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)

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