Some cocktails are classics and have stood the test of time. The negroni, for example, was first mixed in 1919 and is the number 2 cocktail in global popularity. The whisky sour (# 4 on the list) supposedly goes back to the 1870s. Others have gained popularity over the last few decades but show no sign of fizzing out like many fads have. Take the paper plane for example. This official IBA cocktail, made with equal parts of bourbon, aperol, amaro nonino and lemon was not introduced to the masses until 2007.
The great thing about cocktails is a simple change or two results in a completely different experience. For example, by simply adding chocolate bitters to a boulevardier, you turn it into the Left Hand. Taking such creative liberties allows you to do things like…well…name cocktails after Tragically Hip songs. I thought the Paper Plane would be an ideal candidate for substitution because there are a lot of variations of amaro available. Nonino is a bit of a gateway amaro which seems fitting for something called a Paper Plane. I figured if I were to elevate it to a Silver Jet, a more potent amaro was necessary and that Fernet-Branca fit the bill. This spirit has a strong menthol character which I thought would still blend nicely with the remaining ingredients ( bourbon and aperol hold their own although after the fact I thought campari would work as well)…although some may argue it might taste a bit like jet fuel (full disclosure…this is coming from a guy who likes the taste of cough syrup).
0.75 oz bourbon
0.75 oz aperol
0.75 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz Fernet-Branca
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice. Shake for 10-15 seconds and strain into a coupe glass.
With so many amaro options available (eg. Montenegro, Averno and Cynar) simple substitutions will often work for many popular cocktails without a lot of thought required. Every combination may not be perfect but it allows one to get better acquainted with various flavour profiles in an effort to find that ideal combination you can boast about. Who knows…you might end up becoming the Brian Flanagan of Canada and subsequently recognized as a Canadian hero all the way from Clayquot Sound to Cape Speer.
Silver jet way overhead Silver jet evergladed grey sheers Silver jet so far off already Silver jet Clayquot Sound to Cape Spear
One of the many debaucheries of 2020 included the presidential election. The first debate could be equated to a playground spat. I haven’t seen two seniors engage in such nonsense since the infamous spat between CFL legends Joe Kapp and Angelo Mosca in 2011. If you recall, that epic fight featured flowers and cane swinging and a sombre reminder us that Canadians are in fact not as polite and we’d like to think.
As a result, I would be remiss if I didn’t celebrate election night with a couple of hip cocktails which reflected my thoughts on the battle to be the leader of the free world (sic). My thoughts went to trying to capture the essence of the many factors that made this such a shit show. I figure I’d use a couple of swing states as my basis.
Let’s start with Ohio. Although I’m writing this after the fact, the Joe King in me suspected that Ohio would go red and I thought that Chagrin Falls would be an ideal hip song to capture the feelings that many have about the Trump administration. Chagrin Falls is a suburb of Cleveland which is where Donald Trump captured the Republican nomination in 2016. I also thought about their volatile NFL team and wanted a drink which reflected the brown and orange. As a result, my mind naturally went to ‘merican whisky for the brown (not to mention that a good bourbon brings up memoires of Mabel’s…Michael Symon’s Cleveland BBQ and bourbon bar) which I mixed with orange flavoured triple sec (which also paid homage to Trump’s Hallowe’en hue) and finished with DSB bitters to reflect the feelings of many over the past 4 years.
1.5-2 oz of bourbon (I used the aptly named Larceny)
0.75-1 oz triple sec
0.5 oz simple syrup
A few dashes of orange of cherry bitters (I used Dillon’s DSB).
Stir all ingredients together and serve with ice and/or orange and cherry bitters. Serve in a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with orange and/or cherry.
Chagrin falls (in Chagrin Falls, Ohio) Chagrin Falls (where the unknown don’t even go) Chagrin falls (in Chagrin Falls, Ohio) So falls Chagrin Falls (where the unknown don’t even go) So falls Chagrin Falls So falls Chagrin Falls
Chagrin Falls- Phantom Power, The Tragically Hip
As for my democratic nominee, I headed a bit east to eventually blue Pennsylvania which was fitting given it’s Biden’s birth state and more specifically his hometown of Scranton. Naturally, that brought me to what the city is best known for (other than the Houdini museum of course)….The Office. Among many of Michael Scott’s antics was the Moroccan Chirstmas party and specifically his drink…the one of everything which he described as “equal parts scotch, absinthe, rum, gin, vermouth, triple sec, and two packs of Splenda“. I did my best to make it a little less fictional to avoid inducing my gag reflex. Since it sounded somewhat like a Long Island Iced tea so I went that route (not to mention the irony that Trump was born in NYC and doesn’t drink). In keeping with the Hip theme, I called this “Fully Completely” given the fact it contains a whole shelf on any bar rail. So, I mixed whisky, vermouth, absinthe, rum, gin and triple sec and topped with coke and added the signature two packages of Splenda. I’ll be honest..it was awful mainly because the absinthe (which you normally use in small quantities like a rinse) took over everything. It was like drinking a coke through a piece of black licorice and the addition of the Splenda added a “diet” flavour that made it worse. Nonetheless, it nicely reflected the mess that was and would continue to be the 2020 US election.
