Saji-Ya (St. Paul, MN)


My last dine-in meal before the pandemic closures first hit Minnesota in March 2020 was eaten at the sushi bar at Sakura in St. Paul. That meal surprised me by being completely decent—my history with sushi in the Twin Cities, you see, has been less than inspiring (see my accounts of meals at places like Kado no Mise, Sushi Fix and Origami which have all been or are local critical darlings). It wasn’t the case that I found the sushi at Sakura to be of a very high quality but that it was all fine! Fine is good. At the time a number of people told me I needed to also get to Saji-Ya. And then the plague intervened. A year and a half later, I’ve finally made it there. We had a family dinner on their patio last Saturday and once again the experience was far better than I’d feared it would be. I know this sounds like damning with very faint praise but we enjoyed the meal on the whole. Continue reading

Ben Nevis 25, 1991 (Signatory)


Alright, after a week of peated Islay whiskies followed by a week of rums, let’s do a week of older whiskies; specifically a week of 25 yo and over whiskies. First up is a Ben Nevis distilled in 1991 and bottled in September 2016 by Signatory from a sherry butt. As regular readers of the blog know, I am a big fan of the idiosyncratic malts made by Ben Nevis. Always fruity, Ben Nevis usually gets even more so with age. The last Ben Nevis I reviewed was a 23 yo from a refill sherry butt and I loved it. I also really liked this 22 yo from 1997—also from a sherry butt—and this 21 yo from 1996 from a refill sherry butt. And for that matter I’ve previously reviewed three other sherry cask Signatory 1991 Ben Nevises—a 26 yo, a 24 yo and a 22 yo—and liked them all very much (though I do note that I liked the 26 yo the least). I guess what I’m saying is that sherry cask maturation rarely seems to get in the way of the pleasures of Ben Nevis’ distillate. Anyway, let’s see what this one is like. Continue reading

Settle Down (Madison, Wisconsin)


Alright, we’re almost at the end of the meal reports from our Madison trip in August. This was lunch on our second and last full day in the city. We’d spent the morning on a lake and once it got nice and hot—like really hot—we ventured forth in search of another restaurant with outdoor seating. Settle Down had been on the list—thanks to another recommendation in the comments from Todd who’d also recommended Ian’s Pizza—but after the non-appearance of the advertised outdoor seating at the Old Fashioned the previous evening we were taking nothing for granted, Thankfully, a phone call to Settle Down confirmed the existence of a lot of outdoor seating and on arrival we saw that it was indeed so. The entire street in front of the restaurant was closed to traffic and strewn with tables and chairs. We picked one and then another and then another before finally finding one that was completely out of the blazing sun. And then we ordered some food and got down to the eating of a pleasurable lunch. Herewith the details. Continue reading

Green Tomato and Habanero Chutney


As with my ongoing onslaught of eggplant recipes this chutney has its origin in a need to use up excess produce from my vegetable garden: in this case, green/unripe tomatoes that fell off the vines while I was picking ripe ones and many, many peppers, hot and sweet. The first version was made entirely by the seat of my pants, with nothing measured. I filled three jars, kept one for us and gave the other two away. That would have been the end of it except that the recipients raved about it and two of them in particular have been persecuting me endlessly for the last couple of weeks to replicate it and post the recipe. Well, I have some good news and I have some bad news. You want the bad news first? Well, I wasn’t able to replicate it exactly. The good news? This is pretty close anyway and very good in its own right. Will it get Ben and Lisa off my back? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, they and our friends Aaron and Kip are the only ones other than us who ever tasted the original so that shouldn’t matter very much to the rest of you. Continue reading

Foursquare Redoubtable (Rum)


To close out Rum Week here is another Foursquare (see here for the previous). I have to admit I am not really on top of Foursquare’s special releases. I know that in addition to the vintage releases they put out some others with names that probably make the marketing braintrust at Dalmore gnash their teeth in envy. This one here is one of those non-vintage releases from 2020. It’s made from a blend of pot still and column still distilled rum. All of it is 14 years old, apparently, but some was aged entirely in ex-madeira casks and some in ex-bourbon casks. Was it half and half? I’m not sure. Anyway, this might be my first wine-bothered rum. I hope I enjoy it more than I do most wine-bothered whiskies.

