Tales of the Cocktail: Colonial-Era Cocktails

[This is a repost from the original post on Talesblog.com.]


Fire, red-hot metal, smoke and sizzle — now that’s my kind of seminar! (More in a bit.)

And oh, the punch! We do love our punch, and punch is undergoing quite the revival these days, now that we remember how to do it properly. Punch lost its cachet for a while, thanks to an image of frumpy old ladies with porcelain cups, followed by the frat boys’ version of cheap booze dumped into a garbage can, and that bizarrely violent “Hawaiian punch” guy certainly didn’t help.  Punch is back though, from its 17th and 18th Century origins, but what about the other drinks of the era? How about recreating that style?


“Nobody looks good in breeches, stockings, a frock coat and a three-cornered hat,” said our presenter Wayne Curtis. “Really, who ever thought that looked good? Nowadays it’s a great way to get beaten up in a bar.”

Punch is indeed back, and we’re learning and enjoying the basic flavor profile of punch — “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak, plus spice” — but why aren’t we seeing more colonial-era drinks returning to our modern drinking? Well, it could be that colonial-era flavor profile — “sweet, sweet, sweet and sweet,” as Wayne put it. The drinks were also sweetened in ways we might find a bit unusual today. People at the time didn’t have a lot of access to white refined sugar and used what they had on hand — honey and molasses, but also apple juice, maple sap, dark hard cones of loaf sugar and even dried pumpkin, called for in many recipes of the era due to its native sugar content. We might not want to drink exactly what they drank in those days, but we can certainly modernize them and use elements from them to more suit contemporary palates.

They drank a wide variety of booze back then too. A Swedish traveler and writer named Israel Acrelius kept a meticulous list of every spiritous potable he came across in the colonies at the time:


That’s quite a bar crawl, although we might not necessarily like it all.

Wayne took us through some really tasty modern versions of what our forefathers drank 200+ years ago, starting with a lovely Pineapple Syllabub, which I can see myself having for breakfast in the morning:


It’s a fairly gentle morning drink a hybrid imported from abroad along with New World materials at hand.  It’s an incredibly old style of drink as well, dating back to the 15th century.  Wayne read us an early recipe: “To one bottle of red or white wine, ale or cider, sweeten and grate in nutmeg. Hold under a cow and milk it until a fine froth is on top.”

Well, we had a hard time getting the cow up in the elevator, so our modern version was made with pineapple-infused Cruzan rum, cream, and lemon zest. Yum.

I’ve enjoyed  modern versions of the Stone Fence, but this one was a bit more like the so-named drink of old. The colonials basically drank it as a spirits-fortified apple cider; today’s version was made with Cruzan blackstrap rum, St. Elizabeth’s allspice dram for a bit of spicy complexity, Woodpecker hard cider, and a bit of vinegar for acidity. (Vinegar was a common souring agent used in lieu of citrus, which was unavailable to colonial folks most of the year.)


Spruce sap/resin was very popular in 19th century — spruce gum was one of the more popular chews of the time, with a flavor so long-lasting that a writer of the era said you could chew it half the day, then pass it on to a friend and let him chew it for a while. (Ahem. Very glad I live in the 21st Century.) 

Calibogus was a typical spruce-based drink of the era, which at the time was a spruce beer fortified with rum. Today’s version was made with Cruzan single barrel rum, fresh lime juice (not a typical historic ingredient), Layman’s spruce beer extract, Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur for a little bit more of that flavor of the forest, plus a bit of molasses syrup & soda.  Delicious and (to our contemporary palates) pretty unusual.

Aha! But! What about the fire and glowing iron?

About an hour into the seminar we were ready.  Wayne had a reproduction of an 18th century loggerhead made — an iron implement about three feet long, with a small hook on one end and a ball on the end somewhere between a tennis ball and golf ball in size.  Someone apparently had the grand idea that this should be moved into the bar to heat up drinks. (Well, why not? Go figure.)

What Wayne had been saving for us was a Colonial-era Flip, which bears pretty much zero resemblance to what we think of as a flip today (a drink shaken with spirits and a whole egg). Flips in the 1700s were brown ale, rhum and molasses, heated up by plunging a hot loggerhead into the pitcher.  It wasn’t just a way to heat it up quickly, though — the red-hot loggerhead had some other amazing effects on the mixture.  It almost immediately builds up a huge, frothy head, burns the grains, hops and the barley of the ale, caramelizes the molasses and really blends the flavors and changes the taste profile in a way you wouldn’t get by just heating it up on the stove. (Martin Cate once tried using a charcoal starter, and that really didn’t work.)

