A conversation with the manager of Boston's newest hotel bar.
A funny thing happened to me the last time I was at Committee. I ran into a friend of mine who was there having drinks, and as we were catching up, he said “So, this is your new spot, huh?” Well…not exactly. I’ve only been to Committee twice. But I can see how an observer might think I’m there on a weekly basis. This is, after all, the third time I’ve written about the Greek and Mediterranean restaurant since it opened two months ago. First there was the cocktail pop-up at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden in Woburn, which offered a preview of Committee’s innovative beverage program. Then there was the grand opening party with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. So yeah, I’ve become pretty familiar with the place. But it’s not like anyone yells “Opa!” when I walk in (as awesome as that would be).
Which is not to say that I wouldn’t be fully content to be a regular here.
Committee opened in the Seaport in June, filling a surprising gap in the Boston restaurant world: while plenty of establishments offer top-notch Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, very few do so in such a contemporary setting with a highly original cocktail program.
Situated on the bottom floor of the Vertex building in the thriving Innovation District, Committee is spacious and open, with concrete floors, an exposed ceiling, and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in ample light on a sunny afternoon. Flower boxes and candlelight further soften the industrial look.
And the restaurant is clearly designed for conversation. Guests congregate around long, communal tables that occupy the center of the room, while smaller, more intimate tables line the perimeter. Comfortable leather couches and chairs constitute something of a small den by the front of the restaurant, overlooking the street.
Then there’s the expansive, three-sided bar where beverage director Peter Szigeti and his cohorts bring their European influence to a cocktail program that’s both imaginative and approachable.
The crowded bar and full tables give Committee a lively, jovial atmosphere, and that’s exactly what general manager Demetri Tsolakis wants. “Committee is all about bringing people together,” he says of his young restaurant. “We chose the name ‘Committee’ because, similar to the way a court committee unites to make a decision, people gather here to savor, pass, and sip together.”
I’ve done my share of sipping at Committee. But on my most recent visit, I was finally able to get acquainted with the food. Committee’s menu comprises meze-style small plates designed for sharing. Among the warm and cold options are plenty of beloved staples of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, like grape leaf dolmades – a savory blend of rice, pine nuts, and spices wrapped in soft grape leaves.
Moussaka is another Mediterranean classic, a layered dish typically made with eggplant and ground meat. Committee’s version skips the meat and swaps out eggplant for artichoke, adding caramelized onions, potato, and a three-cheese béchamel sauce. The flavors in this delicious, lasagna-like dish are beautifully balanced – the artichoke isn’t overpowering, the cheese is rich but not heavy, and the spices contribute a peppery essence. A must-order.
Then there’s olive salad, which I suppose is good if you like olives. I do not. Moving on.
If you’re not terribly well versed in Mediterranean cuisine (like myself), you might find a few unfamiliar items on the menu. But the staff are all pretty helpful. Our server, Max, was happy to decipher whenever necessary, as with the Piperia Gemisti – a large, roasted red pepper with tyrokafteri, a warm, spicy dip made of yogurt and whipped feta, oozing out of the top.
Keftedakia are Greek-style meatballs served with tzatziki. These bad boys are wonderfully spiced and fall-apart tender.
Max was also happy to offer suggestions, and I deferred to his judgment when he recommended the grilled octopus. As much as I enjoy octopus, I admit I get skeeved out by seeing their suckers. But it’s worth getting past a little weirdness, because this is an exceptional dish – crispy on the outside, not squishy on the inside, and served with caper berries on a bed of fennel slaw.
Between revered Mediterranean classics and culinary curveballs, Committee’s menu lets you be as comfortable or as adventurous as you want. The same can be said for the experience at Committee’s bar.
Peter Szigeti’s cocktails manage to be inventive and complex without ever getting carried away. Peter was working at one of the premier bars in Budapest when Demetri made his acquaintance and persuaded him to lead the beverage program at Committee. He and his team have a distinctive, fluid style to their drink making, which Demetri previously described to me as “like ballet with their hands.” And the cocktails live up to their elegant presentation.
The Bitter Mendez is a refreshing, summery drink made with Milagro tequila, pineapple juice, fresh lime juice, and celery bitters. I’m tempted to compare it to a margarita, with the tequila and lime, but the pineapple and celery bitters take it in a totally different direction.
The Mandarine Sour is a gorgeous drink that tastes as good as it looks. This intricate cocktail combines Mandarine Napoleon (a cognac flavored with mandarin oranges), cognac, dry curacao, vanilla syrup, fresh lemon juice, egg white, and aromatic and orange bitters. The citrus flavor is bold, no surprise, but the vanilla and egg balance it out and provide a soft texture.
Even a simple drink like the gin and tonic is reinterpreted with unexpected flavors. G’Vine Floraison is a unique, grape-based gin made in France, sweeter than typical gins. In the G’Vine and T, it combines with Fentimans tonic water and is sprayed with a lavender perfume; a trio of skewered grapes serves as a garnish. This is one of the most unconventional gin and tonics I’ve ever had. The lavender aroma is surprising and permeates every sip (though the effect gets to be a little tiring at the end). It’s a big, slow-sipping drink, and don’t skip the grapes when you’re done.
G’Vine gin shows up again in the Lady in White. A blend of G’Vine Nouaison (less floral than the Floraison), Esprit De June, vanilla syrup, fresh lemon juice, lemon bitters, and egg white, this elegant cocktail has a little bit of everything – a balance of sweetness and tartness, a soft texture, and delightful heart-shaped dollops of bitters on the foam that coats the surface.
Before closing out, I recalled that when I first met Demetri back at the cocktail pop-up, he urged me to ask his beverage director for something off-menu. He assured me that Peter could whip up anything on the spot and that I’d love it. So I decided to test his skills once again, and asked for a drink made with the official spirit of Greece – ouzo.
An anise-flavored spirit made with grapes, herbs, berries, and spices, ouzo is an acquired taste, as even the most ardent ouzo enthusiast will acknowledge. And since I wasn’t sitting at the bar, Peter didn’t even have the chance to make sure I even liked ouzo (I don’t, actually) or ask me how I might want it prepared in a cocktail.
And yet he came through with a spectacular drink.
I never found out what was in the cocktail, but it was creamy, smooth, and just slightly sweet. I could definitely taste the ouzo, but its signature licorice flavor was toned down and balanced by the other ingredients. If it ever appears on the menu, I’ll order it again.
Committee’s cocktail program will continue to evolve, and they have a special treat in store as the season draws to a close. The restaurant is soon opening a bar on its patio and will have a dedicated beverage program featuring warm-weather drinks that will be available by the glass and the pitcher. It’s a move that’s both creative and ambitious, and it shows that while Committee is only two months old, it’s already at home in a neighborhood poised for continued growth.
Address: 50 Northern Avenue, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Recently I had the chance to attend a pop-up preview of the cocktail program at Committee, the Greek and eastern Mediterranean eatery that opened about two weeks ago in Boston’s Innovation District. Held at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden in Woburn, the evening served to showcase Committee’s inventive drinks and the elegant style of their European-trained bartenders. This week, I finally got to see Committee itself.
On Wednesday the seaport’s newest resident hosted a grand opening party that gave guests a chance to check out the new digs and enjoy some Mediterranean hospitality. Committee’s large, wraparound bar, open space, and communal tables provided a comfortable setting for snacking on delicious hors d’oeuvres and sipping cocktails made by beverage director Peter Szigeti and his talented mixology squad.
Below is a look at this beautiful restaurant and a few pictures from the festivities. I’ll write a more traditional, full-length review within a couple of weeks, once I have a chance to stop in again.
Assuming they don’t burn the place down first.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
For a city that boasts a fairly impressive range of ethnic cuisines, Boston has long lacked an upscale, authentic Greek restaurant. That changes today, when Committee opens in the Innovation District. Occupying the ground floor of the shiny Vertex building on Fan Pier, Committee will specialize in Greek and eastern Mediterranean fare, with a focus on meze-style small plates and staples like tzatziki. And, of course, cocktails.
Last week the Greek eatery’s bar staff, led by Peter Szigeti, took over the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden in Woburn (home base of the renowned Ran Duan) to offer guests a preview of Committee’s cocktail program. Peter hails from Budapest, as do his colleagues in mixology, Reka Kralik and Gergely Szabo. Together, they bring a fresh, European perspective to modern craft cocktails, with smart twists on the classics and some innovative original libations. Last week’s event, called “Drink and Kick Back With Committee,” featured five signature cocktails that will be available starting today.
