Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cone Boobs and Cocktails

Like my Madmen avatar? Very fitting for last night.

Jason from Embury Cocktails emailed me for an impromptu drink meetup at Zinc Bar on W. 3rd St. Heather Greene, the brand ambassador for Glenfiddich scotch, who also doubles as an angsty songstress, was performing her new album with an open bar featuring 'fiddich and cocktails. Jason was able to get me, and Stephanie, who I had dinner plans with, on the list.

I ran into Jason the street as I was approaching the bar and we walked in together. It was pretty much what I'd come to expect from such events. Lots of suits and skinny girls with strappy dresses crowding the bar, ambient music (for once not blaring), dim lighting with red and green accents behind the bar and narrow, crowded passageways. It basically looked like a real life representation of a liquor print ad. A PR rep found Jason and me looking for a way in to the bar and offered to order for us. There were three drink choices, named after Heather's songs, as well as Glenfiddich 12, 15 and 18 Yr neat or on the rocks. We chose what seemed to be the less sweet of the choices, a sort of scotch mint and lemon daiquiri with a sugar rim.

Stephanie arrived just as we got our drinks, and since Heather wasn't on yet, we were offered to go to the tasting table in the corner. There, a well meaning Hart Agency model in a black strapless dress led us through how to detect fruity, sweet and woody flavors in scotch. We had three small drams in front of us, as well as jars of cut green apples, honey and woodchips, which we were made to sniff at the same time as the scotch, and then taste, first without water, then with a couple of drops. In the end we chose our "favorite" and were offered a free dram of that choice. I ended up choosing Glenfiddich 12 Yr, the "fruity" choice, and least expensive. I love Glenfiddich, but it gets hot in the higher marks. I have to say here that as much as I have made fun of the Hart Agency and even gone so far as to ban model representation for in store tastings when I worked at Morrell, this one stuck to the script and did a pretty good job of pretending she knew what she was talking about!

Not that I approve of them, I'm just saying.

Heather began to play soon after that. Jason had to leave for a dinner date. Stephanie and I stayed for one more song. Not bad, vaguely Alanis Morrissette-esque, but we were already sick of the free bar and wanted a real cocktail before dinner. What is this, 1962? We made our way the few blocks to Elettaria, thankful the day's humdity had burned off some. The bar scene was pretty hopping, but we got seats soon after arriving. I got the Rita Hayworth, pineapple and sage infused Herradura silver tequila, lime and honey. Stephanie got a refreshing version of a daiquiri. We sipped slowly and had some good chats with bar manager Joe.

Stephanie and I went to Perilla soon after for a fantastic meal of lamb belly (!!!!), ribeye for two with an off the hook potatoe and mini crabcake concotion and crisp asparagus, all accompanied by a juicy Arbois red from Jura. Dessert was a trio of ice cream, chocolate, peanut butter and popcorn (again with !!!!) Actress Kristen Johnson was there with a friend (boyfriend) at the table behind us (so now maybe "Third Rock From the Sun" is stalking me?) and chef/owner Harold Dieterle made two appearances out front.

All within a 5 block radius. The sort of night that reminds me why I chose to live here.

And also why I need to lose 20 pounds. If only I could just slip into my avatar in real life. But with better cone boobs.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"One Question: Do you need someone... or do you need me?"

Well, New Orleans is working its way out of my system now. Despite having spent most of the evening last night on my feet at an ear-splitting rock show and drinking three whiskies in an hour before the long walk home (thanks for the escort, Phil!), I feel the most refreshed and energized I have been in weeks.

So is it weird to think you're being stalked by a movie? 'cos I think "Say Anything" is stalking me. It started innocently enough. Cable channel surfing. I notice that it's on The Fox Movie Channel (I know, but it doesn't feel like I"m patronizing the GOP when I'm watching "Porky's"), about an hour in, just as John Cusack (Lloyd Dobler) is teaching Ione Sky (Diane Court) how to drive a stick shift. (Insert John Cusack stick shift joke here). It's been a couple of years since I've watched it, and decide to hang out for a while. I turn it off half an hour later as Diane, mostly at the behest of her father (played by John Mahoney), tells Lloyd she needs to take a break and gives him a pen as a gesture of her friendship. I love this movie, but I know how the rest plays out. I had errands to run and had to beat the impending rain.

Not 10 minutes later, I'm in Trader Joes selecting house brand balsamic chicken cutlets, (which, like all of their independent brand offerings, might as well be marinated in Kool Aid), and "In You Eyes" starts playing. For those of you who haven't seen the film, this iconic song by Peter Gabriel is used first when Diane and Lloyd have sex in his car and he can't stop shaking, (he says because, "I think I'm just happy.") It means THAT much to him. Diane says something like, "It's OK. Let's just listen to the song. It's a GOOD song." Later, when Diane has stopped talking to him and hasn't answered the letter he writes with his Pen of Heartbreak, he stands in the rain outside her window, wearing 80's last gap baggy cargo pants and trench coat, his Joe Strummer hair making cute little wet streaks down his face and emphasizing his impossibly giraffe-like eyelashes, blasting the song on a gigantic boom box held over his head. Over the years, I have selected my best female friends over whether they have always had a crush on Lloyd Dobler after seeing this movie. If this doesn't get you, if you are not totally ass-over-tits in love with Lloyd Dobler, then, sorry ladies, you are not worthy of riding shot gun with me.