Here’s how it’s done (tri-cornered hat optional):


Wayne prepared the drink by pouring two bottles of dark ale (Bass Newcastle, in this case), 4 ounces of molasses and 8 ounces Cruzan aged rum. Then … the plunge!


Man … that was good. The sharp tang of the molasses that bothers some people was really nicely tempered, making a deep, rich flavor with developed sweetness from the caramelization.  I could really get used to this drink. Unfortunately, living in either New Orleans or Los Angeles a piping hot drink isn’t going to be terribly appropriate most times of the year … but hell, I’ll enjoy it during the two weeks that it’s actually cold.

Of course, during the question and answer session I was curious as to whether there was any direct evolution from this style of colonial flip with the drink to which we now refer as a flip, spirits shaken with whole egg. “You sir,” Wayne replied, “have just destroyed three days of my life!” Actually, the serious answer was … who knows? The only relation, it seems, is the name, and sometime in the mid-1800s the name was appropriated for the egg-bearing drink. Ah well, the reality might be unsatisfying but it’s good to know.  I’ll do whatever I can to get Wayne those three days back.

And man, that flip was good.


Tales of the Cocktail: Setting up your in-house soda program

[This is cross-posted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

“The entire soda market is dominated by one or two huge corporations,” said Darcy O’Neil during today’s soda program seminar. “I think it would be great if we could get more sodas created by bartenders in our bars,” said his co-presenter Andrew Nicholls.

Absolutely right.

Don’t buy little bottles, don’t use the hose guns … control what you do and keep the quality high by making your own soda and using soda chargers. This is handy for your home use as well as instituting a professional soda program in a bar or restaurant, which was the focus of Andrew and Darcy’s fascinating seminar today — we learned a lot, including a pile of chemistry.

The two main things to remember when making soda — CHILL YOUR WATER and BOIL YOUR WATER. Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? There are solid reasons for it though, right out of chemistry. Warm or room-temperature doesn’t carbonate well at all, you may have noticed; if you put tepid water in your soda siphon and charge it, all that carbon dioxide will just whoosh right out, leaving your water rather flat. The solubility of CO2 in water increases dramatically the lower the water temperature is — the closest to freezing point the better.

But boiling it? Why would we do that? Because dissolved air in water takes up four times the room that carbon dioxide would — make more room in the water and more CO2 will have room to remain behind and create sparkle. Bring your water to a boil, fill your soda siphon (preferably a metal one), let it cool and stick it in the fridge for at least 24 hours, preferably 48. Your water will sparkle beautifully and retain that sparkle.

Don’t over-pressurize your water, but using two chargers in a standard one-quart or one-liter siphon would create the ideal pressure for more robust carbonation. That tingle on your tongue works physiologically on multiple levels, bringing aroma up the back of your throat and into your olfactory system, plus that tingle on your tongue can get quite addictive, not unlike how folks get addicted to very spicy food. Endorphins being released in your brain is a very good thing.

The growing trend is for bars to ditch their horrid soda guns and start making their own soda, tonic waters etc. in-house, but it can go far beyond that. For instance, in old cocktail books we see fizzy drinks calling for Apollinaris water, a particular mineral water which added a lot of character to the drink as well as fizz. Who knew that you can make your own Apollonaris water by adding 23g sodium bicarbonate, 11.5g sodium sulphate, 8.8g sodium chloride, 7.6g magnesium carbonate and 1g calcium carbonate to 5 gallons of water and carbonating it?

We were reminded in the seminar that mineral salts found in mineral waters enhance flavor, which is why mineral waters work so well with food, and carbonated ones even more so, as the carbon dioxide enhances flavor as well, as do the bubbles which bring the aroma up to your nose, both outside and up the back of your throat. This is why people have enjoyed soda for so many years, and why flat soda is singularly unappealing.

Our cocktail example was delicious and instructive on multiple levels, with a house-made syrup added to cream, egg and fizzy mineral water to create an amazing, multi-layered flavor.

(featured in Fix the Pumps, by Darcy O’Neil)

2 ounces zozia syrup
1/2 ounce heavy cream
1 whole egg
Soda water

Prepare as a standard egg fizz — vigorously shake first three ingredients, strain into a tall ice-filled glass and top with soda water.

