Monday, June 10, 2013

Client Profile: Mala Sichuan

We’re delighted to announce that Mala Sichuan has a shiny, pretty new beverage program courtesy of PSA Wines. In contrast to our work with Paulie’s, which was a tune-up, this project was the creation of a new list from the ground up.  

Sichuan cuisine was a fascinating challenge to us, because most people don’t try very hard to pair beverages with it. The Sichuan peppercorn - which causes a tingly, palate-numbing sensation, has the ability to confound almost all wine and beer pairings. This is why few diners ever venture farther than Tsingtao lager with this cuisine. When we first learned about Mala Sichuan, we thought it would be thrilling to take a crack at pairing with this distinctive, intense style of food.

In terms of food and wine pairing, our researched indicated Sichuan cuisine was still largely an untamed wilderness. Much of the work done with pairing wine with Sichuan food was being done on a BYOB basis (as many wine and Chinese food pairings are). A Sichuan restaurant with a built-in beverage program that explicitly flattered the food was almost unheard of.

Our imagination was tingling, like we had sprinkled Sichuan Peppercorns on the surface of our brains. Someone needed to do this. We asked husband and wife team Heng and Cori if they were interested in letting us work with them. They accepted, and we did our best to not squeal like children with glee. Heng asked initially, “I like sweet wines. Are those considered good?”

Doing my best to conceal my excitement, I said “We’re gonna get along just fine, you guys.”

German Riesling with considerable sugar content was the only easy choice. Sugar and acid can tango gracefully with the peppercorn, and we settled on Leitz Dragonstone as a value-driven option to combat the hurricane of spice some 3 alarm dishes deliver. We also found a nice demi-sec vouvray from Pinon (which may change based on availability, but it’s a hell of a good producer to start with). Things get trickier when you remove sugar from the playing field. We knew champagne tested well, but we needed a more affordable option- not counting on champagne prices to work well. We summoned Treveri brut sparkling chardonnay from Washington as our sparkling wine. Finally, we rounded it out with an herbaceous, crispy Gruner Vertliner from Domane Wachau in Austria.

I was forgetting something, maybe on purpose. I tried to sneak by without a red wine. Heng and Cori insisted, and they were right to do so, I’m just stubborn. We brought in a cru Beaujolais from Jean-Paul Brun, which has intensity, but not so much tannin that it would be discombobulated by the Sichuan peppercorn.

We had wine down, but wine can’t carry a massive Sichuan meal by itself. It was time to call the loose cannon that gets results at any cost: beer.

We sighed a breath of relief that hops worked well here. A classic California IPA like Stone worked wonders across the board with the spiciest dishes, but came off a little heavy-handed with delicate dishes.

Wheat beer was the last thing we expected to work well. Convention says that wheat beer is meant for low flavor-impact dishes like salads and white meats, not so much the capsaicin avalanche that is Sichuan food. We were delighted to find out that it not only worked well, but it worked as well as IPA did. What’s more, the wheat beer showed more versatility than IPA: showing its delicate side with mild dishes, and capably wiping the palate clean when dishes got rowdy. We went with a pair of classics, Ayinger Hefeweizen from Germany, and Blanche de Bruxelles Witbier from Belgium.

The last thing we were floored to discover was how well cider worked with everything. It demonstrated stunning versatility that might be unrivaled on the list. It was the dark horse of Mala’s program. Samuel Smith’s organic Cider was a classic that we loved for this untraditional context.

More than the list, we have had so much fun teaching the staff about the new wines and beers. Cori warned before the first class, “Many of our employees speak English as their second language. You may need to slow down and let me translate at certain points.” Everyone had a good poker face for the first class, and while I was hopeful, I wasn’t sure if everyone got something from it. When differentiating between German and French pronunciations, I assured several staff members, “Don’t worry, I don’t speak French or German either. This is difficult for me too.” Cori pointed out that I spelled “Gruner Veltliner” incorrectly on the menu, proving my point.

My concerns were put to rest days later, when one of Mala’s beer reps texted me excitedly, “They reordered 3 cases of the Ayinger and one case of the stone!” When I returned later that week, bottle sales had surged. The staff was selling wine and beer, and I was bowled over by the palpable excitement of everyone about their new beverage program.

We definitely feel an emotional attachment to this project.

Not only did the owners let us in, not only did the staff pick up this incredibly complex subject matter quickly, but (most importantly) the guests have enjoyed the program immensely. Even guests who were bummed by the disappearance of certain adjunct lagers were won over by their introduction to Hefeweizen (the official favorite drink of Mala, it seems). Even guests who shun sweet wines enthusiastically enjoyed the demi-sec Vouvray.

We will continue to advise Mala Sichuan moving forward. We are so lucky to have them as a client. They are some of the nicest people we have ever met, and we are honored that they have taken us into their business.

And yes. They still serve Tsingtao, because it’s good.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Adventures in Consulting

I don’t usually write because I want to. It’s a kind of pressure release mechanism. When I see enough things that I think are noteworthy, I weave them all into a blog and post it. Hopefully the contents don’t get me arrested. Ladies and gentlemen, I am writing this blog for you today because I have seen some things in the past few weeks.

For the first time in my life, I am working for myself. I have always been really good at focusing on a singular task, while someone else ensures the trains generally run on time. I no longer have the luxury of someone else watching over me. I am pulling wires out of my brain and rearranging them so that I might become the organized, proactive person I never was.

