Vacu Vin makes these neat little rubber glass markers to keep track of drinks. Guests at a party can simply stick one of the unique suction figures to a glass and know which one is theirs throughout the night. I’ve tried them out on wine glasses and they work so-so. They tend to pop off over time, and because they protrude from the glass and are made of tacky rubber, they often get ripped off if rubbed against something. It’s a great idea, but it is more funky and cool than practical. I just use a sharpie to write a person’s name on the glass, and it washes right off with soap and water.
With that said, my daughter did enjoy playing with them and sticking them to glassware and the granite countertop. I could definitely see using the glass markers as an incentive to eat food or to occupy a kid at the table. Just keep in mind that the the Vacu Vin website says that they are not suitable for children under 3 years of age.
Vacuu Vin has several themed sets: Creepy People, Christmas Crowd, Football Friends, and Party People. You can buy the sets at Amazon, and they usually sell from $7 to $15 per set.
In the July/August issue of the Food Network Magazine, I saw this recipe — or I guess it is just an idea — for serving puppy dogs. My child likes hot dogs, but more than that she loves the white buns, and serving mini-hot dogs on small rolls might be a better size for kids. It’s also a fun way of miniaturizing a classic.
Of course hot dogs and white buns are hardly nutritious, but what’s a picnic without hot dogs. They would also be good for an appetizer during a football game or party. Vienna Beef sells Beef Pups, which are mini-hot dogs but a little larger than the ones in the picture, and Oscar Mayer and Hebrew National also sell a mini hot dog/cocktail frank. If you want to go the organic route, Applegate Farms has an organic pork cocktail frank, but they might be harder to find if that brand isn’t available in your area. Then again, you can also just cut up regular sized hot dogs if you want.
And lastly, with all hot dogs, a parent should be aware of the chocking hazard. If you have a small child or your child is unfamiliar with hot dogs, you might want to monitor their eating at first. Know your kid and be reasonable.
Food & Wine had an article in the December issue about how to gift wine for a dinner party, and I thought some of the tips were pretty useful. I know a lot of people fret over bringing wine especially if they know that a person is a wine snob or just has a more developed palette. I’d probably put myself in the wine snob category, so maybe subconsciously this post is just to help people bring me better wine. Who knows.
So here are some of the tips and strategies on how to make a host happy with your wine gift.
- Champagne or decent quality sparkling wine is always a good choice. It is a celebratory wine and the host can re-gift it if they don’t drink sparkling.
- Wines that go well with a lot of foods and appeal to broader personal tastes are good choices. The usual suspect here is pinot noir. I also try to stay away from tart wines such as sauvignon blanc and really meaty fruit bombs such as zinfandel and amarone — unless I know that the host loves these types of wine.
- For really special or expensive bottles, call ahead and ask what food the host is preparing. You can say that you will bring the perfect bottle and they will usually appreciate the help. This strategy will also ensure that your bottle will be opened. Nothing is worse than bringing a really nice wine and no one tries it.
- Bring the wine as it should be served. This means chill your wine if you are bringing a white. If you don’t, you are just asking for the host not to open your bottle.
- Try bringing a magnum. Though I know where the Food & Wine author is coming from on this one, for most people bringing a large two-bottle sized wine seems a bit odd as most people don’t buy them. But with that said, a magnum of good wine will definitely be appreciated and will simply have to be opened. If you go this route, just make sure it is good and not that bulk wine in big bottles from the bottom shelf.
Another tip if you are hosting a party is to write guests’ names directly onto their wine glasses with a Sharpie to identify whose glass it is. The ink won’t smudge, but it will still come off with warm soap and water. If you worry that it won’t come off your nice glasses, then test try it first.
A few nights ago, I dined at a fabulous restaurant in Chicago called Alinea. I am not going to review the restaurant as it is well known as a great place to eat, and in 2006 Gourmet magazine named it the best restaurant in the country. It is good; very very very good, and I am not going to be able to contribute to that discussion.
What I will say is that the eating experience at Alinea under Chef Grant Achatz was a singularly amazing experience. And even though Chef Achatz’s style is often termed molecular gastronomy, I didn’t feel that to be the defining style. If I were to describe it I would say it is the foodie equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It was haute cuisine, molecular gastronomy, a gourmet theme park, and a food fantasy land — it was essentially food cabaret at its finest.
Even when you enter the restaurant, it is whimsical and amusingly confusing. The entrance is angular and narrows and the ceiling height also drops as you progress down the hallway. You are part of an illusion. In fact, it is very much like the part in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when they approach the tiny door entrance to Wonka’s factory. But here, as you walk towards the illusory small entrance, a motion sensor opens the real door to reveal a bustling restaurant full of food, diners, and wait staff. You have entered culinary Wonkaland.
But before describing the food, I have to say something about the service. It is impossible to compare the food service at Alinea to that of a regular restaurant; it is a different breed altogether. They take care of you in micro dining rooms within the restaurant, and their every move contributes to the wonder of your meal. At one point, a waiter asked, “I see you are drinking your wine with your left hand. Would you prefer to have your glass on the other side?” And that sounds absurd and made me chuckle at first, but once you eat there it makes sense. The staff setting the table were more akin to an architect drawing up plans or an artist constructing a mosaic. The placement of every dish was important and precise, so the placing of a wine glass was no less important. In other words — it made sense.
