Thursday, December 27, 2007

Adventures in secret dining

As I cautiously rang the bell at a building I'd never been to I was at the height of my paranoia. On the way over I fretted over whether or not I had the correct address and I wasn't really sure who to contact if I did write down the wrong address...what if I was walking into some insane kidnapping scheme? All this for a dinner and cocktail pairing?

I had been receiving correspondences from Bite Club for a while, but a recent notice said that there would be a dinner paired with cocktails by Joaquin Simo of Death & Co. made it me decide, "Well, maybe it's time I attended one of these secret dining club dinners."

When I entered the apartment that had been temporarily turned into a small dining area I was instantly struck by apartment envy. It seems to be a condition of New York living. It wasn't palatial like a Trump condo, it was just normal-sized. Seriously, that's all I ask for in an apartment. Normal-sized. Though I guess that's pretty subjective...

I managed to get over the apartment envy long enough to overhear a woman explain that she was with Italian Marie Claire and an older gentleman with her snapped away on his professional-looking camera. To be honest half of me was pretty scared about the possibility of being interviewed as an attendee. I wasn't sure what protocol was in giving statements since I was there as a reporter in some sense and I didn't want to commit some weird imagined faux pas in my head. However, when she ignored me to talk with other guests, what ego I had did feel a bit wounded. I was hoping I looked important or cool enough to talk to whether or not it was true.

As I scanned the room I spotted what I thought was a familiar face, but thanks to my ineptitude at recognizing faces and deteriorating eyesight it took me a while for me to recognize that it was my colleague Elizabeth Licata who was with her husband Nick Vogt. The two had been married since June and, may I for a moment drop all reporter pretense to say they totally made a cute and well-dressed couple? Seriously? Totally cute. But back to being professional...

It was a total coincidence to run into them. I hadn't discussed about attending this particular dinner and asked them if they were regulars to this club. Elizabeth answered that it was their first time attending and was sort of a Christmas gift to each other, which I thought was a great gift idea.

As I scanned the menu I saw that the five course meal featured marrow, lobster, sweetbreads, foie gras and chocolate. I was very curious as to what drinks would be matched with these food items. I dove head first into the pairings and tried to taste as much as possible each of the dishes and cocktails, but to be honest, five courses with five drinks (not counting the Blood Smoke and Sand Joaquin served before dinner) began taking a toll on me.

I guess I really should have tried approaching it more from a "tasting" standpoint, yet stubbornly I tried to be pretty good about drinking most of the drinks at the beginning. Waste not, want not as they say, but towards the end I was pretty full from the food and the drink. I could say a lot about what I tasted. For example, when I drank the Blood Smoke and Sand, the first thing to hit me was how smoky it tasted. I commented to Elizabeth about whether or not there was some liquid smoke in the drink because it was so pronounced, but later I was to find out that it was the extra peaty and smoky scotch that was used that was packing that punch. I found the choice of pairing the Summer Shack with the lobster dish interesting because of the drink's strong lemon/citrus aroma. It was pretty logical to me since it seemed like a drink that could play with the seafood flavor of the lobster, while playing in contrast with the creaminess of the dish and the rich and subtle black truffle pastry accompanying the cream of lobster. This was good and all, but I wanted to hear about the drinks from the source.

After the dinner, the place began to clear out and it started to look more and more like an apartment again. People were clearing up in the kitchen, and diners were grabbing their coats and heading out, thanking for the meal. I found Joaquin in the kitchen with a drink in his hand and leaning next to a fridge. He said good bye and thanked the dinner guests who complimented him as they filed out. It felt more like the end of a holiday party at a friends house than an intense study in complex cocktails served with an elaborate food menu. I felt like I was having a conversation with a friend of a friend I had been introduced to when I cornered Joaquin.

Curiosity got the best of me and I told Joaquin that I noticed him shaking the drinks in an interesting way.

"Were you doing a hard shake?" I asked. He replied that the odd shaking was more a result of him having to use chipped ice that I saw him scoop from a cooler stationed next to the long table he had set up as his station.

I also asked about the demerara syrup that was listed for some of the drinks. I confirmed with Joaquin that it was simple syrup made with demerara sugar. An option he chose to give the drinks a richer flavor to round things out.

We made small chit-chat about cocktails and how the cocktail scene can be a close-knit one. I also prodded a bit about the current state of affairs with Death & Co. and the State Liquor Authority. There had been closings related to noise complaints in 2007. In short, it's complicated and an ongoing issue, but the place is open again and trying its best to be squeaky clean in an attempt to show that they are good citizens, and if possible, avoid further attention from the SLA. It's running under the schedule of a previous liquor license, so the place is open from 6pm to midnight. There were more questions about how he worked out the pairings, but I didn't want to be rude about taking up too much of his time since it looked like there was still a lot of cleaning up to do. I asked him if I could follow up by phone. I was relieved that he obliged me by letting me call him up on Wednesday even though he was spending time with family.

