Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Stuff That Soared Above the Turkeys

2010. This was the year destined for greatness, wasn't it?

But then, to paraphrase the Passover Haggadah, why should this year be like any other year?

Because it had to be. It just, Had to. 2009 was just... well, it sucked.

And unfortunately, the better part of 2010 was Girl Loses Job, Girl Finds Job, Girl Loses Job, Girl Goes On Whisky Bender and Eats Like Someone With a Much Faster Metabolism. And a very promising romance went up and down more times than the Cyclone, and made seven months feel like they were in dog years.

But some truly amazing things (and yeah, that romance with a cute Mexican man 12 years my junior can be counted among them I guess) happened. As most of you know, I hate Top Ten Year End Lists (and somehow the upcoming Royal Wedding has made every one this year, even if it's a Top 10 worst outcomes of the Gulf oil spill). But screw it. I do have a countdown of sorts of the year's highlights, images and lessons learned. In no particular order:

1. Scotland. The trip came together like matched jigsaw pieces. My friend Dan would be there to host at just the right time of the year and air miles became available to me. It almost didn't happen due to a menstral volcano in Iceland wreaking havoc on European air travel, but on a rainy NY May day, I made it out. When I arrived, almost immediately, there was an unforeseeable tragedy in my host's girlfriend's family that could have spoiled everything, but in the end, we made it to almost all the locations we'd planned. Dan, to whom I am forever grateful, was an amazing guide and I truly fell in love with Edinburgh, the Highlands, and most of all the Isle of Skye. Of the four distilleries we stopped at, we had a dream visit to Auchentoshan on the outskirts of Glasgow. Master Distiller Jeremy Stephens, whom I'd met in NYC at an industry function and who Dan had met several times at the distillery, gave us the golden ticket tour, and then invited us to taste anything we wanted from vast containers of cask samples dating back to the sixties. Truly, one of the best moments of my career and an amazing trip I desperately needed. Plus, it didn't hurt that I happened to catch the country's most perfect week of warm, sunny weather for the year.

2. Working at the NY Philharmonic Archives. Though it was temporary and paid little, I got to hang out with a fantastic bunch of people three days a week and have access to an amazing collection of priceless correspondences, music scores and vintage programs. I learned so much there and it awakened my inner librarian again as well as getting me re-acquainted with classical music. I still crack up when I think of the name Thadius G. Crapster.

3. Drinking Nancy's Wines. Last April, we finally made that day trip out to CT to visit Max's step-grandmother in her crazy, Escheresque house with the big wine collection left by her late husband. We had free reign of the cellar and got to taste some incredible vintage Burgundies, Bordeaux and German wines while listening to stories, looking through some of her husband's old Playboys and generally cracking each other up. The house was almost entirely windows, which made a gorgeous country backdrop to all this. Sadly, Nancy passed away last month after a sudden stroke. But she went with dignity and living by her own rules. I'll never forget that incredible afternoon and her generosity.

4. The Manhattan Cocktail Classic Three Hour Tour. My boyfriend suddenly went all Telemundo telenovela (the first time. Why didn't I listen to you people?) and it looked like that trip to Scotland wasn't happening because of that volcano, plus I had a screaming hangover. But I dragged myself to the Pier and got on that boat. Good call. What followed was a crazy fun afternoon and evening with great friends, libations and picture perfect sunset scenery.

5. A visit from Ruth and Yasmin. Leave it to my Israeli cousins to show up in New York City in January during one of the season's most wicked cold snaps. But we bundled up against the elements and managed to have so much FUN! The highlight being when, after dinner in the hood at Watty and Meg, where Yasmin and Jason got into a Dainty Ladies Contest (first one to break form and belch loses. The neighboring tables loved us), everyone ended up back at my place. And in my bed. Yep, Ruth, Yasmin, Jason, myself and my cat Bruce all piled into bed and read Eloise aloud to Yasmin (Bruce only sight-reads). As my friend Rob said, "You can't plan that." One of the best nights ever.

6. My birthday. My friends knew I needed a great night out for the last birthday of my thirties and that's exactly what John, Stephanie, Jason, Rob, Malaika and Ricardo gave me. From rooftop drinks at the Rock Shop, to a delicioso dinner at Palo Santo to nightcaps at Jakewalk and, so help us, Boat. We had a blast. Plus Malaika gave me the Nelly Olson book and Alison Arngram became an e-pal for a few weeks (long story). Awesome.