Zozia Syrup
3/4 tsp lemon essence
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
15 drops Angostura bitters
15 drops absinthe essence (Herbsaint was added to taste in this version)
3/4 tsp citric acid solution
1 qt simple syrup (or gum syrup, preferably)
Caramel coloring (sufficient)

The chemistry was fascinating here, as the vanilla worked well with the abisnthe flavors, and the lemon essence provided wonderful aroma but very little flavor until the acid was added in the form of citric acid (or acid phosphate in similar syrup and cocktail formulae), and then the flavor just popped right out.

Andrew went on to discuss working with taste, texture, flavor and aroma in conjunction with mineral salts in soda water to create unique flavors, and this could have gone on all weekend. Tying in with Darcy’s excellent book on the history of the soda fountain, Fix the Pumps, and his forthcoming seminar with David Wondrich on the oft-crossed line between bartender and soda jerk, all this shows us what wide-ranging opportunities we have to improve the drinking experience in our bars by taking control of soda and integrating it thoroughly into cocktail programs.


So where y’all wanna eat? (This one goes to eleven!)

[This is crossposted from Talesblog.com — my annual post about where to enjoy fine food and drink while at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.]

“Oh yeah, we’re going to New Orleans for Tales this year! I hear the food’s good!” (Well … yeah.)

I thought it only proper to continue the four-year series of posts I’ve been writing about places to eat and drink in my hometown as you descend upon it for Tales, but first a few logistical notes …

In case you haven’t noticed the weather forecast, scattered thunderstorms began in New Orleans last week and are expected to continue through the beginning of Tales. I’ve seen forecasts that show daily thunderstorms the entire week, but the local forecast on nola.com shows good weather Thursday through Sunday. As one always does when one comes to New Orleans, though, bring your umbrella and don’t lose it, ’cause you’re likely to need it.

Also there’s apparently still some construction going on around the Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel, drinking central for many folks staying in the hotel for Tales. Not to worry, the Carousel Bar itself is open but as of this weekend the piano bar behind it was not, as it’s under construction; it’s being joined with part of the restaurant space behind it to create a larger bar space. They’ll be opening up windows on the street-side of the new space, which will be terrific. According to Diana Schwam of Frommers.com, one of our esteemed local advisers, apparently there were windows when the building was first built, which makes sense; now they are going through 3-foot walls to re-use them. I love the reclamation of history! The plan was for the project to be finished before Tales, so we’ll see what happens by Wednesday.

Now, eating and drinking! First of all, my previous advice stands. If you’re a newbie to Tales or a veteran who needs a refresher course, check out my posts from 2010, 2009 and 2008. All the advice in the previous post from Steve and Paul is good too. (And may I add … Cochon, Cochon, Cochon! Do it!) Shall I tempt you a bit more? Here are a few scenes from my most recent meal at Cochon, a couple of months ago:

Some crispy-fried pork belly, perhaps?

Fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly? (They also do the dish with chicken livers.)

Braised pork cheeks with fava beans and spoonbread? Yeah, like they said, get thee to Cochon.

Don’t forget Cochon Butcher next door for quick, casual dining or grabbing a magnificently porky or other meaty sandwich to go. You also might want to grab some charcuterie to bring home with you if your trip isn’t too long.

My foremost new recommendation this year is one of the newer spots in the Quarter, one we’d heard a lot about and checked out during Jazzfest this year — Sylvain, at 625 Chartres St., about a seven minute walk from the Monteleone. Sylvain is housed in a historic building, a 3-story carriage house built by Don Andres Almonaster y Roxas when the province of Luisiana was held by Spain, and you get a feel of that history when you walk in. The gorgeously appointed room is dominated by a beautiful copper-surfaced bar, behind which are an array of spirits and a cocktail list (with influences from Death & Co. in New York) that will make you very happy indeed. I’m not sure how often they change their coctkail menu, but on our last visit in late April we enjoyed a Dutch Afro (a Negroni variation with Bols Genever, Aperol, Carpano, Regans’ orange bitters), a Final Word (a Bulleit rye, fresh lemon, Luxardo Maraschino, green Chartreuse), a lovely Maker’s 46 Manhattan, and a Death Co. import called the Pressure Drop (Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Amaro Meletti, Dolin Dry Vermouth, pear eau de vie, Angostura bitters). Happiness ensued. Murf Reeves, the head bartender, is very dedicated to the craft of spirits and cocktail and will undoubtely be happy to see you. (Incidentally, you can also catch Murf on the air, hosting the New Orleans Music Show every Monday morning from 11am to 2pm Central Time on WWOZ, locally at 90.7 FM and on the web at wwoz.org.)