I imagine that candied bacon can bring a little magic to just about any drink, but the Smoke Show is impressive even without its decadent garnish. Combining strawberry-infused mezcal, amaro, sweet vermouth, and Aperol, there’s a host of bold flavors in this one. But the smoky essence of the mezcal isn’t too aggressive, and the strawberry softens some of the stronger notes.
The Blood Orange Old Fashioned is a savvy update of the classic that manages to stay true to the essence of the traditional recipe. It’s made with rye whiskey, blood orange syrup, grapefruit oleo-saccharum, and old fashioned bitters, and garnished with a dried, candied blood orange peel that’s entirely edible (but still pretty bitter). The oleo-saccharum contributes the requisite citrus and sugar components, and the grapefruit base keeps it from becoming too sweet.
The Committee Mule is a spicy rendition of the Moscow Mule, combining chili-infused Absolut Elyx vodka with fresh lime, ginger beer, and cardamom bitters. Garnished with a scorched dehydrated lime, it packs a little heat but isn’t intense.
If you have a soft spot for Cosmopolitans but wouldn’t dare order one in public, you can opt for Committee’s bottled version – which is Notta Cosmo. With Hanson ginger vodka, fresh lime, orange liqueur, and cranberry juice, the Notta Cosmo has all the essential components of the old-school drink that was co-opted by the Sex and the City crowd. This carbonated offering is crisp and not overly sweet, with a fresh tartness from the cranberry.
While I enjoyed all of the featured drinks, the one that truly stood out was the Cuban Affair. Made with aged rum, fresh lime, vanilla syrup, and balsamic vinegar, this one is special. And I know it’s not just me; the woman to my right ordered one and declared it the “best thing I ever tasted in my life.” High praise for a relatively simple cocktail, but this is one of those drinks that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Complex but smooth, it’s a vanilla-forward cocktail that Peter described as “cheesecake”-like, and I can see what he means. It’s not desserty but has a full flavor and good mouth feel. The balsamic vinegar isn’t prominent but serves to balance out the other flavors.
Committee general manager Demetri Tsolakis was on hand at the Baldwin Bar, talking cocktails, food, and his good fortune in being able to pluck Peter and company from a bar in Budapest. Demetri urged me to test his beverage director’s skills by ordering something off-menu and leaving the details to Peter, which I was only too happy to do. After posing a few questions about spirit preferences, Peter got to work while I asked Demetri about the differences between European and American mixology. The word he kept coming back to was “flow,” as he pointed out the rhythm and fluidity with which his bar staff handled bottles, shook drinks, and seamlessly wove around each other while fetching ingredients and tending to customers.
“It’s like ballet with their hands,” he said, and as I watched Peter repeatedly transfer my cocktail from shaker to shaker with a dramatic high pour, I could see what he meant.
As it turns out, such artistry is more than just for show. The cocktail Peter made for me was a Blood and Sand – a drink I’ve never been particularly fond of. Made with scotch, cherry liqueur, and orange juice, it’s a combination that’s never really worked for me. This one was different. “It’s all in the technique,” Peter said, explaining that the Blood and Sand poses a dilemma from a mixing standpoint: the liquors would ordinarily be stirred while the juice should be shaken. The solution is that shaker-to-shaker transfer he performed earlier, which is called “throwing” – stronger than stirring but not as drastic as shaking. “You don’t shake the bejeezus out of it,” he helpfully added.
The result was by far the best Blood and Sand I’ve ever had (though to be fair, it’s probably only the second one I’ve ever had). The scotch was very smoky, almost mezcal-like, but the drink was balanced and surprisingly delicate.
Watching Peter, Reka, and Gergely in action is nearly as enjoyable as sipping the cocktails they make. They work with grace and style, which would count for little if their drinks didn’t live up to their elegant presentation. Instead, they exceed it.
Committee opens today, and you can check back here in a couple of weeks for a full review.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
For the longest time – up until this weekend, if I’m being truthful – I never understood the appeal of the Kentucky Derby. I always figured that there’s a miniscule sliver of society that has a genuine, year-round interest in professional thoroughbred racing, so I was flummoxed that the event got so much widespread hype and media attention. I’d never attended a big Kentucky Derby party, and I’m not even sure I ever watched the race on TV. As for the activities that accompany the race, well, I don’t need a special occasion to drink a Mint Julep, and no occasion has ever been special enough to make me think “Hey, I bet I’d look sharp in a seersucker suit.”
Well, consider me a convert.
This past weekend, Boston Cares held its fourth annual Kentucky Derby fundraiser at Central Wharf Co. in the Financial District. A nonprofit organization that mobilizes more than 25,000 volunteers every year, Boston Cares coordinates programs and volunteering opportunities in support of schools and other nonprofit agencies in Greater Boston. The previous year’s Derby event raised $15,000 for Boston Cares, and with a packed house of colorfully clad revelers, the 2015 installment was poised to blow right past that. In addition to watching the race, the $75 per head event featured raffle tickets, door prizes, and awards given for apparel-related categories such as best-dressed guest and best hat. Given the number of men and women donning race-day finery, I can scarcely imagine the difficulty of the selection process.
There were also plenty of fun ways to raise money. Guests had the opportunity to bid on dozens of items in a silent auction, with prizes including Red Sox tickets, trips to exotic locales, and this home bar from liquor sponsor Brown-Forman (and in the interest of full disclosure, I attended as their guest).
But what better way to support a good cause than by having a drink? You don’t need to be toasting a winning horse to enjoy a glass of champagne, and for $100, you’d get a chilled bucket of G.H. Mumm, the official champagne of the Kentucky Derby.
As a special treat, you could have the bottle “sabered,” a ceremonial technique that employs a large blade to not only pop the cork but also slice off the neck of the bottle in one clean, dramatic swoop. Below, you can see a bottle about to meet the saber. I’m told the bottle has to be extremely cold, otherwise the glass will shatter. (And on that note, there’s a reason you’re seeing the pre-sabering and not the post-sabering.)
Of course, no Kentucky Derby party would be complete without the event’s signature cocktail. The Mint Julep has been the official drink of the Derby since the 1930s, and this mix of bourbon, muddled mint leaves, sugar, and water is even older than the race. Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, and at the race itself, they sell a $1,000 version that raises money for charity. The Boston Cares event featured a special Mint Julep for the comparative bargain price of $100. That’s still a lot to fork over for a drink, but with proceeds supporting the hard work of Boston Cares, it’s worth every penny.
The signature Julep for this event was made with Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon, bourbon-infused vanilla sugar, Cave spring water, and fresh mint, served over crushed ice in a commemorative copper cup (at least I hope it was commemorative, because I took mine home). The Double Oaked bourbon, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and toasted oak, made this traditional reading of the classic recipe truly exceptional. Whether you’re fanning yourself in the sweltering Southern heat at Churchill Downs or hanging out in a bar on a temperate afternoon in Boston, the Mint Julep is as refreshing as it is timeless.
Even if you weren’t flush with Benjamins, you could still enjoy the Derby’s most iconic cocktail. A more reasonably priced Julep was made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, fresh mint, simple syrup, and soda, topped with powdered sugar.
Despite the reverence bestowed upon the Mint Julep on Derby day, I may have been more impressed with the Strawberry Blonde. This refreshing libation combined Old Forester bourbon with strawberries, basil leaves, simple syrup, lime juice, and ginger beer for a fruity, aromatic cocktail with an effervescent, spicy kick.
Of course, bourbon is just fine on its own. I’ve been big on Woodford Reserve since I visited their distillery last year. A smooth whiskey featuring complex notes of citrus, chocolate, and tobacco, it’s a versatile bourbon that requires no colorful ornaments or special occasions.
Such simplicity might be easy to overlook amid the pageantry and high fashion of a Kentucky Derby soirée. People attend these parties for all manner of reasons – to drink Mint Juleps, bet on horses, donate to charity, or simply watch the race with friends. But it’s clear that what revelers look forward to most is the chance to outfit themselves in vibrant attire that evokes the elaborate styles of a bygone era.
The women at the Boston Cares event were resplendent in their wide-brimmed, flower-adorned hats and radiant dresses, while men donned bright bowties, vests, and pants they ordinarily wouldn’t leave the house in. It’s an environment where elegance and irony walk hand in hand.
It was about 6:20 p.m. when the horses and their diminutive riders moved into position, and the anticipation swelled at Central Wharf. Even though I had no vested interest in the Run for the Roses, I inevitably got caught up in the excitement as the crowd gathered around the bar’s TVs to watch the two-minute contest that had brought us all together. Before long, American Pharaoh crossed the finish line to a chorus of cheers and groans, and I found myself clinking glasses with complete strangers for no apparent reason.
