While Pilsner Urquell is the more well known Czech beer in the U.S., and rightly so, it’s pretty special, its Czech brother Staropramen might just be even better. Not just because one is a pilsner and the other lager. And not just because it’s harder to come by, and therefore more elusive and special- because it stands as well on its own as it does with food. Urquell, while terrific in both respects as well, falls a hair short by itself, because it’s so much lighter, which makes for an ideal meal companion, and drinkability, but on its own the flavor is not so impressionable that it would ever have you savoring the aftertaste. Whereas Staropramen is all of that and a bag of yum. Crisp. With a longer, more complex taste. And a much stronger finish that could put most Olympic gymnasts to shame.
McSorley’s Dark Ale (pictured)
For my micro brew bestie I have to give it up to McSorley’s in New York City. It’s the oldest bar in Manhattan offering up only two beers since 1854, McSorley’s Ale and McSorley’s Dark Ale (pictured). Served in biblical proportions. No seriously. This isn’t an exaggeration. It’s a Noah’s ark business model. They only serve their beers in twos. And while both are great, I’m a bit partial to the dark. It has a Negro Modelo vibe about it, but with a little more ester to it. If you’re in NYC for a visit or live there, this place is a must for a glass of beer. Well, technically two glasses. Or four… Or six… They go pretty quickly.
If you’re getting sushi you have two options as far as I’m concerned. Sake or Sapporo. Screw Asahi and save the green tea for dessert. Sapporo is the perfect companion. Made remarkably smooth with the use of rice, which is perhaps part of why it grooves so well with Japanese cuisine. In fact, it goes so well, it’s almost as if it were purposefully engineered to go specifically with sushi. Well, be it the case or not, suffice it to say that Sapporo is the Sonny Bono to raw fish’s Cher.
I’m not exactly sure why any other stout beer exists, because they’re all trying to be like Mike. And they all fall miserably short. Tasting like the hops took a shit in your glass. But not Guiness. Oh no. This stout manages to caress your buds in a lather as smooth as milk. But the craziest thing is that while most stouts are very heavy and highly caloric, Guinness is neither. The only nit is that she’s a temperamental brew. She doesn’t like to sit around, so make sure you’re getting your pint from a place that pours a lot of it, otherwise don’t even bother. And while the bottle and can versions are much improved over the years, they still don’t compare to the likes of a well-poured pint from the keg.
This newest comer to the list exploded onto the scene about ten years ago and shook up the beer category so much that it needed Dramamine to recover. In fact, this Belgian Wheat is so damn good it’s the only one that I keep stocked in my house. Goes great with seafood, burgers, dogs and pizza. And while it’s often served with a slice of orange, don’t discount it as a fruity, fru fru brew. It’s just as great sans slice, and better than every other Belgian beer I’ve had.
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale
As the only non-mass beer on the list, I feel the need to go above and beyond to say just how special this beer is. If you should be so lucky as to happen upon a tap, be sure to order it. Spare no expense, because it will pay for itself on the first sip. You have never tasted anything this special in beerhood. Forget the opulence of Chimay, although I must admit it sort of reminded of the creamy Belgian, but instead of deriving its cool from brewing it in a monastery, Kentucky pulls a trump card and brews it in actual bourbon barrels, as the name suggests. The result layers the beer with incredibly complex notes that subtly spring to life in your mouth. Balanced by a hint of sweetness, the takeaway becomes smooth and creamy. And while the alcohol content is a bit higher than the others, it’s surprisingly easy to drink. Perhaps too easy.
In all fairness it’s hard to beat Heinz. I mean, I can’t even begin to count how many restaurants have tired to make their own “homemade” ketchup and failed miserably in the process. And Hunt’s? Please. I’d rather put hair on my burger. But as indomitable as Heinz is, after it’s glorious 113 year reign at the top, the king has finally been pushed off it’s thrown… by a queen.
Annie’s Ketchup not only tastes more like it’s made from real tomatoes, it also manages not to taste too healthy either. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment but I mean it in the best way possible. After all, it’s not like Heinz is the bastion of wholesome ingredients. It taste the way it does because of vinegar and judicious amounts of sugar. Well, I’m not sure how Annie’s goes about it, but whatever they do, they make my heart sing. Because they give you the best of both worlds.
