Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Summoning Southern Spirits (TOTC 2016, Day 6)

We Sweat Socially for the last time, and parting is such damp sorrow. We Kick Start Coffee for the last time, and don't say thanks a latte, because we're not that lame. There's a room full of Anchor Distilling drinks, but we don't linger as it's not even 11 am and we have not eaten. See, Tales teaches you many things.

We do shower up and get dressed for Beignets on the Balcony by William Grant & Sons. It's in the Sonesta, the other hotel housing many of TOTC's events, and you wind up wandering through a warren of rooms and indeed balconies overlooking Bourbon Street. This would be prized real estate for Mardi Gras, but on a rainy July morning even most of the vomit has packed up and gone home, making what will be party central in 10 hours look more like a neon-lit ghost town.

The beignets are good, the eggs better, the cocktails best, particularity an Opera made of The Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean cask (I told you to Sip That back in April), lemon juice, pear brandy, elderflower liqueur, simple syrup, and topped with sparkling wine. Think French 75 squared or something, a lovely brunchish pour. That event ends up being the end of our official Tales day, except for a quick trip to the top floor of the Monteleone, hoping for good things in the Interview Room. Instead we got this view--they need to buy some letters, Vanna, or perhaps someone has a hankering for the original Let's Make a Deal host. (The last sentence brought to you by the International Association of Game Shows.)

It's time for a crosstown adventure! First, if you opt to take the streetcars, and you really sort of have to, you can buy a pass before trying to board. Do that. (We didn't.) Second, get ready for too many people with the same idea, and a crush, and heat, and grumble grumble. But then it gets moving, and you might get to hear the operator crack wise, and you might get views like this as you head out into the Garden District.

So it's all sorts of good. We decide it might be fun to wander about Audubon Park, so get off there and keep our fingers crossed that a typical afternoon rainstorm doesn't let loose on us. The first part of the park is still very much in its original Olmsted design, and so so much green to confront folks like us living in rain-starved southern California.

Also, here's the obligatory photo of moss.

That beats both Randy and Kate. We end up walking all the way from St. Charles to the Mississippi, around the zoo which we decide not to see. As for the park, it's an impressive taming of nature with equally impressive houses of the rich alongside. You know, America. It is a long walk, and everything past Magazine St. is far less scenic (the Olmsteds mustn't have been paid for that part) and very treeless. It is not sunless. We are not sweatless, even with mighty clouds like this.

Note, too, the river is intimidatingly wide and hinting at its real use as a highway and not something one should particularly romance. It's easy to agree, however, it's nicknamed well--that's about as unclear as water can be, Mighty Muddy M. That could be something jumping out of it, too.

We start the long hike back to Charles St., and get to see these critters along the way.

Being us, and given half of us is Chryss, we're nowhere near done walking, despite needing food and drink, and by drink we mostly even just mean water, so you know this was a long walk. We cross St. Charles and head for Freret, which, of course, we call Ferret, because the furry devils need their own street. Our goal is what often gets called the best craft cocktail bar in New Orleans--Cure--and we get there right as they open at 3, so luckily we do not enter crying, even though our tears would probably have been hidden amidst our perspiration. They let us in anyway.

There is the tiniest bit of 'tude here, but they seem to deserve it as they make outstanding cocktails and are just friendly enough. They describe their own creations by comparing them to a drink theirs is sort of like, to give you a handle of where to head. So I get a Sweet Leaf that's a cousin to a Corpse Reviver #2 that is divine and Chryss has an Irish Goodbye, which is described as follows: "Perfect for a hot day, this restorative Irish whiskey sour has notes of peach, mint, and green tea."

We also hunger, and get a bar snack platter of olives and crudite and a pimento cheese spread that makes me wonder where pimentos have been of late. I will be having more. To do further cocktail research--I am a journalist, after all--I have a second drink, this time an Alaska (what more could one want on a hot day), made of City of London Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Regans' Orange Bitters. Perfect simplicity. (Another big Cure plus--despite being one of the town's hot spots, most drinks are just $10. Put them in LA or Santa Barbara and their creations would cost at least $15.)