Foursquare Redoubtable (61%; ex-bourbon and madeira casks; from a bottle split)

Nose: Rich with a mix of rummy and winey notes. As it sits the wine seems to trump the rum and there’s more leather and spicy wood. Begins to soften as it sits and there’s toffee and caramel and the whole gets sweeter. Rummier with water; the caramel darkens a bit, the toffee expands and there’s a bit of maple syrup too. A bit more water and it gets a bit dusty but also develops some orange peel. Continue reading

Pasta Alla Bharta


Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the compendium volume that brings her first two cookbooks together, is one of the two most stained cookbooks in my collection (Mrs. K.M Mathew’s Flavours of the Spice Coast is the other). I have been cooking from it for almost 25 years and many of her recipes have become family staples over the years. But since it’s only been a few years since I began eating baingan/eggplant, I’d never really paid much attention to her eggplant recipes. This summer, however, the eggplants in my community garden plot went off like a bomb and in desperate search of more and more ways to cook them I finally came to Marcella’s recipe for Eggplant Sauce with Tomato and Red Chilli Pepper. I made it with spaghetti and it was dynamite. I made it again and it was dynamite again. Since it needed no amendment, leave alone improvement, I obviously immediately began to think of ways to tinker with it. This led in short order to this fusiony variation that we might possibly now like even more. Continue reading

Hampden Great House, Distillery Edition, 2020 (Rum)


At some point in the last few years Hampden, the great, idiosyncratic Jamaican rum distillery, got into the business of special annual releases. I believe this one, which came out in 2020, was the second. I’m not sure if one has yet been released in 2021. I believe this is a somewhat unusual Hampden in that it is a blend that contains mostly low-ester spirit. So less wild than usual? Let’s see.

Hampden Great House, Distillery Edition, 2020 (59%; from a bottle split)

Nose: Ah yes, this is a Hampden: assertive, leading with bright notes of over-ripe banana, pineapple and lemon; herbal notes bring up the rear. What’s missing here is the usual heap of garbage rotting in the sun; well, it’s not completely missing but it’s not very loud. As it sits it picks up some light caramel and some toffee and quite a bit of diesel. The caramel expands with time and the diesel retreats. Okay, let’s add water: richer now as the caramel and toffee expand and are joined by brown sugar and the bananas get baked into banana bread. More conventional rum notes now but it’s quite lovely. Continue reading

Mañana (St. Paul, MN)


As I’ve noted before, the Twin Cities metro has a much larger Hispanic population—and by extension, a much larger Hispanic food scene—than a lot of people outside Minnesota realize—and, for that matter, probably a much larger population than a lot of people inside Minnesota realize. Certainly, the Twin Cities food media only fitfully remembers that there are Mexican restaurants outside the few relatively recent high-end places that are part of the pr-driven ecosystem. And if the established Mexican places outside that ecosystem don’t get very much attention non-Mexican Hispanic places seem to get even less attention. Well, to be honest, I’ve not done such a great job myself either of seeking out and covering these places over the years (though to also be fair to myself I’m a one-man operation here). But I hope to be doing more of that in the next year or two, especially in the major Hispanic neighbourhoods of St. Paul. This week’s review comes from one of those neighbourhood, on 7th St., and from what is probably the standard bearer of Salvadoran food in the Twin Cities; Mañana. We ate a very good lunch indeed there this Sunday. Continue reading

Foursquare 12, 2005 (Rum)


It’s been a while since my last review of a rum; a year in fact (this Worthy Park). And it’s been even longer since my last review of a rum from Foursquare, the Barbados distillery. That was of the 11 yo release of the 2004 vintage, a bottle I liked a lot—enough in fact to buy several more of after that first encounter. Today I have for you a review of the release of the 2005 vintage. It’ll be the first of three rum reviews this week. Like the 2004 it was bottled at 59% abv and made without any addition of sugar or other additives. And it’s also a blend of pot still and column distilled rums and matured in ex-bourbon casks. It is, however, a year older. Will that make for a big difference in the profile? Let’s see.

