Thursday, January 21, 2010

McGrath's Fish House

If, prior to last Christmas, someone had told me that the blog's first restaurant review would be for McGrath's, I wouldn't have believed them. At Christmas, however, we received a $50 gift card for the place, so here it is.

We ate there a couple of times our first year here. I recollect the last time we were there I ordered the crab cakes. These turned out to be about one half crab and one half small pink wormlike thingies I was told were "bay" shrimp. We can't recollect what Kathy had, but we do recall that she was not pleased either.

But with the gift card not being redeemable anywhere else, we decided to give it another try, and picked last Monday (January 18th) to do it.

The restaurant was at only about 40% capacity, and that, coupled with the fact that some effort has been made to control sound volume (a ceiling of absorbant tiles, an array of potted plants dividing the main dining room) made for a thankfully quiet experience.

We first ordered drinks, a glass of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay for me, and a peach margarita for Kathy. Although the variant of K-J was not given, I'm pretty sure it was the "Grand Reserve" bottling, which is a decent one. Kathy's margarita was good too, not too sweet, but the salt on the rim was a bit sparse.

After listening to our server describe the evening's specials, we decided to order a couple of those. In my case it was the six ounce lobster and for Kathy it was the Steelhead Oscar, which our server described as having a topping of shrimp and crabmeat. We had no reason not to believe that, because an "Oscar" dish usually uses crabmeat (go plug oscar and recipe into Google if you don't believe me). Both of these entrées were priced at $16.99.

We'd opted for the house salads, and these were okay, fairly fresh and with enough ingredients to be interesting. The bread was a rustic sourdough, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, and served with butter soft enough to be spreadable.

So far, so good.

Things went south when we received our entrées. My lobster was bland and a bit dry, and served at only slightly above room temperature. Likewise the baked potato was only warm. As for Kathy's fish, the topping contained no crab, only small pink thingies that I recognized as the "bay" shrimp of unhappy memory. These were dry and had the telltale metallic flavor that announces, "we've been frozen!" The fish, topping and sides were, like my lobster and potato, served lukewarm.

We called our server over, who admitted that she'd erred when describing the topping as including crab. We asked her to take it back, which she did. Shortly thereafter the manager appeared, with menu in hand. He pointed to the description, which indeed listed only shrimp. Our server reappeared, repeating her admission that she'd described it as including crab. The manager offered to replace the topping with one of dungeness crab, and we agreed to that.

Several minutes later Kathy's plate reappeared with a new toppping. It did appear to be crab, and seemed to be fresh, but it was cold (and by that I mean refrigerator cold, not merely room temperature). Kathy ate about three bites, then gave up.

Hoping that dessert might partially rescue the evening, we ordered a single serving of the "Mile High Mud Pie". This turned out to be a serving for at least three or four, consisting of a large wedge of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, with a chocolate cookie crust and chocolate syrup and nut topping. We ate about half of it and took the other half home, to be finished a couple of nights later.

The experience was mostly positive, but the temperature at which the entrées were served was simply not acceptable. Cold crab on top of cold fish is unpalatable, and this alone is sufficient reason for us to never return to this restaurant.

I suppose this is a "win-win" outcome, as McGrath's certainly packs 'em in on weekend evenings. They don't need my business, and thus have no motivation to improve their standards. Sadly, this does not reflect well on their clientele either, who apparently see nothing wrong with the place.

But you know, that's one of the goals of this blog: to raise the consciousness of those dining out in Corvallis. We've had an ongoing discussion about this with several friends, all of whom agree that many (if not most) of Corvallis' residents have never experienced truly fine dining, and - not knowing what they're missing - think they're being served good food when, in fact, they are not.

So we'll call 'em like we see 'em. If it's bad, we'll say so, and if it's good, we'll emphatically say so, and urge you to try the place yoursellf. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Evan Williams Single Barrel 2000 Vintage

Back in 1995 Heaven Hill Distillery released its first bottling of Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon. Although not the first-ever vintage dated bourbon, it's the longest running of those currently on the market. Made from whiskey in barrels selected by master distiller Parker Beam, this nine year old bourbon quickly established a reputation as a top quality whiskey. The 1992, 1994 and 1995 vintages are held in particularly high esteem by the bourbon cognoscenti.