Chryss does some internet sleuthing and discovers that Bar Frances, just down the street (this stretch of Freret is particularly hip right now) is supposed to be something, so we decide to go there too. Hey, we missed lunch, don't judge. It's quite pleasing, too, and our waitress here turns out to be from Santa Barbara, of course. Happy hour Marcona almonds for three bucks are saltily nice, and I order a Boulevardier cocktail as I like the way it throws whiskey into a Negroni, or perhaps it throws Campari into a Manhattan. That is, it's almost so many other drinks but really only itself. Chryss goes for a local microbrew for the name as much as anything, Southern Prohibition Brewing's Jack the Sipper ESB. It reminded me what a pleasing style ESB is, but of course, the English just don't hop enough for us Americans.

I do not know, by the way, why I have no photos of this chunk of the day.

We work our way back to the streetcar and take it back to the Quarter, passing all the ornate houses that make much of the Garden District seem like a set for a Southern Gothic soap opera--These Are the Days of Our Columns. (I hope that's suggestive enough.) Somehow I can't remember at this point if we go straight to the dinner we've been slowly building to with drink after snack-accompanies drink, but it seems as good a way to experience New Orleans as any.

Dinner is far from glamorous--it's the walkup window of Killer Poboys, think of it as a food truck parked permanently in the back room of the Erin Rose Bar. You can't have too many poboys, and they also mean you get to eat cheap. Chryss goes for the Seared Gulf Shrimp with marinated radish, carrot, cucumber, herbs, and special sauce while I go for their famous “Dark & Stormy” Pork Belly long-marinated and re-brushed with NOLA rum ginger glaze and topped with lime slaw and garlic aioli. These are incredible flavor bombs and go well with some southern beers from the bar up front.

There might be time for a nap. Because at 8 we meet our wonderful neighbors from SB, who just happen to be in New Orleans for one night only, and they're booked for the Ultimate 5-in-1 Haunted Tour Experience with the Voodoo Bone Lady. Given these are our neighbors that also take Halloween seriously in ways that might scare others as they decorate their house so well people come out of their way to see it, of course nothing could be better than to do a ghost tour with them. It's practically research.

Guess who? She's an incredible story teller, which is just what you want for something like this, because while the Quarter can seem spooktacular--most of the buildings are hundreds of years old, the gas lamps flicker, even for rent signs advise whether a condo is haunted or not--the scariest thing you'll probably see is some 21-year-old chucking up his fifth Hurricane.

You do get touchdown Jesus, who supposedly helped the Saints win a Super Bowl. Or, perhaps, it just helps make Christianity creepier than it is in towns that aren't in no small part built on the slave trade.

We do get a drink/bathroom break at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar, to get our pirates into the story, of course. It's supposed to be the oldest building used as a bar in the U.S., a couple of decades before we were the U.S. It is wonderfully ramshackle and creepy and candlelit except for the video poker machine or two. I mean, you can't ignore all uses of electricity. Oh, did Lafitte really having anything to do with this spot? We don't know. But if we claim it, and keep the corners properly in the shadows, anything can seem possible.

And, of course, the tour ends at the infamous LaLaurie House that American Horror Story made a national, overly graphic excuse to see if Kathy Bates could over-act more than Jessica Lange (was tv-watching America winners or losers, you decide). You know, the usual torture the slaves thing for your own sadistic thrills. And then, the house supposedly wasn't too welcoming--even one-time owner Nicolas Cage found the power of the haunting, even if it used the IRS to get him. We don' see anything spooky here, even in our photos. But the stories are terrifying enough.

So much so after saying goodbye to the neighbors, who are visiting with their teenagers, we decide we need a nightcap and return to Kingfish from our first night in town. I have to have that First Word again, it was so good. Less good are the other, of course younger, people at the bar who are so witty they must yell their bon-mots at each other, then laugh as if they learned how to do so by watching the cartoon ass on Hee-Haw. Even the people behind the bar are rolling their eyes, to the point they give us a drink for free, saying, "It took me too long to get you your drink." Now that's service. They do finally leave, and the volume change is almost like exiting the rock nightclub and suddenyl just hearing nothing.

Even better, our friend (thanks to our daughter) Laura Bellucci from SoBou is doing what bartenders do post shift, knocking back shots of Fernet-Branca, especially since one of the Kingfish bartenders is her beau. So we get to, on pretty much the last evening of Tales, join the honorary ranks of barkeeps ourselves. There's nothing bitter about this amaro in the slightest.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Marquis Name on the Marquee

Luke (the Blue-Eyed Boy) and Sparky Marquis
Mollydooker Wines are almost as big as their creator's personality. And if you've ever met the ridiculously aptly named Sparky Marquis, you realize what that means for what you're swirling in your glass (is it swirling itself, it's so brawny?). He's the kind of man who can perform--and it really is a bit--what could easily be a three hour wine tasting/presentation in 45 minutes, while dropping in jokes like, "We make nine reds and one white--we think that's the right ratio," and, "Growing a grapevine is like growing a weed; I, uh, have to be careful about saying that in California,"  and, "I get asked how long should you age our wines, and I say, 'How long does it take you open to them?' That's even faster now that we're all screw cap."

