Mixing It Up

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

We finished our dinner at Noe with a dessert of goat cheese cheesecake accompanied by a drink called a Crème Brûlée. It contained Stoli Vanil vodka, De Kuyper Butterscotch Caramel liqueur, heavy cream and egg yolk, and it tasted more like crème brûlée than the French custard itself. It was an eye-opening finale to our cocktail-tasting dinner.

The next time you're out for dinner, don't ignore the drink menu. In Space City, as in the rest of the world, some of the wildest new ideas in dining aren't dishes, they're drinks. And you won't want to miss the icy pyrotechnics.

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.

Amazing Cocktail Recipes

Here are the recipes for some of the wildest new cocktails we've encountered lately, along with a couple of classics. Sorry, almost none of them is quick and easy. But all of them are impressive.

T'afia's Red Grapefruit Ratafia

You can adapt this recipe to any fruit or herb or combination you like. For red wine ratafia, figs and lavender are recommended.

1 Texas red grapefruit, cut into pieces, pulp and skin included
1/4 cup organic sugar
Organic whole vanilla bean (cut open)
1/4 cup Tito's vodka (made in Austin) or any clean-tasting vodka
1 bottle crisp white wine

Mix all ingredients together and mix to dissolve sugar. Put in a sealed container in the refrigerator for three to four weeks. Strain and discard solids. This will yield about four cups of ratafia.

Drink on the rocks, or use as a base for cocktails.

Robert Gadsby's Créme Brûlée

This drink tastes more like crème brûlée than crème brûlée.

2 shots Stoli Vanil vodka
1/2 shot De Kuyper Butterscotch Caramel liqueur
3/4 shot bay leaf syrup (simple syrup steeped with bay leaves)
1 shot heavy cream
1/2 fresh egg yolk
Dash of cinnamon

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Dust the top of the drink with a little cinnamon.

Robert Gadsby's Mother-in-Law's Tongue

There's nothing sharper!

3 cardamom pods
1 cup half & half
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of 1/2 orange
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, strained
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1/2 cup ice
2 shots (4 ounces) Absolut Mandarin vodka

In a small skillet over high heat, toast cardamom pods until they begin to color and are fragrant, about five minutes. Using a mortar and pestle or the back of a knife, crack open the pods and roughly chop or bruise them. Place the cardamom, half & half, sugar and zest in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Strain the mixture into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Place the milk mixture, orange juice, crème fraîche and vodka, along with ice, into a blender and blend until smooth. Serve immediately.

Makes 2.

The Modern's Red Square

This borscht-and-vodka combination was inspired by the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich's painting Black Square and Red Square.

Beet-and-wine mixture:

6 red beets
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 white onion, sliced
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 sprig each of rosemary, thyme, sage and basil
1 quart water
Beet chips (for garnish)

For the beet-and-wine mixture: Scrub the beets and toss with enough salt, pepper and olive oil to season and coat. Place in a roasting pan with 1/4-inch water and cover. Roast at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes. Cool and peel the beets. Place them in saucepan with the remaining ingredients and boil over medium heat until the mixture is reduced by about half. Strain and chill.

For each drink:

2 ounces Stolichnaya vodka
3 ounces beet-and-wine mixture

Shake in a cocktail shaker and strain into a clear martini glass. This should be a spicy, borschtlike vodka drink with a deep ruby color. Garnish with a beet chip.

The Modern's Study in Agave

This one is somewhere between a margarita and a mojito.

2 ounces Herradura Añejo
16 fresh curry leaves, chopped fine
1 teaspoon white sugar
Maldon sea salt

In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the Herradura with the sugar and the curry leaves. Shake vigorously, strain into a low rocks glass or margarita glass. Sprinkle a bit of Maldon sea salt over the top, leaving the crystals whole and large.

Jay McCarthy's Cactus Ritas

Margaritas have long been among the most innovative cocktails in the country, though they receive little notice outside the Southwest. This marinated prickly-pear drink resembles Monica Pope's ratafia cocktails, except it's made with tequila. Chef Jay McCarthy invented it in the early 1990s at the Zuni Grill on San Antonio's River Walk. The Zuni Grill once sold as many as 1,500 of these blood-red margaritas a day.

10 large purple prickly-pear fruits
Crushed ice
1 bottle (750 ml) tequila plata
1/2 bottle (1-1/2 cups) Cointreau
10 limes

Peel each prickly-pear fruit and put the peeled fruit in a large glass jar. Pour in the tequila so that the fruit is completely submerged. Seal tightly and allow to sit for three to four days.

For each margarita, remove one prickly pear. To remove the seeds, mash the flesh through a large-mesh strainer into a bowl. Discard the seeds. Put the strained fruit into a blender. Add 1/2 cup crushed ice, two shots (two ounces) of the prickly-pear-flavored tequila, one shot (one ounce) of Cointreau and the juice of 1 lime. Blend until slushy and serve in a large martini glass.

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