Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Emerson & Side Car

I've come back from a long hiatus and I'm ready to do some more exploring. Over Christmas, I spent some time with family near Baltimore and ended up at Club Charles where I was served a Side Car for the first time. According the Salvatore Calabrese, the Side Car was "created by Harry at Harry's New York Bar, Paris, after the First World War for an eccentric Captain who turned up in a chauffeur-driven motorbike sidecar." It's made with brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice. It's basically a margarita but with brandy instead of tequila. The one I was served came with lime juice which also works. The brandy gave the drink a nice warm flavor balanced by the brightness of the citrus and the sweet orange Cointreau. The only problem was that it was served with a sugared rim which made it a bit too sweet for my taste. I went back to the Passenger and ordered one and it was terrific with a good balance of sweet and sour and again the soothing tone of the brandy.

While at the Passenger I asked for something new and they served me an Emerson made with gin, maraschino liqueur, lime and sweet vermouth. As I've written in another post about the Aviation, I have fallen in love with maraschino liqueur. The Emerson is a wonderful concoction in the realm of citrus cocktails. The gin and lime add a tang which is brought to level with the sweet vermouth. The maraschino liqueur comes through as the star with its bitter yet sweet flavors. A lot of people say this is a nice variation of an Aviation, which I have to agree with.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Beer Cocktails

Just in time for summer Jason Wilson of the Washington Post has written a piece about beer cocktails. It's a great article that highlights some of the area establishments that offer beer cocktails such PS7's "The Cure" which I recently tasted. Beer can be a dynamic addition to a cocktail adding both complexity and lightness. As I've mentioned before, while living in Germany I worked as a bartender in a beer garden. The Germans couldn't get enough of what they call a Radler in the summer months. Also called a Shandy in the UK, it is comprised of about one part beer and one part Sprite. For people hearing of this for the first time it might sound a bit odd but it is incredibly refreshing with the soothing beer flavor complimented by the sweet lemon-lime soda. Give it a try the next time you're baking in the sun!

Monday, May 10, 2010


After reading the Washington Post's article on bars in the city that serve cocktails paired with food, my wife and I headed over to PS7's to give it a try. PS7's is great for someone who wants an atmosphere that is a bit fancier and chicer with a modern design. The bar area is separated from the main restaurant which gives it a more relaxed, loungey atmosphere. It also wasn't too full for a Friday evening.

I wasn't too thrilled about the accompanying condescending feel we had talking with our bartender. After asking to see their cocktail-food pairing menu we got the are-you-kidding-me stink eye and were told that in order to experience that we had to book at least a month in advance. Really? Is it something so special that you can't have a couple pairings on a daily menu? Or is it one of these things you offer so the Washington suits can feel special? So there we were with our thunder fizzled so we decided to drink our tears away with some of their specialty cocktails.

We started off with their "Cross Pollenation" which comes with Evan Williams Honey, a honey-infused bourbon, Blue Coat Gin, citrus dust and a bitter spritz. I was happy to see Blue Coat Gin which is from Philadelphia and uses organic juniper berries, organic American citrus which makes it a great American gin. I asked about the citrus dust which PS7's makes in house in which they thinly slice a variety of citrus (orange, lemon, lime), dehydrate and then finely grind it into a dust. The spritz is made with old-fashioned bitters. One thing they leave off of the menu is that "Cross Pollenation" is also shaken with an egg white for body and froth.

"Cross Pollenation" smelled of orange and cinnamon. My wife said it smelled like Christmas, like a hot cider. It was good but definitely something that should be reserved for a seasonal menu. The egg white gave it a nice frothiness and some body. It was smooth and sweet.

We moved on to their "Ginger Mojito" which didn't taste much of ginger. It did containe Domaine de Canton, a ginger infused liqueur which I explain below, but it seemed to get lost in the rest of the mix which consisted of standard mojita ingredients: white rum, lime juice and mint leaves. It was nothing to write home about.

We then had PS7's "Sun and Sand" which has Rootbeer crusta, fresh orange, Brugal rum and vanilla. The Rootbeer crusta is a root beer flavored sugar put around the rim. It tasted amazingly like root beer. Brugal is the Dominican Republic's number one selling rum. The orange was prominent in the aroma with the rum playing the central role in the flavor but not overpowering. The Rootbeer crusta went well with the flavors, binding the earthy root beer flavor with the bold rum, but made the cocktail tip over the sweet meter, coming off a bit candy-sweet.