Joaquin said that he got the menu from Bite Club a week or week and half ahead of time. The thing that I kept wondering about was how one would go about doing cocktail pairings. Cocktail in and of themselves seem like a food item with their own recipes of ingredients.

"There’s a couple a different approaches. One is to try mimic the flavors that are in the food. So if the food's heavy and rich, I might go with something heavy and rich. Or I might do the opposite. Both can work," Joaquin said.

"For the most part, I was trying to reference the flavor that I found or at least a certain sense of what the dish was about."

The first course of bone marrow was paired with a cocktail called the Loosey Goosey that had a foie-gras infused bourbon for providing a mouth feel of richness in the mouth.

When I saw it on the menu that night I instantly thought of chunks of foie gras sitting in bourbon, and that definitely did not seem right.

"It uses a technique called fat washing," Jaoquin explained, dispelling the disturbing and unappetizing image I had of the foie gras floating in jars like some kind of specimen. In the fat washing technique, the fat is rendered from the foie gras and allowed steep with the bourbon at room temperature. Afterwards, it's blast chilled and then strained through a series of sieves and filters. "You’re not going to get a greasy mouth feel."

Jaoquin explained he wanted something big to go with the bone marrow and a week before the dinner had the good luck of sampling some of the infused bourbon at PDT, where it was created by Don Lee. He knew instantly he needed some of it for the dinner.

And speaking of foie gras, the particular food item made another appearance later on in the dinner, but was paired with Joaquin's Black Market Brandy. The dish had pear poached with mulling spice, ginger snap, cacao nibs and star anise. The cocktail echoed some of these flavors with the spiced tea used to infuse the sweet vermouth, and also with the chocolate bitters and fruitiness found in the brandy.

"It’s always kind of a crap shoot," Joaquin said about trying to pair cocktails with food, but added, "I think they did work...they worked out very well. When they present these really complex menus it gives you a lot to work play with one lesser flavor that’s found in the dish and accentuate it in the glass so people can recognize it."

Usually a spirit or new liqueur with an interesting flavor inspires Joaquin to come up with new drinks.

"When there's a really lovely flavor, I think 'Wow what could I do with this?'"

For example with a new rum he might try it out with a classic rum drink to see how it behaves. A technique he uses often, playing with proportions of classic drinks to see what else can come out of it.

I made a promise to try and stop by in the new year since around 30 new drinks were added to the menu.

"...30??" I asked again to make sure I heard right.

"It's always a challenge when we put out a new menu," Joaquin said. "Then you work a couple of shifts and get the hang of it."

A self-professed foodie, Joaquin said about dinner pairings, "It’s fun. One of the drinks on the list came from one of the first dinner's always nice to have impetus with the food where you’re automatically getting a base flavor profile."

Dec. 22 Bite Club Dinner

Loose Goosey
Foie gras-infused Bourbon Rittenhouse Rye, Carpano Antica, dry Sherry, Champagne, Demerara syrup, Orange bitters, orange twist

parsley shallot salad, sweet garlic jam, toast points

Summer Shack
Plymouth Gin, Lillet Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, St. Germain, Orange Bitters, Lemon twist

cream of lobster, black truffle pastry

Solera Sidecar
Courvoisier Cognac, Ooroso sherry, Lazzaroni Amaretto, fresh lemon juice

JG raisin caper emulsion, cauliflower puree

Black Market Brandy
Courvoisier Cognac, Laird's bonded Applejack, Market Spice tea-infused Sweet Vermouth, Angostura bitters, Bittermens chocolate bitters

Foie Gras
Muling spice poached pear, ginger snap, cacao nibs, star anise caramel

New york Flip
Sazerac 6 year rye, Tawny Port, Demerara syrup, Heavy Cream, egg yolk, freshly grated nutmeg

Cayenne infused Neuhaus 85% chocolate, frosted habanero pepper

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

News of a new guild

While a lot of people still at home and quite probably recovering from the holiday revelries, some of us showed up at the office to work this Wednesday morning.

In acknowledgment that the holidays started around Wednesday and will last until New Year's for a lot of people, here is a bit of news for those who might have missed it, considering the fact that it came out right before the holidays.

The Oregon Bartender's Guild made an official announcement about its existence last week. I got the announcement on Friday via email newsletter from the TearDrop Lounge out in Portland, Ore. The announcement stated:

"A small group of us, each dedicated to the craft of the cocktail, have established a community of collaboration, both amongst ourselves & local distillers, brewers & winemakers. Our primary goals are elevating the standards of cocktail production in our industry, as well as public outreach through educational seminars & tastings."

