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Las Vegas Bar Crawl: Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Continuing with my Las Vegas bar crawl, I visited the Mandarin Oriental. Long-time readers may remember my visit to the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. I have also patronized the one in Hong Kong as part of an apocryphal and unblogged bar-crawl I performed in that city. Maybe someday, I will tell you about it.

Being a serial patron of Mandarin Orientals, I entered their Vegas incarnation expecting a safe menu and a pleasant, luxurious space. They met my expectations on both counts. There are not very many places in Vegas that strive for understated class; even the upscale bars strive for bombastic opulence. After two day days striding through gaudy casino floors, the Mandarin was a welcome exercise in tasteful restraint. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that it draws an older crowd.

It was the only time in the whole trip when I did not feel like a million demons of avarice and hedonism were bearing down upon me. For that, they get a very high score.

menu

Above is a shot of their menu. As you can see, the decadent nihilism of Las Vegas is fully manifest in the flowery language used to describe the drinks. I’m going to say some critical things about these drinks, but I want to emphasize that all of them were balanced, drinkable, and inoffensive, which is more than I can say for the other bars in my Vegas crawl. This was the best of the bunch.

robinshood

Robin’s Hood
Dried apricot-infused Glenmorangie, Cognac, Drambuie, Carpano Antica, Benedictine

This was one of the bar’s signature drinks. In the two years that have elapsed since my earlier visit to the Mandarin Oriental, my respect for them has grown. Relative to Tokyo, their overall score was average, but in other cities, they are a reliable place to order a well-made drink.

As you can see, there are a lot of ingredients in this cocktail, and the outcome is a predictable brown, bitter, and stirred. The split base and the apricot infusion (one or the other would have been fine) was exactly the sort of unecessarily baroque choice that is typical of Las Vegas.

teatini

Tea-Tini
Bourbon, chilled jasmine pearl tea, apple juice, agave nectar

Aside from the name of this drink, I found it to be unimpeachable. The contents of the glass fulfilled all of the promises made by the menu, and the flavors were successful together. Tea drinks can be difficult, and the Mandarin’s bar contains several of them. I would drink this again.

theharmoniouspear

The Harmonious Pear
Pear-infused tequila, apple, clove, cinnamon, cognac, lemon, ginger liqueur, honey-sage syrup

Good grief! No fewer than eleven ingredients, and half the drinks on the menu are like this. This feels like two interesting drinks poured together: Pear-infused tequila, lemon, ginger liqueur, honey sage syrup. That’s one. Apple, clove, cinnamon, cognac, that could easily be another. You get a bit of a pass since half of the ingredients could be called a “winter spice melange”.

That said, this drink was light, refreshing, and fruity. It managed to have a complexity of flavor without turning completely into mud.

grandmasmule

The Golden Leaf
Hendrick’s, Aperol, muddled mandarins, pineapple, lime

To be honest, the picture above might have been a different drink. The presentation was all a bit samey. I remember this drink having a nice orangey flavor from the aperol, and very little pineapple. It was less tiki than it sounds.

In closing, if you are seeking a pleasant mixed drink in a tasteful bar in Las Vegas, you probably won’t do better than the Mandarin.


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Las Vegas Bar Review: José Andrés Bazaar Meats

I took a trip to Las Vegas, and I would have been remiss had I not taken the opportunity to visit some of the more notable bars. Bars abound in Vegas, but most are the sort where you order Fernet on the rocks. I did some research ahead of time, and I made it to most of the ones on my list.

The first was as José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat. Andrés is a protégé of Ferran Adria, of elBulli fame. His bar and restaurant are not competing at the tier of his mentor, and in fact, the space itself is understated. Compared to the rest of Las Vegas, it is downright plain, though it fits with the minimalism (some might say, dumpiness) of the SLS, the casino/hotel that contains it.

bar

As you can see, the space is uninspiring. The bar is designed to emphasize function over form, and the harsh red lighting is anxiety-inducing. Clearly, this is a place that has sacrificed aesthetics in order to cater to a high volume of customers. Many of the small plates we ordered followed this philosophy; the platings and concepts did not live up to my hopes for a big name chef like Andrés.

As a counterpoint to these criticisms, the barstaff was well organized, and executed our drinks with consistency and aplomb. Despite my many criticisms, I believe that their failures were strategic, as opposed to tactical, in nature.

dirtymartini

“New Way” Dirty Martini
Belvedere Unfiltered martini with olive spherification and olive brine air

I ordered both this drink and the famous Ferran Adria “salt air” margarita. They were similar, both employing a salty “air” made by blending water with sucro, a proprietary sugar ester that can form stable soap-sud-like foam when aerated. The picture of the magarita looked exactly the same. The margarita version was better.