7. Chicago!!! If you read my posts about this trip, then you know my bestist pal John and I painted the Windy City haute red last October while visiting Liza. From brunch at Hot Chocolate to dinners at the Bristol, the Publican and a fab Mexican joint in Pilsen, to cocktails at the Violet Hour, essential dive stop at Mike's Takeout and final nightcaps at Silver Cloud. Plus a long double-decker bus tour, a Steppenwolf play and good first trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, with some help from Liza's mom, Anastasia, we did it all in three days except pizza. Hey John? Next time? Pizza.

8. Dad's 75th birthday, August 13th. How do you fete a guy who treats any given Thursday like a major landmark birthday? I was in charge of the electronic invitations and unofficial head of the planning committee (the other two members were my parents). But unbeknownst to my dad, Jason and I also had designs on showing a roast in video form during the party. Putting that together was no easy task. I managed to lift some great pics from photo albums unawares and after a lot of emails and a long night in Jason's office clunkily editing on the Mac, it came together. The well-attended party on 30th St. was a smash despite a gray day. And ended like any great Schusterian gathering: the main crew listening to old records (some courtesy of Dennis), popping open some gems from the cellar, grazing on left overs from Marianne's catering and the telling of classic stories. Here is a link to the short video Jason and I put together, now on Youtube.

9. Hosting my first Thanksgiving dinner. The announcement came around Christmas time last year. For the first time in 39 years, my parents, who were offered the business trip of a lifetime to Spain and Germany, would be missing Thanksgiving at home and I was on my own. They let me have the use of their apartment to cook and host. It was a lot of coordinating, heavy lifting and gravy panic, but I managed. Well, I better than managed, with the help of Malvina, my sous-chef (who ran home for a working baster and made the gravy in the end). It was kind of great. A rich sense of accomplishment. Seven smiling faces. Yummy sounds. Completely worth the effort.

10. Right about nowish. OK, so yeah. Here I am back to square one. I've had a monthlong jump on a couple of major self-improvement strategies, unlike last year. I don't think New Year's resolutions work. Honestly, I think most gyms should just be open in January and be a bar for the rest of the year. So that's why I started early, while it's still this year. A realistic goal: not letting 2011 totally suck. Happy New Year everyone!!!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

NY Philharmonic Archives: a Tribute

Soooooooo. What has two thumbs and just got laid off for the third December in a row?

Sigh. They just simply ran out of work for us to do on the digitization project. It didn't pay much, but I really enjoyed the job, the people and even to an extent, the routine. Some of the work could be very dry, but there were great moments that couldn't come with any other job. I came across some quite entertaining letters between orchestra members, concert goers and staff, controversial ones and some that were compelling simply as a historical testimony. Like the pre-World War II letter from an orchestra board member who had been in Germany in 1933, praising Adolph Hitler for "restoring hope" to that country. The countless letters of either praise or consternation against conductors for playing modern music. Even the complaints written because of the new air conditioning system in Avery Fisher Hall, and the poor old biddies who caught cold because of it. It was always a thrill holding actual music scores with Leonard Bernstein's own handwritten notes, or in some cases, poems or lewd illustrations. For weeks on end, myself and my much younger colleagues would burst into giggles when we found documents written by or for the 1960s Promenade catering coordinator, who rejoiced in the name Thadius G. Crapster. Sometimes he was just Thad. Or T.G. But we always knew. Sudden laugher? We'd glance at each other knowingly. "Crapster."

And so, a roundup of some favorite images.

Part of our job was to remove staples and old paper clips from documents as we put them in chronological order in folders to be shot for digitization. We started throwing these into an old vase and collecting them, and it became like a giant, robotic hairball by autumn. By now, the vase is nearly three quarters full! I hope someone thinks to weigh it.

Here's Grayson holding it up in its glory.

Grammys make the perfect paper stop.

I loved coming across vintage ads in orchestra programs.

Ah, the 60s. Smoking is good for you! Yikes.

I thought that was what David Bartons were for?

Drink this and you'll get laid and trip out! Creepy.

 How to visitors guide to communism. Given to orchestra members before a Soviet tour.

I'm sure the routine was positively electric!

Wow, what a time for Broadway! 

And, finally, a photo of a long lost family member. Who knew there was a cousin Earl?

Many thanks to Barbara for being a way cool person of wit and wisdom to work for. And Mitch for his boundless enthusiasm for the slightest technical achievement, patience, and being a really fun person to take to Chilean wine tastings.

I will surely miss it, but the show will go on as it does. Every year.

Seriously? December? Again?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

WhiskyFest No. 4: Lessons Were Learned

That time of year again? Why yes, as the leaves turned, the wind grew crisper and our daylight savings ran out, we knew this had to be coming. For just as every year the fourth Thursday in November is Thanksgiving, the annual event known as WhiskyFest falls on the second Tuesday of the month. And here we were. Again.