This new job is exhilarating. That’s a word that encapsulates fear and excitement happening concurrently. I like wine a lot. But I love talking to people about it. I knew I loved selling wine to people, to guests on a dining room floor. Now my path has taken on new dimension. I am selling wine to other wine buyers and salespeople.

Selling wine in retail is different from selling wine on a restaurant floor. On the floor, you get to see the guest taste the wine, and if you did your job, theirs eyes get wide and they tell you they love it. Retail deprives you of that moment of joy from the guest. I’ve had the discussion with people like Antonio Gianola- we like that validation, and we miss it when it’s gone. Since I left the floor at Ox, I have been hunting for that moment.

About 2 weeks ago, I held my first staff training class for a client. Easy enough, but the twist was the entire staff spoke English as their second language. The owner told me, “You talk fast and you use a lot of big words. Don’t talk like that in front of the staff. Talk very slowly, and I may ask you to stop from time to time so I can translate.” Nice. If I talk too fast I’ll lose them, and if I talk too slowly, I’ll worry they think I’m being condescending. I could not be more desperate to gain the trust of these incredibly nice people, because my destiny is now linked with theirs.

Watching people try IPA for the first time is a trip. Everybody’s face twists in agony as they experience the bitterness, and they’re turning angry eyes towards me, like I tricked them into trying this beer that sets off the evolutionary alarm bell for poison. Stammering and gesturing wildly, I defend myself, “Now try it with the food! Quick!” They reach for the food and chew, suddenly everybody’s expressions lighten. One server blurts out excitedly, “I hate the IPA less with the food!” I pound the table with my fist, causing the lazy susan to tremble, “Hate it less! I’ll take it! I told you IPA would work!” We’re all laughing hysterically. All I can think to myself is oh my god, this is actually working.

The gangly one next to me is grinning with the bottle of IPA in his hand. “You like the pairing?” I ask. He’s searching for the words, and his emphasis is wonderful, “This beer is... baDASS!” I ask him if he wants more, and he politely refuses. Later after class is done around midnight, he walks up to me and says, “I sorry I not drink very much. I only have driver’s permit. No driver license. Zero tolerance if pull over.” Then it dawns on me: I just taught a 15 year old about pairing hoppy beer with spicy food. I also introduced the staff to their new favorite drink: Hefeweizen. As for the wine program? The staff unanimously agreed that Riesling was the best pairing with the food, and my wine geek heart swelled with pride.

A dull panic grips me these days as I move my carefully sourced funds around, and watch them begin to shrink. But a roomful of heartfelt thank-yous after my first wine class broke my heart, and made me forget every ounce of stress this job has created. This is the only thing that could possibly supplant the validation I got from the guest. That feeling that I did something pure and wholesome, not for money but for the sake of making the world a better place for my favorite drink. This is what got me through the punishing 15 hour days in the beginning weeks of Oxheart. I have rediscovered my validation from a bizarre and wonderful source: my consulting clients.

I worry that maybe my master plan won’t work, that it’s all going to blow up in my face. Then I get a text from a beer rep, “Hey man! [Horizon Firestorm] reordered three cases of wheat and one case of IPA today.” I’m cheering to myself in my truck as I race back to Montrose. Across town, I’m sitting down with another client, showing them that a more prestigious wine producer that has a more delicious wine than the restaurant’s current selection that is actually cheaper. I’m helping them design an inventory spreadsheet that lets them analyze their cost of goods with surgical precision. I’m especially fond of showing people how to make more money with their existing program (in a way that doesn’t screw over the guest!).

The empty space between client meetings is filled with video brainstorming. How do we teach something that isn’t common knowledge, but make it fun to watch? This is a much more daunting task to me than writing a wine list. Many of our videos are shot in a single take, which means onlookers get to see me repeat a monologue about twenty times before I get it right (even then, I’m still looking slightly awkward). Clayton doesn’t have years of formal video editing or camera job experience, but I am floored by his ability to pick up any technical subject and master it in a matter of weeks. His custom-designed, battery-powered wireless audio setup is a marvel of engineering. I can tell he’s slightly annoyed that he hasn’t gotten to use any special effects yet (like green screen technology, helicopter mounted cameras, or slow motion). Let me assure you that when we’ve mastered our content, we will flex our technical muscles. God help me, Clayton is probably designing a bullet-time camera setup as I write this.

Many people have helped me along the way. As I said before, I am a massively disorganized person, and the fact that I even have the minimal framework of a company to announce is thanks to a lot of people. The following is a list of the people who are not formally listed on our website as collaborators.

-Thanks to Jay Rascoe for designing my first logo for me. Ultimately I let Matthew Tabor create our final logo, which is featured on the website. However Jay’s logo was a major catalyst for me actually visualizing the company, and not thinking of it as some far-away goal.  More than that, Jay has always encouraged me when I was self-conscious about my writing on Weapons Grade and now Battlesong. I would like to take this moment to encourage him in a similar fashion: Jay, you had better keep writing, because you are one of the funniest writers I’ve ever met. You could probably create an HBO series around all the insane stuff you’ve seen, and I insist you share it with the world. Jay’s blog is You should read it.