0.5 ounces of each whisky, vermouth, absinthe, rum, gin and triple sec.
2 packages of Splenda
Mix the spirits together in a highball glass and top with a generous amount of coke. Sprinkle with 2 package of Splenda. Try to enjoy.
Exonerate me Then forget about me Wait and you’ll see Just wait and you’ll see
Fully Completely- Fully Completely, The Tragically Hip
Despite early jitters, my clairvoyant cocktails came through..Ohio went red and Pennsylvania eventually went blue. I was also reminded in drink form of how asinine Michael Scott and his antics on “The Office” were. Regardless, a six booze drink was a nice way to take the edge of an otherwise stress filled evening. If and when I travel to the US again, I think I’ll try and invent a Joe King narrated GPS that only directs me through blue counties..it may add a few hours to the trip but it least it means there’s a lesser chance I will have to sip coffee with somebody who’s still sporting a MAGA hat they picked up in a big box discount bin.
When the summer was coming to a close, I decided to mettle with cocktails which used beer as mix. With the re-emergence of countless numbers of craft beer, the possibilities are endless. One of my favorite Ontario microbreweries is Refined Fool in Sarnia, so it was a no-brainer to try and construct a beer based refreshment using their Canatara!, a Berliner Weisse named after one of Lambton county’s more well known beaches. With low bitterness and hints of passionfruit, I thought it would be perfect to finish off a beer cocktail.
The song “in Sarnia” was featured on the Hip’s last album…Man Machine Poem. It’s a bit of a haunting tune, especially when you watch Gord bellow out the lyrics during the farewell tour. Rumour has it the song was initially called “Insomnia” and the name was changed much to the delight of inhabitants of the Imperial City.
I tried a few versions of this cocktail using gin and bourbon and surprisingly felt that it worked best with the latter. I used a bit of peach nectar to complement the passion fruit and balanced it with some fresh lemon juice. Unlike most drinks where the mix is meant to compliment the booze, I would say in this case the booze is there to compliment the beer. Don’t get me wrong…a Canatara! on its own is just fine but I think beer-infused cocktails are an underappreciated art…much like Man Machine Poem album itself.
1 oz of bourbon
0.5 oz peach nectar
0.5 oz lemon juice
Combine ingredients in a glass with ice and mix. Transfer to a highball glass without the ice and top with chilled Refined Fool’s Canatara! beer. Serve with a lemon slice.
You’re in my heart And in my pocket and in my eye In my blood Sarnia You’re on my mind
I’m going to take take advantage of any rock music reference I can make when I’m anywhere in the vicinity of Cleveland. Rest assured, the reference will likely not include the likes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, is worth discussing. With a father and uncles who grew up in this era, I was constantly exposed to second hand Floyd mixed among some of the other compounds circulating the air at the time. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the impact this band (and their individuals) have had on musical progression, politics and my ear drums. Inducted into the hall in 1996, their rather subdued and almost somber performance of “Wish you Were Here” with Billy Corgan made you wish Rogers Waters was there (he refused due to long standing tension between band members).
Waters’ tumultuous personality continues to shine (on you crazy diamond). Since the advent of the Trump administration, he has targeted the POTUS more cynically than Alec Baldwin on SNL. I mean you have to respect a guy who can piss off Trump so supporters so bad that they storm out of the venue after paying a few hundred dollars for a ticket. Just watch the near 11 minute updated video for Pigs (Three Different Ones) to see what I mean.
