Stick to baseball, 11/11/17.

I have a new boardgame review at Paste, covering the card-drafting game Skyward. I also had two Insider posts go up earlier this week, one previewing some potential offseason trade targets, the other ranking the top 50 free agents this winter. And I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Feel free to sign up for my free email newsletter, which I send out … I guess whenever I feel like it. I aim for once a week, although I’ve gone as long as two weeks between issues when I haven’t had much to say. You can see past issues at that link.

Also, don’t forget to buy copies of Smart Baseball for everyone on your Christmas list! Except for infants. They might eat the pages. Get them the audiobook instead.

And now, the links…

DC eats.

Rose’s Luxury is consistently ranked among the best restaurants in the country, so well-regarded that it has spawned a cottage industry of people who will wait in line for you (RL does not take reservations) for a fee. We were very fortunate to have Kent Bonham (of collegesplits.com) local and willing to wait for us to get a table, and his efforts were not in vain as I think we all agreed it was a meal for the ages. Even with all we ordered – probably a little more food than was reasonable, but we wanted to try everything – and some booze, I think we only paid about $80-90 a person, which is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food we got.

Rose’s menu varies often and comprises mostly small plates, with one or two larger ‘mains’ on it at any one time; with a table of six, we ordered one of everything (except the caviar offering) and got to work. I posted the menu on my Instagram feed (which reposts automatically to my public Facebook page), so I’ll hit the highlights. Their signature dish is the pork sausage salad with lychee, habanero, and peanuts, and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten because there is just so much going on in the dish yet it still manages to work . You’re supposed to just mix it all together, so each bite ends up this little explosion of sweet, spicy, savory, and tart all thrown together; I get the sense that this is supposed to feel like Thai street food, because it’s so bright and messy and satisfying but nothing special to look at. Several people, including Jack (@unsilent) Kogod, specifically said beforehand to get this dish, and they were spot on.

We ordered a second helping of the fried Brussels sprouts with tahini, eel sauce, and bonito; I’m a sucker for fried Brussels sprouts anyway, but this was also bursting with umami from the bonito and benefited from the dairy-like texture of the tahini (made from sesame or benne seeds). I also could have eaten the stuffed dates with walnuts and cultured butter pretty much all night, but again, dates stuffed with walnuts or almonds are one of my favorite things to eat. Raw oysters aren’t for everyone – I’ve long had to fight my Long Island-infused aversion to the things, since growing up there we only heard about pollution and contamination – but Rose’s are marinated in sake and wasabi and served with a little apple granita on top, so the oyster is more the vessel than the star, and that’s absolutely how I like it. I’d compare these favorably to Richard Blais’ “oysters and pearls,” where he serves the oysters with little frozen pearls of horseradish and a yuzu or other citrus vinaigrette on top.

Of the four pasta dishes we ended up with, the simplest one was the best – the hand-cut trenette con cacio e pepe, just a simple, freshly-made ribbon pasta with pecorino Romano, black pepper, and the starchy pasta water to thicken the sauce. It’s peasant food done up Roman style, with an expensive cheese instead of whatever’s on hand, but showcases the pasta beautifully. I thought the pasta in the rigatoni with tomato, eggplant, anchovy, and mint was a shade undercooked – too al dente for me, at least – although the sauce was really bright. We had one member of our party who has celiac disease, and the chefs were incredibly accommodating, making her a faux-risotto with Carolina gold rice and no end of butter to substitute for the pasta courses. There was also a straciatella special that came with long slices of focaccia that had been grilled and smeared with a rich garlic puree, and if you call those “breadsticks” I will come to your house and punch you in the face.

The main course the night we were there was a smoked brisket, served in thick slices, with Texas toast, a fresh horseradish-cream sauce, and a slaw of pickled vegetables, so everyone at the table could just make his/her own mini sandwich from it. I was just about out of gas by this point, so I went sparingly just to say I tasted it, and while the meat itself had a good texture, it was the horseradish sauce that stood out the most, making up for the fact that the beef didn’t have a lot of bark or a ton of smoke flavor to it.

Rose’s alcohol options are also very impressive for a restaurant that’s primarily a restaurant and not a bar that serves food – I know my friends were pleased with whatever wine they got, and I was impressed to see several aged rums, including Ron Zacapa’s Centenario 23, available. I also went back for coffee the next day to Rose’s sibling restaurant, Pineapple & Pearls, located next door. The back of P&P is a $250 a head tasting menu place, but during the morning and early afternoon, they serve third-wave coffee (Lofted for espresso, Parlor for drip) and a few small breakfast and lunch items, including the great breakfast wrap and these great little lemon-thyme shortbread cookies. If we’d been closer I would have gone there every morning. Both halves of P&P are closed on Mondays.