Anyway, I found this pretty remarkable to say the least, considering the movie is now 20 years old and the song even older! So random. Next day, Stephanie and I decided to see "500 Days of Summer," a title that instilled utter fear and horror in this heat-despising chick, (like, it might as well be called "500 Days of Water-Boarding"), until I found out that "Summer" is the name of the female lead and it's about the number of days of one man's relationship with an unappreciative bitch. I actually really liked the movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has well outgrown his "Third Rock From the Sun" adolescent goofiness and inhabits failed architect-turned-greeting card writer, Tom Hansen, a male character the likes of which I haven't seen since, well, Lloyd Dobler. This man truly appreciates women, worships them, and the way he discusses it with his friends and his precocious little sister, how he can find a way to talk to Summer, how he can find a way to get her attention, how he can get close to her and how he can ultimately win her back, or even if he should bother, definitely strikes a unique chord. Instead of the usual body-tits-belch-jealous-best-friend-played-by-bloated-actor-who-used-to-be-cute-high-five-fests that most male bonding conversations take the form of in recent movies, Tom's conversations with pals are meaningful and insightful, much like the way Lloyd discussed Diane with his two best friends in "Say Anything," Corey, played by Lilly Taylor and D.C., played by (whatever happened to?) Amy Brooks. The difference in "Summer" is that all of Tom's friends seem to be male, but the little sister, who seems to be his relationship therapist, takes on the thankfully not overly cute turn of his own Corey. I am also grateful that nowhere in the movie does Summer get together with her female friends, who all drink cosmos, and dance around the dining room wearing only baby doll nightgowns.

Incidentally, I can completely understand Tom's infatuation with Summer, played by the hypnotizing beauty, Zoey Deschanel. I've had a girl crush on her for years, especially now that I know she can sing. I can only imagine what she does to an intellectual straight guy like Tom.

Later in the week, I witnessed a couple in their late 30s breaking up on the F train. The woman got off the train in a fury, presumably well before her stop. Leaving the man to yell after her, "Don't think I'm going to come stand under your window blasting 'In Your Eyes' tonight, sweetheart." Unbelievable! Out of nowhere, right?

That said, can he come stand under mine?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ah, New Orleans: Part 4, the Finale

I once again didn't need to be in class on Saturday till 12:30, THSM (Thank Heaven Small Miracles). Ran into Steph and Jen on the streetcar and grabbed some breakfast once again at Cafe Beignet as Steph rushed to her 10:30. Craving A/C I went to ground zero to check out the tasting room, though I seriously didn't want to drink. Yet. Inside the tasting room, people were gathered to watch the show sponsored by Martin Miller's gin, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The cute and charismatic English brand ambassador, Craig Harper, led two teams of bartenders, Limeys and Shermans, as a scoreboard kept track of their antics. I walked in just as the Limey side of the gin and tonic competition took place. Objective: to make as many of them in a minute as possible. The guy just dumped a whole tray of ice on some cups, quickly drizzled them with gin and poured in the tonic, plopped in the limes and for show, threw one in the air and caught it in his mouth! Score for the Limeys. Apparently the Shermans took a more analog approach, which slowed them down. Drinks were being passed to the crowd but I abstained, knowing it would be another long day. Next was a game where each team chose a rep to shake a cocktail over their shoulder while stirring another with the other hand, all the while making banter with the crowd. Shermans won that big time. Chants of "U....S....A!!! U....S....A!!!" and then the next event: bowling for limes. Another score for the Shermans. Finally, a contest for a fancy gin cocktail, to be judged by Martin Miller himself, judged on creativity, flavor and appearance. The USA team won it hands down, led by the lovely and talented Andy Seymour of Beverage Alcohol Resource. Cupcakes all around!

I hadn't seen Sabrina and Lisa for a couple of days, as it is easy to lose people at this conference if you miss a couple of parties like I did, and so we had a quick LOFT meeting in the lobby before S. and I headed to our next class, this one over a the Astor Crowne Plaza, Carnivorous Cocktails! Moderated by writer Kara Newman, and featuring stories and cocktails by Adam Seger of Chicago's Nacional 27 and Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA. We were first treated to a home made Bacon "Cello" (hey Sabrina, think Lisa the veggie would go for making this? Yeah, I didn't think so), which disappointingly smelled and tasted more like vodka flavored with fake bacon, like bacos or bacon bits. I think the spirit neutralized the natural sweetness and left only salty smoke. Next was a wonderful prosciutto cocktail with infused vodka in a perfectly matched, tangy, fruity mix of berries and citrus. Then a "ham and cheese" which consisted of iberico ham-infused bourbon with another suitable fruit mix, a hint of rosemary, and topped with a manchego tuille and rosemary sprig, not easily balanced on those little plastic cups, but they made it work. Lastly, we were treated to a drink version of MacDonald's McGriddle breakfast sandwich: the bacon cello, this time suitably mixed, a whole egg, maple syrup, and topped with fresh (if you can call it that) bacon bits for salt and crunch. A successful combo, despite being the epitome of American gluttony in drink form. Must say, all those pork cocktails were quite the mitzvah to a lushy Jew hussy such as myself!

Stephanie and I decided to skip our Hammer of the Gods class, which would be all Absinthe cocktails that we were both weary of at this point, and met up, along with Jen, and Adam Levy of the NY Spirits Awards (total mensch!) for lunch at Coops, which I was more than happy to revisit. Our seemingly long and sweaty midday hike there rewarded us with another great local meal. While there, received a text from Mike, who I was going to meet up with again later with maybe some chaperones, I mean, peeps, that Cassandra Wilson's publicist had contacted him to do a bit for the local radio station Mike works at, WWOZ, and that maybe we would all meet for drinks that night! Funny, 'cos along the schvitzy walk back to ground zero from Coop's, we saw Cassandra on the street listening to a bunch of kids performing. Again, didn't want to disturb. But I hoped that we could chat about it when and if I saw her later.

