Thursday, January 13, 2011

90 Hours in NOLA, Part I - The Bars

I recently joined my friends Wendy and Virginia on a four-night trip to New Orleans.  We had a great time and stuffed ourselves silly.  Armed with recommendations from a variety of friends, we did quite a bit of exploring that I want to share with you, but let me start where I always like to start...with drinks.

Napoleon House
500 Chartres Street

This was our first stop for a drink and a snack.  This 200-year-old landmark is right in the heart of the French Quarter.  The first owner was Nicholas Girod who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1812 to 1815.  He offered his residence as a refuge to Napoleon in 1821 during his time in exile, but the former general never made it.  The name has not gone away, though.

I recommend the Pimm's Cup (their signature drink), but the Sazerac was also nice.  I don't recommend the food.  Not awful, just okay.  The staff were friendly and our bartender, Mike, took care of us.

Every bar seems to have their own version of this drink, but here is what I saw Mike do.  He said the lemonade is made fresh every day, specifically for these drinks.

Pimm's Cup
Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 oz Pimm's #1
3 oz lemonade
cucumber slice for garnish

Fill a tall glass with ice and Pimm's #1 and lemonade.  Top off with 7UP soda.  Garnish with cucumber slice and serve.

Swizzle Stick Bar/Cafe Adelaide
300 Poydras Street

Located in the Loews New Orleans Hotel, the Swizzle Stick bar and Cafe Adelaide restaurant is managed by the Brennan Family who own the famous Commander's Palace Restaurant.  (This is part of a growing trend.  More corporations are recognizing the benefits of partnering with local entities to manage their establishments in New Orleans.)

One detail that is apparently important to Lally Brennan is the large ice block behind the bar.  It is supposed to convey tradition and demonstrate a care about cocktail culture.  I was impressed until I realized it is only for show and they have an ice machine that is used for drinks.  You can see in this picture how it has almost melted away.

We stopped in during the day.  It is a popular spot for lunch as they offer 25-cent martinis.  Really!  Our bartender was Douglas.  He was friendly and offered a wealth of knowledge about the city, where to eat well, good liquor stores, and tips for comparision shopping for technology.

I enjoyed their signature drink, the Swizzle.  It includes a secret ingredient, which is even noted on a bottle behind the bar, but I think it may have been Velvet Falernum.

The Swizzle
Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 oz Old New Orleans Rum
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
1/4 oz simple syrup
3/4 oz Velvet Falernum liqueur
club soda
lime wedge for garnish

Combine the rum, lime juice, bitters, simple syrup, and Velvet Felernum in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, and shake vigorously.  Strain over ice into a highball glass and top with club soda.  Garnish with lime wedge and swizzle stick to serve.

NOTE: Velvet Falernum is an alcoholic sugarcane-based liqueur used to flavor a number of rum cocktails.  It has flavors like almond, clove, and allspice.

Carousel Bar
214 Royal Street

Located in the historic Hotel Monteleone, this bar is outfitted like a carousel and actually rotates.  I was fearful of getting nauseated, so we grabbed a table instead of seats at the bar.  It is a tourist attraction, but not too crowded.  The service was not that great, but it is a pretty place to visit.  I recommend stopping in before 6 pm.

They were offering specials on champagne cocktails, and since champagne is one of my favorite beverages I had to partake...

French 75
Makes 1 drink

1 oz gin
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz lemon juice
brut champagne
lemon twist for garnish

Combine gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice in cocktail shaker filled with ice.  Shake vigorously and strain into a champagne flute.  Top with champagne.  Garnish with lemon twist and serve.

Sazerac Bar
123 Baronne Street

The beautifully restored Roosevelt New Orleans has housed the Sazerac Bar since 1949. The hotel was named to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1925, but was renamed the Fairmont in the 1960s until the Roosevelt name was restored recently.  The populist Governor and US Senator for Louisiana, Huey Long kept a suite in this hotel while he was in office during the 1920s and 30s.  He's responsible for a number of colorful stories concerning the hotel.

The bar is lovely with an art deco style, gorgeous murals, and lots of wood.  I, of course, ordered the sazerac.  As best I can gather, here is their version...

Makes 1 drink

1 cube sugar
1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
1/4 oz Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
lemon peel for garnish

Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice.  In a second Old-Fashioned glass place the sugar cube.  
Add the bitters to it and crush the sugar cube.  Pour the rye whiskey over the crushed sugar and bitters.  Returning to the first glass, empty the ice and coat the glass with Herbsaint, discard any remaining Herbsaint.  Pour the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture into the glass coated with Herbsaint and garnish with lemon peel.