The chicken liver crostini were insanely good, as were the pan-fried pork shoulder, the roasted pork po-boy (oh my), pappardelle Bolognese (fresh house-made pasta, of course) and braised beef cheeks (tender as all get out and profoundly beefy). The Sylvain Burger is also outstanding if you’ve got a craving for a big, sloppy, perfectly medium-rare burger (and I often do). A new and tasty-looking sandwich addition is the “Chick-Syl-Vain,” a buttermilk-fried chicken breast with house-made pickles which I suspect will beat the hell out of what you’d get at that chain that’s closed on Sundays.

All this plus supremely friendly staff, great atmosphere, beautiful courtyard and a live-in ghost. As is the case with many French Quarter buildings, they say that 625 Chartres is haunted … well, maybe. The supposed spectral resident is Aunt Rose, a madam who ran a brothel in the early part of the 20th Century and who once owned and lived in the building. By the account I heard she’s quite benevolent, however, and the staff take good care of her — every night a fresh Sazerac is made for her and left as an offering on a high shelf behind the bar (which is awesome). It seems to get consumed every night, but by whom? The actual ghost of Aunt Rose? A sneaky bartender? Who can really say? If I were behind the stick there I’m not sure I’d steal a ghost’s cocktail, though, if I knew what was good for me. I do so love this place, and can’t wait to get back. Don’t miss Sylvain, and raise a toast to Aunt Rose while you’re there.

I want to emphasize last year’s recommendation for the marvelous Chef John Besh-owned Italian restaurant Domenica, in the Roosevelt Hotel. Just a quick walk from the Quarter into the CBD, I consider it to be the finest Italian restaurant in town; in fact, local food writer and critic Tom Fitzmorris notes that the average diner might not recognize 80% of the dishes on the menu if he or she hasn’t been to Italy. The menu is marvelous — every single morsel I’ve had here has been delicious, especially all the house-made salumi and other charcuterie. Chef Besh and executive chef Alon Shaya go all out in this department, raising their own pigs and dry-curing all the salumi and hams for the weeks and months needed for each variety. What I’d like to feature this time is the amazing pizza, easily the best in the city and perhaps the best I’ve ever had. They have a custom-made pizza oven, fired by both pecan wood and gas with a rotating platter inside for even cooking. My favorites are the Bolzano (roast pork shoulder, fennel, bacon and sweet onions), Prosciutto with bufala mozzarella, tomato and arugula, Gorgonzola with pecans and speck (like a smoked prosciutto) and Bacon with fontina cheese and yard egg. Best of all, pizza happy hour is every day from 3pm to 6pm — all pizzas, beers, well cocktails and wines by the glass are 50% off. A late afternoon or very early evening pizza that will beat all pizzas you’ve ever had? Yes, you should.

The Bolzano Pizza at Domenica

In all my visits home over the last several years I’m not sure how I managed to miss going to Bar Tonique … maybe it’s because I don’t know anyone who works there, and I had a tendency to visit my bartender friends at other places. This is a loss for me, and one I intend to remedy this week. As those of you who’ve imbibed there already know, they’re very serious about their cocktails; “[j]ust because you are at a neighborhood watering-hole doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a sub-par cocktail,” they say. This neighborhood is the edge of the Quarter heading toward the Tremé and directly across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, Bar Tonique have a very impressive cocktail program. Their lengthy menu of classics includes the venerable Widow’s Kiss (which I’ve never seen on any other bar’s menu), Last Word, Southside and Corpse Reviver No. 2, and several intriguing originals such as the locally-named St. Claude (Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Rum, lemon and maraschino) and the Bitter Harvest (Berhheim’s Wheat Whiskey, Averna, allspice dram and bitters). Walking distance from your hotel, so walk on over and have a drink or three. Meauxbar, which I covered year before last, would be a logical pre- or post-Tonique destination for food.