Steph, Jen and I would be together for our next and final class of Tales, Agavepalooza. A rousing tequila and mezcal class taught by the most distinguished people in that field: renown maven of all things drink, Steve Olson, star bartender Junior Merino, who would be making our cocktails (psyche!), Ron Cooper of Del Maguey mezcal, David Suro-Pinera of Siembra Azul tequila and Mexican anthropologist and agave culture enthusiast Rodolpho Fernandez, as well as added commentary from Andy Seymour (from this morning). This was the class Steph came all the way to New Orleans to take, and the anticipation was reaching an explosive pitch as we lined the hall (no A/C, we were dyin' here!) waiting to get into the class room. It was going to start late, still setting up, so we were treated a refreshing cucumber tequila drink from Junior as we waited. The classroom was near the pool and we could clearly see Tales bartender antics taking place there through the glass doors. Lots of bikinis, tattoos and wet bowler hats.

We were finally let in, Mexican tunes getting us into the groove. At the seats before us were a printed placemat with relevant notes about tequilas and mezcals, and helpful maps. On it were placed four tequilas on one side, and three mezcals in clay pots on the other, with room for a "mystery" sampling to come later. After a few minutes we settled in and got going, and Steve was a very energetic leader. He passed around a large piece of roasted mezcal for us to look at, there's Steph with it on the left. I have to say the panelists got a little lengthy and detailed, somewhat hard to keep paying attention to, but still, the subject remained intriguing to me.

We learned the difference between high and lowland tequilas and mezcals (highlands are more saline and funky, lowlands usually more concentrated and sweeter), plus sampled offerings from the different villages. Top left to right: Familia Partida Tequila Blanco from Jalisco lowlands, Siembra Azul Tequila Blanco from the highlands, Siete Leguas Tequila Blanco smaller batch from the highlands (a personal favorite since I initially tried it at Astor, complex, balanced sweet, smoke and salt), Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Reposado (which was one of the funkiest, weirdest things I've tasted, a little rancid buttery, lemony, grass, green pepper, white flower and banana and lots of salinic ocean water and seaweed).

The mezcals were Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas High Mountain Espadin from Tlacolula village (herbal, peppery, smoky), Del Maguey Minero Low Broad Valley clay still Espadin from Ocotlan village (my favorita! sweet BBQ smoke, red hot pepper, cinnamon, salt, cucumber, lime), Del Maguey Tobala High Mountain Wild Mountain Maguet from Tlacula village (hot pepper and smoke again, less complex than the last) and finally, the "mystery" agave spirit: Pechuga! Pechuga is made when a whole chicken (yep, you read that right, CHICKEN liquor mutha fuckaz!) is roasted and fermented along with the agave, with the resulting fermentation bearing a wonderfully drinkable, medium cloudy white, somewhat chocolatey spirit with raspberry and licoricey flavors. We ran way late, even for our late start, and the hotel needed our class room, so the discussion was going to continue out by the pool. We got another superb Junior-made cocktail for our exit, with a pepper-salted rim. Sadly, I couldn't take part as I was late meeting the Mistresses for a Seven Deadly Sins party I was to help them schmooze at, at the W hotel.

I luckily got a hold of Lisa and Sabrina before they got to the hotel, otherwise, no way to get me into the shindig. It was big, loud and corporate, but sort of fun in a cheesy way. All the sins had a respective brand sponsoring and little vignette scene to accompany the cocktails. I don't remember all of them (just recovering from sips of 10 agave drinks), but "sloth" was Firefly sweet tea vodka (what I refer to as the Dave Matthews Band of spirits. Some good notes, but the fans are total assholes). Miss North Carolina lazily swung from a tire swing as though drugged on ruffies by, well, a bunch of white, male Dave Matthews fans. "Lust" was go-go dancers swaying behind a big screen, and I think it was a rum drink, but don't remember which one, though at least it was mixed with Fentiman's superb ginger beer. They had some coconut rum truffles off to the side, and I grabbed a couple of those. Within only 20 minutes I had already heard three Michael Jackson songs blaring. I didn't want to drink sugary liquor at all by then, but a few brand people I knew kept coming up and handing me drinks or tastes of things, so I took small sips and put things down at every opportunity. At least I had some worthwhile chats with people, especially Hanna Lee, a super cool NY-based spirits PR rep who always looks fab (and always seemed to have time for a costume change between events while the rest of us came as we were, in all day strength), Allison Evanow of Square One vodka (yay, female distillers!) and the guys from Pipeline, Jim Pickett and John Henry. I got a text from Stephanie who had just left the pool area, that one of the pool revelers got arrested and tazed! (Next day I learned it was a bunch of locals who crashed the hotel, stole a bunch of stuff and were getting lewd around the pool, called out by security. Dang. No Tales dirt here).

Soon it was time to meet Mike again at 13. I walked all the way from the W to Frenchman street, hoping the walk would sober me up. Although I think I felt more drained, dazed and hot, rather than truly drunk. A quiet bar and healthier food would be just the ticket.

Mike was a little late again, but that gave me some time too cool off in the A/C with an Abita and catch up on emails and facebook postings. We started talking about our days, and soon we were joined by Jason Rowan of Embury Cocktails. I liked him instantly. Very easy to talk to, rich, soothing voice and we seemed to share a lot of the same perspectives about the liquor industry and Tales of the Cocktail in general. The other two pix on the left were taken by him on his fancy professional camera! After another round of beers (wine for Mike), we went for a little ride.