In 1996 disaster struck. The company's distillery, located in Bardstown, Kentucky, was destroyed by fire. Although the fire also destroyed some of the warehouses, most of the these (and their thousands of barrels of whiskey) survived, so HH had plenty of whiskey available for their numerous other brands and expressions. With EWSB being a vintage dated product, however, some way had to be found to produce some each year until the company again had an operating distillery.

Most of 1996 vintage was produced under contract at Jim Beam and the 1997, 1998 and 1999 by Brown-Forman at their Louisville distillery (where Old Forester and Early Times are produced). These were okay, but did not equal those that had been produced entirely within HH's own facilities.

In 1999 the company purchased the United Distillers plant in Louisville. This was a realtively new distillery (completed in 1992), equipped with two giant stainless steel stills and a high level of automation. In early 2000 Heaven Hill commenced producing and barreling whiskey destined to become EWSB. In late October of 2009, amid much fanfare, the first barrel was opened. One of those in attendence was John Hansell, publisher/editor of The Malt Advocate magazine, who gave it a highly favorable review.

I'd been keeping an eye out for it and when some appeared at the Washington Street liquor store in mid December I bought a bottle and took it home. I poured out a sample, along with a similar quantity of the 1994 for comparison.

Both whiskies showed a wonderfuly harmonious combination of caramel corn, spice, vanilla and oak. The aromas and flavors seemed a bit more assertive in the 2000 than the 1994, though that could be partly because the '94 has been open for a while.

For me, this is definitely the best one since the 1995, and I'll be buying more. It's also a relative bargain, at $27.45, especially compared to other vintage dated bourbons (Old Forester "Birthday Bourbon" goes for $38, and the five whiskies in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection go for a budget-busting $77 each). In fact, you have to spend at least $36.95 on a bottle of Wild Turkey "Rare Breed" to get a bourbon of comparable quality.

I did notice an odd thing on the back label, however:

Barreled 10-7-09
Barrel 16
Bottled on 3-30-00

Which is likely an error, but it's fun to believe that a young lady named Bright was involved.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Leinenkugels in Oregon

I'm a fifth-generation Wisconsonian. My parents were from Eau Claire, and my mother's parents had a cottage on a lake north of Chippewa Falls, the home of Leinenkugel's brewery. Leine's was my grandfather's favorite brew, and it was always around whenever we went up to visit. In the old family album there is one pic of me at ten months, sitting on the floor and playing with empty Leine's bottles, and another of me at two years, standing at my grandfather's knee and drinking from his bottle.

We moved to Florida when I was seven, but we never really lost our Wisconsin roots. I grew up cheering for the Packers, and the annual summer vacation was always spent up at the lake. Though I went through a phase where my favorite brew was root beer, by my mid teens I was back to drinking the good stuff. In those days Leinenkugel's made only a lager, with a small batch of bock beer in the spring.

In the mid seventies I found myself attending graduate school at the U of W in Madison. Most of the local bars had Leine's on tap. By this time the company was also producing a light beer, something they apparently felt they had to do to stay competitive (I don't think they make it anymore, and I doubt it's missed).

After finishing school I returned to Florida, but managed to drive up every two or three years, always returning with several cases. A long drive, but worth it.

In 1988 Leine's was acquired by Miller. My first reaction to this was horror, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Production of the lager and the light shifted to Milwaukee, and the Chippewa brewery began to focus on craft beers. A "Red Lager" was followed by an a "Northwoods Lager" and an "Auburn Ale" (this last a favorite of mine). Others followed, including the now-legendary "Big Butt" dopplebock. In the 1990s they started producing wheat beers, starting with the "Honey Weiss" and later the lambic style "Berry Weiss". Unfortunately production capacity was limited at the old (1867) Chippewa brewery, and the "Berry Weiss" squeezed out the "Auburn Ale", much to my dismay.

At one point during the last twenty years (I can't remember exactly when) Leinenkugel's was available in Florida for a couple of years. It didn't last; I guess their reach exceed their grasp. When Kathy and I visited Wisconsin in 2003, I left believing I'd never have the opportunity to drink it again.

I arrived in Oregon in late December of 2006, and Kathy remained in Tallahasse for a couple of more months. During a mid January phone call, she said, "You'll never guess what I saw in the beer section at Albertsons today..."