I talked to Daniel Shoemaker, co-owner of the TearDrop Lounge and vice president of the new guild, who said that the guild had been in the works for months, and while the group wanted everything to be finalized and set, they also wanted to get the word out prior to Christmas so that people interested in the first of the Guild's seminars could get reservations. The seminar, which is a tasting hosted by several bartenders with information such as history and technique, is scheduled for January 20.

Daniel said the idea for the guild occurred several months ago when the TearDrop Lounge first opened to the public. Several of Portland's top bartenders were in attendance and it was agreed that a guild would be in the best interest not just as a means for collaboration of ideas and techniques, but also to gain better buying power for special products.

"We're really like an old crafts mens' guild. We're trying to elevate awareness in the community and increase knowledge on our end," Daniel explained. The group is looking to help inform bartenders, educate the public and reach out to a new and upcoming next generation of cocktail production.

While the guild is open to the public, it is organized in a tier system. For example, tiers can be divided up between those who are bartenders and are committed to the craft, restaurant owners, local distillers, as well as members of the general community who are "friends of the guild."

For more information about the guild or to find out more about the seminar, email the guild at

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Drinks at Tailor don't always tailor to the seasons

Last week I caught Tailor's Eben Freeman on the phone to talk a bit about the drink menu at Tailor. With the change of the weather, I'd been feeling out to see what kinds of changes were happening to beverage menus out there, so I asked Eben if the beverage menu at Tailor menu was doing anything seasonal.

"I wouldn't necessarily call it seasonal," Eben answered. "We change things up all time. We're constantly developing new ideas and the bartenders are playing with things. There are a few drinks that are not on the list yet that we're happy to make changes with."

At the same time, he added, "We can't ignore the season. There are certain ingredients that come into play and the seasonality of drinking in the winter is different from the summer. But it's not a case of 'It's spring. It's fall.' It's not how it really works."

Eben said that while he doesn't collaborate directly with Sam Mason to come up with the drinks menu at Tailor, he tries to make drinks that "express the vocabulary of the kitchen." And the main drive behind his creations are about "putting things in liquid form that haven't been in liquid form before."

A direct collaboration isn't necessary between him and Sam considering their long working relationship together, which includes WD-50 and time at Jean-Louis Palladin's restaurant.

"It's about working in a certain milieu and a certain mindset," Eben said, crediting also their mutual familiarity with vocabularies and techniques.

"When you're a bartender in a restaurant, your responsibility is to know food well. For me that extends to knowing how to work in the kitchen. To know what the rules of the kitchen are, how you clean up after yourself, how the kitchen works, how to use the equipment...also not to step on anyone's toes." For example, smoking the syrup for the smoked Coke would be difficult if the kitchen was not equipped for smoking or if the kitchen staff did now know how to smoke things already.

Word of mouth has been going around about Eben's creations and he's been what he called, "very fortunate coverage." Especially for the smoked Coke and bourbon, which was also featured by NRN's food writer Bret Thorn in a food trends piece on smoked items. It started out as a food idea since some barbecue recipes call for cola. Other drinks that are turning heads include the pear crumble, which is made with sparkling pear cider, cloves and brown butter rum.

Some new drinks are being/will be rolled out this week. One of those drinks uses a lovage-flavored ingredient first developed by Sam as an infusion with juniper, clove, dry vermouth and a little bit of sugar. Eben added mescal, lime, juice and sea salt to the mix and calls it Mi Amor.

The lovage has a celery-like flavor, and Eben said that the drink is seasonal in its on way because lovage is no longer available and it's not a fall or winter flavor. The flavor of lovage intrigues with something unfamiliar and people who tasted the beverage reacted very favorably.

Eben also mentioned his Pumpernickel Flip. A flip is a classic mixed drink made with an egg yolk that's served either hot or cold. Eben's touch on this particular drink is the use of a pumpernickel raisin bread infused Scotch. The drink is rounded out with cream, simple syrup and nutmeg.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Drinking (and eating) at the Beard House

When Bret Thorn sent an email to me asking me if I'd go in his stead to a Beard House dinner he would be unable to attend I agreed to go without hesitation. Well, there was a bit of hesitation. "Am I supposed to be dressed real nice? It kind of sounds like it..." I emailed back. Even after a little over two years working for NRN I still feel like a food industry newbie at times, and for me the Beard House is the stuff of fables. Thankfully, Bret assured me that I just had to dress "like a grown-up."

Wednesday night's dinner was themed "A New Hampshire Holiday Dinner" with food created by chefs from New Hampshire hotels and resorts. The dinner was presented by Daniel Dumont, executive chef at Wentworth By the Sea Hotel in New Castle, New Hampshire; Larry Johnson, executive chef at The Balsams in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire; Juho Lee, executive chef at Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa in Whitefield, N.H.; and Edward Swetz, executive chef at Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

However, you ask, "OK, that's cool and all, but where does the drinking come in?" At dinner of course.