Of all the condiments out there, no other add-on completes me like mustard. I mean, first of all, just think about how diverse it is by comparison to other condiments. You’ve got your spicy, your deli, your yellow, your Asian, your textured, your sweet, your alcoholic- It’s enough to give ketchup and mayonnaise a complex. But perhaps my favorite thing about mustard is that it’s one of the only things in the edible universe that I sincerely love, and isn’t highly caloric and fattening. In short, mustard is the Ultimate condiment. And within that Ultimate, here are a few Ultimates:
Cape Cod Cranberry Mustard
South of New England, this mustard can be a little hard to find. But it’s not like you need to go to any fancy store to buy it. Stop & Shops seem to be the best bet (perhaps because they are a New England based chain). If there’s no Stop & Shop close to you, it’s worth the road trip (or odering online). I say buy a half dozen jars because you will be plowing through them like Walking Dead plows through zombie extras. It’s spicy and sweet and tart all at the same time, turning every sandwich it touches into an event.
If you’re a texture lover like me- preferring crunchy peanut butter over smooth and lots of pulp OJ over no pulp than Maille is your mustard. A 260 year old seeded mustard, born in the old country (France), and packed with so much flavor it can do just about everything apart from folding the laundry. It’s awesome for grilling. For baked fish, for salad dressing, for making dips, on sandwiches, on burgers, on Donner and Blitzin! In fact, the only mustard that’s even close to as versatile as Maille, is Grey Poupon, which brings me to mustard number 3.
Pardon me, but if you don’t have any Grey Poupon you should take a glove and slap yourself across the face. It’s so easy to come by and so friggin’ good you almost wonder why any other mustard exists. And like Maille it’s incredibly versatile. Maybe even more so. If a mustard could win the Noble Peace Prize I feel like Grey Poupon would have a very strong case. But just one caveat, there is the smooth original and a seeded version more like Maille. Both are excellent, but head to head on the seeded side, I go Maille, whereas Maille also makes a smooth kind and head to head with Grey Poupon, I give it to the Grey.
Moutarde De Meaux, Pommery
This last one is MUCH harder to come by unless you live in France or New England where mustard is basically a substitute for religion. Fortunately you can always order it online from Amazon.com for those not favorably in geographic proximity. Double fortunately, Maille is VERY similar and much easier to find if you don’t feel like ordering online, booking a flight or driving to the Northeast. The only difference for me is that Pommery is a touch stronger and the seeds are a teeny bit smaller, making the texture slightly smoother. The packaging is also the best of the bunch, served in an old fashioned earthenware crock with a red wax seal (apparently unchanged, as is the recipe, since 1632).
Steve’s Ice Cream
Habanero Carrot, Bourbon Vanilla, Mexican Chili Chocolate, Scotch Chocolate. I’m sorry, but Ben and who? And it’s not just the ridonkulous flavors that make these pints evaporate faster than a teardrop in the Sahara- and no, it’s not the booze either, although it doesn’t hurt. It’s the cream. It’s so velvety it’s as though you are eating frozen cashmere. Sorry, I’m running out of metaphors and similes. But the point is that it’s more cream than ice, which makes for a very rich, very worthwhile cheat. Or reward. However you roll. Pick it up at Whole Foods or you can order directly online.
When it comes to jarred pickles it’s pretty hard to get excited. Most of them pale in comparison to the ones you find at good, Jewish Delis, farmer’s markets and Fairway Supermarkets. But there is one that I would dare say holds its own against the best of the best.
Divine Brine is aptly named because heavenly they are. Sweet and mustardy and vinegary and awesomey. As well as Brooklyny, but you can order them online I believe. That said, be warned, they are sliced the short way and they are bread and butter, not dill. And not half sour. But they are full-on kickass, making everything they touch better. Sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, salads, lobster rolls, straight up with wine and cheese- hell, they’re so good I wish I was a woman so I could get pregnant and then have them with ice cream. Okay, things got a little weird there, didn’t they?
One of the oldest meals in world is still one of the best, as far as I’m concerned. Wine and cheese. It is literally without equal when you consider just how low maintenance it is in terms of preparation (for those of us who simply have to buy it), while still managing to come off classy and dare I say, special. Just try pulling this off with any other “pre-prepared” meal, like a frozen pizza.
But the trick is to know which cheese to buy. Enter Humboldt Fog, the Compost Cookie (Momofuku Milk Bar) of cheeses, meaning that they’ve thrown just about every possible ingredient you can imagine into this thing, and the result is a medium-creamy, bleu-ish jack-of-all-trades. I mean this cheese goes with everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. You can have it by itself. You can have it in an omelet. You can have it on a burger or hotdog. You can have it with spicy peppers or buttery prosciutto. You can even have it on a boat with a goat. But bland it’s not. It doesn’t go with everything simply by playing a supporting role. Oh no. This cheese will make its presence felt no matter where you put it, so don’t try sticking baby in a corner.