While American Pharaoh took home the trophy (and a cool $1.24 million), Boston Cares was certainly the winner at Central Wharf. I don’t know what their final tally was, but given the high turnout, the feverish auction, and the number of Woodford Reserve cups I saw floating around, I’m sure that the causes supported by Boston Cares benefited greatly from the attendees’ generosity.
As for me, well…I get it now. After years of being mystified as to why so many people mustered such fierce enthusiasm for horses running in a circle, I can see it now in a fuller respect – the lavish attire, the good-natured wagers, the invitation to sip Kentucky bourbon on a spring afternoon. And such enthusiasm can be contagious. I don’t see myself investing in a checkered sport coat or a fedora next year, but I suppose a bowtie wouldn’t kill me.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Thriving in a mode of endless reinvention is a demanding proposition. In an industry where failure is more likely than success, most bars and restaurants would be more than happy to find something that works – an approach, a style, a signature dish – and stick with it. Wink & Nod turns that conventional thinking on its head. With a rotating kitchen and what is now the third iteration of its cocktail program, change is the only constant at the South End speakeasy, which celebrated its first anniversary last month. And while April has thus far brought us little more than gray skies and sleet showers, Wink & Nod is debuting a spring cocktail menu that moves away from what beverage director Mike Boughton calls “hard-hitting cocktails and slow-sippers for the colder weather” and toward a selection of lighter, more refreshing libations.
At a bar known for brown liquor and complexity, that notion may seem like a departure. Not so, says Mike, who explains that Wink & Nod’s approach to cocktails hasn’t changed, even if the complexion of some of the drinks has. “For the warmer weather, we really want to focus on lighter cocktails that go down easy but still taste great, still have good depth.”
Mike was kind enough to walk me through some of the new offerings this past week. Like spring itself, the new drink list is a work in progress – ingredients and portions are still being finalized, and some cocktails don’t even have names yet, like this blend of strawberry-infused vodka with Thai basil, fresh lemon, and a sichuan peppercorn tincture.
(Note: Many of the cocktails shown here are sized for sampling. Don't worry, you'll get the full-size versions.)
Moniker or no, this dry, refreshing drink has a peppery finish and a mild, very natural fruitiness that seems perfect for a summer evening.
The Picador has a name and a story. Made with Don Julio Reposado tequila, Royal Combier (a fancy triple sec), and freshly squeezed lime juice, this precursor to the margarita may have its roots in Prohibition, according to bartender Jace. “The Picador was introduced to people who would have to sail out of American waters in order to drink,” he says. “They threw these lavish boat parties. This is kind of an ode to that, since spring and summer were perfect seasons to sail.”
For such a simple drink, it’s full-flavored and satisfying. “It’s really just a basic cocktail recipe, but all the right flavors are in there,” Mike notes.
The Peugot is anything but simple. A “riff on a sidecar,” as bartender Dave describes it, this mix of cognac, mandarin orange liqueur, lemon, and agave is a complex reimagining of the vintage cocktail. A cardamom tincture contributes a distinct spiciness, while lemon oil on the top boosts the citrus components. Cognac may seem like more of a cold-weather spirit, but the fruit flavors and sweetness balance it out.
The new cocktails are ideal for whiling away a summer evening, but they’re designed with more than just the season in mind. With what it calls a “culinary incubator program,” Wink & Nod turns over its kitchen to a different restaurant group every six months. Chefs Philip Kruta and Jeremy Kean of Whisk ran the show for the first six months, and Joshua Lewin and Kate Holowchik of Bread & Salt recently completed their own engagement. Setting up shop this month is Akinto, the concept of chef Patrick Enage. Bringing the flavors of Southeast Asia to the South End, Akinto’s menu blends styles and dishes from Thailand, India, and the Philippines, to name just a few.
Spicy pork wontons are plump and tasty, and a trio of sauces – anise BBQ, toasted sesame-rice wine, and peanut paste – allow for three very different tasting experiences.
Prawns with squid ink lo mein are a treat for the eyes as well as the palate. Served in a red curry broth and topped with scallions and slices of green mango, it’s a seafood dish with a host of vibrant flavors.
Swordfish belly is just as heavenly as its better-known porky brethren. With a Kabayaki glaze, salted duck egg vinaigrette, and Taiwan lettuce, it’s melt-in-your mouth tender.
Given that the flavors in Akinto’s menu are quite literally all over the map, designing cocktails to pair with the dishes can be tricky. “When I first looked at Akinto’s menu, my idea for the cocktail menu was much different,” Mike admits. “I wanted to go a little heavier on the spices in the cocktails, incorporate some curry and coconut milk to reflect the food. But these are very heavily spiced dishes at it is, so I wanted to find something that would complement that instead of just add to it.” Citrus seems to be the solution, since the acid “doesn’t negate the spice, but complements it,” he says.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the Real McCoy. Made with Cutty Sark Prohibition scotch, Ramazzotti (a citrusy amaro), orange juice, and a house orgeat, it’s a lightly smoky, spicy drink with a fruit-forward aroma. A solid cocktail on its own, it truly comes alive when paired with the braised ox tail. This absurdly tender serving of beef comes with black bean-water spinach, jasmine rice, and chili oil for dipping. The spices in the dish and the flavors in the drink, in combination, exceed the sum of their parts.
Rethinking the cocktail list to coincide with these periodic menu overhauls is a challenge, but it’s one the staff seems to relish. “It’s like we’re a new restaurant,” Mike says. “It gives us the opportunity to take a different approach to our cocktails, and really try to make them fit with the food, create a new experience…every six months.”
Chances are, they’d keep updating the drink list anyway, as evidenced by a couple of other new features. A Moscow Mule made with house ginger beer will be something of a rotating special, each time featuring a different base spirit. Like grappa, of all things. I clearly recall the first time I had grappa; I decided, without delay, that it would be the last. But the tea-infused version in the Grappa Mule is gentler than the typical grappa, and its floral, woody flavor makes for a surprisingly easy-drinking cocktail.
There’s also a weekly punch that will feature varying recipes. First up is the “Bing! There Goes My Cherry” punch (“I didn’t name that,” one of the bartenders muttered), made with Papa’s Pilar rums, a cherry-cranberry tea infusion, and lemon. Mike puts it best: “Goes down pretty easily, packs quite a punch, literally.”
Not all of the cocktails are changing. The Cure, one of the most popular items, will remain. An Old Fashioned made with applewood-smoked Bulleit bourbon, honey syrup, angostura bitters, and orange oil, this smoky drink first appeared on the fall/winter menu and quickly became a staple.
Another favorite is the Indian Summer, which combines Nolet’s Silver gin, fresh grapefruit, St. Germain, and the house ginger beer.
It’s a vibrant drink that goes well with the new menu, though but Mike foresees one minor issue. “We might have to change the name. Nobody wants to think about Indian summer in the beginning of spring.”
I think everyone in this city would agree.
Address: 3 Appleton Street, Boston
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Even if you aren’t familiar with the name Frederick Law Olmsted, chances are you’re acquainted with his work.
Olmsted is widely regarded as the godfather of American landscape architecture. In the latter half of the 19th century, Olmsted devoted his career to the design of urban parks and green spaces. Among the highlights of his spectacular resume are New York’s Central Park and, closer to home, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the parkway that stretches from Back Bay to Dorchester and includes such tranquil sanctuaries as the Public Garden and the Arnold Arboretum. Olmsted moved to Brookline in 1883 and did much of his design work from his home office, which also served as the nation’s first full-time landscape architecture firm. He called his estate “Fairsted.”
More than a century later, Olmsted’s adopted hometown still bears his imprint. And on Beacon Street, a thoroughfare that would look unfathomably different without Olmsted’s influence, Fairsted Kitchen offers a nod to the famous landscape architect.
“We always tell people that Fairsted [Kitchen] could only exist in Washington Square, nowhere else,” bartender Will Isaza says while expounding upon the spirit of the neighborhood’s chief designer and onetime resident. “He made Beacon Street what it is today.”
The restaurant honors Olmsted not only nominally but aesthetically as well, capturing the essence of a Victorian-era home with its antique accessories, vintage-style wallpaper, and long curtains clasped behind floor-to-ceiling windows. A long table in the dining room and a menu teeming with small plates recall the sense of community that Olmsted promoted with his public parks.
