Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Brooklyn Absinthe Fountain, Dripping as God Intended

I recognized the thing the moment I walked into Maison Premiere last Thursday. Standing behind the bar was a ditto of the famous green marble absinthe fountain found inside the Olde Absinthe House in New Orleans' French Quarter. I'd stared at the original enough times to know the specimen. (The original, upon which the new one is based, is below).

The fountain at Maison—a new cocktail and oyster bar in Williamsburg meant to evoke old New Orleans—is not just a decorative monument. It is in full working order, making it (unless I am much mistaken) the only absinthe fountain in New York that is actually connected to the premises.

Most of the water drippers we've seen in bars, ever since absinthe became widespread again three years ago, are the chintzy, glass, tabletop items that the bartenders must constantly fill with ice in order to keep the water cold enough to make absinthe cocktails. Maison's has a customized water line inside that feeds directly from the basement, through a chill block that rests in the bar's copper basin, and through a series of three reducer valves which control the rate at which the water flows out. (You want a slow, steady drip, not a wild spurt.)

Does this make the resulting absinthe taste any better? I don't know. But it make the experience of ordering an absinthe that much more pleasurable and authentic.

Recreating the fountain wasn't easy. In fact, it was an ordeal. Here's an item I wrote about it for the NY Times' Diner's Journal:

A Bit of New Orleans in Williamsburg
By Robert Simonson
Habitués of the famous Olde Absinthe House in New Orleans may execute a double-take when walking into Maison Premiere, the new Big Easy-flavored oyster bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Perched on an island within the graceful, marble-topped, horseshoe-shaped bar is an uncanny replica of one of the ancient absinthe fountains found inside the French Quarter watering hole — jade-colored marble column, quartet of brass spigots, Napoleon statue and all.
Joshua Boissy, who owns the bar with Krystof Zizka, first spotted the absinthe drip while on a fact-finding mission in New Orleans. He toured the Olde Absinthe House, which dates back to the 19th century, and snapped a shot of the fountain. Mr. Boissy knew absinthe would play a major role in his Brooklyn bar — he and Maxwell Britten, the beverage director, plan to carry more brands than any other tavern in the country. But at first Mr. Boissy expected that he would dispense it the way others have for the last three years, since the green-hued, herbal liqueur once again became widely available after nearly a centurylong hiatus.
“We were thinking of getting one of those fountains you buy that are glass and sit it on the counter,” he said. (Absinthe is typically served diluted, a slow trickle of water running through a sugar cube into the liquor.) Returning to the photo he had taken of the marble fountain, however, he thought he could do better.
He and his designers found a marble that matched the shade and character of the fountain in the Olde Absinthe House. They then found brass faucets long enough (with the help of additional brass necks) to drip water into a waiting glass, and discovered on eBay an old statue of the Little Corporal that was by the same French sculptor who made the one that stands atop one of the Bourbon Street bar’s fountains. And, with the help of various plumbers and others, a complex, custom-made water feed to the fountain was devised, one that would both deliver the water cold and at a pace slow enough to correctly induce the desired cloudy emerald effect.
Each of these steps took weeks and were delayed by many false starts. The entire process ate up three to four months. But Mr. Boissy is happy with the result. “The water is ice cold, the drip is perfect,” he said.
“We’re in conversations about how we might create our own house absinthe,” added Mr. Britten, a veteran of Jack the Horse in Brooklyn Heights and Freeman’s in Manhattan who fashioned the bar’s cocktail list. (Look for the Cocktail à la Louisiane, an under-celebrated creation from New Orleans’s rich history of cocktails. The rye-based beverage sits somewhere between a Manhattan and a Sazerac.)
Oysters are another cornerstone of the Crescent City atmosphere that Mr. Boissy aims to capture. By the end of this week, he intends to offer 20 different varieties of oysters. They start at $1.85 per, but, beginning this week, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m, all oysters are $1 a piece.
The twin specialties seem to be catching on already. During it’s first 24 hours in business, Maison Premiere went through 650 oysters. “Almost every person there was drinking absinthe and eating oysters,” Mr. Boissy said. “I’ve been in the restaurant business a long time and I’ve never seen a scene like that.”

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