-Thanks to Bob and Paige Martin. Bob and Paige are some of the most hardcore Oxheart fans ever. When I told them my ridiculous plans, they immediately helped me secure my domain name, and confirmed that I could indeed create an LCC named “PSA Wines”. Bob has created numerous businesses, and he helped me set up the initial framework of PSA WAY faster than I could have on my own. Beyond the actual help they have given me, they have been cheerleaders for every project Justin, Karen, and I have even remotely been involved in. More than THAT, they’re a frustratingly perfect and picturesque power couple that radiates positive energy like exposed plutonium reactor rods. No seriously, downtown magazine named them in a list of badass power couples:
Also, Paige Martin is a relator in the same way that a member of SEAL Team 6 is a soldier. If you are looking at property downtown, you’d be crazy not to reach out to her:

-Finally, thanks to Justin and Karen at Oxheart. They have supported me immensely as friends and as bosses. They have lent me critical support in helping me create the framework of PSA, and then the logistical knowhow to execute it, respectively.

It’s probably too early to start thanking people, but I am already getting something amazing out of this. Thanks to everyone for helping me create my dream job out of thin air.

If you’re still reading, it means that you’ve learned well from certain movies to stick around after the credits, to catch a glimpse of a critical piece of spoiler information. So here it is: On Friday, May 31st, PSA will reveal our first restaurant client. It’s a doozy.

Love you Houston,

-Justin Vann

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hot Sauce

I feel condescended to when hot sauce bottles provide me with a list of things to put hot sauce on. Are people seriously holding the bottle, paralyzed with fear, wondering if they *should* put hot sauce on food item X? I feel pretty insane when I look at that complimentary list of suggestions. In my imagination, it always spirals out of control...

Try hot sauce on a variety of foods. Such as:











Hot dogs

Pizza tacos

Hamburger soup

Nacho salads



Certain sandwiches

Salad Tacos

Taco pizza

Hamburger tacos


Fish nachos

Hamburger hamburgers

Salad burgers (not burger salads)

Rice Tacos

A noodle

Apple dogs

Other hot sauces







NATO Peacekeeping missions



Rotten Jack-o-lanterns



Human teeth


Melon rinds


Tarot Cards


Rare Earth Metals

The Serengeti
And everything else!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Puke and Causality

As I slither into the bathroom to dry heave for the third time this morning, I cannot help but concede that this is the most poetic way I could start the day.

Last night at Erin Smith and David Leftwich’s birthday party, I was lecturing John Letoto about the virtues of getting completely wasted, every once in a while. The minimum number I threw out was once a year. John wouldn’t have it, and it makes sense. John, who pours latte art with the intensity and precision of a brain surgeon, would never want to compromise his killer instinct. He would never allow himself to overindulge, and wield his thermo-pen with a shaky hand the next day. But I continue to make the case and spit in the face of karma:

It’s a fun challenge to warp your perception with alcohol and keep your cool. I suppose that’s the same mentality that people use with hallucinogens, but you know what I mean. Let’s be adults and admit it: we like the way alcohol makes us feel. It’s a fun thing to remind people of when I find myself locked into a wine monologue:

“So this is like fino sherry but its French, specifically from the Jura. Vin Jaune is 100% savagnin that ages in cask for 6 years under a ‘voile’ of yeasts. The production process is similar, but it’s important to note that Vin Jaune is unfortified. Where fino is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible, Vin Jaune can age almost indefinitely. It’s really complex and elegant, pairs wonderfully with umami-driven food, oh and I almost forgot! It contains alcohol! So as you drink it, you will notice that everything will get exponentially more awesome. Your chances of doing something thrilling, newsworthy, or dangerous will increase markedly. Please enjoy several bottles of it with a wedge of briny Comte cheese, then get arrested for having sex in an aquarium that you broke into.”

Even hangovers are wonderful so long as they’re infrequent. You experience all sensory input as if it was your first time feeling sunlight, or smelling cut grass. It’s jarring, like if you could actually remember the first time you drew breath. You stumble through the day seeing normal things, but you hear the roar of a leaf blower or a car commercial on the radio, and there is something fantastical about it. So while your senses feel realer than ever, the things you actually see seem absurd. Maybe I like being hungover because it simultaneously affirms and negates reality.

Wouldn’t it be clever of the universe if I got super drunk immediately after going into this sermon? Well, that’s what happened. I drank about 2/3rds of a bottle of Redbreast 12, for classified reasons. I live around the corner, so I just stumbled back home, quickly realizing I overdid it, and I was about to get my ass handed to me.

In my romantic defense of drinking too much and being hungover, I forgot how unpleasant vomiting is (I’ve now puked 5 times in the past hour). At every point in life, I am trying to dig deeper and find something interesting. I’ve long since given up everything in my stomach except bile. Which leads me to the question: Why couldn’t bile taste good? Why does it have to be so foul? Then I realize making bile delicious would create a biological imperative for bulimia. Animals in the wild would be finding creative ways to trigger their gag reflexes to taste the ambrosia of their own bile.

Can you picture the forest? With all the adorable animals sticking their paws down their throats so they can puke their guts out and taste their yummy bile? Can you see it? CAN. YOU. SEE. IT.

Even worse, now I’m asking myself, isn’t there a beverage that actually tastes like this? Then I remember: gueuze. “Gastric acid” is a common tasting note on the funkier stuff. Then I remember: I need to go puke again. I’m way past the point where I can defend vomiting as some kind of catharsis: I drank way too much, too fast, and now I am weeping hydrochloric acid into a dirty toilet, for the 6th time.

