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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Byejoe Westerby

What's all this, then? The drink in the photo comes to me by way of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, of which I am an honorary member, and a fortuitous bottle of Byejoe Red, and a marriage to an Italian woman sensible about culinary matters. I'll bet it looks unlike any drink you've had to-date. Well, that's what I'm here for, in part. Perhaps in large part.

I may recall for you how Jerry Westerby, the de facto hero of Le Carre's The Honorable Schoolboy, ditches his insane Italian wife at the beginning of that chronicle; I may recall for you how like Westerby è sua donna I too live on the wrong side of a hill.  But let's take it one step at a time...

°  °  °  °  °

Byejoe is a recent addition to the American spirits cornucopia, distributed by the usual evil agents in Texas. It is a western version and phonetic spelling of the world's best selling spirit, baijiu, about which you know next to nothing beyond what I'm about to tell you.

Baijiu in its Asian state presents a problem to the American palette. Americans like their stronger spirits to complement almost nothing at all, although a steak and a martini do make for a good rubric, but the Chinese and other Asians mostly take baijiu with their sauce-driven savory cuisine. Baijiu is also made from sorghum, a grain not celebrated in America, as it produces a foggy taste that I would describe as "musty" though many have been even less kind.

I first had genuine baijiu (and for what it's worth, I do consider Byejoe genuine baijiu as well) about fifteen years ago, at a wedding between two Chinese Americans (who both, magnificently, had the same last name) in Monterey Park. It struck me as a good complement to the fish cheeks and onion bread and hundreds of other items at the dinner, but even then I was wondering how it might make an American cocktail if called upon.

A bottle of the stuff arrived mirable dictu about a week ago and I sliced it open immediately on arrival. Further informed by fifteen years of mixology, and having prepped myself with a reading list of Byejoe cocktails, I couldn't wait to begin experimenting.

°  °  °  °  °

Ah, here were challenges. Some new recipes, bent to the not overly fussy but anxious to be immediately gratified American taste, were sweet; and Byejoe itself comes unmolested but also comes in a stripe with infused lychee and pomegranate too.  Those two fruits coming together approximate the taste of strawberries, so the brand itself is also thinking that this might give them an extra wading pool entry into the American market.

I didn't see a need for the infused version, but I'm glad to have it. I felt the Byejoe infusion (called Dragon) may mix well with lime for those who are unembarrassed to drink a strawberry margarita, but really, the stand-alone Dragon is enough sweetness in a glass to abide any of my own cravings. (For fun, a Southerner might like to try it mixed with Southern Comfort to make a Dragon Frappe).

But I was more taken by my bottle of unadulterated Red. I tried lemon with it, which was an acceptable mixer but still left the leafy must musty. Ultimately, thinking about how natural baijiu complements Chinese cuisine, which is barely sweet when it is sweet but mostly savory and especially saucy, I abandoned citrus entirely and moved to those American hors d'oeuvres that can double as garnish.  My broader thought was that food should be on hand for the Red; the Dragon drinks well enough alone, or as a prelude.

The best that worked for me was a marinated artichoke heart from a jar; oil and vinegar and spices making it dirty. That made for a drink I looked forward to coming home to, even on the wrong side of the hill. Call it the Westerby after the soldierly hero of The Honorable Schoolboy; he is certainly a man who knows pickled artichokes from his ill-starred Italian tryst. Simply drop one into your drink--and the drink doesn't even need to be chilled--with a spoon rather than a fork, so you can include some of the pickling juice too; that's the way Westerby would do it I'm sure.

Byejoe will also work superbly as a complement to blue cheese, and one of those blue-cheese stuffed olives would make a wonderful mess of a Byejoe cocktail too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Broker

My local purveyor stocks Broker's Gin, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.  The marketing tag "World's best gin" raised my antennae so I thought I'd take the 94 proof stripe--there's no sense in buying a less-fortified bottle of prospective exaggeration...

But when I teased some ounces into my shaker and made my first martini, I realized we indeed had a superior gin on our hands!