Marquis did his well oiled schtick for the Central Coast Wine Classic this past Sunday and it was a tasty hoot. Anybody following Australian imports the past couple of decades should know Marquis, as he came to fame as part of Marquis Phillips, where he made wines like the 9 Shiraz that Robert Parker threw a thesaurus at: "flamboyant, opaque purple-colored, full-bodied effort revealing notes of espresso roast, chocolate, smoked meats, and toasty American oak. Fleshy, full-throttle, pure, and intensely concentrated...." But then Sparky and Sarah Marquis and Dan Phillips of Grateful Palate had a falling out (ah, business), and now Marquis is all about Mollydooker, the Aussie term for left-handers (he is, his wife is, his daughter is, 50% of their original workers were)(author's note: I am also left-handed, and do believe we are superior).

If you ever wondered what someone meant when they called a wine a fruit bomb, just grab a Mollydooker and guzzle. Marquis has a patented watering program that would never work in California--you need, uh, lots of water--that allows him to keep the vines bipping and bopping right at the point of survival, in a way engineering something similar to what people can get from old vines (almost always hailed as the vines that make the best wines). I'm sure it's more technical than that but: 1) he didn't have much time for details and, 2) I'm not a scientist, and haven't even ever played one on TV. (I did once play Tor Johnson in a short film, though.)

That makes the wines, of course, delectable. Somehow they are balanced, even with alcohol levels approaching your favorite port at times. Marquis pushes an idea of "fruit weight"--that is, how far back on your tongue you feel the fruit. The better their wine, the more your tongue gets lost in the bramble patch of berries. It's a clever way to explain things, and it's more than a clever way to sell wines like Mollydooker. Plus, they market so well--clever, attractive labels, the works. You just have to give a big tip of your screw cap to people having so much fun making something that is so much fun in such a fun way. Try the Boxer for a start, and see if you want to climb the luscious ladder from there.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Of Blindfolds and Bacchanals (TOTC 2016, Day 5)

One good thing about not drinking past 11 pm--it's much easier to get up and run at 8. So we do that, again, and the group feels like a friendly little sleeper cell of health amidst the rest of the wantonness. One of the runners we most like is Cindy from the Portland Bitters Project, who is anything but bitter but makes a fine product. We're particularly fond of her Super Spice flavor, which she developed for the holidays but it's so popular she makes it year round.

It's one jam it in morning: as I look back on my notes I sort of wonder how we accomplished it all. Mostly by this point of Tales we're very good at not tasting every drink offered and never finishing the ones we taste. It's the only way to survive. Still, there's a sip of Jura Superstition, the middle level of their peaty product (I don't get to taste the full line that afternoon, alas); a run through the Deep Eddy room, with singers doing their best Andrews Sisters and solid Bloodys (you can drink a whole one of those, it's a vegetable!).

But best of all, there's Mezcal of the Caribbean, or perhaps that should be The Best Little Whorehouse on El Silencio Street. For El Silencio has taken over that Vieux Carre room with the amazing views up and down the Mississippi and built an environment in it. You line up in a hallway and are cheerfully greeted. (Here's the place to point out the TOTC demographic still skews male over female and therefore tends to use the cheesecake appeal at pretty much every turn.)

You have to sign a waiver to enter, which you don't have time to read, but you figure how bad can it be? Of course you haven't seen the blindfolds and handcuffs yet. You have to enter the speakeasy style door with the password, "Shhhhh!" And inside, the very crimsonly-lit inside, the house madame, channeling Divine divinely, offers you a wooden slug that has your number on it. In the meantime you drink very tasty mezcal cocktails (I so love the mezcal smoke, and keep hoping it becomes even more of a thing), or look through the far wall's peep shows, little holes that let you view vintage nudie films.

When your number comes up on the board, some fair, tastefully lingeried lasses blindfold you and politely apologize when the handcuffs are a bit tight. Then they ask you to hold a rope and lead you out of the room. You're on the 16th floor, so what could go wrong? After a few turns, a woman tells you to step forward and straddle what's in front of you. And, of course, it's a massage chair. You get rubbed heartily for ten minutes and led out.