On Tuesday night I headed out with longtime partner in crime Alex Speier to All-Purpose, a pizza, pasta, and small plates place from the folks behind DC’s Red Hen and a recommendation from a reader, Jim H., who gave me tons of recs for my trip. All-Purpose’s menu has a lot of pork on it, but several small plates that focus on vegetables, as well as a couple of mainstay pasta options, six standard pizza configurations, and a chance to make your own pizza as well. We started with … wait for it … the fried Brussels sprouts (hey, they’re really good for you, at least until you fry them), which here come with horseradish cream, togarashi spice, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and I could have licked the plate clean if my parents hadn’t raised me correctly. The strange mixture of a Japanese spice mix with some real heat and the umami-rich Italian cheese worked well together, and I couldn’t get over how thoroughly cooked the sprouts were – I’ve had a lot of fried Brussels sprouts that were still a little underdone in the center and retained some bitterness, but these did not.

Kogod tipped me off beforehand that the eggplant parm dish was “the veteran move,” and Alex was game, so we got that as well as the Cosimo pizza, which has roasted mushrooms, taleggio cheese, truffle sauce, but no tomatoes, which I think was a sharp choice because the eggplant parm dish is like a smack in the face of huge tomato flavor. Eggplant is one of those items I would generally just pass over on a menu – I don’t hate it, but it’s always going to be near the bottom of my list of choices. A-P’s version makes the eggplant the structure but not the center of the dish – this is about the tomatoes and cheese, and if you’d given me some crusty bread to make it like an open-faced sandwich I could have just laid down on the floor afterwards and slept like a baby.

The pizza was solid, but a sort of in-between style that had the crispiness of Italian-style pizzas but was probably cooked at a lower temp, so the outside browned evenly rather than getting the puffy crust around the outside with bits of char around it. I prefer thinner crusts, but A-P’s held up well under the heavier toppings of this pizza, and I’m glad we went with a white pizza and went meatless for the whole meal given how much meat I consumed the night before at Rose’s and the next day at lunch (see below).

I probably should have skipped dessert, but A-P does a ‘rainbow cake,’ a larger version of the Italian flag cookies I grew up eating from New York bakeries and have made a number of times around the holidays. The cake was six layers of a sponge cake made with almond paste, dyed to form a pastel version of the Italian flag, with raspberry and apricot jams between the layers and a thin coating of dark chocolate on top. The hardest thing about making the cookies is getting the layers to cook evenly – the outer edge wants to try out before the center is truly cooked – but this was perfect despite the fact that the layers were thicker than you’d find in a cookie.

Across the street from All-Purpose, Smoked & Stacked is the new breakfast and lunch place from Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who appeared on Top Chef Season 13 and made it to the final four, with the menu focused on their house-made pastrami. I don’t particularly care for pastrami; I loathe corned beef, but pastrami is smoked after the same kind of curing process, giving it a different taste and much better texture. S&S’s most basic sandwich is the Messy, which has pastrami, Comte cheese, sauerkraut, and slaw on very good rye bread, and it is indeed messy, as the bread can barely handle all the liquid coming from the fillings. It’s also more than I typically eat for lunch, but I ate the whole thing anyway because the bread was so damn good.

I ate one significant meal at National Harbor, at Edward Lee’s southern restaurant Succotash, which was certainly fine for a meal served to a captive audience but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat. The skillet cornbread was the best thing we ate, a traditional southern (that is, it had no sugar) cornbread served in the cast-iron skillet with sorghum butter. The fried catfish I had was good if a little pedestrian – I’ve had this same dish lots of times before and there was nothing special about this one. They make a good Old-Fashioned, though. These fake shopping villages kind of give me the creeps – it’s like they’re trying to create what’s great about a city and build it from the top down in a remote area, in this case a good 20 minutes outside of DC, rather than stay in the actual city and build it up organically. And the traffic situation down there has apparently just gotten worse now that the MGM Casino opened the day after we all left; the roads in/out of National Harbor are not built to handle volume, and driving within the complex just to get to the hotel where I stayed (the AC) was a complete pain in the ass.

Salted caramel rum ice cream.

So I posted a video and a picture on my Instagram feed of this salted caramel rum ice cream, the video showing the sugar caramelizing and the picture showing the final product. That generated a few recipe requests, so here’s my best rendering of what I did, because I winged it at a few points.

