The bar from heaven
I would almost … almost … go back to Las Vegas for no other reason than to drink and nosh at the Petrossian Bar in the Bellagio.
While on a search to find a bar in Vegas that served the kind of drinks we like — high quality, expertly mixed cocktails using only fresh juices and the best ingredients by bartenders who care about what they’re doing — we figured we’d do well in one of the most fabulous hotels in the city. Even then, we stumbled into this place by accident, because the other places we saw off the casino had no free tables.
It looked good as soon as we got there, with a beautifully appointed bar, rich wood, antique mirror behind the bar, and an extensive drink menu (a separate drink menu is always a good sign). A few dozen Champagnes and sparkling wines from Francy, Italy and the U.S. West Coast were listed first; a dozen or so frozen vodkas next, the list ending with the intriguing invitation “Please ask about our fresh fruit infusions of SKYY vodka”; a whole page of single malt Scotches … then the house specialty cocktails. And that was only page four. And the cocktails looked great. We got a table.
We later learned that this bar is an offshoot of the Petrossian Restaurant in New York, itself an offshoot of Petrossian Paris. The Petrossian brothers began supplying caviar from the Caspian Sea to the citizens of Paris, and later began offering other high quality foods from smoked salmon to foie gras and pâté to rich chocolates and beyond. Petrossian Caviar seems to have quite the reputation, and was also offered on the bar’s food menu at some fairly shocking prices. We were in a pretty classy joint, it seemed, but the cocktails were reasonably priced at $8.00.
We started off by ordering a Cable Car for each of us, which was featured on the specialty menu. It was absolutely perfect. Beautifully garnished, the glass beautifully rimmed, the juice freshly squeezed. This is, to us, what cocktails are all about — fine, fresh ingredients masterfully prepared. You might think that $8 is a lot for a cocktail, but I’d rather pay $8 for a great cocktail than $5 or $6 for a crappy one.
2 ounces Captain Morgan Spiced Rum.
1 ounce Cointreau.
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Prepare a chilled cocktail glass by moistening the rim with lemon juice and dipping the rim in a mixture of cinnamon and superfine sugar. Shake ingredients with cracked ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into the prepared glass. Garnish with a long, curly twist of lemon.
We ordered some food as well, as it was after 11pm and we still hadn’t had a proper meal that night. The menu ranged from fresh scones with clotted cream, to assortments of open-faced finger sandwiches, to a cheese and fruit plate at the lower end; the terrine of foie gras was tempting, although a bit pricey; $125 for Beluga caviar was out of the question, though, and it was far too late for their afternoon high tea. We decided on the cheese and fruit platter at $19, after the waitress assured us that it would be more than enough for the two of us. She was right — there were a half-dozen different cheeses, hard and soft, plus tiny green plums, dates, sliced apples, grapes and a small ramekin of an onion marmalade, plus a basket of Parmesan cracker bread, baguette, olive bread and breadsticks. When we finished we were stuffed.
Along with the cheese and fruit I wanted to try their Bellini; I had had one at an Italian restaurant’s bar in the Venetian the day before, which was okay, but something told me this one would be extraordinary. I was right. It was. It was light-years better than the Bellinis I had made for brunch a few months back, and everyone had complimented me on those. The flavor was marvelous; it tasted like summer in Venice. The color was amazing, too — it looked like a fresh white peach, and stayed blended the entire time, all the way down to the bottom of the flute (mine had a tendency to separate). It was the best Bellini I ever had.
2 ounces fresh white peach purée
4-5 ounces ice cold Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine)
The bartenders at Petrossian use a high-quality frozen white peach purée from France which tasted better than the purée I made with fresh peaches from the farmer’s market. I asked them their trick on keeping the drink homogenized, and they said that you put the purée and Prosecco in a shaker with a few ice cubes and give it one or two VERY gentle shakes, then strain into the flute. Don’t shake vigorously, or more than a couple of times, because you don’t want to beat the bubbles out of the Prosecco. (You can substitute Champagne or any good dry sparkling wine if you can’t find Prosecco.)
This isn’t how they do it at the Bellagio, but from DrinkBoy I got the idea of topping the drink with a dash or two of peach bitters; you could also add it to the shaker.