I've had worse mornings.

We also finally check out the Interview Room, one of Tales' places of refuge for the media. There's usually someone pushing their booze, but even more importantly there are chairs, quiet, and spreads like this one. Turns out a spring roll wrapper around a large very well executed prawn in some Thai peanut sauce is a perfect couple of bites that will make you enjoy a few, until the martini glasses they come in pile up and you feel almost drunk with prawn and peanut sauce. It's a good feeling.

Then the deluge came, as much rain as Santa Barbara has seen in two years in 40 minutes. We want to get back to the Bienville from the Monteleone and are too impatient to wait it out, so I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants, and we dash about the flooded streets. All that Sweat Social running was good practice. Back at the Bienville we go to Latitude 29, which has less attitude at lunchtime, especially when the rain is keeping it empty. Turns out there's nothing better than taro chips, especially these, richly covered in spice. The hardest part of eating them was deciding which dip that accompanied them was better, the kimchi ketchup or the Sriracha mayo. Chryss couldn't pass on the vegan option, because in a carnivorous town like NO you got to support the vegan, Green Curry of charred cauliflower dusted with sumac, chick peas, carrots, mushrooms,sweet potato’d rice. I had a shrimp and grits special, because, well, I'm in New Orleans, and even in the tiki bar I'm in New Orleans. I make up for that by ordering their namesake cocktail made of eight-year Demerara rum, passion fruit purée, housemade Madagascar vanilla syrup, orange, pineapple and lemon. It is very good, and I start growing board shorts.

I do not wear them back to the Monteleone, as we've got another seminar, this one intriguingly titled "The Cocktail Crystal Ball: Drinking in 2116." It features a top-notch panel: Alexander Rose of The Long Now Foundation, Dave Arnold, founder of the Museum of Food and Drink, Jennifer Colliau of Small Hand Foods, and Dave Smith of St. George Spirits. They talk about everything, almost too much to get in-depth, from demographics (the hockey stick!), to climate change issues (what will we be able to grow where?), to robot servers (what's a bartender's function?), to Randall Grahm's experiments trying to discover what the American grape should be. It seems encouraging even these people with their eyes on the long game seem so human, as is the room, for Arnold's line, "Give me an alcohol enema or whatever if it's all about the frickin buzz," gets a hearty laugh and Colliau's line, "I'd rather have a decent Manhattan from a lovely person than an amazing Manhattan from an asshole" nearly gets a standing ovation. And I have to admit of the three cocktails they provide us, supposedly time-snapshots of martini variations past, present, and future, it's the present I like. Maybe we are living in the best of all possible worlds. (Plus if water gets crazy scarce, there goes our ice cubes, and that's downright uncivilizing.)

After the event we wander about the Monteleone some more. We do a quick blast through Of Grapes and Grain: Mixing Wine and Whiskey presented by High West Distillery and Quady Winery, wishing we had more time after the panel. Quady's vermouths--the Vya line--are all high class and I discover I have a thing for High West's Double Rye. There are a host of well turned cocktails here, a single room that's enough evidence for all the craft this country is cranking right now.

And in less lofty thoughts, if you're wondering, yes indeedy, there are pool parties sponsored by liquor companies, and we peek at them and feel old.

Instead, we opt to go on a long long walk. Out the Quarter, through Marigny, into Bywater, which I sort of sense is NO's Brooklyn but without the attitude. Humidity just slaps the attitude out of you. We even make sure to hit The Franklin on the way, as Novo Fogo, the sponsors of our morning runs, gives you a card for a free watermelon caipirinha, and we figure we've never earned a specific drink more. It's super refreshing, and the bar is captivatingly cool, but it's not where we plan to end up.

We don't plan on ending up at Euclid Records, either, but I had to share that picture. How can you not love a town so steeped in its music? Instead we head to Bacchanal, a sudden oasis of a wine store/bar/restaurant/outside jazz venue in what seems like a residential neighborhood. You buy a bottle of wine up front (the inventory is 98% Old World, so we went for a Chateau de Brigue rosé), they open it for you, you stick it and a bunch of ice in a plastic paint bucket, and you find a seat in the enchanting garden, ringed with lights and centered on a stage where jazz plays.

