June 24, 2017

Advent in Calendar Form

It’s the holiday season, that magical time of year when strings of white lights ring trees, tinsel in all colors of the rainbow experiences its annual heyday, and everyone seems to be just a little bit nicer.

The “holiday” in my holiday season is Christmas, and I find that I go through phases of the degree to which I embrace the season. Some years I dive headlong into celebrating, and some years I quite happily let everyone else’s festiveness carry me forward to January 1. This time around it’s decidedly the former, likely because Aran and I have a new abode in our near future, and a wedding to plan for some months after that. (What? I didn’t tell you about our engagement??) There is some serious nesting happening, and embracing the tree decorating, treat baking, and drink imbibing all seems to be required activity.

In preparation for the acquisition of a Christmas tree and the official launch of my holiday season, I pulled out the plastic bins of ornaments, lights, holiday cards, wrapping paper, ribbon, more pairs of Christmas socks than one person should own, and an odd assortment of red candles. It’s at this very moment every year, the one when I start to rifle through the bins, that I come upon my Advent Bell. Much like the traditional Advent calendar, the bell has a treat for each day of the month leading up to the 25th and Christmas. (As an aside, the timing of this discovery can be slightly problematic. Stumbling upon it early in December = more happy, treat-filled days. Conversely, finding it late in the month = more sad, treat-less days.) Though traditional in function my bell is unique in construction, having been made by my grandmother many moons ago. The bell is definitely showing its age – the paper of the typewritten message at the top is beginning to crack and the yarn is headed to a fatal fray – but I prize it all the same. You’ll note that I use Hershey’s Kisses for my countdown, which are slippery little buggers and difficult to tie on to the bell. Gram was no fool: In my time with her she always used the much-easier-to-affix hard candies. Either way, I love that I’m carrying on her Advent tradition.

Beyond just the bell, I’ve always been a fan of Advent calendars. Each day a window to open, something behind it designed to surprise and delight. Interesting (though not terribly surprising) that we have retained the general concept of Advent – a period of time leading up to the celebration of a Major Occasion (aka the birth of Jesus) – while disconnecting the secular activity from its religious roots. No doubt there are many who cringe at the variety of Advent calendars that stray further and further from the religious tradition, but I’m more of a mind to embrace the diversity. There are a couple of examples from this year’s crop of Advent calendars that I found particularly compelling, and you probably won’t be shocked to hear that they’re food and drink-centered.

The first came by way of my friend, Darlin. At one point I must have rattled on about the aforementioned Advent Bell – or maybe even shared a Kiss – that now “Advent calendar” and “Alix” are irrevocably connected in her mind. This year that connection manifested itself in the sharing of this fantastic electronic Cookie Advent Calendar from Saveur. It is exactly what it sounds like: a new cookie recipe for each day, including December 25th. Spectacular! Not that I’m going to bake a new batch of cookies each day, but how fun to click on the numbered square each morning and see what new delight awaits. I am tempted, however, to try the December 7 offering: Caramel Crumb Bars. Double topping of caramel and crumbly butter streusel? Sign me up.

After a hard day of baking, what could be better than a holiday-appropriate beverage? The drinky team at Belltown’s Rob Roy and bartender (and all around clever guy, if you’re a fan of his blog and tweets, as I am) teamed up to create the Cocktail Advent Calendar. In concept it’s much the same as other Advent countdowns, but because the medium is liquor I’m even more of a fan than usual. The idea is that for each day of the month, bartenders at Rob Roy will be pouring a different concoction, giving us license to drink terribly sweet cocktails like The Godson, with absolutely no dirty looks from anyone behind the bar. Drink up, my friends!

Artusi

I heart Artusi… I expected this new Capitol Hill hot spot, connected to sister restaurant, Spinasse, to be so crammed that Aran and I would be left to press our noses against the glass and look longingly inside. But we must have lucked out when we came by one recent evening, early enough to beat the serious eating and drinking crowd.

Artusi occupies a corner spot at 14th and E Pine, and big windows on two sides afford good views of the bustle of Capitol Hill. It’s a light and airy space, with a mostly gray and white color palette with accents of yellow and red here and there. The wood on various vertical surfaces warms up the room, particularly due to the texture created by the burned effect on the plywood facings. Long narrow paper cylinders scattered across the ceiling serve as light fixtures for the space, hovering above the several tables, the u-shaped counter around the bar, and the two-sided version around the mini open kitchen. The counter tops are distinctive decorative elements themselves, with vast expanses of hexagonal tile echoed in the bar’s brand as well as the lemon zest in my cocktail.

No doubt one of the reasons that I’m such a fan of Artusi, their cocktails are crafted with care and clearly are a big part of the experience here. The night we were there they were hanging on to the tail end of summer, so we got to sample a “Drink the Kool-Aid” with Ransom Old Tom gin, Aperol, Cinzano Bianco, soda, lemon, and an enormous (and very fashionable) single ice cube. Our second cocktail was fall/winter seasaonal, so you’re likely find it on the menu if you visit soon: The “Miller’s Crossing,” with Martin Miller’s gin, Amaro Montenegro, black currant vinegar, and Clear Creek cassis liqueur. Or maybe you’ll be in the mood for a “Bambi Warhol” with Aviation gin, 360 vodka, Cocchi Americano, orange bitters, and citrus peel. The name alone makes it worth a try, I think. Perhaps it’s a nod to Spinasse chef and Artusi mastermind, Jason Stratton?

