (that top shelf will get you)
Food: 4.5 of 5 (everything from the salsa trio to the entrees was excellent – and there’s a lot more to try we missed)

Cubiertos Gourmet Mexican and Margarita Bar
www.cubiertosdallas.com
facebook | Twitter: @CubiertosDallas | Instagram: @CubiertosDallas
18020 Dallas Pkwy, Dallas, TX 75287
(972) 381-7779