But if the work of a 19th century urban planner doesn’t particularly resonate with you, Fairsted also evokes an atmosphere that may have a more sentimental appeal. “The owners wanted it to feel like grandma’s living room,” Will says. And that may be an even better way to describe the space.
Despite having opened its doors just over a year ago, Fairsted has the appearance and character of an old-fashioned, well-maintained home. Hardwood floors and wooden tables, glowing candles, polished silver, and sconce lighting give it a sense of timelessness.
And as you might expect of a beloved grandparent’s house, Fairsted is neat and tidy but dotted with conversation pieces. Behind the 12-seat bar, with its stainless steel surface, is a collection of odds and ends such as books, toy dinosaurs, and a globe. None of the plates, silverware, or glassware are coordinated, giving the impression that they’d belonged to disparate collections that have lost pieces over the years.
Taken together, the subtle touches serve to make Fairsted feel cozy and lived-in, like a home that’s been blessed with a steady stream of occupants and visitors over the years.
Of course, your grandparents probably never made the sort of drinks you’ll find here.
Fairsted Kichen stands out in a neighborhood that isn’t known for its variety of craft cocktail bars. Fairsted’s beverage program, designed collectively by the staff, is highly original but approachable. There’s a deliberate effort to “keep it light,” as Will says, particularly with drinks named for movies (Days of Future Past Punch) and songs. With a nod to both the Beastie Boys and the town Fairsted resides in, No Sleep Til Brookline combines bourbon, Amaro Montenegro, lemon, and Angostura bitters.
The Fresh Tracks, made with vodka, thyme, lemon, and Chartreuse, is surprising. With strong flavors like thyme and Chartreuse, I was expecting something bold and intensely herbal. Instead it’s light, refreshing, and well balanced, with a mild bitterness. Will explains that Fresh Tracks is made with a thyme- and tarragon-infused vodka, as opposed to a syrup, which seems to soften the flavor somewhat.
There’s nothing soft about the Foreign Legion, though, with its mix of mezcal, sherry, Ancho Reyes, and Punt e Mes. Mezcal’s distinctive smoky character is a natural partner for Ancho Reyes, a spicy ancho chile liqueur, and the Punt e Mes adds its trademark bitterness. The sherry contributes a rich, nutty flavor and keeps the whole affair pretty balanced.
Much like the bar’s menagerie of mismatched oddities, Fairsted’s drinks are intended to spark conversation. On that note, few drinks command more attention than the Black Sails, with its unexpected display of pyrotechnics. This blend of rum, lime, Cappelletti, and cacao garners oohs and ahhhs when a dusting of cinnamon is ignited while being sprinkled over the top of the drink (an event I most assuredly would have photographed had I known it was coming). The cocktail itself lives up to its fiery presentation, with bold notes of chocolate and cinnamon.
A cascade of sparks might be an obvious conversation starter, but many of the drinks are intended to prompt a question or two on account of their sometimes unusual composition. “Count Me In!” is a crisp, bitter cocktail made with fresh orange, Becherovka, Campari, and soda. You’re far more knowledgeable than I am if you know what Becherovka is without having to look it up.
The Southern Cross is made with cognac, clove, Amaro Meletti, and bubbles. The source of the up-front clove flavor is mysterious – is it a liqueur? a syrup? an infused spirit?
You can pull out your phone and discover that Becherovka is an herbal liqueur made in the Czech Republic (and that their website is maddening to navigate). You can speculate about the source of the clove flavor in the Southern Cross. Then again, why not just ask?
“We keep the lines of communication open,” Will says. “We don’t want to scare anyone away.” And he acknowledges that something like “clove” is deliberately vague. “We try to keep it simple in terms of the flavor components. If people want to ask about the ingredients, we can tell them. If not, at least they know the flavors.” (I did ask – it’s a clove and cardamom syrup.)
If any of Fairsted’s drinks demand a little interrogation, it’s the rotating selection of draft and bottled offerings. Among local establishments, Fairsted has been at the forefront of this still emerging trend. Will acknowledges that the decision to offer pre-made craft cocktails has its roots in efficiency, a means of minimizing customer wait time and speeding up the production of some labor-intensive drinks. “But after that, it became ‘let’s see how weird we can get’,” he says.
There’s plenty of weirdness coming through those draft lines. The herbal Doctor’s Orders is an unusual cocktail made with rye whiskey, cherry, fenugreek, and Punt e Mes. The name is appropriate; fenugreek is a plant often used for medicinal purposes.
The Katsura is a draft aperitif that combines sherry and a scotch infused with capers and apricot. It’s a variation of a Bamboo cocktail and named for the signature work of a famous bamboo artist. The flavor is utterly unique; I mean, who infuses scotch with anything, let alone capers and apricot?
Will says the staff thrives on devising creative combinations like that, although there are limits to which ingredients can be served in draft form. Citrus and fruit juices, with their acidic content, would tear up the draft lines. But when it comes to bottling cocktails, pretty much anything goes. Will explains that the biggest challenges with creating a good bottled cocktail is making something that’s spirit-forward, fresh, and can be carbonated.
The bottled Chasing Daylight combines aged gin with spiced pear and apple, with a twist of lemon over the top. Fruity but not sweet, it’s a crisp drink with a natural pear flavor and a little spice.
Beyond the twin challenges of being as weird as possible and approachable as possible, Fairsted’s cocktail program tries to make season-appropriate drinks that complement the food menu. This is a “kitchen,” after all. There’s an emphasis on sharing, with a diverse offering of snacks and small plates. Like the drink program, the food selection balances accessibility with creativity.
And yes, there’s a little “weirdness,” too.
It’s not every day you see a pig head lettuce wrap, but it’s something of a signature item at Fairsted. The meat is indeed from a pig's head that’s braised overnight and crusted in panko. Served with carrot, daikon, cilantro, and chile pepper, it’s a crunchy, smoky, spicy bar snack.
Deviled eggs, topped with scallions and a sweet sauce, were on special during one of my visits. They were a little too chilled, but satisfying nonetheless.
Seasonal ingredients and clever flavor combinations infuse the rest of the regular menu. Potato latkes are served with a sweet saffron apple butter and scallion cream. Gnocchi is made with crosnes (a Chinese artichoke), walnut, roasted garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are savory and vibrant, while the hazelnut spaetzle has a warm, nutty flavor.
The Turkish meatballs, though, are a true standout. Made with lamb, seasoned with allspice, and served with Greek yogurt, these flaky, spicy meatballs pretty much melt in your mouth.
Thinking back to Will’s remark about Fairsted’s cocktails complementing the seasonal cuisine, it’s easy to see some thoughtful parallels among the winter vegetables, savory ingredients, and sweet flavors that can warm your bones on a chilly night. But I think the most effective pairing I encountered came during dessert. It’s rare to see a carefully thought out menu of dessert cocktails; I feel like after-dinner drinks are often limited to some combination of coffee, cream, chocolate, whiskey, and Baileys. But Fairsted offers a rotating list of dessert drinks that are as imaginative as their regular libations.
The Armchair Sailor combines rum, vermouth, and homemade orgeat syrup for a rich, sweet cocktail served in a perfectly sized glass. It pairs beautifully with a slice of blood orange pie.
Topped with two thin slices of blood orange, the spices in this custard-like pie complement the sweetness of the rum and the almond flavor in the syrup. With decadent pairings like this, you’d be wise to save room for dessert.
Just like grandma would have suggested.
Address: 1704 Beacon Street, Brookline
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“I just changed the keg” isn’t the sort of thing one typically hears when the subject is cocktails. Kegs are for beer. Cocktails are a matter of bottles, shakers, fresh ingredients, and the deft hands of a skilled bartender. And yet those were the very words Erin Surprenant spoke as she led me toward the bar at Tico, the hip, upscale Back Bay restaurant at which she is the general manager. This past Thursday, Tico hosted a pre-Valentine’s Day party, replete with drinks, complimentary appetizers, and elaborate floral bouquets. Now I enjoy VD as much as the next guy, but the event also served to showcase the latest addition to Tico’s cocktail menu – a Moscow Mule on draft.
Tico isn’t the first Boston-area establishment to serve cocktails on tap. Respected bars like Alden & Harlow and Fairsted Kitchen have experimented with the technique, and it makes sense – the popularity of cocktails continues to soar, but labor-intensive drinks and a big crowd can be a challenging combination.
