Yellow With Envy

My friend Zane Harris bartends at the outstanding neighborhood bar Rob Roy in Seattle Dutch Kills in Queens, New York these days, among other places. Besides being a great guy, he’s a constant source of inspiration on cocktails, spirits and hospitality. (Incidentally, of all the Seattle bars I love, and that’s a lot of ‘em, Rob Roy is probably the one I wish were in my neighborhood, within walking distance of my house.)

Zane is always challenging my expectations, and did so again with a recent visit to Los Angeles and a guest turn behind the stick at The Varnish, one of the L.A. bars I love. (I still enjoy quoting my friend Chris from Denver, after I brought him to that bar for the first time: “I wish that I had a wardrobe in my bedroom which, Narnia-like, would transport me to The Varnish on demand.”) Unfortunately the only recipe I remember from that night (when you’re drinking, write recipes down à la minute, you idiot, or you’ll forget them!) is this one, which Zane was kind enough to share with me.

Using Chartreuse as a base spirit isn’t something you come across all that often. It’s certainly powerful enough — 40% alcohol for the yellow variety, and a whopping 55% for the green — although most of the time it’s used in smaller quantities as an accent, given its even more powerful, even pungent herbal flavor.

One of my favorite cocktails is the Chartreuse Swizzle, a magnificent creation by Marco Dionysos with a whopping two ounces of green Chartreuse as its base. Zane’s drink uses the same concept — a tall, Chartreuse-based swizzle — but it’s the first time in my life I’d ever had a drink with yellow Chartreuse as its base. An additional boost to the spice is from a spicy peppercorn syrup, which would be pretty versatile once you’ve got it on hand.

Yellow With Envy

Yellow With Envy
(by Zane Harris, Rob Roy, Seattle)

1-1/2 ounces (45 ml) yellow Chartreuse.
1 ounce (30 ml) fresh lime juice.
1 ounce (30 ml) fresh grapefruit juice.
1/2 ounce (15 ml) black peppercorn syrup (see below).

Shake vigorously with cracked ice until the shaker is too cold to hold (12 seconds or so). Strain into a tall glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

 

Black peppercorn syrup

2 cups (400 g) sugar.
1 cup (250 ml) water.
1/4 cup (use a 60 ml measure) cracked black peppercorns.

In a saucepan, heat the peppercorns until they become fragrant. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to stand for 20 minutes. Strain the syrup through a fine mesh strainer to remove all of the peppercorn particles. Add a splash of vodka as a preservative, bottle and store in the refrigerator.

Yield: About 1-1/2 cups syrup

NOTE: Zane may end up correcting me on the amount of pepper in the syrup, but this is what my pickled brain recalled from the evening.

 

Brandy & Herbsaint Milk Punch

(Catching up yet again with stragglers that never made it into the big Cocktail Index …)

This anise-scented variation on our local beloved milk punch comes from Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona and Herbsaint restaurants) and features Herbsaint, New Orleans’ original absinthe substitute. While you may substitute Pernod, Ricard, or any pastis or anise liqueur for the Herbsaint, if you want this to be truly New Orleanian you’ll use la vraie chose.

Herbsaint Original, the 1934 recipe

Herbsaint Original, the 1934 recipe

You’ll especially want to use Herbsaint Original, with the above label. Over the years Herbsaint’s formula changed, but in late 2009/early 2010 the Sazerac Company reproduced Marion Legendre’s original 1934 recipe — deeper, richer and with a broader, more complex herbal base.

You are, of course, welcome to use actual absinthe as well, but then if you used absinthe or pastis it wouldn’t be Brandy & Herbsaint Milk Punch, would it? (Well, all you’d have to do is change the name, but still.)

This punch is terrific when the weather starts to turn crisp in autumn and for the holiday season as well, but New Orleanians are fond of milk punches year-round. This would be great at breakfast or brunch, for a pre-dessert nog, or just for a party. Here’s the version to serve in The Flowing Bowl:

Brandy & Herbsaint Milk Punch

2 quarts cold milk
3 cups brandy
1/2 cup Herbsaint
1/2 cup superfine sugar

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients and stir to combine. Add more sugar or brandy to taste. Chill. Pour into a large punch bowl with a large block of ice and serve cold, topped with freshly grated nutmeg.