If you’ve never made caramel, it is chemistry in motion and the movement of the sugar through various stages never ceases to fascinate me … but it’s also a bit dangerous, as the sugar will reach temperatures well above boiling, and if it splashes at all, it will stick to your skin. Don’t skip the corn syrup in the recipe; the addition of an additional sugar beyond sucrose prevents sugar crystals from forming, which would prevent caramelization.

You’ll need an ice-cream maker of some sort for this, as well as a metallic whisk, and I recommend a heatproof silicone spatula for stirring the custard once the eggs are integrated.

Salted rum caramel ice cream

1 vanilla bean
1 cup white sugar
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
¼ cup water
1.5 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk (2% or higher)
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp rum
large pinch of salt

1. Whisk egg yolks to an even blend in a large bowl and set aside.

2. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the interior seeds into a sauce pan with the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Warm over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then boil rapidly, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan to remove any sugar crystals, until the mixture starts to turn brown, around 320 F/160 C. Swirl pan occasionally to ensure even heating and to prevent burning once the browning begins. When the entire mixture is a deep amber color (around 340 F), turn off the heat.

3. Add cream to the pan carefully (it may splatter), then return to low heat and whisk or stir to dissolve all solids. Add milk and heat to a simmer.

4. Slowly pour the hot mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. (If you pour too fast, you’ll just scramble the yolks.) Return the entire mixture to the saucepan and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly until the custard reaches 170 F/76 C. (The heatproof rubber spatula will let you scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent any of the mixture from overcooking.)

5. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rum and salt. Store in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, process in an ice cream maker; mine took about 25 minutes to reach the right texture. Freeze until firm.

If you enjoyed this, check out my annual list of cookbook recommendations or my gift guide for cooks too!

Cincinnati eats.

My latest ranking of the top 50 prospects in baseball is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat this afternoon. Also, my latest boardgame review, of Flea Market, is up over at Paste.

I was only in Cincinnati for about 32 hours, but managed to squeeze in a fantastic meal at Sotto right downtown and to find a gem of a coffee shop in Collective Espresso a few blocks north.

Sotto was a recommendation from the unofficial mayor of Cincinnati, C. Trent Rosencrans, who obviously knows what he’s talking about and couldn’t have made a better suggestion to me – this is my kind of food. Sotto’s menu is fundamentally Italian, but with top-quality ingredients that keep most of the dishes very simple and clean, as well as immaculate execution. The menu is straightforward, with four main sections: bruschettas, salads, primi (pasta dishes), and secondi (meats/entrees). I went with three dishes, probably a little too much food for me but in total about right for an average person’s appetite, and those plus a cocktail (rum, lime, mint, bitters) ran $48 before tip. I sat at the food bar, so I ended up with a bonus dish of their garlic and olive oil bruschetta, grilled right in front of me on their giant wood-fired grill, followed by the goat cheese/honey/hazelnut bruschetta, all excellent but at heart about the bread, like a Tuscan loaf (but with salt), brushed with EVOO and lined with grill marks.

The salad was Sotto’s take on a Caesar salad, using baby kale leaves and julienned lacinato kale leaves, with house-made croutons made from local bakery Blue Oven’s bread and a garlic/Parmiggiano dressing. (I didn’t ask if they used anchovies, but the menu didn’t say so and that’s neither authentic nor particularly Italian.) The pasta dish, cappellacci with braised short rib meat inside, were unbelievably light, with the pasta wrapping on the dumplings thinner than any Italian filled pasta I’ve had, with a texture more like that of (good) wontons than typical ravioli or similar dishes. Sotto served it in a sauce of Amish butter (only some of which ended up on my shirt) and thyme, which was rich enough that I barely needed any of it on the pasta. I’m dessert would have been wonderful but I ate everything I ordered and was fit to burst by that point. This would easily have been a $70-80 meal in a larger city and everything I ate was spectacular from ingredients to execution. I can also verify, since the chef showed me, that they have this amazing immersion circulator-type device that allows them to keep pasta water constantly boiling, with one side kept limited to gluten-free pastas to avoid cross-contamination.

Collective Espresso has a few locations, at least one of which serves brunch on the weekends, but I met a friend at the tiny original shop on Woodward the morning of the Futures Game. They use Blacksmith Espresso beans from Louisville roaster Quills for their espresso, a blend of three beans from Brazil, Peru, and Colombia that produces a balanced shot with a rich texture. I also sampled one of CE’s peach scones, which was more like a cake but served its purpose well (I don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach). I also left Collective Espresso with a bag of Rwanda Inzovu beans from Deeper Roots Coffee, a local roastery; the beans are out of this world, a huge peach bomb with nutmeg and cocoa notes, and DR roasted them to what seems like the perfect color.