Still, the notion of a cocktail stored in a keg and delivered via draft might invite a little skepticism. This great renaissance of craft cocktails has taught us to not only enjoy the drink in our glass but also to appreciate the process by which it got there. But as Erin explained to me, being efficient isn’t the same as taking shortcuts.
Such is the case with Tico’s Moscow Mule. It may flow easily from beneath its novel custom tap handle, but it’s the product of the same hard work and trial and error that accompanies any new cocktail recipe or variation of a classic.
Tico starts by making its own ginger beer, with fresh ginger, and it’s unlike anything you’ll find in a bottle or can. That gets combined with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, widely considered the standard in an industry that tends to lean toward more colorful and flavorful spirits.
The result is one of the spiciest, most vibrant, most aromatic Moscow Mules I’ve ever had. The fresh ginger gives it an unexpected kick, but the cocktail remains refreshing and easy to drink.
The Moscow Mule’s straightforward composition might make it an obvious choice for the tap, but Erin explained that making a cocktail in five-gallon batches has its own set of challenges, because it’s much harder to get the portions right with that kind of volume.
“The first batch was sugar water,” she admits with an eye roll.
That first batch may have suffered from some missteps, but it’s clear that Tico ironed out the kinks somewhere along the way. I saw plenty of customers try a sample and then order the full cocktail, which comes in a good-size Tito’s jar. Erin tells me that Tico first dabbled with draft cocktails at its other location in Washington, D.C., and while it was a hit in the nation’s capital, there was some hesitation about trying it in a city known for its craft cocktail scene. But as long as the people making the drinks know what they’re doing, it’s easy to have confidence in the final product, whether it’s from a bottle, a tap, or stirred over ice. And judging by the rest of Tico’s cocktail menu, they definitely know what they’re doing.
Tico is known for its Latin-American fare, and it’s got the drinks to match. There’s a selection of craft margaritas, from traditional to one made with ghost-chili-infused tequila. The Mayahuel’s Garden is less intense that, but it’s still got a little heat with its grilled jalepeño-infused tequila, muddled orange and poblano pepper, agave nectar, and fresh lemon and lime juice.
The Paloma is made with Exotico Reposado tequila and grapefruit juice. This understated classic is simple, refreshing, and pleasantly sour.
Tico’s also offer a few impressive twists on some traditional cocktails, like the 23 Bulleit. This Manhattan/Old Fashioned-like drink features Bulleit bourbon, ginger maple, Cinzano sweet vermouth, and orange bitters.
If you don’t hear much about Tico’s cocktails – and I admit, they rarely show up on my radar – that’s probably because the food program gets all the glory. So it goes when a restaurant’s owner/chef has achieved near-celebrity status. Chef Michael Schlow has been named Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, and a slew of other high-profile TV shows.
So even a cocktail-centric night like this would be incomplete with some of that award-winning cuisine. Tico treated us to some passed hors d’oeuvres, including chorizo tortilla Española, a pastrami and pickle mustard quesadilla, and spicy deviled eggs with Aleppo, crispy chicken skin, and hot pepper. All three were as good as they sound.
I also got to try a few bites from the regular menu, starting with crispy manchego cheese. These little pillows of awesomeness had a perfectly crispy exterior, and a side of spicy pomegranate-honey sauce provided an earthy sweetness.
The lamb tartare with avocado puree and poblano salsa was like a work of art. The flavors were wonderfully balanced, with the poblano salsa contributing some mild heat. Some people are naturally squeamish about anything “tartare,” but I have no such reservations (YOLO, etc.).
And yet the little suckers on the octopus did briefly give me the creeps. But I pushed through and was happy I did. This rich, smoky dish of Spanish octopus was served with salsa veracruz, sautéed spinach, black garlic, and potatoes, and it was excellent.
I’ve only sampled Tico’s wares, but I can see that the praise Schlow’s won is richly deserved. Amid all the accolades, it would be a mistake to overlook Tico’s drinks; they hold their own against food made by a top chef. It would also be hasty to dismiss a pre-made cocktail served via draft. It’s tempting to write the idea off as one that privileges efficiency over quality. But Tico’s draft Moscow Mule demonstrates how effectively it can be done. If bars are willing to hold themselves to the standard of using fresh ingredients and avoiding shortcuts, then whether your drink is handmade or simply hand-poured will be secondary to how good it tastes.
Address: 222 Berkeley Street, Boston
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I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I think I can say with confidence that no meat product is celebrated as frequently, as fervently, or as lustily as bacon. There are websites and blogs devoted to bacon. A very quick web search reveals that at least half the states in the union have hosted a bacon festival within their borders in the past year. Put the words “bacon-infused” in front of anything, whether it’s a spirit, a food item, or just a glass of water, and people will order it, gleefully, no questions asked. You want to see a vegetarian sweat? Fry up some bacon. Even vegans gotta shout. Bacon’s hype is richly deserved. This simplest and least healthy of meats adds a dose of awesomeness to everything it touches. Put a few rashers of bacon next to a plate of eggs, and you have the most iconic of breakfast dishes. Toss a few slices on an otherwise average burger and suddenly that burger becomes extraordinary. Wrap some scallops up in bacon and watch the most mild-mannered of party guests jockey for position in front of a platter of hors d’oeuvres.
And if you combine bacon with bourbon and create an entire brunch menu focused on those two hallowed ingredients, I will head into Boston early on a snowy Sunday morning and stand outside your door, shaking with anticipation until you let me in.
That’s pretty much the way things went down last weekend at Anthem Kitchen + Bar.
Anthem’s Bacon & Bourbon Brunch was nothing less than a meditation on the glory of being alive. The menu was a bacon and bourbon lover’s dream, featuring mouthwatering items such as French toast with bacon and bourbon-infused maple syrup, and lobster eggs benedict with a pancetta hollandaise sauce. Something like “bacon and eggs,” by comparison, might sound a little humdrum. Not so. This didn’t feature “bacon” in the conventional sense, but something arguably better – bourbon maple pork belly, along with a heaping pile of cheesy grits. The pork belly was absolutely out of this world – melt-in-your-mouth tender, bursting with the richest, sweetest, smokiest flavor imaginable. I could seriously have eaten this until my arteries put up a “not a thruway” sign.
The bacon and apple Monte Cristo was loaded with house-roasted turkey and topped with bourbon bacon jam (!!), granny smith apples, and cheddar cheese, served on French toast with maple syrup on the side. This was a great big sandwich with a splendid combination of flavors. The apple slices added a crisp texture that contrasted with the soft, warm French toast.
And just as bourbon infused the food menu, bacon found its way into nearly all the cocktails.
If there’s an hour of the day that’s too early to drink an Old Fashioned, then I’d rather sleep right through it. But it’s hard to argue that the Bacon Old Fashioned, made with bacon-infused Bulleit bourbon, muddled orange, sugar, and orange bitters, wasn’t perfectly suited to the most important meal of the day. This variation of the timeless classic had a big, bold flavor, and a garnish of candied bacon provided a smoky aroma with each sip. Bits of mashed-up orange permeated the drink, and little flakes of bacon floating around made it taste like a true breakfast cocktail.
There’s no bourbon in a Bloody Mary, but Anthem managed to squeeze the most traditional of brunch cocktails into the theme by coating the rim of the glass in chopped bacon and celery salt. It had all the usual components – a house-made bloody mary mix, tomato juice, and vodka – and added a slice of bacon as a garnish. The rim was a little too salty for my taste, with the bacon/salt combo, but it was solid overall.
The Sweet and Smoky Sling, however, was perfect. As the name implied, this drink was equal parts smoky and sweet, made with bacon-infused Bulleit bourbon, simple syrup, fresh lemon, pineapple juice, and a slice of candied bacon. This was a well-balanced cocktail – sweet and fruity with just enough smoke, and grounded in bourbon’s characteristic warmth and depth.
Loaded with tourist traps and memorabilia shops, Faneuil Hall holds limited appeal for those of us who live and work in the city. But I’ve always argued that it has a few gems, and I’ve long been fond of Anthem. I don’t know whether Anthem will be adding any of these bacon-themed cocktails or bourbon-infused food items to their regular menu. But even if it was just for one morning, it’s always encouraging to discover original ideas in an area of town better known for playing it safe.
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As I think we all know, there’s a difference between being cool and trying to be cool. And a lot of bars (like a lot of people) simply try too hard. You know the kind of places I mean – bars that invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their interior look like it’s been around for decades and naturally evolved from a shabby but lovable college apartment. Beat-up tables and mismatched chairs. A deliberately random assortment of reclaimed fixtures and vintage film posters. Staff with “attitude.” A menu with quirky food items and a few well-placed expletives. It’s a nauseating blend of narcissism and desperation that screams “Look how edgy we are!” Then there are those bars that try to effect an atmosphere of cool and totally get it right.
