Even the ice cubes are better at Cure, a cocktail bar that opened on Freret Street in late February. These distinctive cubes are extra large, produced by a specialized machine expressly so they are slower to melt and water down a drink. Ice is ice at most bars, but this detail speaks of the driving force behind Cure: a level of care bordering on reverence for the craft of the cocktail.
The name Cure is a nod to the deep roots of cocktails in the world of 19th century pharmacies, where bitters, tinctures and even drams of liquor were dispensed as palliatives. And behind his broad bar top, Cure owner and head bartender Neal Bodenheimer gives an air of Old World civility, dressed in a pressed shirt and tie under a stiff black apron as he vigorously but precisely shakes together an aviation, a gin-based cocktail with pre-Prohibition credentials, or La Louisiane, a rendition of the classic Sazerac.
Bodenheimer is a New Orleans native who developed both an appreciation for fine cocktails and the chops to prepare them while working at a succession of A-list bars and restaurants in New York City. He returned home not long after Hurricane Katrina with the determination to share his passion with New Orleans. He worked at the busy Uptown hotspot The Delachaise for a while, and later created the cocktail menu for its upscale French Quarter spin-off, Bar Tonique.
Bodenheimer always wanted his own space however, and he found it hiding beneath the clutter and junk of an old appliance repair shop that would have made Sanford and Son appear fastidious. A massive renovation has transformed the property into a bar as sensuous and design-savvy as the hippest hotel lobby lounge. But Cure has its own distinctive character, much of it emanating or reflecting back on Bodenheimer’s devotion to quality, craft-made cocktails.
Take a closer look and details like those custom ice cubes emerge everywhere. Padded leather banquettes curve around one half of the room, creating intimate spaces. Vintage brickwork and lumber speak to the building’s historic credentials, and contrast with the modern furnishings and bar design. Glass jars line the bar filled with fruit wedges, while imported bottles of hard-to-find vermouth, gin and liqueurs glow from illuminated bar shelves. Smoking is not allowed inside the bar, though patrons can light up in the large rear patio, itself a sleek and attractive space.
There is a list of recommended specialty drinks, like the Hemingway daiquiri (hint: it’s not frozen) or the howitzer, which adds a strong dose of bourbon to the champagne-based classic French 75 (both are named for artillery pieces). The bartenders can make anything, of course, and at least during the more easy-going weeknight shifts they seem to revel in mixing something unexpected and on-the-spot for adventurous patrons.
You won’t find pre-made bar mixes or even a soda gun here. Instead, Bodenheimer and his bartenders prepare drinks from a collection of freshly-made juices, syrups and garnishes like busy chefs pulling from their mis en place. For instance, to make the spicy, smooth, refreshing bourbon cocktail called a horse’s neck, a bartender first plucks a whole lemon from a basket and peels it in one long, continuous strip so quickly and deftly, it looks like a sleight of hand. From a small squirt bottle comes fresh ginger syrup, which he tells us was made that afternoon.
Another cocktail might call for a few precise drops of fennel tincture dispensed from a metal flask concealed behind the bar and the unlikely concoction called "the search for delicious" starts with an intense, dark vermouth and adds sprinkles of sea salt both to the drink and on the glass’s rim.
The bar stocks a small selection of imported beers, plus bottles of Miller High Life as a hedge against the guy who comes in and just wants cheap suds.
From a small and quite open kitchen adjacent to the bar, chef Jason McCullar produces a short but immensely satisfying roster of dishes. Some are ideal for casual sharing around a cocktail table, like the cheese and imported meat plates or the crostini smeared with duck liver pate. But sandwiches like the vegetarian mushroom melt or the cochon panino made with pork roasted in-house and spicy cabbage kimchee are downright hearty and filling.
Cure’s location on Freret Street puts it right in the center of a commercial strip that is seeing serious new revitalization. Watching the pros at work here and sipping their creations at the luminous bar or in the patio under the easy sway of palm fronds, it can feel like Cure is also at the heart of New Orleans cocktail culture.
Cure opens daily at 5 p.m. It is located at 4905 Freret St., and the phone is 302-2357.