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The Best Beer Labels

The most iconic and creative on Texas shelves.

Booze

Last week, we took a look at some of the very worst labels you can find on a bottle of beer. To counterbalance all that artistic vomit, we gathered some of the most iconic and creative labels on shelves today — labels that feature artwork as original and important as craft beer itself.

All ten of our picks can be found on the Houston Press Eating...Our Words blog, but here are our top five.

Unibroue Maudite
Unibroue Maudite
Dogfish Head Fort
Dogfish Head Fort
Shmaltz Coney Island Lager
Shmaltz Coney Island Lager
Left Hand Brewing Wake Up Dead
Left Hand Brewing Wake Up Dead
Jester King Black Metal
Jester King Black Metal
The Big-H burger is $20 and worth it.
Paula Murphy
The Big-H burger is $20 and worth it.
Brandy-poached foie gras.
Katharine Shilcutt
Brandy-poached foie gras.

5. Unibroue Maudite

I still remember spotting this label in Cost Plus World Market at age 22. It had to be the coolest label I'd ever seen. A decade later, Unibroue is making up for Canadian brewing mistakes like Molson and Labatt, and the brewery's artwork is still among the very best.

4. Dogfish Head Fort

I have a serious hard-on for pop artist and comic book illustrator Tara McPherson. I love just about everything she does, and her label for Dogfish is no exception. This isn't the first time craft beer and lowbrow art have tangled, but it's certainly one of the best. Adding to her work with Fort and Chateau Jihau labels, look for more Dogfish promo art from the cult artist this year.

3. Shmaltz Coney Island Lager

New to Texas, Coney Island artwork is top-notch, but their Lager is the trademark label. Even with my extreme aversion to clowns, I picked this label over the awesome Human Blockhead and the innuendo-laden Sword Swallower.

2. Left Hand Brewing Wake Up Dead

Named for a Megadeth song of the same name, and part of Left Hand's Ode to Thrash Metal (along with their yearly release, Fade to Black), Wake Up Dead is the very best art from the best lineup of labels in the country. Revamped over the past two years, Left Hand's labels have taken the beer community by storm and helped cement the brewery's place in beer history.

1. Jester King Black Metal

The grandfather of all Jester King labels is still the reigning king. This artwork set the tone for the brewery and the brand. With a full lineup of farmhouse beers, a lawsuit victory over the TABC and a growing nationwide reputation, the guys at Jester King have lived up to the reputation set by the Suds of Northern Darkness after only two short years in business. And while we're on the subject, that's not "one of the guys from KISS" on the label, either. Instead, it's an homage to Abbath from classic Norwegian black metal outfit Immortal. (He's a household name, right?)
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Wine Time

Pinot Grigio Nation
The takeover of the red — yes, red — grape.

"Soon as we walk through the door," sang Mariah Carey in her 2008 hit "Migrate," "Fellas be grabbin' at us like yo / Tryin' to get us going off the Patron / We sippin' Grigio...slow."

These lines came to mind recently when the day's umpteenth press release caught my eye from an oversaturated inbox: "Drew Barrymore's Pinot Grigio now available in Houston, TX."

"I wanted to reach out and let you know that Drew Barrymore's new wine label — Barrymore Wines — is now available in your area!" wrote the author. "Barrymore Pinot Grigio is a lively white wine that is easy to pair with a wide array of foods — from classic Italian and French dishes to contemporary Asian and Mediterranean fare." (If I only had a dime for every "lively white wine" that pairs well with everything from "classic Italian" to "contemporary Asian and Mediterranean"!)

Ever since it was introduced to Americans nearly 35 years ago, Italian Pinot Grigio — vinified as a white as opposed to red wine — has reshaped our nation's vinous landscape. By means of antonomasia, it has become synonymous with easy-drinking white wine (the same way that Xerox denotes photocopy, Kleenex means tissue paper, or Fedex, as a verb, signifies to ship via express courier).

Delving a little deeper into the ethos that shapes and informs Barrymore's new wine, I can't say that I disagree with her or disapprove of her no-nonsense approach to winemaking.