To me, this drink didn’t taste much like a martini. Astute readers will notice that it contained no gin and no dry vermouth. Scandalous! In fact this tasted like a glass of cold olive brine with salty soap suds on top. It had nothing that I enjoy about a dirty martini and two different molecular gimmicks. I’ve had sucro airs on cocktails before, and they can be very effective, but this drink was simply bad.

There was also a reverse-spherified olive sitting at the bottom of the drink. Unlike sucro airs, reverse-spherification is always disgusting. Without a doubt, it is the worst tool in the molecular gastronomists’ arsenal.Novelty has its place, but it must sit atop a foundation of quality.

leatherette

Leatherette (Leather-Aged)
Old Overholt rye whisky, Spanish brandy, sherry, sweet vermouth, leather

This cocktail was aged, not in a barrel, but in a leather bag that they keep at the bar. I have always wanted to put the flavor of leather into a mixed drink, but this was not the leathery libation of my dreams. The fortified wines overpowered all of the other flavors, leaving me with an oxidised (in a good way), acidic mess that had some leather in the-mid sip, but ultimately did not deliver on its promise.

This drink would have been much better as an old fashioned, and with a bourbon instead of a rye; great concept, disappointing execution.

aladdinmanhattan

Aladdin Manhattan “Smoked”
Buffalo Trace bourbon, vermouth, aromatic and orange bitters

I do not have much to say about this one. It is a fully standard Manhattan, smoked in a bottle. It was made with tasteful spirits, it was well-mixed, and it was well-smoked. Although this type of presentation is now commonplace in the world of haute mixology, I enjoyed the drama.

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Truffles & Bees
Grey Goose La Poire vodka, honey, truffles, lemon juice, bubbles

The juicey, sweet qualities of this drink were redeemed by the intrigue of truffle essence. Clearly, the essence in question was of the synthetic variety, but I wanted a truffle cocktail, and I got one. The flavors were balanced, and the truffle, which could have easily been overpowering, was subtle. I think I would have preferred some kind of green herb as a garnish on this one, but it was more successful than not.

If you find yourself at this bar, it was worth ordering, but it wasn’t worth the trip. Then again, visiting a restaurant by a top name chef is less about the quality of the food and more about the social signal it sends.

In addition to the drinks, my party ordered a variety of small plates, and a grilled skirt steak. They were good but not outstanding. The best bite I had was a tiny sphere of foie gras mousse surrounded by cotton candy. It was cheaky and playful. The worst bite I had were the so-called patatas bravas, which amounted to thick-cut french fries decorated with aioli.

I enjoy trying new restaurants, and the experience of discovery and adventure is worth the price even if the food and drink itself is disappointing, as it was in this case. If you find yourself in the SLS (a dubious choice), you would do much better to go to the Umami Burger adjacent to Bazaar Meat. They’ve never steered me wrong.


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Poison Yu: A Cocktail with Pear, Parsnip, Tonka Bean, Ginger, and Prosecco

I’m about to hit you with some winter-time Tiki action, a drink that manages to feel like summer and winter at the same time. Long-time readers may remember a similar experiment all those years ago in which James and I paired parsnips and pears, but today we have pared this concept down to pearfection and we hope it will be apparent to you.

mug

This tiki mug is one of my favorite pieces in my bar because it is so shamelessly gaudy. Tiki mugs are intentionally opaque, because most of the best tiki drinks are ugly, cloudy, swamp-brown colors. This is the price you pay for emphasizing flavor over appearance. For this drink, I didn’t want to be burdened by the aesthetics of the liquid itself.

I have never been a huge fan of pears, but there is a particular variety of pear called the Comice, or Christmas pear, which has a soft, custardy flavor and a pale green skin which, in ideal conditions, will exhibit a bit of blush. You can see it on the slices in the photograph. This type of pear is a hidden gem in all of the winter harvest. Its texture is like a ripe peach. I skinned such a pear, removed the seeds, and turned it into a smooth puree with a hand blender.

