The Varnish doesn’t have a signature cocktail.
You don’t need to when you’re arguably the most important cocktail bar of the decade or so old speakeasy- craft cocktail movement. It seems as if this hidden, but very well known Downtown Los Angeles and its chief mixologist Eric Alperin are to cocktail “best of” lists and awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars: they are always nominated and almost always win.
Things are no different again this year. The Varnish is one of four finalists for this week’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards in New Orleans (nobody ever drinks in that city…), in many ways the Oscars or James Beard Awards for the cocktail world. While the entire bar is up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar, Alperin is also one of four finalists for the premier American bartender.
With these expectations, wouldn’t you expect nothing short of drinking magnificence when you’re standing at The Varnish’s sparkling glass bottle backed bar or sitting snugly in one of the wood paneled vintage booths in the dark as night speakeasy room? You won’t be disappointed. The hype is fulfilled. At the same time, if you’re looking for the “wow factor” so in vogue these days (think The Bazaar, The Aviary, Booker & Dax…), this isn’t your place. Sip your high quality beverage and don’t be too loud. There aren’t any sideshow frills coming your way. Only the perfect Gin & Tonic, maybe with a slight evolution.
The background history and the quirks of The Varnish are very well documented. There might even be a Hollywood screenplay in the works about the rise of cocktails in America and the rise of Skid Row’s Sixth Street because of The Varnish (I’m only guessing about this).
Forget about the old cliché that always tied together coffeehouses with the intellectual nature of literature. It used to be that at the coffeehouse, you would either write the next great novel or be reading one, not hacking away on the next great software program over your third espresso.
The romantic rapport of coffeehouses and literature is close to extinct, if not already. Just walk into Four Barrel or any Starbucks. Besides, did Hemingway ever write his important works over a café au lait or a bottle of Vin de Pays? Even Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure bolstered by pints of mead, not pints of lattés.
The real relationship between writers and the dining/drinking world is of course that most inspirational ingredient of all: alcohol. How many times, fellow writers, have you had your epiphany for that next book or article over a glass of wine or after that third Margarita?
Now that the whole Barbary Coast/ pre- Prohibition classic cocktail style bar has run its course nationwide, restaurateurs and bartenders are taking a page from those who write page after page after drink after drink: the literary themed bar. (more…)
Finally on this Mother’s Day, a cocktail Mom would certainly enjoy, where two of her spirit-driven favorites, the Manhattan and the Vieux Carré intersect along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
That would be the “Cocktail a la Louisiane” from Erik Adkins epic Bourbon and American Whiskey stocked bar at Charles Phan’s (The Slanted Door) sparkling month old New Orleans- inspired boîte, Hard Water. In Pier 5 along the Bay waterfront, just off the Ferry Building, you can’t help but immediately get in a Bourbon- ready mood after staring for a moment at the hypnotizing massive Wall of Whiskey, the backdrop for the horseshoe-shaped bar. Table seating is really counter-seating along the perimeter, with some seats affording Bay views. Olle Lundberg’s masterpiece strikes you as an atelier, warm yet austere from a mixture of glass, dark wood, leather, and oak components.
The “Cocktail a la Louisiane” originated in 1937 when the recipe was published by Stanley Clisby Arthur in his Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em. If only Mr. Arthur could concoct a worthwhile Hurricane recipe or fix the Vieux Carré version at the Carousel Bar, where it originated.
Elements of the Vieux Carré come into play with plenty of Benedictine stirred with Whiskey, in this case Rittenhouse 100 Rye. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth adds the Manhattan dimension, softening the often over-bearing Benedictine. Peychaud’s Bitters and Duplais Absinthe round out this spirit-forward offering that is remarkably smooth. It was actually shockingly smooth. Handsomely served up in a chilled coupe with a marinated Maraschino cherry resting at the bottom, this is a classic example of a simple, not complex drink, with no hint of seasonality, that is absolutely pitch-perfect. (more…)
With Derby Day tomorrow and Cinco de Mayo right after that, let’s get you a drink already to begin this cocktail- fueled weekend.
You would be forgiven for finding the “Cocktail of the Week” section to be more like the “Beet Cocktail of the Week” recently. After all it was only a few days ago the ode to the Arizona Beet-Yuzu Gimlet was published. The cocktailian public around the world right now is vehemently protesting: “Seriously Trevor? You may as well do the Manhattan of the Week too!”
Yes, I could. Or a Martini or spring seasonal cocktail of the week, or what not. The finest cocktail I enjoyed in the past week was a masterful “Cocktail à la Louisiane” from Erik Adkins’ extensive Bourbon bar at the new Hard Water along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. So, Bourbon forwards and beet cocktails represent the best of spring’s bounty? Where is the Asparagus Gibson?
Three years ago, the area of San Francisco far from the tourist circuit where the more edgy Mission evolves into the looser, residential Potrero Hill was a dining desert until the young, gutsy chef Thomas McNaughton opened the barn-burner of San Francisco’s Cal-Ital restaurants, Flour + Water. His bold cuisine vision and execution was, and remains, nothing short of phenomenal. Hence, the lengthy wait times as long as it takes to walk across this city that still have not lessened three years later. Last year, McNaughton opened a more ambitious, seasonal, local driven restaurant Central Kitchen, and the daytime shop/café Salumeria.
The next tenant in the same warehouse building as Central Kitchen and Salumeria has turned the neighborhood and the entire cocktail culture of this fervent cocktail-obsessed city on its side. When Trick Dog opened in February, it was celebrated with cheers, hugs, and kisses almost on par with a Giants World Series parade. (more…)
Is there anything more virtuous sounding than beet juice? Just think of the ills of the world that could be solved by drinking beet juice. So many nutrients could be acquired to brighten up so many days by pressing the violet juice out of those ugly, gnarly root vegetables. It seems like you could go run a marathon or start tackling bikram yoga when you embrace the power of beet juice.