Arizona eats, October 2014.

I spent six nights in Arizona last week to scout this year’s crop of prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and wrote two long posts on what I saw, one focusing primarily on pitchers and a longer one mostly on position players.

The best new restaurant of the trip was Little Miss BBQ, a tiny spot on University Ave in Tempe, just south of the airport, that specializes in central Texas Q – meaning primarily brisket and sausage, although they do pulled pork as well. The brisket was among the best I’ve ever had, certainly the best I’ve had anywhere west of Texas, rivaling Florida’s 4 Rivers for the best I’ve had outside of Texas itself. I asked for fatty (or moist) brisket rather than lean, my strong preference because you get that fat that just melts in your mouth and provides its own sauce for the meat – and the brisket didn’t need any other sauce than that. Little Miss smokes over pecan and oak, so you get a clear presence of smoke in the meat without the dominance of a wood like hickory (better for pork, IMO), and you get to taste the beef itself and the rub, salty and peppery but not so assertive that it took over each bite. The sausage was above-average but not as spicy as I expected or would have liked. For sides, they offer jalapeno cheese grits and baked beans, but I went with the lighter sides, potato salad and cole slaw, rather than add two heavy items to the copious quantity of cow on the plate. Both were excellent because they were clearly homemade and weren’t doused in mayo, so you could particularly taste the cabbage in the slaw. On a rainy morning at 11:30 am, the line was about 30 people deep and took me 20-25 minutes to get to the counter, although the guy doing the slicing (I think it was the pitmaster) handed out a few free bites of the brisket and sausage to keep everyone happy. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Angels’ stadium and not even ten minutes from the Cubs’ new place.

Chef Kelly Fletcher was among the most highly-regarded local chefs in the Valley while at Tempe’s House of Cards, but the high price point kept me from going there while I lived in the area and Fletcher ended up leaving earlier this year to start his own place. The Revival, also located in Tempe, has a more casual feel and I think a better mix of menu options at the high- and low-ends. The roasted pork belly with Asian caramel, mirin poached potatoes, and scallions starter ($7) was ridiculously good from all angles – literally, as the dish was a gorgeous panoply of colors and textures, and the pork belly itself had tremendous balance of textures (but not too tough, which I’ve had in some pork belly dishes when the meaty layers are overcooked) and sweet/sour/salty levels. The duck confit on roasted corn polenta main ($21) with house-made date-maple syrup, bitter greens, and candied fresnos was plus but not quite a home run; the duck meat didn’t pull right off the bone as it usually does when prepared this way, and the candied fresnos were way so fiery I had to avoid them. The polenta used a coarse grind of yellow corn, so even with the long cooking times required for the dish it had some tooth to it, while the roasted corn kernels amped up the sweetness (thanks to caramelization) while adding a smoky component. The date-maple syrup was a natural pairing with the duck as well, although I may be biased (!) as I could drink real maple syrup right out of the bottle.

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Glazed pork belly starter from the Revival in Tempe AZ.

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Cuff is a rarity – a smart, high-end restaurant located in the west Valley, where chain restaurants abound. It’s in downtown Glendale, where it looks like there’s a quiet revitalization happening, great news if you head to Arizona to see any of the teams playing in the four stadiums on that side of town. (It’s about 15-20 minutes from Camelback Ranch because of all of the traffic lights you’ll have to pass.) Cuff just opened a few weeks ago and I was there on the fifth night since they began dinner service, so the strong execution across the board was very promising – you’d think they’d still be working some kinks out of their system. The menu is straightforward – a few salads and starters, a good cross-section of sandwich options to appeal to almost every eater, and a few mains that were quite generously priced.

The mixed greens salad ($7) was the ideal starter, especially since a few days of gorging on meat left me craving something plant-based. The mesclun mix (very fresh, nothing wilting or starting to spoil, a common problem in salads now) comes with crumbled fresh goat cheese, candied pecans, dried cranberries, and a delicate peach-shallot vinaigrette; that mix of leaves is slightly bitter, so three sweet elements, three tart ones, and two salty ones bring the balance the salad needs so that you don’t get that feeling that you’re chewing on lawn cuttings. The Amalfi-style lemon chicken, one of their main course options (at just $11!) was above-average but a little tricky to eat, served in a deep soup bowl with broth that made cutting the two pieces of chicken (an airline cut and a thigh) difficult. The lemon parmesan broth was fantastic, with a perfect balance of acidity, salt, and the umami of the cheese, providing flavor to the chicken itself (especially chicken breast, which has no flavor of its own no matter how it’s cooked) and to the baby broccoli in the bowl. The grilled ciabatta bread triangles are clearly there to spare you the indignity of tipping the bowl to your mouth to drink the broth, but I wouldn’t judge you if you did. Cuff also has a full bar including a variety of specialty cocktails.