During the course of conversation at my table at the Beard House, I explained that usually I was more of a beer and spirits type of person and wine was not my forte. It wasn't anything personal against wine; I had no qualms drinking it when paired with foods as it was at this particular dinner. I was just green when it came to ordering it on my own. So it was a bit of a fun coincidence when later in the evening I turned to my right and got to talking with Oral Kelly, food and beverage director for the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa in Whitefield, N.H. While talking to him about what his job description entailed he began to explain about how he created a wine list for people who are not used to drinking wine.

Kelly said that while at a resort you get out-of-towners, it's also important to appeal to the locals since they were to be depended on for year-round business. And Kelly found out that the local crowd tended to define themselves more as beer drinkers so he'd been trying different ways to introduce and sell wine to programs non-wine drinkers.

One way was to promote wine dinners with pairings. He also worked with purveyors to schedule free wine tasting for more exposure.

Pricing also played an important role. Kelly said he tries to populate the wine list with affordable, but good quality wines. He also prices them attractively. While at a restaurants a certain wine may be marked up to $60, he choose to have it available at the resort for $50.

A balance between familiar and new also had to be struck. Kelly said that he likes to include American wines since it's less intimidating than something from outside of the country, but then he'll have something comparable from outside the United States that he can suggest.

Kelly pointed out that the availability of half bottles was part of the success of the wine program. "Someone's not going to buy a whole bottle if they aren't able to finish it."

And of course, he educated his staff to provide recommendations to guide customers towards new wines or just to try out wines.

Kelly said that the most important thing about his job as food and beverage director wasn't about just selling food or just selling beverages, but it was about selling an experience. It made sense to me when I thought about his approach to wines. For someone like me, I'd drink more wine if I knew what I was doing. I have some basic idea, but admit that the whole operation, when taking into account subtle notes and flavors and pairing them with food, was something a little intimidating to me. A strange thing considering how I'd take a sip of a cocktail, then ruminate over what kind of spirits or flavors were present in it. At an event like the dinner at the Beard House, where wine was made part of an experience, it was like a weight was taken off of my shoulders and I was relaxed more to actually sit and taste what I was drinking and contemplate it a bit. Not in a snooty way, but I mean to actually just take note of what was going on in my mouth.

I'm going to rip off Mr. Thorn's format here and provide a list of what I ate WITH what I drank at The Beard House. Just gonna switch the order a bit and highlight the wines up know, like subject headers:

Domaine Carneros by Tattinger Brut Cuvee 2004
New Hampshire trout brandade with anadama crostini
Espresso cumin-crusted New England farm-raised elk carpaccio roll
Pan seared salted cod cakes with roasted corn aioli
Smoked duck breast with celery root slaw
Foie gras and caramelized parsnip tart with roasted pear marmalade
Pickled beausoleil oysters with matsutakes, crystallized lady apple and apple syrup
Pheasant galantine on a bed of pumpkin butter and gooseberry conserve
Maple-cured gravlax of Arctic char and lightly smoked wild Char roe

Clos LaChance Unoaked Chardonnay Hummingbird Series, Monterey County 2005
Roasted pear parsnip bisque
Maine seafood spring roll

Merriam Vineyards Merlot, Windacre Vineyard, Russian River Valley 2003
Cider basted Vermont quail
Maple roasted root vegetable and potato terrine
Cranberry reduction

Four Vines Winery Heretic Petite Sirah, Paso Robles 2005
Variety of New Hampshire venison
Roasted loin en crepinette, sweet and sour quince
Braised fore shank ravioli with celeriac fondant
Hen of the woods ragout

Four Vines Winery Heretic Petite Sirah, Paso Robles 2005
Pierce Hill tomme
Winter truffles, pickled beets and melted onions

Renwood Port, Sierra Foothills, Calif.
Warm chocolate chestnut bread pudding
Eggnog ice cream, red currant sauce

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nothing wrong with a little DIY

During an NRN-Online department outing last night at the Pegu Club, Susan Vincer, our publishing director, had a sip of the Pegu Club Cocktail and commented that it tasted a bit tart.

Our server came over to set down some utensils for food, but she also placed on the table a small wooden box that positively looked like a "My first alchemy set" with some small bottles and eyedroppers.

"I heard you say that the drink was a bit tart," she said. "So here's some sugar, lemon juice, lime juice and bitters so you can fix the drink a bit."

I don't know if I'm just naive, but I was pretty astounded by this. First, because it was pretty incredible that our server took note of what could've been a throwaway comment, and second, that a place known for crafting cocktails gave customers the leeway to "fix" drinks if it wasn't to their liking.

