Bar Beat

First Look: Julep, An Old-Fashioned Southern Cocktail Bar With Modern Sensibilities

When you first drive up to Julep, the chic new cocktail bar from Alba Huerta of Anvil and Pastry War, all you can see through the large glass windows is white lace with whispers of people floating somewhere behind it.

It's a cool, easy vibe made cooler by the mounds of ice you see sailing past on trays once you enter through the doors in the back. It's an ode to wealth and excess, to the people who could afford to buy ice and quality bourbon back in the day and who flaunted their high status with mint juleps, overflowing with chipped ice and fresh, green mint.

Today, of course, the space is air conditioned, and we can get ice at any corner store. But Huerta wanted to be sure and maintain the notion of ice as a symbol of decadence in her new bar, and the icy drinks, along with a small but powerful menu of cold seafood and hot sides, make for a truly unique experience--a tip of the hat to the southern past on modern day Washington Avenue.

Julep officially opens this week after last week's soft opening period, which saw hordes of thirsty Houstonians stopping by the crisp, almost feminine interior for drink after drink served in shiny silver cups.

The traditional mint julep is served the way it has been for more than 200 years, in a silver cup piled high with crushed ice and a sprig of mint sprinkled with a bit of powdered sugar for a frosty look. Here they aren't knock-you-off-your-feet strong, but have a couple and you'll definitely start to feel a little less like a southern belle.

In addition to the traditional julep, the menu offers a rye julep; a spiced julep with apple brandy and rum; and an effervescent julep with sparkling wine and cognac. Shortly after Julep opened, a few people at the bar suggested Huerta create a julep flight so people could sample all without feeling like total lushes. Such a thing may be in the works.

Arguably the best drink on the menu is the cherry bounce sour, a cocktail made with Old Grand Dad bourbon, house cherry bounce (an infusion of cherries and bourbon), lemon juice, Angostura bitters and an egg white. Back when we talked with Huerta in May, she mentioned her excitement at re-introducing people to the cherry bounce with a recipe originally created by Martha Washington. It's creamy and frothy with a flavor similar to cherry pie. Be careful--it's far too easy to drink far too many of these.

Just as iced drinks were a sign of affluence back in the heyday of the mint julep, so was chilled seafood, which would certainly go bad without proper refrigeration. Huerta tips her wide-brimmed hat to seafood as well, with a menu of raw oysters, scallops, smoked trout and, eventually, a decadent seafood tower.

The smoked trout is particularly wonderful. A decorative plate first gets a smear of crème fraîche that's topped with trout, farro, arugula and thinly sliced radishes in a lemony vinaigrette. It's the perfect summer light meal--smoky protein, crisp fresh veggies and a strong punch of acid mellowed out by the creamy crème fraîche.

For those not in the mood for seafood, hush puppies and frites are an excellent choice, each served with a spicy dipping sauce. The hush puppies, crisp on the outside without being too dry in the center, come with a bright serrano aioli, while the frites, more like steak fries than shoestring ones, pair wonderfully with a pimention aioli.

Julep also offers wine and will soon debut caviar service and "pantry jars" filled with things like rabbit rillette and pickled quail eggs. The menu will continue to grow as the bar moves out of its soft opening phase. Eventually there will be two bottled cocktails available--a Manhattan and cider milk punch.

If the cocktails that are already on the menu--and the small but ideal food options--are any indication, Julep is set to transform the Washington corridor. Hopefully more bars with an emphasis on reasonably priced, quality cocktails and good food will join the block, inviting more than just the sports bar and club crowds out on the town.

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Kaitlin Steinberg