A few nights ago I received a call from friends of friends. All parties, except me, are from New York or Chicago. These new friends, once removed, said that they were told to get in touch when they arrived in New Orleans and that I could assist them in making the most of their time here.
Flattering, but fraught with issues. Anyway, we did get together and these two were absolutely delightful in a Big City sort of way. They had, yes, seen it all and experienced most of it, but they found our little burg cute and unique. They were staying at a swanky hotel here and eating and drinking (a lot), which translates into spending money, so I was fine with the comments.
They really do love New Orleans and it was a pleasurable cross-cultural experience.
Keep that thought in mind as I move slightly off of it into a core belief of mine. I think that trying something on a restaurant wine list with which you have no familiarity is a big mistake. You will be paying top dollar to experiment on a beverage that you may not like … a lot.
Trying a wine under these conditions is spending money and wasting a good moment for no real reason. Maybe you don’t know the particular wine that is on the list, but at least know the grape or the region from which the wine is made. Don’t suddenly think, “Wow, finally a chance to try a white wine from Bora Bora, and it’s only $60.” You may win that game. That’s not where the smart money is being bet, but you may come out ahead.
I doubt it.
So back to New Orleans with our new best friends from two of America’s most fantastic dining and drinking cities. Okay, here’s our chance to show them that we have it all going on in The Crescent City.
First stop, ordered champagne. Safe choice. And a good way to start the evening. Bubbles work every time.
Next stop was the restaurant. One of the new ones (opened in the last year) Uptown. We wanted to drink something to begin the meal, and were not quite sure we needed another sparkling wine at this point. We ended up looking at the establishment’s bill of fare devoted to specialty cocktails.
I am assuming that if a restaurant has devoted the time and energy to create special drinks, they should be pretty good. We already knew they were a bit on the pricey side, but something interesting and unique was the quest.
Again, referring you back to what I believe: In a restaurant or wine bar, stay safe and go with what you know. I had a Sazerac. Turned out to be a pretty good one, too.
As for the two other drinks that we ordered off the restaurant list, our luck wasn't as good. Despite our server's assurances to the contrary, the drinks were indeed quite sweet. One we returned; the other was tolerated, but not happily. Bummer.
And it was a bit embarrassing because I had just noted (okay, so I was bragging) about how savvy New Orleans is when it comes to making cocktails. We’re right up there, I crowed, with London, Paris, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Chicago and, yes, even New York.
What was really distressing about this predicament was that the drink was not well-made, or maybe not well-designed. It was not balanced, and all those enticing ingredients noted on the cocktail menu were not distinguishable. It’s like that great scene in Amadeus when the Emperor did not react positively to Wolfgang’s composition because the music “had too many notes.”
To boot, the drink was not cheap. Again, as I told you earlier, a restaurant is a terrible place for experimentation. Leaps into the unknown can sometimes be costly and unfulfilling.
But this was an isolated incident, wasn’t it? Not so fast there, vermouth breath.
We moved on, and after a very fine meal with a few excellent wines, went to a renowned bar for a bit of a nightcap. It was only midnight, you know, so all was still functioning smoothly in our town.
My wife, Brenda, and I ordered a very sturdy drink that we had enjoyed before and knew well. Our friends ordered a drink that was the “specialty of the establishment.” Uh-oh.
Here again, the drink came out unbalanced. Not well done at all. Too much of something and not enough of the other things. And, not cheap.
My question: Is the New Orleans cocktail scene broken? Have we decided that our reputation is in place and we can just toss these concoctions together willy-nilly, without care for measurement? Are we creating cocktails with crazy ingredients and crazier names just to do it? When it comes to the cocktails that come out of from our creative and development sessions, are we really proud of how they taste and how they are crafted, or are our cocktail folks just happy that something palatable came out of the mix?
I may now be applying my rules of ordering wine in restaurants (which is to know what you are ordering based on experience) to cocktails that are on featured lists in restaurants: Stick to the tried and true of what you know and like.
It’s all too expensive. Negatively impacting a fine evening with a product that does not satisfy is just not worth the effort. If you get a bad (insert your favorite cocktail’s name here), at least you know and can take steps to fix it.
How the hell do you make a Screwy Louie with Drambuie correctly?
Check back next week for Maybe It’s Broke, Part 2, where we will explore this same situation from the other side of the bar.