Friday, August 29, 2008

I'm supposed to be on vacation: Sipping in the Second City pt. 3

Aug. 22

I jumped off the Damen stop on the Blue Line and started walking down Damen on my way to The Violet Hour. I began to notice that the address I was looking for looked physically impossible. Frowning, I pulled out my phone and texted Violet Hour's head mixologist and owner as well as professional-level dapper dresser, Toby Maloney, "I'm looking for TVH right now, but I can't seem to find's not a secret entrance thing is it?"

That right there has to be some kind of commentary on something, maybe myself, but I'm having a hard time cementing exactly what it is. Instead of thinking that maybe I wrote down the address or directions incorrectly my first assumption is there must be some kind of secret entrance thing going on.

As soon as I hit send I came to a pause in the middle of the sidewalk. My spider-sense was tingling. I slowly turned my head to the right and saw the ornate door handle sticking out of what was essentially, the side of a building. Once my mind had oriented itself to the door handle, my brain began to process the faint outline of a door around the handle that was the only interruption in the wall.

I was looking for 1520 and sure enough, looking above the door I saw the stickers "1__0" with a conspicuous space between the two numbers. It was suspiciously enough room to fit two more numbers.

I quickly looked around to make sure no one would see me. You know, in case I pulled on the handle and nothing happened. Then taking a deep breath I yanked hard and walked in and found myself facing...

I looked at the blank wall and that was only adorned with a framed copy of the rules high above reach. I turned to my left and saw what looked like black velvet curtains. I made my way towards them.

"Ppppbbbthhhht!" I went as I smacked hard, face-first into the curtains that were way heavier than I had anticipated them to be. I flailed a little before finally getting through only to find...another set of curtains in front of me.


This time I opted to pull them to the side rather than try to bulldoze through. Soon I had a handful of curtains in my left hand with no entrance in sight. I gave one last yank only to twirl and fall through in a very Lucille Ball manner. I quickly straightened up and tried to compose myself.

Just then my phone buzzed in my purse and I pulled it out. It was Toby.

"Call me." The text said. I texted him back saying I had found the place.

I took a minute to look around and whispered to myself, "Whoa..."

The place was huge. The exterior gave no hint at all as to what was going on inside. It was dark and felt dangerously elegant with low lighting. I felt like Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks when he entered the Red Room of the Black Lodge, except you know it wasn't all creepy and David Lynch. I take that back. It totally was all David Lynch because Twin Peaks was awesome, and when you step into the Violet Hour, after going through that entryway, it feels like you somehow magically stepped into a different plane of existence. The place was dark save for low lights flickering from all the candles and the glow from the bar. Even though it seemed lively it all came to me filtered and muffled.

The space was further separated by even more curtains here and there, with one particularly imposing set bisecting the whole place, including the bar. So, you know what? It was exactly like the Black Lodge, in an unsettling, cool and phantasmagorical way...except you know, the curtains weren't red and I didn't have the fear of my immortal soul being trapped in there for all time while an evil doppelganger ran around doing the bidding of a serial killing malevolent spirit.

I sat down and ordered a Palmer D'Or (Beefeater gin, lemon, egg whites, and Orange Pekoe tea). My phone was buzzing away again. It was Toby. He wanted to know who was working that evening and told me to look for Michael.

I looked around then cleared my throat lightly and quietly told the bartender who was attending to me that Toby said I should find Michael. I hoped I didn't sound too much like self-important snot saying that. I'm always worried of coming off entitled or self-important because, oooooh, I work for a publicaaattiiion. I seem to have an unholy fear of that.

I moved over to sit in front of Michael and introduced myself. Michael said he relocated from New York so that he could get in on the ground floor and work with Toby.

I was looking over the menu trying to figure out what my second drink would be. I noticed that the whiskey section had the Paper Airplane, courtesy of Sam Ross from Milk and Honey. And there was also the Fairview Manhattan. I asked Michael for a Manhattan and we had a little back and forth about it since he was super passionate about this particularly drink. He When I said I liked it because it was silky smooth he countered, "You don't want it to be too smooth. It needs to bite back a little."

