The first two nights of cocktails in New Orleans was rough. Not rough in a sick, too many hurricanes on Bourbon Street way. Rough because destination classic cocktail bar after destination classic cocktail bar that we purposely seeked out crafted some of the most lackluster cocktails I have encountered from supposedly reputable bars.
We needed a remedy fast. The first hint that Cure would be the cocktail cure: get away from the French Quarter. Next, this is the domain of bartenders who cater to drinkers who truly want crafted cocktails, not just some rendition of a sazerac or a Ramos gin fizz, or the bane of cocktailian culture, the hurricane.
Far, far away from the cocktail nightmare that is Bourbon Street, in the up and coming, mostly residential Uptown neighborhood, Cure is a calm oasis of cocktail, and for that matter, bar perfection. Started a few years before the recent rush of “craft mixology” cocktail bars, Cure is the rare cocktail bar where it has received numerous national accolades, and yet still delivers some of the finest, most thoughtful cocktails you will ever drink, along with a friendliness that makes Cure feel like a bar that just opened and is trying to create a fan base. Somehow, the place was nearly empty on Memorial Day evening. What, people do barbeques or something like that instead of have a world class cocktails?
In theory, Cure could veer the way of too many “speakeasies” and the like in New York, LA, San Francisco, and pretty much any major city today. There is a strict set of house rules. There is no sign outside saying “Cure.” Fortunately, there’s none of the speakeasy attitude, need to make reservations, or we don’t have a menu just tell us what you like trouble of bars aspiring to be Cure. This is a neighborhood cocktail bar, pure and simple. Cure absolutely accomplishes what it writes as the ultimate mission of cocktail bars a century ago: “Different from saloons where the point was to become inebriated rapidly and economically, the cocktail bar was a place where ladies and gentlemen went to socialize in a productive and cultured way.” This is a tremendously productive and cultured way to spend an evening.
The cocktail list is short and sweet, with the names of the bartenders written who created each of the new cocktails. Cocktail drinking doesn’t get much more pleasurable and thought-provoking than The Bandito, created by Neal Bodenheimer. Blending El Charro Blanco and Sombra Mezcal in Adam and Eve like balanced harmony, the soft mezcal smoke and agave sweetness of the tequila seamlessly blend into a graceful union, then spruced up with some spring freshness from strawberry, and an enforcing jolt of licorice strong absinthe. Nothing juts out, yet everything can be detected. The final unifying touch is a dash of D’Aristi Xtabentun liqueur, a Mayan honey like liqueur that ties all the stand out ingredients together, a Kofi Annan like cocktail diplomat. Served up in a coupe, don’t be surprised if a bandit tries to steal this stroke of cocktail brilliance.
Instead, the bandit should order the Arrow in the Gale by James Ives, every bit the delicate masterpiece that The Bandito is. A tumbler with two or three large ice cubes that refuse to melt (bravo to Cure for this), Buffalo Trace bourbon serves as the base for a cascade of flavors: fresh strawberries, a scathing touch of ginger, a prickly pinch of pepper, a nutty, healthy dosage of Nardini Mandola almond grappa (who knew grappa could taste so good?), finished with some lemon, this is indeed the arrow that penetrated the cocktail gale experienced earlier in New Orleans bars. The drink initially hits as a fruity, almost slightly-smoothie like drink heavy on the strawberry, then the ginger sears the palate, the peppers coats the back of the tongue, and grappa and bourbon caress all the sharp edges into one unified joyous sip. It is spectacularly vibrant while being as soothing as your bed at home, as if New Orleans jazz were turned into cocktail form.
You won’t go wrong here: the classic sazerac makes the others cry by comparison with its quick dash of bitters keeping the color a healthy California tan instead of a diluted red. For a creamier blast of intense Szechuan pepper momentary numbing heat, the Fire Within thrives, mixing High West double rye, Chinaco Blanco tequila, Carpano Antica, Kümmel (a cumin-fennel like liqueur), orange, and Marie Brizzard crème de cacao. It really does burn inside, in a good way.
It’s just not fair to compare quite possibly America’s premier cocktail bar (having been to its peers across the country, this one gets the gold medal vote) to Bourbon Street area cocktails. Whether you’ve been having cocktails there unfortunately or even a tremendous cocktail bar on either coast, Cure is truly the cocktail remedy. Don’t forget to visit their sister bar Bellocq while in New Orleans.