Not that I was suffering here. If there's anyplace in the USA that can claim to be beer-drinker-heaven-on-earth, it's Oregon. With Widmer, Deschutes, Full Sail, Rogue, Ninkasi and others to choose from, our steins runneth over with excellent brew.

Nonetheless, last autumn when I received an E-Mail from a friend in Portland informing me that he'd seen Leinenkugel's at an Albertsons up there, I immediately headed for the local one. Sure enough, there on the top shelf were both the "Classic Amber" and the "Sunset Wheat". I immediately grabbed a sixpack of the former and took it home. I'd never had this expression before, but found it to be beautifully balanced beer, nice and malty with floral notes and medium hoppiness. There's been some at the house ever since (I haven't tried the "Sunset Wheat", not being a big fan of wheat beers).

In addition to Albertsons, I've seen it at the Albany Fred Meyers, though it's yet to appear at the Corvallis one.

Not that I've forsaken Oregon brew. Our "go to" stout remains Deschutes "Obsidian" and when I feel like an IPA there's a good chance it's going to be Ninkasi "Total Domination". During the hot summer months there are few beers  as refreshing as a well-chilled Deschutes "Twilight".

But a lot of the time it's going to be Leine's "Classic Amber". If that means I'll never truly be an Oregonian, so be it.

After all, I still cheer for the Packers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hard Times Distillery

New distilleries are popping up in Oregon faster than mushrooms after a summer rain. This time three years ago there were only ten; currently the number is approaching twenty five. Most are small, variously called "boutique", "craft", "artisan" or "micro" distilleries. We had one in Corvallis for a while (Ransom), during the early years of the 201st decade, but in 2004 it relocated to the greener pastures of McMinnville.

But just down the road, in the thriving metropolis of Monroe, another one is starting up. Located in a former granary just north of the Broadley winery, Hard Times Distillery will begin producing vodka and whiskey within the next few months.

It's been a year since owners Dudley Clark and James Stegall began the process of finding a location, obtaining the required permissions and permits from federal, state and municipal authorities, purchasing all the parts and pieces and assembling them into a functioning distillery. There are still a number of items yet to come in, such as a column for the second still and barrels for aging the whiskey, but they're getting very close.

Initially the partners plan to produce their spirits from rye. A number of vodkas are made from this grain (Sobieski, Square One, Belvedere) and rye whiskey has been around even longer than bourbon. Since the end of prohibition most rye whiskies are made partially from corn and malted barley (a typical "mashbill" being 60% rye, 30% corn and 10% malted barley). At Hard Times, however, the goal is to produce a 100% rye spirit. "I'm a purist," says Dudley Clark, "and I'd like to avoid using anything else."

The trick with this, of course, will be getting the rye starch to convert into sugar. Unless you add enzymes (something Clark hopes to avoid), then the mash needs to contain a portion of malted grain (grain allowed to partly germinate, which generates natural enzymes that convert starch to sugar). Barley malt is very good for this, rye malt not as much. As of January 10th, Clark has not made a final decision.

The next step is fermentation, and rye is a notoriously difficult grain to ferment, with a tendency to "ball up" into clumps. Clark is investigating solutions to this as well.

Their target for initial production is the end of February. High proof spirit will be produced and bottled as vodka, lower proof will go into barrels, ultimately to be bottled as whiskey. Some of the latter may be bottled in as soon as four or six months, not a long time for whiskey, but the partners need to recoup some of their investment. "We're pretty close to maxed out," says Clark.

Assuming all goes well, longer range plans might include wasabi-infused vodka, and a vodka made from wine. Perhaps even gin (dare we hope for a genever style?).

In any event, I plan to be first in line for both the vodka and the whiskey, and you'll be seeing my reviews here. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cindy's Mom's Broccoli Casserole

I was first served this back in the early 1980s, by a friend named Cindy. I asked for the recipe, and was handed a card that read "Mom's Broccoli Casserole", hence the name. Of course, Kathy and those to whom I 've served it call it "Scott's Broccoli Casserole". Copyright laws being what they are, I've chosen to publish it under its original name.

This has become a traditional Thanksgiving dish in the Stursa household, and I'm frequently asked for the recipe, including at the most recent turkey fest. Posting it here seems an efficient response, because now I can just say, "read the blog."

