An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

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the holiday isle tiki bar, islamorada: Classic                                                american bars

Few experiences are more emblematic of the Florida Keys than a visit to the famed Tiki Bar at Islamorada’s Postcard Inn Beach Resort (formerly known as Holiday Isle). Once you get south of Key Largo, it’s clear that you’ve entered a strange and beautiful territory, a place where individual freedom is prized above all---a place the late Norman Mailer might have referred to as the Wild West of the Southeast.

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                          tyranny of the tasting menu

Years ago, when inexperienced diners visited fancy restaurants for the first time, one of their biggest fears was what to order. How could they possibly navigate through a long and complex menu containing dishes described in a foreign language? For many people, the challenge of choosing something they might like was more daunting than how much to tip or which fork to use.

Today that situation has been resolved for customers in high-end restaurants through the miracle of the tasting menu. You pay a set price and receive a predetermined number of dishes in a fixed order. The only choice you need to make would be wine, but many restaurants also offer a “sommelier’s wine pairing” in which a glass of wine accompanies each course, for an additional fee.

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                          health benefits of red wine

Americans have known about the health benefits of red wine since November 17, 1991.

On that date, 60 Minutes aired a segment on something called The French Paradox. The term had been floating around for a few years prior to that, but Morely Safer’s report catapulted it into the consciousness of millions. The French Paradox referred to the fact that the French had a much lower incidence of coronary heart disease than we did, despite consuming a diet much higher in saturated fat. It was based on research done by a scientist at Bordeaux University. The report---or more accurately, Safer---suggested that red wine was a possible contributing factor in the so-called paradox. Since the theory emanated from Bordeaux, the grape variety responsible was identified as Merlot, which composed a large part of the blend on the Right Bank.

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                   in search of the manhattan cocktail

It’s that time of year: if you don’t drink a Manhattan cocktail now, you probably never will. Don’t think you need snow on the ground and a roaring fire. If you live in the tropics, as I do, simply crank the A/C down to 55 and enjoy yourself.

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                                La tartine wine bar, paris

La Tartine is my favorite Parisian wine bar. It’s located at the lower end of the rue de Rivoli in the first arrondisement, at number 24---the part of the street that used to be seedy and declassé. Today the building is one of the many gems of the Marais neighborhood, a section of town that has become chic (and expensive) beyond words. The exterior bears the simple legend Marchand de Vin (wine seller), and the small terrace houses a handful of tables and the inevitable chalk board inscribed with the specials of the day.

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                         laura catena, Princess of malbec

The Catena family of Argentina has frequently been compared to the Mondavis, but that analogy doesn’t give them enough credit. For more than a century they have been involved in the relentless pursuit of quality, and arguably have done more to secure their country’s place on the international wine stage than anyone else.

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activated charcoal cocktails: A dangerous trend

You could fairly divide American mixology into two camps. On one side you have the purists, concocting classic pre-Prohibition cocktails from three or four ingredients, and using top-shelf spirits with proven levels of consumer identification.

Then you have the mavericks, the edgy guys who embrace experimentation. They’ll create the signature drink with eight or ten obscure elements, the cocktail you could never describe to anyone else (much less understand on your own). These folks embrace the new, the cutting-edge, the trendy.

Those are the guys who are likely to feature a cocktail with activated charcoal this year, and they’ll probably use Stolen Rum as the primary spirit.

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                                      fake news and wine

Despite what some partisans want you to believe, fake news is not a new phenomenon. It’s as old as news itself. The only real change, as I pointed out recently (Food and the 24-Hour News Cycle), is the proliferation of news outlets. Between the Internet and cable news, there’s now an unprecedented tsunami of reporting, and there’s no more real news on any given day.

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the mai-kai, fort lauderdale: classic american bars

The massive and phantasmagoric Mai Kai pays homage to the Polynesian craze that swept America during the post-World War II era. It is the Taj Mahal of the tiki culture, an improbable place that somehow hangs together and exercises a timeless appeal. One of the current members of the management team referred to it as “an escape from everyday life,” which is similar to saying that a private jet or a stretch limousine is a transportation vehicle.

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       when tipping is included, who gets the tip?

Tipping still remains a mystery for many restaurant diners. Given that the current standard for good service is 20%, and that number can be computed by dividing the check by five, it’s difficult to see what all the confusion is about. It’s true that some customers are addled by alcohol, and others come from cultures where tipping is included in the check. If you ask the wait staff, however, they’ll tell you that those folks are simply cheap.