When we got there we had our pick of seats, and though we’re usually bar people, it was tough to pass up the chance to perch with a view of that tiny open kitchen. It’s really a prep kitchen, I suppose, as the more complicated stuff comes from Spinasse next door. Everything I read about Artusi prior to its opening insisted that the emphasis here is on drink rather than food, but like the cocktails, each dish on the petite menu seems to have been carefully chosen for inclusion. I rarely see so much on offer that is unfamiliar to me, but in this case the unfamiliarity felt intriguing rather than intimidating. Maybe it was the service – warm and engaging and not the slightest bit standoffish. Both the server and bartender were ready with suggestions, and happy to answer questions about this or that.

We started off with a couple of items from the Antipasti section of the menu: Fra’mani salametto (think salami-esque) with Meyer lemon mostarda di Cremona, and piping hot Quadrello di bufala cheese with raw Tremiti olives and hazelnut oil. Next came our Primi, my favorite of the night and something I’ve been raving about ever since: the black rice polenta with slow roasted goat and summer greens. Our selection from Piatti di Artusi was the “tonno di Chianti,” pork preserved in the style of tuna, with pickled young onions and marinated borlotti beans. And for dessert? Hazelnut cake with figs and cherry blossom honey in a particularly “rustic” (read: not perfectly formed) shape.

When I think about this dinner it feels like we had the chance to experience a wide range of flavors and textures – the creaminess of the black rice polenta contrasting with the sharpness of the preserved pork, in particular – and I can’t wait to return for more. Next time it might be the shaved white mushrooms and egg with salsa “Apicius” if it’s still on the menu. And if not, I suspect that there will be something else that has taken its place that I’ll want to try even more. And a delicious cocktail option or two, of course…

Artusi Bar on Urbanspoon

Clubfoot Ballerina: The Recipe Edition

Always ready with a cocktail shaker, Aran tells me that I’ve left out half the fun by not including the recipes for the various Clubfoot Ballerinas. (Oh, did I not mention that several of the bartenders kind enough to participate were also kind enough to share the recipes for their creations?)

Bathtub Gin & Co. wins style points for its branded notepaper:

2 oz rye whiskey
¼ oz pear liqueur
¼ oz peach liqueur
1 tsp Spanish paprika and cinnamon mix
.
.

The version from Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor:

2 oz rye whiskey
½ oz Punt e Mes
½ oz grapefruit juice
Peach bitters
.
.

My frothy favorite from Betty:

2 parts Old Overholt rye whiskey
1 part lemon juice
1 part simple sugar
1 egg white
.
.

Amateur mixologist Ty takes a stab at the CB:

3 parts whiskey (the less than $10 a bottle version)
2/3 parts grenadine
3 small scoops lemon pulp
3 dashes Angosura bitters
1 dash lime-flavored gin from Chamba, India
Directions: Shake VIOLENTLY. Pour over two ice cubes into vintage, thrift store lowball glass (or fruit jar). Top with club soda.

 I’m not sure what it says that we haven’t tried to replicate any of these yet, but I encourage you to give it a try. And report back. Definitely, report back.

Clubfoot Ballerina

CB a la Betty

There is something about the Smoke Shop that makes the implausible seem not so implausible, reasonable even. If you’ve ever been to this holdover from Ballard’s fishing industry past, then you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, picture a crusty old tavern – a northern Idaho version comes to mind for me – one with a jukebox, without fancy artisan organic liquor, and likely with a cash-only restriction.

On a particular night earlier this year, four of us were ending the evening at the Smoke Shop after making our way through a few other Ballard locales. We were ensconced at a table in the back, happily chit chatting and taking in the scene, in between trips to the jukebox. It was after one such visit that Heidi and I returned to find someone had joined our table, and was busy telling her tale of woe. I suspect that this tale of woe was intended to elicit offer of a drink, but instead it just produced a good story and the perfect name for a drink.

This wasn’t her first rodeo, that’s for sure. She had lived a long life, apparently in many different locations, and before we got back to the table the fellas were invited to make three guesses of the place she called home. Though they were advised that the penalty for guessing incorrectly was a “kick in the ribs,” admonition enough to make you choose your words very carefully, I suspect. Aran narrowly avoided rib injury by correctly identifying her accent and guessing  that she hailed from Georgia. We didn’t get her full employment history, but some of that history apparently involved a stint as a ballerina until at one point she developed the club foot that ended her dancing career. (Developed? What??) As entertaining as this was for everyone, eventually she tired of us and drifted off to regale another group with stories a-plenty.

