Monday, June 30, 2008

In Clover

It's been a couple weeks since I first set foot inside Julie Reiner's sublime new Brooklyn cocktail den, The Clover Club, so it's about time I lay down some impressions.

It was a good time. The barstaff, led by Guiseppe Gonzalez—one of my classmates at the recent spring Bar Alcohol Resource weeklong-intensive course (which I passed, by the way, thank you very much)—was making dozens upon dozens of four select attractions from the cocktail menu, and I tried one of each. They were: the Clover Punch (gin, lemon, blackberry, allspice, Champagne) sitting in brimming glass bowls along the century-old bar; New York Sours (rye, lemon, orange, claret snap); plain old Mint Juleps; and Bermuda Swizzles (dark rum, pineapple, lime, velvet falernum, sugar).

All were beautiful. The New York Sours dense and dark. The punch was not exactly deceptively strong, as punches can be—just plain strong. The swizzles were lovingly prepared with twirling palms swirling dancing swizzle-sticks. And the Juleps were ice cold and attractively frosting up their silver mugs. (When they ran out of those, they were served in what looked like copper Moscow Mule mugs). I guess I enjoyed the Swizzle much, while the Sour most won my respect as a concoction. And, yes, I do sometimes respect drinks more than I just plain like them, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The bar behind which these were all made was a century old, intricately carved, mahogany dandy that once lived in a tavern in a sugar-mining town in Pennsylvania. That was the story I got, anyway. (These pictures are courtesy of Pressed tin ceilings, of course, and dark burgundy leather booths adorn a raised area in the front room, which is a quite a roomy affair, with plenty of air and space (and a hostess to get past) before you reach the bar. About the same distance from sidewalk to stool as you get at Reiner's Flatiron Lounge, I'd say.

The smaller back room is more elegant and stately, like an Englishman's library, with a coffered mirrored-ceiling, sconces, a smaller bar, a chandelier, scattered upholstered chairs and a corner fireplace (which was ablaze, despite its being June). I can see the intimate appeal of the back room, but I myself prefer the convivial, democratic feel of the larger, more public front area. The general idea, as I take it, is for the place to resemble the Victorian drinking dens favored by bon vivants and men who took their derbies and moustaches seriously back in the late 1800s. No juke box. No television. Thank God.

The menu is a cocktail-history buff's dream, divided as it is into arcane drink categories such as Daisies, Collins & Fizzes, Buck & Mules, Cobblers & Highballs, Punches and Juleps & Smashs, among other things. A bit wonky for the average tippler. But I'm not complaining. I get precious few chances to walk into a bar and order a Cobbler without explaining myself. (Nothing takes the fun out of ordering a drink more than having to explain your order. It's like explaining a joke.)

This is just what I did on my second visit to the Clover Club. I ordered the Madrono Cobbler (Oloroso Sherry, Amaro, Muddled Strawberry, Demerara) on the recommendation of Gonzalez. He recommended it because he invented it, and won a Sherry contest with it. Very good. Potent and meaty for a cocktail. One other note: I applaud Reiner on keeping the cocktail prices more in line with Brooklyn wallets; most drinks are $10 or $11.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mr. 9.6%

Recently, Roman Roth, the talented Long Island winemaker, sent me a bottle of his 2007 Riesling. 2007! It seems to silly to point out the year, because it's the only vintage available, the first time Roth has attempted a Riesling out on the North Fork. According to Roth, 2007 was one of the best LI vintages ever, so he finally decided to make the Riesling everyone had been asking him for years. The fruit source wass Split Rock Vineyard, located just east of Greenport, which is owned by Michael Kontokosta and managed by Long Island Veteran Charles Flat. The yield was low, just two tons an acre. And the grapes were picked Oct. 5, 2007. (The wine is 100% Riesling.)

The result is quite delightful, a perfect wine for summer. The nose is light, with lemon, lime and floral notes and something that struck me as the smell of metal shavings. The palate showed many things: white peach, apricot, green grapes (yeah, I know, the grapes are green that made it, but that doesn't mean you're always going to get that taste in the wine), a little bubblegum. The acidity was good, the length not huge. But the complexity, while not vast, was more than I'm used to seeing in U.S. Rieslings.