On the key juniper-sugar axis that defines nine-tenths of the gin experience, Broker's is low both.  Its juniper is faint and its sugar is nonexistent.  It may have a dozen botanicals but none are especially noteworthy.  In short, this is very fresh, very pure gin, a kind of gin-maker's gin, in which flavor doesn't beat you over the head but nonetheless announces itself as gin, very definitely so.

So I like Broker's.  It is flavored well by whatever you flavor it with--tonic, or bitters (I like pink gins) and it's the perfect weapons-grade base for a French 75.  I haven't been as pleased by a new gin since my first Junipero.  I look forward to a lifelong relationship, in which it joins the shelf with Junipero, Beefeater, and Plymouth.  Good on ye, lads!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Across the Miles: Winogrand, ICP Triennial, Turrell, Calder


Whatever else may be said of it, the year 2013 was a great year for art.  But then that’s pretty much true of every year.  Art’s not like wine, weather dependent.  Someone, somewhere is always making great art.  What does seem to change from time to time are the quality and variety of exhibits mounted my museums and galleries.  But that’s probably dumb too – there’s always a great show somewhere.  What seems to matter is having the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to see the great show or shows. 

I  was in New York City while the International Center of Photography’s Triennial survey show “A Different Kind of Order” was up. The press release labeled it “a global survey of contemporary photography and video.”  A tall order, to be sure.  There were some interesting images, and concepts on display – like Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse, Windows, Ponte City, 2008–2010.  It’s a series of photographs of a building that represents more than just a form of shelter for those that live there.

At 54 stories it’s reportedly the tallest building on the continent.  After the 1994 end of apartheid, wealthy residents fled the Johannesberg tower.  It was taken over by a cross-section of the disenfranchised, and began its entry into myth.  The artists visual representation is impressive and works on many levels – as interesting imagery, with an aspect of photo sculpture, as social commentary, and as straight documentary. 

As for the other photos, another interesting project exploring technology and the potential for including the  random element into art creation is the work of Andrea Longacre-White.  Her Pad Scan series was created by taking digital photographs which were then displayed on her iPad which she then scanned.  Several steps from the original image, and involving the unpredictable and random reaction of the scanner trying to process the iPad display of the digital photo.  The results are more conceptually interesting than visually arresting, and serve as a reminder that with each additional layer of technology we’re adding another mirror to what may become an inescapable visual warren.

[An image from the Pad Scan series, right, click to enlarge.]

Any kind of survey show is a big bite at the exhibition apple, and this one provided enough good bites to be memorable and provide visual nutrition. 

The show that was up when I visited San Francisco was one that had been on my radar since it was announced – a retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work, organized jointly by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. 

This exhibition was epic, and breathtaking for its scope, and never before seen images, and the distinctive and amazing quality of the photographs.  Winogrand died at the age of 56 from gallbladder cancer.   He left behind an astonishing body of work – but also thousands of images he had taken, but had never printed.   Some rolls of film hadn’t even been developed at the time of his death, let alone made in to contact sheets.  In all, according to the exhibit, more than 250,000 images had never been seen by anyone presumably other than Winogrand himself, who only saw them when he took them, or in some cases, on their contact sheets. 

With the proliferation of image-making equipment – every cell phone is a camera, and pocket cameras have reached a level of technical quality such that it’s supremely easy to take a properly exposed photo – the photograph itself has become both devalued and magnified in importance.   Devalued because photographs are ubiquitous, and omnipresent in our lives.  Magnified in importance because the recognition and value of a really great photograph only grows as the number of images made daily grows. 

There’s very little formal discussion in the popular culture of what makes a photograph great.   What is it about a particular image that captures our eye, that excites us, that provokes feelings of a deep nature?   Is it the ability of the image to reach past our conscious brain into the deep seated root of our visual cortex, some secret combination of light and dark, of shapes, of things that resonate with our inherent human nature?  Or is the response triggered by cultural factors, by images we’ve ingested over a lifetime of exposure to advertising, to entertainment, to the plethora of processed images ever present in our daily sea of media consumption?  Most people answer the question of what makes a great photo the same way the Supreme Court thinks about pornography – I’ll know it when I see it. 

