Today’s cocktail is an original from New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian of Bar UnCommon, and it’s my favorite of his. “I don’t really come up with that many originals,” he said (although I’ve had several), “but I think this one might be the best yet.”
It’s deceptively simple — only two ingredients in a simple proportion — but what a pair of ingredients … oh so complex.
First off, Old Raj Gin. There are two that you’ll see on your spirits store shelves if you’re lucky — one at 92 proof and the other at 110, the more common of the two and the one you want. Despite its alcoholic heft it’s quite smooth and has no burn, juniper present but not overly forward, plenty of citrus and earthy spices. The straw-yellow tint comes from a bit of saffron among the botanicals, but the saffron is very subtle and understated.
Next, our old friend Chartreuse of the green variety, an herbal knockout also at a hefty 110 proof. The alcohol-by-volume in these combined ingredients is, as you may have noticed, 55%, hence the name of the drink. These two powerful ingredients combine with that delightful cocktailian alchemy into a very well-balanced, highly sippable drink in which the herbal onslaught of the Chartreuse is stretched, rounded and balanced by the gin and its own herb-and-spice profile. What you might think would be over the top is anything but, and might be just the thing to offer a Martini drinker who might be looking for something a bit more exotic for his or her next drink.
You knocked this one out of the park, Chris … thanks!
The 55º Cocktail (by Chris McMillian, Bar UnCommon, New Orleans)
1-1/2 ounces Old Raj Gin, blue label.
3/4 ounce green Chartreuse.
Combine with ice in a mixing glass and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.
La Descarga has been open almost three weeks now, after a grand opening night on February 2. I absolutely love how the bar is revealed to you — you read a brief description of the entrance in the above-linked article, but fortunately it didn’t give away the good parts. When you do walk in you’re transported to Old Havana, pre-Fidel and ignoring the despotic dictators and corrupt American corporations, concentrating on the good stuff — rum, cocktails, music, floor shows and letting the good times roll (I don’t know how to say that in Spanish, sadly).
Check out the profile video from the Los Angeles Times …
Steve Levigni, formerly of The Doheny, is the general manager and Pablo Moix is behind the stick with a talented crew of bartenders, all of whom took good care of us on our first visit (first of many, I hope). We actually had reservations on opening night, as part of a group of friends, but unfortunately we had to cancel. We finally made it in four nights later, and they were already in full swing.
This isn’t really a full review, as we’ve only spent the one evening there so far, but Pablo and the rest of the folks behind the stick kept us and a two-deep Saturday night crowd well-oiled with excellent drinks from a good menu that will likely only get better. As it’s a rum bar that’s the featured spirit in the currently offered drinks, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing what else they’ll be offering, including cocktails blending different rums (always a favorite among aficionados of that spirit). I’m also looking forward to having a chance to sample tasting flights from their collection of 70+ rums … I’ve got my work cut out for me.
For an extra treat, if you go on the weekend, you’re treated to a bit of Caribbean cabaret as well.
You’ll want to call ahead for a reservation — they’re not required at this bar, but it’s a good idea to have one, so that you can be escorted right in without having to wait, especially on weekends. We tend not to go out on weekend nights anyway, as crowds are not my thing — and if they’re not yours either do as we do and go early, as after 9 or so it gets very, very busy — if you don’t mind them let the bar know you’re coming and you’ll become part of that crowd a lot faster. You’ll want to dress up as well; the bar prefers ladies and gentlemen to don their snappiest outfits when they visit, and at this place it’s warranted. Besides, who wants to be underdressed in Old Havana? Be a part of the fabulousness!
The three drinks I had were excellent, and this one, which Pablo was kind enough to confirm my guess of proportions, was probably my favorite. I love aromatic cocktails, and it’s particularly nice to enjoy a complex rum cocktail that contains no citrus (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s currently made with the new incarnation of Zaya rum from Trinidad, and fortunately not with rum from a barrel containing the remains of Admiral Nelson.
Stir with ice for 20-30 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, orange peel garnish.
I had a couple of others for which I didn’t get a recipe, as I was actually talking to my friends and having fun instead of being a cocktail geek and watching Pablo like a hawk. The Tropical Holiday was nice, with a J.M. Rhum Blanc base (mmm, rhum agricole!) sweetened with simple syrup and John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum for a dose of island flavors, plus lime and bitters, topped with soda. Tangy and refreshing. Wes’ Honey Swizzle is based on Cristal Aguardiente, a rather fiery cane spirit from Colombia with an anise flavor that I found surprising and ultimately delightful when I first tried it about 10 years ago (and a belated thanks to Patrick for bringing a bottle of it to that cocktail party at our place back in ’00!). Besides the honey syrup and citrus I forget the rest of the ingredients, but I’ll return to this one as well.
