Thursday, October 22, 2009

Barcode: La Morra

There has been plenty of attention given to “Sleep No More,’’ the interactive theatrical production from British company Punchdrunk and the American Repertory Theater. Rightfully so. It’s a chilling and unique sensory immersion. Of course, having a cocktail beforehand can aid in any theater-going experience. To that end, the production enlisted the help of La Morra, the Italian restaurant and bar, in constructing a 1930s London blues bar called Manderley in the old Brookline schoolhouse where the show takes place. You’d never know the space used to be a school cafeteria. The dark, slinky lounge - with plush velvet curtains, candlelight, and cafe tables - comes complete with a crack musical trio and lovely and talented hostesses in period character who double as singers with the band.

The cocktails here are period-specific as well, born of a history-minded collaboration between La Morra bar manager Jason Waddleton and owner Jennifer Ziskin. Most of the drinks are also being featured at La Morra’s cozily rustic bar.

Highlights include the Hanky Panky (Plymouth gin, sweet vermouth, Fernet Branca; below left; all cocktails $11 at Manderley, $9.50 at La Morra). This one comes from the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London, famous among enthusiasts for whom Harry Craddock’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book’’ is something of a bar bible to this day. Bartender Ada Coleman, as the story goes, was trying to mix something to impress the famed London stage actor Charles Hawtrey. When he first tried this variation on a sweet martini he proclaimed: “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!’’ The Italian digestif Fernet Branca, renowned among bartenders as a post-shift shot, is an acquired taste, but here it mingles beautifully in a bittersweet cocktail.

The Bennett (Hendrick’s gin, lime juice, orange bitters, honey ginger syrup) is a cocktail that was named in honor of Alfred Hitchcock’s screenwriting partner Charles Bennett, which is appropriate, as “Sleep No More’’ has been described as Shakespeare by way of Hitchcock. Here it’s made with honey ginger syrup instead of sugar, giving it a light spicy sweetness to go along with the citrus.

We were also pleased with their interpretations of the Churchill (Scotch, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, lemon juice), another old standard (Churchill was something of a drinker, you may have heard), and the Lima Basilica (Clementine vodka, lime juice, basil, simple syrup; below right).

“This was on our list at La Morra and the Punchdrunk folks fell in love with it their first time dining here,’’ Ziskin says of the latter. “There are many references throughout ‘Sleep No More’ to the symbolism of herbs and spices. Think the witches brew of ‘Macbeth.’ I think that was why they loved this drink so much.’’

Basil has been associated with different rituals and beliefs throughout the world, from love to hatred to Satan. Here in contemporary Brookline, along with the rest of the drinks on the list, it symbolizes an attention to historical detail that, like “Sleep No More’’ itself, transcends boundaries.

Scotch Cocktails

Thanks to the cyclical nature of cocktail trends, every spirit gets to have its day. Whiskeys are on the rise of late, although aside from the very occasional Rob Roy, we can't remember the last time we've seen a Scotch cocktail on a drink menu. Mixing with a nice single malt is even rarer. And for good reason perhaps. Why would you want to spoil a carefully crafted sipping spirit with a mixer? But don't people do the same thing all the time with high-end gins and vodkas, even older tequilas? Wouldn't working with a quality single-malt Scotch make for a better cocktail experience and maybe open up musty old Scotch to younger people reluctant to order it straight? The short answer, as we suspected, is no. The long answer also happens to be no. That didn't stop us from trying to get a few bartenders around town to humor us.

First we looked to Macallan brand ambassador Graeme Russell to find out what was so heretical about our misguided plea. "Some argue you should only drink whiskey neat," he said. "Others argue you should add water or ice. Everyone should drink it the way they like it, but you should always start off nosing it neat and sipping it neat, and you might learn that you don't want to add anything to it."

We took his advice and sampled a few Macallan single malts at Mooo (15 Beacon Street, Boston, 617.670.2515). Many distilleries in Scotland use bourbon barrels brought over from America. Macallan, on the other hand, uses Spanish sherry casks for the entire process, which accounts for much of the richness in flavor and full body you'll find in a Scotch like their Macallan 12. A few sips into the 12 year and it becomes obvious why you wouldn't want to mix this with anything else. With its blend of dark caramel and butterscotch, it's a complex enough recipe on its own.

Adding water is about as far as Mooo bartender Brad Fichter wanted to go. Even a dash will open up the whiskey, breaking the surface tension of the alcohol. Ice, at the other extreme, pulls everything back together, making the flavors sharper and more compact. The Fine Oak 10 Year worked another spectrum of flavor with a sweeter honey, vanilla, and cinnamon character. Scotch novices would do well to start with this one.

