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Spirited Dinner at Feast, Drinks by Jackson Cannon

[NOTE: This is a preview post highlighting an upcoming “Spirited Dinner”at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, taking place July 21, and is is crossposted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

You know what the worst thing about Tales of the Cocktail is?

Well, other than oppressive heat in New Orleans in July (solution — stay inside and drink!), forgetting to avail yourself of the spit bucket while tasting spirits all day long (ooh, learned that one the hard way) or having two fantastic seminars taking place at the same time and having to decide which one to miss?

It is having TWENTY-FIVE fantastic dinners with amazing mixologists pairing cocktails with amazing chefs’ dishes happening simultaneously, and having to pick ONE. That would be the Spirited Dinner series, in all its glory and intense frustration.

Pick just one from all of these?! Excuse me while I go stand in the corner and tear my hair out.

Many of these dinners look so good that I’m beginning to wonder if the only way to decide is to spin a big wheel, roll dice or perform a series of coin flips. Or … maybe you just need a little nudge in the right direction.

One of the most tantalizing looking menus offered this year is from one what is perhaps the most unique restaurant in New Orleans — Feast. It’s a newcomer to the city, having only just opened in 2010. In fact, the original Houston location only opened in 2008, resulting in immediate accolades and James Beard Award nominations. Chefs Richard Knight and James Silk are from England, and own the restaurant with Silk’s wife Meagan. Their approach is “rustic European fare,” concentrating on beloved and comforting dishes they grew up with in England. The chefs are also strong advocates of “nose-to-tail” cooking, using all parts of the animal (and introducing adventurous New Orleanians to the joys of offal). They round out their menu with historic English dishes and other dishes and influences from around Europe, all bound together by one thing — flavor. Their concentration on only the finest ingredients, locally grown, and only animals from small farms and never from factory or industrial farm sources combined with the fact that they’re really great cooks brings us superlatively delicious food.

They were so taken by New Orleans that James and Meagan moved to the city to open another branch of Feast, and all of them commute back and forth between the two restaurants. I think Feast is a terrific addition to the food culture of New Orleans

Here are a few examples of a recent meal I had at their Houston location back in February:

Welsh Rarebit at Feast, Houston

Welsh Rarebit, Feast-style. This isn’t your toasted white bread with beery cheese sauce poured on top. The bread was thick, rustic, hand-cut and grilled. The “sauce” was more like a thick paste of cheese and ale and spices, robust and tangy. It was unexpected, and delicious.

Duck Livers in Beef Broth with Mint and Fresh Vegetables at Feast

Duck Livers in Beef Broth with Mint and Fresh Vegetables
, which seems simple enough but offered many layers of flavor. The deep, rich flavor of the livers, the broad beefiness of the broth, crisp-tender vegetables is sort of a large-dice mirepoix and the brightness of the fresh mint and parsley … wow. That’s some soup.

Braised Pork Cheek Pie with Red Chard at Feast

Braised Pork Cheek Pie with Red Chard “Bubble & Squeak.” Oh my. Put any animal’s cheek on a plate and I’ll probably eat it — it’s such a profoundly rich and tender cut of meat, full of flavor.

Blackberry-Pear Crumble with Vanilla Bean Crème Anglaise at Feast

Blackberry-Pear Crumble with Vanilla Bean Crème Anglaise — again, simple but deeply satisfying comfort food, made with perfectly ripe and great quality fruit. And just look at all those vanilla bean specks in the crème anglaise.

You’re not getting any of this at the Spirited Dinner, though, sorry. What you are getting is a true pan-European feast, hopping around the continent and settling down in the comfort of the chefs’ native England. The astounding looking cocktail pairings come from the talented Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard in Boston, who appears to be outdoing himself this time.


Chilled Almond Soup with Grapes (Spain)
Aperitivo Verano – Soberano brandy, fresh muddled raspberry, Verveine du Velay, Champagne


Scallops St. Jacques: Scallops with a Mushroom Brandy Cream Sauce (France)
Belle Normandie – Breuil Calvados, Granier de Mon pastis, Jackson’s vermouth rouge


Parsley and Pancetta Salad with Grapefruit and Parmesan (Italy)
L’alto Stalone – No. 3 gin, Luxardo maraschino, fresh squeezed grapefruit, Amaro Abano float


Braised Pork Cheeks with Garlic Rutabaga and Kale (England)
Storm Port Old Fashioned – English Harbor 5 year rum, Curaçao de Curaçao, Luxardo Fernet, orange oil


English Bread and Butter Pudding (England)
Flip Royal – King’s Ginger, rooibos tea infusion, whole egg, charged water, shaved spices

They’ve hit four of my favorite countries to eat in Europe. (Yes, four — I had nothing but magnificent food and beer in England last year. Can we finally put to death this lingering myth of English food being bad? There are bad cooks everywhere, even in Paris and New Orleans, and well-cooked English food is, as you can see, terrific.)