The Manhattan Michael mixed for me indeed bit back a little. Disarmingly cool and refreshing at first, it swished down my throat only to uppercut me in the back of my mouth to remind me it was alcohol before dropping down my gullet. The flavor of the rye whiskey came through clear with what I like to call that "corn tea flavor" rye has to me.

I ordered a Secaucus Sling (Laird's Bonded Applejack, pineapple juice and raspberry syrup) as I looked over the food menu. To be honest, I'd kind of been stalking the menu at The Violet Hour once I knew I'd be in Chicago and I told myself that if I ordered any food, I really, really needed to try the Curry Rice Krispie Squares. The squares also came with spiced nuts and Cheddar Walnut Icebox Crackers that were toasty, warm, moist and cheesy.

Since I had been prodding Michael about Rye Whiskey, I then got The Blinker (Wild Turkey 101 Rye, grapefruit, homemade raspberry syrup).

"Looks like a cosmo, tastes like a cocktail," Michael said as he squirted a bit of grapefruit peel over the drink.

As I brought the glass to my lips to take another deep draw from it, I stopped abruptly as I realized a terrible miscalculation.

OK, so I know that I'm good if I stay in the four to five drink range. Once I stray from that number, things get dicey. I could survive a sixth or seventh, but it comes highly unrecommended. The Blinker was the third drink I'd had that evening so I thought I was doing pretty well. However, what I had left out of the equation was that each drink I ordered came with a little "refresher" vial, so I had actually been drinking double. Instead of three, I had happily tossed down six.

"You just got quiet darlin'," Michael said. "Is it finally hitting you?"

I silently nodded as I furiously stuffed my mouth with the broiled duck meatballs with green apple mostarda. I prayed that the saltiness and duck fat of these meatballs would form a protective barrier against the alcohol onslaught that was now running a phalanx against my liver.

Though I there were plenty more I wanted to try, with a sad heart I had to say, "Michael, you're going to have to close my check out or something regrettable will happen."

I took care of my check and dreamily drifted on a cloud of mild intoxication back towards the curtains. It all felt muffled like I was walking around sealed in a bag of cotton balls. For some reason the curtains gave way more easily this time around, practically opening themselves. At least that's how I remember it happening. Looking back at the framed rules on the wall one last time, I sighed deeply, pushed the door open.

I was practically assaulted by reality once I was outside of The Violet Hour. I had underestimated how much of cocoon the place provided. When I entered it was still light out with the bustle of several surrounding eating establishments, now it was dark. Gone was the muffled cotton feeling. The air was slightly muggy, and though it was now dark, the artificial lighting from the streetlamps and establishment were uncomfortably bright compared to the candle glow inside. People were loud. I turned back around to make sure I really was at a bar and this wasn't all some kind of weird "The Phantom Tollbooth" type thing. When I turned back to the street I saw a well-dressed group of people standing around as if waiting for something. I stared at them mildly puzzled because they seemed to be in the middle of the sidewalk creating a sort of line leading nowhere. Then I remembered where I had just come out of. Then with a goofy grin on my face tottered off into the evening.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

I'm supposed to be on vacation: Sipping in the Second City pt. 2

August 21st — Frontera Grill and Topolobampo and the Seasons Bar and Lounge

My brother was having his first day of classes so I was left to my own devices until the afternoon. I pretty much had stumbled across Rick Bayless' restaurants without meaning to the day before. In fact, I'd managed to stumble across a bunch of familiar sounding restaurants. The weird thing about working for NRN is you get excited for the oddest things. Like familiar restaurants that you've never actually been in because you're in New York. I remember squealing "Ooh! Ooh! IT'S A RED ROBIN!" the first time I saw one to a group of befuddled friends on a road trip to Virginia.

"Wow, a Portillo's. Oh, hey, look! Zed451!" I'd say to myself as I walked along N. Clark Street like a kid at Disneyland.

I made it a point that I'd return to Frontera/Topolobampo because I remembered many a lazy afternoons watching PBS and having Rick Bayless earnestly explaining to me what OG Mexican food is really like as he'd wander about some open-air Mexican market in Oaxaca or something. All of this was done with a quiet, patient, soothing voice that almost made him sound like a culinary version of Bob Ross. ("And then, we're going to sprinkle some Oaxacan cheese over this...Happy crumbles of Oaxacan cheese. Oops, we sprinkled some on the edge of the plate, but that's OK. There's no mistakes; it looks rustic.")