That profile makes the Fine Oak 10 Year better suited for mixing, if you insist, says Russell. "The idea is to keep it to simple tall drinks, ginger ale, soda, lemonade. A lot of cocktails try to mask the flavor of alcohol with fruit or something. In a tall drink, the essence of the Scotch comes through."

At The Last Hurrah (60 School Street, Boston, 617.725.1888), we asked bartender Joe Murphy to make us a Rob Roy with the Macallan 12, and sure enough, most of the complexity we found drinking it neat was lost. "No good spirits are mixed into cocktails," said bar manager Frank Weber. "The purpose of cocktails is to make ok spirits better," he scolded. But do what you want. It's your money. "If you want a Highland Park Scotch 30 Year in ginger ale or lemon juice or cola, I'll make it. But I prefer to see people drink single malts neat, or with a little water to open them up."

Dave Werthman at Westside Lounge (1680 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.441.5566) scoffed at first as well. "Although the only way I would order a single-malt Scotch is neat or with a couple of cubes," he said, "certain ingredients can compliment and even highlight the brighter characteristics of a good Scotch while masking the bite." When pressed, he suggested a Cloak and Dagger using 2½ ounces of Macallan 12, ¼ ounce Fernet Branca, juice from half a grilled orange, and a splash of simple syrup. "Both the juice from the grilled orange and the Fernet bring out the natural smokiness of the Macallan while making it more palatable for the novice brown drinker," he said.

So it's doable then, just not advisable. "The main principle is never say never," said Russell. "With younger whiskeys, experiment and try them out. Older ones treat with due consideration. Some of these took us 25 years to make - don't throw that away with a mass-produced soda."

Stuff Magazine

Friday, October 16, 2009

Barcode: Mix Masters

To coincide with the introduction of their Mix Masters website, Dekuyper, the Dutch distiller responsible for many of the well liquors, schnapps, and puckers you’ll find stocked in many bars, sponsored a bartending contest last week. Sort of a social networking site for bartenders, the site is a place where they can exchange recipes and get advice from other mixologists.

After a series of preliminary competitions, the three Boston finalists prepared their recipes for a panel of judges gathered at the Greatest Bar. The winner would receive some cash and a trip to New Orleans to try their hand in the national competition. While we weren’t involved in the process ourselves, we did get to sample each of the entries. The judges were looking for a mixed drink or shot made with three or fewer liquid ingredients. Points were given for appearance, creativity in name, originality, and simplicity.

The latter quality carried the day, as each of the drinks tended toward the simple, crowd-pleasing, sugary variety. Of course, working with liqueurs that are sweet to begin with sort of makes that inevitable. Erin Kiley of Lir offered up the Peter Brady (cinnamon schnapps, sour apple pucker, pineapple juice).

“I called it the Peter Brady because it tastes like applesauce. You know, like ‘pork chops and applesauce,’ ’’ she said, quoting the TV character. It’s meant to be served as a shooter, she said, and usually goes over well at Lir. “When a group of girls come in and ask for a shot of something that’s not too strong, but good, I’ll make this. It’s good for guys too, though.’’

It certainly was drinkable, but wasn’t necessarily in our usual drinking repertoire. Perhaps sipping a Manhattan between samples wasn’t the best idea. It would be like cleansing your palate with foie gras at a hot dog eating contest. Nonetheless, the Peter Brady was warm and seasonal and spicy enough to win a following.

Kanga Collard of Flash’s was up next with her Pink Purrfection (crème de banana, strawberry pucker, pineapple vodka). Collard also alluded to her drink’s feminine appeal. She usually serves it at Flash’s in a champagne flute garnished with pineapple. “We’re all about fun glasses and ostentatious garnishes at Flash’s,’’ she said.

Andre Haynes of the Place worked the colorful, fruity angle as well with his Gummy Worm (blueberry liqueur, sour apple pucker, pineapple juice). “I was in Boca Raton years ago and I wanted to make a shot that reminded me of the ocean I was looking at. I was like ‘give me some blue stuff!’ It tastes just like a gummy worm, if you like that. Chicks seems to dig it. If someone wants something stronger I’ll add vodka to it.’’

No surprise that people liked these type of drinks, even if we weren’t exactly wowed. As we headed back up to the bar later that night for a beer we overheard a guy ordering a Peter Brady. Perhaps it might catch on after all.

