Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cocktailing in Manhattan, Part One - The Pegu Club

As with most things culinary, when you look for cutting edge innovation and trendsetting in America, two cities immediately appear at the top of any list – New York and San Francisco (DC…not so much, although things are improving on that front). Luckily for me, I had planned trips to both of those locations in back to back weeks in July, giving me a rare opportunity to experience (potentially) some of the great cocktail locations in America in a very short period of time. My first stop – New York, which has close to a dozen locations which have garnered interest and accolades within the cocktail and culinary community (not to mention the standard imbibing community). With the plan being to spend a week there, I figured that would give me ample opportunity to hit at least a couple of these locations and document what I found. Turns out a couple was in fact all I had time for, but the time spent at both locations - The Pegu Club and Flatiron Lounge - was about as well spent as one interested in cocktails could hope for.

The Pegu Club, located on West Houston in Soho, has a sterling reputation for the cocktails mixed there, as well as for those who mix them. Named after a famous British colonial officer's club in Burma, the bar and lounge, located up a flight of steps straight off the street, has an appropriately Eurasian feel to it - the wooden screens, dark and polished wood, and low slung furniture create an atmosphere of refined yet restrained elegance. Everything in the narrow, long space running along Houston Street is designed to be both comforting, but at the same time elevate the mood and heighten the senses - this isn't a place to slug back a shot of Jack with a Bud Light chaser (although there's nothing wrong with that).

Bottles of all kinds were lined up behind the bar - Cynar, Sazerac Rye, Green and Yellow Chartreuse, Plymouth Sloe Gin, Zwack. Bottles both common and exotic were contained behind asian-inspired screens which were made to mimic the same style of screens difusing the light coming through the north facing windows. This was a lounge, but absent the typical pretension associated with someplace identifying itself as one - this was a "club," but one everyone is invited to join.

I arrived on a Monday afternoon, only having been off the train from DC long enough to drop my stuff off at the hotel and catch the A Train to Soho. The room was almost completely empty except for one gentleman sipping a drink in a very well appointed suit. The bar filled out, but only slightly, as the afternoon wore on - I learned that Eben Klemm (beverage director of the B.R. Guest restaurant group), sat for a drink or two Taking my place at the bar, I looked at the cocktail menu and ordered their signature cocktail (always a good place to start) - the Pegu Club. London dry gin, orange curacao, lime juice, and angostura and orange bitters are shaken vigorously and then strained into a cocktail coupe. Tart, refreshing, slightly sweet, you could envision sitting on the porch in the humid heat of Burma having tray after tray of these delivered for your pleasure.

The Pegu Club Cocktail

2oz London dry gin
3/4 oz orange curacao
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
2 dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge

The creation of this cocktail embodied everything I look for in a place that creates quality cocktails. My bartender, Yale, was extremely friendly and very willing to chat (I am sure at least partially because there was hardly anyone else in the place). The bar filled out, but only slightly, as the afternoon wore on - while chatting with Yale about ice and the most efficient shaking techniques (some think it makes a difference - others don't), I learned that Eben Klemm (beverage director of the B.R. Guest restaurant group), sat for a drink or two a couple of seats away. He had evidently been on a panel discussion about that very subject (dilution, temp, ice structure, etc) in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail. That's the kind of thing an actual raport with the bartender will get you - interesting tidbits about regular customers or facts about the craft that you wouldn't get elsewhere.