The fact that I am able to write this with a clear head the morning after just proves lessons have been learned.

Lesson 1: Hydrate. Yesterday I drank enough water to drown a small village.

Lesson 2: Eat. Prefest anchor steak lunch at Les Halles with Stephanie, Rob and his Idle Hands partner Mark. (Lesson 2 1/2: that iPhone Catpaint app just keeps on giving).

Lesson 3: A VIP ticket is totally worth it!

So glad I threw down. After dealing with the still-clunky registration process and getting my wristband and swag bag (if you can call a free issue of a magazine I already have a subscription to and a mini bottle of crappy blended Scotch "swag") I had a whole hour to taste things the rest of the crowd wouldn't, plus more space in which to do it. Within that hour, I had great face time with my pal Kenny Ng at Michters, who gave me some lovely, smooth and rich Michters 25 Year Bourbon to try. A quick hello to Parker Beam and the delicious Parker's Heritage wheated 10 Year old Bourbon (close contender for dram of the night), which I had originally tasted at the Char No. 4 Heaven Hill dinner back in September. A warm greeting from Dave Harper of Buffalo Trace and the new Weller Antique, which was perfectly nutty and rich with just a little heat. The Glenmorangie Finealta, Glenrothes Vintage 1975 and Vintage 1979 (the warmer and more flavorful of the two), the delightful High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 Yr old and their fab Bourye (bourbon + rye) hybrid. There was just ten minutes left before the big crowds would charge through those doors and I knew I had to make this count. So Rob and I elbowed our way in to taste Johnnie Walker Blue, which, believe it or not, was my first time. Stephanie had been saying how ironic it is that all these manly men prize that dram, being that it's so soft, floral and feminine in character. And she's right. But I get it. There are no hard edges. All flavor notes are distinguished and it's very easy to drink. I'll gladly let someone buy a $40 dram for me any day.

 Lesson 3: No matter how rare that cup of liquid gold, don't drink the whole thing if you plan to taste more things.

This is a painful lesson, but one that three past years of training has taught me well. Yes, each and every one of those whiskies I just mentioned only lasted one or two sips, (OK, the Johnnie Blue I had like 5 sips of). If I don't want my palate totally shot and plan to stay standing for nearly four hours, one has to do this in moderation.

Lesson 4: Even though you love it, forgo the old favorites. It's the only way to try new things. And this year, I mostly stuck with American independent craft distillers once the regular tastings commenced. I was most impressed with Roughstock Montana Whiskey, which had a nice banana bread appeal that reminded me of a much younger version of the now extinct Woodford Reserve Sweet Mash (aliva shalom) as well as Chicago's own Lion's Pride, which offer a white rye (less rough than most new white dogs on the market) and two expressions of oat whisky, which are toasty and comforting. I was impressed that most people with white spirits stayed away from using the term "moonshine" which, I'll say again, is just wrong. Unless you are selling your product illegally, under cover of night and have gangsters chasing after you and at least one roll over, a mean dog, a crying baby and a bum leg, it ain't moonshine, it's just un-aged spirit. Jenni and Marko at Charbay also had some fun offerings, like Double and Twisted IPA, French Oak Barrel IPA, barrel samples of vanilla rum and the new hop whisky, though sadly, no brandy as promised.

But this rule meant I didn't drink any Pappy Van Winkle this time, or Jefferson's or any of the other big boy Scotches like Compass Box, Springbank, Glenfiddich, Auchentoshan, Ardbeg or Laphroaig, though I couldn't resist saying hi to Martin at the Macallan table and taking a sip of cask strength. 

Lesson 5: Sit down, take a load off, attend a seminar!

Stephanie had the brilliant idea of attending the Yamazaki seminar halfway through the night and so glad I did. It was a good chance to regroup, have some water (see Lesson 1) and let things settle a bit, plus learn something new. I enjoyed the presentation (Lesson 5 1/2: According to the Japanese, Spaniards apparently will cheat you on sherry casks unless you pay close attention to your product) and it was interesting to taste through the expressions and get to spit without vying for the bucket. But I'm gonna say it, after a second taste (the first during VIP hour), not a fan of the prized Hibiki 1984. The cinnamon notes totally overpower the spirit.

Back down for another forty-five minutes. We decide to head to the Bruichladdich table to see what our pal from Friday night, distiller Jim McEwan was up to. He immediately reached out and pulled us behind the table as we tasted a 42 Yr Lonach.