I’m going to have to visit a couple more times in the next few weeks, but y’know … I think I could fall in love with this place.
They don’t serve food at La Descarga but have no fear — right next door is Tacos de Patio, open late and serving excellent street-style Mexican food. Mmmm, tacos al pastor …
If they were smart, given who’s just opened up right next door, they’d add Cuban sandwiches to the menu.
La Descarga is at 1159 Western Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029, between Lexington and Virginia, just south of the 101.
Cocktail of the Day today is one that it took me a while to get to, because oddly enough until last year I never had any aquavit in my bar.
That’s not just an oversight on my part. For a long time I wasn’t a fan of that spirit’s major flavor component.
Aquavit is a flavored spirit, usually distilled from grain or potatoes, which comes from the various Scandinavian countries. I see it as a fellow traveler to gin — they’re both neutral spirits flavored with botanicals, with gin’s primary botanical being juniper, and aquavit’s being caraway. (That was the taste I had to acquire.)
Although a cousin to gin in that respect, the cousins get once or twice removed fairly quickly. A lot of aquavit spends time in wood and thusly picks up color and flavor. Linie, from Norway, is perhaps the most well-known example. It’s a potato-based aquavit that’s made in Oslo, then stored in oak sherry casks and aged in the holds of ships, as it travels across the equator through temperatures hot and cold to Australia and back (“linie” means “line” in Norwegian, referring to the equator) — for the makers, just the right amount of time and temperature variation spent in the barrels for a deeper flavor. Aquavits from other countries tend to be lighter in color, and some, like Krogstad, a domestic aquavit produced by House Spirits in Oregon — is clear. (However, North Shore Distillery’s Aquavit Private Reserve, which I have yet to try, is oaked, and I’ve just picked up a small bottle of experimental Krogstad that’s spent some time in oak as well. More on that, and some other House Spirits experiments, in a later post.)
In its native lands aquavit tends to be drunk neat and chilled from the freezer, but talented mixologists are finding it to be an intriguing cocktail ingredient. At Copper Gate in Seattle aquavit is the house spirit (and there’s a housemade one to boot), with several aquavit-based cocktails on their menu.
There aren’t a whole lot of aquavit-based cocktails (CocktailDB lists 18, most of which are fairly obscure), but what’s probably my favorite one isn’t on that list. It’s an original by Robert Hess, who about 10 years ago was playing with Fee Brothers’ Peach Bitters plus thinking about trying a variation on the Negroni. Aquavit replaced gin, Cynar (the Italian artichoke-based bitters) replaced the Campari, and sweet vermouth gave way to dry sherry. The peach bitters added a nice aromatic, fruity finish and the final product is a really lovely and complex drink from three really offbeat ingredients (to many folks, at least).
Murray put it on the menu at Zig Zag, and according to Robert that one drink on that one menu is responsible for Zig Zag being the largest consumer of Cynar in all of Washington State. So nice to see how all our Seattle friends drink so well (and even better to drink well with them!).
Wesly and I barely, just barely, began to try to imagine what life and the world will be like without our dear friend Mary, and we simply cannot.
Her loss has left a huge hole in the fabric of our lives, and although we’ll never really be able to fill it we can … I don’t know, hold up a big sign in front of it that says, “OH NO YOU DON’T!” and tell Mary stories. God knows we’ve got enough of them.
Countless adventures in New Orleans, basking in the best music in the world and fabulous meals ranging from Commander’s Palace …
Wesly and Mary anticipating our fabulous Commander's Palace meal in May of '07, which you can see by clicking on the photo. While most of it was from the menu, there was a very, very special hours-to-cook main dish that Chef Tory started preparing the day before when he heard Mary and her friends were coming in.
… to bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the street.
Mary (and we) ate these beautiful things with gusto and relish (and onions!), and we really wish the LAPD would leave the vendors alone!
That's Mary on the right, whom you can't see because she's quite logically and rightly more concerned with devouring that glorious bacon-wrapped hot dog than posing for my dopey picture.
There was Mary and Steve’s wedding 15 years ago en bas du chêne vert, underneath the big green oak tree behind the home of Marc and Ann Savoy in Eunice, Louisiana. We danced to the music of Marc and Ann and Michael Doucet and several other Cajun musicians, while people pinned dollar bills to Mary’s veil in the old tradition, and then all the assembled guests devoured about 700 pounds of crawfish. Fortunately when you’re already dressed for a crawfish boil you don’t have to worry about getting crawfish juice all over your nice clothes.
There was porkchop-eating and hog squealing in Basile, Louisiana (and the spine-tinglingly wonderful story of Mary happening to come across an old cemetery next to a high school football field, wandering around and wondering out loud where the great Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa was buried … only to find herself standing on his grave.
