California Cuisine

What is California cuisine? I hear that term thrown around a lot, but I've never been quite sure what it meant. I think it refers to the way we infuse various styles of cooking from the many cultures represented here, but I've never thought of that as uniquely-Californian. I've always thought that regional food specialties should strive to represent something you can't get anywhere else, or at least a concept that one does better than the rest of the world. When a certain culture has been making certain dishes for hundreds of years that experience shows when you take a bite. The best pasta I've ever eaten was in Tuscany. The best tortillas I've ever tasted were in Mexico. I would expect that to be the case. But what are people travelling to California for? What do we do better out here than anyone else?

Judging from the menus in today's hip Bay Area restaurants you would think it's duck liver mousse or bone marrow on toast. But are tourists from all over the world obsessing over our vast selection of organ meat and charcuterie? That always seems bizarre to me, especially since I don't ever remember a tradition of sweet breads or pigs feet growing up here as a kid. It seems like we're pandering to the recent Anthony Bourdain explosion or trying to impress our Francophile friends, rather than cook what we know best. That's why, when my wife and I ate at Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park this past weekend, we finally got a glimpse at what California cuisine might look like. It was simply prepared, it didn't have a chip on its shoulder about culture, and it wasn't aspiring to be anything but itself. I can't tell you how refreshing that is today.

You might remember that Flea St. is the place right near our Redwood City store where I consulted briefly this past winter, working with their staff on spirits education. For all the time I spent there, however, I had never taken the time to eat a formal dinner. As my wife and I finally sat down at the organic produce-focused institution, we were impressed by how casual and confident the menu was about its selections. The kitchen staff at Flea St. is meticulous about their fruits and vegetables – almost obsessive. But there's never any attempt to preach about sustainability, or write "locally-sourced" next to every single entree, throwing it in your face like many spots do today. They trust that you're smart enough to figure out why each bite tastes so good. And each bite does taste really good. At one point my wife said, "They must be tasting every single fruit and vegetable before putting it into each dish because there's no way each this could taste so good otherwise."

The produce department is definitely where Flea St shines. My wife and I both had a full vegetarian dinner and the simplest things, like a single mushroom or a bite of a peach, were the most incredible aspects of each course. When we were in New York a few weeks back, we talked to a bartender who had just visited California and just gushed about all of our fresh berries, stonefruit, and farmer's markets. He and his wife had driven across the whole state, stopped at various fruit stands, and eaten their way from North to South. That's what he missed about California – the freshness of everything. After hearing that outsider perspective, I was proud to be sitting at Flea St. where I can enjoy all of these flavors without the charade. There was a bit of fusion going on – my wife had the gnocci, while part of my veggie sampler featured a tofu block with a hoisin glaze – but mostly it all just seemed so effortless. It was all familiar and nostalgic – ultimately comfort food, just a really spectacular version of it.

Usually when someone asks me for a fun restaurant recommendation on the Peninsula, I send them to Donato's (an Italian place), Santa Ramen (a Japanese soup house), or Pancho Villa (a Mexican taqueria). These are some great places for Italian, Japanese, and Mexican food. But what about a place that's uniquely Californian? A place that showcases all of the culture with all of the great produce? That's Flea St. Cafe, and that's where I'll be sending people from now on. I had one of the best meals of my life there this past weekend and still can't stop thinking about it.

-David Driscoll


Choose Your Own (Whisky) Adventure

Since we got a little retro with the baseball card post, I thought I'd bring it back to the 1980s for some good old 2nd-person fun with our friend Edward Packard. Here goes:

You enter into the parking lot at K&L, ready to buy your first bottle of single malt whisky. You head into the store and gaze at the wall of spirits in front of you. One of the shelves has a sign that reads, "K&L Exclusives," and you realize that this wonderful store sources some of its own whisky directly from Scotland. Unfortunately, after checking your smart phone, you realize that few of these whiskies have online reviews.

Do you:

(1) Take the recommendation of the K&L sign.

(2) Choose something more safe with a solid reputation.

If you chose (1) then skip the following explanation. If you chose (2) then read on below:

- (2) You decide to take the safe bet and grab the bottle of Lagavulin 16. You take it home and open it. It tastes great. As the weeks go by, you continue to sip from the Lagavulin bottle after dinner, staring out the window in contemplation as you wonder if life has more to offer. Sure, Lagavulin is a fine whisky, just like your house is a fine house and your car is a fine car, but something continues to bother you as the days drag on. Eventually, you empty the bottle and head back to K&L to buy another. Life is good, but it never excites you in the way that you hope it will. It always seems like there's something great around the bend, but it never materializes. These thoughts continue to haunt you until your dying days.