I will tell you this though, I still love gueuze, and I will not give up on it because it has a slightly barfy flavor. People who stop drinking something because they “had a bad experience with it” are the jerks who put a dog up for adoption because it craps on the carpet once. Did you burn out on Tequila shotz in college? Think of tequila as a sad puppy being put in a cage because you don’t love it any more. Look at those sad eyes- you are an asshole.

I’m wiping puke off my cellphone, which is telling me I have a chateau Musar lecture to be at tomorrow. Rad.

Now that I’ve reached the point where I can retain liquids, I am reminded of another thing I enjoy about being brutally hungover: nursing myself back to health.

Enter the Mexican coke. Apply one 500ml bottle to the affected area. Drink it slowly, and as cold as humanly possible. Coke will never look more pornographically cold and refreshing than when you just poisoned yourself with whiskey. Protip: put it in the freezer when you start puking, so when you’re done its perfectly cold, glistening with condensation. I am a hard skeptic when it comes to the superiority of Mexican (sugar cane) coke over normal (corn syrup) coke. I have seen many experts fail that pepsi challenge. But when I’m super hungover, I’m not above tricking myself with placebos.

More than anything, the act of getting drunk, having fun, and being hungover the next day is evidence of causality in the universe. I had too much fun, and now that the sun has risen, I must suffer. A hangover is an exhilarating and punishing mathematical constant. It is a helpful reminder that the universe is still governed by some form of rules.

Thank goodness. Going to try eating food. I love you, gang.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Life in Sabers

Somehow, many years ago while studying at the UC underground at UofH, I came across an article, describing a certain type of knife. A knife that exist for the sole purpose of decapitating champagne bottles. A special knife didn't seem particularly crazy on first glance, we have knives for cutting all different kinds of things. But I thought about it again, and immediately forgot what I was studying because

This knife is for cutting open champagne bottles. Exclusively.

Enter that tingly feeling where your purpose, your calling can be faintly heard in the distance. I'm not talking about being a sommelier. I'm talking about making a giant scene with something that is burdened with too much pretension, having fun, and risking my life in the process. 

I took my Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 introductory course at the University of Houston. During the service lecture, I raised my hand. 

"What kind of Champagne Saber do you recommend using during service? And is there an established protocol for sabering?"

The MS was very cordial, but was smirking slightly, as to imply I had asked a silly question.

"I do not recommend saberage in general. There is no protocol for it, because really you should never do it, especially in a dining room. It's a safety hazard, and really good champagne should be handled gently."

I thanked him for being candid, and slumped back in my seat, feeling slightly defeated. It was then that Glenn Cordua leaned over and whispered, "A machete works just fine." He was grinning like the devil, and my faith in madness was renewed.

Before you go any further in this bleag post, it is imperative that you understand sabering champagne is an incredibly dangerous trick. Even if done "correctly", it still has the potential to blind people with flying shards of glass, and can severely damage your hand if the bottle blows up. I have had at least 5 bottles explode erratically, which would probably stop a normal person from ever doing the act again. I am not that person. I have little respect for my own safety or well being- which is why I work in restaurants heyooooo.

I'm not even going to explain how to saber here. Standby for detailed instruction at a later date.

Now seems like as good a time as any to talk about all the Champagne Sabers I've ever owned in my life and what they meant to me.

SABER #1: Lawnmower Blade

After doing a pinch of research, I settled on a lawnmower blade that I purchased from a Wal-Mart at about 5 in the morning. I was trying to study French, and decided I needed to start practicing Sabering. That my life could not possibly move forward if I didn't figure out how to reliably chop the top off of sparkling wine bottles. I was 21 at the time.

The advantages of a lawnmower blade are numerous. It's fairly heavy, which makes generating enough force to propagate a crack that much easier. It has a reliably hard edge, that comes to a 90 degree angle, perfect for sabering. It resists deformation on impact, as I often favored sabering with the cage on the bottle. The hole in the center of the blade was perfect for inserting an index finger and getting better control of the blade. The hole in the center also made it perfect for spinning. After smashing open a bottle of sparkling wine, spinning the lawnmower blade around is almost impossible to deny oneself. It just felt right.

One slight disadvantage of sabering with a lawnmower blade is that is scares people. Nobody expects much in the way of sanity from the guy shouting "GET BEHIND ME", waving a lawnmower blade and holding a bottle of bubbles. It still worked out in my favor most of the time.

I lost this saber in a move. It will always be an icon of my honest, slightly goofy and unprofessional obsession with wine. It represented something wholesome to me. Maybe because it made people interested in sparkling wine when they saw me gambling with my life just to open bubbles in a fancy way. Maybe I liked it because I paid 8 dollars for it, and I loved the notion of using such a crude, humble tool to do something so highfalutin'. I cannot recommend a lawnmower blade emphatically enough as one's first saber.

SABER #2: Laguiole Champagne Saber (pronounced lay-ull)

I asked for this saber from a wine distributor while I was working at Central Market. It haunts me to this day as the only time I have ever asked for and/or taken a kickback for buying a product I wouldn't otherwise buy. It was given to me for free, but it's retail value is approximately 200 dollars.

