Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cocktails at P*ONG

At the Counter Bluecoat Gin dinner, Cocktail Times' publisher Yuri Kato invited me to come out to P*ONG to try some of Pichet's cocktails. P*ONG was one of those place I've walked by plenty of times but never got to check out, so of course I said yes.

Pichet Ong is actually an East Coast contender (and only chef contestant) for the Marie Brizard Cocktail Challenge here in the States. Pichet was busy going back and forth between the restaurant and his pastry shop next door. I first ordered a Pyrat's Cooler (Pyrat dark rum, coconut infused rum, passion fruit, banana, mangosteen, prosecco).

Yuri explained that in helping to gather contestants, she was also looking for a wide variety of people to participate. However, the regional finals also includes technical judging in addition to tasting. Not flair competition, but checking for things like spillage. Yuri said it was a point system where points get deducted for infractions.

"Whoa, it's like gymnastics," I said.

When I later caught up with Pichet at his pastry shop next door I asked about how he felt being the only chef in the US competition as well as having to compete with bartenders.

"I like working under pressure," Pichet answered, saying he also enjoyed recently competing on Iron Chef America. "I think cooking should be done under pressure a little."

I knew that P*ONG had a cocktail menu, but was still genuinely surprised, I had to admit. Pichet said that people pay little attention to the cocktail menu compared to the food, but, "I wanted it to be more of a cocktail lounge when we opened up."

"I think that cocktails are the perfect medium for a pastry chef," Pichet said, pointing out how it's about balancing out different flavors, like sugar, citrus, fruits and spices.

For example, the Bangkok Margarita (reposado tequila, Domaine de Canton, pineapple, ginger, aleppo pepper) that I tried was a great example of the idea of balancing flavors. Pichet said. "The salty makes the mouth water, but then the bitterness of the lime zest opens up the palette."

Though a chef without a strictly bartending background, Pichet had experience mixing cocktail bases for previous place of employment Spice Market. The cocktail menu at P*ONG changes seasonally, and according to Pichet, the cocktail menu is the first thing to change, then the food follows after that.

Yuri gave Pichet a DVD of last year's competition in Bordeaux, France so he could study up on how things would go down, particularly for the technical aspect. The two regional qualifiers from the U.S. competition go on to the competition in Bordeaux and will compete as an American team against other teams from around the world. Last year a Japanese team won and as Yuri talked about the complicated "like sashimi" garnishes used for the drinks. Pichet's eyes sparkled with interest as he said, "Woooow...garnishes too?"

Pichet tried to offer me some cupcakes. Having tried three cocktails (including the Poire Thé that Pichet made for the competition), I politely refused feeling a little full. That didn't stop him from cutting slices out of a coffee cake and bagging them up for us.

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