- (1) You decide to take the plunge and go with the staff recommendation. It surpasses any other whisky you've ever tried in your life. You dust that bottle in less than a week, completely obsessed with its flavor. You head back into the store to try out a different K&L exclusive expression. Do you:

(3) Choose another whisky based on the hand-written sign.

(4) Inquire about some advise from one of the staff members.

If you chose (3) then read on below. If you chose (4) then skip past the following explanation:

- (3) You select another K&L whisky based on the hand-written sign and it's also quite tasty. Not as good as the first one you selected, but solid nonetheless. As time goes on, you continue to shop at K&L, getting the occasional exclusive bottle when it looks interesting, but never really getting as hooked as you thought you might get initially. The selections are always solid, sometimes really great, and you remain satisfied in your whisky drinking. You end up getting married to a reasonably attractive mate and you both remain in the Bay Area for as long as you live. Your first child is named Coco.


- (4) You decide to ask for some help. A guy named David comes over to help you. It turns out that he's the spirits buyer at K&L and he knows a bit about their selection. You tell David exactly what you liked about the first whisky and he uses that information to help you pick out another. He also tells you about a special insider's list with special offers and information about upcoming releases. You decide to give him your email and contact information. After the first few weeks, your inbox is full of emails from David. You read them and finally decide there's one that sounds too good to pass up. You try to place an order but the whisky is no longer available. You email David and ask what the situation is. He tells you that whisky sold out very fast and is gone unfortunately. Do you:

(5) Email back an angry response out of frustration.

(6) Decide to try a different whisky instead.

If you chose (5) then read on below. If you chose (6) then skip past the following explanation:

- (5) You can't believe that the whisky you finally wanted is already sold out. Didn't he just send that email a few minutes ago? This is ridiculous! What kind of list is this? The kind that tempts you with descriptions of great whisky, but then denies you the opportunity to actually buy them? Nonsense! You tell David that, while you appreciated his initial service, the whisky list is a waste of time. You plan on taking your business elsewhere to a store that can actually get you the bottles you need. He takes you off his list. As your whiskey hobby continues to grow you hear about a whiskey called Pappy Van Winkle and decide to try to find a bottle. Instead of emailing David, you head down to BevMo and ask the staff if they can get you a bottle. They add your name to a list and say they'll call you when they get one. Years go by and no one ever calls. You wonder why, but you continue to patiently wait. One day, you think to yourself, one day.


- (6) You decide to email David back and ask if there's anything else that's similar he can recommend. He ends up having a special bottle that wasn't on the list that he offers just to you, even though it's normally not available, as a make-good for running out of the other whisky so fast. He wants to make sure you're taken care of and is very thankful for your patience. You're ecstatic. You go to pick up the bottle and you taste it that evening. It's delicious. Soon, you're fast into the whisky game, heading to tastings, reading the blogs, perusing the message boards. You realize that there's an entire world out there of people who love whisky and they're all communicating with each other via these forums. You create a handle. All of a sudden you're message boarding like crazy. Then someone calls you an idiot for your views on the merit of Macallan 18. Others join in and tell you that you obviously don't know anything about whisky. Do you:

(7) Internalize the shame and bottle up all that frustration for later.

(8) Shrug it off to a few message board trolls.

If you chose (7) then skip the following explanation. If you chose (8) then read on below:

- (8) You decide that there are simply people on the internet that like to argue, fight, and point out how everyone is an idiot. That's fine with you. You're happy with your life and confident in your own opinions. Who are these people to criticize you for simply sharing your opinion with others? It seems like maybe they're taking this whole whisky thing a little too seriously. You continue to enjoy reading the whisky blogosphere, posting a few carefully crafted comments from time to time when you have something to share. You make sure to add something unique and interesting to the conversation, rather than simply post for the sake of doing so. Others begin to recognize your cool head and tempered perspective. You eventually start a whisky blog where you're careful to take the feelings of others into consideration, seeing that you once felt attacked by internet bullies yourself. Your blog gains the utmost respect of the online whisky community, even though you never get the most comments or all the attention. It's this self-confidence and peace with yourself that allows you a happy life until your dying day.


-(7) The anger surges through you like a shock of electricity. You feel ashamed and embarrassed by the repsonse from these clearly qualified experts with hundreds of posts to their history. You say nothing for the time being, but you remember the feeling for weeks to come. Then, after going through hundreds of different blogs and threads, you come upon a weak newcomer to the whisky scene who says that Glenfiddich 12 is his favorite whisky. You immediately attack, shooting down his opinion as if he has insulted your family, and pointing out all the ways in which he knows nothing, while making sure to carefully point out how you know everything. A few people give you a thumbs up and a smiley face, further increasing your belief that others support this kind of behavior. You begin to go after bigger fish. Soon, you're slamming John Hansell on his whisky blog, trolling the comments until you can find a way to attack. Serge begins to fear that he's next. Steve Ury completely stops blogging as a result of your relentless desire to expose him as a fraud. You suspect that other people think you're an asshole, but at least you know that you're right.