When Food & Wine asked her (in its September 2012 issue), "Why did you pick Pinot Grigio for the launch of Barrymore Wines?" she answered: "I've always ordered Pinot Grigio in restaurants, because it's a surefire way to get a wine that's not too buttery, too acidic or overly fruity...It has this beautiful, mild fruit that I love. It's dangerously easy-drinking."

At our house, we have a saying: If you can't be with the wine you love, love the Pinot Grigio. Barrymore calls the grape variety "dangerous." In fact, the wine is (as she also points out) a safe bet when you're faced with limited wine-drinking options (like when I visit my estranged father in Highland, Indiana, a landscape straight out of a John Mellencamp song, and the armpit of America). Even in the worst-case scenario (like Giovanni's in nearby Munster, Indiana), the Pinot Grigio brand will deliver an innocuous but fresh and clean wine that may not have the acidity I crave but at least will help me get my drink on.

We sippin' Grigio...slow...

From an epistemological perspective, it's only fitting that few fans of Pinot Grigio actually know what it is: A red grape (see above) that can produce some of Italy's (and France's) most noble wines.

"Not too buttery, too acidic or overly fruity..." In other words, lacking style, character or substance — it's middle-of-the-road wine. Honestly, I'm okay with that because the same freedom that allows my countrymen to listen to Mariah Carey and sip their "Grigio" also affords me my skin-contact Pinot Gris from California.

To quote another American icon, whose middle-of-the-road products are also Muzak to my ears, ain't that America...Jeremy Parzen
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On the Menu

Sanguinaccio Dolce
A Bloody good — and bloody hard to find — dessert hits Revival Market.

In its savory form, sanguinaccio tastes like oddly greaseless pan sausage. Revival Market even serves the stuff in a tall, sausage-shaped round along with a fried yard egg, the crumbly texture of the sanguinaccio thirstily soaking up the golden yolk once you pierce the egg's delicate white cloak.

In its sweet form, the sanguinaccio dolce that Revival Market's chef de cuisine, Adam Dorris, makes with gritty semolina flour has the flavor and feel of raw brownie batter. The whipped form he makes with lard tastes like rich, dense chocolate mousse. And like the lard, the most important ingredient in sanguinaccio is sourced from the pigs that Revival Market owner Morgan Weber raises himself and which are butchered in-house: blood.

Aside from its telltale dark cordovan hue, you'd never know that the block of sanguinaccio dolce sitting innocuously in Revival Market's charcuterie case was made primarily with pig's blood. But it's precisely this one ingredient that makes sanguinaccio so good — and so rare.

"I've only seen it in Italy," said Ryan Pera, chef and co-owner at Revival Market. Dorris, who's been turning out batches of sanguinaccio along with charcutier Andrew Vaserfirer, chimed in with a similar tale. When Dorris was helming the kitchen at the now-closed Stella Sola, he offered it on the menu — but most diners didn't realize what it was, although they ate it with relish.

In fact, when sanguinaccio appeared briefly in an Astoria restaurant last year, New York food writers got wiggly with excitement over finding it; locating the Italian dessert made by whipping blood into dark chocolate and letting it set in a refrigerated mold overnight is the food equivalent of watching a comet streak through the night sky.

Writing for New York Magazine's Grub Street, Bradley O'Bryan Hawks described its scarceness and salience in a city such as New York where a food lover can find entire constellations of cuisines: "Loyal regulars [at Ornella Trattoria], or anyone in the know and brave enough, might even be able to coax a cupful throughout the week when it remains an off-menu special."

But it's not off-menu at Revival Market. Right here in Houston, it's $12.99 a pound and available fresh every day.

"That's what's wonderful about this place," says Dorris of the fact that Revival Market not only brings in whole animals from trusted sources, but breaks them down and uses every part for either its butcher and charcuterie cases or its prepared food items. "All the pork is Morgan-raised, and I know exactly where all this blood is coming from."