Watching Bayless pretty much had the same affect on me as watching Bob Ross.

"Damn straight there ain't no mistakes, Rick. I can make mole too! It ain't no thang," I'd say to the TV. He made me feel like I could jump in the kitchen and bang out some tortillas and chile rellenos once I got a hold of some masa harina or something. Like, you know, I could effortlessly paint a happy cloud or happy little tree with just a palette knife and a super wide brush after only one episode of "The Joy of Painting" or something.

But I never did. I'd just sit there entranced with half-opened eyes for the entirety of the show. Then when the show ended I'd shake myself from my reverie sleepy, bleary-eyed and super hungry...wait, what?

When I entered Frontera Grill and Topolobampo's main entrance I couldn't decide which menu I wanted to order off of and got directed to the bar since I could juggle between both menus there. I wasn't planning on sitting at the bar, but this was a happy accident since I got to chat with David, a bartender there with a serious Dali 'tache. He pointed out items of note from both menus and I decided to start off with the Trio Trio Trio, a sample platter of three of Frontera Grill's ceviches. The Ceviche Yucateco was made with steamed organic shrimp and calamari tossed with lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jicama and cilantro. Then there was the Ceviche Fronterizo of lime-marinated Hawaiian sunfish with tomatoes, olive, cilantro and green chile. The third was the Ceviche Playero, with Maine dry-packed scallops, Alaskan king crab, Honey Manila Mangoes, Mexican papaya, pineapple and jicama with Oaxacan pasilla, grapefruit, lime and garlic. All of this with tortilla chips.

Looking through the beverage menu on the back of Frontera Grill's menut, it didn't take me long to decide that I really, really wanted to try the Sparkling Passion. Passion fruit puree, fresh lime juice, sweet hibiscus tea and Ayinger Ur-Weisse, which is...a wheat beer? Yes! Beer cocktails!

David explained that the hibiscus tea used for the Sparkling Passion is brewewd concentrated and poured me a bit of it. I took a sip of the tea and pursed my lips at the sweet tanginess. Hmm, I could drink this all on its own. What about the cocktail? I picked it up. The wheat beer added a whole different kind of fizziness to the drink that was at once mellowed out the concentrated sweet and sour of the tea while adding a bite of its own. It was sparkly and fizzy, but the beer lent it a more velvety texture of bubbles.

For the main I had the Enchiladas de Chivo, slow-roasted goat meat rolled in homemade tortillas topped with dark pasilla-tomatillo sauce, frisee-watercress salad and Mexican aged queso anejo, that David said has been getting some good response.

I debated about grabbing a michelada, but I thought that flavor really was not going to work with the enchiladas at all and went with the Champagne Margarita (Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh squeezed limonada topped with Feuillatte Brut champagne). David asked if I wanted the rim salted or not and I asked for half salted, to which he answered, "I have the technology for that."

I quickly looked over the dessert menu and noticed the wide selection of dessert wines. I lingered a bit over the Chocolate Mezcalera. It was Oaxacan hot chocolate and a dash of cinnamon spiked with Maguey Creme de Mezcal. However, I managed to exercise some self-control and I'm glad I did.

I then checked out the Contemporary Art Museum, which included highlights such as me snickering at an elderly couple that got really uncomfortable when they rounded a corner only to walk smack dab into some pieces from Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven series (NSFW IF YOU PLAN ON DOING A SEARCH) and accidentally finding the Kara Walker exhibit. As I left the building I realized I still had a little bit of time before meet up with the younger sibling AND I was in the vicinity of the Four Seasons hotel.

Not to get all $40 a Day with Rachel Ray here or anything, but when I first checked into my hotel room, I perused the complimentary magazine in my room that had a whole thing on cheap eats. Again, I was set on trying to get some eating and drinking done while I was in town, and you can't really ignore the info that your hotel provides you with. While reading about summer cocktails I read about the Summer Floats being served at the Seasons Bar and Lounge. I was curious as I read about them so when things worked out so that I could pop in for a visit, I took the opportunity.