To be honest, the parsnip did not come through as much as we were hoping. An attempt to juice parsnips revealed that parsnip juice is a shockingly expensive ingredient per ounce, not even remotely practical as a cocktail ingredient. Instead, we tried caramelizing parsnips and then simmering them into a syrup with honey. It “worked” in the sense that there was a caramelly winter spice flavor, but there was nothing discernible as parsnip, per se.

To this I added light rum, fresh ginger juice, and prosecco, all over crushed ice. The prosecco did not keep any of its effervescence, of course, with so much crushed ice and pulpy pear puree, but its acidity and its flavor brought the balance to the otherwise sweet flavor profile of this drink.

drink

Poison Yu
~4 oz Comice Pear Purée
2 oz Light Rum (Bacardi)
1 oz Caramelized Parsnip and Honey Syrup
1/2 oz Ginger Juice
Top with 2oz Prosecco
Shake and pour over crushed ice into a tiki mug.
Garnish with Grated Tonka bean.

As delicious as that combination is, what really makes this drink stand out is an unusual ingredient called Tonka bean. Tonka beans are illegal to serve in the US, because they contain a high concentration of a chemical called coumarin, which has been shown to be toxic to the liver when it is fed to rats in quantities equal to their body weight. (Side note: Some types of cinnamon, specifically canela has a similar concentration of coumarin. No one has died from it yet, as far as I know).

Many thanks to the FDA for saving us from this dangerous, and delicious spice. Its aroma is like dried cherries, vanilla, gingerbread, and cloves, and yet there is nothing quite like it. I was able to buy some on ebay for a few dollars, and it came with a label warning me not to eat it, and a note about their use in “voodoo magick”. If that’s not Tiki, I don’t know what is.

This drink is named after a Chinese gangster who was active during the romance of the three kingdoms. When I read the story of this man, I knew instantly that I had to make a tiki drink that bore his name, and the “poisonous” Tonka bean was the perfect addition to drive home the theme of “Poison Yu”.

Cheers.

 

 


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Phat Beets: Beet, Rye, Cumin, Balsamic Vinegar, Orange Oil and Green Peppercorn

I know, I know, I haven’t written in a year. I’m not going to waste a lot of time on throat-clearing but I want to assure you that I’m still here, and I still like you, and as always, I want to help you elevate your cocktail game.

drink

I was fishing around for novel flavor combinations that would be timely for the winter season, and I found that green peppercorn jelly is appropriate to mix with beetroot, as is cumin, as is orange oil. I decided to put all four of them together, using beet juice as the bridge between the other ingredients.

For the beetroot, I ran several beets through a masticating juicer and then a fine-mesh strainer and then a chemex. Chemex clarification of juices works better with some juices than others. Beet is among the ones that work less well. Although my beet juice did achieve an elegant texture, its color was so dark that there was no noticeable effect of clarification. You could safely skip the chemex step, but you might consider straining through a 100 micron superbag.

I tried this drink with both bourbon and rye, and I discovered that the additional sourness that comes from a rye was a better complement to the sweet and earthy notes of the cumin and beet. Use a workhorse rye for this, as anything subtle will tend to be drowned out.

For the cumin syrup I toasted about a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds in a pan, then crushed them and simmered them in a 1:1 simple syrup until their flavor was extracted.

In the past I used to reach for lemon juice as my cocktail acid of choice, but a man can only drink so many lemon or lime sours before he starts to ask what other acids exist. Most every good cocktail has a source of acidity, except for the family of drinks that takes after the old fashioned.

For this drink I used a quarter ounce of 10 year aged balsamic vinegar. It is syrupy and sweet, but it also adds the ascetic tang on the backend that is needed to find balance and challenge.

Finally, for the green peppercorn jelly, I crushed ~2 teaspoons of green peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, and simmered them with sugar, agar agar, and filtered water. As soon as the agar dissolved, I poured the mixture through a strainer into a small mold and let it set in the fridge. In 20 minutes I had a firm, pale green jelly.

garnish

Phat Beets
1.5 oz Rye Whiskey (RI1)
.75 oz Finely Strained Beet Juice
.5 oz Toasted Cumin Syrup
.25 oz Extra-Old Balsamic Vinegar
Express Orange Oil over the drink and discard the peel.
Serve with Green Peppercorn Agar Agar Jelly.

