Drink: Creative cocktails

I’m a recent convert to cocktails. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed a tipple or two. But I leaned toward sweet and simple … vodka and juice.

But thanks to Steve Benson (@OttawaCocktails) at Play Food and Wine, I’ve become (very) open to experimenting!

I’m still not a brown liquor kind of girl, but I’ve enjoyed sips of a Manhattan. And last night I drank a bourbon cocktail and loved it.  My bias is towards highly aromatic drinks, and yes, the sour or sweet ones.

I’ve experienced fantastic cocktails in spring/summer 2011 in Toronto and Vancouver, in addition to Ottawa — and all were created by wonderful bartenders.  Here is a tour.

Vancouver:  Maenam Thai (@Maenam)

Maenam Thai, in Kitsilano, is the best Thai resto I’ve ever eaten at (I’ll write a review soon, but today we’re talkin’ cocktails).  They make incredible cocktails — many with their own house-made bitters, syrups and infusions.

My first cocktail was called Sra Morakot, a zippy lime green concoction.  It is made from gin, freshly-made cucumber juice, fresh lime juice, a house-made syrup of lemongrass and Balanese long pepper, kaffir (one of my favourite flavours ever), bitters and ginger.  Heavenly, and it paired perfectly with my appetizer of mussels with lemongrass and Thai basil.

I got chatting with their lovely bartender, Kristi Linneboe (@KristiLinneboe),  who happens to be from my hometown, Ottawa.   She is one of those great (and rare) restaurant staffers who know how to create a real sense of hospitality, enthusiastically sharing information about the restaurant, its food and drinks, and other great eating finds in town and around the world.  Kristi is also a very talented mixologist, and gave me a quick overview of some of the latest infusions the restaurant was working on.

For my second cocktail, Kristi made me a Thai and Ginger — passionfruit, rye infused with cassia bark and galangal, and gingerbeer.  Now this is a way to serve brown liquor!  It was fresh and a bit spicy, and had not a whiff of that throat-burning essence I usually find with the brown stuff (I know, I’m a wimp).

Some of the other creative things on Maenam’s cocktail list are a Lapsang Sour (bourbon, lapsang (that smokey Chinese tea) syrup, lemon, egg white and bitters), and a Siam Sunray (vodka, roasted coconut water, lime, soda, ginger, and bird’s eye chilis).

Maenam is one of those rare restaurants that puts as much innovation, care and quality into its drinks as it does its food.  And Vancouver diners and drinkers are  the luckier for it.

Toronto: Ritz Carleton’s TOCA Bar

In Toronto, lateish on a busy May Saturday night, we stopped by the Ritz Carleton’s TOCA bar and met Moses McIntee (@mjjmcintee).  We got off to a good start.  When we first arrived, we were kept waiting for longer than ideal.  However, the bar was kind of full, and we were only at the point of wondering —  we were certainly far from getting annoyed.  When Moses realized he had not seen us, he prevented any note of dissatisfaction and treated us to our first drinks, a Negroni, and their signature Streetcar – Crown Royal, Cointreau infused with Earl Grey tea, and bergamot-scented sugar.

Impressed by Moses’ hospitality, his great drinks, and his design of the seasonal cocktail menu, we were ready for another (and we had intended just to stop in for one!).  While we were finishing off our first, we watched Moses experiment with his tank of liquid nitrogen and Campari, and he treated us to delicious little shots of almost-slushy fruity bitterness while we contemplated the cocktail list.  Delish.

Then (free) salty snacks appeared — including maple syrup roasted bacon strips (which almost tempted me to break my pork fast).  You can order other snacks too, including ceviche, a B.C. Dungeness crab salad, oysters and caviar.

For my final cocktail, I chose the Chili-Lychee Collins — Belevedere vodka, lemon, maple-roasted chili peppers, lychee, pomegranate poached daikon, and a honey-lychee rim.  Not my favourite drink ever, but it was creative and nuanced, and very enjoyable.

To close our evening, Moses went all out and made my companion an Islay Manhattan with Lagavulin, an unusual Amaro, and a big fat peel (above).  An “Isle of Manhattan” … ha ha.   He loved it, and said it was a nice balance of richness and smokiness.  And this is from someone who thinks it is sacrilege to ever let Lagavulin contact ice ….

I’ll be back to visit Moses and TOCA — another great example of Canada’s phenomenal cocktail culture.

Ottawa: Play Food & Wine (@PlayFoodAndWine)

Play is one of my very favourite restaurants, and it is especially great to sit at the bar and put yourself into Steve Benson’s (@OttawaCocktails) hands.

Benson is a genius mixologist.  With Play’s Wine Director, Grayson MacDiarmid, he creates Play’s seasonal cocktail list (which, though I’ve never understood why, you need to ask for specifically).

On a slower night, Benson (and many of the other great Play bartenders) might have time to play Dealer’s Choice with you.  He’ll ask a few questions about what you’re eating, your likes and dislikes, and then will create something for you.

My favourite of Benson’s inventions is a bracing cilantro margarita.  This drink, made with tequila, starts off a bit sweet with a burst of fresh lime, but, as you swallow, the taste turns savoury.  I don’t know quite how – there is cilantro and a grind of pepper in there, but it tastes like so much more than this all together.  Magic.

I went down to Play last night to get some pics of cocktails (and had a few, hence the blurriness of my photos … or shall I blame it on the Iphone camera, as I forgot to bring fresh batteries for my point-and-shoot?).  Jordan first greeted us, and offered to make me something off-menu — it was delicious and very raspberry-y (how did he know it was my favourite fruit?).  I’d love to explain what was in it, but, well 4 drinks later, I’ve forgotten what was in my first.  It was great though!

My favourite last night was the Brûléed Key Lime Pie — the base drink was created by Play’s Nick Kearny, and Benson came up with the brûlé idea.  After mixing the alcohol (the specifics of which have already slipped my mind) with frothed egg white and lime, Benson lightly toasts the egg white in the glass to create a stable base for the sugar.  He then brûlés a layer of sugar, just as a pastry chef would with crème brûlé.   And what results from all this work?  A stunning cocktail — a crunchy sugar top which you crack into a bright and refreshing lime liquid.  Better than dessert!

Continuing on the dessert theme, Benson next made me a Peach Cobbler.  Drinking this, I felt like a southern belle.  Bourbon, crushed ice and peach purée, with a lemon twist wiped around the rim of the glass.  More brown liquor — and it was delish.  The aroma of the lemon was gorgeous.  What was really neat about this drink was how perfect the ice was – not slush, not cubes, but a Goldilocks just right.

Like at Maenam, Play’s cocktails are made with the same innovation, care and quality that their food is.  Come on in and try one.  And, if you’re not hungry enough for a meal, be sure to try the bar’s popcorn with truffle butter.  Now THAT’s a bar snack!

Three great cities, three great places to enjoy cocktails, and three great bartenders to create them for you.  Enjoy!

Check out Benson’s two Ottawa cocktail inventions (winter and summer) HERE on Local Tourist Ottawa’s site.  And, if you’re in Ottawa and looking for a cocktail course, or for a mixologist to wow guests at your party, contact Benson at shakerzhospitality.ca.

Grayson’s awesome wine blog is at GraysonDrinks.com/.

And see HERE for the recipe for my favourite make-at-home cocktail, Union Square Café’s Citrus Cooler, introduced to me by my dear friend Rob. 

Have a great cocktail place to share?  Please let me know!

What do you think? Your comments are most welcome.

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