Yale's method for making the cocktails I enjoyed that afternoon were consistent, classic, and extremely professional. All of the quality cocktail places I have been to in the last year or so have the same characteristics:

- alcohol amounts are measured, not free poured
- shaken drinks are just that - shaken, HARD
- ingredients are absolutely fresh - fruit, juices, even bitters, tonics, and sodas are made on site or acquired form the highest quality vendors
- as the drink is strained into your glass, the pour is ended with a crisp snap of the wrist
- not necessary, but a nice detail - ice is cracked in hand with a barspoon in a discriminating way (i.e. would throw ice out if not cracked properly). Again, attention to detail and experience of the customer at the bar.
- the bartender taste tests your drink (with a straw, not a sip) before giving it to you. That indicates to me a desire for quality control and excellence - you can trust a drink that passes this test to taste as it should
- the bartender is engaging with the customers - even when slammed, he/she will always have a smile and a few words with a new customer sitting down at the bar

For my next cocktail, I asked Yale to come up with something she really liked. Proclaiming herself to be a "rye girl" (big points there), she mixed up a Red Hook - Rittenhouse 100 Rye, maraschino liqueur, and Punt a Mes, stirred, with a brandied cherry for a garnish. Boozy drink, with a great balance of sweetness and depth which rye imparts to almost any drink.

The Red Hook

2 oz Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey
1/2 oz Punt e Mes
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass

Wanting to ensure my experience at the bar would extend into the evening (and not wanting to pass out on the A Train and end up god knows where), I decided to have some of the "bar" food. And awesome food it is - chicken lollipops with scotch syrup, pear compote, and lemon zest were fantastic, and their version of coconut shrimp w honey mustard sauce was delicious as well. Satiated but not full, I moved ahead with my mission to try as many cocktails at the Pegu Club as possible while still maintaining the ability to adequately operate my limbs.

At this point, there was a shift change at the bar, and Dell took over the helm of the place. I learned later that I was being served by one of the most highly regarded bartenders in NYC - and it was soon clear why that was.

PART II - Dell the Funky Homosapien (Bartender)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cocktail Hopping in Philadelphia ( Part 2)

Butcher and Singer was my last and best stop on my cocktail-related venture through Philadelphia. My experience there started with a Sidecar.

The Sidecar is a classic cocktail. As such, it saw a resurgence in the 90’s when the movie Swingers came out (sadly, I have yet to see it, so I don’t know whether the cocktail itself figures prominently in the movie, or whether the resurgence of cocktail culture in general generated renewed interest in the drink. I know, I am a cultural failure.) Consisting of brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass, it’s got a great mixture of all the things that make a cocktail successful for me – sweet, sour, herbaceousness, and bite. At Butcher and Singer, they throw in a thinly sugared rim on the glass, which really punches the sweet up a notch at the front of the drink before the other flavors come into play. I actually prefer this – that little pop of sugar at the front really sets the stage for the other flavors.

At this point, having complimented the bartender on the drink, I asked for something that he really likes that people may not order very often or see in other bars. He suggested a French 75. I have seen more than a few references to this cocktail being made with gin as the base spirit – but other references, and the associated back-story, refer to cognac as the lead. This was the version prepared here, and I can’t argue with the results.

The story goes that the drink was created during World War I by flying ace Franco Lufbery who wanted a way to kick up his champagne. He added cognac, which would certainly do the trick. The result was said to have the same effect as a famous (or infamous-, depending on which side of the lines you were on)-at-the-time piece of artillery, a French 75mm howitzer. Thus, the French 75.

For the preparation, cognac, simple syrup, and lemon juice are shaken together. The bartender prepared a large brandy snifter by half filling it with crushed ice, over which the drink was poured. Champagne then topped the drink off. Again, the mixture of tastes (sour, sweet, herby, bite, with some dryness added by the champagne) really set the drink apart from your typical expectation for a cocktail.

It was at this point I decided that further exploration of the Philadelphia cocktail culture was probably best left to another day. Hopefully I’ll be returning soon, as I could see that there were obviously bartenders in Philly that cared about their craft, and that were on a mission to elevate the cocktail beyond the standard vodka martini or over-muddled mojito. And that’s a worthy mission in my book.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Crusty Bar

Since starting this cocktail adventure a couple of months ago, I have been seeking to fill out my home bar to the point where I had what I would consider all of the "essentials" - basically 90% of the ingredients I would need to make any random cocktail that caught my eye in a magazine, or I saw mentioned on line. That turned out to be a lot more labor, time, space, and funding intensive than I first thought. While you can certainly have what would be considered a fully stocked bar with just a few key bottles (Imbibe magazine recently had a great article suggesting what a good starting "home bar" consists of), creating one which enables you to really experiment with a wide range of classic and new cocktails is no small undertaking. And it can get ridiculous - just to represent the various styles and cross-sections of gin could take up 15 bottles - and that's assuming you skip the gin-n-juice variants (sorry Snoop).