Jason and I both had a curiosity about seeing the Lower 9th Ward, site of some of the worst destruction from Katrina, and the last part of the city to get redeveloped. One of those things you kinda have to do as an outsider, but still, not in the same exploitative way there are tours of Lower Manhattan. It's not like there are postcards and hats to sell near a marked house, or a photo op next to a FEMA trailer. Jason and I were both surprised to see that things had already been built up a lot, it was still bad, mind you, but not as bad as you would think. Work was being done. On the way there, we passed this little gem of a sight, looked to be like a combination meeting house and general store, pictured left. And then we also heard this on the radio! Good times.

Once out of the Lower 9th, Mike decided to take us to his favorite wine bar, Bacchanal. Already I was feeling really comfortable, a rare connection with these two considering Jason and I had only known each other a couple of hours, and Mike only one day. Good friends have often come in trios for me, and I haven't been in one since college. I was happy. Getting happier still as Mike and Jason smoked a very potent bowl while were were parked near Bacchanal. I don't smoke. Anything. Wish I could, honestly, but my lungs can't take it.

Bacchanal is a wine bar out front and huge, lush garden patio out back that feels so removed from the chaos and touristiness of the Quarter, more like something from Tuscany than a fat American city. I selected one of my favorite Northern Spanish wines to take out back with us, Ameztoi Txakolina (Chalk-o-leena) Rubentis, a crisp rose with a zingy fizz, which were shockingly told would be one of the last bottles as the vineyard had been paved over! Bah! It was perfect for a humid night outside. No one else was there, and we freely discussed a lot of things, parents, relationships, tequila binges, hysterectomies, you name it. Very naturally. Jason had a kick ass camera and was taking lots of pictures, including this one at left of Mike and me shooting the shit.

The place was trying to close and I had gotten a text from Steph that she was at another nearby bar called Mimis with an old pal Virle who lived in town, and Jen. We got back into the car and the boys lit up again. Mimis was just a few blocks away. I began giggling appropo of nothing and everything felt warm and happy. Mike looked at me and said, "YOU have a contact high!" Awesome! Something I've truly always wanted! Way better than that hot wheels loop to loop I coveted when I as eight, although that would be so fun to watch in action right about now.

Inside, Mimi's was regular pool table scene downstairs, upstairs, it's a hot, sweaty dance party. A colleague of Mike's at the radio station, Soulsista, was playing some classic R & B and the room was totally into it. I could barely make out Steph in the middle of the floor getting her groove on. We all met at the bar for a beer, and started moving to the sounds again, the one Michael Jackson song no one had played in my presence yet and an old favorite, "Ben." But it was getting so hot, and we had just come from this mellow scene, it somehow wasn't feeling right. I got Steph's attention and then our trio were once more into the night.

By now it was getting past midnight and clearly, Cassandra was dissing us (dang celebrities...), but we went back toward Frenchman St. Checking out some sounds from the sidewalk, we made our way into a bi-level R&B club with a balcony. We stayed a bit and checked out the scene inside, but we were getting tired and wanted something a little less party. Back down the end of the block to where Mike and I saw Cassandra the night before. They would be closing soon, but we got a table inside anyway. More talking, laughing. By now I was positive my makeup resembled the face melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark and I was definitely now drunk as well as high. But it felt good. We all felt good. After yet another beer (I know, momentum, remember?) we headed for the taco truck (either I was THAT drunk or grilled pork and pineapple soft tacos totally rock) and Mike drove us to our respective hotels. By now it was nearing 4am. Jason had a plane to catch in 3 hours (he didn't, I later learned. Lucky bastard got another day!) and I had to be up to go to a breakfast meeting with the Mistresses and be packed by 9. As Jason entered his hotel, I knew he would be a keeper.

It wasn't exactly birdies and woodland creatures singing to me as I got out of bed and washed up, but I somehow made it to that breakfast meeting, and in wayyy better shape than the ladies, who had both been out all night and not slept. Mike had offered to drive me to the airport, and luckily he was on time. Before I knew it, this epic 5-day journey was over. I was in the terminal with a lot of NYC people, making sure not to let them discuss mixed drinks in front of me (too soon, way too soon). And it seemed we had all shared in our own version of Tales of the Cocktail that would stay with us, for some, whether they liked it or not. My best college pal Jason Bylan put it best when he once said, as he longingly stared down a bar after a crazy, drunk bartender he had a crush on, "I just found something I didn't know I wanted. And gained something I never want to give up."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ah, New Orleans: Part 3

When we last left our heroine, she was just about to meet Mike Kobrin, a trumpet player from NYC who recently relocated to New Orleans, and who was recommended to contact by my very great and close pal John, who always knows good people. The destination was 13, a great little bar/restaurant on Frenchman St. It happens to be one of the few places I encountered in the city that has food with actual vegetables in it, some of the dishes without meat! Not like I was ready to slow it down yet, but good to know it was there. A little late, but Mike found me at the mostly empty bar soon enough.

I think we had what can only be described as like at first sight. I didn't know what to expect, or even how old he would be since John is friends with old and young alike. But in walked, well, tall dark and handsome with a cute, scruffy beard, early 30s. We immediately got into a comfortable repartee. I think Mike was just as apprehensive about this strange chick from Brooklyn as I was of this whack trumpet-playing dude who left NYC to move here, and made himself an out just in case. But since we were already getting along well, decided to invite me to dinner so that I could accompany him to a little gig he was playing later. We opted for Coop's on Decatur, which I had been dying to try, heard it was one of the best cajun/creole places in the Quarter.