And speaking of corners, the best part about Humboldt Fog is that it’s easy to find, right around the corner from virtually everyone. It’s at every Whole Foods. Plus, you can also buy it online directly from the makers at Cypress Grove, from Murray’s and even on Amazon. So once they get those drones going you can literally air drop some Humboldt fog right at your doorstep. Which could get dangerous. Bon appetite!
I don’t know about you, but I friggin’ love cereal in the morning. Granted I love all breakfast food- Okay so I love all food. Whatever. The point is this. Cereal is the only thing I can eat more than twice a week. So, considering I’ve lived roughly four and a half decades, you can do the math and assume that I’ve basically downed an assload of cereal in that time. And within those hordes of bowls, you can image I’ve tried my share of granolas, cereal at its best. So, here are my top 5 in descending order of greatness:
5. “House Blend” by Baked.
This granola is nuts. No seriously. It’s basically a bag of all sorts of nuts from hazel to almond with a sprig of granola and dried fruit thrown in. So, you’d think that I’d ding it for this, but somehow they pull it off. Granted I don’t know if I could hork down an entire bowl of this alone, but when mixed with other cereals (Kashi Blueberry Clusters & Trader Joe’s Frosted Maple Squares) it sings.
4. “Apple Crumble” by Love Crunch
Not sure I need to say much more than the name. I mean, who doesn’t love an apple crumble? Assholes. That’s who. So, assuming you are not an asshole and loves you some crumble, it’s a safe bet that you’re gonna love it just as much in a bowl with milk.
3. “Maple Pancake” by Paleonola
Okay, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not the kind of guy who loves flavored cereals. For example, Cinnamon Toast Crunch is probably the most vile thing I’ve ever had in a bowl, and yes, that’s including dog food, but, this really is quite a treat. Like two breakfasts in one. Granted I’m not sure I could down an entire bowl of this stuff all by itself, but it definitely makes whatever else is in the bowl that much more delicious.
2 “Chocolate Cherry” by Food Emporium Trading Company
All right, I know it’s crazy. I know there are a TON of other chocolate granolas out there. I even know that they probably use better ingredients. But what they all lack is balance. They all take the chocolate thing too far and it starts to taste more like dessert than cereal. Granted I’m okay with that for the Apple Crumble for a very good reason. I’m human. So I’m allowed to contradict myself as much as the next schmuck. So where was I? Oh yes. The balance it perfect. The cherries aren’t sweetened, so they bring a touch of bitterness. The almonds add nuttiness. And the chocolate is just enough to let you know its there, but not enough to make you feel guilty.
2. “Fruit, Nut & Fiber Museli” by Dorset Cereals
Here is the zag. The copout. Not only could I not stick to 5 granolas by playing the “tied for second” card, but to make matters worse, it’s a museli! Sorry. But as far as I’m concerned they’re the same friggin’ thing. One’s a less crunchy version of the other, because it’s not mixed with some sort of congealing agent like honey or molasses. But it’s time the two came together as one and we broke down the Berlin wall of breakfast. But enough defensiveness. I stand by my nomination. This cereal has it all. Loaded with all sorts of ingredients that all seem to pop off your spoon. I can only assume it’s due to the quality of ingredients. Unfortunately, however, they make you pay handsomely for those mixings. And ever since they shrank the box by nearly 40% and kept the price the same, it’s a bit ridiculous. But I do still love it.
1. “Granola” by Le Pain Quotidien
While it’s not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think granola, it should be. Sure they have great salads and pastries and tartines and coffee, but none of that is important. What is important is that this granola, like the museli above, has everything you could ever want. And all of it booms with flavor. For example the coconut shavings alone make this puppy sing. But I think the true secret behind its greatness lies in the honey. I’m guessing they use something pretty special to bond those beautiful clusters together. Whatever it is, I’m buying. Regardless of the absurd price.
Now, hopefully you’re sitting down for this one, because I’m not sure if you’re aware that one of the finest chocolate morsels you will ever stick in your puss just happens to be made by the one and only Whole Foods.
Yes, you heard me correct. Whole Foods makes caramels covered in a wonderfully bitter dark chocolate, which they then top with a very pure sea salt. And as these three painfully simple ingredients collide inside your mouth it’s as if Mozart were resurrected, turned into a chocolatier, and told to play a symphony for your taste buds.
This is no exaggeration. They are THAT good. Up there with Rich Art and Anna Shea- granted nowhere near as visually stunning.
That’s it. There’s really nothing else for me to say other than…World. Rocked.