Then, the sound effect of polluting such pristine, vitamin laden juice with spirits could be fingernails attacking a chalkboard. It’s almost a crime. What would be the perfect food pairing with beet juice? Quinoa and heirloom Nantes carrots?
O.K., enough on the fact that beet juice is very representative of yoga cuisine. Beet juice can be incredibly enjoyable, whether you practice yoga or ride Harleys.
In the other corner, yuzus evoke virtuous thoughts as well. The Mandarin orange-like citrus, common in East Asian cuisines (in particular Japanese), is treated with reverence in the hands of chefs and bartenders. Tender, petite yuzu segments carefully toe the line between sweet and sour, much more delicate to the palate than any other citrus. A few years ago on a trip to Tokyo, bartenders (known in Tokyo as “masters”) at some of the world’s most exalted cocktail dens, including Star Bar Ginza and Bar High Five, asked me if I would like to try a yuzu cocktail since they were in prime season at the time. I figured they knew best. What surprised me was how the yuzu cocktails each created were virtually identical and essentially pure yuzu juice. Spirit driven cocktails these were not. With a little Gin and sugar added, these were essentially a classic Gimlet with yuzu in place of lime juice.
Halfway across the globe, I found myself on the patio of the gorgeous Jade Bar at the Sanctuary on Camelback, a spa- driven resort nestled at the northern base of Phoenix, Arizona’s iconic mountain. It must have been the coldest night of the year in the desert, causing us tourists to curl up next to fireplaces as if this were Alaska, not Arizona. A Hot Toddy would have been an appropriate cocktail.
Always on the lookout for the unique cocktails of a menu, I gave the Beet Yuzu Gimlet a chance, a perfect representation of a health-forward cocktail at a health-forward bar at a resort focused on your well being. I had seen classic cocktails re-interpreted to vastly differing results. Beets and yuzu? We’ll see about that (more…)
Cocktail of the Week: “Things Done Changed,” The Whey Bar, Portland, OR, Plus Other Portland Cocktail Notes
To close out the Portland reports on this Mardi Gras Tuesday, let’s celebrate with an exceptional riff on the classic Pisco Sour courtesy of the holdover room known as The Whey Bar, at NE Portland’s red hot Argentine-Portland inspired cuisine restaurant, Ox.
The “Things Done Changed” is a force, a glowing sunshine hue with a perfect frothy egg white shaken consistency. The key is the exchange between the smoked lemon and jalapenos with the Pisco, leading to a sensation akin to umami. I noticed some bacon on the palate, but also papaya salsa and bountiful fresh in season citrus without an ounce of bitterness. Unfortunately, the rest of the cocktails didn’t have the same fully locked-in balance or depth at Whey. I was underwhelmed by the “Shipwreck” with Bourbon, Rum, lime, and mint with a dash of Angostura Bitters, and the “Devil in a New Dress” with Tequila, Red Pepper, Combier Orange, Lime, and Mezcal, where the sugary orange notes commanded the proceedings, and more spice and smoke would have elevated everything much higher.
The standard-bearer of the Portland cocktail scene continues to by Clyde Common, anchored by one of the country’s definitive cocktails, the Barrel-Aged Negroni. It’s deservedly a legend, made poetic by fervent admirers such as yours truly. Beefeater Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari, the classic holy trinity, are aged two months in Tuthilltown Whiskey barrels, then shaken with ice, served up in a coupe, and finished by an orange peel garnish. Somehow those two months of aging add vanilla and squeeze out the rosewater notes of Campari with the Juniper in the Gin, sharpening its focus while softening the edges, and together it soars every time.
Inexplicably, the Negroni was out one night. Hence, I was forced to sample a Boulevardier aged in the same manner, essentially the same drink with Bourbon swapped for the Gin. It’s enjoyable, but still just not the same. The Bourbon doesn’t click in harmony with the other elements as much.
After numerous visits to Clyde Common, itself also a terrific restaurant attached to the über-hip Ace Hotel, my most recent stop was the first time with Jeffrey Morgenthaler tending the bar. Morgenthaler is the mind behind Clyde Common’s game-changing cocktails and one of the country’s leading “mixologists,” a pioneer for championing barrel aged, bottled, and carbonated cocktails. None of the other cocktails reached the Negroni’s lofty heights, though a version of a Pisco Sour with Mezcal called “I Punched You in the Nut” was close. I asked about the name’s history. Fortunately, it’s only the drink’s name, not what is served as a garnish with it. (more…)
To accompany Michael Voltaggio’s sterling, ambitious modern inspired masterpieces currently being produced at the cult chef’s Melrose restaurant Ink, Gabriella Mlynarczyk and Brittini Rae Peterson are presenting diners with equally inspired, cutting-edge cocktails to excite them for the riveting dinner to come.
Yes, this is mixology, but it’s mixology like the molecular gastronomy Voltaggio displays in the kitchen. Instead of trying to shock with foams and gels and powders like is often the case at his prior place of employment, The Bazaar by Jose Andres, Voltaggio uses these elements to subtly enhance a dish, not for a pizazz or novelty factor.
The cocktails have all the hallmarks of the craft cocktail, mixology movement, with assorted house made syrups, freshly squeezed juices, and whimsical creations that often have two or three ingredients you’ve never even heard of.
Except, Ink isn’t going for the pre-Prohibition era style that is so in vogue with bartenders today. There are no Manhattans or a new style Martinis on the menu, though that could probably be concocted on the spot.
What you have instead is a menu of name-less cocktails, driven by spirits, then filled out for a complete drink, much like Voltaggio does house made Doritos, miso, and nori to a formidable corn porridge. (more…)