Day two entailed a lot of walking through the wide streets of downtown Cleveland. Once a victim of a slowing of American industrialism and one of the primary members of the Amercian “Rustbelt”, Cleveland’s recent reinvigoration was due in part to a major investment in the city’s downtown prior to the 2016 Republican National Convention in which Donnie J was elected king of the castle. In addition, there are other city landmarks of note including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Progressive Field (which had just hosted the 2019 MLB all-star game), a waterfront on the south side of Lake Erie which was home to the tall ship festival and downtown’s Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument designed by Levi Scofield (spoiler alert….Mr. Scofield will come up again in the next post). There were also a number of musical venues such at House of Blues ( with Carly Rae Jepsen playing that night) and Sunday Reggae at the Music Box.
Another popular spot in Cleveland is East 4th street in the heart of downtown. Called a shopping and dining experience, this pedestrian way houses the likes of the aforementioned House of Blues as well as celebrity chef and Cleveland native Michael Symon’s flagship restaurant Lola and her sister Mabel’s. I opted for the latter for two reasons; a more casual experience and a huge bourbon list. Living in Ontario, the LCBO tends to strangle imports such as fine American Whiskeys and Mabel’s offers a wide array ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars including private barrel selections. I went for a $16 New Riff 4 year old CBC (Cleveland Bourbon Club) #26 a which was a little smoky a little sweet and a little smooth.
Mabel’s is called Cleveland barbeque, meshing American smoking with Eastern European influences including kielbasa, sauerkraut and spaetzle. At the time of my visit, the website boasted a Sunday happy hour but this has recently changed to Monday-Friday and wasn’t updated so I was stuck ordering wings and cracklings (puffy pig skin) at full price. I threw a half pound of smoke turkey and some baked beans into the mix which arrived on a metal tray along with pickles, rye bread and chip dip. I felt the four choices were like the cardinal directions on Mabel’s map representing a bit of everything BBQ. In particular, the turkey was a far cry from the normally dry holiday mess and was full of subtle smoky flavour. Personally. the chip dip was unnecessary and the bread was a slightly dry and unneeded touch that weren’t as appreciated as the rest of the condiments. The banana pudding for dessert was spot on but I’m also highly biased based on my unnatural love for nilla wafers. Looking back, Nilla would have been a cool name for my daughter but I would never her tell her she was named after a cookie or that her name was short for vanilla although it may be a compliment given the fact the vanilla bean seems to be the frankincense or myrrh of this millennium.
Now that I think about, Cleveland has become a Mecca for both governmental and musical politics. It did host the nomination of the most controversial president in US history and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has no shortage of politics itself whether it’s the inductees (ie. Bon Jovi), the no shows (Sex Pistols, Thom Yorke) or the numerous failed attempts at reunions between jaded ex-band members (ie. Dire Straits/CCR etc). That said, Pink Floyd’s famous lyrics ” if you don’t eat yer meat you can’t have any pudding” continue to resonate a life time changing from a literal meaning as a child to a figurative one as a adult. Perhaps Trump just sees it as another brick in the wall.
My alarm went off the Sunday morning after we sprung the clocks forward the night before. It was 630 am and I was just outside Detroit with the ultimate destination of making a 515pm reservation at Husk in Nashville with a lunch stop in-between. Keep in mind I had my two teenage daughters with me and it was part of a nearly week long tour of Tennessee and Kentucky but it seemed an exciting task to try and make a reservation 8 hours away in time. According to the reviews, Husk may be worth the drive considering it was voted the number 6 best new restaurant in the USA by GQ magazine. I was a bit torn since I have longed pledged my allegiance to Anthony Bourdain and felt a slight sense of betrayal since I’m sure Anthony would respect my adventurous nature but would hardly approve of my destination given the fact he refers to GQ’s food critic Alan Richman as a “douchebag” in his book Medium Raw, partly because he insists that celebrity chefs should hang in their restaurants.
Driving in both Kentucky and Tennessee is quite refreshing. The roads tend not to get congested, the drivers are fast and the roads and scenery are nice. As a result, there was little issue getting to Nashville on time, especially given the unexpected time change which occurs somewhere in Kentucky. After checking into the hotel, we jaunted a bit off the beaten path to the restaurant and arrived just in time for our reservation.
Husk is an extension of the original in Charleston, South Carolina which has the same name and under the eye of executive chef Sean Brock. Of some irony is the fact that the original was slammed by Richman. Nashville’s version promises upscale southern food using only ingredients which can be attained within a small radius of the restaurant itself. The menu is published daily and features a wide selection of starters and mains. I was there on a Sunday and was somewhat dismayed to discover that the wings voted one of the best in America by website Epicurious were not on the evening menu.