At the Seasons Bar and Lounge I met Bob, the awesomely old-school hotel bar bartender. He's a bespectacled guy with gray hair who can make idle conversation with slightly tipsy businessmen, chats up old regulars whom he all remembers by name, even helps them out with their crossword puzzles like he's done for years and make a kid off the streets like me feel as welcome as Norm did in Cheers.

It was fun watching Bob interact with the guests. Especially when he was fielding all the disgruntled, yet friendly, grumbles from regulars who weren't too happy about the upcoming renovation to the hotel. They liked the bar just as its been for years, thank you very much.

The Summer Floats section had several drinks such as the Honeydew Sensation (honeydew sorbet floated with Midori and lemon vodka) and the Lemon Lush (lemon sorbet floated with a lemon drop martini).

Since I had skipped dessert, I went with the Cosmo Crush because the cranberry sorbet was speaking to me.

A glass with cranberry sorbet came out and Bob poured the Cosmopolitan (Grey Goose, Cointreau, cranberry juice) into the glass.

To be honest, the drink was very boozy for me, though. My guess is it was made that way to accommodate the sorbet and the sugared rim. The sorbet definitely did help to cut it a bit, but soon I was out of sorbet and found myself licking at the sugared rim like a deer at a salt lick.

Bob also told me that they had a special Olympics section on the menu (sorry, not available post-Olympics), with drinks created to correspond to the color of the Olympic rings.

The Summer Floats are for the summer, and will be replaced soon with something more season friendly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I'm supposed to be on vacation: Sipping in the Second City pt. 1

Well, not vacation exactly. Last week I was out in Chicago because the kid bro is all grown up now and starting college. Between the Target runs, lugging around luggage and shopping for school, more often then not I came back to my hotel room in the evening only to collapse on my bed, my dogs barking.

I hadn't been in Chicago for about three years so you'd think when I did have a few scant hours to myself, I'd go visit the old campus up in Evanston. Head out to Navy Pier. Check out the sites or something. Nope, I figured I'd eat and drink what I could.

August 20th — Blackbird

I wanted to buy my brother a "grown-up" dinner. You know, to congratulate him on getting into college and to commemorate the fact that he was one step closer to the real world and he better enjoy the next couple of years before being thrown out on his butt into the rat race. And, well, I just wanted an excuse to visit Blackbird.

This was the first time brother had dined in a place like this ever. He actually balked when we got to the restaurant with a stricken look on his face, then looking at me dubiously he said, "I don't know if I want to go in there."

As we were being shown to our table he whispered to me that there was an Aston Martin parked outside. Once we got seated he looked around then shook his head and snickered.

"What's funny?" I asked.

"Everyone here looks like they belong here," he answered, which made sense in a weird Yoda way.

Throughout the evening it was a little fun watching him react to things. Like when I finally coaxed him to try the butter on the bread he took a careful bite, then slowly chewing looked up at me with a mild look of awe and nodded his approval. The best reaction, though, was at dessert. Though he kept protesting he was full I got a dessert and made him share it with me. Slicing a milk chocolate fritter in half, he put the piece in his mouth. Then not saying anything he put his fork back on the table.

" something wrong?" I asked.

"Just eat this," he answered, not looking up.

I ate the other half of the fritter. "Ooh, that's good."

"It's not just 'good'!" he said exasperated. "How the hell does chocolate taste like that? What right does it have tasting like that? tastes tastes like chocolate! Like chocolate really."

The first cocktail was the Blackbird Orange off the seasonal cocktail menu is made with Tanqueray Gin, Mathilde Orange XO, Averna and lemon. It went very nicely with the crispy veal sweetbreads with cashew butter, rye waffle, black mission figs and black olive honey we started off with.