A new spot I’m eager to try is Patrick’s Bar Vin at 730 Bienville St. Those of you who are longtime New Orleans diners will remember the wonderful maitre d’ at The Bistro at Maison de Ville, Patrick van Hoorebeek. Everyone knew him as the consummate host, a man who knew his customers yet was able to quickly determine the needs of new customers and out-of-towners, a lover of wine with a deep knowledge of the subject, and the King of the Krewe of Cork, among other things. During the Bistro’s long closure and hiatus following Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood, Patrick moved around town a bit, at the now-closed Peristyle, the Rib Room and finally at Restaurant August. He’s finally settled down in his own place, which will of course feature a wide variety of wines as the star of the show. There’ll be a list of signature cocktails as well, most wine-based or featuring vermouths, aromatized wines or quinquinas, and chef Agnes Billet will be offering a menu of small plates “typical of traditional French wine bars and cafes: endive salad, French onion soup, charcuterie and cheese selections,” according to the Times-Picayune. The more time spent in Patrick’s company the better, so please do visit him, sample the plates, have a cocktail if you like … but you’ll make him happy if you take a bit of time out of this gigantic cocktail festival to enjoy a nice glass of wine.

If you’ve missed out on cabbing or taking the St. Charles Ave. streetcar down to the Riverbend to eat at the legendary Camellia Grill, you’re now in luck — they’ve just opened a new branch in the French Quarter at 540 Chartres St., right off the corner of Toulouse. It looks almost exactly like the Riverbend original, with the same menu and same old-school service. They open at 7am for breakfast (not that any of you will be up that early, unless you’ve been up all night) and best of all, they stay open late — 1am on weeknights, 3am on Friday and Saturday. Just what you need to soak up all that booze …

A Pecan Waffle with syrup and butter …

One of their famous omelettes that are about the size of a rolled-up newspaper (this one is my favorite since high school — a potato, onion and cheese omelette) …

Or a slice of chocolate pecan pie à la mode? You can actually do all three (if you have someone with a wheelbarrow to help you get out). There are myriad sandwiches on the menu as well, great burgers, daily specials including red beans ‘n rice on Mondays and more — like the chocolate freeze, don’t forget that.

Diana also told me about a new find of hers which I have yet to try — Somethin’ Else Café at 620 Conti Street. It’s not a must-do attraction — basic American breakfast & lunches, melets, burgers, salads, po-boys, etc. But it’s tasty and hearty and a convenient walk from the Monteleone, it seems to be well-regarded and they’re also open late — Sunday through Wednesday until 10pm, Thursday ’til 12 midnight and Friday-Saturday until 3am. We figure their killer big-ass biscuits with boudin balls and eggs (or pulled pork, or traditional gravy or various other things) would do well to soak up a bellyful of booze the night before or a hangover the morning after.

I know that many Talesgoers tend to stick around within walking distance of the hotels, within the Quarter and the Marigny, which makes a certain amount of sense — you’d really have to be irresponsibly crazy to rent a car while you’re attending a five-day drinking festival — and some people don’t want to deal with cabs. That’s okay, there’s certainly plenty to do within walking distance of Tales. Those who don’t mind hopping in a cab (affordable; the city’s not that big) will be rewarded handsomely, though. I know some of y’all are going to see the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar tonight — if you think you’ll get to the neighborhood early enough call the amazing Boucherie at (504) 862-5514, 8815 Jeannette St. about 4 blocks from the Maple Leaf. It’s a cozy, friendly restaurant, nestled in a former Uptown home and began its life as a purple food truck parking outside music venues like Tipitina’s before they found a more permanent home. They serve “contemporary Southern cuisine” with a Louisiana twist, and our last meal there was spectacular. Start off sharing some boudin balls (spicy Cajun pork and rice sausage, removed from the casing, rolled into balls, breaded and deep-fried) or hand-cut French fries with garlic butter and topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or …

Steamed Mussels with Collard Greens and Grits Crackers (this one’s more like a French dish with a Southern twist) …

Blackened Shrimp on Grits Cake with Warm House-Made Bacon Vinaigrette … oh my.

Pulled Pork Cake with Potato Confit and Purple Cabbage Cole Slaw, which was rich and porky and balanced with the crispy, vinegary slaw. The dish you’ll be served will be in focus too, unlike my lousy photograph which was taken after a fair number of cocktails and glasses of wine.

There’s also a fantastic scallop preparation which changes constantly; I remember at least one person at our table saying that it was the best scallops they’d ever had, perfectly seared on the outside and perfectly cooked inside. The current menu lists the preparation as Applewood Smoked Scallops with a Low Country Red Risotto, Pickled Green Tomatoes and Cucumbers; the one shown below that we had had a spicy aïoli and was atop corn flapjacks.