-David Driscoll


Baseball Cards

Over the past few years, during conversations about the whisk(e)y bubble many believe we're facing, there have been numerous references to whiskey being the newest incarnation of baseball cards: a hobby that blew up in the late 80s, became over-valued, and then dumped when people lost interest and moved on to the next fashionable trend. My friend SKU has written about it, I've written about it, people have posted comments on various sites about it, so it seems that many of us who grew up in the 1980s and collected baseball cards during the peak understand the parallels. It's totally possible that, like baseball cards, whisk(e)y will fall out of focus and producers will be stuck with a glut of overproduction.

There's another side of this analogy, however, that I don't think we've really touched on. In order to understand it you need to have collected baseball cards before Beckett's Monthly Price Guide became inseparable from your back pocket. You also need to have been a whisk(e)y drinker before this whole pricing boom began around the end of 2008. You need to be able to understand how a simple hobby based on fun, enjoyment, and pleasure became completely monetized, data-oriented, and collector-focused. Let me give you a few analogies to explain what I mean:

When I was about seven years old my cousin and I would bring our baseball cards to each other's house to play with. We kept them all in a single plastic case, stacked on top of each other, and we'd take them out to look at and trade. We were both Giants fans, so naturally we wanted to get as many Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Robby Thompson cards as possible. That was our focus: collecting the players we liked. Sometimes we would create an all-star team with nine of our best cards, then go out into the yard and play one-on-one baseball, pretending we were the players on our home-made rosters, putting the cards next to us as each player came up to bat. We'd even keep their stats. Hell, I remember even striking out on purpose so the number of strikeouts would match up to the number on the back of the card! Wow, those were the days.

Then my cousin discovered Modesto Baseball Cards on Oakdale Road, or "Gil's" as we called it, as that was the owner's name. Gil didn't just sell packages of baseball cards, he sold individual cards that were all worth various amounts of money. These cards were placed in protective sleeves meant to protect them from any damage. In order to find out how much these cards were worth, Gil used a magazine called Beckett to determine the value. Every month a list with each card from each brand would be listed, along side a price with an arrow to indicate if the value had recently gone up or down. Our minds were completely blown. All of a sudden, the kids at school all had a copy of Beckett in their Trapper Keepers. Over night my friends and I went from passionate baseball fans to professional stock brokers. All this time we had been trading and collecting based on our own personal taste, but little did we know these things were worth money!

"Want to trade me your Roger Clemens rookie card?"

"How much is it worth?"

"Check the Beckett. I'm not trading it unless I get something back in return that's equal value. Last time I got ripped off."

Opening a pack of baseball cards became a treasure hunt – literally. We would dig for all the most valuable cards, put them into plastic sleeves, and show our friends which ones were worth the most money. "Check out my 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. It's worth eighty bucks!" We were all tiny investors, hoping that our collections would one day make us rich. I don't know one person, however, who ever cashed in on their Donruss, Topps, and Fleer stocks. We mostly just complained, fought, and cried about getting ripped off, bad trades, high prices, or how everything sucked except for error cards and the super-collectable Dale Murphy reverse negative. By the early 90s, some brands were up to $10 a pack because they contained possible high-end cards inside. Brands were creating super-limited cards for the sole purpose of being limited, and therefore valuable. By the time we were ten we had become jaded on the whole scene.

And now I see it with whisk(e)y.

"How old is that whisky? Fifteen years? And it's $100? Man, that's a ripoff."

I might as well be back in 4th grade. Everything about our enjoyment is based on how much we spent or how good of a deal we got within the parameters of evaluation. Personal taste isn't one of these quantifiers, however. Much like with baseball cards there's a formula that combines the brand, age, and scarcity of the whisky to determine whether it's worth buying or not. When you throw in points, you get an entirely new dynamic – prestige!

"How many points did so-and-so give it? 90 points? And it's only $40? Wow, that's a good deal."

Of course there's no inherant value to someone's 90 point review, just like there was never any inherant value in any of the Beckett prices. You couldn't walk into a card store and expect to pay the exact Beckett price simply because one company printed it, just like you can't claim that a 90 point Screaming Eagle should cost the same as a 90 point Spanish garnacha. They're simply guides to help give you some context. However, like the passionate hobbiests we are, we can't help but turn these numeric evalutations into a collection competition. I knew a guy in elementary school who had thirty 1986 Jose Canseco Donruss "Rated Rookie" cards. At one point those were valued at $100 each. He would hoard them, do anything to get them, have his parents drive him to the Bay Area to find more. He took a picture of him with all thirty in his bedroom and brought the photo to school so we could see it. Sound familiar?

