Members of the Johnnie Walker team traveled to LA last week for the unveiling of its new Double Black blended Scotch whisky. Promising “Black Label amplified,” the spanking new spirit was paired with signature dishes from Vinnie Dotolo and Jon Shook’s latest outing, the West LA seafood house Son Of A Gun. It turned out to be an inspired match-up.
Double Black did indeed live up to its promise. It’s simultaneously sweeter and smokier, richer in mouth feel than its predecessor, its flavors more concentrated. The effect is that of the best parts of classic Black Label boiled down; the espresso version of blended whisky. Guests were also treated to samples of 18-year Gold Label – sweeter than the others by a long shot and a nice pairing with the dessert course – as well as the coveted 25-year Blue Label, which our host informed us would “flow over (our) tongues like wax” and did just that. As rich and luxurious as they get in texture, following the rule that older is always better, each has that distinctive flavor of Johnnie Walker that I’ve known since I was in my twenties.
The food pairings turned out to be inspired, not that it would be easy to go too far wrong with the Dudes doing the cooking. Son Of A Gun’s menu is somewhat more traditional than that of Animal, their eccentric, vegan-unfriendly and fantastic place around the corner on Fairfax that makes delicacies of things like chili-lime pig ears and and oxtail poutine. Comfort food is their thing; the little potato balls topped with craime fraiche and caviar that were being passed around as we entered gave the immediate impression of a McDonald’s french fry – but like, the best McDonald’s french fry you ever had in your life – which I can’t imagine is an accident. Likewise, their fried chicken sandwich suggests a couple of guys who used to eat at Chick-Fil-A every day and decided to do a proper job of it.
But if a tad more restrained, the kitchen is still capable of a wacky, inspired dish like a big bowl of maple cream dotted with steelhead roe and wisps of pumpernickel toast. It’s a mouthful that will make you go utterly blank for a minute – sweet, salty, creamy, crispy, a texture that one imagines outer-space food might have. Even if it’s not the best thing served all night, it’s the most unexpected, the meal’s most extreme WTF moment.
Transparently thin slices of Benton country ham, wrapped around cornbread sticks moistened with honey butter, made an obvious match for the smoke-sweet counterpoint of the Double Black, as did the mustardy peel and eat shrimp and a gently smoked Mahi Mahi Salad that I will think about and compare favorably to every lump of mayo-drenched tuna I see for the rest of my life. But some of the most exciting chords struck were far less predictable. Coconut ice cream, served with the aged and sweetened Gold Label, was a big hit. A Thai-inspired take on shrimp toast came out as I was finishing a surprisingly clean and refreshing mojito-like concoction from the bar made with Black Label. That’s not something you’d often think of as “refreshing” but it was beautifully transformed in the presence of cucumbers, soda and faint hint of citrus. In the right hands, even flavors that have been around most of your life can be given a whole new identity. Johnnie, we hardly knew ye.