I think the way the conversation went was like this "Hey [wine rep], I think I'd like a champagne saber! I've been a wine buyer for a while, and I haven't used my influence to ask for so much as a keychain. What do I have to do to get one?"

His response was immediate. Buyers ask these questions, and he was well versed in the script.

"If you pick up ten more cases of [unremarkable champagne that I didn't want to buy ten *extra cases of] we can make that happen."

I agreed, and within 12 hours, I received the text from another rep "Hey Justin I have a saber for you!"

Immediately when I held the laguiole in my hands the first thing I missed about the lawnmower blade was the weight. By comparison this new saber was light as a feather. Although I had to admit, it was stunning.

Advantages: Pretty. Cost of zero dollars.

Disadvantages: shoddy construction. After moderate usage, the bolster came loose, and the "blade" dented significantly after each strike. Technically you're supposed to use the back side of the blade, even though a laguiole doesn't have a sharpened edge. Perhaps this is good practice, using the back of every knife to saber with (you will severly damage a sharpened edge of a "real" knife by using it to saber). Here I preferred my lawnmower blade again, because instead of using the back as is traditional, I struck with the "blade".

This real disadvantage to this saber was the blow it dealt to my integrity. I don't think less of my reps for carrying out my sleazy request- that's how a lot of business gets done. But my first boss in the wine industry - Dave at Vic & Anthony's - instilled a healthy disgust in me for taking favors or handouts from distributors in exchange for placements. Perhaps I backslid because I was bored, or because I wanted to say I did it at least once. As soon as it was in my hands, I knew I would have to pay a karmic price for this indiscretion.

6 months into Oxheart, my car was broken into. The thief stole ten drycleaned shirts, and my Laguiole saber. I was upset that I lost the shirts, but I couldn't help but feel relieved that fate took my "corporate saber" from me. I joke that I'm constantly stalking the streets for a hobo in a crisp shirt with a champagne saber. 

What really mattered was that the thief didn't get my current saber. The one I guard closely, usually within arms reach while I'm sleeping. He missed my Serenity Knives Saber. The one you see at the top of this blog instead of a title.

SABER #3: Serenity Knives Custom

I would tag along with Chef as he met with a lot of our people who made all our stuff. The one that caught my attention the most was Russell Montgomery. Chef came to Russell to have him make a set of custom steak knives for Oxheart. For over a year, an idea had been fermenting in my head. That I could combine everything I loved about sabering with a lawnmower blade, and make it slightly more formalized. That I could find the right person to forge me a saber that could smash the overwrought Laguiole saber into pieces. We visited Russell at his house, and I think we had made up our minds immediately when we saw the dirt floored workshop and forge he had made. Russell trained under Murray Carter, but definitely had his own distinct style.

I felt bad giving Russell such specific instructions, he had some pretty grandiose initial plans. Indeed, from a distance it might seem like a waste to have a skilled knifemaker craft a blade that essentially has no edge, but this was something I had wanted for a while. Even as I was unemployed waiting for Ox to open, I gladly forked over hundreds of dollars for this knife that somehow had come to define me. 

In the first few days of Oxheart, I didn't have an apartment. I was sleeping on David & Ecky's couch. On more than one occasion, during my allotted 6 hours of sleep a night, I woke up to find myself holding the saber the same way a child might hold a stuffed animal. Or I would use the blunted tip to push their pitbull, Rambo, away from me when he decided we needed to snuggle at 4am. 

Photo by Bethany Quillin

Where to begin?

Of the 3 listed, this saber is the heaviest, weighing in at about 4 pounds, easily generating enough force to cleanly lop off the top of a bottle of champagne.

Or cut down a tree.
Or smash through a car windshield.
Or cut a birthday cake for a supermodel.
Or crush the skull of a zombie.

Please take note of the hole for your index finger. Perfect for recklessly twirling all two feet of heat-treated, high carbon 1084 steel. I don't remember the type of wood he used for the handle. Whenever anyone asks, I say it's wood from the true cross of Christ, which would make this saber fit to destroy vampires, demons, and other supernatural enemies.

This metal is highly resistant to deformation, knicks and scratches, but has rapidly developed a patina that suggest constant, adventure-heavy use. I strike with the blade, because I refuse to saber with the back of a knife that wasn't designed for this singular, moderately insane purpose. Life is short, saber accordingly.

Of course I didn't stop there. I summoned our leatherworker Kyle Kubin (who made our kickass aprons) to make the sheath, and requested he add a small pocket to contain an Augustus Rag. Augustus Rag makes pocket squares out of classy fabrics in Houston. They are perfect for wiping champagne and / or blood off of the saber after a particularly rowdy bingo match.

The only disadvantage of this saber is that it was not cheap, and is irreplaceable. But that's the case with all legendary weapons I suppose. Beatrix Kiddo had her Hanzo Katana, Thor had Mjollnir, Aragorn had Andúril.

A saber without a name is simply bad luck. My saber is named Excelsior.

As I stare into the blinding sun of an uncertain future, I feel a sense of calm wash over me to feel the weight of my saber in my hands. It is my totem, my lodestone. The title of this blog is Battlesong, but I think a picture of my saber communicates the same message. 

Excelsior, and all of its accessories were made by actual craftsmen here in Houston Texas. And that is where it is going to stay.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A red and a white

The following is a public service announcement about the wine selection at OKRA.

