One of the things I miss most about Virginia is cigar sessions with good friends. Whether it was in front of Murky Coffee in the summer, in the back room of EatBar in the winter, or out on my balcony after a night of cocktails, it was always a welcome change of pace from the busy life in DC. For a variety of reasons it’s much harder to enjoy that hobby here in Portland.
To change that, Ron Dollete of PDXplate and I are hosting a cigar night this Monday at El Gaucho, one of the few Portland bars that still has a smoking room. We’re hoping to make it a monthly thing. Our group so far is mostly bartenders, but anyone who likes stogies and spirits is welcome to join. Details are on the event’s Facebook page.
(Our wise rulers in Salem have decreed that only cigars shall be set alight in bars, so leave your cigarettes and pipes at home.)
Last night of smoking at the Horse Brass
The Atlantic’s resident mixologist Derek Brown’s latest column advises against offering signature cocktails at a wedding:
The Brandy Alexander, a pop cultural icon in itself with a list of songs and TV shows touting how delectable this pre-cursor to the “Chocolate Martini” is, was said to be invented at the 1922 wedding of Princess Royal Mary and Viscount Lascelles. Yet, if I were you I’d leave wedding cocktails to royalty. If you’re getting married, trust me–you have enough to worry about. Don’t bother having a signature cocktail at your reception. That’s the advice I give when asked what cocktails should be served at a wedding reception.
If you’re a glutton for punishment, have a punch or two. Punches are easier to make in advance and serve medium to large groups. They don’t require any à la minute preparation. I recently got hitched myself and was lucky enough to have “mixtress” Gina Chersevani of PS 7’s create three different punches for me. They were amazing, and all the work was front-loaded. The bartender had only to lift the ladle and serve. (Banquet bartenders are not always the most skilled of servers, although there are certainly exceptions.)
These are all good points. When there are dozens of people arriving to a reception all at once you don’t want to leave them waiting while the bartenders labor over complicated drinks. And you don’t want to entrust random banquet bartenders with anything too novel; even with specific directions, there’s no telling what they could do to a carefully crafted recipe.
However there’s one very good reason to serve something special at a wedding: Guests’ expectations for catered cocktails are low already, so it’s easy to exceed them. They’re anticipating vodka tonics, Jack and Cokes, maybe hastily mixed Cosmopolitans. You don’t need hand-carved ice and intricately prepared drinks to make them happy, you just need to give them something beyond the ordinary.
Pre-batching is your friend here. It gets most of the work done before the reception and allows the bartenders to quickly serve the arriving crowd. I worked two weddings this month, each with an appropriate cocktail that was partially pre-batched. The first had a Mexican theme and the bride requested something with tequila, so my partner and I served cucumber and jalapeno-infused Margaritas. The second wedding requested vodka and took place on one of the last warm days of summer, so we served vodka with lemon, honey syrup, Campari, and soda with a sprig of mint. These weren’t groundbreaking recipes by any means, but they were far better than the cocktails normally served at catered events and guests loved them.
Obviously budget is a consideration and skipping hard liquor entirely to focus on providing higher quality wine and beer can be a good approach. But if you’re going to offer cocktails at a wedding, it’s not hard to keep things simple and still please the crowd.
Any drink using a dairy product is fair game: milk, cream, eggs, butter, cheese, yogurt, curds, you name it. Given the importance of dairy products in drinks dating back centuries, there are lots of opportunities for digging through vintage receipts for a taste of the past, and as always innovation is highly encouraged.
Not everyone is in to dairy drinks. Me, I love ’em. I’d drink straight heavy whipping cream if it weren’t so unhealthy. I’ve written frequently about raw milk. The Golden Cadillac is a guilty pleasure. That said, I don’t order milk-based drinks often and generally save them for the occasional dessert libation.
My drink for this month is a variation on the White Russian. The White Russian’s enjoyable as is, but it could be a lot more interesting. Kahlua’s a one-dimensional liqueur and vodka is, well, vodka. I decided to rehabilitate the drink with Patron XO Café, a tequila-based coffee liqueur, in place of the cloyingly sweet Kahlua, and then added a few other things to make El Dude:
1.25 reposado tequila
.75 oz Patron XO Café
.5 oz heavy whipping cream
.25 oz triple sec
cardamom tincture to taste*
wet whipped cream**
Combine the first five ingredients, shake over ice, and strain into a shot glass. Float wet whipping cream then finish by grating fresh cinnamon on top. It’s an indulgent drink, but it packs enough heat to balance the sweetness. And now that I’ve published it I really need to get around to finally watching The Big Lebowski.
For your added pleasure, here’s a bonus cocktail from the American Bartenders School that’s totally beyond hope of rehabilitation:
*Grain alcohol infused with cardamom seeds.
**The cream should be whipped just enough to float yet still be liquid enough to drink; the cream in the photo is actually a little too stiff. To make this on the fly pour cream in a cocktail shaker with the spring from a Hawthorne strainer and shake for 10 seconds.
The most unusual cocktail at Carlyle’s Fernet-Branca event last month was the Fernet Float, a mix of bourbon, Fernet, Fentimans Curiosity Cola, and Fernet-Branca and creme de menthe ice cream. Tasty, yes, but not practical as a regular item. I love Fentimans cola though and wanted to find a place for it behind our bar. It has a great herbal complexity, perfect for standing up to spirits and pairing with amari. Thus our new menu includes this Curiosity Cocktail:
1.5 oz bourbon
.75 oz Cynar
1 dash Fee’s Whiskey Barrel bitters
approx. 4 oz Fentimans Curiosity Cola
Whiskey and cola is a classic drink, but also a boring one. Here the addition of Cynar adds some balancing bitterness to this traditionally sweet cocktail and the Whiskey Barrel bitters (my favorite in the Fee’s line) tie everything together. The customers who’ve tried it so far have been intrigued and happy with the curious combination of flavors.
