Friday, September 26, 2008

Endnote to 'Allen & Delancey's new cocktail menu'

At some point in the evening as I was chatting with Alex Day, Thomas Waugh ambled in Allen & Delancey. For those of you who didn't know, Thomas, formerly of Alembic, recently relocated from San Francisco and currently works shifts at Death and Co (ask him to make you something with his banana chip infused rum). It's not his first time behind the bar there, since he previously participated in the bartender exchange. Nonetheless, he still had to wrestle with learning the huge now-not-so-new menu.

How'd he do it? While Damon (not at Death and Co. anymore, but working full-time at Flatiron Lounge, by the way) used flashcards, Thomas came up with a system. Like the Kumon of cocktailing or something. He decided to learn all the cocktails that were takes on classics first. As for the rest? Brute force memorization. Though he said learning the recipes was one thing. Getting used to the layout of the bar was entirely something else. The more you know (ding, ding, diiing.)

Allen & Delancey's new cocktail menu

I met up with Alex Day at Allen & Delancey to talk about the new cocktail menu he created. I got a taste of it at Death & Co. a little while ago, then had a more blurry hectic try of the menu at the Star Chefs After After party.

On the day I visited, newly recruited Maxwell Britten of Brooklyn's Jack the Horse Tavern was busy behind the bar. Alex was there to train Maxwell since he'd only signed on to consult with revamping the restaurant's bar program. The menu's official debut was at the Star Chef's party, so it was still brand new. He had just finished the last drink on the menu, the Atlantic Ruin variations, a week and a half before the debut.

Alex explained that cocktails sometimes get categorized with terms that don't exist in the true culinary world. He wanted to reflect that with his menu as well as get away from the what he described as the "ego issue" that sometimes comes with giving cocktails clever names well as making a more well-rounded cocktail menu that was accessible and not intimidating for the customers.

"It's drinking. It's about more than making a name for yourself." Alex said.

For the new Allen & Delancey cocktail menu, Alex lists five different categories of drinks, each with two variations that are connected by a theme.

"Sometimes you're in the mood for something boozy or sometimes you're in the mood for something refreshing," Alex said about the dual-nature of each drink category.

As the preamble to his menu states: "Instead of simply providing a catalog of drinks, our cocktail menu is a little different...No. 1 is light and festive, with citrus and fruit meant to refresh the mind and whet the appetite, while No. 2 showcase base spirit, a stirred cocktail best enjoyed with thought, time and good conversation."

He explained, "The first four are connected by base...also with modifiers such as spice or rinse."

For example, the William and Mary variations both contain gin, but overall connecting theme of the drinks, so to speak, is listed as "Juniper, spice and alchemy."

Variation one contains gin, lime, yellow Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, rose and lavender bitters, while the second is gin, vermouth bianco, green Chartreuse and a dash of cinnamon bark tincture.

Before the revamp, the previous menu was "pretty basic," but Alex said he worked out the numbers to show the exact cost of how using a variety of ingredients doesn't have to mean very expensive ingredients and cocktails without much return. Even with pricier modifiers, the menu balances itself out.

"Some drinks are more expensive, but it's paid for by other ones and the menu," Alex said. "And the menu has a lot of different things."

"I wanted to do something different. I don't want to give them a list and a Kold-Draft machine and end it there."

According to Alex, his intentions with this "first experiment" of a format was to make it easier for the customers as well as for any bartender who would be working with this menu in the future.

While for a cocktail enthusiast it'd be easy to point out exactly what they wanted or what they are looking for, for those who are not well-versed in cocktail geekery the menu gives them a basic structure of flavor and components that makes it easier for them figure out what they enjoy. From there, they have a better way of conveying what they want to their bartender.

At the same time, the revamped menu along with changes in the bar works as a jumping off point for any bartender who will work with the menu and the restaurant. However, you could see his fingerprints here and there, from housemade tinctures and bitters to the use of maple syrup.

Alex said he luckily got a lot of freedom in doing what he wanted to do, but he still worked with what was already in the bar. He filled in the shelves behind the bar with more bottles. Glasses line the wall and tools such as jiggers and shakers are front and center where the guests can see the bartender working on their drinks. The changes are both aesthetic and practical.

The menu itself is using a wide variety of spirits and ingredients, but fuller stocked shelves appeals to the eye with the different bottles with different contents and labels. Alex added that the stacked glasses are all used for the drinks, but they also add to the atmosphere. The guests have something interesting to look at while hinting to the fact that this is a professional bar and what htye can expect, whether it's by seeing what spirits are on-hand or that juices are fresh-squeezed from the juicer in the center of the bar.

How's the response so far?

"Pretty good," Alex answered.

The important thing was, "Overall, people are more enthusiastic about cocktails here."

