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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cocktails in the 21st Century

I know the term mixologist is trendy now, and I’ve resisted using it to a large extent. But I think I understand the intent behind it. Putting together a great cocktail is not easy—it requires considerable skill, finesse, and creativity. Somehow the quotidian phrase “bartender” just doesn’t seem to fit. 

So what makes a good cocktail? Like a fine writing pen or an Italian sports car, a good cocktail is all about balance and harmony. The flavors and alcohol should compliment each other. Naturally, a cocktail should have an alcoholic kick, but too much and you’ve got the equivalent of an 80s one-hit-wonder band. If you want just alcohol, and only alcohol, then have a shot of tequila. 

Speaking of alcohol, we are in the midst of a renaissance—a focus on craft and flavor. This is especially the case with gin, with craft distillers who focus on botanicals. Hendricks probably started the trend, but there is now so much more. Two of these newer gins on the market that I like are Green Hat (made in Washington, D.C., and named for a bootlegger who serviced members of Congress during prohibition) and G’ Vine Floraison (French). The forward flavor profile of these gins is such that they can be drunk on the rocks without any tonic or if so, very little. For a martini or traditional G&T, however, the old standbys are Tanquerray and Bombay. 

On the darker side of the spectrum, bourbon’s erstwhile cousin, rye, is making a big comeback. My favorite rye is Bulleit, with Rittenhouse a close second. Rye is not as sweet as bourbon and has a subtle spiciness or even woodiness. Don’t think of ordering a Manhattan with anything other than rye.

While those who drink should always have a “go-to” cocktail (a well-made classic gin martini always works any time of the year, especially around lunch time!), it never hurts to try something new. For me that opportunity came knocking during a recent visit to Barmini in Washington, D.C., José Andrés’s latest mixology venture.

Unless you know exactly where to look, you will walk right past the entrance to Barmini. After all, Barmini is not the kind of place you just wander into off the street. You must make a reservation because drinking here is a deliberative, contemplative act. And you don’t just stroll through the front door. Instead, you push a button and someone let’s you in like an old speakeasy from the 1920s.

The inside is nothing like the 1920s, however. I would describe it as a combination of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version) and 2001: A Space Odyssey

Corpse Reviver 2
© 2014 Chris Terrell

I started with the Corpse Reviver #2, which consists of gin, lemon, Contreau, Lillet Blanc, and absinthe rinse. It certainly woke me up!
Clover Club Cocktail
© 2014 Chris Terrell

I also tried the Clover Club Cocktail, with gin, lemon, raspberry, and egg white (a classic cocktail ingredient). Then on to the Cedar and Agave, which is añejo, Benedictine, agave orange bitters and …. smoke! Here’s where it gets interesting. The best part of this drink is how the smoke gets into the drink. The bartender starts with a cedar plank and, with a blow torch, sets fire to the plank. When it begins to smoke, he places the glass over it and traps the smoke. A square block of ice is carefully inserted into the inverted glass and flipped over. At this point, he adds the liquid, along with a twist of orange and a violet flower. Voila!

There is also food at Barmini which is just as good as the drinks. (Barmini is the bar side of Andrés’s restaurant next door called Minibar.) I started with the banh mi burger, lobster roll, and finished with a grilled cheese. 
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Banh Mi Burger

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Lobster Roll

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Grilled Cheese
Even though Barmini certainly has that cool, trendy vibe, the service is not snooty but friendly and gracious. The seating also lends itself to meeting new friends. We sat at a communal table, which is how I discovered the Cedar and Agave—a dapper man in his early 60s who reminded me of Roger Sterling from Mad Men—was enjoying one and highly recommended it. 

America in the early 21st is in the midst of a golden age for cocktails. I say America because the cocktail is quintessentially American. But more importantly, bars today are full of restless creativity. And that’s what really makes America so unique.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Journey of a Thousand Memories Begins with the First Bite

The Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend was bright and clear in Birmingham as I made the short drive to the airport. After navigating through the TSA line behind a rather addled young woman who acted as if she had never been in an airport, much less a TSA security line, I settled into a chair at my gate and began to feel a bit journey proud. This odd phrase refers to that feeling of anticipation or excitement one gets on the eve of a trip. One dictionary in the late 19th Century used the phrase thus:“I have heard New Englanders speak of a person as ‘journey-proud,’ meaning that one is so elated on the eve of a journey as to care nothing for food.” This was certainly one guy who wasn’t so journey proud that  he couldn’t enjoy some good food.

I landed at Reagan National Airport a little after one in the afternoon. Even though my stomach was calibrated to the Central Time Zone, I was hungry. Breakfast had been nothing more than a granola bar and a piece of string cheese. After all, I wanted to ensure a good appetite for lunch, which would be at Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. 