The star of the evening though was one of their cocktails that I wasn't expecting at all. It was their "Recession Blues 'The Cure'" for $5. Made with Miller High Life, Domaine de Canton and ginger. Domaine de Canton Liqueur is French comprised of eau-de-vie and VSOP and XO Grand Champagne cognacs along with Vietnamese ginger. What I loved about this drink is what it is based on. I lived in Germany for four years and for two of them worked as a bartender and in the summertime the Germans love what they call a Radler, a mixture of about one part beer with one part Sprite (you heard me, Sprite). The British call it a Shandy. It's refreshing, not too heavy. You get a bit of a sugar buzz along with the soothing flavor and effects of beer. PS7's "The Cure" was an amped up, more sophisticated version of a Radler. It smelled of beer but once it hit my lips there was a huge ginger pop of flavor. It wasn't too sweet and complimented the beer well. It was terrific and is PS7's great little secret especially during the summer months.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Kushi - A Promising Work in Progress

I met some friends at the recently opened Kushi near 5th and K NW. Kushi is a great sophisticated addition to the growing neighborhood of Mt. Vernon Triangle. For a good first-take on the restaurant itself BrightestYoungThings has written a piece with a good overview.

Since Kushi is all the buzz right now it was full which didn't bother me as there was plenty of room in their spacious bar section as we waited for a table. I met Younes who is the resident mixologist. We asked to see their specialty cocktail list and he said that he hadn't put one together yet but was already working on a few original, nameless ideas which he was eager to let us sample.

The first nameless drink consisted of Bombay gin, Cointreau, honey, kumquat, lemon juice and egg white. By incorporating egg white into the drink, it's appearance was a milky-white - almost the appearance of something like a white-Russian. What I tasted was quite the opposite. It was very light and clean. The kumquat and Cointreau gave it a bit of tropical flavor and the gin blended in well balanced by the honey and lemon juice. The egg white gave the drink a bit of body but one that didn't linger. A thick sliver of orange zest along with the lemon juice gave it a crisp, bright finish. This will be a great summer-time drink.

The second nameless drink Younes made incorporated cilantro into the mix. I'm always a fan of using herbs in cocktails which can add a whole new dimension to a cocktail. Along with the cilantro came fresh ginger, lime juice, vodka, sake and club soda. Younes warned me that he would have preferred to have also used ginger beer which he was out of and that the carbonation was out in the club soda. What he produced was another light and clean-textured cocktail. The general flavor came off as a highly-evolved mojito. The cilantro gave it a sweet, grassy taste and the vodka and sake did not overwhelm the palate at all. Though I was warned it would be flat, I think too much club soda was added. It diluted the flavors. The ginger was lost and the lime was weak. I look forward to trying it again with the ginger beer and might recommend to up the ante with the lime and ginger to add a bit more pop to the palate. Overall, it has great potential.

As for the restaurant, it definitely needs to work out the kinks with service and delivery. I think it's pointless though to critique an establishment literally days after it has opened. Any new business will have to get its bearings and polish the edges. The atmosphere is open, fun and sophisticated but not snobby. The decor is a minimalist, modern-Asian look with an open kitchen. We went on a Saturday and they had a DJ playing a great mix of songs. I have to give the DJ props for playing some Kate Bush which I hadn't heard in years.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cocktail and Food Pairings

I wrote a while back about what I think is the ultimate food compliment to a classic gin martini - a roast beef sandwich with a good smear of blue cheese dressing and horseradish. For me the martini serves as a sort of palate cleanser with benefits for the rich, robust blue cheese complimented by the buttery roast beef.

The Washington Post recently wrote an article on how bars and restaurants in DC, especially those that like to think of themselves as cocktails gurus, have introduced cocktail-food pairings. The piece brings together some arguments of those for and those against the idea. There is a side that argues that cocktails are too overpowering with their level of alcohol as opposed to wine. Or the flavors of a spirit might be too robust, such as tequila. Or are food-cocktail pairings simply unfamiliar to the mainstream who has been conditioned to think that wine is a food's best friend? It's true that cocktails are usually not served with a main meal (the article points out that margaritas seem to be really the exception to the rule) but historically cocktails came accompanied with small bites.