Writing for a restaurant trade, the topic of providing good service gets discussed a lot, but here was a case where just letting the customer take care of the problem on their own was a form of good service. Afterwards I wondered if this was something that's just for table-side service over at the Pegu Club. If it is, it's a pretty ingenious way to get around trucking a single cocktail between the customer and the bartender.

For my previous visit to The Pegu Club, I've sat at the bar to watch the bartender mix the drink. When stumped as to what to drink next, the bartender asked what spirit or flavors I usually enjoy and what flavors I didn't. With such close proximity to the bartender, it's much easier to leave your fate in their hands. However, when sitting at a table away from the bar, with no prior discourse with a bartender and relying mostly on your server it becomes a game of telephone pitted against one of cocktails enemies, time. Ingredients in cocktails can settle or flavors can change slightly once it sits for a bit.

I could see it being a double-edged sword, though. While instant gratification exacting to a customers' tastes can be had for the taking (not to mention a sort of novelty factor), across the horizon looms the specter of even further dissatisfaction. For around $12 a drink in a nice setting like the Pegu Club, with its reputation for bartenders who know what they are doing, some people might think it's ridiculous that they have to doctor their own drinks. And heaven forbid that their efforts should yield a horrifying concoction. I imagined the litany of horrors that could be unleashed simply by someone improperly wielding the eyedropper from the bottle marked "bitters."

When ordering another drink later in the evening I saw our server's face begin to scrunch up as a small look of dismay started crawling across her face. I had barely finished the last syllable of the first word in the name of a drink.

"That's no longer on our menu," she said apologetically after confirming the rest of the name of what I wanted to order.

"Do you have anything similar?" I asked.

Without missing a bit she answered, "Yes, we do have something like it. It also has applejack and is made with grenadine and lemon juice."

It was nice to see that the waist staff (or at least our particular server), also were trained to be familiar enough with the menu.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Raiding PDT

Though the very nice Mr. James Meehan told me the winter menu wasn't ready yet, he said he would not mind at all if I stopped by PDT on Wednesday night. I said I'd be there and volunteered almost a little too enthusiastically, "I mean, I can always come back in two weeks!"

Why so keen? Well, today I'm here to officially out myself as the most uncool person to write about beverages ever simply because it wasn't until Wednesday night that I finally visited PDT. Then again, I woke up this morning and decided shiny, magenta stirrup tights were work-appropriate THEN proceeded to coordinate an entire outfit around said clothing item, so really, I should not be taken as a barometer for anything cool or not.

Excuses, excuses, but it really was an unfortunate case of just pushing things back and my inability to set aside a time to make a visit. I simply kept telling myself, "I'll go next week," again and again until it had gotten to this point...I didn't promise that the excuse wouldn't be inexcusable. And with the winter menu looming in the horizon I wanted to stop by and see what was on the menu now as a point of comparison.

I hopped into the phone booth at Crif Dogs on St. Mark's Place feeling a bit like Maxwell Smart. The phone booth is tucked away to the side and is not readily obvious. Besides the fact that the place has been getting a lot of attention, it's really not secret since on a busy night like last night you can clearly hear the customers on the other side of the wall when you stand in front of the phone booth. But I cannot deny that it is a pretty boss feeling to pick up that handset and get buzzed in.

The back wall opened and I was greeted by a hostess who smiled and asked, "Yes?"

"Yes?"? What was that supposed to mean? Was there a password involved? I frantically thought.

"Hi, I'm here to see Jim," I said, the last part of the sentence going up? Like a question? Like how some young women like to talk?

"Sure!" the hostess answered brightly and opened up the "door" to PDT fully. The place was packed and it was 7:30 on a Wednesday night.

When I make visits to bars for work I try to not be intrusive. I kind think that the bartender is doing his thing and has his rhythm going. And more times I find myself mesmerized by what's going on and will crane my neck to see what's being made and instead will interject with a "What is that?" when something catches my eye.

So keeping with my modus operandi, I slid into a corner seat at the bar. However, I didn't take into account stuffed animals mounted here and there and the spot I chose had me accidentally nuzzling the neck of a stuffed deer's head throughout the evening.

Jim started me off with a Desert Rose. Gin infused with dried rose petals, prickly pear puree and lemon juice. The drink was garnished with a similarly-tinted pale pink rose petal.

(Desert Rose)

Did I mention that the place was hopping? I looked around as I sipped my drink and my eyes landed on someone sitting a barstool away from me who I thought looked pretty familiar. I soon realized that I was rudely staring down a member of the cocktail royal family, Leo DeGroff, son of "the king of cocktails" Dale DeGroff. I didn't want to interrupt his conversation with some folks, but I eventually leaned over to introduce myself. I was fuzzily sure we had met before and we tried to piece together where and when it would've been.