Waiters need a strong union to negotiate with restaurant owners for a realistic pay scale and other benefits. Diners should not pay for them.
Eating in a quality restaurant costs four or five times as much as cooking at home. The food itself isn’t expensive. It costs more because it is cooked for us and served. The bill includes those costs. Therefore, a tip or a service charge is redundant, asking diners to pay a second time for service costs that are already included in the price of their meal.
Instead of changing the name from tip to service charge, the diner should not pay either.
People, restaurants are businesses. They pay their employees by receiving money from customers. They can get that money through tips, by adding a service charge, or by working it into the cost of a meal, but ultimately it’s all coming from the same place. If you’d prefer that restaurants operate as charities for creative types in need of a day job, please, just come out and say so!
[Would it be petty to mention that the letter writer lives in Berkeley? Yes, it probably would!]
Apologies for the lack of posts lately. I spent the last few days at the very nice Sunriver Resort outside of Bend, OR for the Oregon Restaurant Association’s annual convention. Lance Mayhew and I were there to give a presentation on contemporary mixology, offering tips to attendees about how to manage their bars, demonstrating cocktails, and introducing them to a few spirits they may not have tried before. Our talk was well received, helped in no small part by the alcohol that went along with it!
With all of the events going on I had no time to write, so I’m going to consider just getting the morning links up without repeating the “outocoems similar to War” incident victory enough. In the meantime here are a few food and drink related book recommendations:
Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh — I’ve been looking forward to the new edition of this book for a long time. Ted Haigh, aka Doctor Cocktail, is an avid promoter of forgotten cocktail recipes and a driving force in the revival of the bartending craft. In this book he presents 100 drinks along with his characteristically good-humored writing, thirst-inducing photos, and plenty of vintage artwork. The emphasis is on spirits that are readily available or will be soon, so readers with access to good liquor markets shouldn’t have too much trouble assembling ingredients. A nice touch is the book’s spiral binding, which makes it easy to leave open on the bar while mixing a drink. This has become my favorite resource lately for finding new cocktails and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, Fuschia Dunlop — The first book covers Sichuan cuisine, the second Hunan. Together they’ve vastly improved the way I cook at home, spoiling me against restaurant versions of some favorite dishes. That’s a good thing. Searching out ingredients sometimes requires diligent shopping, but the resulting dinners have been consistently worth the effort.
Cocktails ’09, Food and Wine — Food and Wine’s annual cocktail guide changes format this year, shifting from chapters organized by spirit to chapters dedicated to individual bartenders (with one chapter of “mixologist’s drinks” featuring cocktails from a variety of people). Many of the drinks require an extensive liquor cabinet or time prepping ingredients, but as always it’s a great place to look for inspiration from some of the country’s top talent.
The New York Times ran an op/ed today by Phoebe Damrosch suggesting that by doing away with tipping we could make waiters more professional and give them better health care. The piece is about 75% fluffy restaurant staff stereotypes, the rest strange economics:
First, restaurants need to provide health insurance and retirement planning for their employees. One way to do this would be a service charge, as practiced in Europe, put toward paying a salaried staff. Would American diners be willing to give up tipping — and its illusion of control — if it meant providing benefits and a living wage for the people who cook and serve their food?
Tipping provides American waiters with an incentive to increase their check average by pushing bottled water, extra courses, expensive entrees and pricey wines and by showing guests the door as soon as they stop chewing. The service charge shifts the focus from the money to the experience. Instead of worrying about how much money she will take home that night — and upselling and groveling her way to that goal — a waiter can worry about doing her job well: making people happy at whatever price and pace they prefer.
I feel silly for having to point this out, but the source of servers’ income is the money paid by customers. Shifting from tips to a service charge doesn’t magically create more money with which to provide health and retirement benefits unless customers end up paying more or the restaurant reduces costs elsewhere (perhaps by cutting the number of servers working each night?). Damrosch doesn’t say anything about wanting restaurants to become more expensive and even suggests that without tipping customers would feel less pressure to spend or give up their tables, so I don’t see how this math is supposed to work.
What a service charge would do is give servers less say in how their income is spent. With tipping they can spend it however they choose and enjoy a nice bonus in the form of cash tips that can be partially hidden from taxation. With a service fee the income would be fully taxed or, as Damrosch presumably wants to happen, some of the income would be shifted into untaxed health insurance expenditures or retirement funds. This might be better in the paternalist sense of wanting people to plan ahead for their insurance and retirement, but it might not be welfare enhancing for the servers. It would put them in the same position as lots of other American workers: Spending more than is optimal on health insurance because of the tax subsidy, tied to their employer for fear of losing that insurance, out of luck if they lose their job, and with less income to spend on other things. As a restaurant worker myself, I say thanks but no thanks. I’d rather take the cash.
Damrosch is right that it’s hard to make a profession out of serving due to the lack of insurance. Fortunately there are simple alternatives that don’t require getting rid of tipping and that would benefit many non-restaurant workers who don’t have employer-provided health insurance. These include giving individuals the same tax breaks on insurance that employers receive, expanding the kinds of associations that can purchase group insurance, increasing competition across state lines, and expanding HSAs. These ideas aren’t sexy and European, but they’d benefit servers without locking them into their jobs or controlling their paychecks.