A few times a year, Anvil Bar & Refuge changes its menu to reflect the seasons. Now that spring is here, it's time to transition away from the toddies and winter-spiced drinks. There are no food changes this time around; Chris Shepherd's menu is still in place. It's a fair bet that the folks behind Anvil are simply too busy opening The Hay Merchant and Underbelly to even think about this right now. I am hopeful that when summer comes, an inspired warm-weather menu will appear.
There are plenty of new cocktails to get excited about, though. The one that has been most commented on by patrons I've talked with is Alex Gregg's soda chanh muối -inspired Salted Caipirinha. Soda chanh muối is Vietnamese salted limeade (although it's often made as lemonade outside of Vietnam). To reduce the bitter potency of the preserved limes in the cocktail, they are muddled with fresh ones, and cachaça and turbinado syrup are added.
For those of us who are not looking for a sugar bomb, the Salted Caiparinha is perfect for warmer weather. It's light, slightly sweet, determinedly salty and a little bitter. If you're into bitter flavors, request yours with all preserved lime.
Gregg's other cocktail appearance is "Dodge and Burn." That's a term in photography, which makes perfect sense if you know that in addition to being an award-winning bartender, Gregg is also a professional photographer who recently wrapped up a show at Catalina Coffee.
Dodge and Burn is a fizz that makes use of one of my favorite (and perhaps less well-known) amaros, Zucca. It's rhubarb-based and includes orange zest and cardamon. It's a little tangy but not overly bitter. Haven used to offer a fantastic, Justin Burrow-crafted cocktail called The Flying Spaghetti Monster that featured Zucca. (If you know the origin and don't find that to be a humorous name for a cocktail, we probably can't be friends.)
The drink came off of Haven's menu after Burrow's departure, but Dodge and Burn does just as good of a job using this fascinating aperitif. Nicaraguan rum adds dryness. Lemon and clove contribute tang and depth, respectively.
Recent Speed Rack winner and bar manager Alba Huerta offers some interesting concoctions as well. I'm most fascinated with her concept for El Vergel, described as "loaded with citrus - free of juice." It has reposado tequila, cocchi Americano, Aperol, chamomile and bergamot tincture.
Alba's "Turtle Blues" is a quintessential springtime drink and exactly what many cocktail lovers are looking for at this time of year. Light rum, lemon, honey, jasmine and thyme will win over even those who are new to cocktails, much in the tradition of First Growth, a gin, pineapple juice, St. Germain and sage cocktail that made quite an impression on customers two years ago.
While Matt Tanner might be at Hay Merchant now, he's still at Anvil in spirit at least. After all, this is the guy who singlehandedly made cocktails with mustard a trend two years ago. The popular Waxing Poetic is a holdover from the previous menu, and deservedly so. Bourbon, infused with burdock root and cinnamon, is the basis for this one. Absinthe, chrysanthemum syrup, lemon and soda round out the mix.
Tanner's Black Betty cocktail makes a surprise return from the Winter 2010/Spring 2011 menu. It is extremely rare that any cocktail (except Anvil's persistent "The Brave") would be repeated on a later menu, so it must have been missed. It's a fusion cocktail inspired by Indian and Mexican cuisine that includes fenugreek-infused rye, Bonal, Campari and Xochitl Mole Bitters to brighten up the cool, rainy days that persist through the advent of Houston springtime.
Relative newcomer Kenny Freeman has his first menu cocktail. It's called Rastignac's Challenge, and even the other bartenders say it's delicious. This concoction is cognac, amontillado sherry, Bonal (I see a trend here), Campari and orange bitters.
Bobby Heugel's Long Island Tea, an attempt to reinvent this drink with quality ingredients instead of the bar-standard rotgut, struck my funny bone as much as my palate. Kola nut-infused sweet vermouth gives this drink the expected tea-like color (instead of the ubiquitous Coca Cola used in a typical bar) but the flavor is out of this world and like nothing I've had before.
It's not overly sweet. It does away with vodka, which added nothing more than flavorless alcohol content. It's a bit reminiscent of tea, not the least of which is how easy it goes down. Just be careful or you'll just find yourself staring into an empty glass and handing your car keys to someone else.
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Under the "Featured Classics" section of the menu is the notorious Pimm's Cup ("notorious" only because I personally hate cucumber), a champagne flip, and throwback classic, Blackthorne. As far as the rest... well, I'm not giving away Anvil's whole spring menu here, so you'll just have to go see for yourself.
Anvil's ambitious cocktail program is what keeps its regulars coming in over and over again, and the spring menu certainly hit my expectations. Just as soon as Anvil's management has a chance to breathe and maybe catch up on a bit of sleep, I hope to see some new food to go with the innovative cocktails.