I asked for the Paul's Club Cocktail next because I was intrigued by a cocktail that used something made from white wine vinegar. Jim said it was a 19th century type of drink since the "Shrubb" used in the cocktail was a popular method of preserving fruit and was kind of like a soft drink or dessert back then. My curiosity was piqued so got the urge to Google a bit. There's a certain rum-based liqueur with "Shrubb" in its name, but what Jim was talking about is also spelled "shrub." One source I found said that for traditional shrubs, fruit was soaked in vinegar for weeks, then the strained vinegar had water and sugar added to it. Another source I read online described it as the noncarbonated version of a carbonated beverage. It also kept the fruit-based beverage from going bad. Jim said originally shrubs, like Trix, were for kids. Eventually, adults wised up and got around to adding alcohol to it. He noticed cocktails out on the West Coast using gastriques, so he figured he'd make a cocktail with a traditional 19th-century shrub of white wine vinegar, grapes and sugar. The drink is a combination of gin, the aforementioned Concord Shrubb and pastis. The pastis sits as a cloudy layer on top of the cocktail, so it hits you first before the rest of the drink.

(Paul's Club Cocktail)

I couldn't stop studying the menu and Jim set down a Woolworth in front of me. I quickly flipped around to see what was in it. It listed a variety of Asyla scotch, a sherry from Southern Spain, Benedictine and orange bitters. "But I am distinctly tasting honey," I thought to myself. "I don't see honey...oh."

The menu went on to describe the scotch as being "honeyed and smokey." I wasn't familiar with this particular scotch so it was good to confirm that my taste buds weren't just messing with me. This is why you read the menu. Or at least, this is what good menus should do.

I was on a roll, and decided to go for the Vieux Mot next. The gin drink made with St. Germain and lemon was described as "a kinder, gentler version of the more manly Last Word Cocktail: take the 'I hate Gin; challenge, lose, and join us."

(Vieux Mot)

I don't hate gin, but my next thought after reading that was, "Well, OK, now I HAVE to drink the Last Word too." It read like a challenge and I'm kind of like Marty McFly and his aversion of being called "chicken" when it comes to challenges about imbibing. At the time, I wasn't sure if I'd had the Last Word before. It sounded familiar. Going through my old notes now, they tell me that I most definitely did, but it had been a while and I was looking for a refresher.

"Am I going to regret asking for this?" I asked Jim, considering that so far I had gamely downed several drinks made with several types of spirits and liqueurs on an empty stomach. I decided that maybe I should make this one my last. I probably should've taken my cue from some of the other patrons around me who were also ordering hot dogs from Crif Dogs.

Jim said the changes to the menu would be pretty drastic. Not everything would be replaced, but it would be a fair amount. For example, the Vieux Mot would probably be gone since it has more summery flavors.

"So in two weeks?" I asked again about the new menu.

"Probably," Jim answered then added jokingly, "But I'm not in too big of a hurry. It's going to be a long winter."

Please excuse our appearances...

This is kind of funny considering my previous post was all about how to present yourself online, but if you happen to stumble across my blog and notice that it's looking a bit strange or notice anything out of place, it's because we're still trying to get everything up and running. What can I say, it's the birth pangs of a new blog.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Being all Web 2.0

I managed to catch Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the head bartender for El Vaquero in Eugene, Ore., on instant messenger a week ago, and got to talking with him since previously I had left what I thought was a very cryptic message on his voicemail about a particular drink I was writing a story on. I have to admit, it was a bit novel talking to a source on IM. Shall I dare say it? It even felt downright taboo, since I'm more used to utilizing IMs for non-work related communication.

It was also fitting that I was communicating with Jeffrey this way considering that I was introduced to him not in meatspace, but by stumbling across his site/blog while doing a Google trawl for beverage menus.

I have had someone on the other end of the line ask, "Hey, how'd you hear about us anyway?" when I call to ask about beverages. I say honestly that I came across them while doing a search online. It might seem disappointing to some that my dirty secret of finding out new drinks is like an online version of covering my eyes and throwing darts at a dartboard. However, it comes down to the fact that besides relying entirely on press releases, a lot of times I tend to do cold searching to find new drinks and new things happening on drink menus outside of New York since I can't regularly go on a physical, nationwide "Tour of Tipple" awesome as that would be.

So my tip for the day? Use the internet to your advantage and get your drinks known. You never know who's going to stumble across your virtual doorstep. Working with the online department of Nation's Restaurant News, I've noticed restaurants' sites that have fallen to disrepair from not being updated enough or having old and incorrect info. This also means the drink menus don't fare any better.