It's the kind of spot you imagine moving into after you've been there for fifteen minutes--so comfortable yet still mildly electric. It doesn't hurt there's tasty bites like bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo and a gulf fish ceviche with cucumber, citrus, cilantro, yuca chips. We also get an ear of corn grilled and slathered with cheese, and it's a place where the mess that makes offends no one as they all know how good it is and that pleasure is all that matters. The trio about was really impressive--even pulled off Miles Davis' "Freddie Freeloader."

After a leisurely Uber ride back the Quarter--nothing like a driver who stops at intersections even when he doesn't have the stop--we, no doubt led by me--take the idea of bacchanal seriously and head out again from the hotel. Since we failed to get into Napoleon House the other night, we go tonight as you have visit and Pimm's Cup. It's another very New Orleans drink that is most associated with one bar (does any other town have so many such spots?), and it's another cocktail made for sipping on a warm day. Of course even the nights hold the heat, so a Pimm's Cup is just fine then, too, right down to its cucumber slice garnish. We drink on the inner courtyard and get to watch people leaving a wedding in one of the upstairs fancy rooms, and dressed up children are always fun. (It's one of the best reasons to have any.)

Speaking of not backing off the bacchanal, we also realize, to our horror, we have not had dessert, and even worse will most likely be kicked out of town if the people in charge discover we've been here for five days and have yet been powdered-sugar covered at Cafe du Monde. Tourist trap, perhaps, especially since the sugared floors can get sticky at times, but these beignets are a delight--doughy, puffy, hot, and a sweet sweet rush. That's how good New Orleans is--even its cliches are brilliant.

Making Mighty as a Mule (TOTC 2016, Day 4)

We are a bit Absolut-ly slowed this morning, so do not run, but walk quietly to the Kick Start Coffee Bar, and can't resist a bit of gin and juice from Tanqueray because it's good, there, and free. I'm not sure I've made it clear yet how well-branded TOTC is, with lovely little logos lurking practically everywhere. It makes the event all the more special, even at those private moments.

There is a fascinating Lobby Bar event featuring the Wild Hibiscus Flower Company that markets actual hibiscus flowers that come packed in syrup all the way from Australia. It makes for a very ornately gorgeous cocktail accoutrement, but to be honest while edible, they still seemed too fleshy for me, at least before noon. Perhaps in a champagne flute at midnight under a gibbous moon I'd feel differently, at nibble on them as if they were a lover's neck. I've got a jar of them to experiment with, so will let George Eats readers know.

This is also the day we have to, sadly, switch hotels. I can't say enough about the Monteleone, its grace under the raucous pressure of Tales--so many people, events, alcohol-aided volume, elevators a-brim with revelry. The staff is ever calm, helpful. Somehow the rooms remain quiet, the escape from the lobby a move to a peaceful paradise. But, they also raised the rates for the weekend, so we move on a few blocks away to the sister property the Bienville House. It's got a rep, so when we check in we ask the desk clerk, "Is our room haunted?" and she replies without missing a beat, "You'll have to tell me." We do not experience any ghosts, nor do our phones take photos of us while we're asleep, which is supposedly one thing the spirits do--when did the dead get so technologically savvy? It is a noisier hotel, though, partially because we're on the third floor, not tenth, and we're also much closer to the elevator. Evidently the fear of dying in an old hotel's elevator make people shout a lot while waiting for it, just in case they only get to scream one more time, and at that it would be a scream cut off mid yell.

This is also the day we plan to meet up with Santa Barbara-New Orleans (yes, the lucky devils live in both places) Melinda and Steve to lunch out of the Quarter. They take us to Liuzza's, a Mid-City establishment around since 1947, except for the Katrina stretch when water flooded 2/3 of the way up the first floor. It's not where tourists go, even after it got highlighted in David Simon's Treme. You get called hon by the waitresses. You get a frosty goblet of draught beer you hold with two hands to be safe. There's lots of red gravy, as this is New Orleans by way of Italy, a connection people don't realize as much. (It's not as old and glamorous as all the French and Spanish influences, but it rings true through many neighborhoods.)

I go for their famous Frenchuletta, a take on the muffuleta that comes more as a sub than in a giant round bread. It is ridiculously huge, all sorts of Italian cold cuts and most importantly an olive salad dripping with oil that is disgustingly delicious. I get about 3/4 of it down, which I consider a victory. Chryss orders the famous (everything here is famous, as people have been ordering it all for eight decades) Pasta Spinach Lougia, basically spinach, garlic, and olive oil on pasta, and nearly halfway through our waitress stops by with more spinach, saying, "Sorry, it didn't look like we gave you enough." It's the kind of place where mommas never feel there is enough. It's a kind of instant home.

