Mixing It Up

The world's best chefs have turned their attention to cocktails, with surprising results

There's something that looks like a Popsicle floating around in my rum. I take another look at the drink menu. The "West Indian punch" at Monica Pope's T'afia is made with pineapple ratafia (a flavored, fortified wine), Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum, fresh lime and melting pineapple essence. So this is what "melting pineapple essence" means, I chuckle to myself, fishing out the frozen pineapple rectangle and biting off a hunk.

T'afia's cocktail menu is full of surprises: a fruity drink made with fig and lavender red wine ratafia, an "elixir" that combines champagne with celery and parsley juice, and an apple brandy sour made with the expensive French apple brandy called Calvados. "Being creative in the bar is certainly a new trend," Pope tells me on the phone. "People sit up and notice our drinks -- it starts us off on the right foot."

Cocktails have entered a new era. The world's top chefs are mixing the drinks. And the gourmet ingredients and elaborate techniques that are becoming common in 21st-century mixology blur the line between the bar and the kitchen.

Andrea Lazar of T'afia makes the restaurant's 
namesake drink: a ratafia, marinated fruit in a mixture 
of wine and spirits.
Daniel Kramer
Andrea Lazar of T'afia makes the restaurant's namesake drink: a ratafia, marinated fruit in a mixture of wine and spirits.
All the ratafia ingredients are local: organic sugar from 
Sugar Land, vodka from Austin, wines from Texas 
Daniel Kramer
All the ratafia ingredients are local: organic sugar from Sugar Land, vodka from Austin, wines from Texas wineries.

William Grimes, former restaurant critic of The New York Times, called the renaissance of the cocktail one of the most important changes to take place during his tenure. Author of the book Straight Up or On the Rocks, Grimes says the new cocktail era is a confluence of several trends. The revival of classic American cocktails like the martini and the Manhattan was brought about by renewed interest in Hollywood glamour and lounge culture, he says.

The fascination with classic cocktails in turn inspired restaurants to begin inventing new drinks to match their food. Tabla, an innovative Indian restaurant in New York where "cocktails converse with the menu," as Grimes puts it, was one of the first to use cardamom and turmeric in mixed drinks. Sono, a Japanese fusion restaurant in New York, flavors its margaritas with a fragrant herb called shiso. "More than a century after the martini and the Manhattan conquered the world, the American mixed drink looks poised to enter its second golden age," Grimes concludes.

I don't know if my rum punch is "conversing" with the rich and gamy duck leg confit I've ordered for dinner, but they sure taste good together. We're eating outside under a tent top on the front patio of T'afia because there are no other tables available. But on a 75-degree February night, I can't think of a better place to be.

There's something about Houston's tropical climate that makes cocktails especially appropriate with dinner. Monica Pope must have had this in mind when she named her restaurant T'afia, which is slang both for cheap Caribbean rum and a Mediterranean beverage called ratafia, which is made by marinating fruit in a mixture of wine and spirits.

"About three or four years ago, we started making these fortified wines [ratafias] with local grapefruit and local oranges. It was wonderful stuff," Pope says. Andrea Lazar, Pope's partner, took on the project of keeping three ratafias aging at all times, so T'afia's bar would never run out of its namesake potion.

The parking lot of the restaurant is also the home of a weekend farmers' market. Pope often buys her organic ingredients there. "You get 400 or 500 pounds of Meyer lemons, and you think, 'Wow, we can use this in a ratafia.' And it's all local," she says. "We are also using organic sugar out of Sugar Land; Tito's vodka, which is distilled in Austin; and we're buying inexpensive blending wines from various Texas wineries."

Houston is on the cutting edge of the new cocktail trend, with Monica Pope's T'afia and Robert Gadsby's Noe leading the way. But amazing new cocktails are turning up in Houston restaurants large and small. Saffron, the new Moroccan spot on Lexington, is serving an incredible almond milk martini and a delicate pomegranate-and-pear drink they call a pompar. Thai Sticks on Montrose has a hot and spicy cocktail called a Thai Tiger that's made with lemongrass and pepper vodka. At Rickshaw on Westheimer, there are several saketinis garnished with cucumbers, along with some Latin-Asian fusion drinks, like the ginger-apple mojito. The list goes on and on.

Deconstructing well-known cocktails and reinventing them in altered forms is part of the new trend. Besides the rum punch with frozen pineapple and ratafia, T'afia also serves a martini with melting olive essence, a Pimm's cup with melting cucumber essence, and a brandy sour with premium cognac and melting cherry essence.

The deconstructed cocktail is one of many new ideas in the restaurant business that can be traced back to the Spanish magician-chef Ferran Adria. For the last ten years, Adria, better known as the foam guy, has been alternately heralded as the world's most brilliant chef and dismissed as a trickster. But love him or hate him, these days everybody's borrowing ideas from him.

Spain's culinary mad scientist has become famous for a lot more than turning sauces into foams. Half the year Adria works in the kitchen of his restaurant, El Bulli, and the other half he spends in a laboratory. There, Adria works with chemicals and machinery familiar to the processed-food industry. He deconstructs our favorite foods and then reassembles them in an altered form. Solids are turned into liquids and liquids are turned into foams, which might then be frozen or solidified with gelatin into "clouds" and "sponges."

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