JM Curley’s been getting it right since its opening three years ago. The Downtown Crossing bar is known for its creative comfort food, late-night menu, and smart cocktail program. But what’s always impressed me about this place is that it manages to be trendy and relevant while seeming entirely genuine and grounded. They nail the “chill hangout” vibe without ever forcing the issue.
And I feel like it’s the kind of bar that, under different guidance, could do exactly that – go overboard. Devolve into some hipster haven that’s long on attitude and short on substance. The kind of place you have to be in a certain mood for. Instead, it feels like a comfortable neighborhood joint – consistent enough to be familiar but dynamic enough to be a little different every time you go.
Tucked away on Temple Place, the interior of JM Curley is fairly sparse and understated.
The 14-seat, L-shaped bar is topped with a three-inch-thick slab of concrete that gives it a workman-like, industrial appearance. The well-worn hardwood floor contributes to a lived-in feel.
Exposed brick walls are adorned with pictures of the bar’s legendary namesake – James Michael Curley, the 20th century Boston politician who is recalled as much for his popularity as for the controversy he courted.
But it’s the chalkboard to the left of the bar that is easily the most celebrated of JM Curley’s wall ornaments.
This chalk-inscribed treatise on bar etiquette discourages all manner of boorish acts – yelling, passing gas, engaging in public displays of affection, using condescending nicknames for servers. It might be a lot to remember – particularly if you’re the kind of person for whom this list was written – but the theme is concisely summarized at the end: “Just don’t be a douchebag.”
It’s the sort of tongue-in-cheek admonishment that, in another setting, might feel contrived. Why does it work here? Because there’s something genuine about it. Amid the barbs and witticisms are thoughtful suggestions, like don’t write scathing reviews online before talking to a manager who might actually be able to address your gripes. Without sounding patronizing, the board serves as a reminder that drinks are best enjoyed in a casual environment, and customers and bar staff alike can contribute to that.
That simple request to be cool and respectful makes particular sense in the context of JM Curley’s “Supper” menu, a modest selection of comfort food geared toward small plates and sharing.
A complimentary serving of candied bacon popcorn arrived on our table shortly after my party arrived, and disappeared shortly thereafter.
I’m not a huge fan of pickles, but fry them up, and I can’t keep away. A tangy, spicy Creole mayo for dipping really steals the show.
I am, however, a huge fan of deviled eggs, and imbuing them with the flavors of a Bloody Mary is a pretty awesome idea. They manage to pack bacon, celery, tomato, horseradish, Worcestershire, celery, and salt in there, like a heavily garnished version of the brunch cocktail, and the result is a spicy, decadent treat with a nice kick.
Mac and cheese is a staple of any comfort food menu, but JM Curley gives you the option to “hook it up” with barbecue pork. It’s an inspired addition; the dish isn’t overly cheesy, and the smoky, sweet barbecue sauce makes for a vibrant blend of flavors.
Not all of the supper options are designed for sharing, and you could be forgiven for wanting to keep every last bite of your burger all to yourself. In addition to the standard house burger (more on that later), there’s a rotating burger special with all sorts of delicious twists. When I was there over the summer, the special was a “bacon-laced” (!) burger topped with smoked gouda, onions, and special slaw, served on a bacon/cheddar bun. This was truly a phenomenal burger – deliciously smoky, with a crispy texture from the slaw. And a bacon/cheddar bun? Brilliant.
That same spirit of innovation permeates the drink menu, which features some clever twists on the standards and a few totally original offerings.
The Hemingway Heat is a spicy rendition of a Hemingway Daiquiri. Made with Rhum agricole, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime, and jalepeño, it’s a heat-forward drink but isn’t too intense.
The 21 Temple Gin and Tonic neither looks nor tastes like the simple classic. There’s gin in it, as one would expect, and tonic. But yellow chartreuse, bark powder, and citrus make for a crisp, herbal cocktail that looks like it might be sweet but instead has a fairly muted orange flavor.
The Whisky Smash looks more like a mojito, but certainly doesn’t taste like one. JM Curley shakes up this old standard by using a white whisky along with mint, lemon, and soda.
With its layered presentation, the Clover Club is visually striking. It combines gin, raspberry syrup, lemon, and egg white for a fruity, creamy drink with a foamy layer at the top.
Strega means “witch” in Italian, and that’s where the Witch Hunt acquired its name. The herbal Italian liqueur, which gets its yellow hue from saffron, combines with lemon juice and water for a tart, pleasantly bitter drink. Sage leaves provide a fresh aroma with every sip.
Speaking of names, “Mendoza Line” is hardly an auspicious one for a cocktail. The expression derives from the baseball world and refers to the subpar hitting skills of one Mario Mendoza, the 1970s-era major league infielder whose batting average tended to hover around the threshold of .200. Ever since then, hitters whose average falls below .200 are said to be below the Mendoza Line. Not a good place to be.
The Mendoza Line cocktail is far more effective. It’s an unusual, full-flavored mix of tequila, orgeat syrup, lemon, and raisin-infused Angostura. A lavender-mezcal rinse contributes a subtle smokiness and a mild floral essence.
And yet for all the complexity and creativity that infuses the cocktail program, the recipes never go too far. Even the most experimental drinks remain approachable, and some are surprisingly straightforward.
The Jack Rose is, as one bartender described it, an “oldie but goodie” that hasn’t experienced the same resurgence in popularity as other throwback drinks. JM Curley’s version plays it by the book – applejack, house grenadine, and lime. It’s a strong, full-bodied drink with a mild apple flavor, and the custom grenadine contributes a moderate sweetness.
After seeing surprising twists on simple drinks like the Whisky Smash and the 21 Gin and Tonic, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Manhattan. I certainly wasn’t expecting…well, a regular old Manhattan. But sure enough, JM Curley’s approach to this time-honored classic honors the tried-and-true combination of Old Overholt Rye, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a cherry.
A no-frills take on a cocktail that’s been subject to endless experimentation might look out of place alongside so many clever interpretations, but I think it balances out JM Curley’s drink list. And it means that even when they’re sticking to the basics, they can still surprise you.
I clearly remember my first visit to JM Curley, a couple years back. It was the first time I tried Bantam Wunderkind cider, and “Too Young to Fall in Love,” a forgotten album track by Motley Crue, was playing. What does this have to do with the rest of the story? Nothing. It’s just an anecdote I’ve been itching to share.
Here’s another one. I stopped in one afternoon last week, and there was a couple sitting at the bar that had just gotten married at city hall a couple hours earlier. I thought that was pretty cool. Some newlyweds go to Aruba, others go to JM Curley.
And why not? Whether you’re coming from your midweek afternoon nuptials or from the late shift at another Downtown Crossing haunt, it’s a comfortable, come-as-you-are kind of place that doesn’t seem to work too hard at being laid-back.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that every time I’ve been in there, I’ve had excellent service from incredibly nice people. No exceptions. That Law & Order edict may implore you to be a decent human being while you’re there, but it’s not like the staff gives you any reason not to do so, at least in my experience.
Speaking of the notorious chalkboard, there’s one more quote worth sharing: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, we don’t.” The people behind JM Curley might not take themselves too seriously, but they’re pretty serious about their craft.
The modestly named “5-oz natural beef patty” might lack the flair of the rotating burger specials, but it’s been recognized by the likes of Boston magazine and Zagat as among the best in the city. And bar manager Kevin Mabry was named Boston’s Best Bartender earlier this year by Boston magazine.
It’s the sort of thing that makes JM Curley’s humble attitude all the more laudable.
Address: 21 Temple Place, Boston
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Mexico’s contributions to the world of intoxicating liquors are well known and widely celebrated. Tequila, of course, needs no introduction. Nor does mezcal, really; once viewed as some poor relative of tequila with a worm in the bottle, the smoky spirit has enjoyed a surge in popularity and respectability as small-batch versions have found their way into craft cocktails.
Ancho Reyes, on the other hand, probably doesn’t ring a bell. There’s no reason it should – until recently, you’d be unlikely to find this spicy liqueur anywhere outside of Mexico. But distiller William Grant & Sons is easing Ancho Reyes into the U.S. market, giving us a chance to try a unique spirit based on a staple of Mexican cuisine – poblano peppers.