Seeing any of Garry Winogrand’s photographs is to know what a great photo is.  He was a photographer with an eye.  Which is to say he knew how to capture something significant with his camera.    He said “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.”  Which captures the complete magic of so many of his photographs. 

One of his iconic images – of which there are many – is of a woman at the El Morocco nightclub in New York in 1955.   Her mouth is open wide, her perfect teeth and lipstick on display, her dagger like fingernails of the hand on her dance partner’s back – it’s an image of uncertain emotion, unsettling – her mouth a rictus trapped between heaven and hell, between desire to be happy and happiness itself.   The photo is piercing, memorable, and easily lodges in one’s visual memory.

There’s another image, of a boy, and a sheep, from 1975, Fort Worth.  The boy is looking off camera, the sheep directly at the camera.   Winogrand has an unflinching directness with his images.  They’re capable of conveying a depth of emotional reality nearly impossible to capture or achieve outside of a full novel or play - exhibiting in each image the true power of that single frozen moment that reveals all.

A couple is kissing in a doorway in New York.  The woman is looking directly at the camera, as is the young girl standing next to them.  The man kissing the woman is either completely unaware of the photographer, or so engrossed in the moment as to not care.

The kissing woman’s gaze is challenging, full of attitude and brio.  The other’s with more of a hint of uncertainty as to how to feel about the moment, about what is happening – including the kiss itself, and the act of photographing the kiss.  In this way Winogrand’s directness questions the act of making photography itself, but clearly in completing the act, answers the question as well.  His most famous quote about photography speaks volumes about his attitude – “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”  What today might be called a very meta approach to image making.

He was also able to make arresting images without showing us any faces, any eyes – and yet invoke a deep sense of wonder, and humanity – as with the image of an elephant’s trunk and a person's hand.

The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC March 2 – June 8, 2014; to the Metropolitan Museum of Art  in New York, June 27-September 21, 2014 to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, October 2014–January 2015;  and to Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, March–June 2015.

While photography is often said to be all about the light – because that’s obviously what makes it possible to take a picture – artist James Turrell’s work really is all about the light – in many ways, the light IS the work.  He creates purely with light, and while this sounds conceptual and cold, the effect of seeing his work is full of emotion.  Often the emotions are those that the viewer brings to the piece – in many ways it seems as if Turrell’s art is one step forward from a tabula rasa.  It’s not blank, clearly, but more than in most any other art, what one takes away as a viewer is dependent on what one brings as a viewer.   The show is a sizable retrospective, and shows the considerable scope of his work. 

One piece is a room that the viewer walks in to.  When we were there, a museum guard was in the room, as they are in many rooms throughout the museum, in all museums.  I like to talk to the guards – they’re completely immersed in the art all day, every day, and sometimes they have interesting, insightful things to say about both the art, and the viewers of the art.  This particular guard in the blue room did not disappoint – he was interesting and provocative with his answers to my questions, and it added to the whole experience. 

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a sizable retrospective of his work on view until April 6.

Another show on view at LACMA currently is Calder and Abstraction:  From Avant-Garde to Iconic

I was not particularly interested in seeing this show.  My wife wanted to see it, so I went along.  My impression of Calder was based on his later mobiles, like the red and black one hanging in the massive lobby of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  

A little bit interesting, mostly boring.  I expected his work to be all the same.
Okay, so I’m a dope sometimes.  The Calder exhibit was the perfect antidote to my ignorance, taking the viewer back to Calder’s early days, and bringing us forward to his later work.  There are beautiful examples of him exploring a new approach to sculpture, to creating ground-breaking work that was mesmerizing.  The exhibit itself is designed to show off the range and scope of Calder’s work effectively, and I came away with full acknowledgement of his talent, and my stupidity. 

The Calder exhibit is on view through July 27.  Installation photos can be found here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mimosas formidable.

Plus formidable.

Last year I reminded you about the virtues of french 75's in a new year. This new year, the topic is mimosas.