There was the New Orleans music box set she and I worked on together, for which we co-wrote the book — she wrote the traveling to and life in New Orleans essay, and I did the music one. What a joy it was for us to have done that together, and we were so proud of the end result. For that matter, there was Mary’s endless and passionate love for my home city of New Orleans, a city in which she was not born and was not raised but ultimately became just as New Orleanian as everyone else in that city, and who constantly helped me see and experience and love my own city better.
There was the fact that she’s been responsible for a great deal of content on this weblog over the last 10 years, not only because of lots of mutually enjoyed musical and gustatory experiences, or of her own exquisite food porn often sent my way, but because if I happened to go five days or (Heaven forfend) a week without posting, I’d get a phone call. “Hey!” she’d holler. “Where’s my free content?!”
There was the legendary trip to Las Vegas where we became The Fat Pack, sitting around a big table at the wonderful Rosemary’s Restaurant and all eight of us, without planning, each ordered a different appetizer and entrée, with sixteen dishes orbiting the table all night and much gustatory delight and laughter. And there was later that trip, when Mary informed us that her editors at Frommer’s had complained that one of the sections of the Las Vegas book was out of date and she’d have to re-review the places in it… so she packed us all up in the minivan and together we made the rounds of three Vegas strip joints. Good lord, what a strange night that was. We have stories. (Hi, Melinda!)
There were a dozen and a half or more Jazzfests, the Bayou St. John house they owned with Nettie and Diana and so many great days passed there, and on the Fair Grounds so many magical musical moments we all shared, and there was dancing in the rain, which I think made for the most fun Jazzfests of all.
This is how the professionals do it.
There were peaceful, relaxing times at beautiful houses on the Cajun prairie …
Mary and Robin and a serene afternoon at the Seale Guest House in Eunice, LA
A rare photo that includes the entire original Fat Pack. And why is Mary on the phone? Undoubtedly hearing something juicy!
And there were many, many crawfish boils.
You call that a crawfish? That's not a crawfish, mate ... THIS is a crawfish!
And as Wesly said earlier, there were books and talks and deep conversations and endless amounts of love and so much that she brought to our lives (to name but one, how she gently pointed out to Wesly what a good idea it’d be for us to move in together already … and that went well!). It’s going to take us 20 years to remember and recount all the stories.
Since sometimes my words fail me I wanted to bring you some words from Mary herself, first.
On her website cancerchick.com there are archives of the articles she wrote for the Los Angeles Times about her initial diagnosis and first two go-rounds with cancer, plus the archives of Merry Maladies, the mailing list she maintained for her Best Beloveds, so that the people in far-flung locales around the world who loved her could keep in touch with what was going on with her, interspersed with regular doses of food porn. It’s a lot of reading, but it’s really, really worth it … and of course, for a subject so serious, it’s always funny.
Her husband Steve, her mom, her dear friend Nettie, and myself were in the room, talking about how today is Fat Tuesday. I looked over at her and said, “We’re going to go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?” And she raised her head slightly and then was gone.
She always had great timing.
Rick wrote more on their joint website Plucky Survivors, which recounted their 10,000 miles of travel around the smaller corners of America.
There’s the wonderful outpouring from the Threadhead community; i.e., the Jazzfest fans from all over who hang out in the Jazzfest online forum. (Threadhead Records and all the wonderful work Chris Joseph and friends do for New Orleans music sprang from that forum.)
And the love just kept coming in. Tuesday night after she passed, Phast Phreddie wrote Steve to let him know that Dave Alvin dedicated a song to Mary during his show in New York. The next day, Joel Savoy and family and friends played a Cajun fiddle tune and said a prayer for her at the grave of DennisMcGee, and bade Steve “prends courage.” And as I write Jellyroll Justice, one of my favorite DJs on WWOZ, has dedicated his show to her. All of them and many more have comforted us, and our thanks is mighty.
In the midst of our grief and deep sadness I have to confess I also felt flashes of anger. It’s so damned unfair, and we’re really, really sick of cancer. On Tuesday I wanted to break something (when I got really angry as a kid I used to break molded plastic coat hangers, which shattered quite satisfyingly). Fortunately I take comfort and joy, as Mary did, in music and song, and the beautiful words of John Boutté and Paul Sanchez helped to soothe me.
Don’t waste your time being angry
When a moment is better with a smile.
That is the opening line of one of my very favorite songs in the world (and one that Mary loved too), called “At the Foot of Canal Street,” written by John Boutté and Paul Sanchez, and performed by them both, singly and together. All I have to do is think about her and I’ll smile, and the moment will be made better.
The song sprang from a comment John made when he and Paul were comparing their backgrounds and neighborhoods; John said, “Well, it don’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, sooner or later we’re all gonna be together at the foot of Canal Street, baby.” That’s because where Canal Street ends in New Orleans is a cluster of cemeteries … also some of Mary’s favorite places. (Her personal tours of St. Louis Cemetery in N.O. and Hollywood Forever here were great.)