Allen & Delancey's new menu:
~Juniper, Spice and Alchemy~

1 Gin, lime, yellow Chartreuse, Maraschino, rose and lavender bitters2 Gin, vermouth bianco, green Chartreuse, dash cinnamon bark tincture

~Cain, Molasses and Heritage~

1 Tea infused white rum, Batavia Arrack, lemon, maple2 Aged rum, Batavia Arrack, demerara, Angostura bitters, roast coco bean tincture, orange twist

~Grain, Oak and Revolution~

1 Bourbon, Amaro, lemon, honeyed ginger syrup2 Rye, Amaro, sherry, elderflower, Benedictine, aromatic bitters

~Agave, Pacific Winds and the Jimadors~

1 Blanco tequila, acacia honey, lime, Angostura bitters, rinse of Luxardo bitter2 Reposado tequila, antica, green Chartreuse, orange bitters, rinse of Campari, orange twist

~Wormwood and Company~

1 Old Tom Gin, lemon, egg white, absinthe, bitter orange foam, seltzer2 Reposado tequila, Isly whisky, agave nectar, absinthe, Peychaud's and Angostura bitters, discarded lemon twist

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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Vegetarian food and American gin

Counter hosted an event last night for Bluecoat Gin, an American dry gin from Philadelphia.

Counter provided food paired with gin cocktails created by their pixieish bar manager Tonia Guffey. Even though I list myself as carnivore first, I personally have nothing against vegetarian cuisine and even enjoy partaking now and then. However I was intrigued with this combination of vegetarian food and cocktails since when it comes to drinking alcohol, my stomach tends to steer me towards fried chicken, tacos or burgers in its aftermath.

When I got there I was handed a Blue Rose (gin, lavender liqueur, dry vermouth and rosemary). It had a very floral scent to it. Before taking a sip my brain assumed it would be sweet because it decided to connect the smell with something like a creme de violette or violet syrup. Instead the liquid itself was clean and not sweet at all. Tonia later explained that the drink was a take on a classic martini.

I got a chance to chat with owner Deborah Gavito before they sat us down for the dinner. Keeping true to its food philosophy, Counter's beverage program also features organic spirits as well as organic and biodynamic wines that were a part of the beverage menu since the place opened six years ago. Deborah also pointed out the bottles of house-made triple sec. There are a lot of house-made drink ingredients at Counter to make sure the end product fits the goals of the restaurant in providing earth friendly cuisine and drink.

Over an appetizer of bitter green salad with zucchini, fennel, orange & pistachio with gin-citrus vinaigrette, our drink was the Spicy Cucumber Gimlet. A combination of jalapeno-infused gin, muddled cucumber and jalapeno, fresh lime juice & agave nectar. Tonia received particularly rave reviews from people dining for this drink. It was a bit of sweet and spicy, some savory from the cucumber and jalapeno, while you had both heat and cool vegetable flavors duking it out in one glass. Tonia said that she personally really enjoyed spices and wanted to create a drink with a little kick to it.

I asked Andrew Auwerda, president of Philadelphia Distilling, about what made Bluecoat Gin particularly American besides the fact that it was made here. He explained that the idea wasn't just that it was made in America, but also the gin's flavor profile takes into account the American palette, as well as what he said were more American flavors, which is predominantly citrus. Besides juniper, the gin is also has a citrus finish to it that's a combination of sweet orange, lemon peels, and some other combination top secret organic citrus peels that I wasn't supposed to know about.

The entree of braised seitan in juniper-red wine sauce with seared mushrooms, garlic mashed potatoes & sauteed escarole, was paired with a Claret Philly (gin, brandy, lemongrass liqueur, juniper syrup, Malbec and a splash of lemon).

Finally, the dessert of Drunken Fruit (seasonal fruit poached in gin-infused syrup, served with lemon biscotti) was a double-dose of warm gin with its pairing of a Poached Ginger Toddy. The toddy was made with gin, red wine, pear reduction, ginger liqueur and chai syrup. Tonia said that the plating for the dessert was a moment of her and the chef being on the same page. They had a chance to taste each others creations, but both independently decided to use a white teacup.

I met Yuri Kato, publisher of Cocktail Times, and got a chance to ask her a bit about the Marie Brizard Cocktail Challenge. I had only heard of it recently thanks to Facebook updates and I was curious about how the thing was going down. The contest is technically two-pronged. On one side, the people can make their voices heard and cast votes to decide who wins the Hospitality Award (one for the East Coast, another for the West), but then there's the regional finals where winners get to go on to France for the 26th Marie Brizard International Bartending Seminar and Competition. So this thing's got a lot of layers to it, but for those of you out there in Internetland, go and vote for your favorite bartender and his/her hospitality.