We sat at a corner table which was really two pressed together. We tried to separate them but were encouraged to leave them as is since it was easier for the staff to get around us that way. We ain't in NYC anymore, folks! Mike got a coronary sized portion of cajun pasta, which is crawfish and other seafood in a heavy, 10 alarm cream sauce. I opted for the cajun fried chicken, perfectly crisp and well seasoned, which came with a generous heap of moist, spicy, rabbit and sausage jambalaya and cole slaw, which I navigated around due to my fear of mayonnaise. I couldn't wait to tell Steph how great this place was. During the meal, we talked and laughed a lot, telling each other our stories and I kept thinking how amazingly well we connected considering how we had just met like half an hour ago. Of course I got to hear the story of how Mike and his current girlfriend got together. She is a childhood pal who professed her longtime crush after years of lives apart, and who lives in NYC, but he is trying to get to move to New Orleans. Throughout our time together, I never even learned her name. She is simply "my girlfriend." Possessive. Pronoun. His. Somewhere in NYC at the same moment, she was probably invoking the same possessive for "my boyfriend." My life is a cruel, cruel bitch.

Sadly, I am getting used to such sad realities, being single in my late 30s. The good guys, the ones I get along with and know how to talk to me, who don't go around quoting Seinfeld incessantly and show genuine kindness, appreciation and respect, are always taken. Or gay. Sigh. But I'm a good sport. And it was time to move on and keep enjoying my night regardless.

Next was a welcome tour deeper into the Garden District, still light out so I could see it in all its deep summer, lush glory. Big porches, balconies, intricate wrought iron embellishments, weeping willows, hanging gardens, lilac and lots of gas lanterns. It made me long for a swing, iced tea and firefly sightings, but we were late for the gig at Neutral Ground Coffee House.

We arrived as the band had already started cooking. There was a hot female pianist on an upright and another attractive backup singer who looked like a modern day fashion mag spread on hippie love children, a male lead singer/guitarist and another guitarist in rockabilly style. Mike took his place on a couch right in front of the band and I nervously sat opposite, but was quickly beckoned to sit next to him. It didn't take long for him to warm up and improv right along with classic covers such as "American Pie." They only played for another half hour or so since another band was due to play, but it was fun. I was glad I got to see Mike do his thing, and do it so well under the circumstances!

He had just signed a lease that day for a new 1/2 house pad nearby, so we drove by to check it out. Ample front porch, gaslights and lilac trees. Very niiiiice. The place had the added attraction of being just around the corner from a very cool local bar, the Bons Temps. We entered as a friend of Mike's jammed Southern jazz on the upright piano, there were free oysters (which I didn't trust, but others seemed not to care) heaped in plates at the corner of the bar and a big pool table. We got a couple of bourbons and Mike showed me the back bar, no A/C, but a great space for a band some other night. We hung out up front for a bit, then transferred our bourbons into to go plastic cups (one of the great features of the city) and went back to the car.

We made a pit stop at Mike's soon-to-be-former residence he was leaving for the lilac and gaslights. It's on a rough, abandoned block just outside the Quarter, but the interior is lovely. Big open slate kitchen and bathroom, jacuzzi, cool open shower (no doors or curtain, tres sexy) and pretty outdoor patio with lots of plants. If it weren't for the scary, desolate block, this would be prime real estate. And probably will be someday once the other houses get built up again. But still, it was another reminder of how far rent money stretches in places outside NYC. For the same price I couldn't even snag a dingy studio in Canarsie. I noticed that his place was nicely, but not TOO nicely decorated for a straight male's pad. Lots of Mexican touches, like little rugs and pottery, with a couple of photos on the wall. One was of a young black guy with big ears and a trumpet, obviously a jazz idol of Mike's. I asked who it was and he told me Lee Morgan. I knew who he was! Never seen a photo of him, but The Cooker has become one of my favorite jazz albums, I learned about it from a bartender friend in Brooklyn who was playing it in his bar one night, and I told that to Mike. Obviously impressed, as Lee Morgan is fairly obscure, he pointed at me and said, "YOU'RE alright." I beamed.

Back to Frenchman St. We pop into Cafe Negril, a reggae spot with lots of painted Bob Marley murals, where a band that Mike used to play with before they did away with a horn section, is just setting up. We met his bartender friend (sorry, name escapes me) and got another round of bourbons. Didn't stay long since the band wouldn't start soon, so went up the street with the ubiquitous plastic cup and stopped and listened outside a few other joints. I love Frenchman St. On one city block, you can be treated to live blues, jazz, funk, reggae, soul, you name it. And is that a tuba player on a bike??? I loved hearing the sounds wafting out to us on the humid streets. A new club, all wood floors and balconies, was getting set to open at the end of the block across from our original meeting spot, 13. We got past the doorman, a friend of Mike's and took a seat at a table near the window. No A/C on yet, and there was only one other table occupied farther in. A woman with blonde dreds with seated with three others and Mike pointed out this was Cassandra Wilson. Wow. I looooove her. Been a fan and CD collector since my pal Lisa introduced me to her music in the mid 90s. We got to see her live at Carnegie Hall once too. But I couldn't approach her here. She looked like she was having a nice, mellow time and I didn't think a fan interruption would be welcomed.