One of the greatest qualities of the wine is its terrifically low alcohol content: 9.6%! That means that, even though the weather be hot, you can enjoy this wine for glass after glass, and not feel overwhelmed or heavy. That's something I look for in a summer wine, because, let's face it: wine drinking is not as pleasurable in the hot months as it is in the cool, because alcohol and stifling heat do not mix well. We want to feel light, fizzy and buoyant during summer, by whatever means possible. If the wine can help that along, latch on to that wine. I'll be latching on to this one a few more times this summer.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Martini Time

The Summer Drinking issue of Time Out New York just came out (and isn't it just very Time Out-y that they even have a Summer Drinking issue?), and my microscopic piece on the tableside Martini service at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park received very prominent placement. I wish I could give you a link and reprint the fabulous photography, but Time Out's website won't make the article available until next week. But I wrote the thing, so I wrote the thing so I feel I'm well within my rights to run it here for your perusal.

In truth, my objections to EMP's preference of vodka over gin in this signature Martini are more strenuous than I state in the article. When I next go to the restaurant and order this service, you can bet your boots I'll insist of Bombay (regular) or Beefeater's. I also wish the glass weren't 12 ounces. I don't like to get smashed on my first drink. But patrons equate value with size these days. And shame on Riedel for even making a 12 ounce Martini glass!

Critics’ pick

How we roll

When a cart comes your way in a swank Manhattan restaurant, it usually means cheese or dessert. But diners at Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Ave at 24th St, 212-889-0905) shouldn’t make any assumptions when they hear approaching wheels. The high-ceilinged, high-end eatery recently introduced tableside martini service, which allows diners to enjoy the voyeuristic privileges of sitting barside, without leaving the comfort of their seats. Owner Danny Meyer got the idea during a visit to London’s posh Dukes Hotel, where the world’s most famous cocktail has been prepared in the same showy manner for years. "I am not an inveterate martini drinker by any stretch," said Meyer, "but I have been so captivated by the Dukes Martini that I've made at least three
pilgrimages there just to have one." Indeed, everything about the mobile operation is hyper-elegant. Just a touch of vermouth is dropped into a 12 oz. Riedel Martini glass by way of a sterling silver Tiffany dispenser that resembles a small oil can. The glass is then filled out with ice-cold Potocki vodka, a soft spirit distilled from Polish rye, and the brand favored by Dukes. (Customers can request a different brand of vodka or, for the cocktail classicists, gin.) If olives are the preferred garnish, a small dishful are left at the table with a silver toothpick. Lemon twists are cut by the captain. “At night, doing the twist by candlelight, you can actually see the oils coming off the lemon,” says general manager Will Guidara. Cost: $18. And people seem happy to pay. Though traditionalists may bemoan the omission of three things I consider essentials—gin, a bit of stirring and a glass smaller than a birdbath—the cocktail is superb enough, and big enough, to make me forget.—Robert Simonson

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Drives Cocktailians Crazy

I went to a new Park Slope, Brooklyn, restaurant called Elementi recently. It's gotten good reviews and I had a pretty good dining experience. Good food. Fresh and homemade ingredients. Great service. Nice wine.

But then I glanced at the cocktail menu and shuddered. It was the typical "-tini" horror. Among the monstrosities: The Lemon-Basil Martini; the Elementini; the Apple Ginger Martini; the Vanilla Espressotini; the Chocolate Raspberry Martini.

There were only five drinks on the menu that weren't advertised as spins on the Martini. Every single one of them featured vodka as their base liquor. And the majority of those were flavored vodkas.

How can a restaurant that does everything else well slip up so badly in the cocktail department? And who told them that cocktails are meant to be dessert?

One this I will give them: They listed the Negroni as one of their featured drinks and apparently make it in the old style, on the rocks with an orange slice. I don't want to give them too much credit, though. They also feature a Manhattan served on the rocks

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Birth of the Cynarata

Now I do not profess in any way to be a cocktail inventor. My attempts to mix up new liquid creations are as nothing next to the great mixologists of the field. But I do believe I have just created a very good new cocktail. (I recognize as a very real possibility the fact that it may have been invented already by somebody else.)

