Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Buvare: Cure

One week before my trip to New Orleans, I sat at the counter of Barkeeper in Silver Lake -as so many weekend mornings I do- daintily sampling spicy gingerbread bitters.
"Isn't that insane?!" Joe Keeper's eyes bugged waiting for my reaction. I smiled, spices tickling my throat.
"It's delicious..." And before I could protest, another bottle was produced and a small plastic cup of baked apple bitters was pushed toward me. His eyes widened again, daring me to give THIS one a whirl.
Keeper had just returned from Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans' annual cocktail geek-out fest, with a bag full of exciting new products he was so enthusiastically sharing. I mentioned my trip planned for the coming week and he said one word, a word I anticipated and said along with a nod: Cure.

Following our absolutely indulgent dinner at Restaurant August, Michael, Larry and I hailed a cab to the Garden District and sailed into the dark night. The cab driver circled the streets several times, unsure of exactly where Cure was - something I had been warned about. The bar is unmarked and often unnoticed from the street - but then I caught a glimpse of an illuminated wall of bottles through an arched window and the car screeched to a halt.
Opening the bar door, pulsing dubstep beats shook the glass walls on either side of the entryway. A tungsten streetlight outside lent a little help to the architectural chandeliers, Edison bulbs and the neon-backed bar to shed some light on the dim and modern interior of the 105 year old firehouse. Here ancient, decrepit New Orleans had been left behind.
Even in this hidden dark corner of the Garden District, the residue of White Linen Night filled the stools and booths of the bar with sharp tailored whites and airy summer cocktail dresses, though much more fashionably than the older set in the Arts District downtown. The room breathed Neo-New Orleans tradition, and we absorbed it (along with some bass) and sat at a table hear the window to look over the menu.
I'd been looking forward to enjoying a drink at Cure since I read their #1 Best NOLA Bar ranking for 2010 in the Gambit, proclaiming "There are bartenders, and there are chemists — Cure supplies both."
Owner Neal Bodenheimer is a NOLA native but sharpened his teeth in New York bars (including those of the BR Guest restaurant group) before bringing his brand of contemporary mixologist back to "the cocktail's birthplace," opening Cure in February of 2009. I knew he was serious, but back to the point - what would I get??
I chose the Celery Stalker first, created by Cure's Danny Valdez. An herbal marriage of Miller's Westbourne Strength Gin, Lime, House-Made Celery Bitters, Prosecco, and Cucumber it was a perfect quencher for the steamy conditions. Simple enough to concoct at home, the housemade bitters set this flavor profile apart. Luckily I came across the secret to this cocktail in Edible New Orleans.

Celery Bitters
By Kirk Estopinal, Cure
In 750 mL of high-proof vodka (100 proof +), add:
2 tbsp cinchona
2 tbsp dandelion
2 tbsp calamus
2 tbsp gentian

Let flavors infuse for 11-14 days.
Add 1 cup of celery seeds, toasted, into the blend and let rest 4 days.
Strain everything through a cheese cloth and, if necessary, a coffee filter.
Larry sipped a Single Malt Scotch, but Michael joined me for a cocktail, selecting the Cease & Desist by Maksym Pazuniak, a classic and brute blend of Carpano Punt e Mes, Rittenhouse Bonded Rye, Fernet Branca and Orange Peel. Had I been deviating from gin, I would have been tempted by the Start and Finish, recipe below (via Nola.com).

Start and Finish
By Rhiannon Enlil, Cure
1 1/2 ounces Averna Amaro
1 1/2 ounces Lillet Blanc
1/2 ounce Dry Vermouth
1/2 ounce absinthe
1 dash orange bitters

Mix all ingredients over ice, chill, strain and garnish with a lemon twist.
While Cure does not carry many bar staples, it is not pretentious about helping you select a tasteful replacement. This is THE bar to create a relationship with your bartender and tell them what you like. You will end up with a specialized cocktail far surpassing your "usual." Also because all of the bartenders at Cure are total rock stars, each with their own impressive lineage. Kirk Estopinal came to Cure from the Violet Hour in Chicago, bringing with him the popular Juliet & Romeo which he made for me requesting something along the lines of a gin gimlet and the Celery Stalker. With the essence of dusk in a lush summer garden, I'd do a disservice by not sharing this recipe laced with mint, cucumber, and rose water.

Juliet & Romeo
From the Violet Hour (source)
2 oz Beefeater or Henderick's
.75 oz Fresh Lime Juice
.75 oz Simple Syrup
3 drops Rose Water
3 drops Angostura Bitters
3 slices Cucumber, peeled
6 sprigs Mint

Muddle cucumber and pinch of salt. Slap the mint. Add rest of ingredients. Let sit for 30 seconds (time allowing). Shake. Strain. Garnish with 1 floating mint leaf and 1 drop rose water on top of leaf, and 3-5 more drops of angostura on the surface of the drink.

