Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sno-Tales of the Cocktail

The Cocktailians have arrived. That's right the mid-summer exodus of bartenders from their home bars to the Monteleone has begun. If you live in New Orleans and enjoy cocktails and haven't made at least one Tales event, one of those prerequisites isn't true. Here is a piece I had a lot of fun writing. Reprinted here, you can find the article with real photos on newstands and at Offbeat.

There are only two ways to cool off once the New Orleans summer comes. I’m talking really cool off, not sitting in an air conditioned room. You can either guzzle a snoball, its slushiness burrowing into the belly of your soul and making you shiver. Or you can get knock out drunk, such that you forget just how hot it is. Or you can kill two birds with one stone and do both.

For seventy-four years, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz has taken blocks of ice and fed them into a machine. This machine turns the ice into something neither gas, liquid, or solid, but an amalgamation of the three states of being. Upon this ice, they pour housecrafted flavored syrups with varieties like Satsuma, cream of cardamom, and nectar cream. The product is so delicious it creates lines outside on a July afternoon that would give Studio 54 pause.

Mardi Gras a half decade or so ago found me in the third seat of a friend’s SUV, one bloody mary, two screwdrivers, and three beers deep at around eight in the morning (all numbers approximate). We were driving down then vacant Freret towards Napoleon from Jefferson, when a friend pointed at a building and said, “Some guy I know is opening a cocktail bar there in a few weeks.” We all laughed and predicted its demise in various amounts of time.

That bar turned out to be Cure. Opened by Neal Bodenheimer in 2009, Cure has become one of the nation’s premier spots to imbibe. In turn, Freret has become a runaway hit with restaurants, nightclubs, and art galleries filling the once abandoned storefronts.  Bodenheimer then opened Bellocq with Kirk Estopinal. Located on Lee’s Circle, Bellocq traffics in cobblers, a centuries old cocktail of fruit, vermouths, sherries, and ice served in a setting evoking the glory days of legal prostitution. In early July, he will expand into the world of colonial cocktails and Caribbean rum with the opening of Cane & Table on Decatur with partner Nick Detrich.

With a deadline looming and Tales of the Cocktail around the corner, I’ve called Ashley Hansen, the proprietor of Hansen’s to ask about sneaking booze into her snoballs. “We don’t have a liquor license,” Hansen carefully mentions, “but every now and then we see someone coming through the line with a flask in their hand.” Her ice is perfect for mint juleps.

Say, Ashley, would you mind if Bodenheimer & Co. came by one day and made some snotails? I made sure to mention this was for an official assignment for a real magazine, and not just personal curiosity, which of course it is. “Sure. But it needs to be before we open or else customers will riot.”

On an otherwise quiet, hot June day, after knocking the cadence to Iko Iko the doors to Hansen’s creaked open and Hansen welcomed in Bodenheimer, Detrich, Peanut, the trusty photographer of this official venture, and this “reporter”. The walls of Hansen’s are lined with photos from the glory days of little league teams, fraternities and bands that became the Radiators. The syrups are stored in old liquor bottles salvaged from Mardi Gras floats back in the “late 60’s or 70’s by my grandfather’s cousin, Thelma” according to Hansen. Jack Daniels becomes strawberry; Bacardi becomes chocolate.

Hansen is no stranger to mixing an adult snoball. She prefers to use rum with her citrusy flavors, “Rum and limeaid is the perfect daiquiri…but I like bourbon with the richer flavors like vanilla or nectar,” she says, adding, “or just pour Baileys on plain ice.”

Its now noon and Hansen’s opens at one so Bodenheimer and Detrich get to work. They unpack from rucksacks rum, vermouth, sherry, blackberry liquor, amaro, gin, and bitters. Bodenheimer steps behind the counter first. While Hansen powders ice, Bodenheimer shakes together Zucca, lemon juice, and Hansen’s strawberry syrup. He pours it over the ice and sticks a fat strawberry on top. The result is a strawberry snowball that got caught up in the wrong crowd.