By now, the humidity and bourbon and sounds, the increasing lateness and fatigue and fact that I had essentially been drinking since noon (was that really the same day?) were washing over me and I knew the night needed to end soon. One more stop to hear the grooves from outside Negril, once the band got going, and they sounded fantastic, and then finally a fun blues band down the street, one more bourbon inside (momentum got the best of me) and finally a ride back to the hotel. A hearty hug from Mike (I'll take it) and into the Prytannia Park I went, happy to have seen the city at last and to get a break from the Cocktailians for a while. I ended up watching an infomercial for Dean Martin's variety show for twenty minutes, then passed out, dreaming of Frenchman St., Cassandra, sea monsters (it's a dream, remember?) and a new great friend.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ah, New Orleans: Part 2

On Thursday, I took the Charles Ave. streetcar to the French Quarter, walked a bit and grabbed a bite at Cafe Beignet before my first class, How Good is Your Palate? Taught by Paul Pacult. For those who don't know, he is considered one of the great spirits authorities, and his quarterly Spirits Journal reviews new spirits and is considered to be the ultimate guide to liquor. It was an honor to take a class with him. It was the only class I actually paid out of pocket for, and so glad I did. We were greeted by what you see in the image on the left (10:30 am, folks!). Six spirits, unlabeled. Throughout the class, in a truly engaging and fun manner, he guided us on how to blind taste them by breaking it down into seven elements (would be lost in translation to share them here). He kept hammering home how it's a fact of life that women have better palates than men, though the men seemed to be the ones asking all the questions and making all the comments. Especially this Scottish bartender I sadly never learned the name of, who asked a lot of questions in every class I had with him. Mostly good ones. Very geeky. Anyway, I gave myself a big pat on the back as I was able to identify 4 out of 6 of them, both category and brand. Cheating a little since I knew they were all supplied by Pernod Ricard and that Paul is a big fan of two of them. The ones I got were Plymouth gin, Chivas Regal 18 Year, Glenlivet 15 YR (OK, I guessed 12, but STILL) and Redbreast 12 Yr. The ones that threw me were straight Absolut, which in blind tasting was somewhat chocolatey and so I thought it was flavored, and Martel Cordon Bleu (I knew it was cognac, just not sure which one. Some guy thought it was Calvados, so Paul was right about us chicks!).

Half hour break, then Sugarcane Spirits Around the World. Panelists were consultant Angus Winchester, boutique spirits consultant Duggan McDonnell, my pal Lynnette Marrero who is formerly awesome bartender from Freeman's and Elettaria and now Zacapa brand ambassador (the main reason I wanted to take the class) and another acquaintance, Ben Jones, brand manager of Rhum Clement. Huge contrast to the professional manner of the last class. I'm no prude, but most of the guys were total potty mouths and seemed to be more interested in making double entendres for Lynnette to answer to than really teaching us about what we came for. We were also presented with three drinks: a lame and obvious caipirinha to represent cachaca, a sickly sweet Ti Punch (pronounced "paunch" and judging by its sugar content, lives up to its name) for Martinique rhum and straight Ron Zacapa, which is a dark aged rum from Guatemala that does indeed require no mixing, but still would have been nice in a cocktail since most of us have tasted it before. Not so worthwhile.

Decided to ditch the next class on Port drinks so Stephanie and I could take a walk and grab lunch at Napoleon House, very southernly hospitable and fun. We still had time to get a beer at Chart House before the last class. Stephanie told me about her class on the Molecular DNA of Classic Cocktails in which the class started by everyone being handed a balloon and a tack. I had class envy.

Last seminar of the day we had together with Jen, New Orleans Pharmacists. Not so exciting. A little dry, or maybe I was just getting tired. We did taste an approximation of Herbsaint cocktails from the early days and saw some fun images projected, but I could have taken or left it.

The evening's fun began with a huge party at the Presbytere, hosted by Diageo. 25 rock star bartenders making signature cocktails around a state museum after hours. Awesome. Very well laid out and a perfect way to learn about new places and meet who's mixing what. I was especially impressed that Dave Wondrich, who usually writes about cocktails but doesn't act as bartender, was one of the people slinging drinks (wasnt great, but didn't suck. He favors gin). Standouts were Steve Olson's made with Don Julio 1942, which could also be sampled neat if you asked nicely. Also Lynnette's El Nino with Ron Zacapa (I didn't say anything about her class but only I was glad to see her there), Jim Meehan's yummy tequila drink with figs. (Sorry, I'm pretty bad about remembering cocktail names unless they are truly memorable). This lovely bartender from the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon made a fab cocktail with our Raspberry LOFT (only available on the west coast as of press time), though at this point I only remember it tasted really good, not what it was. I didn't get to taste Charles Hardwick from Blue Owl's cocktail, as he was talking on his phone instead of mixing, which surprised people when I told them that, but so it is. I deliberately skipped PW's stuff. 'nuff said. Stephanie had a great coffee and tequila thing that I tasted, but I forget from where. Sorry.

Believe it or not, we had to leave this so we could catch a Spirited Dinner, one of many around the city that night, at August. Cooked by celebrity chef John Besh and hosted by Dave Wondrich, who I was amazed beat us there from the Presbytere, does he have access to teleportation? I was excited to eat there as we were getting quite the deal considering how pricey the place usually is. But my heart sank when I learned that every cocktail would have St. Germain Elderflower liqueur in it. Yes, each dinner, it turns out, had a featured spirit, hammering home the utter corporateness I was quickly learning would prevail. I like St. Germain alright, but it's very sweet and tends to give me a vicious headache if I have more than just a little. We also each had specially made bottles of something called 60/40, which was parts St. Germain and Averno Italian liqueur. We cracked one open to taste. Think coke, but more medicinal. Maybe OK added to something. Perhaps someday. I later learned that these were created to commemorate an after hour's party last year where these were the only things left to drink and were then mixed together with surprising results. Cocktail goggles, people!