We were seated on the bottom level of the nicely designed restaurant. It was modern yet rustic. The walls were filled with pictures of an array of things including those of Nashville past. The staff were smartly dressed, looking as if they came straight from a restaurant wars challenge on Top Chef. The crowd was a mix of young and old and included hipsters that looked mighty similar to those I see in Toronto.
The drink menu consisted of a decent variety of wine, local beer (primarily from Yazoo) and signature cocktails ranging from low alcohol choices celebrating (if that’s the right word) prohibition to modern interpretations of some modern favorites. My choice was the Barrel Aged Seelbach which was bourbon based and laced with fun things like curacao and bitters for $13. I suppose this is no cheaper than the heavily taxed cocktails I’m accustomed to in Canada, busting the myth that America is a haven for cheap booze and watered down beer and cocktails. I quite enjoy bourbon based cocktails and this was no exception. The sweet bourbon was nicely contrasted by the bitters and the drink tasted better with every sip.
They also had a wide array of Bourbon which ranging from $7 to around $40 which included some high proof, reserve and aged choices.
Reviews of this place have criticized the lack of southern hospitality offered by the waitstaff. I have to agree to some extent. Our waitress was pleasant but the friendliness was somewhat guarded and seemed to be infused with some pretension, perhaps to justify charging $26 for a piece of chicken. Service was prompt although there is a fair lag between the starters and mains. For the starters, I opted for the Husk Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”. I’m not sure who Bill Neal is but I’m sure he’s pleased to know this dish bears his name. The grits were heavenly creamy, creating that perfect mouth-feel that reminded me of relishing Cream of Wheat as a kid. The shrimp were delicately cooked and seasoned and even managed to convince my generally seafood-phobic daughter.
The BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce ($14) were a upscale interpretation of this southern classic. They were quite meaty but don’t expect the deep flavor and tenderness synonymous with hours in a smoker. The sauce, however, was delicious; a perfect blend between BBQ sweet and vinegary sour.
The last “first” was A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24-Month Country Ham, Soft Rolls, Mustard, HUSK pickles for $13. The ham was pungently wonderful and tasted almost like a prosciutto. The remaining ingredients were great compliments to a dish which screamed comfort. The buns were fresh and pickled cauliflower was vibrant and a nice contrast to the sweet and fatty ham.
Although a main for each of us was suggested, we decided on the Tanglewood Farms chicken, grilled over hickory embers, potato dumplings and carrots for $26. Much like ribs, when I envision chicken and dumplings I think of comfort food which includes tender chicken, fluffy biscuits and hearty portions of root veggies. Husk’s modernized twist kept the chicken intact but omitted the chunks of dough and carrots, replacing them with bite size gnudi and pureed carrot kisses. My daughters looked a little perplexed. The poultry was tender and seasoned wonderfully. Although the dumplings and carrots were swimming in a small puddle of sauce, it would have been grand to have a little more to complement the chicken and remind me that this in fact is a comfort food.
The most anticipated part of the dinner was the plate of southern vegetables for $25. There were three reasons for this. First, I was curious to see how you could justify a plate of veggies for $25. Next, it is arguably the most talked about dish at Husk. Finally, I’m tickled that a place would equate a mosaic of plant-based concepts with menu staples like beef, pork and catfish.
On this night, the southern plate consisted of:
a) Gourd soup with pistachio and chives- Served warm, it had great base flavour which was complemented by some crunch and cream.
b) Tomato and grits topped with a farm fresh poached egg- The acid of the tomato was terrific with the sweet corn. A perfectly cooked egg just makes anything better.
c) Soy Glazed Broccoli- Simple but the best part of the dish according to my daughters. Perfect saltiness and heat surrounded the crunchy vegetable.
d) Roasted Turnips- After eating these, the turnip bottoms may replace of the tops as the go-to part of the plant for southern feasts.
e) Farro and Lima Bean Salad- Also a salad I have seen north of the border, it was earthy and well balanced with a great touch of acid and sweetness in the dressing.
The after dinner offerings paid homage to the classic desserts of the south but also had a refined twist to them. Chess pie, butterscotch pudding and strawberry shortcake highlighted the sweets menu. I opted for the latter two. The pudding was laced with bourbon and served with a pastry offering a hint of apple flavour. Collectively it was quite delicious. The shortcake composed of soft serve and strawberries which were divine, especially for a Canadian who is only exposed to the albino grocery store berries until May or June.