 

Green Peppercorn Jelly
250ml Filtered Water
1 Tsp Green Peppercorns, crushed
1 Tbsp. Sugar
2g Agar Agar powder
Bring all to a boil and whisk until sugar and agar agar are fully dissolved. Strain into a small mold and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

This is not one of those viscerally delicious, I-can’t-wait-to-have-another-one type of drinks. I don’t think beet juice is anyone’s favorite, but my hope is that a refined palate can appreciate this as a much more cerebral cocktail experience. First, the imbiber should take a sip of the drink, and observe its sweet, earthy, and spicey notes. The flavors are more or less orthogonal and exist such that each is distinct.

Then, they should take a bite of the peppercorn jelly. The subtle piperitious burn lingers on the palette with an unctuous, floral note. Another sip reveals an unexpected synergy between peppercorn, beetroot, and cumin, pulling the brighter elements of the drink’s composition into contrast against the bassy note of the pepper.

I apologize (#sorrynotsorry) for the previous two paragraphs but I have been watching a lot of Iron Chef Japan lately.

Cheers.


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Colors of Fall Cocktails: Orange (The Basic Bitch Cocktail)

Continuing in my fall series, I wanted to create drinks that were wholly orthogonal to each other. In a course of drinks, each experience should be distinctive.

In my AB testing for this drink, I started with a butternut squash juice made by running fresh juice from the squash through a chemex filter. I do not suggest grilling the squash before making the juice. The resulting liquid has a clean, sweet, penetrating flavor of squash, and a pale orange color. I mixed it with Demerara 12 Year, brown sugar syrup, and a small measure of balsamic vinegar, and served it in a coupe glass rimmed with brown butter powder (see below).

The final product was intriguing but a little underwhelming. Although the butter brown powder was delicious as a “hook” for the concept, the flavor of the actual drink was average. The balsamic vinegar did add a nice contrast and dimension, but my competing concept was better.

fall_trio_orange

Colors of Fall: Orange (The Basic Bitch Cocktail)
1 oz Bourbon (Russell’s Reserve)
.5 oz Vodka (Tito’s)
1.5 oz Roasted Pumpkin Juice*
1 Dash Simple Syrup
1 Dash Angostura Bitters
Shake over ice and double strain into a coupe glass. Top with “Basic Bitch Foam*” and Brown Butter Powder*.

Whew, that’s a lot to unpack. The combination of a foam, a powder, and a relatively complex may strike some as decadent or over the top. I assure you that it is.

Let’s start with the “Basic Bitch Foam”. I am sure most internet denizens have seen this viral video by now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaghIdSJKvQ
One of the hallmarks of the basic bitch is the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL. For this foam, I made a pumpkin spice mélange and mixed it into maple syrup, lemon, egg white, and xanthan gum. I have found that foams work much better with a little xanthan gum for stabilization. Moreover, xanthan gum can be dispersed in liquids much more easily if you first make a slurry of xanthan gum and a small amount of sugar. This recipe is approximate, as I made the foam to taste:

Basic Bitch Foam
100 ml egg whites
350 ml Maple Syrup
50 ml lemon juice
6 g pumpkin spice mélange (cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, clove, star anise)
1 g Xanthan Gum in a slurry with 5g of white sugar*
Combine lemon, maple syrup, and spice mélange. Make a slurry of xanthan gum and sugar, and then disperse it into the maple syrup mixture. Add the egg whites and then pour into an iSi Whipped Cream Canister. Charge with two n02 cartridges and shake vigorously. Store in the fridge.

For the brown butter powder, I followed this recipe at Chefsteps:

Brown Butter Powder
225 g Butter, unsalted
100 g Tapioca Maltodextrin
20 g Powdered sugar
2.5 g Salt, kosher
Brown the butter, add the sugar and salt, and then combine in a food processor with tapioca maltodextrin.

By volume, this recipe made significantly more powder than I wanted. In the future, I will cut this recipe in half.

Roasted Pumpkin Juice
Cut a pumpkin into pieces, roast about 10% of it in the oven and then mash it into a purée. Run the rest of it, raw, through a juicer, and blend the purée into the juice a little at a time, until you find a balanced flavor and a slightly thicker texture. I’m sorry, it’s hard to be more specific than that. When it’s right, you’ll know.

Next time I make it, I’ll note the weights of raw vs. roasted pumpkin, and update this post. For now, I enjoy the idea of drinks which require a personal touch and an idiosyncratic treatment. If you prepare this drink, you will have to rely on your own senses, and you will end up with a creation which is a little bit more your own.

Cheers.


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Colors of Fall Cocktails: Red

I wanted to capture the feeling and the essence of the autumn season in a series of drinks that celebrate both its flavors and the colors. In that vein, I have continued to draw my inspiration from the Japanese concept of Shiki, which I learned at Bar Gen Yamamoto.