Now with only a few minutes to go before the heavily enforced last call at 9:15, I go back to Buffalo Trace to taste the Sazerac 18 (a little hot, but settles well with a little water) and the Thomas Handy.

Lesson 6: End on a good note. If you're gonna have a last dram, have a last DRAM.

This year I wanted something slightly sweet and easy, so after making a few quick circles, went for the Dalmore King Alexander III. Perfect choice.

Lesson 7: Just go home.

As tempting as it was, I didn't attend the after party at Ward III that my roving gang and many of our favorite presenters were attending. I did get a fun subway ride on the C train with Steph, Rob, Elana and Abigail. But I had to bid the adieu as they exited at Chambers street into the beyond. I'd had enough. Already.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Schustertastic Vintage Wine Dinner

My dad isn't merely a wine collector. He's a wine HOARDER. He buys wine. He stores it. And instead of drinking it in its prime, or even opening the very bottle he bought for the weekend or for casual company, it sits in a cabinet in the cellar, languishing. On some shelves, there are dusty bottles of 70s vintage Bordeaux next to forgotten roses from two summers ago, now only good for vinaigrette.

My parents have moved four times in my lifetime. The last big move was from a house in Wilton, Connecticut to a duplex in New York City. Some of these wines have moved a couple of times before I was born. They have carefully packed and re-stored each bottle each time (and also bug repellent, sunscreen, frozen tupperwear containers of fish stock and I suspect, cheese). Waiting. Waiting. There will be the special occasion to drink them at some point.

Since I embarked on my boundless wine education journey a few year's back, I've learned more about many of the wines in the cellar. And one main thing, these need to be enjoyed before they've lost their mojo! So in past years, instead of waiting for that special occasion (of which indeed there have been a few) we also have to create them.

My friend Stephanie, who became a good friend back in my Astor days, has my back, After spending a few holidays and special events with my family, and drooling with me over many of my father's 1980s vintage Bordeaux, Burgundy, German, Italian and Californian in the big temperature controlled cabinet, she has also voiced concerns for their flavor welfare and proposed we start having some wine dinners. This needs to start happening now.

And so, this past Saturday, we made it happen.

I was allowed up to four additional guests, and so these were John (now an honorary Schuster, especially since he still uses a VCR), and other Astor pals Ali and Beth (sadly there was another no-show when others would have gladly taken his place).

We started with a magnum of 1993 Pol Roger champagne. Dad just "found" a case of this in a crate in the cellar when digging for something else. We drank this with assorted cheeses and spreads as guests arrived.

My mom made an astoundingly wonderful butternut squash soup, which my dad had the brilliant idea of garnishing with cut up shrimp with shallots and crispy sage.

We ate this with a pair of Zind Humbrecht wines, my dad's favorite producer in Alsace. A 1983  Gewurtztraminer and a 1986 "Brand" Riesling. The Gewurtz had mellowed enough that the aromatics were present, but well in check (instead of tasting like the inside of my Grandma Nina's purse as they tend to do) with good acidity and classic stone fruit flavors. But the Riesling. Whoa. It just kept getting better. Already a golden raisin color in the glass, it also held its acidity and fruit, not too much residual sugar (this is a dry version) but with a firm hazelnuttiness I've never before tasted from this varietal. Stephanie and Beth held on to theirs throughout the dinner and let us sip as the evening progressed. It continued to evolve and please. Both matched the soup well, especially the magical Riesling.

I helped Dad select the reds. Decisions, decisions. We got a bit distracted by some older Californian finds, but I reigned us in. The whole point of this was to drink the old world wines we knew were starting to lose edge. Focus! We settled on a 1978 Haut Brion (a gift from family friends), 1983 Palmer and a 1982 Sociando Mallet before deciding to try them against one older Californian, a 1981 Conn Creek Zinfandel. Mom made yabba dabba doo-sized short ribs, horseradish mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts to accompany our riches.

The Haut Brion was insane! I half expected it to be corked when I first opened the bottle of decanting. But after a couple of hours, the temperature had settled and the flavors began to shine. Yes there was characteristic dark cherry and earth, a little leather, but what is that finish? REALLY spicy. Peppery. Ancho chili! Crazy. We all loved it.

The Palmer (not shown) and Sociando Mallet were also beginning to evolve with some air. Both showed some decent dark fruits and mossy earth, and also matched the food. The Sociando had some mushroomy umami notes and the Palmer went more in the other direction with warm spice. I do feel each was a tad over the hill and slightly muted. Wish we had opened them a few years ago as they would have been spectacular. But that's kind of like comparing Sophia Loren in the 1950s versus the late 1960s.