Next is a variation on a type of gin sour known as a bramble. In goes two ounces of Ford’s gin, simple syrup, and Hansen’s blueberry. The drink is garnished with a wide swath of lemon zest. After taking a sip, Hansen exclaims, “This is so much fun we should share it.”

Conversation and laughter are now moving between the two young bastions of the food and drink world. Talk shifts to doing this as a special event, maybe at a bar. Hansen will bring the ice, a machine, and some staff. Bodenheimer’s team will make the drinks. Plans for late August are called off.

Detrich moves behind bar. Nick moved down from Bloomington, Indiana, a place where combining alcohol, frozen ice, and syrup before 1 pm is generally frowned upon. He originally began bartending at a strip club on Bourbon St. before finding work at Cure, which sort of sounds like the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song. He begins with a rum Manhattan, using Smith & Cross rum. Distilled in Jamaica, Smith & Cross is “hogo rum, a derivative of a French term meaning roughly the sweet smell of rotting meat,” Detrich explains.

Before slick ad campaigns, rum was a distillation crafted by often unscrupulous people. This rum has a funky nose and is perfect with Carpano Antica vermouth, Angostura bitters, and a float of cream of almond. Detrich turns his sights on that reviled classic of cruise ships: the frozen pina colada. Smith & Cross combined with bitters, fresh pineapple, and cream of coconut. Imagine if a pina colada went to live on a hippie commune for a few months. What, your imagination doesn’t allow you to do that? Too bad.

We finish up this serious journalistic endeavor with something simple: La Gitana Manzanilla sherry and Satsuma. Crisp, tart and refreshing, it gives us the strength to head back into the sun. Now, if you want to try your own hand at making snotails, a few tips to keep in mind. One, chill your liquors before adding them to the ice or your snotail will melt too quickly. Secondly, do this as soon and as often as possible. Hansen’s closes with the first rumors of fall. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Quick Drink: The Aperitif

Sometimes it is a relatively mild summer afternoon. Perhaps you are all out of beer and wine seems too demanding for the occasion. A cocktail could work but you aren't quite ready to delve into the high octane of a Saturday night. What is the intrepid drinker to do? Pour yourself an aperitif.

Aperitif comes from the ancient Latin phrase meaning "The food isn't quite ready, honey, distract them with more booze." In general, these are low alcohol quaffers meant to stimulate the appetite. Think of it as the foreplay to a Roman orgy of eating or drinking. Vermouths, pastis, bitter beverages like Campari, and fortified wines, such as sherry, are examples of aperitifs. They are light, interesting, flirty and just the perfect little sip -  the summer romance of the drinking world. Now, I won't try to convince you that I begin every evening with a pull of rare vermouth, a conversation with great aunt Mildred, and a Cole Porter record. However, on a Saturday afternoon, once all the chores are complete, I like one to three.

My preference is for Lillet blanc (pronounced with a soft et, i.e. not pronounced like the restaurant, Lilette). Lillet is refreshing blend of traditional white Bordeaux grapes and citrus flavors plus other proprietary botanicals. Serve it well chilled. This time of year, dropping in a few slices of Chilton County peaches won't hurt. The peaches don't add much to the Lillet, but once you've polished off a few glasses of Lillet, the peaches taste much better than God ever intended.

A Campari and soda with a fat wedge of orange or lemon does well in pinches, if you don't have all the materials for a Negroni (hint: you should). Try an inverted Manhattan with vermouth and rye swapping proportions. And hey, should the afternoon bleed into the night, Champagne is an aperitif in my book. Just make sure to give me a call.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Antoine's: Is It Worth It?

Shrimp remoulade at Antoine's

Six years ago I spent an afternoon with my grandmother at Touro Hospital. Hazel didn't have much time left and we all knew it. We sat mostly in pensive silence as physicians came in and out. Occasionally, she would look over and smile or try and mouth something. Mostly there was just silence. Per her living will, food, water, and lifesaving maneuvers were withheld and eventually she found peace.

I wish Antoine's had a living will.

