Wednesday, July 29, 2009
A Visit to Sazerac Bar
For me, the main source of excitement at this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans was that I would finally get to see the famed Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. The celebrated lodging place and its more celebrated watering hole had been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, and, since I had never set foot in New Orleans until 2006, I never laid eyes on what was once the most famous place in the world to order that most wonderful and New Orleanian of drinks, the Sazerac.
Therefore, I was dumbfounded when, asking various folks at the convention if they had seen the Sazerac Bar yet, I was routinely greeting by non-computing expressions and answers like "No. Why?" Few seemed to understand what a fantastic and historical bar has been resurrected.
The historic downtown New Orleans property is now part of the Waldorf=Astoria. It opened in 1893 as the Grunewald. In 1923, it was rebranded The Roosevelt in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. It kept that name until 1965 when it was bought and rechristened with the infinitely duller name of The Fairmont. Thank God someone came to their senses and brought back the old label. (Grunewald just doesn't have the same majestic ring, does it?)
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the hotel's Blue Room and Sazerac Bar were the places to go in New Orleans to find and converse with the powerful, the elite and the everyman. The bar was nearly as famous for its Ramos Gin Fizzes as it was for its Sazeracs. The former was the favorite of one of the bar's most steady patrons, demagogue Huey P. Long.
The bar is one of the most beautiful Art Deco spaces I have ever seen, from the tile floors to the long, American walnut L-shaped bar, from the illuminated, etched glass panel situated at the center of the mirrored back bar to the Paul Ninas murals that punctuate the walls. The combined effect of the decor and the atmosphere of gay sophistication elevates civilization just that little bit more. Drinking at that bar, you feel like a swell, a mensch, a man a culture, a hail fellow well met, a member of the Family of Man, someone who's doing the best he can and deserves a drink.
Having not seen the bar before the renovation, I had no idea how faithful the revamp had been. But Jeff Berry, who had paid a call on the bar just days before Katrina, assured me: the only thing that was changee was that the television had been removed.
I've never seen so many Sazeracs made as I did during my two visits to the bar. There is never a time when a barman is not making that drink. The house version uses Sazerac Rye and Herbsaint, in addition to the requisite Peychaud's bitters and sugar. I'd prefer a different rye and a brand of absinthe, but to each his own. I did have to caution the bartender not to make the drink too sweet, however. All in all, a good Sazerac, but I've had better.
More care seems to be taken with the Ramos Gin Fizz. I watched my man prepare mine, and he couldn't have been more careful if he had been a jeweler in Antwerp. The result was beautiful. Quite simply the best Ramos Gin Fizz I have ever had.
The drink menu is quite simple. I was told that the bar reached out all the way to New York to put it together, bringing in Julie Reiner (Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club) as a consultant. She wisely focused on the classics, with a couple originals tossed in.
The menu was a damn sight more complicated in the past, as the picture below illustrates. This is just one page of what was a lengthy drink menu.