The BB Julep was a combination of blackberry brandy, lemon, mint and fresh berries that was sweet and fruity and very food friendly. The Mas Amor (Partida Resposado, cilantro, yellow chartreuse, watermelon and black pepper) threw me for a loop at first. I sniffed, took a small sip, then put it back down mildly puzzled. It wasn't bad, it did have a taste of watermelon, but it wasn't exactly watermelon. What was this? I swallowed some water and took another sip. "Ooohhh," I though as I realized that the combination of all the other ingredients, particularly the herb flavors from the chartreuse, was giving this cocktail a particularly tea-like flavor. That's what it was; this cocktail actually tasted like a herbal fruit tea with no tea in it.

"Damn, that's pretty cool," I thought.

Other food items consumed:
Grilled Wagyu flatiron with artichoke kimchi, buttermilk spaetzle, chicory and apricots

Seared Tasmanian sea trout with cherry molasses, kohlrabi, baby turnips, forbidden black rice and salad burnet

Milk chocolate fritters with apricots, soy and rice milk sorbet

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why saying "I'm just here for just one drink," guarantees you won't leave after just one

August 24

After finishing my drink at White Star I started walking up Essex. The weather was nice out and I wasn't really keen on trying to hop on an N or W train below Houston, so I figured a walk was in order. As Essex melted into Ave. A, I checked the time and saw that it was just turning into 11 pm. When I looked up from my phone I saw that I was now nearing 6th St. I paused for a quick second, looked back at my phone, shrugged and hung a left.

"Oh, you have to be kidding me," I thought as I pulled the door to Death and Company open. I only wanted one drink and the place was closing in an hour but it was still bursting at the seams. It's Sunday people. Don't any of you have jobs to get to in the morning?? Oh wait, that's why you are probably all here. Carry on then.

I got steered to the back bar to wait for a seat to open up. I waved hi to Damon Dyer who I hadn't seen since the reception party at Tales and had me mildly worried that New Orleans had devoured him whole.

As I sat down Alex Day came from behind the bar and jutted out his chin to show his week's progress for the Papa Doble Beard Off (thanks to everyone who commented and emailed with more info on this). I was impressed. And I say impressed, because if you have seen Alex in person you don't really think facial hair.

"Why does everyone keep saying that?" he asked later. "Is it disturbing that I have a beard?"

"No, noooo...well, I mean, I wouldn't say disturbing...just, you know, it's more, like, 'Hey, wow, he, like, grows beards too,' kind of thing," I offered.

"That's from a week of growing a beard," Damon said. Then pointing to his own chin he said, "This is from just a day of not shaving."

Damon's not taking part in the beard off, but he wasn't going to let an opportunity of trash talking go to waste.

Up until that point in time, I was still pretty certain I was only there for a drink. A drink. So I settled in with my Faithful Scotsman and went over my notes from the past week to begin laying out the Chicago blog entries.

Alex held out a jar to me. I looked at the bottle then at him, puzzled. "What is it?"

"Just straw taste it. Don't worry, it's not booze," he said.

I pulled out the straw sticking out of the top and gave a taste. It was a bit of ginger and acacia honey syrup that he had made for a drink he was working on for Allen & Delancey.

I wanted to try whatever that was in(drink two, if we're keeping count).

Alex whipped it up for me, using the syrup, Amaro, lemon juice and bourbon.

I took a sip. Alex asked me what I thought. I said "it's like fireworks," and that I'd explain later in this space, so here goes.

The best analogy I have for it is that it was sort of like fireworks. Specifically the kind that goes "boom!" then snap, crackles and pops sparkling trails. The boom part was coming from the lemon and the sweet and the bourbon, but then as I swallowed the ginger and honey was the snap, crackle and pop that fizzled.

Soon it was last call. Alex asked if I wanted anything before they stopped taking orders. Really if you put it that way I'd be rude to refuse. I said I'd have whatever he thought I should have and he mixed up another drink he was working on made with rye with Averna, amontillado sherry and a little bit of Benedictine and St. Germain elderflower liqueur. Now if we are to stick with the fireworks analogy, this one was more like that variety of fireworks where they sort of fluffily disintegrate into a "PFOOM, fssssh." More than having a flavor, when it hit my tongue it instantly was all scents (that's now three).

So, basically, I went from saying I was just stopping by to have a single drink to having three in about an hour. I thought walking in close to closing would spare me, but apparently not. One of these days I'm going to have just one. I won't give into peer pressure. It's going to happen.