If you have a seasonal menu, what better way to flaunt that than by having a regularly updated menu online? A lot of very "pretty" sites are Flash-heavy with bells and whistles, and I do mean "bells and whistles" when I think about all the times I've gone temporarily deaf from being blasted by a site's music and fumbling hysterically to turn it off. This is a large reason why my work computer's sound setting is on "mute" by default. But I digress. The point is a thoroughly designed site can many times be a difficult to maintain site. Restaurant and bars should discuss with site designers beforehand about the longterm maintenance of a site and devise a way to easily update things in the future when it comes to changing information on the site.

Sure, you might say, easy enough when you have a menu that rotates every couple of weeks or month, but what if you have something that changes daily? Well, I don't mean that every member on staff needs to be HTML/XML proficient code wranglers or site designing wizards, just keep in mind changes do happen and try to plan for it. Even noting that something is set to change regularly or daily should suffice. At the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore., people can subscribe to a e-newsletter and receive information about the lounge, including menu changes. Customers can find out what's going to be in the daily changing Flowing Bowl, described on the online menu as a "rotating selection of hot punches, mulled wines & festive libations."

It keeps people interested. They want to know what's coming up next. Another cool thing about having an internet presence, in my opinion, is that it helps create and maintain a loyal community. People have their favorite bars and favorite bartenders, so why not extend that into an online community if you can? Getting news, tips and even recipes of drinks you like from that bartender you trust at your favorite bar seems like icing on the cake to me.

As I continued to chat with Jeffrey I mentioned that this blog was soon to make its debut, so I'd be much obliged if he could keep me up to date on anything new he was working on.

"I just finalized my fall/winter menu today!" He typed back. "Would you like the PDF?"

Of course I did. Merely seconds later, there it was, sitting in my inbox. Ah, delicious technology. If you want to take a gander, check it out by clicking here. There's something new, like the Marmalade Sour, and something "old" like the Bees Knees, which was a Featured Cocktail a little while back.

Monday, November 19, 2007

In medias res

The title of this "first" blog entry for Standards & Pours is a literary technique where a story starts from the middle rather than the beginning. The most famous example being The Odyssey. The story begins in the middle of Odysseus' story and we only get the beginning of the story when he retells it. The story then continues on its trajectory to the end. In the same way this first blog entry is preceded by a few previous posts simply because they were stories that could not go untold...

...OK, so maybe I was just trying to think of a fancy way to say that this blog was in the plans for a while and we've just gotten around to having it ready for public eyes.

Beverages have been a hot topic for a while. There was the rise of interest in mixology and the art of creating cocktails. More recently, well-known brands such as McDonalds and Wendy's have been introducing and tweaking beverage options.

The interest was noted, and the monthly Featured Beverage and Featured Cocktail were added to the Beverage Trends e-newsletter to showcase new and interesting things that were happening with beverages around the country. However, in the course of gathering material every month, there were times when profiling a single drink proved to be more difficult than one would imagine and a lot of things had to be cut or pushed to the side to keep the integrity of these two particular monthly features.

For example, limited-time offer drinks provided a lot of hurdles. In the summer months, chains would be coming out with competing summer flavors, but considering the nature of a "one drink per month" brief article, some drinks would lose out simply based on timing. This also was a problem with cocktails, where summer-only beverages would end up going head-to-head with each other. At the same time, when meeting with bartenders and mixologists to talk about their new menus or any new drinks, it'd be hard having to whittle down to one drink out of the six or eight I'd been presented with. All the photos and notes I took would have to be condensed into a short write up. Then after a period of abundance, a famine would hit and nothing would be usable because of "having been done before" or through trying to avoid similar flavor profile. There just were not enough opportunities to introduce all these items of information on beverages outside of the formal trappings briefs or news stories.

So rather than let interesting news and tidbits slip away, a blog seemed like a good place to chronicle my own sort of field notes to drinks as I go about learning more about them. On that note, I would like to dedicate this first entry to all the neglected and abandoned beverages I've left in my wake all the time I've worked on the Featured Beverages and Featured Cocktails.

This isn't a space for reviewing drinks, nor do I consider myself a tastemaker. However, if anything, I'm curious, and honestly it sort of is my job description as a journalist to continue to be curious and find out about things. And I'm bracing myself because the next line sounds corny even to me as I get ready to type it, but I would like to think that there are those who would like to accompany me in my continuing odyssey of doing just that.

Monday, September 24, 2007

I'm supposed to be on vacation...

Sept. 17

So after flying half way across the world to take a vacation, I found myself hurrying through a neighborhood I did not know in a country I had never been in so I could track down a cocktail lounge.

The week before I left New York for London I had been talking to Jim Meehan over the phone about the new drink menu at PDT. I had met Jim at the New York Taste of the Nation event where he represented Gramercy Tavern and mixed the Rickshaw, a basil-infused version of a gimlet.

While catching up with how things were going with the new menu, curiosity got the best of me and I asked if he happened to know of any bars that I should check out while in London.