You make recall that I have lately been over-interested in Cynar, the artichoke-based Italian liqueur with the label that everybody loves and the taste that quite a few people detest. I personally, find its flavor intriguing and its innate bitterness intriguing.

Recently, I tasted and enjoyed a Cynartown at Death & Co. The gin-based cocktail encouraged me that good drinks could in fact be made with Cynar. So, when I've had a free night lately, I've repaired to the kitchen and attempted to make a drink of my own. I'm not terribly sophisticated in my experiments. Mainly, I take recipes to drinks I like and substituted Cynar for one of its ingredients, typically the Italian vermouth.

I was getting nowhere. Some drinks were interesting. But interesting doesn't cut it in cocktail land. It's got to taste good. Damn good! Then a friend, Elizabeth, whose also a fan of Cynar (she actually turned me on to it) sent me an e-mail. She noted that lemon is a natural accompaniment to an artichoke. Could sparkling lemon soda and Cynar be a good marriage?

I let the suggestion lie for a few days. But then, suddenly, the notion struck me as a good lead. I went to the deli to buy some San Pellegrino Limonata. Amazingly—since I live in an Italian neighborhood—I couldn't find any. I bought the France-made Rieme sparkling limonade instead.

I pictured the two ingredient going together much in the way Pimm's and ginger ale do in a Pimm's Cup: a shot of Pimm's; a lot of ginger ale; a garnish. First I tried the ratio I usually employ for a Pimm's Cup: 1 1/2 oz. Pimm's and 4 oz. lemon soda. Good, but the strong bitterness of the Cynar was still too prominent. I upped the amount of soda. My eventual ratio was six parts lemon soda to one part Cynar (3/4 oz. Cynar to 4 1/2 oz. lemon soda, to be exact).

The result was heaven, in my humble opinion. It has the lightness, the refreshing quality I associate with a Pimm's Cup. The bitter edge of the Cynar lent a complexity in the finish of each sip. What's more, the drink is a golden color that is a joy to behold. You can go heavier on the soda, but I wouldn't recommend it. It becomes too simple-minded after 4 1/2 oz.

A couple days later I plucked a spring of mint from my windowsill plant and found the perfect garnish. Another layer of flavor was added, and a dash of additional color.

Elizabeth came up with the name: Cynarata. (The Golden Artichoke was swiftly rejected.) I share credit for the drink with Elizabeth, who is a pastry chef and knows her flavors. She's a good idea person. I'm ridiculously proud of the drink and will be fixing them for anybody who comes through my door and is patient enough to listen to my babbling.

Here's the recipe, put simply:

3/4 oz. Cynar
4 1/2 oz. sparkling limon soda (Rieme Sparkling Limonade, if you can find it)

Mix ingredients with ice in a tall glass. Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In the Cellar With Solera

Solera in the east 50s of Manhattan was the subject of my May "In the Cellar" column at the New York Sun (which appeared, ahem, on June 4). I was attracted to it because of its singular devotion to Spanish wine. An exclusively Spanish wine list is a relative oddity on NYC. Wine director Ron Miller was so polished and suave that I was ready to mistake him for being of European birth. I guess you develop that gracious sheen after spending a few decades at the front of the house. Here is the article.

One Sommelier and His Pioneering All-Spanish Wine List

June 4, 2008

'The Italians do it," Ron Miller of Solera, the Spanish restaurant on East 53rd Street, said. "The French do it. Why not us?"

Do what? Use their wine list as an expression of national pride and culinary purity, that's what.

At Babbo, you'll be looking in vain for a wine not produced on the Italian boot. The list at Balthazar has a thick Gallic accent. Such oenophilic exclusivity is common in Manhattan eateries that focus on French or Italian cuisine. For some of the city's Spanish restaurants, though, it's been a harder trick to pull off. But Solera has found success with an all-Spanish cellar for more than a decade now.

It wasn't always that way. When Solera opened in 1991, it offered diners the usual array of American, French, and Italian wines, with some Spanish bottles thrown in because — well, it was a Spanish joint.