Specifically, Ancho Reyes is distilled with ancho chiles, a crop native to the state of Puebla. Ancho chiles are poblano peppers that have been sun-dried. The wrinkled peppers have a deep reddish-brown color, a sweet, earthy flavor, and typically range from mild to medium in terms of heat. They’re commonly used in Mexican cooking and are central to Ancho Reyes, which calls itself “the original ancho chile liqueur.”
That’s a bold claim, but there does seem to be some truth to it. While the spirit is new to the U.S. market, it’s based on a 1927 recipe owned by the Reyes family that was supposedly lost for decades and recently rediscovered. The distillation process follows strict guidelines for raising the peppers, which are handpicked, carefully assessed for quality, and then soaked in a neutral spirit for six months.
The result is a copper-colored liquor with a rich, natural pepper flavor, balanced with notes of cinnamon, cocoa, almond, and other herbs and spices. There’s heat, too, of course; and that’s where the liqueur really stands out.
Spice can be a difficult element to manage in spirits. Some end up being too hot, others taste artificial. But in Ancho Reyes, the level of heat is moderate – up front, but not muy caliente. You can drink it straight without scorching your throat, and it presents intriguing possibilities for use in cocktails.
Speaking of which, William Grant has been slowly unveiling Ancho Reyes on a city-by-city basis, giving bar managers an opportunity to experiment with the spirit and the rest of us a chance to see how it fares in a drink.
Ancho Reyes finally arrived in Boston this past Monday, and it would be difficult to fathom a more talented greeting party – bartenders from Drink, Backbar, Brick & Mortar, Tavern Road, the Hawthorne, and the Baldwin gathered at Fenway-area bar Audubon and dazzled a packed house with original cocktails that played off the peppery heat of this Mexican spirit.
Now if you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know I like to be thorough in my cocktail reporting – names of bartenders and their drinks, the ingredients they use, etc. Here, some of the details may be a little fuzzy; the folks behind the bar were pretty busy, and there was a lot of crowd noise. Plus, there are always challenges inherent in starting a conversation with someone who’s wearing a Mexican wrestling mask.
Then again, I’ll admit my grasp on the details loosened somewhat after a visit to the Ancho Reyes ice luge.
Anyway, onto the drinks.
Joe Cammarata, principal bartender at Union Square’s Backbar, combined Ancho Reyes with white rum, lemon juice, cucumber water, and sugar. The cucumber worked to tone down the spirit’s heat, allowing the pepper flavor to permeate this cool, refreshing cocktail. A perfect summertime cocktail.
With his Three-Day Stubble (that’s the name of the drink, not an editorial comment), Brick & Mortar bar manager Matt Schrage added smoke to the chile spirit’s fire. A blend of scotches brought a smoky essence to the Ancho Reyes, along with a little sourness from lemon juice.
A cocktail called Chris’s Old Fashioned was a like an homage to the Mexican liquor industry – mezcal, tequila, Ancho Reyes, and agave bitters. The mezcal’s distinctive smokiness was prominent but didn’t overwhelm the drink, instead complementing the chile spice in a manner similar to the scotch in the Three-Day Stubble. And as this drink showed, the Ancho Reyes has a natural drinking partner in tequila.
One of the more popular offerings was a variation of a classic drink called the Golden Cadillac. Appropriately enough for the evening’s proceedings, the cocktail has its roots in a small, western-style tavern in El Dorado, California. It’s traditionally an after-dinner drink made with crème de cacao, Galliano, and light or heavy cream. This version added Ancho Reyes and lime zest, making for a rich, creamy cocktail with mild heat and notes of citrus up front.
The Crook Patrol also played on that time-honored, sensual interaction of chocolate and spice by combining Ancho Reyes, crème de cacao, lime juice, and sweet vermouth. This bold, reddish-hued cocktail had a more pronounced chocolate component than the Golden Cadillac, and the interplay between the heat and sweetness was exquisite.
When he isn’t pouring shots of Ancho Reyes down an ice sculpture, Ran Duan heads up the cocktail program at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden (an exceptional cocktail bar in Woburn, of all places).
Ran brought a tiki dimension to the proceedings with his striking drink, which blended Ancho Reyes, pineapple, lime, and what was easily the most unexpected ingredient of the evening – caramelized miso. A refreshing balance of sweetness and spice, this tasted as good as it looked.
Hawthorne bar manager Katie Emmerson closed things out with a cocktail that demonstrated Ancho Reyes’s impressive versatility. Mixing the featured spirit with Hendrick’s gin, cinnamon, and lime, there was a lot going on in this one. The botanicals in the gin worked surprisingly well with the peppery heat in the Ancho Reyes, and the spice brought out the spirit’s more subtle cinnamon notes. Complex and vibrant, but smooth and highly drinkable, this was a full-flavored, well-rounded cocktail.
While William Grant & Sons may be better known for its line of whiskeys and scotches, Ancho Reyes isn’t the distiller’s first dalliance with Mexican spirits. They also produce Milagro tequila and import Montelobos mezcal.
But tequila and, to a lesser degree, mezcal, are known quantities. An ancho chile liqueur is more of a niche product, and potentially a tough sell. In that sense, this limited-release tactic is a clever one. The Ancho Reyes folks sure know how to throw a fiesta, and hosting small, coordinated events in major cities tends to create a fair amount of buzz (in more ways than one).
Getting an accomplished lineup of local mixologists to work with your product doesn’t hurt, either.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
My experience of going out for Italian food in Boston typically runs something like this. Invariably, the setting is the North End; with a hundred or so Italian eateries crammed into a radius of less than half a square mile, that’s pretty much a given. A walk through the neighborhood’s narrow, bustling sidewalks is followed by dinner in a small, crowded restaurant with a menu not unlike that of every other restaurant in the area. There’s nearly always a bottle or two of robust Italian wine, but rarely cocktails. Maybe that’s because wine is such a traditional accompaniment to an Italian meal. Then again, some of those places don’t even have bars to sit at, let alone drink lists. That’s understandable – real estate is at a premium in the North End, and most eateries justifiably devote more space to their dining areas. Cinquecento refreshingly stands that model on its head.
For starters, it’s in the South End, not the North. Far from the tight confines of Boston’s oldest residential neighborhood, Cinquecento is blessed with plenty of space. (There’s even – gasp – a parking lot.) An illuminated staircase leads up to an expansive, thoughtfully arranged dining area.
There’s a mix of long, communal tables, ideal for groups, and smaller booths for a more intimate evening. Pillars throughout the dining room are decoratively lined with bottles of classic Italian aperitifs like Campari and Aperol.
Yet for all its contemporary accents, Cinquecento exudes a certain old-world charm. The rustic hardwood floors, exposed brick, and reclaimed ceiling beams project a sense of timelessness amid the fashionable modern style.
But Cinquecento’s bar area may be its most striking attribute.
The long, curvy bar is surrounded by about 20 seats. Its gorgeous surface, made from Italian marble, is lined with fresh ingredients and oversize Aperol bottles. Additional tables and booths reside beyond the bar, in front of tall picture windows.
It may be unusual to see a Boston Italian restaurant with such a prominent bar area, but it’s ideal for a place that endeavors to be not only an upscale eatery but a casual, neighborhood gathering spot. And if Italian restaurants in this city aren’t typically known for their bars, they certainly aren’t known for their cocktail menus. This might be what truly sets Cinquecento apart.
Now don’t worry – there’s plenty of wine here if you want it. Cinquecento’s extensive wine selection spans all manner of grapes, styles, and regions.
But with all due respect to vino, Cinquecento’s cocktail program is dynamic, original, and creative. The spirit of the mother country infuses the drink list, which makes liberal use of Italian liqueurs, mixers, and the fresh herbs that line the bar. There’s even a cocktail made with grappa, the most iconic and, some would say, least palatable of Italian liqueurs (I was dissuaded from ordering it by my friend Tania, who described it as “straight-up nasty pants”).
I opted for something more approachable.
“Pompelmo” is Italian for grapefruit, and this refreshingly sour Pompelmo cocktail combines grapefruit juice, tequila, rosemary, smashed cucumber, and sea salt. Softly herbal with a cool freshness from the cucumber, the tequila adds a distinctive bite.
The Whiskey Alla Moda is a bold drink with a mild sweetness, mixing Old Overholt rye with a house-made basil citrus syrup.
The Calientie Arancis is kind of like a grown-up margarita. Made with Lunazul tequila, spiced blood orange, Aperol, and smashed ginger, it’s a vibrant, fruity drink with a little kick to it. The Aperol balances out the flavors with a hint of bitterness.