Serves 16-20.

… and if you’re only making one or two, the single-serving version:

1-1/2 ounces brandy or bourbon
1/4 ounce Herbsaint (especially Herbsaint Original)
1/4 ounce simple syrup
4 ounces whole milk or half-and-half

Shake with ice and strain into a punch cup, and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

 

Cocktail of the Day: The Blinker

I was perusing my old cocktail index on The Gumbo Pages’ beverage page and realized that in the Great Cocktail Article Migration of 2009 I missed a few, including this one. Eek! What was I thinking?! Rectification of oversight commences!

This one may be familiar to many of you, but if you’re scratching your head thinking, “Nope, never seen this one before, and grapefruit juice? Ew!” it’s another “forgotten” cocktail that comes to us courtesy of Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh, who first served it to us years ago. The Blinker is the creation of a bartender whose name has escaped into the mists of history, but it was first mentioned in print in 1934 by bartender Patrick Gavin Duffy. (There’s a bit more about it in Doc’s most excellent book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.)

Doc tinkered with the recipe; originally the drink was made with grenadine (and a horrifying amount of it, equal to the grapefruit juice). Raspberry syrup gives it a lovely complexity, especially when considering most commercially-made grenadines. I think it’s a terrific variation.

The thing that made the drink Doc made for us so much better than the first one we made at home was his use of Smucker’s brand raspberry syrup, right from the grocery store, instead of the Torani raspberry syrup we used. Nowadays for prepared syrups I’d generally go with Monin, which would also be good. But man … that Smucker’s stuff had an fabulously fruity, aromatic and intensely jammy quality (unsurprisingly) that really put this drink over the top. Even better was a raspberry syrup from Harry and David, the Fruit of the Month Club folks, which was hands-down the best raspberry syrup I’d ever tasted (and didn’t have the tendency to sink to the bottom of the drink that Smucker’s has). Sadly, the product’s been discontinued.

If you have a really good, homemade pomegranate grenadine or an excellent commercial product like Trader Tiki’s Hibiscus Grenadine, by all means use that if you like. Otherwise, try the Smucker’s, or better still, a homemade raspberry syrup from fresh (or even frozen) raspberries.

Of course, it goes without saying that you should not use bottled grapefruit juice. Freshly-squeezed white grapefruit juice, please. It takes half a minute to cut and squeeze a grapefruit, and it’s eleventy million times better. Also, if you’re one of those folks that doesn’t like grapefruit juice, this may be your conversion moment; you’ll like it here, even if you only ever have it in this cocktail (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Enjoy the Blinker — it’s a simple yet really lovely drink, and don’t worry about the silly name (drives Doc crazy).

Oh, the image below is temporary, shamelessly purloined briefly borrowed from the fine folks at Modern Drunkard magazine, who in turn lifted it from Ted’s book (naturally, since the article was an interview with Ted about his book). I’ll have one of my own up by the weekend, especially since I haven’t had a Blinker in a while, and I want one.

The Blinker Cocktail
Shamelessly purloin-- er, borrowed image from Modern Drunkard, to be replaced real soon now

2 ounces rye whiskey.
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice.
1 teaspoon raspberry syrup.

Combine with cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for no less than 10 seconds, until very cold; strain into a cocktail glass.

Doc didn’t garnish this, and I don’t know if the original recipe called for a garnish, but we like a pretty grapefruit peel curl cut with a channel knife (Doc opts for lemon). Don’t squeeze any grapefruit oil over the drink, though; we don’t want this one to be too bitter.

To quote Wes, “What the world needs is more rye cocktails.” Amen.

 

Creole Cuisine in Los Angeles

Yes indeed, you can get good Louisiana food in Los Angeles, but you have to be careful.

There’s my usual credo (with very few exceptions ever granted), in which I do not patronize a Louisiana restaurant outside of Louisiana unless someone from Louisiana is in the kitchen. Back during the 1980s “Cajun craze” there were a lot of places that switched to or offered menu items labelled as “Cajun” without knowing what the hell they were doing, and putting out a lot of really bad food. Primary among these sinners were the people who thought that Cajun food was regular food encased in red pepper. Then there were those who thought Cajun food came from New Orleans … the litany of offenses goes on and on.