Bayou Bakery is a quirky little bakery and deli with a Cajun theme. This is the kind of place that serves deviled eggs, pimento cheese, and collards as appetizers. I got the Bayou BLT: Benton’s bacon, oven cured tomatoes, and arugula on Texas toast. I washed all this down with a sizable glass of Abita Andygator. And Alabama fan that I am, as I ate underneath an outsized LSU flag on the back wall, I couldn’t help but recall a trip to New Orleans to watch the National Championship with two dear friends from high school. 

After a bit of shopping, it was time for a nap to restore my batteries for the next meal: dinner at Rasika, an Indian restaurant in D.C.

The first time I had Indian food was in college. I was skeptical at first but coaxed into it by a pretty girl who was Indian-American.  I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t have Indian again until a few years later when I visited London. I stayed in a hostel near the Bayswater tube stop, an eclectic area with a fair amount of Indian restaurants nearby. I figured that because I was in London, I should have Indian take-away.  One of my roommates suggested a place he thought was good. Though the name is long-forgotten, I almost feel as if I could find it by instinct alone. In my mind’s eye, I can see the front entrance with hanging stings of beads and a statute of Shiva against the side wall. 

My roommate warned me to ask for mild because Indian food in London is notoriously spicy. Of course, the male competitive Y-chromosome kicked in, and I ignored his advice, much to my detriment.  As I sat on the floor in the communal room of the hostel, with my new-found friend staring at me intently, I carefully opened the container of curry and began to sweat immediately.  After three glasses of water, the feeling that I would die alone in a foreign country receded somewhat. Given this experience, it was many, many years later before I would eat Indian food again. 

When we arrived at Rasika, I quickly noticed that there were a lot of Indians dining there. I took this as a good sign. After all, if you go into a barbecue joint in Boston, Massachusetts, and everyone says things like “ya’ll” and “yes ma’am” then you know you’re going to get some good ‘cue! We didn’t have reservations, which are hard to get anyway, so we ate at the bar. Eating at the bar in a restaurant is a great experience. It provides instant conviviality. It’s not just the alcohol that makes folks more friendly, it is the setting. You’re sitting close together and facing forward with nothing really to look at, except the hopefully, ever-present bartenders. It is a lot like being on an airplane—another captive setting with alcohol.  

We started with the Palak Chaat, which is crispy baby spinach with a sweet yogurt, tamarind, and date chutney. (Indian food would not be the same without chutney.) For my entree, I had chicken tikka masala. Yes, I admit that this is not real “Indian” food. The menu even referred to it, truthfully, as the “national dish of England”!  To top it off, we also enjoyed the Lamb Kathi Roll – succulent tandoori lamb with roti and mint chutney.

On Memorial Day, we had brunch at Le Diplomate, a restaurant about as close as one can get to being in Paris without buying a ticket on Air France. It is a beautiful restaurant, though it lacks the worn-down, languid charm, and savor faire of a true Parisian bistro. 

When you first walk into Le Diplomate, you notice a marble-topped table piled high with baguettes and other French breads. And beyond that a large oak bar, with a vintage, yellow bicycle surrounded by framed Tour de France jerseys on the wall. The scene is completed with red leather banquettes, tiled floors, and pages from vintage French nudie mags on the walls of the bathrooms.

Brunch was an upscale interpretation of classic Parisian brasserie cuisine: a French 75 for an aperitif; pommes frites, then a bottle of Côtes de Rhône; a baguette provençale with French salami, idiazabal, cornichon, mustard vinaigrette; and profiteroles for dessert.

On the flight back to Birmingham later that day, I got to thinking about the connections between travel and food and memory. Without traveling too far by modern standards, I had had lunch at a deli that served pimento cheese, reminiscent of home; an Indian restaurant thousands of miles from India that reminded me of a long-ago trip to London; and brunch at a French restaurant that brought back memories of leisurely strolls in the 5th Arrondissement. This notion of travel and memory was captured recently in a great travel article in The New York Times by Liesl Schillinger (Read article). In it, she returns to a small village in central France where she had stayed one summer as a young girl. She states that “[i]n the mind, geography converges; beloved landscapes, villages, cities, countries, all become one, in the borderless scrapbook of memory.”  

Her sentiments are equally true when it comes to food. And just like my memories of my travels will be no less idealized than Schillinger’s, I will also one day do the same about the meals I had one weekend in Washington, DC, in the late spring of 2014. As Anthony Bourdain once said: “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”

I’m already journey proud for the next course!