It was getting late, and I didn’t want to have too much to drink, so as they finished up with food service we settled the bill and prepared to leave. Before we did, though, I wanted to go back into the bar (as we were seated out front, in the area that extended into the Bellagio lobby) to thank the bartenders for the wonderful cocktails.
Let me tell you — It’s good to show appreciation to your bartenders, and it’s good to compliment them and tell them that they had just made you the best cocktails you’d had in recent memory, and to demonstrate an interest and passion in mixology. We ended up sitting at the bar, meeting two extraordinary bartenders named Michael and Arturo, and spent another half-hour with them, talking cocktails, learning tricks and being offered tastes of some of their ingredients (this is where we tasted the fruit purée that went into the Bellinis, for starters). They confirmed for us what we were assuming from the menu — that this bar uses only the best quality spirits and ingredients, and uses only freshly squeezed juices in their cocktails (the way it should be).
My eyes lit up after we were asked, “Hey, have you guys tried our infused vodka?” We saw a large, beautiful glass jar on the bar which had a small spigot at the bottom, filled with layers of sliced fruit — from what we could see, it had pears, blueberies, strawberries and who knows what all. I tasted the little sip that they so generously offered … and it was amazing. I had never tried making fruit-infused vodka myself, although I had read about it and it seemed easy enough.
Easy indeed; all you do is put the fruit in the jar (after carefully removing any stems and/or seeds that would add bitterness), add the vodka, and wait 3-5 days. I’m looking forward to my first try with a combination they recommended, with which they had won a contest: kiwi, strawberry, pineapple and vanilla bean.
The longer we stayed, the more it seemed like we were in a bartending class, one revelation after another. I was particularly thrilled when Michael asked, “Hey, have you ever tried Peychaud’s Bitters? We found out about them a couple of years ago, and have been incorporating them into lots of our cocktails.” Indeed we have, sir, being New Orleanian (and of course, Wes is an honorary New Orleanian). My next inquiry was inevitable, and then Arturo proceeded to make history with me — he was the first bartender outside of New Orleans that we had ever seen who knew how to make a Sazerac,and proceeded to do so. We practically trembled with anticipation. The drink he made was very good, although not the way I’m used to making it. He saturated a sugar cube with bitters and muddled it, like they used to do in the very old days, but then served the drink on the rocks, which as far as I know they only do at Galatoire’s, and then topped it with an ounce or so of water (which I don’t do). Still, it was definitely a passable Sazerac, and if I were going to be there long enough to become a “regular”, I’d gently suggest making them straight up with no top of water.
The evening ended with a declaration of “We have got to come back here tomorrow night!” … and we did. We sat at the bar this time so that we could talk to our new pals, and dove headfirst into the cocktail menu. After the tantalizing little taste I had been offered the night before, I wanted to try the infused vodka as they usually serve it — ice cold as a “martini”, although basically the drink is just the fruit-infused vodka shaken with ice, served up in a cocktail glass with a garnish of lemon and lime twists. Simple preparation, and very stealthy — you don’t taste the alcohol. It was delicious, and went down as smoothly as juice. It had the perfect amount of sweetness from the natural sugars in the fruit, but wasn’t nearly as syrupy as a liqueur. Also, it’s not as dry as the infused Stoli vodkas, which are distilled with the fruit and have no sugar content. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. (Michael pointed out that you can’t really eat the fruit afterwards; it gives up everything it has to the vodka, and after the infusion’s done the fruit has almost no taste whatsoever.)
We also wanted to try some of the house signature cocktails, and Wes ordered one called the Bellissimo. It was created by Delos Benedict, one of their bartenders, and won the Grand Prize in the 1999 Angostura National Drink Contest. Its primary ingredient was one that I had always wondered about, having seen it in spirits shops and not really knowing what to do with it — Alizé Red Passion, which is a mixture of Cognac, passion fruit juice and cranberry (there’s a regular version of Alizé without the cranberry that’s yellowish-orangish).