The soup looks wonderful, as does its accompanying Champagne apéritif, spiked with the relatively rare (in this country) French liqueur Verveine du Velay, an herbal liqueur not unlike Chartreuse although less complex, made with 32 herbs and featuring the citrusy flavor of lemon verbena. Classic Coquilles St. Jacques paired with an apple brandy cocktail scented with anise and what looks to be a housemade sweet vermouth (wow). Chef James starts ramping up the porkiness in the salad course — making him a perfect new New Orleanian, putting pork on your salad — with a gin cocktail that seems to pair beautifully with this salad in a way that could be rather difficult for a wine pairing.

Then … hooray! Our beloved pork cheeks! See, I lied — you are getting pork cheeks. Having had their pork cheeks, I can guarantee this will knock your socks off. The Old Fashioned that Jackson’s serving with it looks perfect, and I want to run home and try to make one right now. Finishing with English bread and butter pudding is just the right touch — it’s the chefs’ own native version of bread pudding, and New Orleanians love bread pudding. This’ll be a different spin on our local version that I suspect will fit in with the Creole versions quite nicely, and if we’re going to have a rich, eggy dessert why not have a rich, eggy cocktail to go along with it?

From my experiences at Feast, I can tell you that this is looking to be one of the more legendary Spirited Dinners ever. I hope this has made your decision easier, so if you’re sufficiently tempted, go for it! The price is $80, a bargain. For reservations please call Feast at (504) 304-6318, but hurry before all the remaining seats are gone!


Rebuild, renew! That’s what people do.

One of the highlights of our trip home for Jazzfest a couple of months ago was seeing the stage debut of the work-in-progress musical by Colman DeKay & Paul Sanchez, “Nine Lives,” based on Dan Baum’s fantastic book. The goal is to take it to Broadway, and while it’s not a fully-realized musical yet (no book or staging), it was staged for the first time on Wednesday, May 9 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in the French Quarter, and it was fantastic.

Here’s a look at the finale of the show, “Rebuild Renew.”

Now go buy the CD!


A change was made uptown, and The Big Man left the band …

RIP Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011.

The Big Man and The Boss

“Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.” — Bruce Springsteen

I’m very sad tonight, and listening to the E Street Band.

Thank you, Clarence, for being a big part of the greatest rock ‘n roll shows I’ve ever seen in my life.


By the pricking of my thumbs, something bitter this way comes …

It’s fun coming up with cocktail names. Then comes the hard part … coming up with the cocktail.

Most of the time the process is reversed, at least with most bartenders I know. The spirits and flavors form the initial idea, and the name comes afterward. Sometimes, though, you just come up with such a great drink name that you use that as your creative inspriation.

There was one such night several months back, drinking at The Varnish in Downtown L.A. My friend Aaron was with us and was on a roll, tossing out great drink names one after the other. Most of them I don’t remember, given that my memory tends to be a bit hazy with trivial details during periods of cocktail quaffing. I do, however, remember one very clearly.

My friend Zane Harris from Seattle was guest bartending that evening (that was the night he made me the Yellow With Envy cocktail), and one of the concoctions he served up was based on Averna amaro, with a touch of Fernet. It was fabulous, and I loved the idea of using two amari in the same cocktail. Hell, why not try a drink combining bitter elements the way tiki drinks combine rums? Certainly this has been done before, but I hadn’t done it before. Aaron immediately tossed off a perfect drink name — “Something Bitter This Way Comes.” Had he been reading my mind, coming across my lifelong love of the writing of Ray Bradbury, and the fact that Something Wicked This Way Comes has been one of my favorite novels since I was 13? Whether he was mindmelding or not, he nailed this one, and kindly gave me the name to use as I saw fit. (Fortunately I forgot all the other ones, at least one of which I challenged him to actually create.)

I wanted a rye base for this for spice and backbone, and definitely Fernet although not so much that it would dominate. For the primary amaro I chose Amaro CioCiaro — bracingly bitter and herbal but bright and citrusy enough to be refreshing, and sweeter than you might imagine once you’ve had a few sips. What would I use to bind these together, though?

I tried almost everything, or so it seemed; I went through many many incarnations of this one before I was satisfied. Previous versions included maraschino (too sweet) and Aperol (getting there, but no). Cocchi Aperitivo Americano seemed just the thing to ameliorate the sweetness inherent in the amari while adding a bitter element of its own. I tried overproof ryes to attempt to stand up to the amaro combinations but it wasn’t necessary — a 90ish proof rye (Bulleit or Redemption or Sazerac 6) seems to work the best.

And then … I put it aside for a while. Procrastinated. Time passed. Wesly made the amazing Golden Dahlia. The following weekend I thought it might finally be time to run this post, so I’d make the drink again and take some pics … and then I had another thought.

We had just gotten our first bottle of another Cocchi product, the Vermouth di Torino, a fantastic red vermouth from Turin, Italy that’s brand-new to the States. I love it. I decided to give the drink one more incarnation, to let the cocoa and bitter notes of this vermouth work with the other amari and see what happens.

What happened was that the bell rang. This one was it.

That cocoa aspect of the Cocchi di Torino hooked in perfectly with the orangey notes of the CioCiaro, while contributing a bit of citrus of its own along with a great breadth of complexity (in fact, you should be drinking Cocchi Vermouth di Torino by itself as much as possible, and don’t ever let it go bad in your fridge).