But before I get to mimosas, I'll tell you: french 75's made our past year---our past year, which was awful---a little happier.

So now the mimosa, a far gentler subject for the usual post new year's surfeit of champagne.

There are two basic recipes, and one is far more basic than the other:

The one you've probably already had:
1 1/4 oz orange juice (3.5 cl, 5/16 gills)
Fill with Champagne, ice
Serve in a cocktail glass (4.5 oz)
The one you're about to try:
1/2 ounce triple sec (1.5 cl, 1/8 gills)
1 1/2 ounces fresh orange juice (4.5 cl, 3/8 gills)
3 1/2 ounces chilled Champagne (10.5 cl, 7/8 gills)
1 orange slice for garnish (1/2 oz, 1.5 cl, 1/8 gills)
Build in the order given in a Champagne flute. Add the garnish.
Serve in a champagne flute (6.0 oz)
Yes. Triple sec. Surprised? That recipe is from Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology, a book which is more about process and theory than recipe. Gary Regan is certainly accomplished, and also is a bit of an Internet-as-cottage-industry phenomenon. But so is About.com, and take a look at this awful recipe for the same drink; or maybe you too measure orange juice by the carton. So let's put it to the fire: does Gary know something so many others don't? Why would you add triple sec to something like orange juice, which is so sweet to start? (BTW, Rachel wants you to add triple sec too, but at the end, rather than at the beginning---I guess she wants you to light fire to it too, or something.)

Give up? Well, I'll tell you. It's about alcohol.

Adding triple sec is like infusing what would otherwise be a very fluffy Mother's Day drink with something more formidable. You're bumping your mimosa to actual cocktail level.

Triple sec is made from oranges, so it doesn't rustle your orange juice's feathers, and shouldn't overlay your natural oj sweetness too much---especially if it's high-proof triple sec. Triple sec runs up to 60 proof, and you shouldn't waste time with much less than that. If you're going to put it in a mimosa, putting something that's about 30 proof is not really adding much of anything.

It seems intuitive, and likely need not be said, to not use your favorite champagne for a mimosa. If you're drinking your favorite champagne, drink your favorite champagne---don't sugar coat it. Of course. You're insulted I even mentioned anything. Well, it must be said. It must be said because there are sites that say, "a bottle of favorite champagne" and where orange juice from a carton suffices. I will be very goodly god-damned if I am going to slop a bottle of Bollinger Grand Année into any kind of juice, let alone juice from a carton. In fact, I don't think I've had orange juice from a carton in the new millennium. Or maybe since the Ford administration.

You need a tasty champagne, to be sure, but you can do with an easily acquired one. Prosecco is popular right now and prosecco is excellent for mimosas, in my opinion.

As for glassware---you know, it's really shouldn't be fetishized for this particular drink. You're not going to be noting the size of the bubbles. I like even serving them in tumblers, as demonstrated above, for the guests get more at a time.

Rocks with champagne? If you're using a tumbler, why not? You put champagne in punch, don't you? And what is a cocktail, if not a punch for one?

The mimosa is one rare drink that you can enlarge a bit with considerable impunity. But if you must, the champagne flute makes for handsome presentation. The only problem is, with the flute, you'll be refilling them every seven minutes. Me, I'd look for some good Italian tumblers and clink.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I'm Old Fashioned and I Don't Mind It

I had to make a behemoth one of these when I got home. The lemon and the lime are from the backyard. The orange is from a tree on the alley down the street. The maraschino cherry and the bourbon and the bitters and the sugar and the ice are from Gelson's. The glass is from CB2. The Tarot is from Skylight books. The fabric is from Indonesia. The coaster is from Vietnam. The table is from DWR. And the sunlight is from Apollo or God--nobody in particular took credit to-day.

The bourbon--it could be any north of Beam.  Well, let's admit it: it's Eagle Rare.

Start with a shaker. About half a teaspoon of sugar and some Angostura Bitters and a splash of club soda.  Muddle until the sugar is paste or dissolved--I hope you didn't put too much club soda in.  Rocks into the shaker and pour barely enough whiskey to make you concerned for yourself or your guest.  Shake once for every year of age of the drinker.