My pal Ty’s version, in the requisite vintage low ball glass

Shortly after this outing this same group of us were headed off to Westport, WA for the weekend, and decreed that we would come away from the trip having concocted our own cocktail, the Clubfoot Ballerina. The woman from the Smoke Shop had told such a tale, and clearly had such a history, all of it just begging to be translated into a cocktail of some sort. We took our cue from her southern provenance, and the unfortunate clubfoot development, and came up with an absinthe-based drink that was… awful! It would seem that we are discerning drinkers, but terrible bartenders.

And so it was that we turned to the professionals, issuing a challenge to various bartenders around town who were amenable to the idea of concocting a drink based on a name and a little story. We even had one friend who wanted to throw his hat into the ring, and come up with his own version of the Clubfoot Ballerina. Many included an element of sweet and usually peach-y, as a nod to her Georgia origins, often with a tinge of bitter to represent the tough breaks. I particularly liked Betty bartender Noelle’s interpretation, with a frothy egg white in honor of her ballerina past. Nearly all were rye-based – again, referencing the south – though Michael at Ocho went with tequila, a dark horse in the race. At Frank’s Oyster House Bill used Punt e Mes as the source of the slightly bitter tinge, where at Bathtub Gin it was cinnamon that provided spice and balanced out the pear and peach liqueurs.

The CB at Frank's Oyster House employed peach bitters

 

Vasilios at Book Bindery muddled nectarine as a peach stand-in

 Given Seattle’s firmly entrenched cocktail culture and burgeoning distillery business (I’m already planning visits to the new Sun Liquor and Oola distilleries), I’ve no doubt that there are more bartenders who will rise to the challenge of on-the-spot cocktail creation, and happily, more Clubfoot Ballerinas in my future.

The Well-Stocked Home Bar

Lately there have been more cocktails sampled when out and about – now that I’ve successfully branched out from the classic gin martini – and more cocktail parties thrown at home. Maybe it started with recent hours spent watching Mad Men and having the characters’ excessive cocktail consumption wash over me. Or maybe it was the search for the right bar to buy, finding the appropriate size to hold an ever-expanding collection of liquor and liqueurs. The other day I opened up what serves as my liquor cabinet and started rooting around looking for something or other, and realized that I had an excess of bottles. Too many bottles acquired for a single drink (Frangelico) or recipe (Starbucks liqueur chocolate cake), making for liquor actually stored in three different places at home. So many bottles, too infrequently used, taking up way too much space. And as my cocktail interests broaden, not enough room for the green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and Lillet that I use on a far more frequent basis than you might think.

Thus began a more careful examination of what I was actually using, and the question of what makes a well-stocked bar. Assuming that you want to have on hand the spirits to make a select number of cocktails, what bottles should inhabit your bar? I’m sure that the recent popularity of Mad Men has contributed to the parallel resurgence of the classic cocktail, and I’m all for it. The Manhattan, Sidecar, Gin Gimlet, and perhaps lesser known Corpse Reviver or The Last Word, are all drinks I heartily endorse. I’ve no doubt that this could be the subject of much debate, but after careful consideration and in consultation with a few select cocktail-savvy friends, here is my version of the well-stocked home bar. Notes about brands only where I feel especially wed to one or two:

  • Two gins (I’d recommend Miller’s and Hendrick’s)
  • OK, three gins because I’m such a fan of the Old Tom style right now (Ransom is smooth and lovely)
  • Vodka (mostly because I love Vespers)
  • Whiskey
  • Rye or bourbon
  • Dry vermouth
  • Sweet vermouth
  • Rum
  • Tequila
  • Campari
  • Maraschino liqueur
  • Chartreuse
  • Fernet-Branca
  • Cynar
  • Elderflower liqueur (has to be St-Germaine, given my recent taste-off)

Another important question: Do you need a bar book? Of course you can always look up a recipe online, but if you’re going to have the well-stocked bar, how about a book to go with it? One of my go-to cocktail-y friends recommended The Savoy Cocktail Book, and since then I’ve spied it sitting on the shelves of several of the bars around town. Though if the Savoy isn’t your speed and you’d like to explore other options, start with this post by bartender- blogger-tweeter Andrew Bohrer. Then hang around and read more because he’s wickedly funny, but only if you can handle the irreverent. As long as we’re on the topic of books, one more suggestion before I close with a recipe. If you’d be happy finding yourself at the intersection of cocktails, cooking, and history, keep an eye out for Bitters, the soon-to-be released book from Amazon-editor-turned-book-author Brad Thomas Parsons. Apparently chock full of recipes – both of the food and cocktail variety – with history woven throughout. Sounds like just my kind of read!

Last but not least, what would a classic bar be without the cocktail of the house? Given my current love affair with Old Tom Gin (and Ransom in particular), I’ll share the Dover Calais with thanks to the nice people at Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor for graciously providing proportions. And although I’m a fan of mixing this one at home, I must say that it tastes especially good when consumed at Frank’s alongside several goat cheese deviled eggs and an iced flat of oysters…

Dover Calais
2 1/4 oz. Old Tom Gin
3/4 oz. St-Germaine
1/4 oz. Chartreuse

Cheers, and happy cocktailing!