The afternoon was a quick tour about some tasting rooms. It seems amaro is the THING right now, so everyone needs one, even if they don't call it an amaro. Exhibit A, meet Bruto Americano by St. George Spirits. (The call it a "bitter aperitivo liqueur.") So one had the opportunity to make  the rounds of bartenders having fun with the new product, all in the Vieux Carre room of the Monteleone, aka the top floor. So it's worth doing just for the view, but the drinks were darn good, too. (At this event I also discovered St. George's Green Chile Vodka--if you want something with a bit of heat, hunt this out.)

Exhibit B: The other tasting room, a crazed mass of people, was run by Fratelli Branca, makers of the classic amaro Fernet-Branca (which will surface again Saturday, just wait). I might just be bitter--no pun intended--because we didn't win the bike in the raffle they held, but overall these cocktails didn't do it for me--they tended to be a little sludgy and one-sided.

The evening then got messed up because we thought we were going to a Meet the Distillers event, but it was not clear press wasn't allowed as media at all, and once that became clear, well, this press wasn't going. (Sorry, distillers! Would love to have written about you but I wasn't allowed in. Talk to your favorite TOTC representative.) So we wandered a bit, taking in the Mississippi River some (we learned from our Sweat Social runs it's 250 feet deep at New Orleans!), and thinking we'd finally end up taking the free ferry across to Algiers one day this trip. Alas this didn't happen.

So instead we hit one of the city's most famous spots, the Sazerac Bar (snarky side note--do you also want to punch the people in the photos on that website?) in the Roosevelt Hotel. First, there are WPA murals in a hotel owned by the Waldorf Astoria Corp. There's America for you in a nutshell. Plus this is a bar Huey Long would hang out in (Long seems quaint with Trump around, no?). I get a Sazerac, of course, that simple, simply perfect mix of sugar, bitters, rye, Herbsaint, and something the NO humidity adds you don't get even when you make them properly at home. Chryss has the Ramos Gin Fizz, a preposterous yet gorgeous concoction: Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, fresh citrus, cream, egg whites, sugar, orange flower water, shaken until frothy and topped with club soda.

These drinks aren't cheap--you pay for all the marble in the Roosevelt lobby--but they are luxurious.

The rest of the evening is one of the TOTC's Spirited Dinners--Thursday the whole town is a-buzz with restaurants hosting crazy drink menu matched meals. We get invited to Smirnoff's celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Moscow Mule. It seems the simpler the cocktail, the more detailed the origin story must be (just try to tease out how a martini was born), and the Mule has a doozy--Hollywood setting, businessmen down on their luck, heiresses with copper mines. This dinner is a kind of dinner theater--they actually act out the invention of the cocktail between courses. Fake dinner guests join you spreading gossip and lies. It was hokey fun. It helped the food was very good (but you can't fry an oyster and call it a shooter, folks!), and the event had a bit of historical aura going for it, too, taking place at the lovingly restored Little Gem Saloon, where some guys named Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Buddy Bolden played back when jazz didn't have a name yet.

 And then there's the Mule itself. It almost seems too simple--vodka, ginger beer, lime--to count as a cocktail. But simplicity is one of the joys of drink, for sometimes a quick prep is everything. (You had that Monday, too, didn't you.) Cold, refreshing, zippy, with a hidden alcohol kick. Why not. Plus it goes well on a steamy New Orleans' evening with a blackberry pop. That seemingly gimmicky copper cup does it keep it icy.

Then there was yet one more huge bonus to this event, the music, for pianist David Hull and singer Meschiya Lake would have made the old ghosts of the Little Gem proud. Lake, in particular, sings like a modern Billie Holiday, with a lot more tattoos. This photo doesn't do her much justice, but you'll get a great sense of her talent watching this video.