Foursquare 12, 2005 (59%; from a bottle split)

Nose: Comes in sweet with caramel and molasses; just a hint of aniseed in the back. Some toffee too on the second sniff and the aniseed expands and picks up some herbal backing (sage). Gets sweeter as it sits (ripe plantain). Brighter with a few drops of water and there’s a bit of milk chocolate now along with an almost smoky note. Continue reading

Ian’s Pizza (Madison, Wisconsin)


And so now I am at the midpoint of my meal reports from our trip to Madison in early August and this is a report on our first non-Asian meal in the city (see my earlier reviews of Strings Ramen and Bandung). Ian’s Pizza—recommended by a commenter, Todd—was not originally on our itinerary but it was our fallback option when one of the places that had been recommended from multiple directions didn’t work out: The Old Fashioned. We’d planned to eat dinner there on this Monday evening but when we pulled up alongside we couldn’t see any sign of the outdoor seating that they were supposed to have. We called them from the car and were told they were not doing outdoor seating on account of the storm about to roll in. Now, while weather on our trip was not great, this evening actually was completely rain-free. The sky was blue, the sun was out. Indeed, after dinner we repaired to the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin for ice cream and sunset by the water. Far more likely is that they didn’t want to deal with staffing outdoor seating with enough people willing to eat indoors. So we ate dinner instead at Ian’s Pizza instead. And a very good dinner it was too. Continue reading

Unnamed Islay 28, 1992 (Signatory)


I started this week of reviews of Islay whiskies at Bowmore on Monday for a 17/18 yo bottled by the Whisky Exchange in 2013. Wednesday saw a stop at Caol Ila for a 13 yo bottled by the SMWS in 2019 or 2020. Here to close the week now is a 28 yo bottled by Signatory and released this year. Alas, I cannot tell you which distillery it is from as it’s not listed. Signatory released a few of these this year and on Whiskybase at least they’ve all received rave reviews. There seems to be disagreement about what distillery these are likely from—and, of course, they may not all be from the same distillery. They’re none of them single casks, by the way. Instead they’re all vattings of bourbon barrels. Refreshingly, the label notes this and also notes the number of the final vatting cask. If only more producers would do this instead of pretending that vatted casks are single casks. Anyway, this particular release—from vatting cask 6768—is said to be a Lagavulin. The sceptical response to this speculation is that everyone selling an unnamed Islay probably wants buyers to think it’s a Lagavulin. Well, whatever it is, let’s see what it’s like. Continue reading

Lamb Shanks Curry with Eggplant


All the recipes this month will feature eggplant. This is because this summer I have had a LOT of eggplant to cook up. I grew eggplant seriously for the first time this year—last year I planted a few seedlings a friend gave me more than a month after the season had started—and was surprised and then overwhelmed by how early and prolific most of the plants were. I planted eight different varietals and 15 plants total. The first to come in were a long black Japanese variety, the Pot Black (a small varietal perfect for stuffing) and a lot of lovely little Fairy Tales. In August the larger varietals (Galine and Nadia) began to go off. I started giving a lot of it away to friends but could still barely keep up. The solution? Figure out new things to put eggplant into. One of them was this curry made with lamb shanks from a small farm in southern Minnesota from which I get lamb shanks, oxtails and other things every few months (in fact, there’s a big delivery today). I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out but the results were really very good indeed. The lamb shanks are cooked long and low and the eggplant just melts into the gravy giving it depth of both texture and flavour. I recommend it highly, even if you’re not struggling to keep up with your garden bounty. Continue reading

Caol Ila 13, 2006 (SMWS 53.328)


I put SMWS 53.345, a Caol Ila 11, 2008 on the list for this month but now I’ve gone and opened and begun to review SMWS 53.328, a Caol Ila 13, 2006 instead. How will you ever forgive me?

Anyway, this is the second of this week’s Islay reviews (following Monday’s Bowmore). It’s from a refill bourbon hogshead which is usually a very good thing as far as Caol Ila is concerned. Let’s get right to it.

Caol Ila 13, 2006 (58.9%; SMWS 53.328; refill bourbon hogshead; from a bottle split)

Nose: Comes out with pretty strong phenolic notes mixed in with lemon and salt and a bit of mezcal—which is to say it noses younger than its 13 years. With a bit more time sweeter coastal notes emerge—shells, uni. With a lot more time and air the phenols back off a little and there’s more citrus—lime peel, citronella. A few drops of water push the phenols back further and bring out some cream and some unexpected spice notes—is that cardamom? Continue reading

Pandemic Takeout 68: Original Mediterranean Grill (New Brighton, MN)


Despite the name of the restaurant this is actually a review of a Pakistani restaurant.