If Antoine's did, its servers wouldn't be milling around the front desk swapping stories for the dining room to hear that end in "You gotta crawl in attics n shit?" The life-saving measures of old Carnival clubs and Debbie Does Debutante parties which fill its coffers would be withheld. Antoine's would stop feeding on the tourist dollars of a lunch menu featuring .25 cent flavored martinis. It could just peacefully expire, leaving us with nothing but the memories of a once legendary restaurant.

I don't write this to be mean. I write it because once upon a time Antoine's was a place you went to celebrate and dine. It was big, it was grand, the waiters were charming, the food excellent, and everyone always seemed to be laughing at huge tables littered with glassware and crumbs. At the end of the meal, the lights would always dim and a dance of flame and pastry would captivate and enthrall childhood and adult eyes alike. Men wore ties and women dressed up.

The food at Antoine's is food I love. Old French classics that cooks have been making taste delicious for hundreds of years. Antoine's is not doing so anymore. Witness a plate of shrimp remoulade which tasted like weed killer smells. The shrimp were overcooked to boot. The escargot bordelaise, the sauce tasting suspiciously close to Antoine's marchand de vin, was gritty with flour or cornstarch and topped with cheese you can buy pre-shredded at a Rouses. How is that for upholding culinary standards of excellence?

Perhaps the worst baked oyster dish in town is on the menu at Antoine's in the form of an oyster thermidor. Chewy oysters ladled with ketchup and ham. Say that three times fast and the dead rise. Oysters Rockefeller, while invented here eons ago, are made better elsewhere and likely everywhere. At Antoine's they taste of a waterlogged bag of salad. The credit where due award goes to their oysters Bienville which are rich and creamy. Oysters Foch are delicious and salty under a sturdy cornmeal crust, but when they arrive at the same exact time as baked oysters, they become cold. And cold fried oysters aren't very desirable.

Not even the bar could save this meal. One Sazerac arrived pitch perfect and imbued with the luscious aroma of Herbsaint. The next was just whiskey with a lemon peel. Service was clumsy and overbearing at all the wrong times like a large child in a tiny sandbox. A runner would bring food and before you had a chance to eat, the waiter would ask, "How is everything?" Apparently, he believed I was clairvoyant. An order of souffle potatoes ordered with drinks showed up about an hour later. They were overcooked and greasy, devoid of the lightness that marks a souffle potato's ascent to such great heights. After sitting us at an awful table up against a post in an empty dining room, the host asked "Where are you from?"

"Here," we said.

He seemed genuinely surprised.

"I know you are disappointed," Lindsay later said to me, "you hoped it would be better."

Antoine's is just sad now. Gone is the formality and the touches which made it unique. Antoine's splendor has been replaced by shorts, the tourist trade, and tennis shoes. Gone is the grand dining of Escoffier and Alciatore. Verbatim transaction at table next to ours, "Our house blend of five lettuces tossed with our homemade vinaigrette and crumbled blue cheese...Sure we can leave off the blue cheese and put the dressing on the side," the waiter remarks. He just sold her lettuce and free refills of iced tea.

The other grand dames have held onto traditions and standards, and eventually this has paid off for them. The dining rooms at Galatoire's are full, boisterous, and filled with well heeled locals. Dinner at Arnaud's is still marked by formality and solid cooking. The various rooms at Antoine's are largely empty and deservedly so. Antoine's chased the buck and now all that is left is a pitiful reminder of what was once a treasure.

Look, spare me the emails or comments about how you need to dine with a certain waiter to get a good meal at Antoine's. A waiter isn't cooking the food and that is wherein the problem lies. This type of cuisine can taste good; just not at Antoine's.

You can fool the public for a long time. Brennan's did and look where it got them. Eventually the ties to family traditions loosen when all people can remember is bad meals. I don't pray for Antoine's demise, but unless they get a kitchen upgrade, we are all just waiting in a hospital room. Sadly, there is no living will at Antoine's.

Antoine's: Is It Worth It? Nope.
713 St. Louis St.