Boston Globe

Friday, October 9, 2009

Damián Ortega

Damián Ortega takes things apart to make amazing art

New ICA exhibit about creative destuction and destructive creation

In most art exhibits you aren’t given the opportunity to see the steps of the creative process played out. Instead we’re presented with a completed piece removed by time and space from the vitality that went into its making.

With Mexican artist Damián Ortega it’s easy to imagine, because his work is about process itself. Not the artistic process per se, but processes in general. Many of the sculptures, installations, photographs and videos on display in his first major exhibition “Do It Yourself” at the Institute of Contemporary Art either hint at or hit you over the head with the idea of how things are made, and how each individual component of an object interacts with its other components to make the whole. That concept is writ large in the centerpiece of the show “Cosmic Thing” a deconstructed VW Beetle suspended from the ceiling in its individual parts. It’s also played out literally in a video installation titled “Liquid Center” in which Ortega deliberately dissects a golf ball revealing its surprising contents.

It’s also played out literally in a video installation titled “Liquid Center” in which Ortega deliberately dissects a golf ball revealing its surprising contents.

That curiosity about the inner-workings of objects is something he learned as a child growing up in Mexico, he told us. “My brother is responsible. He was the destroyer in the house. He was even more curious than me, opening things from the kitchen. I really enjoyed these moments.”

It’s a metaphor that can be extrapolated to the interactions between individuals as the part of sociological groups. “This is a system,” he said, referring to “Cosmic Thing.” “If you open it you can classify and understand the singularity and the dignity of each piece. It could be a city, or a mechanism, or a family or everything.”

The “dignity of each piece,” whether it be the mechanics of a car, a jumble of leather strips dangling from the ceiling that also make up the floor plan of a series of apartment buildings in the piece “Skin” or the interaction of building bricks arranged in cascading domino formations in the films “Nine Types of Terrain” is central to Ortega. “The object when it’s in function is just a system of functions. Now you can see here it’s a system of communications.”

Putting across a view point through bold, broad statements is something he developed in his former career as a political cartoonist. A field not renowned for its subtlety. “I don’t know if these are subtle,” he laughed, gesturing to his work. The difference now, he said, is that instead of cartoons, which sometimes are only supposed to exist for one day, “the art is something to work for a hundred years. Maybe more.”

Boston Metro

Damián Ortega: ‘Do It Yourself’
Through Jan. 18
200 Northern Ave., Boston
MBTA: Silver Line to Courthouse

Stephen Elliott

Sometimes ‘know thyself’ is a liability

Stephen Elliott takes himself to his limits in his bio of drug dependency, sex, abuse and homelessness

A good book is often a labor of blood, sweat and tears and the product of a string of sleepless nights. Nobody seems to have told Stephen Elliott that he didn’t necessarily have to take all of that literally.

In a series of memoirs and novels closely based upon his own life, Elliott has tackled the blood and sweat of BDSM sex — bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism — as well as the sad emptiness of parental abuse and homelessness. In his latest, “The Adderall Diaries,” Elliott chronicles the wide-eyed frenzy of his prescription drug dependency and sets it amidst the unfolding real-life plot of a murder trial he finds himself investigating.

The process of writing each book, he says, allows him to get to know himself better, which is crucial for memoirists. “The books that are memoirs that fail are because the people writing them haven’t explored far enough,” he says. “They think it’s enough just not to lie. Honesty is only based on how well you know yourself.”

Each successive exploration into his twisted bio-graphy was like a gateway drug. “It’s kind of like nobody shoots heroin without smoking a cigarette,” he says. “And nobody shoots a porno without first taking photos.”

New York Metro

Barcode: Prezza

Easing into the season

It’s hard to resist the charms of the North End, especially when you’re not trying to park there. We spent an evening walking through its tightly wound, historic streets on our way into Prezza recently, wondering, as one does when in a cute neighborhood, what it might be like to live there.

“You’d have a tiny apartment that you spend way too much for,’’ our companion said. Perhaps. But we’d also have easy access to one of the densest restaurant areas in the city.

You might even say there are almost too many to choose from. When it comes to restaurant bars, however, the numbers aren’t quite so imposing. More than a few restaurants here only have wine and beer licenses, and the bars themselves aren’t much to speak of. But a place like Prezza, with a proper bar and a full alcohol license, gives you the option of having a well-made cocktail before moving onto that bold red with dinner.