Enjoy Boucherie if you can, and your continued business will greatly help the restaurant and its chef/owner Nathaniel Zimet, who was shot and seriously wounded in an attempted robbery about two months ago. He’s recovering well and his crew is doing a great job keeping the restaurant going but he’s got a lot of medical bills to pay, so go eat his food!

For more casual dining there are two new spots open in the neighborhood — Cowbell and TruBurger, the latter being a brand-new venture by Chef Aaron Burgau of the well-known local restaurant Patois. TruBurger is a burger joint as its name implies, although Cowbell’s menu is a bit more varied with items such as grilled fish tacos and lime grilled chicken. Both are casual, and according to Diana well worth a try and ideal for your pre-Rebirthing.

I’m sure many of you will be cabbing it up to the Freret neighborhood for a visit to Cure, the cocktail nerd and craft bartender’s local nirvana. Cure has pretty much singlehandedly sparked a rebirth of that neighborhood, and many more establishments are popping up all the time. Cure has a terrific small plates menu to enjoy with your drinks, but there are several other walking-distance options: Ancora Pizzeria & Salumeria at 4508 Freret for authentic Neopolitan pizza (with the gorgeous imported oven to prove it), and from what I’ve heard really terrific salumi. Next door is High Hat Café, offering home-cooked New Orleans and Southern-style food (think catfish, pork chops, and specials like crawfish étouffée or chicken-fried steak), very much a neighborhood joint but with high-quality food. The chef-owner’s resumé is mostly in fine dining, and has worked in kitchens in Manhattan and Memphis. Chef Adolfo Garcia of Rio Mar, a Mano and La Boca is partner in both Ancora and High Hat, an additional assurance of great food.

That, plus three other years’ worth of posts ought to keep you busy. Remember, bring loose pants when you dine in New Orleans, take your time (you should be built for comfort, not for speed) and just don’t bother getting on the scale when you get home. Those extra pounds are, as a wise man once said, a small price to pay for such pleasure.

The unexpected brilliance of “Teen Wolf”

I watch a lot of TV. I freely admit that some of it is crap. I also see a lot of horror films, and I likewise freely admit that some of them are crap. While a stylish, classy horror film is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, the simple truth is that I also really enjoy a good schlockfest. There’s nothing like “Deadly Friend”, “Chopping Mall” or “Cellar Dweller” to while away an evening. Oh, and let us not forget “I, Madman” (which, poor thing, doesn’t even warrant its own Wikipedia entry). I will defend the good stuff, but I’m not ashamed to own the crap.

Horror on TV, though, has been (no pun intended, but take one if you like) a bit of a crapshoot, especially of late. I’m thinking of anthology series like Showtime’s “Masters of Horror”, which started off well but deteriorated quickly after the first season. Or NBC’s “Fear Itself”, interesting but thuddingly mediocre overall, with one stunning exception: a twisted zombie story called “New Year’s Day”. Has it really been so long since “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and “Night Gallery”? I guess it has.

So, although I was dubious at first—highly so, in fact—now I find myself wondering if I’m the only person on the planet who thinks that MTV’s reboot series “Teen Wolf” isn’t that bad? That maybe, just maybe, it’s actually pretty good? That it is, in fact, kind of…weirdly…brilliant? The other night—I think it was after watching episode four—I turned to Chuck and said as much, and he didn’t actually disagree. Thus justified, or at least emboldened, I’ve been thinking about the reasons why. I waited until after episode five to formulate my conclusions, just to make sure I wasn’t making any snap judgments. Things can always change, of course, but so far what I’ve seen has been pretty consistent, so I feel safe or at least comfortable in my analysis, such as it is.

Taking horror seriously is a good idea.

Funny horror, if not perfectly executed, rings false and grows tiring. I’m not arguing that this is a rule with few exceptions so much that the balance here is difficult, even almost impossible to strike. The sheer, unadulterated genius of “Beetlejuice” springs instantly to mind; I watched it again recently with my friend LeeAnn (who had never seen it! O, the shame!), and it still works—gloriously. (“I myself am…strange and unusual.”) But it is, make no mistake, a rarity. For every “Beetlejuice,” there’s a…well…a “Teen Wolf”.  Or fifty.  In a fairly radical break from its in-name-only forebear, MTV’s “Teen Wolf” (hereinafter referred to as MTVTW), takes the horror seriously—hell, there’s a horribly mutilated victim in the very first episode—and in my opinion is the better for it.

