Friday, August 15, 2008

Knights of the Glassware: Milford's Hold Mini-Quest

National Reports Editor Milford Prewitt hands you his iPod to listen to. You are done listening to the song. How do you proceed?

A. Wait until end of the day to return iPod.
B. See what else he has on his iPod.
C. Traverse through Cubicle Corridors to return iPod.

You travel to Milford Prewitt's Hold. No monster encounters.

You arrive at his desk and return his iPod. There is something glittering on the corner of his desk. How do you proceed?

You say:
A. Hey, that thing's shining in my eyes. That hurts, put it away!
B. Nice julep cup.
C. Snatch and run. (-10 STAMINA, -5 WISDOM)
D. Challenge Milford to a battle for the shiny object.
E. Ignore. it might be a trap. Return to your desk.

"Nice julep cup, Milford," I said.

"Oh, is that what this is?" he answered. "You can have it."

:::::Quest complete:::::
Item gained!
Engraved silver-plated julep cup of +5 INTELLIGENCE

!!!LEVEL UP!!!
+20 EXP

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A happy coincidence for P.F. Chang's

You could find lots of cocktail menus that change seasonally. It's a nice little time frame to work with a nice solid anchor point that's easy to casually remember as well as motivate with subtle hints from the world around us. "Oh, hey," you might think to yourself bartender person. "It's getting a little warm. Wow, is it summer already? I guess I should start working on a new menu. And that spiked hot apple cider really isn't holding up all that well and I'm sweating buckets having to go warm that thing up."

Or something like that.

However, another way to go about it is take opportunities when you see it, as P.F. Chang's China Bistro did when it recently released a new cocktail menu celebrating 15 years. You can always make it a celebration.

Out of the twelve new cocktails developed by P.F. Chang's beverage director Mary Melton, the Chinese 88 was extra lucky that this year also happens to be the year China is hosting the Summer Olympic games. For those who haven't gotten it pounded into their heads already by Olympics coverage, the number 8 is considered lucky in Chinese culture. The games even began on Aug. 8 (08/08), with the opening ceremony starting at 8 pm.

And since the cocktail is a variation of a French 75 cocktail, et voila, we have the Chinese 88. As John "Hannibal" Smith would say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

"We wish we were that clever," P.F. Chang's beverage director Mary Melton said before breaking into peals of laughter with director of public relations Laura Cherry. I had scheduled a phone interview a couple of weeks ago to get a bit more information on the new menu as well as the Chinese 88 for our Featured Cocktail section.

"It was fun way to tie it in," Mary continued. "It just worked out for us...could you write that we'd planned it for years?"

The cocktail is made with Plymouth Gin, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, shaken and topped with Mumm Napa Brut. The drink is served in a champagne flute with half of the rim sugared.

"It gives it a texture and bubbles," Mary said of the Brut. "And its Brut so it’s dry, so it has more of a heavy presence. It’s not sweet or fruity. It marries well with the lemon and the Plymouth gin, which is a softer gin and not so herbaceous as other gins."

"The wine and beverage program have always been a big component. [P.F. Chang's] was one of the first chains nationally to have every wine available by the glass," Laura Cherry explained. "We've always have a strong bar presence...We're very well known for our specialty cocktails."

P.F. Chang's cocktails are mostly updated flavors and styles of classic cocktails using different ingredients and premium modern spirits.

"We’re seeing that people enjoy the premium spirits," Mary said. "And the new trendy things like the plum vodka or organic tequila, they’re being very well received. As far as classics, we see people going back more and more."

The Plum Collins came about because Melton wanted to use a plum vodka because she had fallen in love with the flavor and thought it was a flavor that would work well on an Asian menu and it was something new.

"We started playing with that and it did matched well with the citrus from a Collins."

With some plum vodka and fresh lemon juice, the Plum Collins also has a splash of Plum Wine, an item already on P.F. Chang's menu that already does well.

But not every new flavor gets an automatic OK.

"It’s tricky now with so many different flavors," Melton said. "We do try to see what’s happening. For example, we really wanted to use watermelon. We had a hard time keeping it consistent. So we work with our produce partners a lot to find out what’s going on."

Which is how a the Pink Bellini, a Bellini with pear puree, made it onto the new menu.

Coming up with new cocktails at P.F. Chang's is a very hands-on process.

According to Mary, there's no real team that she works with. Usually it's herself and Laura first trying out flavors then basically walking around P.F. Chang's HQ in Scottsdale, Ariz., and having people try things out.

"It could be the president one day, it could be the mailroom guy the next."

Drinks are tested out in locations four to six week prior to rolling out, and with eight stores in the Arizona area, Mary said "we can test it in our own backyard, so to speak." It's during this time where some drinks won't make the cut. A lot of times its operations; whether it takes to long or holds up service. Some things might change, such as swapping out squeeze bottles for a smaller size to help the flow of service better.

Basing cocktails on the classics play a dual role of creating a familiar base for people who are ordering as well as being something new for those who aren't well-versed in cocktails.

"There’s also a generation of people who aren’t familiar with cocktails," Laura chimed in. "It’s a nice way of reintroduce them to those who are not familiar with them and showcase the flavors out there."

"The menu at P.F. Chang’s is very varied, with sweet and sour spicy, savory and mild Cantonese type dishes. There's also the new grill flavors; a lot of clean savory flavors," Laura continued. "The cocktails Mary created have crisp clean flavors...the cocktails go really well food, and are a little more refreshing than something like a big red wine."

Not all of the new drinks are available at all P.F. Chang's locations, but click here to download and see what all the drinks are.

Christmas in the August!

I ordered some bar supplies a little while ago to try and get my hands dirty at home since I've been doing a lot of reading and rereading of cocktail books. If elementary school science fairs taught me anything, you can't just have a question, a hypothesis and research. You kind of have to have an experiment too before you get to the conclusion. Or else you get only a B- for what you thought was a totally sweet project that you worked on all on your own after getting the idea from an episode of Beakman's World and the first place ribbon goes to some kid whose parents built him a working rain forest ecosystem. His dad even got his secretary to type up and collate the report into a fancy plastic business folder while you had to painstakingly write yours up on ruled notebook paper even though you know you always got low scores in penmanship.

Well, who's laughing now? I got my Big Ol' Box O' Strainers, Shakers and Things and I'll show you experimenting. Let's see your parents try and whittle you a muddler.

For home taste-testing I can skip getting glassware for now I suppose, but I'm going to have to invest in some in the future. Anybody got any suggestions for a place to get some decent glassware? I don't need anything fancy like a cutesy 70s retro vector art type things with stylized olives or rocket ships or "It's Mommy's 'Medicine' Time!" emblazoned on the side that one might find at a place like Crate and Barrel or Urban Outfitters. Just sturdy, basic things.

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.