The Bellissimo contains Alizé Red Passion, Bacardi Limon Rum, freshly squeezed orange juice, house-made sweet and sour (freshly squeezed lemon juice, water and sugar in a 2:2:1 ratio, which they make daily), Angostura bitters, and is topped with Sanbittèr, which was a new ingredient to me. It’s a dry, not-quite-bitter, bright red aperitif soda made by San Pellegrino for people who want a nonalcoholic bitters aperitif (as the Italians are quite fond of bitter aperitifs and digestifs like Campari, Averna and Fernet Branca); in fact, the ad slogan for Sanbittèr is “Zero alcol, molto spirito!” We tasted some of it by itself and found it wonderfully refreshing, particularly because it is not sweet at all (if you can’t find Sanbittèr locally, you can apparently order it online). Final garnish for the drink consisted of two long curly twists of lemon and orange peel, and one of the bartenders added an orange wheel as well. Even though it’s a long drink (which I generally don’t like), this particular long drink was absolutely lovely, with a gentle, fruity flavor unlike any I’ve ever tasted.
Arturo also gave me a little taste of the other signature house cocktail, which was left over after he made two of them for someone else — the Bellagio Cocktail, which consisted of Rotari Italian sparkline wine, Alizé Red Passion and a little fresh passionfruit purée, also delicious.
After they found out about our fondness for Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, we were encouraged to try another one on their specialty list — the Casino Cocktail, another old classic with their own spin. They use a special brand of brandied dark cherries that are imported from France instead of a Maraschino cherry for garnish, plus they add one special twist — they drizzle a small amount of the brandied cherry juice into the bottom of the drink after it’s poured, creating a cherry juice/brandy layer at the very bottom o the glass, then garnish with one or two cherries on a pick. The drink will change character as you get closer to the bottom. I didn’t get their particular recipe, but none of the Casino recipes I’ve seen seem like they have enough Maraschino or lemon juice to offset the flavor of the gin. The Petrossian uses Junipero gin for this drink, with a very strong flavor of juniper berries (not my favorite flavor), but they perfectly balanced it with enough of the other two ingredients. I’m going to start experimenting with these amounts, but you may need slightly more or less of the second and third ingredients to get the balance just right.
à la Bellagio
2 ounces Junipero gin.
2 teaspoons Luxardo Marashino liqueur.
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice.
1/2 to 1 teaspoon brandied cherry juice.
Brandied cherries for garnish
Shake with cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Drizzle about a teaspooon of cherry juice into the glass; it will settle at the bottom. Spear 2 cherries onto a pick and garnish.
I’m going to look for French brandied cherries, but othewise I’ll soak some dried tart dark cherries in warm brandy until soft and plumped, then refrigerate.
I had one more before retiring for the evening — a Tennessee Highball, which was Single Barrel Jack Daniels, freshly squeezed lemon juice and orange bitters, topped with dry ginger ale. This was lovely too, a big step above your average highball. (Gawd, I hadn’t had anything called a “highball” in years. That was THE drink among my parents and grandparents when I was a kid, usually 7 and 7 or Bourbon and Coke.) The Bellagio sends one of their chief bar personnel to Jack Daniels to sample the barrels and personally select which barrel will provide the whiskey for their bars; once selected one barrel will yield about 230 bottles of whiskey, each labelled with a special ribbon and tag that says “Specially selected for the Bellagio Hotel”.
Yet more evidence that this bar is serious: Michael told us that he had been a bartender for 31 years, at Caesar’s Palace for quite a while before the Bellagio opened, and had learned more about bartending and spirits in his last four years at the Bellagio than in all of his previous 27 years combined. There are regular exams the bartenders have to take and pass, there are monthly “Scotch Society” meetings where different single malt Scotches are tasted and discussed by all the bartenders and bar managers … it’s an absolutely amazing level of commitment to quality in spirits and wines.
We wished out loud that this bar could be teleported lock, stock and barrel to Pasadena along with its bartenders, but alas … the search for a bar to measure up to the quality of this one (and without any trace of L.A. attitude) goes on. I have yet to have a bar experience this enjoyable anywhere in L.A., and I think that I’ll have to start trying some of the nicer hotels if it’s going to happen. I’ll let y’all know.