Month: January 2007

Carrabba’s Italian Grill 

I believe chains and franchises fall into a different kind of category as far as restaurants go. These restaurants do not add to the individual character of a city, they help define each American city as, well, a typical American city. It could be Houston, Bangor or Boise. It’s the great homogenization of our society. As Americans travel from city to city, they recognize these same restaurants and know what to expect from them.

So with that in mind, I also believe that when reviewed, the approach must be with a more critical eye than when reviewing uniquely local restaurants. Granted, many franchise owners are local: living, working and giving back to the communities that support their establishments. So why should they be held to a higher critical standard, especially when compared to other sole-proprietor restaurants? It’s because chains have an advantage over a sole proprietor. Chains have the power of a corporation behind them. After years of refinement, the original restaurant is duplicated, from the interior decoration to the menu items to the training manuals for the waitstaff.

Now, getting down off my high horse, I must say Carrabba’s Italian Grill is a pretty fine addition to our community, even if it is imported from somewhere else. The first Carrabba’s was opened by founders Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandolain in Houston, Texas, in 1986. Seeing the photos on the wall of the restaurant or watching their PBS cooking series, Cucina Amore, you can tell these Texan-Sicilian boys love to eat. But I was still a little wary. Carrabba’s Italian Grill is opening up restaurants almost as fast as Starbucks. Maybe they’re planning on being the upscale McDonalds of Italian food or trying to give Olive Garden a run for its money.

So on a rainy night, a friend and I went there to eat. What was good? Everything. We started with a dirty martini and a cosmopolitan. We munched on a hot mini-loaf of bread with a house blend of herbs and olive oil for dipping it in while we waited for our appetizer, the antipasti platter that came with an assortment of calamari, mozzarella marinara and the bruschetta of the day. The calamari was lightly battered with a nice balance of rings and heads and whetted our appetite for more. Our next course was Mama Mandola’s spicy chicken soup with a sprinkle of Romano cheese. While not particularly spicy, it was hearty:pieces of chicken, vegetables and small pasta floated in a rich broth. The menu claimed the soup “has soothed the generations” and we understood why. It seemed as if the recipe was taken right out of an Italian grandmother’s personal recipe file.

The entrees arrived and they were scrumptious. We polished off the veal piccatta with mushrooms, prosciutto in a lemon-butter sauce and a side of steamed broccoli. But the Rigatoni Martino–grilled chicken tossed with rigatoni, sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta salata cheese in a tomato cream sauce–was so huge, we only managed to finish half of it. We washed it down with a glass of wine and were stuffed, but not too stuffed for dessert. We shared an order of tiramisu, the Cadillac of desserts. I often find that many restaurants make their tiramisu too sweet, but not Carrabba’s. It was creamy and delicious.

Unlike many chains and franchises that try to pack in as many tables as possible to maximize revenue, Carrabba’s has booths and tables that offer ample room to spread out so that you don’t feel cramped or claustrophobic or as if the next table over can hear your every word. Tough as it is for me to admit, I would have to say that Carrabba’s is one of the better Italian restaurant chains growing right now.

–Bingo Barnes can’t believe he ate the whole thing.

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Heresy: A Guide to Beer Cocktails, from College-grade Concoctions to Drinks Worthy of the Most Dignified Beer Buff

Beer Advocate Issue #1, January 2007

BeerAdvocateIllust

Bars create dilemmas. Upon entry, the little narrator inside your skull asks, “Should I get a beer, wine or a cocktail?” If you’re like me, wine is usually off the list right quick. That leaves a difficult choice between two options. On the rare occasion when you find yourself standing frozen in front of the bartender, there may be another solution: the beer cocktail.

I realize even suggesting such a thing is considered heresy of the highest order in some better-beer circles, but before you tie me to a post and go looking for matches, let me explain. I’m not necessarily advocating any of these—I’m simply pointing them out in the event any of you feel like getting a little more experimental with your brews. (And hell, if brewers can age beer in wine casks, what’s so wrong with drinkers mixing beer with, say, some Bailey’s?)

These cocktails can take several forms. There are the droppers, in which shot glasses of various hard alcohols are physically dropped into pints of beer; the substitutions, in which beer is swapped in for the traditional spirit; and the original, unique concoctions. In some beer cocktails, specific brands are called for; in others, you can experiment with various beers.