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Amalfi-style lemon chicken at the brand-new Cuff in downtown Glendale.

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Sumo Maya is a new Scottsdale hot spot that has taken the trendy “Asian tacos” theme and applied it to the standard upscale drinking spot popular in that town. I liked the food, but hated the vibe. Their happy hour specials are a steal – four tacos for $7, practically enough for a whole meal and a good way to sample a bunch of the menu options. Of the four different ones I tried, including pork, chicken, fried fish, and vegetarian, the last one was the best, filled with small wild mushrooms and tossed with a sweet soy sauce and micro greens. The flavors on the chicken taco were outstanding, including avocado and a chile-guajillo salsa, but I think the chicken had been cooked earlier and was simply reheated for service. I also tried the kimchi fried rice, which was solid but not much different from fried rice you’d get at a very good Chinese restaurant. I just couldn’t see going back there to eat when so much of the crowd was there to drink and/or be seen.

One recommendation I didn’t get to was the new Arcadia restaurant Nook, only because it wasn’t that close to any of my destinations, but that’s on the to-do list for spring.

I never went to the Jamaican rum bar Breadfruit while living in Phoenix, but that was a pretty big mistake on my part given my affinity for the demon spirit. I adored their rum old fashioned, with Appleton Extra 12 year as its base, and liked their Hemingway’s Daiquiri, with Matusalem Platino (a triple-distilled, highly refined Dominican white rum) as its base, mixed with grapefruit and lime juices and demarara sugar, although the latter disguised the flavor of the rum too much. Nick Piecoro dragged me there – not that it required much convincing when I heard “rum bar” – after I’d dragged him to Citizen Public House for a postgame drink, only to discover they’re doing a late-night menu (after 11 pm) for “Porktoberfest,” including their bacon-fat popcorn and a twist on Chinese steamed pork buns (baozi) that paired well with their signature negroni and basically everything else we drank.

I went back to several favorites for breakfast – the Hillside Spot, Crepe Bar, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Giant Coffee, and Cartel Coffee Lab, all of which were just as I left them: good and busy. Crepe Bar has expanded its menu slightly, which might have been my only complaint about it before, and they’re still offering lots of little freebies along the way, like a tiny cup of their housemade granola, a dark chocolate and hazelnut amuse with your coffee (from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon), or a rose-water marshmallow and dark chocolate twist on s’mores after your meal. (Great idea, but the marshmallow left a perfume flavor in my mouth that I couldn’t get out for hours.) Saigon Kitchen in Surprise didn’t live up to my recollections, unfortunately, but Pig & Pickle in Scottsdale exceeded them, with a bigger menu that has more small plates and starters, including more vegetable-based options so your meal can have a better balance of pork and not-pork.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

Klawchat at 1 pm ET today.

Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses gives a light, high-level history of six beverages that all had an impact on human history or development. I’m a big fan of four of them – beer, distilled spirits, coffee, and tea – and won’t turn down the fifth, wine. Only the last of the six Standage covers, Coca-Cola, seems out of place, both based on my personal tastes (I’ll only drink it if I have a headache and can’t have more coffee) and on its status as a thoroughly artifical beverage protected by trade secrets.

Standage has to stretch on occasion to make some of his historical connections, but in general he’s treading on safe ground, especially with beer and liquor, because their development or discovery had substantial economic impacts on the societies that consumed them. Beer was originally both a natural byproduct of grain storage and a safer alternative to water in an era when bacterial contamination was not understood; liquor, notably rum, drove international trade routes, agricultural production in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the slave trade with native kingdoms in western Africa. Wine was an essential part of the symposion, the Greek ancestor of the cocktail party, where great discussions took place in an atmosphere of convivial drinking … and probably excessive drinking, too, although Plato seems to have left that part out of his Dialogues.

Standage connects coffee to the academic cafe culture of western Europe, particularly London, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the coffee was bad, prepared in large pots in advance and reheated to order, but these cafes, each of which was devoted to a specific subject or area, hosted conversations that led to great advances in areas from science to philosophy. Tea, like coffee, brought medical benefits, especially since water had to be boiled to make the beverage, and became the drink of choice in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a shift that led to the British colonization and development of India (for their own purposes, of course, and only after they’d wiped out the subcontinent’s native textile industry) … as well as playing a role in our own revolution against the crown.