We found Prezza’s bar packed on a Monday evening brisk enough to sample a few of the new fall cocktails. Apples and Oranges (Neige Ice Cider, Moscato d’Asti, Cointreau Noir, $12.50) worked the seasonal angle with apple and spice. The Quebec-made Neige (which means snow in French) is basically an ice wine made with apples instead of grapes. The apples are harvested in the fall; the juice is kept outside through the freezing winter. It amounts to a golden, glowing, slightly syrupy mix tasting of candied fruits and caramel apples. The Neige mingles well with the orange flavor of the Cointreau. The Noir is a Cognac blend that’s meant to be sipped on its own rather than used as a mixer, so it’s softer and has a bit of vanilla and spice underneath. The dessert wine rounds things out with a lightly effervescent sweetness.

The Smoke and Honey (Glenmorangie, Hennessey VSOP, honey, fresh orange and lemon juice, $12.50) continues the seasonal theme with its presentation of a smoky bite from the Scotch, warmth of the Cognac, and natural sweetness and citrus. When it’s balanced right you get smoke and honey without one overpowering the other.

Another appealing option was the Pumpkin Martini (Voyant Chai Cream Liqueur, vanilla vodka, cinnamon, pumpkin puree, $12.50). The chai liqueur is smooth, creamy, and spicy. We might recommend drinking it on its own as an after-dinner drink. Two others, variations of the Sidecar, including the Maple Sidecar (Hennessey VSOP, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, maple syrup, maple sugar rim, $12.50) and the Sweet and Spicy Pear Martini (Hangar One Spiced Pear vodka, Belle de Brillet, Patrón Citrónge, fresh lemon juice, $12.50) offer seasonal twists on the old summery favorite. Who said Italian restaurants have to be all about the wine?

Prezza, 24 Fleet St., Boston. 617-227-1577.

Boston Globe

Friday, October 2, 2009

Barcode: The Friendly Toast

Treading the line between funky vintage furniture store and rockabilly diner, The Friendly Toast fills every square inch of space with kitsch. From lusty pulp novel covers papering the walls and mannequin heads presiding over the bar, to the hundreds of product labels inlaid under the glass of the bar, it’s a retro sensory onslaught.

“The look is a little overwhelming, yes,’’ says owner Melissa Jasper. “That is simply because I always have too many things to buy, then to hang.’’ When she opened the original Friendly Toast in Portsmouth, N.H., fifteen years ago, she decorated it the only way she knew how: “With the goofy stuff from the ’40s and ’50s I’d been buying since I was 15 and discovered the Salvation Army.’’

That sense of playful discovery (and randomness, quite frankly) carries over onto the drink list as well. You won’t find many bars with a carafe of maple syrup resting next to a well-made gin cocktail, but that’s part of the “whatever aesthetic’’ here. Spellbound (Bombay, Triple Sec, lime juice, pear puree, $10) is a light floral mix garnished with a beautiful purple orchid. It may well be the first instance we’ve seen of a bar coordinating its garnishes with the tattoos you would expect to find on its servers and clientele.

Like all the drinks on the list, Spellbound takes its name from a Hitchcock film. The concept began with the recipe for Frenzy (Absolut Citron, Chambord, Sprite, blackberry puree, Pop Rocks, $10). We’re used to using our senses of taste, smell, touch, and sight to evaluate cocktails. Here, the crackle of the Pop Rocks candy on the rim brings sound into the mix. It’s a fun idea and gets points for originality.

“I was looking for a word that would convey the chaotic twitching of the Pop Rocks, and when ‘frenzy’ came to mind, I thought of the film,’’ says Jasper. “After that, I recruited several employees to help me think of the ingredients that embodied the particular Hitchcock titles I was fond of.’’ Many of them, like Blackmail (Jägermeister, coffee ice cream, Coke, peppermint schnapps, $10) use blended ice cream to draw on the old-timey soda shop vibe at play here.

Strangers on a Train (below, Jack Daniels, Kahlua, Red Bull, $10) is aptly named, but surprisingly the sugary metallic flavor of Red Bull, cut with the hangover taste of Jack and a dollop of coffee sweetness, is just out there enough to make sense. Suspicion (Jägermeister, Coke, cherry puree, $10) is an odd, playful mix as well. “Suspicion was just called that because no one thought it would taste good,’’ says Jasper. It’s like the type of stuff you’d mix at random from your parents’ liquor cabinet when you were young. It doesn’t sound like it should work at all, but drinking it - and drinking here - sure is a lot of fun.

The Friendly Toast, 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge. 617-621-1200.