The piece highlights cocktail-food pairings at The Passenger's Columbia Room, Proof, PS7's, Restaurant Eve, and Rasika.

So much to drink, so little time.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I've returned to The Passenger. Given that it's just a few blocks from where I live and my intent to explore bars as thoroughly as I can, I returned to be surprised. The Passenger takes pride in its ability to make recommendations for cocktails not commonly known based on your tastes. I told our friendly server that my choice spirit is gin. He gave me a few options and I chose "Aviation." The Passenger's Aviation is a medley of Plymouth Gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and violet liqueur. I had never had maraschino or violet liqueur and I was hoping it didn't mean my drink would be candy-sweet.

Upon researching maraschino liqueur it was noted not to confuse it with maraschino cherries. It is rather a "relatively dry liqueur made from Marasca cherries, including the crushed pits which give it a subtle bitter almond flavor. The cherries are processed and distilled much like brandy, and later combined with a pure cane syrup before it is aged and filtered" as noted at the webtender. Violet liqueur seems to have roots in Toulouse, France and was a popular ingredient in the 20s and 30s. It has recently been reintroduced back in the States and is gaining popularity. Lisa Bramen of "Food and Think" on Smithsonian.com has written a great piece on the background of violet liqueur and the revival of floral flavors in the US. It also mentions the Aviation, which apparently dates back to 1916. The Atlantic has also written a piece on the rise of the importation of rare spirits in the US, Creme de Violette being one of them. Apparently Creme de Violette and violet liqueur are one in the same.

The Aviation provided to me at The Passenger was something completely new for me. Its presentation was striking. It came in a martini glass and the drink had an almost steel color to it - a sort of gray/metallic hue. At the very bottom of the glass sat a ruby-red cherry. It took my taste buds a while to orient themselves, but what they tasted was amazing. It was not overly sweet at all. It had a balance of bitterness from the maraschino that complimented the sweet floral notes. You could taste the gin which served as a binder of all the ingredients. The lemon juice gave the drink a nice acidity and a clean finish.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Passenger's Hot Toddy - A Snowmageddon Saver

The Passenger, which recently opened in our neighborhood, is exactly what I've been waiting for: an unpretentious, come-as-you-are locale with a staff that knows what they are making, takes pride in their products and sets their own standards for cocktail creativity and sophistication. At the time we were in the mist of the biggest snow storm in DC's documented history so I went online to see if they are open and found out they have a Facebook page stating "we're open" so we headed over. After hiking about two blocks through knee-high snow we made it in and the atmosphere was warm, welcoming and neighborhoody.

Given the weather, something warm sounded nice so we went with a hot toddy. The Passenger's version was a nice and simple twist on the original. Instead of bourbon they used scotch: The Famous Grouse. Also in the mix was a splash of simple syrup and a large sliver of orange zest. That was it. The scotch was definitely the central flavor but it's intensity was rounded out by the sweetness of the simple syrup and the slightly acidic tone added by the orange zest which also gave a nice brightness to the drink. My only complaint is that it could have some a tad hotter.

I look forward to more of what The Passenger has to offer.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Chi Cha Lounge - A Caipirinha Catastrophe

Some family was in town on Saturday and it was restaurant week so we were not looking forward to the droves of people who would be at some of our favorite places so we thought we'd have a few drinks at Chi Cha lounge. Not that Chi Cha is on our bad list. It is one of those lounges that has stood the test of time. It was a great choice for the night in that it wasn't too crowded and its laid back loungey atmosphere offered exactly what we were looking for.

After rating the Caipirinha at Perry's I decided to see who else makes a good one so I went with the one offered on Chi Cha's cocktail list. I noticed that in the listed ingredients it said something like "simple syrup," which is normally not how sugar is incorporated into a Caipirinha but I thought I'd see what it was like. It was so sweet that all you could taste was the sugar and some of the mint. I felt like it would have tasted better over some pancakes than as a drink. The limes were lost in and their only redeeming value was adding some extra green to the color. For me, the limes in a Caipirinha should be one of the pillars of the drink with a good amount of sour and tartness slightly sweetened with some sugar. I couldn't even make out the cacha├ža.