Where Standage lost the plot a little was with his shift to an overtly commercial product, Coca-Cola, which was the product of a handful of accidents and experiments and did, as the legend has it, once contain cocaine – the name comes from its onetime use of both the coca plant and the kola nut (a natural source of caffeine) as flavoring agents. The Coca-Cola company did play a role in the post-World War II trend of globalization, but its role was hardly as essential or as organic as those of the other five beverages in the book, and unlike the other drinks Standage covers, cola has no redeeming health qualities and is unhealthful even in small quantities.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses concludes with a prediction, in Standage’s epilogue, that the next beverage to direct human history will be the first one: water, with the need for clean, reliable water supplies directing political strategies and conflicts over the next century. That could have earned a larger chapter, similar to the discussion of the topic in Empires of Food, as it’s going to be a significant issue all over the world, including in the southern half of the United States. I also wish Standage had spent some time discussing the chemistry of each beverage, or more details of its production; he focuses far more on the history aspect of each drink than the scientific or culinary angles. The idea of “notes” in different beverages, widely used in discussions of wine but popping up more and more in reviews of beers, coffees, and even chocolates, derives from the differing chemical composition of the raw materials, which is usually a function of the soil and temperature where those materials grow. Those specific characteristics help drive the higher ends of the markets for each product, which in turn represents a path for coffee and cocoa farmers (and perhaps farmers of other crops) in developing countries to earn an actual living from their work, the kind of economic development that Standage discusses in a historical context in his six primary sections.

Next up: I’m about a quarter of the way through Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I’m not sure this lawsuit is ever going to be settled.

Hawai’i eats.

I’ve got posts up for Insiders on the Hanson-Walden trade and the Span-Meyer trade, and did a Klawchat yesterday as well.

I’d never set foot in Hawai’i before our vacation there last week, so we spent a lot of time getting oriented and didn’t really start nailing the culinary tourism until the fourth or fifth day there, after which point I found a bunch of spots worth recommending. I’ll get to the food in a moment, but first some quick thoughts on touring Kauai and Oahu in general:

* Kauai was gorgeous; we spent five days there at the Marriott Beach Club in Lihue (everything was via Rewards Points), which has a great pool, including a kiddie pool with a slide, and a beach on a large, calm lagoon. The rooms were nothing special at all, and the food all over the hotel was overpriced. The biggest lesson for us was that it was worthwhile to rent a car at least for a day or two – we drove to Waimea Canyon, also called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific; and Kalalau Point, which overlooks the Napali coast and the northwest shore of the island. The car also allowed us to tour the Kauai Coffee plantation, visit the Koloa Rum Company (and buy a bottle of their dark – pricey at $30, but smooth with a bright vanilla finish), and do a little more shopping.

* The big shocker on Oahu was the traffic – I can see why there’s a local push for a light-rail line into the western suburbs, because traffic on I-H1 (an “interstate” highway) is pretty brutal, and there seemed to be no enforcement of HOV lane restrictions. We stayed out at Ko Olina, so the car was a necessity, and also drove to Sea Life Park so my wife could swim with a dolphin, which was a longtime wish of hers. I can understand people who skip Oahu entirely and fly straight to Maui or Kauai, though – the scenic parts of Oahu are a hike from Honolulu.

I’ve got two food spots to recommend on Oahu, plus one that’s great if you’re up for the price. The Whole Ox Deli isn’t actually a deli but is more of a lunch counter with picnic tables, and reminded me in many ways of our favorite Arizona haunt, The Hillside Spot, for the focus on sourcing local ingredients and making everything from scratch. The Whole Ox got its start via Kickstarter, which raised funds for a smoker that they use to smoke pork shoulder for their pulled pork sandwich, although I ended up getting the porchetta sandwich with cracklins, mustardy mayo, and caramelized fennel, everything in perfect balance on a soft baguette. The fried potatoes are like grown-up french fires, skin-on red potatoes halved or quartered, either steamed or parboiled (I assume) and then fried till brown and crispy all over. This was absolutely worth fighting our way into downtown Honolulu to visit.

So was Downtown Coffee, which is located in the Fort Street Mall, a tiny shop run by a husband-and-wife team who roast their coffees every Saturday and sell a handful of artisan pastries including a matcha torte with bamboo charcoal crust that defied any expectation I’d had – it’s sweet but subtle, without the bitter grassy taste I associate with matcha. As for the coffee, I had a cup of their downtown blend and liked it enough to buy a 7 ounce bag of their beans to try at home as espresso, as well as a smaller bag of their lighter Maui Mokka peaberry roast, on the owner’s suggestion. He was kind enough to spend about 10-15 minutes walking me through all their roasts, showing me samples of five different ones to discuss their qualities for espresso, and even gave me a sample of another drip coffee for comparison’s sake. I’ve already finished off the Maui Mokka, which produced a very smooth shot with a strong crema, a little less assertively acidic than the lighter African roasts I’ve gotten from Intelligentsia.