At The Original OKRA Charity Saloon, we have a red and a white. Not just a set of forgettable "house wines", our red and white will always be something really outrageously good. Something true wine geeks would be happy to drink in any context. Something so good and wholesome that it probably kills vampires on contact, and will make your crush finally notice you. The selection will rotate every few months or so based on availability.

As of March 2013, here is what we are pouring:


Dr. Loosen Sekt Riesling, Non-vintage


Dr. Loosen is a big name in Riesling from Germany’s Mosel wine region. You probably had a Riesling that was cloyingly sweet one time and you said good riddance. Consider this wine an affirmation that all Riesling is not freakishly sweet, and that it tastes like a riot of flavor when sparkling. Maybe you haven’t had a sparkling Riesling before? Time to fix that. Flavors of ripe pineapple, granny smith apples, slate, and petrol.


Val de Mer Borgogne Blanc Chardonnay 2011


Val de Mer is a project of Chablis rockstar Patrick Piuze, who’s premier wines are made under his own name. This Borgogne Blanc is made from the Chardonnay that they didn’t use for their Chablis, and it’s really good. This is a wine made from leftovers, and it’s better than a lot of vintner’s best foot forward in this price range. Val de Mer means “valley of the sea”, because that’s what the vineyards of Chablis were a very long time ago. The soil is limestone and clay, and you can taste it in the wine. Hard lemon and lime gives way to gunflint, steel, and rocks. It’s refreshing and shocking like a judgmental glower from Clint Eastwood.


Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Rouge Syrah 2011


It’s not exactly revolutionary to say we’re serving a Grenache / Syrah / Mouvedre blend from a hot place and California. It’s been done. However Tablas Creek is significant because this winery is the American outpost of Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The Perrin family brings their knack for sourcing exceptional fruit from multiple areas and making balanced reds with earthy intensity to Paso Robles, where they makes one of the greatest value-based reds in America, period. The wine is dominated by the Syrah grape, and displays ripe black and red fruits, cracked black pepper, smoke, and soil. It's dark and hedonistic, much like you’d imagine parties in the underworld.

OKRA sells these for 10 dollars a glass- not terribly expensive. The money you spend on these wines goes to charity. So there's that.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Underberg is bitter

Last night, when talking to Mark Salvie and company at the restaurant, I think I finally figured out how to accurately describe Underberg.

Underberg tastes like the crushing weigh of reality. You think the truth is going to be liberating, then you taste it, and you are aware of your face twisting into a cringe as your remind yourself that you chose to do this.

Underberg tastes like having to grow up too fast. It tastes like your parents telling you that you have to move out, and you have no idea what you're going to do to pay the bills. It tastes like the moment you have to give up on all the warm fuzzy dreams that have been nurtured in your tender highschool heart, and are shoved out into the gladiatorial arena of the real world.

It is the ground rushing to meet your face when you fall. 

The desert of the real.

The harsh light of Underberg is the shopping mall make-up area: its bright glare exposes all your physical imperfections, all your flaws. A swarm of salespeople are descending on you, with samples. Like a pack of wolves, with samples to hide all your imperfections.

You think you can change the world, and Underberg tastes like a reminder that you cannot. That you are not the first person to think you can make the world a better place, and you will not be the last. Underberg puts its hand on the back of your neck and gives it a playful squeeze, "Good effort."

Underberg knows that the human condition is war. Not just filthy trenches in Normandy full of bodies, but in civilized society. In board rooms, in factories, in classrooms, we are at war with each other with such insane horrifying ferocity that Underberg wonders why the world doesn't rip itself apart, like a seagull that just ate an alka-seltzer. Underberg surveys the horizons of the third world, literally on fire, and sighs. This will be our horizon soon enough.

As a sommelier, being a part of a good meal is something that I truly feel contributes to the sanity of the world. I feel like helping deliver a memorable restaurant experience is one of the most aggressive things I can do to help move the world in a better direction.

Underberg is a good drink to have after a good meal, because it is a reminder that you are stepping out of the restaurant, and back into battle.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Royal Hawaiian

They say Royal is still on an FBI watch list after she shot the disco ball in the living room with your pistol a few years back on New Years Eve. Everyone was wasted, but she was sober. She said she’d never held or fired a gun before, and you should have known better when you handed it to her. People were scared at first, but had to admit, it looked really cool to watch a disco ball explode.

Royal is showing up to the restaurant in a yellow sundress with a potbellied pig named Jasper. Both her and Jasper, after some deliberation from management, will be allowed to stay. Because Jesus Christ, just look at that pig. Over time, the pig would become a regular.

They say Royal is a master liar, talking her way out of being arrested for a DUI, after throwing up pure whiskey on the officer. Nobody remembers exactly what she said, except that the officer gave her all the cash in his wallet, and parted with “Seriously, congratulations.”

Royal is laughing way too hard at that mildly funny joke. Everyone is kind of weirded out at first, but then the reality sinks in: royal is enjoying life so much harder than you, and you feel a dull ache of jealousy.

Royal is pitching you a business plan for a “custom concrete” shop. Where people can go to get concrete with things like glitter, broken sunglasses, barbies, or just colored concrete. When you mentioned that you could just paint concrete, she looked exasperated, “Why would you wanna paint fucking concrete that’s boring.” She cuts you off because her phone is ringing: an investor.