He pointed me towards several leads, and that is how I found myself in front of The Lonsdale the same day I landed in London. I was still frazzled since I arrived in the city at 6 am and was still trying to get used to getting around the city, but with only a few minor snags I made it to meet with head bartender Charles Vexenat.

For some reason, in my head I expected a strait-laced older gentleman impeccably dressed without a hair out of place, but was met with a young man dressed in a hip t-shirt and jeans ensemble with scruffy facial hair and perfectly mussed blond hair.

The Lonsdale opened in 2003 and Charles joined the staff six month after to design the menu. Dedicated to featuring classic cocktails that originated in the United Kingdom, the menu for the award winning cocktail lounge is like a thick textbook about cocktails with its table of contents dividing the drink menu into chapters and brief introduction accompanying the sections. Each drink even comes with a note of origin. For example, Charles started me off with a Mayfair Cocktail, which is made by shaking gin, fresh orange juice and spice-infused apricot brandy. The menu notes that the drink originated in 1921 at the Embassy Club in London and explains the origin of the drink's name.

Some cocktails are grouped under "The Old British Influence," with subsections for drinks that fall under categories such as flips, punches & cups, sours and sangarees. Other sections include contemporary drinks as well as a spirit list and wine list.

Charles explained that there is a rich history of British cocktails coming from numerous influences, whether it those created in during the early 1900s to the 1950s in five-star hotels like the Savoy and Ritz or those created from influences brought back from India and the Caribbean. For instance, there are a lot of gin based drinks, then there's also rum from the British colonies. He continued that people enjoy learning about old cocktails. With the trend of people desiring fresh ingredients, old cocktails using freshly squeeze juices and infused spirits also are desirable.

When Charles moved to London from France in 2000, he began working in bars. He noticed that chefs in the kitchen worked with a system and he said he wondered, "Why couldn't we do that in the bar?" He began working to learn the bar trade in earnest and has under his belt experience working in London bars such as La Floridita and the Lab Bar, and he also worked at Tres Agaves tequila bar in San Francisco.

I mentioned that I particularly enjoyed pisco and pisco sours and Charles whipped one up. Pisco sours have egg whites in recipe, so vigorous shaking is required to reach a correct frothy level. However, Charles explained that while in Peru, he learned that rather than shaking the drink vigorously, locals blended the cocktail with a little ice that gave it a "super frothy head." He continues to travel and learn new things, such as the pisco sour technique he picked up while working with pisco distillers in Peru or working with tequila distillers in Mexico.

I learned a new thing myself that day. I learned about the existence of sangritas, little shots that accompany tequila. Usually tomato-based, the non-alcoholic shot can contain anything to create a mix of sweet, sour and spicy flavors. I couldn't get the exact recipe from the bartender who offered me a sangrita, but Charles said it was her specialty and there was a mention of Worcestershire sauce.

Mayfair cocktail(gin shaken with fresh orange juice, and spice-infused apricot brandy)

Summer gin punch
(fresh raspberries, lemon, ornage and pineapple stirred over ice with gin, maraschino liqueur and soda)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Cocktails with tea

Underneath a brown awning with just the letter “T” on it, Sanctuary Tea inconspicuously occupies a space sandwiched between two storefronts.

“We’re trying to maybe get a board or something outside to make it more noticeable,” said owner Dawn Cameron.

The food, created by Kevin Stanton, has some dishes with tea in it, the tea menu boasts several proprietary-blended teas, and mixologist Benoit Cornet has created several cocktails using the drink.

“It’s an unusual ingredient to mix with cocktails,” Cornet said. “Some teas in itself are usually not flavorful; it’s more about the aroma.”

Cornet also pointed out difficulties such as the presence of tannins or even sweetness in teas, so careful consideration is needed when deciding which teas were to be used with which spirits.

Cornet brews his teas for cocktails into concentrated shots with an espresso machine. Since tea does not last long once its made, the espresso machine creates a shot that’s “fairly concentrated and it’s instant.”

Or to get around brewing tea leaves Cornet uses powdered tea such as matcha.

Cornet said that there were currently 50 teas available at Sanctuary Tea so he’s considering creating more options, especially since he tries to use fresh and seasonal ingredients as well as herbs. Cornet said he might even try to develop a cocktail with truffle butter.

Backyard Treat
(Assam tea, white peach puree, Lambrusco)

Coral Reef
(tangerine green tea, passion fruit, triple sec liqueur, tequila, pink peppercorn rim)

Transcontinental Sunshine
(plum iced tea, Txakolina - a white wine from the Basque, vodka, guava puree)

(sour cherry, rum, lemon, soda)

(Earl Grey, gin, soda, lime)

Rise and Shine
(green tea, pear puree, vodka, lemon)

Mediterranean Bliss
(orange liqueur, white chocolate, cream, saffron)