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                          the cult of jack daniels

If Tennessee’s George Dickel is the smallest producer of premium spirits in the country, Jack Daniel’s stands at the opposite extreme---it is the largest distillery in the U.S. and the best-selling whiskey in the world, with an annual output that exceeds 10 million cases. It is also an icon in the realm of American spirits, as well as a pilgrimage point for lovers of Tennessee whisky.

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                         gaja: the next generation

Angelo Gaja almost single-handedly brought Italian wine into the modern world. When he took over his family estate in Barbaresco in 1961, Italy wasn’t even on the fine wine radar screen. The wine universe was dominated by France, and particularly by Bordeaux. From the beginning, Gaja’s position was that there was a place for Italy not just at the bottom of the scale, but also at the top.

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                   myths of food and wine pairing

In the wine world, there are pieces of conventional wisdom about food and wine pairing that have been repeated and burnished until they have reached the status of Gospel.

Unfortunately, many of them aren’t true, but neither are they likely to be challenged anytime soon. Aspiring sommeliers do not readily contradict the people training them, nor do consumers generally feel confident enough to question “experts” in their fields. And so these chestnuts roll on, year after year and generation after generation, acquiring the importance of commandments engraved on stone tablets.

Here are some examples:

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     the bitter bar, boulder: Classic american bars

The Bitter Bar opened in 2009 under the improbable name of The Happy Noodle. At the time, it was an Asian noodle joint that also served craft cocktails; the assumption was that both trends were hot, so why not? The two motifs didn’t blend together as seamlessly as originally thought, and the cocktails eventually pushed the soba and somen out the back door.

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          my name is todd, and I'll be your server

When I first started working in the restaurant business, several hundred years ago, the world was a different place. There were no chain restaurants, gastropubs or fast-casual establishments. In each major city there were a handful of “good” restaurants, and these were primarily French or Continental. They tended to be grand palaces of fine dining with flocked wallpaper, elaborate chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters dish, where customers could watch going up in flames. Those customers were very different as well: they were affluent, well-traveled and belonged exclusively to one social class. Ordinary people went to diners, as there were no fast-food outlets back then.

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                        chinato: Party like it's 1555

If you travel in Italy’s Piemonte region and visit a traditional Barolo producer (assuming you can find one), you may be offered a Chinato. Production of Chinato dates to the late 19th century. It usually consists of an old Barolo that has been infused with the bark of a South American cinchona tree and then flavored with cinnamon, coriander, vanilla or mint, according to the secret recipe of the winery. The final product, slightly bitter and distinctly herbal, is usually consumed before or after dinner.

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                                 north by northwest

When we talk about North by Northwest, we're not referring to Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock and a tale of espionage and mistaken identity---rather, to a Washington State wine you can drink while watching the movie on DVD.

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                           the truth about sulfites

When I conduct consumer tastings and other wine events, which I do frequently, the most common question I get from the audience runs something like this: “I’m allergic to sulfites, and wine gives me headaches. Which wines should I buy, and which ones should I avoid?”

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      classic american bars: the sazerac, New orleans

Located off the lobby of the vintage Roosevelt Hotel on Bayonne Street, the Sazerac easily the best bar in New Orleans and one of the finest in the country. As soon as you walk in, you get the comforting feeling that you’ll be in good hands. The décor is as appealing as the cocktails. All  the wood paneling lining the walls came from a single African Walnut tree. Decorating those walls is a haunting series of murals painted by Paul Ninas in the 1930s for the WPA program, depicting waterfront scenes and local street life. The long bar contains several dozen stools, and there are comfortable groupings of leather sofas and armchairs in which groups can relax.

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         candycane bagels: the end of civilization?

You may not have heard about one of the latest and hottest food crazes, and you may be better off.

There’s a place in Brooklyn called The Bagel Store, where baker Scot Rossillo has been making rainbow bagels as a novelty item for 20 years. Business Insider recently produced a video about them, which went viral and was viewed 65 million times. As a result, demand became so intense that Rossillo had to close up shop for ten days to reorganize his operation.

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                           quick sip: furleigh estate

According to an urban legend, sparkling wine from the South of England is just as good as Champagne. Unfortunately, there's no way to prove it on this side of the pond. English wine isn't exported to the U.S. (or more accurately, it's not imported into the U.S. due to a general lack of interest). Yet there's no doubt that climate change is creating some strange vineyard bedfellows. Taittinger bought a chunk of land in Kent in 2015, and they're far from the only wine estate to invest in the region.