We get back to the Quarter at almost 11 and figure, it's Tales, time to nightcap. We try to go to Latitude 29, an acclaimed tiki bar in our hotel, first. They close at 11, and don't want to seat anyone for drinks even at 10:40. So we walk the few blocks over to Napoleon House, where the Little Emperor never came to live although they wanted him to. (One of the few facts that make me feel pity for Napoleon.) Alas, it too closes at 11. New Orleans never fails to surprise.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Eating Local with Excited Ease

While there's the old saw the more scenic the location, the less good the food needs to be (aka, she sells shit shows by the seashore). That could not be less true for something like the Buttonwood All Farm Dinner that took place August 13. Because in this case the scene is everything--the feast all came from the very farm your eyes also feast on, from the Anaheim chiles to the heirloom tomatoes to the tail-to-snout pig to the wine. Heck someone might have tasted a stolen Semillon grape off the vine before dinner and had Buttonwood's Semi-Semi (semi-sweet Semillon) with dessert. (Wasn't me.)

When people talk local food challenges, they clearly don't live in a halcyon spot like Buttonwood, as there's no challenge at all to live off this land. It doesn't, of course, hurt to have the chef in charge be Jeff Olsson from New West Catering and Industrial Eats. Is there anyone cooking better in the County right now? He can hit on so many registers so well; take a passed app that supposedly came from pig head but had little funk or weirdness, just piggy goodness. And then there was a Thai melon salad with more kick, and garlic, than I'd expect to find amidst the watermelon and canteloupe (it totally works). And if you went looking for the eggplant in the Moroccan lamb tagine, it took a second to discover it was pretty much melted onto the lamb, a lusciously fused sauce of sorts. And how clever is it to take the risk and not fry a relleno, just roast that chile, skin it, and stuff it with piquant goat cheese and sweet corn? Dollop on a spoon of the roasted salsa and the too often heavy (or worse, soggy) dish was so light you wanted to have another, or four.

So much food, I'm not going to talk about it all, for I have to get to Karen Steinwach's wine, don't I? Again, no one suffered empty-glass-syndrome unless it was self-inflicted. We even got some of the sold out rosé saved just for the dinner, and what's better than a syrah rosé, grown to be made the wine (it's no runoff!), in a very Provencal style--light, crisp, dry. Made for outdoor imbibing, especially if you've got a spare pond and 100+ friends to hang out with. Or the robustly gorgeous (no, not an oxymoron if you make your wine right) Trevin (Merlot, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Malbec), a 2010, which is the current release, so that tells you how much they realize you've got to age that Bordeaux blend if you want to turn its angles to angels.

But then there's the heavenly setting. If wine country needs a poster child, that Buttonwood pond needs to hit the casting call. Undulating hills and oaks and the wind across the water and vines. Plus that air that's to me the soil at work, so clean. It was quite a night.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Again and a Gin (TOTC 2016, Day 3)

If you're going to do a conference, you have to do panels, and day 3 was just such a day. Of course, most conferences don't offer you a cocktail or spirit sample or six, so there's that. So to prepare for sitting and drinking, we Sweat Socialed again. And this time afterward and safe in the Monteleone we got to visit a juice bar, hosted by Tanqueray. Yummy watermelon etc. juice topped with Tanqueray No. 10 gin--not a bad reward for a 5K of oozing our way through the French Quarter. Even better, people make extra room for you in line when you stink a bit, even in the South in summer where a bit of musky scent is as expected as a love of grits. Even best, there was a Kick Start Coffee Bar, too, so we got to latte just for having those bracelets. Gotta keep all the crucial bodily fluids balanced at something like Tales of the Cocktail.

We wanted some ballast, too, so after showering, which is more a reset than anything even slightly lasting in that humidity, we went to the nearby Cafe Beignet, which I remembered fondly from our previous visit. This time, not so good--if you can't nail your namesake you've got a problem. These beignets weren't puffy enough or fresh enough. Really are only food fail all week, though.

We checked out shops, including the Cocktail Kingdom pop-up shop. We wanted many things. Of course one of the draws of cocktail culture are all the nifty gadgets and tools that harken to days when design was something. That history, that continuity, that artful line. And sometimes a personal one, like Wyborowa Vodka serving kielbasa with their cocktails, and making me feel like a Slovak kid in Scranton PA again. It's odd how much stuff kept taking me back to my pre-drinking days (and there were some, if long ago and hard to recall).

Somehow it was already lunch time and we visited one of the few vegetarian-friendly spots in town, Green Goddess. Not that you can't get meat, but most items are prepared with and without an animal protein. Chryss went for the Vegi Cuban Luau (they could at least spell veggie correctly, but that's really my only complaint), made with kale, arugula, Manchego, Creole pickles, etc. and I had a special crabmelt, and our only regrets were we didn't return for the rest of our trip to try more. Why can't a place in Santa Barbara do such a cool menu?