Blood is a famously finicky ingredient. It must be used within 24 hours or it quickly congeals and spoils. You can freeze it, but the process destroys the texture of the delicate liquid, and besides, the shelf life is only extended by a short couple of weeks.

Despite this, it's been used as a common and highly nutritious ingredient throughout history: Ancient Sumerian recipes called for blood mixed with milk as a thickener for stews, while Masai tribesmen still practice bloodletting (once again, mixed with milk) of their own cows and drink the stuff for sustenance. The strong of stomach can watch a video of this practice on YouTube.

Blood is also used in more common recipes, such as blood sausage — a version of which is found in many cultures around the world. The French and the Cajuns have their boudin noir, Latin America has its morcilla, Koreans have their sundae (not the sundae you're thinking of) and even the Finnish have their richly flavored mustamakkara that's typically served with lingonberry jam.

Unlike typical blood sausages, though, little to no metallic, coppery flavor is left behind in Dorris's sanguinaccio. Part of that is attributable to the other ingredients he uses: lard that tastes of mineral-laced well water and fresh grass and sweet ground pork along with dusky cardamom and cloves in his savory sanguinaccio, for example. And in his dolce versions, his experimentations have altered the flavor even more.

"The different dolce preparations we've been doing are straight dark chocolate with local pecans and semolina," he says as he points to the pâté-like sliver of pecan-dotted sanguinaccio on a small white plate. "More traditionally, it's used as a pudding — so these" — he indicates two smaller, fluffier quenelles of the stuff — "are going to be lighter in texture and bolder in flavor."

One of the quenelles of sanguinaccio is a fennel-chile-citrus blend, of which Dorris says, "The chile is really powerful — for some reason it comes through the blood really strong." He serves it with housemade shortbread (featuring more house lard, of course) to cut the heat level. And the other is made with finely ground espresso beans from local roaster and Greenway Coffee owner David Buehrer, which Revival Market sells along with all the other ingredients Dorris uses. It's a one-stop shop.

"With the espresso one," he points to the darker of the two quenelles, "we wanted to have a slight smokiness to go with the espresso. So when we started adding in the sugar, we actually rendered the lard, got it really super hot, added the sugar and let it caramelize a bit. When we whipped it back into the blood with the cocoa powder, you got a really intense, cool flavor."

He and Vaserfirer are planning additional experiments with the sanguinaccio — perhaps a twist on an affogato with the espresso flavor — and they plan to keep it on the menu for as long as customers purchase it. Even if they don't know what it is right off the bat.

"People are kind of skeptical at first when I bring it out," says Dorris. But they're hooked after just one taste. And for Dorris, the decision to make this rare, blood-based item was as much a business decision as it was a chance to explore and showcase an often-ignored ingredient that's finally getting a well-deserved spotlight.

"The fact of the matter is, in order for this place to survive, we have to constantly find out ways to use everything. It has to sell. And it has to sell daily. So I'm having a blast, because we get to explore all these different flavors and textures and cuts that you don't see anywhere else." Katharine Shilcutt
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Burger Break

How Do You Improve a Big Mac?
Let Chef Randy Evans make you a Big-H Burger.

How do you improve upon a Big Mac? That isn't a sarcastic question; I'm a sucker for a McDonald's hamburger.

Blame it on nostalgia or perhaps my family history of diabetes. But it's rare that I feel an upscale restaurant can tackle a fast-food dish and improve significantly upon the original. Liberty Kitchen — with its McDonald's-esque, special sauce-topped Liberty Burger — is one of the rare restaurants that can, and now so is Haven.

Chef Randy Evans recently added the $20 Big-H burger to his lunch menu at Haven, which is his deliciously over-the-top reinterpretation of a Big Mac.

In true McDonald's style, the burger is even described on the menu as two Akaushi beef patties with "secret sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on sesame seed bun" (remember the old jingle, fellow oldsters?). It can also come topped with a fried egg on request, because what would modern dining be without the option to yolk up your burger?

And if $20 seems like a lot to pay for a burger, that's because you haven't seen the full size of the thing in person.