Where our intrepid author finally meets Sasha Petraske at White Star

August 24

I never officially met Sasha Petraske. Always wanted to, never got the chance. It's a kind of long and not that interesting except to me tale of cat-and-mouse. Long story short, I felt like everyone had met or talked to the guy except for me. I'd hear he'd be at some event, but I'd either leave right before he showed up or get there right after he left like Carmen Sandiego or something. And since I really didn't know what he looked like at first, even if we happened to be there at the same time, there was no way I'd know he was also present unless I went around the room asking people who he was and that seemed a bit gauche. When I finally did figure out what he looked like and I'd spot him in public out of the corner of my eye, it always seemed like the most inopportune time to walk up and introduce myself.

Richard Boccato informed me of the opening White Star the night before I had to leave for Chicago. I knew I'd have to stop by as soon as I got back to check out this new spot and maybe, just maybe, run into Sasha.

Sasha's new joint, White Star, was on its fifth day when I walked in late on Sunday night. The glass door was still covered and the space small and seemingly more intimate due to its unfinished nature. Sasha manned the bar on his own and chatted with the people that trickled in and out. After making my order I handed my card to the man, who in turn gave me his. I held it in my hand and stared at it slightly wide-eyed. His name and information was printed out on the same gauzy, filmy paper that Milk and Honey's number is printed on.

"It's a work in progress," Sasha told me as he noticed me looking around the place and making notes. He's still working on stocking the bar for this non-cocktail bar; seeing what's out there in the market to showcase and what the best products are.

He pointed out the shelves behind him and explained that once everything as far as the selection is finalized, each shelf will be filled with one kind. One for whiskeys, another for teuqila, and then there's absinthe, etc. And yes, they have absinthe. Though for now Sasha's only serving the white Swiss variety. Tap beers are also on the horizon. The beverage selection will probably finished and fully stocked by next week according to Mr. Petraske, but that's not the only thing being worked on at the moment; the space itself is in a state of flux.

The storefront will be changed. The backroom, a deck-like area for smokers and possibly knocking out the wall to take over the space is all in the works. According to Sasha, currently the bar seats around 36 people.

"But last night there were around 41 people in the bar...Some were standing," Sasha said and concluded that the actual total capacity is probably more like 45. Though there is a table, there's no table service, but once additions to the space are made, the place will be big enough to have a single server.

A group of three entered and decided to try some absinthe. I noticed that everyone in the place got quiet all of the sudden as they stared at the water dripping from the fountain onto the sugar cube and slotted spoon.

However, Sasha was refreshingly frank about the drink's appeal. He said it admittedly is not something that is everyone's bag. The first two nights the place was open, the was offering free absinthe so that people could have a taste of it.

"Most people took two sips and put it back down," he said with a smile.

Currently one of the bigger concerns is trying to figure out how to get water to customers. Since the place isn't really a mixed drinks place and people have the choice to order their spirit or aperitif of choice neat, water delivery is kind of important to keep people from getting smashed. Well, not smashed when they're not planning to. Sasha said he was bandying about some ideas and one possibility was to have individual water bottles at each table.

Sasha sees White Star as a spot where people can come before or after dinner to enjoy a drink. "It's not a happy hour kind of place."

And yes, while you will be able to order the finer things, such as $50-75 a glass cognac, Sasha said, "There's a recession going on. We will have some of the expensive things like a $45 glass of brandy, but the bread and butter will be the items served at $8."

You can come in and get your $6 dollar aperitif served how you like it or $8 for some absinthe. You can also get champagne by the glass for $12 or a Bellini for $8.

The thing I couldn't help but wonder about though was whether or not this more European practice aperitif-tippling was something an American crowd would cotton to.

"We will see," Sasha answered and took a sip of the Bellini he'd poured for himself.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why hanging out after hours can pay off

You witness some cool things. My camera batteries were about to crap out, but I managed to capture these...

Maxwell Britten making a Blue Blazer at Jack the Horse Tavern,
in the wee hours crossing August 15th/16th, in the year of Our Lord 2008.