Husk has found a niche offering high end southern food, a stark contrast from popular places such as Arnold’s Country Kitchen and other iconic Nashville eateries. The dishes are refined, pretty and pricey. The execution is near flawless. I can’t comment on whether this is the 6th best new restaurant in the whole of America but it has all the elements of success; a strong endorsement by a leading food critic, a terrific concept featuring farm to table food with no compromise, a modern and comfortable environment and a whole lot of buzz. The grits were fantastic and the plate of southern vegetables is well worth the price. The chicken was let down by the somewhat dismal sides. The desserts and cocktails were sinful and true to the region.
Afterwards, we took a walk down Broadway to find a slew of drunk tourists, neon lights and a guy who was high, very interested in the odd appearance of Canadian money and sung us a Jason Aldean and an Allman brothers song in exchange for a five dollar bill. Despite this fact, I walked away singing the Tragically Hip’s It can’t be Nashville every night:
He said, ‘we are what we lack’
and this guy’s the autodidact
stares into the glare of them TV lights
It can’t be Nashville every night
with it’s la la oh oh ohs,
whoa-ohs and yeahs.
Yep, so far so good. An eight hour drive husking and busking in Nashville brought on a degree of la la oh oh ohs and I hadn’t even hit Arnold’s yet. I promised myself I’d go hardcore Bourdain style in Nashville on day three to make amends for my temporary allegiance to Mr. Richman, arguably one of America’s most well known autodidacts. PS. Alan. I don’t think Sean Brock was in the house. Are we good now, Tony?
Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Ursa… (after all, an exciting dining experience should be like a good story).
Positioned in the middle of Caju and County General on Queen near Shaw, it’s one of those cloaked foodie joints meaning it’s usually pretty busy without the online fanfare of a Grand Electric or Kinton Ramen (this is foreshadowing…stay tuned).
I was immediately greeted by Lucas, one of the co-owners and great storyteller. I was seated at the bar and was greeted by Robin, a bartender and equally good storyteller with a love for bourbon and homemade vermouth. It was quickly evident that both had a extreme passion for food and drink, a passion that I hoped would translate into a great dinner.
Here’s where the story begins. I was told that the elk tartare was phenomenal and that the elk was singled sourced out of an farm in Kitchener and 7 muscle groups were incorporated into the final product. Impressive! I was warned in advance that it lacked some of the attributes of the traditional tartare including eggs and scallions. It was presented eloquently with a cracker, a bitter orange sauce and a piece of charqui (elk jerky). It could of used a bit of seasoning but in the end the meat spoke for itself. It was phenomenal.
Before retirement, according to Lucas, Joanne Kates (highly respected Globe and Mail food critic), said that Ursa served one of the best lemon meringue pies in Toronto. I can’t disagree. The pie had an abstract presentation, offered in a deconstructed fashion featuring a rich lemon curd, a fluffy meringue and a crust bound with rich duck fat. Not only was it delicious, it was an adventure and actually fun to eat.
Regarding cocktails, there is as much attention to detail towards the drinks as there is the food. I tried the Red Horn, signature bourbon cocktail (ask Robin about it…it’s quite a story and has won awards) as well as the daily smashed cocktail (in this case it was a gin/fennel mix which was delicious).
For a main, I settled on the lingcod. The fish was cooked perfectly. It was served with a lack luster foam when, combined with the cassava and potato, had a monotonous flavour. The saving grace was the white peach, which offered a sour crunch which offered a needed flavour and texture contrast. The sage was a nice touch.
Another good story was the Santa Rosa plum salad. There are only a few hundred of these plum trees in Canada, and Ursa managed to partner with a farmer in BC to get them for the menu. The salad was beautifully presented and the plums were divine but I was left wanting more. The salad was under dressed and lacked a bit of the complexity I would expect for a $14 salad.
I’d consider Ursa a bit stubborn. It is next to impossible to find a current menu online since their website is nothing more than a holding page with an address and a phone number. When you do see the menu, it is quite small. In fact, a couple walked in and out after viewing the menu and only seeing goat, rabbit and lingcod as traditional entrees. On the other hand, there are both good quality vegetarian starters and mains on the menu which may appeal to some. Others will argue it is expensive for the amount of food but personally I find it pretty comparable to similar joints in the area.
Ursa is like a good picture book. Both the restaurant’s decor and presentation of the food are very visually appealing , edgy and comes with a great story. If you don’t like mysteries, however, this may not be the place for you. Even with the menu as a guide, the dishes are a bit unpredictable but at the same time kind of exciting. What I can say is that Ursa is an experience with beautifully presented dishes using unique and quality ingredients and if you get the full experience you may very well live happily ever after….The End.