The Droppers

The most controversial (some might say, undignified) of the beer cocktails. These usually require, appear near, or lead to, severe intoxication. Deliberately omitted are such college-favored Frankenstein monstrosities like the Natty Russian, a base combination of Natty Light and cheap vodka.

Depth Charge

A mix of spirits and beer that involves dropping a shot glass of liquor into your beer. When it hits bottom the beer fizzes up, forcing the drinker to down the whole concoction in one giant gulp. There are variations, such as mixing up the type of liquor (whiskey, vodka, tequila or what have you) and even setting the shot on fire beforehand. A common quote heard when ordering a depth charge is, “Once you drop, you cannot stop.”

Irish Car Bomb

This politically incorrect dropper (also known as a Belfast Bomber) calls for a glass of Guinness Stout and a half-shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream with a half-shot of Irish whiskey. It’s important to drink this in one long pull, as the cream will curdle in the beer. Also, take note: If you’re in Ireland or England, you might be a little cautious about ordering one of these suckers.

Flaming Dr. Pepper

Take one shot glass full of amaretto with Everclear or Bacardi 151 floated on top then set it on fire. Drop the shot glass into a mug of beer then drink the whole thing.

Remember, you should always be careful about mixing intoxicated drinkers and fire. I once saw a guy attempt to down a flaming shooter. He not only burned all the hair off his face and got a dirty, wet bar towel on his head to put it out, but he was dangerously close to exploding his stomach if he had swallowed it. Of course, we all laughed and laughed and laughed. Then we ordered another round.

Substitutes & Originals

Just about any cocktail can be converted into a beer cocktail if you’re willing to experiment. Play with proportions and always avoid ice.

Red Eye

Imagine a Bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka. That’s it. Pretty simple. Some recipes call for Clamato juice, and most say you should have more beer than tomato juice, proportionately. Either way, it’s a legendary slayer of hangovers.

Snakebite

Take a pint glass and fill it half with Stout and half with hard cider. ’Nuff said.

Shandy

A classic English drink that dates back to the 1700s, this one involves filling a beer glass with lager, and adding ginger ale or lemonade. Proportions vary by drinker, so you might want to experiment a little with this one. Best consumed while swaddled in Harris Tweed.

Black & Tan

A classic mix, also known as a Half & Half. The origin of this concoction has been traced back to the late 1800s in the British Isles, and today is served mostly with Guinness and Bass beer. Guinness is the key to pouring this beer, as the Stout has a lighter gas used in its carbonation and will float on top, creating a two-layered drink.

Contrary to popular belief, the British paramilitary reserve in the Irish War of Independence took its name from the beer concoction, not the other way around. Because of this, you should never order a Black & Tan in Ireland, since it would mark you as an extreme loyalist and buy you nothing but trouble from the local Feinians.

Black Velvet

Another old standard, ideal for rich descendants of poor Irish immigrants looking to bridge the present and the past. Or maybe not. In any case, combine Stout and champagne, 50/50, and marvel as worlds collide.

Michelada

There are many variations of this Mexican beer cocktail. Some prepare it like a beer Bloody Mary (see Red Eye), but traditionally it has no tomato juice in it. The Michelada is best used as a restorative drink with breakfast after a long, hard night of drinking. In a salt-rimmed glass, squeeze the juice of one lime. Add a dash of Tabasco sauce, a few liberal dashes of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Maggi Seasoning and an optional splash of Angostura bitters. Then pour a dark Mexican beer such as Negra Modelo and drink up. I prefer mine with about a quarter-shot each of soy, Worcestershire and Maggi, which makes the drink very salty.

Hop, Skip and Go Naked

I would be remiss if I didn’t include this one. Take one beer and add a shot of gin, a spoonful of bar sugar and lemon juice. It’s also served as a punch, in which a quart of beer, a can of frozen lemonade (or pink lemonade) and a half-bottle of gin, vodka or whiskey is used. In this form, it’s served mostly as a social lubricant at parties, ensuring plenty of hopping, skipping and possibly going naked.

An upscale variation, which I learned from mixologist Pat Carden in Boise, Idaho, is the Custom Trampler: A beer cocktail with Carlsberg Elephant beer, Hornitos Reposado tequila, a spoonful of bar sugar and lemon juice. May be heretical, but it sure is good.