When Diana called me with the news, this song broke through the numbness and the tears … I thought, she has laid her burdens down at the foot of Canal Street.
Listen to the song, and listen closely to the words. Now that you know what they mean, you’re a little bit more local now, and you’ll appreciate it a lot more.
Our dear friend Mary left us today, Mardi Gras, February 16, 2010. She had fought with cancer for years, kicking its ass repeatedly, but in the end it was too much. I suppose it’s part of the human condition, but I have lost too many friends. Today I am numb and deeply weary.
Mary loved New Orleans. She loved the city so much that she bought a house there. In Frommer’s New Orleans, which she wrote passionately and updated faithfully, she said:
This is one of the few cities in America (if not the only one) where you do not feel as if you are in America. It may sound cliched to call New Orleans magical and seductive, but it happens to be the truth. Every one of your senses will be engaged from the moment you arrive here. The city is a visual delight, from the lacy ironwork wrapped around the buildings of the French Quarter to the stately, gracious old homes of the Garden District to the giant oaks that stretch across Esplanade Avenue or drip with ghostly Spanish moss in City Park. But to just call New Orleans picturesque is not doing it justice. Music flows from every doorway or is played right in the street. Jazz, Cajun, blues, whatever–you’ll find yourself moving to a rhythm and wondering if the streets really are dancing along with you. There are delicious smells in the moist, honeyed air, which seems to carry a whiff of the Carribean while caressing your skin, almost as if it were alive.
New Orleans will always and forever be inseparable in my mind from her deep and abiding love for the place.
Mary loved to read. For Christmas she gave me a copy of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I confessed that I had never heard of Lydia Davis, and she confessed that neither had she, but she had it on good authority that I as a lover of short stories must read these, as they were nothing short of the form’s perfection. I have still read only just a handful of the stories, and I never had the chance to tell her that I find them oddly, weirdly brilliant, and that rather than sinking into me they seem to stick on my surface. I’m sure she would have looked at me, sideways and penetrating, and said, “Hmmm,” by which she invariably meant, “That is fascinating, and I’m so very glad you told me. You must tell me more.”
Mary loved to ponder and think. She recently recommended to me and her friend Quinn another book, this one called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman, a collection (as one might well surmise) of stories exploring forty different, intriguing, hypothetical afterlives. She said in email, regarding the story after which the collection is named,
In [the afterlife described in] the first story, “all the moments [of your life] that share a quality are grouped together.”
This one is haunting me. This is the problem with conventional views of the afterlife, why someone as saintly as John Cobb says he hopes his adventure as John Cobb will one day come to an end. Otherwise, can you imagine the boredom and tedium?
Not when you two are there, of course.
I’m certain this contemplation sprang from, or was rooted in the same philosophical soil as, her passionate exploration of The Likelihood (or Unlikelihood) of Things Eternal. On February 13, three days ago, she was granted her Master’s degree in Theology and Philosophy of Religion at a special ceremony in her home, surrounded by her professors and fellow students from what she loved to call God School. Her husband Steve said,
…at the crux of her extemporaneous speech was that as she progressed through her studies people would ask, “So what’s your position on God?” And she would reply, “I haven’t got one.” And she stressed that she holds to that today.
Mary loved her dogs, her family and friends, and — first, foremost and always — Steve. I can’t imagine what any of us will do without her. The world is already a poorer place without her in it.
looka, <lʊ´-kə> dialect, v.
1. The imperative form of the verb "look," in the spoken vernacular of New Orleans. It is usually employed when the speaker wishes to call one's attention to something, or to what one is about to say.
2. --n. Chuck Taggart's weblog¹, est. 1999, with contributions by Wesly Moore, updated (almost) daily (except when it's not), focusing on cocktails and spirits, food and other drink, music, New Orleans and Louisiana culture ... and occasionally movies, books, sf, public radio, media and culture, travel, Macs, humor and amusements, reviews, news of the reality-based community, wry observations, complaints, the authors' lives and opinions, witty and/or smart-arsed comments and whatever else tickles the authors' fancy.
This weblog is part of The Gumbo Pages, by the way. It's big and unwieldy and full of all kinds of fun food, drink and New Orleans stuff. Check it out.
"Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans" is a 4-CD box set celebrating the joy and diversity of the New Orleans music scene, from R&B to jazz to funk to Latin to blues to zydeco to klezmer (!) and more, including a full-size, 80-page book.
Produced, compiled and annotated by Chuck Taggart (hey, that's me!), liner notes by Mary Herczog (author of Frommer's New Orleans) and myself. Click here to read more about it!