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.

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