Thankfully, it isn’t too serious, Sturm und Drang serious, so serious as to lose all life and perspective. (I’m thinking of Spike’s “Blade” series, notable for being the only time any Spike programming has landed on our DVR (please don’t judge me). I liked the movies to varying degrees—“Blade” is great, “Blade II” is absolutely freaking brilliant, and “Blade: Trinity” …um…has a great title and co-stars Ryan Reynolds.  I liked a lot about the series, too, but overall it was far too serious for its own good, and in the end nobody cared.  No, MTVTW knows how to bring the humor. On the one hand, I shudder to think about the story meeting where somebody proposed the idea of a “comic sidekick”; on the other hand, I hope that writer is still on the show. Because the result is Dylan O’Brien’s appealingly portrayed best-buddy-to-the-hero, Stiles. We learned in episode five that Stiles isn’t actually his name—he just prefers Stiles to his apparently embarrassing yet still undisclosed first name. The non-reveal reveal of that moment made me laugh out loud. This is the kind of quiet comedy that orbits Stiles, zipping and crashing around like an asteroid belt. You never know when funny sparks are going to fly.

Tweak the mythology.

Everybody knows the basic story: boy meets dog, dog bites boy, boy turns into dog. This story has been told for centuries, from story-legends passed on verbally around crackling campires to CGI extravaganzas intended to hook the new generation (and spawn a movie franchise…or, you know, not). This story, like any other, has changed over the years of its telling; after all, storytellers embellish. Why not, if it makes things more interesting? Now, when I talk about “tweaking the mythology” I’m not talking about angsty, dewy-eyed, sparkly boy-toy vampires. (Nope, no link.  You know what I’m talking about.)  I am at least hoping for something far more interesting. I’m talking about the kind of enhancements that (speaking of vampires) make the ongoing storylines of CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” so much more intriguing and enjoyable than you’d think they have any right to be. (Rings that let vampires walk in daylight? Where did they get them? Who all has them? I must know more! TVD, from whose playbook MTVTW seems to have borrowed a judicious idea or two, is another show that gets a lot of things right.) Here, the main tweak is still being fleshed out, but it has something to do with different types of werewolves: run-of-the-mill pack wolves vs. some kind of super “alpha” wolf.

It seems clear that there’s more than one method to the madness. One smart outcome here is that our recently bitten title character (Scott McCall, played by Tyler Posey), who now turns into a fairly standard-issue werewolf, is actually a hero we can root for, not a tragic figure or anti-hero. Win the big game! Kiss the girl! Don’t get found out! It’s a familiar model, but in an unexpected setting. Beacon Hills is Smallville, Tyler’s Scott McCall is Clark Kent, the wolf is the hero…really, it’s not too big a stretch. And it’s a good idea. It also allows for fairly minor rather than elaborate makeup (or expensive CGI) on the title character (along with occasional glowing yellow eyes, just for emphasis), which keeps him recognizable and accessible. But make no mistake—there’s still another Bad Wolf, and at least one whose allegiances are in flux. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s also interesting.

People like to look at pretty people.

It’s true. We do. That’s why movie stars and models are all beautiful. (Well, those strange American Apparel ad campaigns aside. They’re like the anti-Abercrombie & Fitch.) This is not exactly new news—any number of CW shows get this much right, if nothing more, but that alone doesn’t make them watchable.  Believe it or not, the trick is to make sure the pretty people are window dressing, not the main attraction. For your consideration, MTVTW offers (in no particular order):

  • Model-turned-actor Colton Haynes, not the best actor in the world but still model-pretty and fairly passable as an extraordinarily frustrated jock confused by a high school dynamic that’s even stranger than the norm.
  • Smokin’ hot Tyler Hoechlin, all grown (and buffed) up since traveling the Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks, and rocking a triskelion-ish tattoo across his shoulder blades, no doubt just for the exotic mystery.
  • Crystal Reed and Holland Roden, lovely ladies indeed, all dewy eyes, shining hair and warm voices. There’s also Jill Wagner as tough-as-nails Kate Argent (get it?), a wolf hunter who will no doubt bring tension, angst and conflict to Our Hero and his Trusty Sidekick.
  • Speaking of which—Dylan O’Brien, geeky but not too much so and terrifically appealing. The perfect sidekick; he’s funny, devoted and—perhaps most importantly—completely non-threatening. There’s no subtext in this relationship, none at all.
  • Pocket-sized yet impressively fit Tyler Posey, who’s more cuddly wolf-pup than slavering beast. It’s surely no coincidence that he has shaggy hair and big, brown puppy-dog eyes that are noticed (and commented on) not just by the viewing audience but by other characters…the better to go with his occasional wolfy sideburns, my dear!