So here it is:

2 cups fresh broccoli florets (about one inch size)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 can cream of mushroom soup
2 eggs
1 medium onion, preferably sweet
1/2 cup cornbread stuffing (try to avoid the powdery stuff at the bottom of the bag)
2/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese (sharp is better)

1. Cook broccoli until just tender (or, as the Italian people say, al dente), drain and let cool.
2. Dice onion.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 for you metric types).
4. Combine broccoli, mayo, soup, eggs and onion in a medium mixing bowl.
5. Try not to think about what it looks like.
6. Gently fold in the stuffing.
7. See Step 5.
8. Lightly grease the inside of a two quart casserole dish with butter (yes, I know 99% of you didn't need the word "inside", but I guess have to take into account the other 1%).
9. Pour the mixture into the casserole dish, again trying not to think about what it looks like.
10. Cover with the shredded cheddar cheese, just thick enough so that you can't see any of the mix (looks better now, doesn't it?).
11. Scatter around about five or six little dabs of butter on top.
12. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes.

Serves 4-6

Doubling up.
Double the each of the ingredients, except I usually use five eggs. Our larger casserole dish is only two inches deep (10 by 10 inches square) and the quantity is a bit much for that, so I usually put some of the mix and cheese into a "petite" casserole, partly to ensure that I still have some after the dinner party. Also I usually up the cooking temp a bit (to 360) and increase the cooking time to 35 minutes.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oil and Vinegar

Anyone who's dined out in recent years knows that many restaurants offer, as an accompaniment to the complimentary bread basket, olive oil and balsamic vinegar in lieu of butter. When Kathy and I were planning our annual Winter Solstice dinner (a northern Italian theme, centered around Ossa Buco) we decided we'd like to do the same, using a premium olive oil and our favorite balsamic vinegar.

Being somewhat suspicious of Italian oils (last year a friend sent me the link to this rather disturbing article), I decided to look for a good California oil, so when I found myself at the Market of Choice in Eugene early in December, I wandered over to the cooking oils section and scanned the shelves. I spotted a couple of offerings from B R Cohn, which also happens to be a winery. Fondly recollecting one of their Zinfandels, I purchased a 375ml bottle of their Organic Extra Virgin (about $15).

When I got home with this we opened it and sampled a spoonful. It had very pure, clean olive aroma and flavor, and I wondered well, why wouldn't an olive oil taste like olives? For that matter, why wouldn't all olive oils taste like olives?

So on the evening of our Solstice dinner, we poured some into a shallow bowl and added several generous drops of our favorite balsamic vinegar, Romantica Gran Reserva. This is a wonderful vinegar, introduced to us by Kent Steele of Clusters and Hops back in Tallahassee (if, by some undoubtedly bizarre circumstance, you ever find yourself in TLH, you should definitely pay this place a visit). It's a rich, deep, sweet vinegar that improves nearly anything to which it's added.

The combination was great, and everyone agreed it was a wonderful dip for the bread (though some credit for this goes to the bread itself, being fresh home-baked brought by our friends Mike and Barbara).

Market of Choice offers only the "Extra Virgin" and the "Organic Extra Virgin", but a visit to the B R Cohn website reveals that they have an extensive line of oils, both flavored and unflavored, all of which can be ordered directly from the website. There are a couple I'm sure we'll try, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The Corvallis Epicurean blog is the successor to my newsletter, Living Well in the Heart of the Valley, which I published from November of 2008 through May of 2009. Both the newsletter and the blog are devoted to epicurean pursuits and focusing on Corvallis and the surrounding area. To forestall any confusion about the subtitle, I want to assure you that I am not here to discuss wellness, a term which, in contemporary usage, has come to be associated with a life-style characterized by health foods and homeopathic remedies. Mind you, I'm not promoting a diet of pork rinds and milk shakes, but I am among those who question whether the life of an ascetic is one really worth living.

Posts here will include, but are not limited to, reviews of restaurants, wines, beer, spirits and descriptions of wineries, breweries, distilleries and food venues. There will also be posts about entertainment events and even the occasional editorial.

Finally, I am dedicated to the proposition that living well need not be expensive, and I will be making an effort to promote those products and establishments which offer value. In these economically uncertain times, I and everyone I know are hoping to maximize the return on their dollar, and it’s my intention to seek out and report opportunities to do just that.