They say Royal was an idiot savant. That she struggled to perform simple tasks like ordering food at the drive through, locking her door behind her when she left the apartment. She couldn’t pay bills on time, and she couldn’t do laundry. God help you if you needed to contact her. Did her cellphone even work? Did she even have a cellphone? Who knows. The point is that when she wanted something, she summoned an endless wellspring of moxie and charm that wasn’t outwardly obvious. Her silver tongue has melted hearts, emptied bank accounts, started wars, and delighted onlookers ever since she wandered into town. Her trademark brightly colored, poorly matched outfits make her visible from a distance. She is painful to look upon when hungover: she reflects, and probably magnifies sunlight. Your theory is that she encouraged people to underestimate her. It made it that much easier when the time came to convince the doorman that she was, in fact, the owner of the bar and he needed to let you two in immediately. Or Else.

Lots of people say a lot of things about Royal Hawaiian, what is known for sure is that she is engrossing, fascinating person who will seize your attention, and will probably damage your car after she convinces you to let her borrow it.

Royal Hawaiian is a cocktail indigenous to the Honolulu hotel of the same name. Its something like equal parts gin and pineapple juice, and equal parts orgeat and lemon juice.

You can also find it at Double Trouble in Houston Texas.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Kaixo Texas

I’m smoking a Davidoff, watching the empty beach, and suddenly the rain stops and a rainbow appears. I have never heard waves actually crash before. All I can think to myself is, “This is bullshit.”

Davidoff reminds me why I smoke.

Even in freezing rain, La Concha bay is breathtaking. Tourists come here in the summer, it’s considered one of the world's great surfing beaches. In January, the cold kills off all the tourists. All except one, this year.

I have always enjoyed empty beaches. They are my zen gardens. I’m trying to think of why they make me so happy. Maybe it’s the same reason I like empty restaurants: there is something serene about an empty place that’s supposed to be full of people.

It’s not just a loose metaphor: a restaurant full of people means I’m working, it means I’m on stage. An empty restaurant is the place I can relax the most, more than my own apartment. When I go home I see all the chores I have neglected. When I’m in the restaurant after everyone has left, that is probably the most peaceful place I can imagine.

Maybe I never said it explicitly; maybe it was just something people could read on my face. But being on stage for a long time warps your mind. Even when we’re not in the restaurant, it is there in the back of our minds. Nagging. When you’ve forgotten about it for a split second, that is when someone walks up to you, and asks you how work is going.

I spend so much emotional capital in the course of my job, that oftentimes I’m discombobulated on my days off.  I’m unable to make real or lasting connections with the people around me. Sometimes I’m manipulating my own feelings so closely, I forget how to react to things organically.

I’m standing on the beach, which is deserted. I can hear people speaking in the distance. They’re speaking Basque (a language with no concretely known origins). It’s a beautiful language that is completely indecipherable to me. This was what I needed to regain my sanity for the long term: a date with a language barrier. I needed to disappear to a place where I can communicate in only the most basic ways.

So nice.

Days would pass where I spoke only two to three sentences. I had never spoken so little in my entire life. Talking is my job. It is a source of entertainment, a means of comfort, and a defense mechanism. I could never choose to stop talking- I had to be forced. I’m so glad I was.

The empty dining room at Rekondo.
Because I was still operating on my American eating timeframes, I ate a lot of meals in empty restaurants. I would show up at 1PM, a late lunch for me, and find out that the restaurant wasn’t even open for lunch yet. At Extebarri, Rekondo, and Elkano, I ate the majority of my meals in solitude. Other diners would begin trickling in as I was eating my mignardises. 

The empty dining room at Elkano.
One of the longest conversations I had during my entire trip was at about 5AM at La Cuchara de San Telmo, one of the best pinxto bars in the city. It’s the fever pitch of the Tamboradda, and the kitchen has long since closed, and the cooks have set up a microphone. They are singing karaoke, still in the kitchen. There’s a disco ball lighting up the bar, and its standing room only.

There’s a group of three girls and a guy staring at me. They’re speaking quietly and pointing. I suppose I stick out like a sore thumb, about a foot taller than everyone in the bar. The guy walks up and says one word, a question:


I used a lot of hand gestures to communicate here. Whenever I ask for the check, I use the hand-across-the-neck gesture with “la cuenta por favor”. I decided this gesture would also work to say “not gay”. Even on the other side of the world, I’m still setting off false positives on peoples gaydar.

He’s disappointed, and one of the girls jabs him playfully, to say told you so. Two of the girls walk up to me, they’re speaking Basque, which sounds even better coming from attractive ladies. They tell a joke, and they laugh. Because I can’t tell even a fraction of what was said, I fall back on a technique: pretend to be stifling laughter, then laugh really hard. Crinkle the sides of my eyes, a real laugh. I feel like I’m performing brain surgery here, and my trick works, they seem put at ease. But now they’re asking me a question, and I still can’t understand. I decide to stand up straight, and confess in my native tongue.

“I don’t speak Basque.” I decide to throw in a “Barkatu” to show that I was at least trying.

Without missing a beat they switch to English. “Where are you from?” Boy do I feel like a loser for not being bilingual. But I’m also grateful I speak the language of globalization. The cooks are singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds”, and the whole bar is singing along, in English.

I have to think about this for a second. America? Texas? Houston? Houston is the ideal answer, but I turn it back a notch, “I’m from Texas.”