At the end of my rankings of Indian restaurants in the Twin Cities metro, posted late last year, I’d said that in 2021 I would try to finally get up to the Pakistani restaurants in the North Metro I’d heard tell of. Original Mediterranean Grill is one of them. It is one of a few (several?) Pakistani restaurants in the area that trade on Mediterranean, which is to say Mediterranean Arab branding. This may be a kind of allegory for Pakistani food in most of the US: usually elided by the relentless focus on Indian food but not able yet to proclaim its own name as a marketable category. And so in the Twin Cities—at least—it can be found in a few restaurants whose main hustle is a cuisine the mainstream market can recognize: gyros, shawarma, hummus, falafel etc. Elsewhere on the menu are some Pakistani dishes for those who know to look for them. So it is at Original Mediterranean Grill in New Brighton. Continue reading

Bowmore, Bw1 (Speciality Drinks)


August ended with a peaty whisky (this Ledaig) and September began with another peaty whisky (this Laphroaig). Let’s stay on Islay this week and visit a few other distilleries, so to speak.

First up is this Bowmore from the Whisky Exchange’s Elements of Islay series. Indeed, it’s the very first Bowmore in that series. I’m not sure what number it’s up to now but I’ve previously reviewed the Bw5. As per Whiskybase, this was put together from refill sherry casks from 1994, but as neither piece of information is noted on either the bottle’s label or The Whisky Exchange’s original product listing it’s hard to verify them. I can tell you for sure that it was bottled in 2012, which is when I purchased a bottle for roughly $75 at the then quite brutal, pre-Brexit exchange rate. Since the Elements of Islay bottles are 500 ml that works out to about $112 for a 750 ml equivalent of likely 17-18 yo Bowmore from sherry casks. At the current exchange rate it would have been quite a bit lower. By comparison, the Bw8, said to be 16 years old, is currently available from the Whisky Exchange for £117 ex. vat for a 500 ml. That would be £175 for a 750 ml equivalent or roughly $242 at the current exchange rate. I’m no mathematician but it would appear the price has more than doubled in 9 years. This is why I no longer buy very much whisky. Anyway, let’s see what this is like. Continue reading

Bandung (Madison, Wisconsin)


Our first meal in Madison on our brief trip there in August was centered on ramen. Our next stop also deviated from the stereotypical Wisconsin food itinerary. As you might guess from the name of the restaurant in the title of this post, it featured Indonesian food. I should say here that our restaurant selections in Madison were driven entirely by two factors: 1) Were they in fact open (for lunch) or answering their phones? 2.) Did they have outdoor seating that they were actually using. A few of the restaurants recommended to us were not open for lunch; others had no outdoor seating. Bandung was open for lunch and had outdoor seating and so they were right in our sweet spot. But it’s not as though we weren’t interested in it for its own sake. As far as I know we don’t have an Indonesian restaurant in the Twin Cities metro and so we were very glad to give Bandung a go. Continue reading

Laphroaig 16


My last whisky review of August was of a Ledaig. Let’s get September off to a peaty start as well. We’ll stay with the Ls but move from the Isle of Mull to the Isle of Islay for my second review of an officially released Laphroaig in less than two months—and to think people say I review only esoteric whiskies…

Unlike July’s review of the 2009 release of the Triple Wood, this 16 yo is far more current. It was first released as a limited edition travel retail bottle as part of Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary but, as often happens these days, soon became part of Laphroaig’s regular stable. It’s made from whisky matured in ex-bourbon casks, I believe and bottled at 48%. As far as I can make out it goes for about $100 in most markets in the US—though I’ve seen references to a much higher price as well. $100 for a 16 yo at 48% is probably not too outrageous a price in this market (which is not to say it’s a reasonable price) but closer to the $140 I’ve seen mentioned here and there it becomes much harder to support no matter how good the whisky itself is. Speaking of which, let’s get to it. Continue reading

September’s Recipes: A Poll


Yesterday’s look ahead to the coming month on the blog presented the usual long list of whisky reviews and invitation to nominate those you’d particularly like to see reviewed. Here now is the poll to select the four recipes for September. There are six recipes on the poll and you can vote for up to four of them. The top four vote getters will show up on the remaining four Thursdays of the month. In the past—when I did a version of this poll on Twitter and also the last couple of times on the blog—I’ve used the ranking to sequence the posts. But this month I might juggle that depending on the selection. And oh, there’s a twist this month: all the recipes feature eggplant/brinjal. We have been drowning in eggplant from my plot in a local community garden and as a result I’ve been cooking it in all kinds of ways of late. Continue reading