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.
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."
Adria's couscous is made of tiny cauliflower granules. What seem to be pasta noodles are actually gelatinized consommé, and the rice grains in his risotto are precisely cut, three-eighths-inch-long pieces of soybean sprouts. But some of Adria's wildest experiments are performed on one of his favorite subjects: the cocktail.
A whiskey sour or daiquiri might be served in alternating layers of frozen and hot liquids. (This trick is accomplished using liquid nitrogen, a favorite Adria transformer.) In another cocktail, the liquor is encased in a frozen lozenge made of fruit that melts to form the cocktail.
Ferran Adria also uses fancy Jell-O shots to create solid cocktails that you eat. In Adria's deconstructed piña colada, pineapple sorbet, coconut foam and a rum Jell-O shot are lined up on a ceramic Chinese soup spoon. The separate chewable elements don't become a cocktail until you mix them all up in your mouth.
"Cooking techniques have come into the world of cocktailing -- this is an authentic revolution," Adria told me via a Q&A on egullet.org, an online food forum. "We can say that in Spain there has been real innovation in the field of cocktails. As it happened with cooking, it will take seven or eight years for this trend to develop. But I believe that our work, in hands of good barmen, will yield incredible results. We've simply outlined the foundations."
Nobody doubts that the cocktail is a quintessentially American invention. H.L. Mencken called it the "greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of mankind."
Exactly where and when the cocktail was invented is a subject shrouded in boozy mystery. Some theories claim it was born of necessity as the early colonists were forced to mix together dregs of whatever they could find to make punches, flips and frappés to get them through the long, cold winter. Of course, most of the colonists were English, hence there's some argument that the cocktail is a transatlantic hybrid.
In January of this year, the Museum of the American Cocktail opened in New Orleans. Dedicated to illustrating the history of the cocktail, the exhibit is located in a French Quarter home, above a pharmacy museum. The traveling exhibit consists of early pharmaceutical cocktails, historic ads, antique bar equipment and bottles of unopened liquors from yesteryear. One section is dedicated to Antoine Amedee Peychaud.
The French pharmacist Peychaud is credited with inventing the Sazerac, which many people call America's first true cocktail. But Peychaud's life story illustrates the problem with the all-American creation myth. Born in France, Peychaud first concocted his Peychaud bitters while he was living in Santo Domingo. He moved to New Orleans and opened a drugstore on Royal Street called Pharmacie Peychaud. There he served medicinal tonics in an eggcup, or coquetier in French. One legend holds that the word "cocktail" was a mispronunciation of coquetier.
Peychaud's original Sazerac was a mixture of Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brand cognac, which was imported from Limoges, France, absinthe, sugar and his Peychaud bitters. The year he invented the drink is unknown, but down the street from the pharmacy, the Sazerac Coffee House reportedly began popularizing it in 1853. In the 1870s, the cocktail's name was changed to the Sazerac House and rye was substituted for the French brandy. When absinthe was banned in 1912, it was replaced with the New Orleans pastis called Herbsaint.
If the first American cocktails need to give a little credit to European influences, so does the new generation. The modern cocktail era isn't so much a second coming of the golden age of American cocktails as it is an international movement. But above all, it's about cocktails as part of the fine dining experience.
Behind the polished wood bar at the Gramercy Tavern in New York, there's a blackboard listing daily drink specials. Three years ago, I ordered an odd-sounding drink there called a ginger gin and tonic. It turned out to be one of the most refreshing and unusual cocktails I've ever had.
To make it, Gramercy Tavern's bartenders slice up fresh ginger root and combine it in a sealed jar with a bottle of gin. This ginger-infused gin is then used to make the spicy ginger gin and tonics, which are garnished with chunks of sugarcoated crystallized ginger.
On subsequent visits to New York, I always stop by the Gramercy Tavern, just to see what other unusual cocktails they're serving. And I have been rewarded with rum-and-plum cocktails made with muddled ripe plums, cocktails containing rum and stewed rhubarb, and many others.
Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group owns Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and other New York restaurants famous for their cocktails, is one of the main forces behind the cocktail revolution in New York.
"We started trying to come up with cocktails that expressed the idea of the restaurant back at Union Square in 1985," Meyer recalls. At Mediterranean-inspired Union Square Cafe, the theme drink was an Italian Prosecco cocktail with French strawberry liqueur and a wild strawberry garnish. At the Indian fusion restaurant Tabla, it was the Masala Mary. "The drink list should be a megaphone for the concept of the restaurant," he told me over the phone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
1 bottle (750 ml) tequila plata
1/2 bottle (1-1/2 cups) Cointreau
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.
To experience America's oldest cocktail in its original form, use cognac and absinthe. Absinthe made with wormwood was outlawed in the early 1900s, but legal versions are now available. They taste just like anisette. Peychaud bitters are native to New Orleans but available in Houston at Spec's.
1 shot cognac, rye or bourbon
1 crushed sugar cube
3 dashes Peychaud bitters
4 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash of Herbsaint, Pernod or absinthe
Fill a shaker with ice cubes, and add the brandy, rye or bourbon. Rinse a chilled old-fashioned glass with Herbsaint, Pernod or absinthe. Drop the sugar cube into the glass and shake the bitters over it. Add the chilled liquor and stir until the sugar dissolves. Garnish with a lemon twist. Traditionally served neat, but also excellent on the rocks.
Watermelon Cooler (adapted from Raising the Bar by Nick Mautone)
The frozen watermelon cubes are a great idea. Nick Mautone says this drink is even better than wine with great barbecue. But be forewarned, he thinks hot dogs are barbecue. (I wonder what wine he drank with his hot dogs before he discovered watermelon coolers.)
1/2 small watermelon
8 ounces simple syrup
4 ounces fresh lemon juice
4 ounces fresh lime juice
12 ounces dark rum
8 ounces vanilla liqueur
12 mint leaves
To prepare the watermelon, cut off the rind and discard. Cut the flesh into one-inch cubes (you should have about four cups) and place them in a colander set inside a bowl. Stir the cubes gently to extract as much juice as possible without breaking up the cubes. You should have at least eight ounces of juice. Put the watermelon cubes in a plastic bag and freeze for at least half an hour.
Mix the syrup, lemon juice and lime juice with the watermelon juice. To serve, divide the frozen cubes among four glasses. Divide the rum, vanilla liqueur and juice mixture among the glasses and stir. Add ice cubes if desired. Garnish with mint leaves.
Modern-day Jell-O shots, lime sorbet and mint leaves lined up on a Chinese soup spoon. When you eat them, you make mojitos in your mouth.
100 grams kosher gelatin
200 grams lemon-lime soda
200 grams Mount Gay rum
20 mint leaves
Heat the soda and rum in a microwave until very hot. Combine with gelatin. Add food color if desired. Allow to set in a cake pan in the refrigerator until jelled. Cut into one-inch cubes.
On Chinese soup spoons, place one cube of rum gelatin. Next, make one or two mini-scoops of lime sorbet with a melon baller and place beside the gelatin cube. Garnish with two mint leaves.
Serve immediately. The drink should be eaten in one bite.