But for years there have been solid, reliable places in L.A., driven by a black Creole community who’ve been out here since the 1940s. Old favorites like Harold and Belle’s (dress up and bring a fat wallet) or Stevie’s Creole Café (former owner of Stevie’s on the Strip, which closed in 2006) in Encino; late, lamented places like Sid’s Cafe (owned by the wonderful Mr. Jase, and almost a second home to me when it was open) and other places that have come and gone.

Apparently, though, another one popped up a couple of years ago, and I didn’t even notice until I got an email from a co-worker which included this appeal:

Click to embiggen

A New Orleans restaurant needed our help? Our help was to go there and eat? Well … I can do that! And so off to New Orleans Vieux Carré Creole Cuisine we went. (4317 Degnan Blvd., LA 90008 in Leimert Park.) The timing couldn’t have been better, either — the day we went was the 5th anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, followed by the failure of the Federal levee and floodwall system, and I needed some New Orleans food in me that day.

Spacious, plenty of New Orleans-local decoration and appropriate music, very friendly and welcoming service … I felt right at home. The place was just shy of half-full on a Sunday afternoon, so they can most certainly use the business (although we may have missed out on the after-church crowd).

Let’s get right to business. Iced tea. I figured I didn’t have to do my usual L.A. move of asking whether the tea was real, regular iced tea or some kind of Tropical PassionBerry Explosion kind of abomination. Nope, real southern iced tea — thumbs up. (They kindly offer both unsweetened and “sweet tea,” the latter of which I usually avoid pretty much anywhere.) Next, the test of mettle of a Louisiana restaurant — the gumbo.

Filé gumbo

Dark roux, very flavorful, although a bit salty for me (I tend to be sensitive to it, however). Plenty of seafood (big chunk of blue crab and shrimp), plus smoked and fresh hot sausage. I didn’t need to add any hot sauce to it, either. All in all a fine gumbo.

Crawfish & Corn Chowder

This is what blew me away in the soup category, though. What the menu describes as their “famous” Crawfish and Corn Chowder came next, and it seems to me that whatever fame it has is more than justified. Thick, rich, lots of crawfish (Louisiana crawfish, I was assured), freshly cut corn, beautifully seasoned. Next time I’m getting a whole bowl of this.

Those of you who may know my taste know how much I love New Orleans’ beloved Creole hot sausage, and especially hot sausage po-boys. If I had to choose a last meal, it’d probably be a hot sausage po-boy with fries, and a big plate of red beans ‘n rice. I didn’t order the red beans — I don’t usually order that dish in a restaurant, because I make it at home all the time and because mine is, well … the best (*cough*cough* … okay, I really should try their red beans next time) — but I had to have a hot sausage po-boy, despite the massive amount of food we’d already ordered.

Hot sausage po-boy

My first question — links or patties? Patties are the way to go for me, but NOVC serves theirs with links. That’s fine, of course! It’s just my personal idiosyncracy, and it depends on the type and style of sausage, and these were hot links, perfectly seasoned and nicely grilled with crisp edges. Then there’s the question of the bread … sigh. It’s nearly impossible to get proper New Orleans po-boy bread out here — Vietnamese baguettes come the closest — even though Leidenheimer’s say they ship nationally. The bread was good, but it was the soft variety. Still, a very solid hot sausage po-boy, probably the only one you can get in Los Angeles that I know of, and for that reason it is to be celebrated. (The fries were good too.)

Next came their featured dish of the day:

Shrimp & Crawfish Étouffée

Shrimp and Crawfish Étouffée, loaded with seafood, big fat shrimp and a ton of crawfish, and easily enough food for two people (I took half mine home and had a wonderful leftover dinner the next night). A marvelous dish, and I’ve heard good things about it at this restaurant, but if anything that day it seemed a touch underseasoned. (I added a few sprinkles of Creole seasoning to my leftovers and that really did the trick.) I suspect that this was just an inconsistency of that day, though, given how well everything else was seasoned, and I’d most certainly order it again.