So now for the food. As opposed to most American restaurants, you cannot order off a menu. There is only a choice between a smaller ‘tasting’ menu and a larger ‘tour’ menu, and the menu changes about four times a year. The price and courses are set, and frankly the cost is not for the faint of heart, but save up and go at least once in your life if you take food seriously; the experience won’t disappoint. You can order wine from a wine list, but they also have a wine pairing menu that is amazing. It comes at a pretty steep price though, so be prepared to budget for it.
With that said, here are some of the wonder food highlights:
- A lightly breaded pheasant ball pierced with a small oak leaf twig and the leaves were smoldering to give a burning leaf aroma. You eat it like a twig skewer.
- A passion fruit injected with ingredients to make it taste like the famous New Orleans drink: a hurricane. The waiter uses a scissors to open the passion fruit top and you scoop out the fruit as it sits on a glass tube.
- A plate comes out on a pillow that is filled with nutmeg-air that slowly deflates and spreads the aroma of nutmeg as you eat.
- A gulp of potato soup in a small waxen dish comes with an acupuncture needle piercing the wax and suspending some butter, Parmesan, a potato ball and truffle shaving above the soup. You pull out the pin to drop the garnish into the soup and gulp it down. (This dish is pictured above.)
But I think the most amazing dish came at the end. A waiter came over and said, “Can I please remove your water glasses; it will be better that way.” So they clean off the table completely, and you are left to wonder what will come next. Then they place in the center of the table a silicon tablecloth, and two staff unfurl it to leave you with a rubberized table top. Yes, a rubber table. And you just sit there waiting expectantly for the next food wonder to arrive.
Next a young attendant comes out and organizes a set of dishes with zen-like precision on the far end of the table so we can’t see inside. Again, food and wonder are key. Then a chef comes out and proceeds to construct a desert that is placed directly on the rubber table top. He takes broad utensil strokes with a sauce here and there; dribbles tiny droplets; and describes each stroke in the process. It is more like a painting than a dessert. Then they deposit some chocolate that was chilled with liquid nitrogen right in the middle along with other ingredients in piles. That is dessert, and you eat it directly off the table.
At this point we were the first in the room to have dessert, and all eyes were looking at our table. People laughed, stared, and wondered and then did it some more. We were part of the entertainment, and it was an amazing dessert.
So that is Alinea: it is food and entertainment in the best of unimaginable ways, and you are part of it. Chef Achatz will almost literally bring out the snozberries and everlasting gobstoppers and you play your part and eat with amusing surprise. And though the staff aren’t Oompa Loompas, they provide just as much whimsy and wonder as they convey the food to your table. To this day it has been the most amazing eating experience of my life.
For those interested, there are a several online resources focused on Alinea. Two sites: Alineaphile and Alinea at Home are dedicated to all things related to the restaurant’s food and reproducing the dishes at home. They are great resources if you want to experiment with this style of food.
You can also visit the the official sister sites to Alinea such as Alinea Mosaic and Alinea Oenophilia. These sites will give recipes and information about the wines and equipment that accompany the restaurant’s food. You can even subscribe to a wine club where they will send you the wine-pairing bottles for each quarterly menu.
Lastly, if you want to know more about Chef Grant Achatz and his recent battle with tongue cancer that left him temporarily without the sense of taste, there is a good NPR story on him. It is very interesting.
Gourmet has a very interesting cocktail history called ‘Favorite Cocktails 1941-2009‘. Unfortunately, Gourmet is closing down operations, but their website will remain active for a ‘transitional’ period. What that means, I am not sure, but I will be mining the site in coming months in anticipation of its closure.
Not only is the cocktail summary of each decade informational (and short), but the descriptions of each drink are also worthy of reading as they contain interesting drink history. But what I love most about this web production is threefold: (1) the photography is beautiful (2) the glassware is stunning and (3) it makes browsing cocktails fun. Lists of cocktail recipes in books and magazines are fine but can be rather overwhelming; however, the design of this site alleviates that problem and invites one to enter and explore.
There is one problem though, the last decade (the 2000s) will probably never be finished. It says on the site that it will be up on 13 October and still has not surfaced, but with the closure of the magazine, I somehow doubt it will be completed. Too bad.
Now back to the glassware. The glasses they have on display are amazing. Yes, a lot of what they show is very pricey crystal, but some items are affordable. Just take a look at the Alessi glass above. The ‘Mami’ Martini Glass is simple and elegant. It sells for $126 for a set of six. Not cheap — I know — but not that expensive either. The measured mixing glass is from Mister Mojito and costs $45. You can find dozens of example of great barware and stemware at this site.
This Lady Absinthe Fountain is really beautiful and is bordering on affordable if you buy the Two-Spout Absinthe Fountain from Amazon.com ($185), but then again it is just to dispense water and you have to like absinthe. And then you have to buy great glasses to go with it and some silver absinthe spoons too. You can’t put regular glasses under a fountain like this.
The four-spout version to the right will cost $245.
I have seen these conversation card sets called Table Topics rated very highly on Amazon and ran across one in a cooking magazine about a year ago. Basically, they are simple conversation starters but they can be used for parties or other gatherings to start people talking and to get to know one another.
The Table Topics Conversation Cards – Gourmet Edition (right) would be great for foodie gifts or dinner parties. Also, if driving around wine country the travel edition of Topics To Go – Wine would be fun. Again, reviews of these sets are usually postive, though if you have a strained relationship with your spouse, partner or family, you may want to stay away from some of the sets that raise bigger more contentious issues. There are numerous sets for different groups and situations: for couples, families, travel, girls night out, ‘right and wrong’, bachelorette party, kids, religion and for the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
You can see the whole range of Table Topics sets at my Amazon Store under games and toys.