“Oh! You are from Texas?” She is making a hand gesture like she’s swinging a lasso, and pronouncing it Tayk-sass. I hold my right hand up in the shape of a gun and confirm, “Pow pow, bai, Texas.”

I’m still holding my right hand up, and her friend puts her hand on my shoulder. I’m terrible at flirting; I’m almost incapable of detecting it when a lady is actually flirting with me. When I think I AM being flirted with, I’m consistently wrong. It’s pretty magical. However I think that’s what’s happening here. Her hand smells like gin, and she has really pretty hazel eyes. “What are you doing here in San Sebastian?”

“Vacation! I just had dinner at Arzak, it was crazy.”

She makes a confused face, she hasn’t heard of Arzak. However, her friend has. She leans in to whisper in her ear, “It means he has money.”

I shake my head at her. Not gay, and not rich.

She still has her hand on my shoulder, “So who did you come here with?”

“By myself.”

“No girlfriend... no wife?”

“Nope. Solo.”

She cocks an eyebrow and smiles. I ask her, “What’s your name?”


“Justin. Pleasure to meet you.”

Everything was going so well. She looks down and can see the beginning of a tattoo on my arm. She pulls the sleeve back, and while she doesn’t recognize the image, her friend does, and gasps. “Oh my god”.

 Gentlemen? When getting a tattoo of an insane warmongering icon of your homeland, ask yourself: will this scare the shit out of gorgeous women in Europe who would otherwise potentially sleep with you? Know the consequences.

If I had a decent grasp of their language, I could probably have explained that I am not a crazy person, and that the hyperbolic pride Texas has relative to the rest of the America is not unlike the pride the Basque people have relative to the rest of Spain. However, the horrifying violence of Texas independence ended almost two centuries ago. Now it's a nostalgic fridge magnet. A custom license plate.

“Concrete shoes.”

My favorite part of this song, and the whole bar knows the words.

Isabelle’s friend is whispering into her ear, this time in Basque, and I feel her grip on my shoulder rapidly loosening.

Now I remember where I saw all these logos: "The Politics of Terrorism"

A chill runs down my spine, and I think of a series of banners that I saw 30 minutes ago, and I suddenly realized, it was an ETA prisoner amnesty banner. The ETA is the face of the Basque separatist movement. The one definitively labeled as a terrorist organization by the EU and United States. The one that has claimed over 800 lives in the last 50 or so years in the name of Basque independence. The one that declared an allegedly “permanent” ceasefire only two years ago. It has not surrendered its arms or disbanded though, and has broken permanent ceasefires multiple times. 

I saw this more than once.

Suddenly, I realize, I have seen various logos for a terrorist organization at every bus stop, on every street corner, on every ancient artifact I looked upon. The dark heart of mankind is constantly on my mind, but of all the places I did not expect it to surprise me, it was during my vacation.


Unfortunately, I can now see how these ladies might have been repulsed by my tattoo. I’m not feeling guilty about getting it put on my forearm forever, but I do feel guilt for potentially picking at an emotional scab that is barely healed, if at all. I'm reminded that the Basque people have dealt with lots of real violence in my lifetime, and I worry that my nostalgic reference to the battle for Texas independence might have hit too close to home.

It's also quite possible that they were just repulsed by the notion of Texas in general. But the initial coming out as a Texan didn't freak them out. If they thought I was a hillbilly, I imagine they would have laughed or made fun of me. Maybe they thought I was with the tea party? I'm fairly used to being looked at like what I'm saying or doing is crazy, but at a time when maybe I actually wanted to make a connection with someone, my nonsense traveled halfway around the world to meet me. I cannot help but feel like I had this coming. All I can do is laugh and shake my head at myself.

Or maybe it just scared them out of context. As my roommate rightly observed, “The come and take it flag looks like a fucking gang tattoo.” 


She comes in for a hug. “Have a nice vacation.” The pained way she looked at me as we parted ways is a splinter I am still trying to dig out of my mind.

I wave at them as they leave the bar, “Agur, Isabelle.”


I come back the next day. La Cuchara de San Telmo has amazing kokoxtas, and I’m eating them in the bar, which is empty, because I’m there as soon as they open.

The bartender recognizes me now, “Kaixo, Texas.” He makes a finger-gun at me. Ha.

Against all odds, I had successfully communicated with people on the other side of the world for my first time. It was strangely refreshing, and like my interactions with most people in any language, a dark comedy of errors.

I can hear the waves crashing down the block. Once I’ve stuffed myself silly I’m going to stare at the black water for at least 30 minutes. The waves slam into the rocks with such convincing ferocity, it’s as if every drop of water in the world is acting in conjunction to climb the beach, over the sea wall, and destroy me. I am endlessly soothed by sitting on the wall, and watching the sea come at me (come and take it?).

I have to laugh to myself in the empty pinxto bar, remembering a conversation a guest and I had at the restaurant before I left:

“So you’re going on vacation to Spain? That’s awesome!”

“Yeah, I’m stoked.”

He leans in close, lowering his voice, “Are you going with anyone? Like your girlfriend or wife?”

“No. I’m going by myself. I think I need it. ”

He high fives me, his eyes narrow and his grin widens. “Good for you man. Haha!” He taps me on the arm,

“Why bring sand to the beach?!”