The one pricey meal we had on Oahu was the result of me being a company man and visiting Disney’s Aulani resort to try their dinner buffet at Makahiki. The resort is gorgeous inside, reminiscent in style of Disney’s Polynesian Resort but more updated with more open space inside. I generally avoid buffets, with two exceptions – Las Vegas and Disney, where the quality is higher and the turnover is faster. Makahiki’s buffet was very broad, with a raw fish table that included poke, sashimi, and oysters on the half-shell; cooked shellfish, including red snow crab legs; a wide selection of meat and vegetable dishes, including Hawaiian purple sweet potatoes both steamed and fried tempura-style; and a dessert table that had molten chocolate cakes that were more molten than cake, making it a great dipping sauce for the fresh berries on the next table. For a buffet, it was great. It also runs $46 per adult and $21 per child, so even with my employee discount we still dropped over $100, including two drinks and tip. They did have a full selection of local beers from Kona, including the Big Wave Golden Ale which had a very pronounced citrus flavor and virtually no bitterness.

Moving over to Kauai, the best meal option at the Marriott is the overpriced Duke’s, which earns raves for a salad bar that is really just a nice salad bar. Their fish was very fresh, and I liked their basmati rice pilaf, but the “hula pie” dessert is incredibly overrated, probably more famous for its size than its taste. We fared much better heading across Rice St to the Feral Pig, a fairly new spot with no ambience but amazing food, including house-smoked bacon and pulled pork and a solid selection of local beers as well. They hand-cut their French fries and incorporate pork belly into a number of dishes, including two specials I ordered – the potstickers, made by hand and fried just until hot through without drying the pork out, and the special burger with half Kauai-raised beef and half pork belly as well as bacon on top. I asked how they cured the bacon, and the owner said he used a recipe from one of Michael Ruhlman’s books, although they don’t use sodium nitrite, so the bacon is grey rather than pink and has a porkier flavor. Everything was excellent and it was about half of what we’d pay for inferior food at the hotel.

Lappert’s is a local ice cream chain with four locations on Kauai and two on other islands. Try the Kauai Pie, Kona coffee ice cream with fudge swirl, coconut flakes, and macadamia nuts. I never tried another flavor because why bother. Next to the Lappert’s in Hanapepe is a new-ish looking taco stand called Paco’s Tacos, which makes outstanding carnitas, slow-cooked but crispy on the outside, probably deep-fried once it’s done cooking but so, so good. The only disappointment was the guacamole, made fresh but lacking salt and acid for me. It’s a good one-two combo if you remember to save room for ice cream.

I had an interesting twist on poke at the Hanalei Dolphin restaurant in Hanalei, down towards Poipu, near a shop my wife wanted to visit. Two kinds of raw fish (one was ahi) and some cooked prawns were tossed in a coconut-lemongrass sauce that threatened to overpower the fish but never quite got there, served over a bed of mixed greens with some root-vegetable chips on the side (taro and purple sweet potato, I think) if you’d rather not use a fork. I only had poke three times on the trip, never at a truly local spot like a good fish market, so I can only say that this had the best overall flavor but I can’t speak to its authenticity.

My final recommendation is the Saturday morning farmers’ market at Kauai Community College, right near Lihue and next door to the Koloa Rum Company. The fresh fruit there was out of sight – large, juicy starfruits with orange flesh and a subtle sweet-citrus flavor; papayas with reddish-orange flesh that were also bursting with sugar; plus huge jackfruits, apple bananas, pineapple, and more than we could hope to try. We did buy some butterscotch roasted macadamia nuts from the Kauai Nut Roasters and jams from Monkeypod, but had to pass on the desserts offered by one vendor whose name I can’t find – she had a lilikoi (passion fruit) custard that was absolutely incredible but would have spoiled in the car since we were headed out to the Canyon.

One more note – several readers recommended a noodle shop called Hamura Saimin in downtown Lihue, but after talking to several locals, I passed. Every person I asked said the shop uses too much MSG in their broth, and that the place isn’t very clean, which is about the one non-food-related variable that I care about when deciding where to eat. I also read a few reviews that mentioned the use of a Spam knockoff in some of their soups, and I won’t touch that stuff, even if it is a local tradition. Meat doesn’t come from cans.