But Mr. Miller, the self-described "maitre d', general manager, sommelier, and chief dishwasher" of the restaurant, changed all that after taking a trip to Spain in the mid-1990s. "My first impression was, this is a great opportunity. There are so many great wines here; why don't we make the list all Spanish?" he recalled.

Mr. Miller — a courtly man with a reassuring purr of a voice — and the owners of Solera made their commitment just as Iberian juice had started to capture the attention of the American market. Since then, they have profited from every trend in Spanish wine. When the intense reds of Priorat, a rediscovered region in the northeast corner of the nation, were the talk of the critics, Mr. Miller was happy to pour plenty of glasses of the inky stuff. A couple years later, Bierzo was declared the next hot region, and Solera was not caught unprepared. What about now? "La Mancha wines are starting to come in," Mr. Miller said. "And Méntrida," he added, citing the little-known wine-producing region west of Madrid. "Who knows Méntrida?" he asked. (If anybody wants to sample its wares, they can order a bottle of Arrayan Petit Verdot at Solera.)

But there is still much to be learned, despite Solera's ongoing advancement of Spanish wines for the New York palate. Mr. Miller noted that customers, when selecting a red Rioja, will almost always go for a reserva over a crianza, simply because they are less comfortable with the latter term. (Crianzas are aged for at least two years; reservas for three.)

Mr. Miller tries to gently nudge people's education along by offering tastes of wines when certain appetizers are ordered. A plate of assorted fried and marinated seafood arrives automatically with a glass of Manzanilla, the light, sometimes tangy form of sherry, a common pairing in southern Spain. He says that fino and Manzanilla sherries can be an acquired taste. "If you don't have something that complements that food-wise, it's going to be a fairly strong drink," he said. "When you pair it with food, you get a nice association."

Additionally, this leads his patrons to the idea of habitually having wine with their food, and vice versa. "A lot of Americans still enjoy wine as a cocktail as opposed to a food-and-wine match, which never happens in Spain," he said. "When you take a copita of sherry in Spain, you always have something to eat with it. That's the tapas concept. A morsel of food was placed on top of a glass of wine. It was a giveaway item. Here, I'll see someone have four glasses of wine with some olives, and that's dinner."

In another pairing, a selection of cold tapas is accompanied by a sample of Spain's famous sparkling white wine, cava. Often when restaurants opt for a one-country wine list — and that country isn't France — the sparkling category is where they break their own rule by including a selection of French Champagnes to please the crowd.

Solera, though, sticks to Spain through and through. If you want something that bubbles, there's a selection of seven different cavas — and nothing else. And there's a bonus: Cavas are notoriously cheap. The most costly of the cavas (which are made in the same method as Champagne, but with Spanish grape varietals) ring in at under $80, while the least expensive is $36.

"The price format has always been one of Spain's assets," Mr. Miller said, "and it still is, even with the dollar-euro scenario we have now. It's really refreshing for people to see such quality at such a price."

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Limoncello, Moment of Truth

Today is was time to filter and bottle my second attempt at making homemade limoncello. So it was off the local this-and-that store for decorative bottles and cheesecloth.

To recap, in the first batch of this favorite Italian liqueur of mine, I used Luksusowa, a Polish brand of vodka made with potatoes, as my base, and Meyer lemons as the closet equivalent to the special sort of Sorrento and Amalfi fruit used in Italian limoncello. That result was OK, but a bit rangy and fullsome for my tastes. I attributed this is part to the influence of the potatoes, and vowed to used a grain-based vodka the next time around. This I did, employing White Nights, a Belgian vodka which is just being introduced to the American market and is priced quite reasonably. I also made a change in the fruit component. I used Meyers again, but a friend suggested adding the zest of a couple blood oranges. The point is to approximate even close the flavor of those glorious Italian lemons.

I still have some of the old limoncello (let's call it the 2007 vintage) on hand, so I decided to do a side-by-side taste test to see if I fared better this time. First the old stuff: as I remembered, the 2007 was viscous, a bit meaty, almost doughy, with strong notes of marzipan along with the lemon and honey you expect. It has mellowed with age, but I still can't get past the idea that its took thick and syrupy. It lacks that silky smoothness I like in the best limoncello, and the citrusy zing.