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                  food and the 24-hour news cycle

Increasingly, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish between The Onion and many websites devoted to the culinary arts. A recent visit to revealed articles on these earth-shattering topics:

Where can you find the best cookie in Los Angeles?

What is the most underrated pastry shop in Montreal?

If you could only have one doughnut in Portland, what would it be?

What’s the best lobster roll in Maine?

The last one does have some merit---the worst lobster roll in Maine, after all, is probably going to be the best one you’ve ever had. But doughnuts in Portland (Oregon, not Maine)? Do we need a new version of the Michelin Guide, As Told to Homer Simpson?

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shackleton's scotch: You don't have to freeze to                                     death to enjoy it

You may not have the resources to mount an expedition to Antarctica, but you can drink like the explorers who got there.

In 1907, Ernest Shackleton and his men set out for the South Pole on their ship, the Nimrod. They were forced to evacuate in 1909, about 100 miles from reaching the Pole. Even worse, they had to abandon a stash of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Whisky, leaving it under a floorboard in their expedition hut.

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                         the fremont diner, sonoma

Slowly but inexorably, Sonoma is turning into Napa. Upscale spa resorts are replacing rustic bed and breakfast inns, and the grizzled winemaker in overalls is morphing into the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Yearning for the old Sonoma? Pay a visit to The Fremont Diner.

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the curious incident of the well done steak
                                    in the night-time

We have a dear friend who prefers her beef well done. Going to a restaurant with this poor, lovely woman is a minor form of torture. Here’s how it usually goes: upon receiving the order for the well-done steak, the server will appear discomfited, as if he/she had been asked to ingest the business end of a porcupine. He/she usually explains that the kitchen prefers to serve the steak medium rare. After much explanation and negotiation and discussion, the server finally agrees to this woman's request.

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                            in memoriam: Parker beam

Parker Beam, one of the legendary figures in Bourbon country, passed away earlier this week after a long battle with ALS. He was 75.

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                             nAtional hot toddy day

Today, January 11,  is National Hot Toddy Day, which reminds us that hypochondria has its unsung benefits: There are people who pretend to be sick just to have an excuse to drink hot toddies. I suspect there are also individuals who visit ski resorts for the same reason, although this seems to be an expensive and unnecessary course; better to just take to your bed and feign a hacking cough. While there’s no evidence that Baron Munchhausen was a fan of the drink, these concoctions have been around for a very long time.

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            bonneau de martray: after the earthquake

The wine world was stunned last week by the announcement that Bonneau du Martray, an iconic Burgundy estate, was sold to an American by the name of Stanley Kroenke. While people in Burgundy are easily stunned by outside influences, or even by the presence of an outsider in their sphere of orbit, this sale seemed to represent a quintessential culture clash.

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classic american bars: williams and graham, denver

Williams and Graham is a modern American speakeasy located in the Lower Highlands neighborhood of Denver. There is a true speakeasy entrance, an anteroom posing as a bookstore. The friendly hostess verifies your reservation and checks your ID, and you enter a dimly lit space that is a beautiful recreation of a 1920s saloon. A long bar of reclaimed wood holds 15 stools, and five booths of tufted black leather line the other end of the room. Sconces mounted on the wood-paneled walls provide barely enough light to see the back of your hand.

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                   anatomy of a trip to the wine shop

Back in my collector days, we used to drink a lot of Chablis. The flavor profile appealed to my Old World palate: flinty, mineral-infused, with excellent acidity and true Chardonnay fruit. It also didn’t hurt that the category was a bargain when compared to the best New World Chardonnay, and certainly far cheaper than its famous neighbors further south in the Côte de Beaune.

I no longer collect wine because my lifestyle has changed. I still write about it, which involves tasting through an onslaught of samples that arrive on a regular basis. For a special occasion, though, I’m now in the same position as everyone else: I get in the car and head to the local wine shop in search of something suitable. We normally celebrate New Year’s Eve with caviar, a tradition that goes back at least 15 years. My wife doesn’t drink Champagne, so my thoughts naturally turned to Chablis.

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                  the ultimate chocolate chip cookie

Human beings share a number of fantasies: we’re convinced our dogs are smart, we know our children are well-behaved, and many of us believe we make the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. Having spent six months of my life baking chocolate chip cookies for resale, I harbor the last illusion.