After lunch was Panel 1, "Big Gin, Small Gin," where everyone made nice and the big producer, Bombay, insisted despite the volume, it was still a small batch process. The moderator Raj Nejera, House of Bombay Global Ambassador, opened saying, "Gin is cool, it's hip, it's fab, we have the fucking martini for fuck's sake!" and everyone in the audience exhaled a happy, Vermouth-scented gasp in agreement. Let's face it, Bombay products are tasty, and you can't evade the conglomerates easily if you want to be seen in public.

That said, the smaller distillers were doing some cool things. Mike Enright from Gypsy Distilling and the Ginstitute (I went to the wrong college), poured his Portobello Road, an on-the-nose London Dry that made you thirst for quinine. Even more impressive were the two gins from New York Distilling Company, repped by co-founder Allen Katz, who looks like he should have starred in Hal Hartley movies. One was Dorothy Parker, and she showed up herself! [Sorry it's taken so long to get a photo into this day's blog!]

Yes, she recited "after four I'm under the host." The top gin for me turned out to be New York Distilling's Perry's Tot: at 114 proof it's Navy Strength. (PS, don't mess with sailors, evidently.) Katz's line when we tasted it, "No one coughed, that's all I care about." And it is sneaky smooth for its power, a historic style brilliantly revived.

We learned more about gin, but I don't want to bore you. Take me out for a martini and I'll tell you the rest.

The second panel was titled "The Bartender Spy: Frank Meier." It kind of lied as there's no definite proof that Meier, who was the head bartender at The Ritz in Paris for decades, actually did help the Resistance during WW II, but he's a fascinating character to hear stories about for an afternoon. David Wondrich from Esquire was one of the head sleuths on the case as to what Meier was, and an academic historian would love his manner, with lines like, "He was the first, not really the first," as he offered ad re-thought in front of us. Plus we got to drink a Bee's Knees (gin, lemon juice, and honey) that was all the elegance of The Charleston in a glass.

Somehow we also squeezed into the last half of an engrossing demo called "Herbs, Spices, and Secrets: Explore the World of Amaro Montenegro." Not only did it feature this cool box that seemed designed by a soused Joseph Cornell

but then they wanted you to make your own cocktails at the tables you were sitting at. Hence my quote of the day, "I wanted to play with those tools." No, not the gorgeous Italian men who seem to market all Italian distilled spirits, but the barware at each table (see earlier paragraph about shakers and shot glasses and strainers).

Perhaps there was a nap. There was definitely a stay at the event billed "Discover the Legendary Elixir" at SoBou. While the promised Polish soothsayer never materialized ("your future will contain less saying of sooth"), and we waited out the Zubrowka rep till she gave us free drink tickets (the media wristband could be a plus, indeed), and we watched dancers with prosthetic ears (vodka makes you grow pointy ears? perhaps only if you're a fairy?)

the best part of the event were the two bartenders. One, the woman in charge as she heads the SoBou program, was Laura Bellucci. Coolest thing about that was she was a roomate of our daughter in college. Kids these days! She was featuring a drink with smoked rhubarb that was one of the cooler things I had all week. The other bartender was Ty Izquierdo, who happens to be a Gaucho. Even won the Independent's readers poll best bartender vote back in the day. So this world was very small, but very warm and fuzzy for a bit, and not just because of the alcohol. Here's Ty.

That's all just prelude to the official Welcome Reception thrown by Absolut Vodka at the ACE Hotel. A huge brand on its own, Absolut is now owned by even huger multinational Pernod Ricard, so that means there's a ridiculous pile of dough waiting to throw you a party. It's also funny they don't tell the media the dress code is white, so we're very easy to spot, the dirt amidst the gussied up snow storm of the paying guests.

Absolut totally delivered, though, with each room its own mythic, immersive world starring two cocktails and a model/actor it wasn't clear you were supposed to interact with, as they tended to be serious/fierce/imposing. Enough to scare you into drinking. Like, perhaps, test tubes of Bloody Marys from the steps on which Bloody Mary stood. (Each room had its own cocktail delivery system, too--no simple glassware here.)

And then there was Oak guy. The drinks weren't as tortured as he appeared. And you know us, we like our smoky. Not something you usually get in a vodka.

Finally, we were pretty glowy our selfie selves.

But so was the town. Although this could have been a different day--such is Tales, when time stands still, reoccurs, moves forward for you to ride its hip pocket.