4905 Freret St. New Orleans, LA; 504.302.2357
Cure on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 30, 2010

Croquer: Restaurant August

Saturday night, and hot as a billy goat in a pepper patch. It was also one of New Orleans' quintessential celebrations, White Linen Night. Every summer on the first Saturday of August, the city’s Warehouse Arts District brims with white linen-clad folk wandering the galleries along Julia street, fanning themselves and quenching their thirst with copious amounts of wine. Restaurant reservations in the neighborhood are apparently impossible to come by, so luckily we had booked our table at John Besh's Restaurant August -just blocks from Julia Street- several weeks prior. Besh's flagship award-winning restaurant is located in a gorgeous historic four-story French-Creole building circa 1800, soaring wood-framed windows bound in solid brick walls.
We were seated at a round table at the room's central meridian, feet from Besh's framed 2006 James Beard Best Chef medal. Service was meticulous and labored; One sip of water and a pitcher was topping off the glass. Our server sent the sommelier over while we flirted with the extensive list.
The shockingly young steward guided us to the perfect bottle to best match all of our entrées and our price point, the Leviathan 2007 Napa Valley Red Wine. Made by Andy Erickson, the winemaker for Screaming Eagle, Leviathan is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot with deep dark fruit & spice and a long luxurious finish.
An amuse-bouche arrived, housed in a brown egg shell, described as a savory fish stock mousse with sabayon, bowfin caviar and brioche. The deep salty custard, light alcoholic cream and accoutrement made for a stunning starter.
From the special farm-to-table prix fixe, we ordered a starter of cane syrup roasted Louisiana figs fresh cheese, pimenton candied almonds and Pedro Jimenez sherry. Simple but elegant.
The salad of heirloom beets, crab meat, cherry wood bacon, mizuna, and quail eggs was a lovely balance of texture and smoky/fresh flavors.
Our third gorgeous small plate was cane glazed pork belly and grilled Ruston peaches with pickled chantrelles and aleppo pepper. I wished for more pork belly, but loved the melange of bright flavors.
There were two entrées that called to me, but like a greyhound race the bunny won again. This rabbit was slow cooked, wrapped in La Provence bacon with white bean stuffed baby sweet peppers and heirloom tomatoes. The dense and luscious rabbit was quite nearly upstaged by the exquisite house-cured bacon, raised on Besh's own farm. The adorable stuffed peppers were a crunchy delight.
Larry's entrée, the slow cooked beef ribeye "coulotte" with Jim Core's silver queen corn and smoked bone marrow was melt-in-your-mouth opulence. He seemed to be enjoying it, so I didn't levy a second bite.
Michael tenderly explored his gorgeous plate. He had ordered my second choice (which I was fearing should have been my first), the cutely named "sugar and spice duckling" with McEwen's stone ground grits, roasted duck foie and local peaches. "Oh.. my.." and Michael went silent.
"I think we should share," I said then, knowing he had the winning dish. One heavenly bite of the sweet delicacy made me beg to split our two entrées, on the condition he could finish the foie. If prosciutto is the chocolate of meats then this was surely the Christmas of meats. Let it snow! 
After a meal like this, dessert saldy isn't an option, it's an obligation. A digestif, an espresso, a bite or two of sweet in conversational afterglow is the only way to respect such a gift. Michael and Larry ordered a Tawny port, but it was a warm night, even in the dining room, so I craved something chilled. Our server tempted me with the Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc (Honig, Napa Valley, 2006), and won. The golden honeyed intoxicant tasted like fresh autumn fruit, a soft pleasure to roll upon the tongue.
The gentlemen insisted on the Napoleon, which I may have skipped - but was glad we did not. The layers of brittle nougatine were cemented with bittersweet Valhrona chocolate bavarois, topped with salted toffee ice cream. Salty sweet perfection.
Meanwhile, I insisted on Pere Roux's banana rum cake with Creole cream cheese icing, a small picturesque crown befriended by plump berries and a sliced fig. The liquor lent a sweet moisture to the subtle banana confection, and perfectly paired with my dessert wine.
One last kiss arrived in the form of small dark chocolate ganache cups topped with cocoa nibs and a salted brittle, but I could not partake. Well, I lie, I took one nibble before easing back into the round of my chair, breathing slowly and watching a tablecloth across the room float effortlessy across a table, quick hands smoothing its edges in a seasoned arc.