This drink takes inspiration from the classic Bacardi Cocktail, which is a daquiri made with Bacardi and sweetened with grenadine instead of simple syrup. Long-time readers may remember that I have experimented with the idea of a cranberry daiquiri in the past, only at that time I preferred to think of it as a Rum Cosmopolitan. I have learned a lot since then, and I can say with confidence that this iteration of the concept is much more refined. The flavors are tight, complex, and yet easily approachable.

fall_trio_red

Colors of Fall: Red
1.5 oz Light Rum (Cruzan Aged Light Rum)
1.5 oz Cranberry Reduction*
.5 oz Fresh Grenadine*
1 Dash Angostura Bitters
Shake over ice and double strain into an old fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

In some ways this recipe seems very simple, though one can find an opportunity for artistry. In this drink it lies not behind the bar, but in the kitchen. For the cranberry reduction, simmer cranberries in a bit of water until they are soft and falling apart, and then blend them into a puree and work them through a strainer. I did not measure this, though I did stir it. It is easily reproducible if you follow your sense of taste. Cooking the cranberries brings out their natural bitter, sour, and earthy flavors, which we wish to accentuate.

A long and slow cook is ideal here, in order to concentrate the flavor. Too much heat will destroy it. Do not add sugar to the cranberries. We will find our source of sweetness in grenadine, which is made from fresh pomegranate juice. The pomegranate, like the cranberry, has a tart and earthy flavor, so it pairs well with the relatively naked cranberries, and saves the drink from being too one-noted.

For the grenadine, I followed Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s method. It is stellar. I chose to omit the orange flower water in this drink, though I did garnish with an orange peel.

The end result resembles a homemade cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. Preparing the drink is easy, but you will only have good results if you are attentive to detail when fabricating your grenadine and cranberry sauce. These things must be made according to one’s own good taste.

I tried this with a variety of different rums, and I found that the best was the simplest. And although I did not prefer it, I was intrigued when I substituted a half ounce of the rum in this drink with El Dorado 3 Year. The caramel notes of the demerara rum add complexity, but for me they took away from the central flavor of the cranberry.

Angostura bitters create a subtle spice note, to help impart a warming sensation in the cold of fall.

Cheers.


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The Broken Shaker Craft Cocktail Bar in Miami

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I had the pleasure of visiting Miami this past weekend, and while I was there I made it a point to check up on the local craft cocktail scene. Wouldn’t you? Regrettably I was only able to visit one bar while I was there, but it was a worthwhile one. In fact I was pleasantly surprised; when I think of Miami, I think of long island iced teas and flair-tending, ala Federico here:

 

So imagine my surprise, and my delight, when I walked into the Broken Shaker in South Beach Miami and saw this lovely array of bottles, tinctures, fresh herbs, and vintage tiki wares:

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Ambience is important, of course, but the real meat of the matter, as always, is the menu, which I want to commend on several levels. In the past I had the probably annoying habit of wanting to order off menu, but as I have spent more time developing cocktail menus for different events, I have really come to appreciate the thought and the effort that goes into creating a well-balanced menu.

That said, many establishments simply do not invest the proper time attention when they create their menus. A good cocktail menu, as we have discussed, should be short and sweet. It’s better to have a menu with three excellent drinks than ten average ones. Moreover, too many choices will overwhelm customers and cause them to underrate their decision, regardless of what they order.

The bar manager at The Broken Shaker not only delivered a menu that was tight and to the point, but also one with a good variety of interesting and creative drinks.

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Look at this beauty. I can honestly say that I would like to try all of them. Each drink has something different and interesting about it, and there is a good cross section of different flavors and styles. Unfortunately I was pressed for time, and I was only able to sample their rum and coke, which intrigued me with the promise of a house-made cola syrup.

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Observe the attention to detail in their presentation, which used a red and white paper straw. Their syrup was spicy and balanced, an excellent improvement on the more classic flavor of coca cola. The advantage to a home-made syrup like this is that it can emphasize the flavors of whole spices and fresh citrus botanicals from lemon, lime, and orange peel.

The only disadvantage to this bar was that even at 3pm, they were packed. That’s a good problem to have, but it made me sad as I would have liked to grill the bartenders a little more about their techniques and philosophies.

If you find yourself in South Beach Miami, definitely try to visit The Broken Shaker.

Cheers!

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