I don't know if the simple syrup has been incorporated into the ingredients to make it easier for the bartender to squeeze it into the mix compared to having to crush the sugar into the limes and mint, but it seems they are getting lazy. I think this is a downfall of some bars where you have "bartender fatigue" where he or she has made the drink hundreds or thousands of times and they simply loose touch with the ingredients and the process - it becomes a mechanical procedure.

Perhaps Chi Cha should take their bartenders aside every once and a while and give them a refresher course.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oyamel - Classic Margarita

Just met with some buddies for a couple of drinks at Oyamel and we caught the end of happy hour so we ordered some of their classic margaritas ($4) and some tacos. They were like butter. The tequila, Herradura Silver, is as smooth as silk and played extraordinarily well with the freshly squeezed lime juice and triple sec along with what appeared to be shaved salt which dissolved immediately when sipping. However, they know the trick to a great margarita which is a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice. I learned that while getting a personal tour and lesson on the Patron Tequila Express when it passed through Union Station. It is often left out of or never even considered in margarita recipes and it's such a pity. It's a natural way to sweeten and to add a bit of complexity to the flavor.

I've also had the "Oyamel" with salt air, which is a spin-off on a margarita with fresh lime juice, Patron Citronge and Jose Cuervo. The salt air serves as a replacement to the salt-rimmed glass and the texture is similar to its name. Instead of experiencing the immediate impact of salt, the salt air adds a more well-rounded briny dimension to the drink giving the benefit of salt but in a whole new way - as a foamy cappuccino-like layer. It also looks pretty cool. Salt air is one of Jose Andreas' classic feats of molecular gastronomy, something he is famous for especially at Mini Bar. The Washingtonian was able to get the recipe. Whip up some salt air at your next party and you'll be the talk of the town.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Aroma Company in Clevland Park - Gimlet Gurus

My brother and one of his old college friends were in town and they wanted to smoke some cigars so I did a little searching online and found The Aroma Company in Cleveland Park. I'm not much of a cigar smoker but I indulge now and then. It was a Tuesday night so there wasn't much of a crowd.

I began the evening with a Hendrick's gin martini and three olives. Though the place had a bout a total of 15 people in it it took a while for the martini to arrive. Once I tasted it I knew that its delay was due to the care put into it. It was sublime. A perfect balance of gin accented by a bit of vermouth and the brininess of the olives.

After smoking a cigar my mouth felt like it needed to be cleansed and I was in the mood for something with more of a brighter flavor so I asked for a gin gimlet. Holy !*#!*^ Moly! It was perfect. Smooth but still just a bit sour with a good proportion of lime juice and just enough sugar to take the edge off but not too sweet.

It's so nice when you visit a bar with a bartender who is not only well trained, but takes pride in their work. I'll be coming back for more.

This place has a fun but not too loud atmosphere and for those who might be turned off by the smoke, they have a smoke-free back room. I would also like to give them props for helping my friend find some food. They don't offer any food but can supply you with menus from takeaway places on the same street that you can phone in, pick up and eat in Aroma.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year - A Revelation on Faux-Lounges

Now that we have entered a new decade I have been reminiscing about the last 10 years and when it comes to bars I desperately hope that this next decade will mean the end to faux-lounges, you know those incredibly hip "locales" where upon entering you feel like you are in a SKYY Vodka ad. Everyone inside, dressed to kill so not to offend the "dress code", is trying to fulfill their fantasy of living out a P. Diddy video, but in reality they are some underpaid bureaucrat who is buying the establishment's $12 cocktails on credit. I'm completely guilty of subscribing to this same fantasy - perhaps it's a phase some of us go through, but this past decade seems to have birthed so many faux-lounges that make you feel like you just dicked by a used-car salesman after you've left. You stand in line only to pay a cover that gets you in to an overcrowded room with a bar so understaffed that you know whatever you order will be some rushed and watered-down version of whatever you order that you opt for the most uncomplicated of cocktails only to be disappointed anyway.

Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of legitimate lounges out there created by some people with a real unique sense of style and sophistication. These places have stood the test of time and offer their patrons a great all-around experience focused on quality. What I'm referring to are those cookie-cutter meat factories that are the McDonald's of lounges.

I hope the next 10 years will entail the rise of the uncomplicated, come-as-you-are establishments that offer a real product and an atmosphere to match. Forget the bells and whistles, give my friends and me a drink, some nice music, a comfortable place to sit, maybe some dancing and lets enjoy each other's company.