The 2008 vintage was an improvement, no doubt. Not a great leap, but a step forward. The color is deeper, more lovely. First off, it was not as thick on the tongue. The drink was lighter, with a nice hint of an edge. The orange hints came through, and the creamy feeling was less pronounced. I also sense that this potion will be changing with the weeks.

What I'm dealing with, I now realize, is essentially rustic liqueur. It is homemade, after all. It's not going to have that sleekness I find in the commercial product. I may be asking too much of the stuff. Still, I'm going to keep trying. Perhaps I should find some Everclear and give that a go. Maybe the basic recipe I'm using is a bit off. Reserch goes on...

Drink Alone

A common complaint surrounding many of the choicer cocktail caves is that they're hard to get into, with doormen and hostesses turning you away.

Can be true, yes. If you arrive with an entourage. But if your aim is to enjoy the liquid concoctions that are on offer, and not to hang with buds, I have a bit of advice. Go alone. You'll score a seat, no problem.

I often hit Little Branch, PDT, Death & Co, Pegu Club and other Gotham joints on my lonesome. This is primarily because going with the Wife means finding (and paying for) a babysitter, and we've found good babysitters hard to come by. Secondly, since I usually go with the aim of doing research (yes, I'm typing that with a straight face), my visits are often brief and efficient (one and done)—not the sort of call a friend would necessarily enjoy paying. Thirdly, I often decide to take a drink at a place on the spur of the moment, if I'm in the neighborhood.

Aaaaaaaaaanyway, what I'm trying to say is I've never had any problem getting in. There's always one seat at the bar that's not doing anything. And if there isn't, there will be in five minutes. So, if you can't wait to try that new cocktail, just saunter on over by your own damn self and go get it.

All the Pretty Young Beaujolaises

An invitation came through the old e-mail to attend a Beaujolais dinner at Hearth, the East Village Italian eatery, and since I like Beaujolais and dinner invitations both, I said yes.

An added bonus was drinking 12 different glasses of the great Gamay: a rose, a sparkler (Jean-Paul Brun's wonderful FRV100--yum!) and one sample each from all ten of the Beaujolais Crus. Shall we name them? Sure, why not? Saint-Amour, Regnie, Fleurie, Chenas, Julienas, Chiroubles, Moulin-a-Vent, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly and Morgon. There was also a Beaujolais-Village thrown in there for good measure.

Our host, Paul Grieco, quoted somebody as saying the Gamay is a grape quite capable of goodness, but not of greatness. That hit me a bit wrong, as I do love a good bottle of Beaujolais. But on reflection, I didn't find myself disagreeing. And what's wrong with goodness anyway? Very few wines get there. And not every bottle has to be great.

I enjoyed myself as sipping through the Village Regnie, Saint-Amour and Fleurie, though none were more than pleasant. As the cured sea trout ceded the table to the roasted daurade (that's a fish, folks), things picked up. The Chenas was rounder with a dusty undertone; the Julienas rich, fragrant and meatier; and the Chiroubles (by Domaine Cheysson) edgy with notes of tobacco and leaves. Fascinatingly complex.

Finally came the roasted duck breast and the big boys: a perfumed, violet Moulin-a-Vent; the Brouilly grapey smooth with a nice edge; the Cote de Brouilly marvelously funky; and the Morgon tasting of mushrooms and more pronounced tannin. All in all, the Cote de Brouilly, by Chateau Thivin, was the best of the bunch in that it stood out so violently. Drinking something that reminded one of wet soil and meat may not sound like a good time, but, believe me, it was. Good with the duck and risotto, too.

These events can be a bit tense if one does not know any of one's dining partners. But I had the good fortune of sitting next to Lesley Townsend, the young director of the Astor Center. Slim, waifish, bright-eyed and candid, she made for chatty, offhand company. She said the occasion was her first stab at imbibing after a month of swearing off alcohol, coffee and chocolate. What sort of hedonist is that?!