Truly, there’s nothing that works like knowing your target audience.

Make your young actors not too old.

There’s a fairly common problem with TV shows set in high school: the actors are usually too old to pass as teenagers, if not at first then certainly over time. Yes, “BH 90210” and “Glee” , I’m looking at you. What adults do watch these shows may not notice or care, but actual teenagers will know the difference. Of course, like any others the actors on MTVTW will age, noticeably so if the series runs for more than a couple of years, but for now at least they aren’t too old—Tyler Posey is actually still a teenager (he’s 19, at least for a few more months), and Dylan O’Brien is only a couple of months older. It’s nothing like poor 28-year-old (and, eventually, 38) Gabrielle Carteris trying to pass for 17 or so. Oh dear. And, much as I like his character, Mark Salling isn’t really believable as a high-schooler any more, either. Send ‘em off to college!

Keep things happening. Keep things interesting.

Like TVD (and, I would argue, the usually nonsensical but always guilty-pleasurably watchable “V” remake), MTVWD knows its audience. On a show like this, stuff needs to happen. It doesn’t have to make sense, but it has to be interesting. When I say “happen,” I don’t mean every episode—I mean every commercial interval. When I say “interesting,” I mean it has to grab your attention—and keep it until the next thing happens. And when I say “it doesn’t have to make sense,” I pretty much mean that 100%. Who cares if it’s silly? Please—it’s a show about a teenage werewolf! I’m going to give credit to director Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander” —I know, right?) and writers Tim Andrew and Toby Wilkins for getting things off to a tight, intriguing start.


Every burgeoning young superhero needs a setting in which to express his super side, ideally without giving away the farm (so to speak). Clark Kent had football, and Scott McCall has lacrosse. Lacrosse? Who plays lacrosse? People on the East Coat, that’s who—and, perhaps not so coincidentally, although it’s set in a fictional small Northern California mountain town, MTVTW is filmed in and around Atlanta, home of any number of youth lacrosse teams. Aha, suddenly it all makes more sense! Sure, maybe it’s because the local actors and extras already know how to play lacrosse. Sure, maybe it’s because the high school location has a lacrosse field but no football equipment. Who cares? Lacrosse fills the clichéd dramatic need for ritualized conflict without being itself a cliché. Our Hero needs to play a sport—it’s what boys in high school do—but his sport of choice happens to be one you’ve probably never played. This is clever, as it allows the necessary imagery to be familiar, yet still fresh. Unsurprisingly, it also allows for scenes played out in the locker room, which as everyone knows is simply de rigeur in horror, not to mention Youth TV.

Credit where credit is due.

No populist exercise in dramatic storytelling that follows a traditional narrative structure (so, not “The Tree of Life” ) can succeed without characters the audience can get its collective grip on, fairly quickly at that, and a hero (or antihero) who is likeable (or not) but most of all relatable. If you and I as viewers can’t connect to the protagonist on some level, we’re unlikely to care how things play out for him or her. I think this is the single biggest thing that was gotten wrong (repeatedly, it must be said) by both “FlashForward” and “The Event” (which at our house was mostly called “The Non-Event”). Did you care what happened to Joseph Fiennes (egregiously miscast) in “FlashForward”? Did you care what happened to Laura Innes (egregiously wasted) or Blair Underwood (egregiously overly made-up, at least in HD) in “The Event”? Neither did I. But, very interestingly, I do care what happens to Scott McCall, and that’s almost entirely due to Tyler Posey. He is, at times awkwardly but always earnestly, acting and emoting his ass off. Each. And. Every. Week. Who knew that the kid from “Maid in Manhattan” had it in him? I don’t know if he’s the Real Deal or not, at least not yet, and he may not be MTVTW’s greatest asset, but I do think he’s its secret weapon.

In its own arguably un-ambitious, self-deprecating way, MTVTW is fairly balls-out brilliant. Honestly, I haven’t enjoyed a new horror series on TV this much since TVD. It’s no “Supernatural”, but then what is?

Hey, maybe next time I’ll tell you why you ought to be watching “Falling Skies”!

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!