Erin and Craig joined us for this, and we were seated at a big table with 5 others who were very much into it, so that was fun. Opening cocktail was a gin/Elderflower punch. Next we were served "Louisiana Sushi" which, among others, included a scrumptious crawfish roll that was the standout of the evening. Served with Galvez Tonic cocktail, which was sadly forgettable. Next was a Vietnamese/Cajun fusion shrimp and okra, somewhat brothy dish (awesome), served with yet another cocktail that was indistinguishable from the last two. Then Mayhaw (huh?) glazed local lamb with a sweet corn risotta and summer truffle. Parts of the lamb were way too rare for me, but the parts that weren't were succulent and flavorful. Was disappointed that the "sweet corn" was baby corn, not cob, but yet the dish still succeeded. We had my favorite cocktail of the night with this, a Claret Cup, which was Bordeaux (I guessed it was Merlot based and not American, am I good or what?) with Elderflower and, kill me, more gin? and soda. But it worked. Dessert course was most disappointing. A warm berry tart that was no longer warm, but still OK, with buttermilk ice cream and for inexplicable reasons, a way too tart and gelatinous passion fruit berry salad. This was served with hands down the most disgusting cocktail I have ever ingested (saying a LOT): The Rogue. St. Germain again, cheap white rum, possibly not even Bacardi, and half and half. No garnish. Nothing. So basically, it was astringent, flowery snot. Dave was gone by then and I wonder if this was somehow batched on the fly and not what was intended?

We were all invited to the court house steps (gotta love NOLA decadence) for a St. Germain party, but I bowed out. Last thing I wanted was more of that. Already I was feeling the little alien trying to escape from between my eyes, which invades my head every time I drink more than two cocktails with that stuff. Steph and Jen went, from the sound of it later, think it was OK to skip. So third night in N'awlins and in bed by 11. What gives? Still, head. Pillow. Done.

Since I didn't have a morning class Friday, I had a good lie in and made my way to the Quarter on the streetcar, this time headed to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and chickory coffee. For once a tourist trap that lives up to its hype! Despite being cranked out by the hundreds each hour, they were perfectly warm, crisp, light and sugary and the coffee was gorgeously balanced. I still had at least an hour to kill before heading to ground zero for class, so I wandered around Jackson Square in the muggy heat, ducked into another coffee place for some A/C after 15 mins.

The noon class that I was most excited about was Drinks From the 1600s, led by cocktail historian Darcy S. O'Neill. A wonderful presentation using lots of visuals, mostly shots of paintings from the century, some with drunken monkeys in them, always a crowd pleaser. Most of the cocktails of the century were mixed as cures, not pleasurable drinks, with names like Plague Water, which was essentially Absinthe with ginger, sherry, vinegar and sage. Yup, we tried it. We learned of tips such as how to avoid getting drunk from drink by eating roasted goat lung or raw coleworts. We also had a way yummy cocktail called the Trappistine which was brandy, Benedictine (already in existence back then), Pernod Absinthe (to cover the anise and wormwood), dry vermouth, lemon balm tea infusion, rosewater, fresh mint and dash of bitters. Some more pictures, facts and a discussion of how coffee was protested by women as being the killer of the "grand kindness." Which explains a great deal.

Next class was a disappointing MESS. Cocktails of the Seven Seas. So many creative and fun ways to do this, but this was like watching an audience perspective's slideshow, not even a bootleg DVD, but SLIDESHOW, of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but with maps and without Johnny Depp, which is kinda like porn dialogue without the sex. The moderator had it together but was a total snooze, and the other panelist, a bartender I know who works at a well known NYC steakhouse, was schnoggered and incapable of speaking, his ship had set sail long before we got there. Perhaps he should have eaten roasted goat lung or colewort for breakfast? We had only one cocktail, but at least it was good. The Voyager: Don Q rum, Benedictine, again, Velvet Falernum, lime juice, dash Angostura bitters. But not worth sitting through the other crap. Glad I didn't pay for it!

Got a text that Steph's class was canceled, so she was back at the Chart House with her friend Ryan, who had recently moved to town. I had just enough time to catch them before meeting up with Mike, John's friend who I was supposed to contact, mentioned in the previous post. The true taste of New Orleans was just about to come.

Ah, New Orleans: Part I

Disclaimer: Yes, I know it's been a while. But these next few postings should well make up for my silence. This bit will be in at least three parts, there is that much to say. It was only 5 1/2 days, but somehow I lived more during those days than I have in as many years. Enjoy. I sure did coming up with the material!

So I spent most of last week in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, which is a huge industry convention for all things spirits-based and what to mix them with. The days are filled with tastings as well as seminars, and the evenings are all about the parties. I was there as the unofficial third mistress of LOFT liqueur (see last post), and was partially sponsored by them to do this, but also to obviously meet new people in the industry and hopefully plant the seeds to grow much needed job fruit.

All the events center around the French Quarter and specifically, the Hotel Monteleone, which I will from here on out refer to as "ground zero." I was not staying there, but rather in the Prytannia Park Hotel, just inside the Garden District about 15 minutes away. At first I considered my choice to do this, both for monetary reasons as well as having a place to escape to from the Cocktalians and the tourists, a bad one since it was a little inconvenient and meant that I didn't have the option to freshen up before the evening's events. So most days, after walking around in the steam bath (each day it was in the mid 90s in like 90% humidity, and rained HARD in the afternoon for about 10 minutes, that kind of rain can actually bruise a person!), I wasn't exactly fresh, but then no one else was all that much either. By day two I had very much come to appreciate my decision. It was good to get away and the people who run the hotel are sweethearts, even if it wasn't exactly the lap of luxury like the Monteleone or the bargain of a $50 a night stay at the more streamlined Marriott.

I arrived Tuesday afternoon, along with LOFT vice-mistress, Sabrina. After settling in at our respective residences (the mistresses were staying at ground zero), we all met in the Carousel Bar at the hotel, named thus because it revolves, but kinda quickly. Which makes it impossible to order a drink if it's crowded because the bartenders are essentially in the same places, but if you don't have a seat, you are forced to keep walking around to maintain the same space where you found a way in to the bar itself, till they notice you are thirsty, and continue to earn your drink, elbowing around the crowd, as you wait for it. Anyway, the first round of cocktalians were already there, and drinking. LOTS. I noticed quickly most of these people were not going to even attempt to pace themselves. Great. Oh, that first drink? Sazerac. When in Rome.