And a Bottle of Rum.

Wayne Curtis tries to downplay the ambitions set in the title of his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, implying that he’s not going to credit human existence or history to rum the way other authors have to cod or salt or other mundane foodstuffs. That’s all to the good in my opinion, as he sticks mostly to the history of rum and various people and products associated with its rise from “the distilled essence of industrial waste” to a top-shelf liquor commanding premium prices for aged varieties as you might pay for whiskey or brandy. (It’s also available on iBooks.)

Rum is, of course, distilled from molasses (or, rarely, sugar cane juice), which was originally discarded by plantation owners as the unwanted, unsaleable waste product of sugar production and refining. It gained popularity among sailors, even becoming part of a daily grog ration for members of the Royal Navy (a practice that was only discontinued in 1970), and then became the main liquor in colonial America, first as an import from the Caribbean and later as a homemade product, playing a role along the way in the Sugar and Stamp Acts. (Curtis also attempts to dispel the myth of the triangle trade, with a few references, saying that there’s no evidence any ship actually sailed those three legs or that the trade was as simple as the middle-school story indicates.) Rum faded from view in the U.S. only to regain popularity during and after Prohibition through Cuba tourism, the song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” and the rise of the tiki bar. It is a tumultuous history with plenty of associations with major world events, even if rum itself wasn’t always the cause of them.

Along the way, Curtis provides digressions about the real Captain Morgan and his namesake rum (which wasn’t always spiced), the American temperance movement against “demon rum” even though rum was rarely consumed at the time, the history of the mai tai and the tiki bar trend, Coca-Cola (and the Andrews Sisters’ song about the two), and Paul Revere’s ride with its possibly-apocryphal stop for a dram of rum. He weaves these stories into ten chapters, each covering a specific drink, including planter’s punch, the daiquiri – not the frozen sickly-sweet concoction, but the original rum-lime-sugar-crushed ice beverage that was the libation of choice of Ernest Hemingway – and the mojito. To his credit, he has proper scorn for flavored rums, pina coladas, and Coca-Cola, since all of the three take the focus of the drink off rum by inserting a dominant alternate flavor.*

*Curtis hits on a distinction I’ve been thinking about between cocktails and mixed drinks. If you read about the history of alcoholic drinks, you’ll come across two kinds – those that try to enhance the flavor of the central liquor or push it to the front of the drink, and those that cover it up because the liquor is of low quality or because the drinker can’t abide the taste of alcohol. The former group, what I think of as cocktails, comprised drinks that were seen as masculine, like you might find a Bertie Wooster drinking at the club, while the latter, simply mixed drinks, were seen as either girly or just déclassé. Curtis even mentions the rise of vodka, a liquor devoid of character and nearly devoid of taste, and its rise as younger male drinkers in the 1950s refused to acquire the taste for strong drink. A true daiquiri remains an acceptable drink in this dichotomy, as the rum is the star ingredient with the rum and sugar as supporting players. A pina colada isn’t, as Curtis explains, because “pineapple and coconut are the linebackers of the taste world,” obliterating any indication that there’s rum in the beverage. A dark-and-stormy (dark rum and ginger beer) works because ginger and rum are complementary flavors, much like mushrooms and onions or haricots verts and almonds, but a Cuba Libre doesn’t work because it’s just a Coke with a higher proof content. I’m not quite sure how a mai tai passes muster with Curtis – I think that’s only an acceptable drink if you’re on a tropical island, and even so, there are likely better options – but in general he’s pretty consistent.

Curtis also includes recipes for modern drinks as well as brief recipes for ten classic (or just old) drinks that lead into the ten chapters. One of them, just called “punch,” looked familiar, and after making it I realized it’s the drink called “planter’s punch” in Bermuda, where my wife and I honeymooned and to which we returned for our fifth and tenth anniversaries. It’s strong and the predominant flavor is rum (Gosling’s Black Seal in Bermuda), and while you can garnish it with all manner of garbage, at its heart it’s a daiquiri with some water and maybe a pinch of nutmeg, the latter a nod to the classic punches of Britain. And it’s very easy to assemble:

Juice half a lime into a glass. Add one tablespoon of sugar, simple syrup, or agave nectar; 1 1/2 ounces of rum; and two ounces of water. Mix well and add ice.

The end of the book has a brief selection listing Curtis’ favorite rums from a cross-section of countries and multiple price ranges. I found most of them at a nearby liquor store (the one at Fresh Pond next to Whole Foods, for those of you who live around here). They’re sipping rums rather than mixing rums, for more serious drinkers than myself.

Next up: Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Alice Adams.