While I think the baseball card market is a decent comparison for the whisk(e)y industry, there are a few differences that lead me to believe whisk(e)y will likely take a different path. Most prognosticators don't take into consideration the difference between on-premise and off-premise sales (bars/restaurants vs. retail), and how cocktail culture will eventually affect the demand, but that's another topic for another time. The more appropriate comparison, in my mind, is how both hobbies changed their patrons and how those patrons forever changed these hobbies. Collectable baseball cards will never be used in bicycle spokes again, just like many new collectable whiskies will never actually be consumed. They have monetary value that extends beyond any practical usage. Just like a card with a tear or bend was worth less, a whisky without it's cardboard box or tin is deemed less collectable. That takes away from the resale value! Don't touch it!

The question I have to ask is: which way was more fun? Was it better to just collect the players you liked, or was it more enjoyable to obsess over the value of each? Personally, I had a lot of fun doing it both ways. And I sure learned a lot about business. It's totally possible that the monetization of whisk(e)y, or any hobby for that matter, satisfies some capitalistic itch in us that is just waiting to be scratched.

-David Driscoll


First-Hand Feedback

Well, it's been quite a day. We finally released our insanely-old tequila blend to the masses and they responded by purchasing all 200 available bottles available within four hours. CRAZY!

Needless to say, it's still on the site because I've added another 100 bottles into the system. We can make as many as 400 bottles of this Fuenteseca Extra Añejo, but I didn't want to order more than we needed. The question our consumers are asking right now, however, is: do I need to get one of these before they sell out?

Good question. Here's my honest to truth answer:

I know it's difficult to take the word of the guy who's job it is to sell you the booze, so I'm going to offer up a few different experiences from the day in the hope that it offers some guidance.

Greg St. Clair is our Italian wine buyer. He doesn't ever get excited about anything booze related, especially enough to actually swallow the sample he's tasting. Usually it's spit no matter what. I offered Greg a sip of the new Fuenteseca blend today (from the tiny bit I had left) and he went ballistic. "This is fucking delicious!" he exclaimed. "I actually swallowed it! And I don't drink anything these days," he went on to add. Greg then went on to repeat this accolade to the rest of our Redwood City staff. "What the hell got into Greg?" people asked me. "He tried the new tequila," I replied.

I also managed to pass of a sample to two of my best spirits customers, Adam and Thorpe, who tasted with two very solemn countenances. "That shit is amazing," they said. "You're not going to have any problem selling that stuff." Delicious was the verdict. I was batting 1.000 so far.

Jeff Garneau, our Bordeaux specialist, was also transfixed, but when I asked him if he liked it he answered, "There's absolutely no context for this. Sure, it tastes good, but what can I compare it to?" Great point. What do you compare a blend of 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 year old tequilas to? There's never been a tequila on the market like this before, so it's tough to guage where it ranks among the best

-David Driscoll


2013 Whisky Season: First Cask is Here!

Our first cask from Scotland has arrived and, yes, I know, we didn’t tell you about this one during the initial pre-arrival campaign. Some casks, we’ve realized, don’t cause all that much of a stir when we release them as a pre-order, simply because they don’t have the star power name recognition. When you’re selling people whisky that they can’t taste, yet they still have to pay upfront, it can be difficult unless the cask has a big name. We find that casks like this Glen Elgin are more word-of-mouth phenomena – meaning someone gets a bottle, realizes how good it is, and then tells a friend. That happened with the Mortlach and that’s definitely going to happen with this:

1995 Glen Elgin 17 Year Old A.D. Rattray K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - YUM! Why is Glen Elgin such a delicious Speyside whisky? It seems that everytime we have the opportunity to get a peek at this Diageo-owned Highland distillery the whisky just cries out: DRINK ME! Glen Elgin has one of the longest fermentation times for its wort and one of the slowest distillation times as well. The combination of both results in a heavy, robust spirit that remains light and fruity at the same time. Longer fermentation periods usually result in fruitier worts, while slow distillation times allow the spirit to slowly capture all that flavor. It's a gum-smackingly great phenomenon. Unfortunately we don't get the chance to buy very much Glen Elgin seeing that it's not released in the states as a single malt. It's mostly known as the key ingredient in White Horse. That's why we jumped at the chance to snag this lovely little number from the Morrison's warehouse. This is classic Scotch, in the style of Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, but with far more viscosity and a ton of fruit. It reminds me of the few 1970s Glenlivet bottlings I've been fortunate enough to taste. The whisky was aged in hogshead, so there's not much wood influence, just that lovely little kiss of vanilla you expect from ligher Speyside malts. The finish is clean and soft with the malt's heavy mouthfeel taking center stage. Nothing short of lovely, throwback single malt whisky. Less than 200 bottles available.

Do you miss Scotch that tastes like Scotch? Then this whisky is for you. No wine-finished casks, no story, no gimmicks. Just booze.

-David Driscoll