I also admire the use of his housemade pickles, the pitch-perfect shreds of iceberg lettuce and the slightly sweet, eggy buns that hold it all together. It's the all-natural Big Mac that, well, a top-notch chef would make if he were making one for himself at home. And price aside, it's a complete and total improvement on the original.

Oh, and did I mention that it comes with something McDonald's doesn't offer at all? (Besides the fried egg, that is.) Housemade tater tots. Watch your back, Sonic: Haven is gunning for you next. Katharine Shilcutt
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Restaurant News

Openings & Closings
Cuchara slices up a soft opening, and the Gift Horse Lounge opens its mouth.

Cuchara, the Montrose restaurant at the corner of Taft and Fairview that's been under construction since February, had its soft opening this coming Sunday. I peeked in one afternoon last week and saw an open, semi-industrial dining room with a fantastic street art-style mural on one wall, as well as a big sign out front letting passersby know that Cuchara will be serving "Mexico City food." You know what that means, guys: Don't get all pissy if the place doesn't automatically serve chips and salsa.

Nearby, the two-story building at 607 West Gray that recently housed both Bibas and Kitbar in short succession is undergoing a serious facelift. A renovation appears to be gutting the entire space, while a sign draped across the construction zone indicates that a new restaurant will be coming soon.

Also coming soon: Not one, but two new ventures from the Moon Tower Inn guys — who are finally reopening Moon Tower itself next month.

Along with the reopening of the hot-dogs-and-beer joint — which should happen in September if all goes well — owners Evan Shannon and Brandon Young are seriously investing in their East End neighborhood. The first of the new spots from the guys to open will be The Gift Horse Lounge, of which Young excitedly said on his Facebook page: "WE'VE GOT A PROPER BAR COMING TO EASTWOOD SOON MOFO'S!!!!"

"The lounge will be a small neighborhood bar with good drinks and great prices," says Young of The Gift Horse, "as well as the best jukebox in H-town." Young and Shannon will also be opening a pizza place nearby — The Slice and Foam Co. — where the pies will come in two sizes only.

"The Slice and Foam Co. will be big New York-style slices as well as extra-large pies only," says Young. "Carry out or dine in (for now). We'll also have some taps and a shit pile of cans — all, of course, good beer — as well as a stage for some local shows and maybe even some surprise guests passing through."

With new restaurants and bars alongside adventurous live-music venues such as Walters, Super Happy Fun Land, The White Swan and, hell, even House of Creeps already in the area, the East End is shaping up to be Houston's new Montrose within a few years, now that Montrose is getting all fresh and fancy.

Speaking of Montrose, Dolce Vita reopened last week after being closed since May 23. A fire set in the Dumpster behind Marco Wiles's beloved pizza place heavily damaged the restaurant; Jacob Colby Garvin was eventually arrested in connection with the fire and charged with felony criminal mischief and felony arson.

Down the street, Korean-Japanese fusion joint Nabi has now closed for good. Owner/chef Ji Kang verified that he'd sold Nabi to another party but couldn't disclose who. That isn't the end of Kang's run here in Houston, however. The chef has another project in the works that's absolutely unlike anything else we have in the city — and one of the things we're sorely missing, which other cities have in spades. Anyone want to hazard a guess?

In other semi-blind news, I keep hearing rumors from solid sources who've indicated that New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh will soon be opening a restaurant in Houston. My last source even said that Besh had already chosen the spot — in River Oaks. Which would make complete sense were it true. I spoke with Besh's representatives last week, who said that the chef has no plans to open a place in Houston. Is that anything like In-N-Out Burger "not" coming to Houston anytime soon?

Last but not least, the restaurant that replaced Cabo's has been open for a couple of weeks. But it hasn't had its sign up until now: Pepper Jack's left the fiberglass marlin component of Cabo's old sign intact, which is now lighting up the downtown sky at Travis and Prairie once again. Katharine Shilcutt
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On the Menu

New Specials at Brasserie 19
Chef Amanda McGraw wows.