Now, strain into a chilled old fashioned glass over more rocks.  Garnish with small wedges of lime, lemon, orange, and a maraschino cherry.  Oh, go ahead and pour just a little of the cherry juice into the drink.  I doubt you're going to be able to make it to the coaster before sipping.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Whiskey Sour

It is shockingly bad form to drink whisky at any time at all before noon.
–Alma Whitaker, Bacchus Behave! The Lost Art of Polite Drinking, p. 27

But never mind that. This is October, a poem of an afternoon, and the stretch from waking to nightfall will hopefully be mercifully short anyway.

We are always reticent to tell others what they should drink. But Joy at The Drawing Room recommends a parting Whiskey Sour, and we are quite pleased with it. Whiskeyish and citrusy, it suits the moment perfectly. The sun shone through the door gently as the day’s final rays do, and there it was: a perfect Whiskey Sour, backlit.

It may have been years since you’ve had a Whiskey Sour. You may even have never had one before. Let us refresh your memory:
Whiskey Sour
Shake in iced cocktail shaker & strain
1 oz fresh lemon juice (3 cl, 1/4 gills)
1/2 tsp sugar (2 dashes)
1 1/2 oz rye or Bourbon whiskey (4.5 cl, 3/8 gills)
1/2 orange juice (optional) (1 1/2 oz, 4.5 cl, 3/8 gills)
Add lemon wedge, cherry
Serve in a sour glass (4.0 oz)
nihil obstat: The Cocktail Database (cocktaildb.com)
Citrus, whiskey….what’s not to love? It will work well with your sleek Bach/Busoni partita on the Bose and the autumn Santa Ana rolling across the sunshine. It is a fitting drink with which to honor the season—the American whiskey makes it so—and yet tangy enough for fall. The sour glass—think half an hourglass—is the essential stemware. And its shape is a good reminder: you should sip your Whiskey Sour over a minimum of half an hour.

Use a good whiskey. And this is a particularly nasty week to drive anywhere, so lose your keys.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pebble 2013

............................................................................Fabulousness 2013.......................................photos by TOD MESIROW

by Tod Mesirow

There will be a time in the not too distant future when the notion of driving a car will seem quaint, anachronistic, and old-fashioned. Those that will still drive - in the future world that seems inevitable - will do so only for pleasure, for show, and not for any sort of mundane "to get from here to there" type reasons. And this driverless future has its supreme benefits, like fewer accidents (once the kinks in the software are worked out); along with faster travel times, as algorithms will crush the driving skills of 97% of present day drivers; and the ability to sit back and relax, or work, or drink. I think the penalties for Riding Under the Influence will be appreciably less severe than those currently in place for DUI.

O Romeo, Romeo - 1960 Alfa Romeo Superflow IV Pinn Farina Coupe

As I experienced some of the events surrounding the 63rd Concours d'Elegance this year on the Monterey peninsula put me in this sort of space-head mode - looking at some astonishing examples of what's been created in the past, and a few rare examples of what's being done now - it's hard not to think about where we're going. But where we've been is more astounding in some ways, and seeing these astonishing cars on the pristine lawns of golf courses is an amazing treat.

Friday at the Concorso Ilaliano at the Laguna Seca golf course there was everything from a giant Lamborghini tractor, to a one of one silver Alfa, to tons (okay, not tons, but when you see 9 Daytonas, or 6 Miuras in one place it's a lot) of beautiful examples of rare cars. One thing that indicates this week of auto madness is growing in size and scope are the new car launches and concept car reveals that occurred. Fiat showed off two new models of their popular 500 in the morning - a GQ-badged and inspired one, and a limited edition called the Cattiva, with alloy wheels, spoiler, and a lot of black to go with the copper paint job.

No danger of another like it.