I had a relatively decent stock on hand already - mostly from gifts, or bottles I bought here and there for parties or for my own use (which mostly consisted of bourbon). So filling in around that base was something which took a bit of research (through blogs, magazines, and cocktail books). Here is my current listing of spirits and supporting items on hand, along with a list of things which I have on my "to get" list.

Absolut New Orleans Vodka
Tito's Handmade Vodka
Stoliychnaya Vodka
Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka
Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin
Hendrick's Gin
Bacardi Superior White Rum
Cruzan Black Strap Rum
Captain Morgan Spiced Rum
Appleton Estate V/X Rum
Sauza Commemorativo Anejo Tequila
Patron Silver Tequila
Whiskey / Whisky
Johnny Walker Red Blended Scotch
Johnny Walker Black Blended Scotch
Wasmund's Red Single Malt Whisky
Wasmund's Silver Single Malt Whisky
Jameson Irish Whiskey
Maker's Mark Bourbon
Jim Beam Rye Whiskey
Others (ok, I got lazy with the labels)
Southern Comfort
Laird's Applejack
Berentzen Apfelkorn Apple Liquer
Drysack Sherry
Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve Porto
Kelt Tour du Mond VSOP Cognac
Barsol Pisco
Lillet Blanc
Lillet Rouge
Martini & Rossi Vermouth Rosso
Cinzano Extra Dry Vermouth
Punt e Mes
Campari Liqueur
Cynar Artichoke Liqueur
St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Heering Cherry Liqueur
Stock Maraschino Liqueur
Kirschwasser Cherry Liqueur
Galliano Liqueur
Frangellico Liqueur
Drambuie Liqueur
Benedictine Liqueur
Cointreau Orange Liqueur
Kahlua Liqueur
Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur
LeTourment Vert Absinthe
Agua Luca Cachaca
DeKuyper Triple Sec
DeKuyper Creme de Cassis
DeKuyper Blue Curacao
DeKuyper Creme de Cocoa
Bols Blackberry Flavored Brandy (the bottle I have had the longest - no idea why)
Rumple Minze Peppermint Schnapps
Tres Agaves Agave Nectar
Korean Soju
Korean Blueberry Soju
Plum Gekkeikan Plum Wine
Hakushika Sake
Aalborg Akvavit
Angostura Bitters
Regan's Orange Bitters
Peychaud's Bitters
Rose's Grenadine

To Get
Absolut Citron
Chartreuse (Green and Yellow)
Sloe Gin
Fernet Branca

Of course there are others - do I need Ouzo? Are celery bitters really essential to my home imbibing needs? But that's the fun - reading about these spirits, their history, the drinks and personalities behind them - and then trying them out yourself. That's what interests me - that and having a nice drink as a byproduct. For even though a bad drink is (mostly) better than no drink at all, there is no excuse for a bad drink if you have the right ingredients, the right tools, and a willingness to experiment.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cocktail Hopping in Philadelphia (Part 1)

I recently had the opportunity to be in Philadelphia for work for a day and a half. I really like Philly - the place has an attitude all it's own (for better or for worse), and it is ALWAYS present no matter where you go in the city. I have been there over the years five or six times, and I always enjoy going back.

For the one evening I was in town, I stayed at the Ritz Carlton at 10 Avenue of the Arts, right at the corner where S. Broad Street hits City Hall (swanky!). As I checked in, I noted that majority of the huge atrium on the first floor was taken up by the 10 Arts Bar and Restaurant (one of Eric Ripert's establishments). Looking at the extremely long bar with their impressive spread of bottles , I knew this would be my first stop on my secondary motivation for being in Philly - finding some really well crafted cocktails.

