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Mixing It Up

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

Meyer is working on a new restaurant called The Modern, which will soon open in the relocated Museum of Modern Art. "We have a drink there called the Red Square, inspired by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich's Red Square, Black Square," Meyer says. "It's made with Russian vodka and beets. We're working on a champagne cocktail for pointillism," he jokes. "And cubism is inspiring some new ideas in flavored ice cubes."

In a new book called Raising the Bar: Better Drinks, Better Entertaining, former Gramercy Tavern manager Nick Mautone explains how partnerships between chefs and a new breed of bartenders have resulted in these new cocktails.

"The intimate relationship between the bar and the kitchen is paramount," writes Mautone. He goes on to tell the story of arriving at Gramercy Tavern one morning just as the kitchen staff was about to discard some oven-dried tomato chips. Mautone rescued the chips and used them as a spectacular garnish for his basil martinis, which he made with basil-infused vodka he already had in the refrigerator. The basil martini became one of Gramercy Tavern's signature drinks.

In his book, Mautone provides some guidelines for pairing cocktails and dishes. For instance, "match rich, creamy foods with cocktails that have bountiful acidity," he advises. "Salty foods demand contrasting elements such as sweetness," he continues. But then he goes on to say, "I generally do not serve cocktails with the main meal…their place is before or after…" Mautone insists that wine is the only drink that should be served with great food. The one exception he allows is a drink called a watermelon cooler that "goes incredibly well, much better, in fact, than most wines, with great barbecue."

Wine and great barbecue?

While I love Mautone's book and the great drink recipes it contains, it makes me realize how unique Texans are when it comes to beverages. Wine consumption in Texas is increasing, but it's still paltry compared to that in New York or California. In fact, we drink more than twice as much distilled spirits as we do wine. And if you figure that those spirits are diluted in cocktails, you realize that by volume we probably drink six times more cocktails than wine.

No doubt Monica Pope's confit of duck would have tasted wonderful with a glass of red wine. But here, as in the Caribbean, a cold rum punch just seems more in tune with the tropical climate. Or maybe we Texans just got into the habit of drinking cocktails with dinner because of our margarita obsession.

Since 1971, when the frozen margarita machine was invented by Mariano Martinez in Dallas, we have had our own little cocktail revolution going on down here. Whatever you think of frozen margaritas, you have to admit that they forever changed the drinking habits of Texans. When we sit down for dinner in a Tex-Mex restaurant, the question we ask ourselves is, beer or margaritas? And when we order margaritas, we will often drink them throughout the meal.

"The margarita's balanced blend of sweet-tart earthiness and acidity cuts through the richness and spice of many foods," writes Mautone. The fact that we eat so much spicy food in Texas is probably another reason we don't drink much wine.

Whatever the explanation, our penchant for drinking cocktails with our meals makes the Houston dining public an ideal audience for the new cocktail creations.


The Rising Sun cocktail starts with a poached kumquat lightly crushed in the bottom of a straight-sided triple shot glass. The fruit's juice gently colors the ice-cold mixture of sake and vodka in the glass above it, so the drink is clear on top and progressively more colored and cloudy near the bright little orange globe of citrus.

It resembles a saketini, a martini made with vodka and Japanese sake that's popular in Asian fusion restaurants. But the kumquat and the clever name are Robert Gadsby's original twist. When I finish the drink, I can't resist tipping the glass all the way back and munching down on the poached fruit that falls from the bottom of the glass.

A flavor rush of bitter citrus skin and sweet-and-sour kumquat juice explodes in my mouth when I bite down on the alcohol-drenched little sphere. It's the perfect end to the sake-and-vodka cocktail, and a perfect palate cleanser after the yellowfin tuna sashimi dressed with olive oil and herbs that was our first course.

Dining anonymously at new Houston restaurant Noe, we have ordered one of Gadsby's "spontanée tasting menus." But instead of having him match each course with a wine, we've asked him to match his culinary creations with some of his signature cocktails.

"Cocktails are a big part of what I do. I started matching cocktails with specific dishes back in Los Angeles," Robert Gadsby told me over the phone. "I hope to do more of it here in Houston."

With the scallops, he serves us a drink he calls an Iceberg, made with white grapefruit juice, white peach juice and the Japanese spirit called soju. With the lobster and shrimp in red chile comes Snap Crackle and Pop, a creamy drink with currants and bits of the crisped rice called bobo in it. The only thing you can be sure of when Robert Gadsby serves you a drink is that you've never heard of it before.

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