However, the guy who really makes the best cookies on the planet is probably Francis Nelson Beebe of Gold Canyon, Arizona. Mr. Nelson, as he is known to his growing legion of fans, is a classically trained chef who now works in his own commercial bakery. He turns out 24 dozen cookies per day, four days each week, and sells them only online. They cost $5 apiece, and may be ordered in batches of six or 12---provided you log onto his site before they sell out for the day (

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         why wine, Hospitality and politics don't mix

Hospitality (noun): The friendly and generous entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers (Oxford Dictionaries)

During last year’s tumultuous political season, impassioned and sometimes hateful diatribes became standard. Those of us active on social media had to listen to them daily. This is a free society, fortunately, and everyone is entitled to their beliefs:  regardless of which side you’re on, you can state them frequently and vigorously.

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                           reflections on oyster stew

As with many American classics, the origins of oyster stew are obscure. Native Americans supposedly taught settlers how to make the dish, but dairy products were not part of their diet. Chesapeake Bay residents would probably scoff at New Englanders and call the concoction their own. When seeking out an authentic version, remember that geography is no guarantee of quality. My brother-in-law, who has lived in and around Boston his entire life, makes the worst oyster stew I’ve ever tasted. By contrast, many aficionados believe that the definitive rendering may be found at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan, where it's referred to as an oyster pan roast.

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McSorley's old ale house, NYC: classic american                                                 bars

McSorley’s in New York's Greenwich Village is the city’s oldest continuously operating saloon. It was founded in 1854 by John McSorley, an immigrant who fled Ireland’s potato famine, and functioned for many years as a workingman’s pub. Abe Lincoln, Woody Guthrie and John Lennon supposedly drank there. The Irish laborers are long gone from the neighborhood, but McSorley’s presumably still looks the way it did a century ago: sawdust on the floor, yellowed newspaper clippings on the walls, and cheerful personnel providing a refuge from the world.

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                      last-minute champagne shopping

Heading out today or tomorrow to buy a bottle of bubbly for your holiday celebrations? Dip into the archives for some recommendations:

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                    tiny bubbles: destroying the myth

A few days ago, just in time for New Year’s Eve, research scientists debunked one of the most endearing and enduring myths in the world of Champagne:

Tiny bubbles are not a sign of quality.

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                           justin winery: paso pioneer

When Justin Baldwin arrived in the countryside of Paso Robles in 1981 there were four wineries in the area. Paso itself had been a tourist destination of sorts for nearly a century, due to the perceived healing powers of its thermal springs. Still, Baldwin’s location on Chimney Rock Road could fairly be described as the middle of nowhere. Today there are more than 200 operating wineries in the vicinity, and the region has gained fame as the epicenter of Rhone-style production in California.

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classic American Bars: proof on Main, Louisville

Proof on Main is regarded as an essential stop on downtown Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. The bar is attached to the 21C Museum Hotel, opened in 2006 by philanthropists and art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Brown and Wilson wanted to help reverse the pattern of suburban sprawl by rejuvenating the city’s downtown area (and, presumably, to make money in the process). The overall feel of the place is similar to living in the MOMA; the hotel’s public spaces are filled with changing exhibits of the type of art many people used to make fun of, while some still do.

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vinotherapy: spa treatments meet culinary travel

We've known for a long time that wine has health benefits when consumed in moderation. But who knew that the external application of wine to the skin could be healthful as well?

Apparently, Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas realized this back in 1993. During the harvest at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, her family’s estate in Bordeaux, she was chatting with Joseph Vercauteren, a professor of pharmacy. “Do you know that you are throwing away treasures?” asked the professor, as seeds, stems, skins and other grape refuse was discarded by the ton. Vercauteren explained that the leftover grape products were high in antioxidants and helped promote exfoliation.

Two years later, the couple launched Caudalie, a line of skin treatments based on grape polyphenols.

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                     great wine for under $15?

It’s not a typo, oxymoron or stupid question. There’s a lot of very good wine at very low prices, but discovering it is a challenge---particularly when you’re strolling the wine aisle of your local supermarket or beverage superstore, staring at a tsunami of unfamiliar labels.

The answer is Mark Spivak’s Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest, available as an e-book for $7.99. The book profiles 43 producers and contains hundreds of wine reviews, and gives you a clear-cut view of the good and the bad. The criteria are simple: What does the wine taste like? What kind of food does it go with? Is it worth the money?

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