Stuffed Catfish

Wes got the Stuffed Catfish, beautifully fried and seasoned, and stuffed with a seafood and ham dressing. This is exactly the kind of dish I’d expect to get at Mandina’s back home, even down to the little dish of green beans (just like you get at Mandina’s, if you know what I mean. ;-) )

Desserts were offered, but we were more than stuffed. That will have to wait for next time, when we come back in force with the Fat Pack in tow, and tear our way through as much of that menu as we can (entire dishes ordered “for the table,” as we’re fond of saying). I’d prefer to have at least a couple more visits under my belt before writing an actual review, but we were happy enough eating there, and we want to help them enough as well, that I decided not to wait until I had tried more dishes. (Sheesh, it’s already been six weeks, with me being God Emperor of Procrastination and all.)

If you’re looking for very good, relatively inexpensive Creole food in Los Angeles, this is where you need to go, and go often.

 

Cocktail of the Day: Dirt ‘n Diesel

A couple of things have prompted this post, beginning with our trip to Seattle a couple of months ago. We’re very lucky to have great friends up there, several of whom are bartenders, so when in Seattle we drink really well. This trip was no exception, as our livers were given a vigorous workout and we FINALLY got to sit across the bar from Murray Stenson — a terrific guy, and a bartender’s bartender.

One of the places we hadn’t been to yet was Tavern Law, and as I’d heard and read so much about it I wanted to make it up at the top of the list along with Zig Zag. They have a spectacular cocktail menu and seriously talented bartenders, one of whom, Cale Green, took care of us that night. My memory-jogging notes from that evening are sadly somewhat liquor-sodden, so I don’t have names or proportions, but that evening Cale made us cocktails consisting of:

1) Rye whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, Punt E Mes, Angostura bitters
2) Bourbon whiskey, Amaro Ramazzotti, dry vermouth, Peychaud’s bitters
3) Laird’s bonded apple brandy, Swedish punsch, sweet vermouth, lime juice

These are EXACTLY the kinds of drinks I love, and Cale’s the kind of bartender who, after chatting with you for a bit about what you like, can come up with amazing drinks.

We had been hoping to get to the speakeasy-style bar above Tavern Law, a place called Needle and Thread, a hidden room which one enters by passing through a bank vault (gotta love existing architectural details in your building!). Cale also works up there, but alas, they were closed that evening. No worries, though — we’ll hit them next time, and that evening we had a wonderful time, had world-class drinks and made a new friend.

The other bit prompting this post was GQ magazine’s publication of its list of the The 25 Best Cocktail Bars in America (as they see it). Number One on that list is, unsurprisingly, The Zig Zag Café, where Murray works alongside Ben and Erik and Kacey the whole gang there who make it such a wonderful place. I was happy to see some of our local L.A. bars (Tiki-Ti and Cole’s Red Car Bar, plus a mention of The Varnish in the back of Cole’s), one of our New Orleans watering holes (Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, although I’d have thrown Cure and Bar UnCommon into that list, at least whenever Chris McMillian is behind the stick at the latter) plus one I frequent in Houston whenever I’m there visiting family (the wonderful Anvil).

And right there at Number 25 was not Tavern Law (although I think it deserves high mention in such a list) but Needle and Thread upstairs. GQ said:

“I spend all day on a tractor. Make me a drink that reminds me of the farm. You know, of dirt and diesel.” This is how an organic farmer from Portland ordered his drink here, because that is how they encourage drinks to be ordered. Get poetic about it; you’ll wind up with something like the Dirt ‘n Diesel.

I found out from Cale later on that the aforementioned bartender was himself, and the Dirt ‘n Diesel was his creation. It’s a cousin to the Corn ‘n Oil, with inky black Black Strap rum as its molasses-heavy base, with additional bitterness from the Cynar and plenty of dirt from Fernet. This is a terrific drink, and makes up for the fact that we never get out to the farm. Stop in at either of the two aforementioned bars where Cale works, and see what he’ll come up with for you.

DIRT AND DIESEL
(by Cale Green, Tavern Law and Needle & Thread, Seattle)

2 ounces Cruzan Black Strap Rum
1/2 ounce Fernet-Branca
1/2 ounce Demerara sugar syrup
1/4 ounce Cynar
1/4 ounce lime juice

Combine ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake for 10-12 seconds. Strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

 

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