I'm finding the more I have the opportunity to taste vintage Californian wines of certain local varietals, the more impressed I become. People don't tend to think of these wines as having age potential the way the other Bordeaux grapes do from either old or new world growths. But in my opinion, these are standing the test of time like their more famous cousins, maybe even more so. This zin was gorgeously smooth, fruity, spicy and silky. Probably the easiest on the palate, and surprisingly not heavy and alcoholic the way Zins have been more recently produced.

Here it is in the decanter. Ain't it purdy?

The gals and I had the fun task of choosing wine to go with our dessert (as if we needed either it or more food). After deciding Port would be too heavy despite the great choices from Osborne in the cabinet, we settled on a 1983 Prum Auslese. Beth made a delectable chocolate cheesecake and John brought Black Hound chocolate covered strawberries.

The wine was still beautifully balanced with just the right amount of residual sugar and acidity. Not a great match for the food, but hey, not too shabby to hang out and drink.

But we also stumbled upon some other "treasures" in the cabinet, which we opened mostly for a laugh. And maybe with some hope.

Can you read the label? Get this, a 1961 (!) Portuguese wine, an Astor Home selection! That's right, a private label cheapie my parents must have bought from the old Astor incarnation back in the 1960s and totally forgotten about, probably for something shinier, or maybe they went out instead and never got around to drinking it. Poor thing. Stored in some sort of "wine purgatory" the cabinet with all the big boys. I hope they weren't too mean to it. We also found a white Buzet (huh?) from 1986. Neither was any good. I've had older Portuguese wines that held up beautifully, but this just sank immediately when exposed to air. The fruit quickly slipped away and all that was left was savory weirdness and spice, like beef bouillon gone wrong. The Buzet was grassy and skunky. The kindest thing I can say about it is it tasted like a Heinecken can someone pissed in at a frat party when the line for the bathroom was too long.

Finally, it was time to clean up. Stephanie graciously washed all the glasses. Oy.

Many, many thanks to my parents for their generosity, fabulous cooking and last but not least, good humor. What a fantastic night!

Thursday, October 28, 2010


A few years ago, a group of friends gathered on a Monday night at a wonderful Portuguese establishment known as Alfama for what became a historic dinner. On that night, John introduced me to Shawn, Max and Beth and their assorted friends for the first time.  We had the best group chemistry since organisms hatched on Keith Richard's coffee table. We made a pact do gather for what would henceforth be known as the Alfama Rectangular Table every couple of months on a Monday. And with a revolving group of special guests, we made it happen.

Sadly, in 2009, Alfama was forced to close and we thought we had nowhere to go. For months, we languished. Then after a few friendly and delicious dinners at Kafana, New York City's first Serbian restaurant, opened by architect and beloved former Mona's bartender, Vladimir "Vladdy" Ocokoljic, John and I realized we'd found a new home.

This past Monday was our fall gathering. In attendance were the usual suspects mentioned above, along with Max's lovely girlfriend, Maya, as well as Steve and his wife Kristine, who I got to hang out with for the first time. As usual, the wine (this time a juicy, light, red Montenegro, Plantaze Pro Corde 2007) flowed with the laughter. And it was hard not to gorge ourselves silly.

I had forgotten my good camera at home, and so you'll have to put up with the slightly blurry images from my iPhone here. As Shawn sang while I snapped, to the tune of the Smith's "Boy With the Thorn In His Side," I was the Girl With the Phone and the Blog:

The water is served in these great milk jars that say, "Milk is your best food buy."
The vino.

The food came to the table in abundance family style. First out, the cheese and spinach pies along with the smoked meat, pickles and cheeses.

Then my personal favorite, warm, fresh baked pita style bread with soft cheese melted inside.

Little fried spelts. Spicy aoli on the side (not pictured).

We were then served bright purple cabbage slaw with tangy vinegar sauce and tomato and cucumber salad with feta cheese. 

Then the meat platters! Roasted pork loin, chicken skewers, chorizoesque sausage, link sausage, bacon-wrapped chicken livers and dates. My heart "thanked" me repeatedly, building speed.

This is served with perfect, crisp fries and smoky-sweet baked beans. I love that they use large butter beans for this.

Sadly, the limitations of my phone camera did not allow the photos of the group to come out. But just know we were smiling. 

And... scene.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cross Blogging

A little shameless self-promotion here. My first review on Brooklyn Foodie went up today! Click beginning of last line for the link.

bklyn foodie

 A review of Sam's around the corner. Abondanza!