NOTE: Herbsaint is a New Orleans brand of anise liqueur.

I saved my two favorite bars for last...

4905 Freret Street

Cure is a cocktail-centric bar housed in a renovated fire station with really tall ceiling, exposed brick, and a mirror-backed bar.  There are no pre-made bar mixes, no beer on tap, and I didn't even notice a soda gun behind the bar.  I recommend going with an adventurous spirit and don't expect Bud Light.  They offer small plates, but we only came for the drinks.  Don't go on an empty stomach, though.

While I am hesitant to share this information since I hate crowded bars, Kirk Estopinal really is one of the best bartenders I've ever had the pleasure to meet.  He returned to New Orleans after a stint in Chicago working at the Violet Hour, which is considered one of the best bars in the country.  Yes, the bartenders at Cure are concerned about quality, but the bar definitely didn't feel pretentious.  We all wore jeans and didn't carry fancy handbags and we were treated great.

Kirk was a great conversationalist and when we put our taste buds in his hands we were not disappointed. We just told him what flavors and liquors we like and he took care of the rest.  I didn't find him snooty, but drinks are not poured super fast because they craft each one from scratch.

My drinks had perfectly balanced flavors, but the spirits (primarily whiskey) weren't hidden by mixers.  I thought they were absolutely delicious, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what they were named. Okay, if my life depended on it, I could easily make up names for the drinks since that was it sounded like Kirk was doing.  He would list the ingredients which didn't sound too complicated, but then the names were like "Life is Short But Aging Whiskey Is Not So Be Sure to Buy A Horse From a Reputable Man."  Or, "You Can See Stars in the Daytime When You Wear Yellow Shoes and Braid Your Hair So Don't Forget to Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Street."  Yeah, really.  I am not exaggerating.  Kirk would push the drink towards me, tell me what was in it, and then would look down, and with embarrassment mumble some string of phrases that would make me giggle so much I couldn't hear him. recipe here, just go check this place out.  But, please give me some space at the bar when you see me come in...And, don't tell your friends.  Or, at least don't tell many of them.

Bar Uncommon
817 Common Street

This last one is a real gem.  Hidden away in the Renaissance Pere Marquette  Hotel, Bar Uncommon is a great cocktail bar.  The decor is very modern and I liked the glass bubbles hanging from the ceiling.

Our bartender was Chris McMillen and he came highly recommended.  Built like a football player, I must admit I doubted his sophistication, but I was wrong to do so.  Chris works behind the bar with his wife, Laura.  They were both just delightful - friendly, knowledgeable about New Orleans dining and   cocktail history.  Chris lectures annually at Tales of the Cocktail and is a founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail so he had some fun stories to share and they both offered some insider tips on our dining choices.  Both Chris and Laura are very down-to-earth and pretention from them.

Again, we didn't use a drink menu.  We just described our preferences and Chris made our cocktails accordingly.  I offered that we had just had Sazeracs at the Roosevelt and Chris made me his version.  It was seriously the best Sazerac I ever had.  From what I understand, however, anything he creates for you is just great.  But, the drinks are just part of what he offers.  They are indeed delicious, but he also tells a great story and seems to embody the legend of the barkeep from another time.

I won't try to recreate what Chris did in crafting my Sazerac, however, I will offer my thoughts on how his version is different from the recipe listed above.  I think he used a bit more rye whiskey, and I believe he used Old Overholt.  Also, he didn't drop the strip of lemon peel in my glass.  He twisted it over the glass and rubbed the peel over the rim.  It tasted more citrusy than other versions I have had.  I cannot wait to experiment, and I'm sure my husband will appreciate that.

Now the key to drinking this much, is to eat a lot.  Luckily, we had that covered, so stay tuned for more about where we dined and what we ate while we were in New Orleans.

NOTE about my pictures:  You will notice I don't have any pictures of the beverages and few pictures inside the bars we visited.  That is because I haven't discovered how to balance enjoying the moment and being a considerate patron with taking good pictures.  I honestly don't know how to master the lighting, angles, and composition a good picture requires while still maintaining a conversation with my companions and not being an obnoxious jerk to the bartender or other patrons.  Plus, my focus probably suffers after a couple of cocktails.  I did ask Kirk if I could take his picture, and he agreed as long as I didn't use a flash or make a big deal of it.  Well, obviously that isn't such a good picture.   You will just have to take my word for the stuff that is not documented with images.