Sitting at the sparsely populated bar (this was at 5:30 on a Tuesday), I looked over the cocktail menu, which had about 10 specialty cocktails on it. I focused in on 10 Classic Cucumber - I had just finished a two hour long drive from DC, and I was looking for something refreshing, but not sweet. The cocktail is made with Tanqueray 10 gin, organic cucumber slices, and a squeeze of lime stirred with ice in a sea salt rimmed rocks glass. This was VERY tasty - the more floral nature of Tanqueray 10 really complimented the fresh cucumber flavor, and the sea salt really set the whole thing off. As I drank, I asked the bartender where he would suggest I go for really well made cocktails. He confessed he was not the regular bartender (+1 for honesty), and asked a waitress if she could recommend a place. She pointed me to El Vez, about three blocks away.

El Vez (not to be confused with El Vez!), at the corner of Latona and S. 13th Streets just off of S. Broad, looked promising - outdoor seating, crowded and lively, interesting exterior. Stepping inside, my anticipation was somewhat diminished - El Vez is a mexican restaurant, which isn't something I automatically equate with good cocktails (outside of a margarita, and I have been more likely than not to have great margaritas at non-Mexican establishments). Sitting down at the crowded, centrally placed bar-in-the-round, I ordered some (very good) guacamole and chips and perused the drinks menu. Of course, margaritas were well represented (the Frozen Blood Orange sounded very tempting) but they also had a decent list of "specialty drinks" - I focused in on the El Tono. Made with cranberry infused bourbon, lime juice, and hibiscus tea, it sounded really intriguing - having done some of my own infusions recently, and thinking the combo of bourbon and tea would be pretty refreshing, I ordered one up.

The bartender was very efficient and professional - I like it when, before I am served a drink, a bartender takes a straw and pulls out a small sample to taste for correctness. The cocktail looked pretty - nice reddish hue from the cranberries (a couple sitting in the bottom of the glass), the tea aroma faint but present. Unfortunately, the cranberry taste was overwhelming - the tartness of the fruit was really the only thing that came through. I did note that I got the bourbon from near the bottom of the bottle, so it was possible the bourbon had been infusing for too long. But overall, that drink just reminded me that I didn't really like cranberry juice anyway (oh, yeah, that.) Sticking with my methodology, I asked one of the bartenders where they would go for a great cocktail. She highly recommended Apothecary across the street. I had heard of this place prior to coming to Philly - very innovative drinks, house made infusions and the use of fresh ingredients all promised good things.

Except it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Guess you gotta have a weekend at some point.

So, I went back and asked for an alternative suggestions. They mentioned I try Continental, which was a several block walk, but which they assured me would actually be, you know, open.
And good. So I headed west through the ever growing evening rush hour mass of humanity to seek the place out.

I never got there. I was struck by a restaurant and cocktail lounge with a large, neon champagne coupe on it's sign - Butcher and Singer. I figured that any place with a sign and name like that was pretty boldly saying "We make great cocktails for ladies and gentlemen that can tell the difference." Figuring they would never know whether I fit that category or not, I headed inside.

This was another double height space (probably a bank) that had been turned into a restaurant - dark, clubby, with modern lounge music drifting around in the background. The bar was actually very small - up front, it seated at most ten. However, immediately I knew I had made a good choice - the bartender was dressed in a crisp white jacket and bow tie, and he fronted a very well stocked bar (especially given the size). Sitting down, I asked what he would suggest for a classic cocktail - he suggested I start with a Sidecar. Excellent. This was actually a cocktail I had read a lot about, and was one of the cocktails that had become popular again when their became an increased interest in "classic" cocktails in the 90's. But I had never actually had one (although it was on my "to make" list). So I told the man to work his craft (I didn't really say that) and waited for classic goodness to be placed before me.

And I was not disappointed.

Next Time: The Butcher and Singer Experience