The final touch (learned from friends and mentors Kirk Estopinal and Maks Pazuniak after several rounds of drinking at Cure in New Orleans) was a tiny pinch of kosher salt. This helped rein in the bitterness to make it more pleasant and less of an attack on the palate, and helped cut down a bit on the sweetness too. Remember, amari are liqueurs and contain a fair amount of sugar.

Funny thing is … it’s actually not all that bitter, and comes in squarely in the Manhattan variation category. That may not have been what I was initially going for, but it’s what evolved. Who am I to question it? Also, I’m tired of working on it. It’s a mighty tasty drink, but does it live up to the name? That may well be up to you.


1-1/2 ounces rye whiskey.
1 ounce Amaro CioCiaro.
1/2 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.
1/4 ounce Fernet-Branca.
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters.
Tiny pinch of kosher salt.

Combine ingredients with cracked ice in a mixing glass. Stir for at least 30 seconds until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel after expressing the orange oil onto the drink.

If you can’t find the Vermouth di Torino near you, Cocchi Aperitivo Americano still works well. Barring either of those, I’d say go for Punt E Mes.

Gaah, I might work on it again. Campari or Luxardo Bitter instead of Cocchi Vermouth? *tear hair out*


Consider the Negroni … the perfect cocktail?

[NOTE: This is a preview post highlighting an upcoming seminar at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, taking place July 20-24, and is is crossposted from the original post at Talesblog.com. It fits in rather well with my Negroni variation series posted here, here, here and here.]

Do you remember your first Negroni?

The Negroni

Photo by Jeremy Brooks, licensed via Creative Commons

I do. It was way back in the early days of my cocktail journey, when I was a mere cocktail toddler. One of the many silly things I thought I “knew” then was that I hated Campari, the frighteningly red (colored with bugs, eww!) and bitter (gaah!) potion that I had heard Italians drank with soda. I tried a Campari and soda at the time and … it didn’t speak to me. (That was primarily because I wasn’t listening, and my palate still had some maturing to do.) Then someone made me a Negroni. I was hesitant — I don’t like Campari! — but I was assured, “You’re going to like this a lot more than Campari and soda. Trust me.” I don’t even remember who the bartender was, but I owe him my thanks. The Negroni is one of my very favorite cocktails, and we go through so much Campari at home now that I ought to start buying it by the case. I’m even enjoying cocktails (nay, especially enjoying cocktails) in which Campari is actually the base spirit.

It’s such a marvelous combination of ingredients — the bracing bite of the Campari, the aromatic and spiritous backbone of the gin, the sweetness and spice of the vermouth — that it lends itself to lots of tinkering. Some bartenders have made them with genever instead of gindifferent styles of gin and bitters, or even a powerfully funky rum, and I’ve become a huge fan of its Bourbon-bearing cousin. As much as I enjoy those drinks, we keep going back to the original time after time. Before dinner, a Negroni just hits the spot, and is one of our primary preprandial quaffs.

If you share a similar love and fascination with the Negroni, Paul Clarke has a seminar for you. He’ll be moderating “The Negroni: An Iconic Cocktail” at Tales of the Cocktail next month, and this is one you’re not going to want to mix. I asked Paul why a whole seminar about this cocktail, and what tantalizing tidbits he could share with us with five weeks left to go.

“In thinking about this session, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is the Negroni an excellent cocktail — it’s perhaps the PERFECT cocktail,” he said. “It balances potency, sweetness and bitterness with an elaborate flavor that can be consistently engaging and always open to interpretation and inspiring creativity.” Indeed — see the interpretations and inspirations above!

Paul will be joined by some distinguished panelists as well. “One of my panelists is Livio Lauro, a bartender originally from Florence who is now head of U.S. Bartenders Guild in Las Vegas, and who just completed a translation of Luca Picchi’s book about Count Negroni and the development of the Negroni cocktail; the history and background of the drink is his department. I will be talking about the cultural context of the Negroni and how it’s a ‘bridge-the-gap’ drink between not only the 19th century simplicity drinks and the turn-of-the-century vermouth/bitter drinks, but also between the European aperitif tradition and the American cocktail tradition. My other panelist, Jacques Bezuidenhout, is of course a San Francisco-based bartender and consultant and a bonafide Negroni fiend; he’s going to talk a bit about the Negroni’s enduring legacy, and how it’s a foundation drink for so much creativity and inspiration behind the bar.”

I tried to pry a bit more from Paul about what we’ll actually be tasting during the seminar, but that proved to be a bit more difficult. “We’re going to be serving a few variations on the Negroni theme, all using identical ingredients and proportions, with minor tweaks to demonstrate how what’s basically the same drink can appeal in several different guises. I’ll keep the precise details close to the chest, but expect a couple of interesting takes on the Negroni — including one that most people have never before tried, and that for the first time is available for a large audience.” I have a suspicion as to what the latter reference refers, but I’ll keep that close to the chest as well. If I’m right, you’re in for a major treat.

Paul, Livio and Jacques will be presenting “The Negroni: An Iconic Cocktail” on Thursday, July 21 at 12:30pm. Buy your tickets now before this one sells out.