A perfectly poached 63-degree egg — one of only two things that Chef Amanda McGraw cooks in her sous vide machine at Brasserie 19, the other being a giant pork chop — is spilling its saffron-colored yolk across the crispy top of a parmesan custard inside a shallow white ramekin. Off to one side, a couple of spoonfuls of caviar rest gently.

The yolk is slowly beginning to reach the tiny, gunmetal-colored pile of roe. But before it can do so, I scoop all three components up with my spoon — viscous yolk, creamy custard, salty eggs — and spread it across a piece of warm, soft baguette. The flavors are sudden and sharp, all bright brininess from the caviar and a softly salty lift of creamy parmesan custard underneath. Only the egg yolk serves to temper the two contrastingly salty flavors, soaking them up and rendering them elegant, refined and fascinating.

It's such a fun study in texture, temperature and taste, made all the more so by its unexpectedness here at the country-clubbish Brasserie 19. The moneyed River Oaks restaurant normally specializes in steak frites, raw oysters and trout almondine — traditional Brasserie food served to patrons with old-school appetites — but McGraw is intent on shaking things up with her off-menu specials.

It's this blend of traditional dishes along with more adventurous platings of rainbow runner crudo or pickled shrimp with smoked crème fraîche that makes Brasserie 19 such an intriguing place to eat right now.

You get the sense that, if left to her own devices, McGraw would transform the entire menu in this way. But then it wouldn't be a brasserie. Instead, McGraw continues to make sure the brasserie basics are cooked perfectly so that she's allowed the leeway to experiment with more of these "fun" dishes.

Pickled shrimp with smoked crème fraîche are among those fun little treats available right now. The shrimp is fresh from the Gulf, pickled very lightly and served atop a shaved fennel salad with earthy pops of celery — all of which would be good in and of itself. But McGraw takes it a step further by smoking crème fraîche in a hotel pan with wood chips, a process which imparts a woodsy aroma and wonderfully charred flavor to the normally sour, tangy cream. That signature tang is still there, of course; it's just softened a smidge with that irresistible allure of campfires or well-seasoned barbecue smokers.

Like the shrimp, the soft pink rainbow runner she uses in a fanciful crudo is straight from the Gulf courtesy of local fishmonger P.J. Stoops and barely requires a cure. Instead, mandolined slices of even brighter pink watermelon are draped across the fish, then crowned with equally summery components: punches of micro cilantro and the citrusy pop of yuzu. A sprinkling of crushed hazelnuts on top gives the dish all of the subtle crunch and saltiness it needs.

But even with these new specials, McGraw manages to stay true to the brasserie format: good seafood and good French food are still held tightly in focus. It's this sort of dedication that's kept her at Brasserie 19 as chef de cuisine through three different chefs since it opened a little over a year ago. And it's her talent which finally led owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper to allow her to take over the kitchen as head chef in June. Along with Coppa chef Brandi Key (who, coincidentally, happens to be McGraw's long-term girlfriend), she is one of two female executive chefs in Clark and Cooper's restaurant empire here in Houston.

Fans of traditional foie gras will find something even more exciting in McGraw's treatment of the lobes: She's poaching them in brandy right now, then serving the tender, dense liver with an apricot puree and a sort of grown-up Jell-O made with Lillet Blanc, which is a blend of white wine and citrus liqueur. Both serve to cut the fattiness of the foie gras without sacrificing any of the rich flavor.

Even veal sweetbreads — which can be terrifically tender but otherwise bland on their own — are given an interesting spin on McGraw's new specials menu, coated in an herb batter and fried up before being served on a bed of horseradish cream between jagged leaves of peppery mizuna and crispy, dehydrated apple slices.

It's hard to believe sometimes that McGraw only graduated from the Art Institute three short years ago and that it wasn't long ago that she was a cheesemonger with the Houston Dairymaids. Running the kitchen like a professional at Brasserie 19, she seems made for the role — one which she's taken on with graceful aplomb. The surprisingly deft way in which she's done so only makes it all the more satisfying and all the more exciting to watch her trajectory in the future. Katharine Shilcutt

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