Sunday, August 10, 2008

An ode to the Paloma

Manhattans go down dangerously easy with a silkiness I particularly enjoy in stirred cocktails, and Pisco Sours indulge my love of tartness without being overbearing with lip-smacking texture from the egg white. However, the Paloma holds a special place in my heart simply for providing a "Paul on the road to Damascus" like moment of conversion in regards to cocktails. Or maybe it was more like when Naaman was healed by the Prophet Elisha...either way, it was pretty Biblical.

The hagiography of this particular drink begins early in my life. Illegally early. Bret said if I said I grew up abroad it was OK, but actually, it still kind of wasn't. The following is hardly a morality tale. When I was younger, drinking was far from a sophisticated. Pretty much any sort of mixed drinks were simple (and easily concealable) one-two combos like Screwdrivers. My particularly atrocious addition to the annals of adolescent drink-mixing was a gin and grape ade concoction. I convinced myself that the resulting mixture tasted a lot like an anemic version of the energy drink Bacchus-F.

Cocktails purchased from establishments, didn't fare any better. Goopy margaritas and saccharine Pina Coladas would first knock me out with a diabetic coma so that the alcohol could raze a wave of fire that'd burn off my the top layer of my tongue and esophagus while melting nose hairs without resistance. I decided drinking cocktails was one of those weird things people sometimes do that doesn't taste or feel good, but they did because it was just another way to drink alcohol. It just was not my thing, and in college I mainly stuck to beer.

After I had graduated and began working for Nation's Restaurant News a new feature was added to our Beverage Trends Newsletter. The idea was to feature a particular non-alcoholic drink and a cocktail came up and I was drafted to find subjects for these monthly installments.

Beyond the basics of getting a photo, recipes, a little back story if available, etc., I was simply charged with finding things either new or interesting. I don't know if not knowing all that much about cocktails was a good thing or a bad thing because, well, everything was kind of new and interesting to me. Nonetheless, not knowing what else to do, I simply started plugging in permutations of the words "cocktail," and "menu" into Google with whatever modifiers I thought would help and seeing what was out there.

There were handfuls of cocktails I took notes on that I found, but one that I kept looking at was a Paloma that 5 Ninth had on its menu. I'd never heard of it and the description read, "Tequila, lime juice, a grapefruit soda
and a pinch of salt. Really." My thoughts exactly.

I called up the place and asked if I could stop by for a photo and to ask about the drink. I made my way down to 5 Ninth, crossing cobbled streets, to a small, unassuming white building that looked more like someone's house than a restaurant. I was told by one of the owners Vincent Seufert to visit right before the place opened for dinner so that I could do my thing unhampered.

The drink brought out to me was a pale sunny yellow drink with a green glow from the inside thanks to a squeezed half of a lime floating in it. It was very photogenic in the afternoon light coming into 5 Ninth. It looked crisp and refreshing. The glass was fogged up with tiny beads of condensation barely visible. Very different from viscous and nuclear hot messes I had come across before.

I wasn't sure what to do with the drink once I was done taking photos and kind of looked around awkwardly. Vincent looked surprised and asked if I wasn't going to drink it.

"It's for me?" I asked incredulously. Yea, I know, how cute.

I eyed the drink. Sure, it looked good. Sure, I love limes and grapefruit is fantastic. But then I started getting flashbacks of all the cocktails I had over the years. I slowly lifted the glass to my mouth and took a sip.

What happened next I can only describe as, hm, well, like you know how in Requiem for a Dream they had the montage of images that convey the rush of the high? Yea, that. That's what happened in my mouth. Except this was more a series of surprise, puzzlement, then an explosion into very pleasantly surprised.

By God, cocktails can taste good! No, seriously, they can taste good! I screamed inside my head. And not just good, this one was damned delicious. What the hell had I been doing and drinking all this time?

And that was the literal beginning of it all. As I continued to further research and look into cocktails for the following months' installments I learned more and got to try even more cocktails. They didn't always all floor me, but all the bad memories of bad cocktail ghosts past were slowly being exorcised out of my head.

Of course once I'd "discovered" the Paloma I was also surprised to find out how elusive it was. I remember one time going to what looked like a decent restaurant in the West Village. The menu wasn't anything too fancy, but it had its own bar with an attentive staff that seemed like a place where a Paloma would be a pretty reasonable order. You would think. The bartender looked at me and said, "I'd never heard of that. Could you tell me what's in it?"

"Well, it's got tequila," I started. The bartender nodded with a smile.

"Then there's lime," I continued as I kept my eyes on his face. Good, I still had him.

"...and like, I think there was grapefruit soda..." He started frowning a little. I averted my eyes.

"...and salt!" I ended. I took a deep breath and looked back up at him. He just stared at me with a look on his face as if I had just made a not very flattering remark in reference to his mother's honor.

"Um, well," he stuttered, "We don't have grapefruit soda, but we do have grapefruit juice and I could add a little tonic to that, but are you sure that's a real cocktail? It sounds kind of...weird"

"No! It's really good!" I insisted. My companion at the time looked just as skeptical as well.

The drink that was produced was horrifying. I don't know what went wrong with it, but it was ten kinds of wack that no one should put anywhere near their mouth ever. Even the glass seemed ashamed with its contents.

"But...but, it had all the elements," I dejectedly sputtered later on to my friend who thought I had earned my comeuppance for apparently lying about the existence of such a drink. The Paloma not only taught me that cocktails could actually taste good, but it also taught me the importance of balance and proportions. Maybe if I had given the bartender exact measurements it would've turned out differently. And I still feel a little bad about it because the guy honestly did not know the recipe. Maybe he made other cocktails that were awesome and I caught him on a bad day, not that I tried anything else because the first drink was so discouraging.

Nowadays I know of many places I can walk into where if I name a drink I can get it, and on the chance that the bartender does not know it or they don't have a particular ingredient, they can suggest I try something else in the similar vein of flavors that I was looking for. I don't even have to give an exact recipe. I can be as vague as "I don't know, I just want something real fruity." This is something I have a hard time taking for granted whenever I remember the first Paloma I ever had and the Bizarro version that almost destroyed the universe.

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