We had to find a vegetarian friendly spot for Lisa, and luckily, my good friend John has a pal there I could consult (more on that later). In New Orleans, that's not such a big easy, as vegetables are mainly incidental ingredients used to thicken the butter, seafood and pork. But he recommended a great African place about 10 blocks from the hotel called Bennachin. We had to wait for it outside in the heat, but well worth it.

After dinner and a sultry night time stroll back down Royal, we went to our first party, sponsored by Benedictine, at Latrobe's. Amid the glitz and human statues, all the bartenders were wearing monk's robes and had to take and deliver drink orders in mannerisms that I guess were intended to be "pious," which meant a lot of exaggerated bowing and hand sweeps. Of course there were only 3 cocktails to choose from and they were all sickly sweet, but people drank them anyway. It was pretty dang loud. DJ monk was spinning lots of Michael Jackson and assorted 80s and 90s dance tunes as we all tried to gather for our first schmoozing opportunity. The only cool schtick was a "spirits reading" where we were then given a goblet that would befit our chosen prophecy and place in society. I, of course, was a peasant. But I love the wooden goblet I got to keep. After making the rounds once, we all decided to leave to rest up for the next day.

Day two, the mistresses and I had to work a Fresh Market event in the tasting room all day, focusing on organic liquor brands. We were disappointed to learn that we would not be serving our featured cocktail, peach puree with lavender liqueur, ginger and mint (yeah, not so much, but I didn't say it out loud) all day. But instead, each featured brand would only get two hours, but we had to represent all day anyway. Which meant we had to stand around and constantly explain that, while pouring out our flavors neat to anyone who wanted to sample them. However, it was under these circumstances that I initially met the most people. I ended up skipping two of the seminars I was to attend that day so I could keep greeting the crowds.

But I did attend one seminar that day, The Art of Banging Out Cocktails like a Maniac, led by bar owners/tenders Philip Duff of Bols and Bar 74 in Amsterdam (though he is Irish) and Dushan Zaric (originally from Belgrade) of Employees Only and Macao Trading Co. What a way to start! Philip and Dushan, neither of whom I have previously met, gave a meaningful, hilarious talk about essentially cutting the bullshit and just making good drinks, enough to turn a bigger profit for your bar business. Stop talking about the colors of Jerry Thomas' ties and adjusting your stupid bowler hat and make the damn drinks. Have your work station well prepared, use good but not too expensive ingredients and learn to judge how many of them, especially the perishable ones, you really need based on sales, which will vary throughout the week. Oh, and no matter what, they're BARTENDERS. Not mixologists. Not bar chefs. But bartenders. Main job is to make drinks and make sure people are having a good time while earning money. This was heartening, a couple of weeks after having drinks at a new, trendy and expensive cocktail establishment in the East Village (this one focusing on one main spirit from South America, I will say no more) where John and I were treated like thirsty vermin by totally unfriendly and pretentious staff. It depressed me, made me think the art of bartending was going the way of the newspaper. I also enjoyed little asides from Philip, like when he accidentally dropped the mic and chalked that up to an overdeveloped right hand... from making "too many presentations!" And that a bartender must be a swan. I.e. "...paddle like a bastard below, but be graceful up top." They also made a short film about a typical prep day at Employees Only. It put me in a great mood. Over by 6:00, ready for a real night out.

Since I didn't have tickets to that evening's Plymouth gin event (my main complaint about Tales, incidentally, is that after everyone has shelled out all that dough, the parties were ticketed and somewhat tough to get into even if you came with important people), I met up with my best gal pal Stephanie Moreno, spirits buyer and floor manager at Astor Wines, (where I worked for two years and got my real entre into the spirits world) who had just arrived, along with Jen Smith, the program director at Astor Center. They were staying with a former co-worker, Erin Toomey, who had just moved to town with her hubby Craig, who's in the Coast Guard. We went round the corner to the Chart House on Chartres St (pronounced "charters" as I was corrected into saying). An awesome local joint, that like everything, was a bit rough around the edges but so much fun. My first bottle of Abita while in town. Great bartender. Yep, friendly, makes people feel special, sense of humor and quick. This became our local throughout the trip.

The three ladies and I went to Cochon for dinner, a place my parents had said they didn't take a shine to (that was years ago), but that everyone else seemed to give high praise. Well, everyone was right! Amazing meal. We pigged out in every sense. Charcuteries, fried pigs ears that came with a rum mustard sauce I could utterly mainline, home made boudin (fried), fried alligator in cajun sauce, chicken liver crostinis with another yummy sauce. For dinner I had a rabbit stew with dumplings and also very much enjoyed my tastes of everyone else's entree, which ranged from beautifully prepared fish to an oyster and bacon poboy. We shared a gorgeous blueberry lemon custard tart with buttermilk ice cream and this AMAZING chocolate and chickory pudding, as well as some cocktails, my favorite being rye with Clear Creek loganberry liqueur and lemon. In attendance throughout the restaurant were main cocktail historian Dave Wondrich and bartender Jim Meehan, who was eventually named best bartender for his work at PDT at the closing awards dinner, which I didn't get to attend. We were all so full, no way there would be more drinking, so we all retired. Not so for the other cocktalians around the city, as I later learned. Oy.

New Orleans is a great compliment to my self esteem. Not only am I incredibly thin compared to most locals, but I am the picture of moderation compared to many of my drinks colleagues.

The next day, the real Tales of the Cocktail began to be told. More on that later.