The fun thing about these events is that the people who own these cars and bring them out to show them are sometimes more colorful than the vehicles themselves. The Lamborghini tractor owner enjoys the oddball nature of his vehicle, and brought along steps, and invited people to pose in the driver's seat. Most people already knew that Lamborghini started out as a tractor company, and that the division wasn't sold until 1973. There are still new Lamborghini tractors being made, but the company has no connection with the car company other than a shared name and history.

And then there's the gentleman watching his car being judged. Three officials wearing blue blazers and matching straw hats, holding clipboards, review every detail of the beautiful Ferrari 275 convertible. "Nervous?" I ask him. "No," he tells me, and I believe him, "if they find things wrong, I fix it," in clear English, but with what I take to be an Italian accent. "Besides, I won two years ago with a different car." Ah, the confidence of a winner, a discerning collector, most likely living the high life.

Judgment at Pebble - a maroon machine gets the once-over

Later in the day I spot him with a young woman, their arms around each other, laughing and strolling. The high life indeed, and why not. Good for him. On Saturday night, a prime auction night, I choose the auction being held by Russo & Steele, which sounds more like a cop or lawyer show on USA or TNT than it does an auction of automobiles. In the past I've attended auctions put on by RM and by Gooding, thought by most to be the high end leaders in the car auction world.

Those auctions tend toward the sedate, with British-tinged accents among the auctioneers, and applause more often polite than raucous. Not so Russo and Steele. The cars on the block spanned the gamut, from super tricked out early 70's heavily customized Mopars to the smattering of Ferraris, a key Cobra, early Cadillacs, racing Jaguars, Rolls Royces, and others - a plethora of possibilities to set any car lover's heart thumping on all cylinders, no matter what the taste or style of the potential purchaser.
A Kiss before Driving.
But it wasn't the variety of cars on offer that was so impressive - rather it was the show itself. The overhead lights were rigged in a perfect square, as above a boxing ring or World Wrestling match. There were bleachers on either side, full of spectators. The auctioneer spoke in the old-school, rapid fire patter of auctions reminiscent of old movies. Bid takers roamed the floor. When a bid was taken, the bid takers, hands raised in the air, with a whoop and call, answered in chant response fashioned by his compatriots. The crowd chimed in, engaged, and at times energized.

Russo & Steele

The cheerleader/ringleader/master of ceremonies Jim Russo, with full grey beard, grey suit, tie, and microphone interjected facts about the car, pushing - or trying to - the bidding along at what he deemed key moments, both riding and crafting the bidding wave at one and the same time - exalting a new number achieved with a fist raised heavenward and a gusto filled "Yes!" delivered into his microphone before going on to the next bid or the next car.

The theater of it all was captivating, and at times spellbinding. The only thing missing were the ring girls and the wafers.
And then Sunday. The big day. Close to $500 million dollars worth of cars have appeared, as if by magic, on the 18th hole of one of the most exclusive, expensive, storied golf courses in the world. And thousands of people have come to see them. There's the woman dressed as Mae West with the steam powered car, the fabulous blue dress and hat to match the 1915 blue Rolls Royce.

Lah de dah in blue, with Rolls accessory.
They were readying champagne - but they already knew it was bittersweet. They weren't in the running for a prize because their Rolls wasn't running. "we finished working on it at 7am this morning, but it didn't work. We had to be pushed on to the lawn by a kuboda tractor."

Lambourghini tractor, indeed.

He smiled and shrugged and turned to the champagne. And there were the astonishing rarities - the 1955 Lincoln, designed in Italy. Orange, sleek, and looking every bit the Jetsons concept car.

110 mph standing still - the 1955 Lincoln, from Italy

The owner told me the concept car was well-received by critics in Europe, but trashed back home in America. It was found half buried in a field on Long Island, evidently abandoned somehow by Henry Ford the 2nd. And the cousin car, an Alfa, with a glorious boat tail and a 100% clear plexi bubble top, looking like a comic book version of a Martian spaceship. More hats, more old gems - at a certain point, I'm satiated with automotive fabulousness and exotica. I wander back through the throngs and make my way to my car. After marveling at all these cars for days I was psyched to get into my car, and head for the long and super twisty back road I had never driven. The blacktop beckoned.