301 Tchoupitoulas St. New Orleans, LA; 504.299.9777

Restaurant August on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Croquer: Lüke

World class celebrity chefs are to New Orleans what roach coaches are to Los Angeles; A prideful culinary infestation. A James Beard Award-winning NOLA restaurant group heavyweight, John Besh takes a fresh local approach to his menus, each inspired by a different period or aspect of the city's history. Domenica acknowledges the influence of Italian immigrants on New Orleans cuisine, American Sector (in The National World War II Museum) updates Americana classics, and La Provence is a bona fide country farm & kitchen that produces both livestock and produce for his restaurants.
For brunch on Saturday, we were swayed by the menu at Lüke, Besh's homage to the French and German brasseries of old New Orleans. We hailed a cab to the Central Business District's Hilton New Orleans St. Charles Avenue Hotel where Lüke resides off the grand entrance hall.
The ceiling was the first thing I noticed inside Lüke, with gleaming gold tin tiles and an impressive set of belt and pulley driven ceiling fans. The massive wooden bar filled half of the space, an ice bed on its corner filled with fresh raw oysters. We started with a round of Hendrick's gin bloody marys, an herby twist that may have to become my standard.
I had been looking forward to consuming a big plate o' cochon and eggs since landing in NOLA. And it was time. The smoky cochon au lait was scattered over an open faced biscuit, topped with two soft-poached eggs, southern greens, and tasso hollandaise. Flavor explosion! The greens were succulent and salty, the cochon tender and rich, Tasso hollandaise simply a sin. The eggs were undercooked for my taste (gelatinous whites), but overall a delicious and filling dish.
Larry favored the Croque Madame, a French classic of grilled ham and Emmenthaler cheese sandwich topped with a fried organic egg, served with a cone of crisp twice-cooked frites.
Michael ordered my second choice, the Louisiana shrimp and grits, with McEwen and Sons grits, Poche’s andouille, and two poached yard eggs. My allegiance may still lie with Mr. B's as far as NOLA shrimp & grits go, but still quite a satisfying Southern breakfast.
We attempted not to overstuff ourselves, it was apparently Besh Day for us, with reservations at his signature restaurant August just hours away...

333 Saint Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA; 504.378.2840
Lüke Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Buvare: NOLA Hotel Bars

There's something terribly civilized about sipping a cocktail in a classy hotel lounge to me. But finding one that isn't overly stuffy or embarrassingly dated can take a little bit of work. Effortlessly cool New Orleans however has a handful of winners in this department. One of which was the site of our Friday nightcap, the Swizzle Stick Bar at Café Adelaide, in the Loews New Orleans Hotel. The Arts District hotel lobby bar was recommended to me by Harriet Bell (publisher; Emeril's cookbook maestro) as THE place in NOLA to have a Sazerac... or two. And we did!
The Sazerac, official cocktail of New Orleans

From the Brennan family (behind NOLA's celebrated Commander’s Palace), Café Adelaide is an homage to the family's Aunt Adelaide, who "personified the avant-garde cocktail culture of the late 1950s and 1960s, and represents the joie de vivre of all that is New Orleans." Despite the more contemporary digs, the timeless spirit of the city comes through the cocktails and stellar service.
The most famous hotel bar in town is easily the Carousel Bar in New Orleans' historic Hotel Monteleone. Built in 1886, the grandiose Monteleone on Royal Street was the first (and to this day, only) high-rise building in the interior French Quarter. The off-lobby bar, originally opened as the Swan Room, was transformed in 1949 with the installation of a 25-seat circular bar turning on 2,000 large steel rollers, powered by a 1/4-horsepower motor, rotating one revolution every 15 minutes.
The Carousel Bar in 1968

The Carousel was renovated in 1992 with the addition of a new circus-like top and fiber optics in the ceiling to create the appearance of stars in the night sky (a shooting star can occasionally be seen crossing the room).
The Carousel Bar is known for more than its signature ambiance, a bevy of signature cocktails have too achieved notoriety including The Goody and The Vieux Carré Cocktail (above). Last year in the spirit of the bar's 60th anniversary, the hotel hopelessly searched for the lost recipe for The Monteleone, a cocktail served in the bar up until the 1960’s. Luckily NOLA-native cocktailian Chuck Taggart stepped in to their aid, re-imagining a cocktail in honor of the institution.

Vieux Carré Cocktail
1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce Cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon Bénédictine D.O.M.
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Mix all ingredients in a double Old Fashioned glass over ice; stir.

The Monteleone Cocktail
by Chuck Taggart
1 ounce Sazerac Rye (6 year old)
1 ounce Bols Genever
1 ounce Dolin Vermouth Blanc
1/2 ounce Averna
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 dash Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6

Combine with ice in a mixing glass and stir for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass (serve up). Garnish with an orange peel twist.
As the bar slowly turned and I savored my nectarous Vieux Carré -like most places in New Orleans- the ghosts started to come out. I imagined the faces across from me that of past patrons Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner, chatting over the tunes of Liberace (the first person to play the piano that still resides in the bar).
I may not have been able to actually see it, but I could taste it.

The Swizzle Stick Bar
Loews New Orleans Hotel
300 Poydras St. New Orleans, LA; 504.595.3305

The Carousel Bar
Hotel Monteleone
214 Royal St. New Orleans, LA; 504.523.3341