As evidenced by the bottles stationed throughout the bar and restaurant, Aperol is a popular ingredient at Cinquecento, as is the similar aperitif Campari. The bitter Italian spirits factor into a number of the drinks, most notably the Negroni, a classic that originated in Florence in the early 20th centuryand has enjoyed a spectacular resurgence. Cinquecento even offers a Negroni “flight,” featuring the original Negroni and two variations.
This institutional fondness for the Negroni is something I probably should have accounted for when I asked the bartender, Phil, about the “Impazzire” option. Translating loosely to “go crazy,” this is your chance to simply rely on the bartender’s whims for a handcrafted cocktail. “How about a Negroni?” he quickly asked. Nanoseconds later he was already mixing the ingredients, leaving me no chance to politely explain that I’m not a huge fan of the immensely popular drink. But I’m glad I held my tongue. Phil put a couple of interesting twists on the classic – swapping out gin for bourbon and Campari for the less bitter Aperol. His bourbon Negroni was more in the neighborhood of a Manhattan, with a subtle orange essence from the Aperol.
Cinquecento’s dinner menu reflects that same sense of creativity and think-on-your-feet spontaneity. Led by chef Justin Winters, Cinquecento lives up to its name as a Roman “trattoria” – a restaurant focusing more on regional and local recipes than on mainstream Italian staples. In other words, it’s not as predictable as heaping portions of pasta smothered in red sauce and cheese. Among the entrées, Rigatoni Alla Norcia is made with fennel sausage and cognac cream, while a veal tenderloin is wrapped in prosciutto and served with cabbage fondue and marsala sauce.
My friend Tania and I stuck with the antipasti, and she suggested the Carciofi Alla Giudia. These fried baby artichokes, served with lemon and salsa verde, are crispy and delicious, but very garlicky. Ordering these bad boys is inadvisable if you’re on a date; better to share them with a friend (or if you need to ward off vampires).
And then, a special surprise! Executive sous chef Caleb brought us a house-made lardo, a dish he’d been trying out in the kitchen but that hasn’t made it onto the menu. Lardo, if you don’t know, is made from a layer of back fat from a pig, cured and seasoned with salt, herbs, and spices. Draped over baked bread and topped with fresh ramps and chilis, it made for a smoky, unusual, and tasty treat.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, Tania is engaged to chef Winters, so we probably got a little extra attention while we were there. I doubt the chefs typically emerge from the kitchen to share new recipes with random guests. Still, it’s kind of cool to know that they’re back there experimenting, coming up with new recipes based on the ingredients they have access to on a given day.
Now what goes best with back fat? Raw meat, obviously. So next up was the Carpaccio Carbonizatti. This phenomenal charred beef carpaccio is bursting with flavor, served with hazelnuts, parmigiano crema, and grilled bread. Perfetto!
We closed out with the evening’s antipasti special – pickled ramps and mushrooms served with a zucchini pesto. Now I’m no lover of mushrooms and wouldn’t have chosen this on my own. But for the second time that night, I was pleasantly surprised. The mushrooms absorbed the rich, earthy flavors of the zucchini pesto, and the ramps, or wild leeks, added an aromatic crispness.
When I returned a week later to round things out with another drink, I found Phil again working the bar. And while it was only my second visit to Cinquecento, I felt, oddly enough, like a regular. Phil didn’t even hand me a menu, and instead we talked about cocktails that would be suitable for that particular evening. “It’s nice out,” he noted. “Want something spring-y? Bourbon?” he asked. I readily agreed, and he proceeded to mix up an excellent drink that even caught the attention of a server passing by, who inquired as to its ingredients.
It’s a play on a Bourbon Smash,” Phil said of his elaborate drink, which combined bourbon, muddled mint, lime, Aperol (of course), and a touch of basil simple syrup, finished with a little soda and a mint leaf garnish. “The Aperol goes well with the mint,” he explained; it also brought a subtle undercurrent of bitterness to this fresh, aromatic cocktail, which was well suited to the warm, spring weather we were experiencing.
It’s pronounced chin-kwe-CHEN-to. If that doesn’t roll off the tongue, you can call it by its English translation – 500, which also reflects the number of its Harrison Avenue address. That’s a fair distance from the city’s most famous concentration of Italian restaurants; but in terms of style, it’s about as far as you can get. I know it’s unfair to paint the entire North End with one broad stroke; there’s certainly some good Italian food and engaging dining experiences to be had there. But there’s a lot of similarity, too, and I always appreciate the chance to try something different.
Cinquecento’s cocktail program alone distinguishes it from its peers, but the improvisational spirit behind the bar begins in the kitchen. Chef Justin Winters and his team seek out seasonal ingredients for an inventive, eclectic menu imbued with a sense of authenticity not often found in Americanized Italian eateries. You can have lasagna anywhere; garganelli with red wine octopus ragu and squid ink is a bit harder to find.
An impressive bar area and selection of craft drinks are also rarities in Boston Italian restaurants, but they’re key to the neighborhood vibe that Cinquecento’s striving for. I understand it can get pretty loud in there on weekend nights, but the bar staff are friendly, attentive, and willing to make a drink according to your preferences.
And it’s helpful if you prefer Negronis.
Address: 500 Harrison Avenue, Boston
Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
While sipping a drink on a quiet evening at Savvor, I noticed the bartender cracking an egg white into a shaker for a cocktail that, as far as I could tell, no one had ordered. “The other bartender and I were debating egg whites shaken with ice versus a dry shake,” she remarked offhandedly, “so we’re testing it out.” I don’t know which argument prevailed, but I do know genuine mixology nerdiness when I see it. And it usually translates into outstanding drinks.
Such is indeed the case at Savvor, which opened this past February in a little corner of town where the Financial District bumps into Chinatown – the so-called Leather District. It occupies the space once inhabited by District, and while the layout may be familiar to those who frequented the now shuttered club (which breathlessly described itself with phrases like “dangerous sensuality” and “edgy yet inviting”), the atmosphere at Savvor is decidedly more approachable.
“I wanted a nice, cool, restaurant-and-lounge feel,” owner Eddy Firmin tells me. “I want people to enjoy the atmosphere, be able to talk with friends.”
That’s not hard in Savvor’s large, open space. Exposed brick walls, dark hardwood flooring, and an unusual color scheme of slate gray and pale blue contribute to a laid-back, unpretentious look and feel.
Big blue booths and a couple of couches are ideal for sharing drinks with a small group of friends. A long dining room with a dozen or so tables offers a quieter, more intimate atmosphere.
Best of all, instead of one long bar, there are two separate, eight-seat bars. “Nothing’s more annoying than having to wait for a drink,” Eddy says, reflecting what I imagine is a near-universal sentiment. “Here you’re nice and up close, you can talk to the bartender, you can see what you’re drinking,” he says, motioning to the impressive selection of craft spirits behind the bar.
Neither bar tends to get overly crowded, and each feels cozy unto itself. Commanding my chosen bar on a recent Friday evening was the witty and engaging Kellyanne. The other bar was patrolled by Lee, whose iPhone provided an upbeat soundtrack of funk, R&B, and blues.
The décor may be the most obvious difference between Savvor and District, but changes to the food menu and cocktail program are far more dramatic. Louisiana-inspired small plates with a splash of Caribbean flair dominate the dinner menu, and the drink list lovingly pays homage to the classics.
The cocktail menu is arranged by type of spirit and highlights the top-shelf brands employed in the drinks. Some of the recipes are appropriately simple and authentic. The Sazerac is a strict interpretation of the venerable New Orleans cocktail, faithfully prepared with Herbsaint, muddled sugar cubes, Peychaud’s bitters, and Michter’s rye.
The Pisco Sour is similarly straightforward. With Macchu pisco, simple syrup, lemon juice, and egg white, it’s just the right balance of sweetness, creaminess, and tang.
But the staff gets creative with other throwback cocktails. “We’re definitely trying to re-imagine things,” Eddy explains. That’s evident with the Kentucky Corpse Reviver, recommended to me by Kellyanne. “It makes me think of sitting on a big wraparound porch, talking about kids these days,” she notes wistfully. It’s an apt description for this potent, slow-sipping mix of Bulleit bourbon, Grand Marnier, and dry vermouth. A lemon twist finishes this splendid cocktail with zesty notes of citrus.
The Martinez has yet to enjoy the resurgence that similar drinks like the Negroni have experienced, but it seems poised for rediscovery. “Old Tom,” a softer, sweeter style of gin that fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, is the traditional choice for this faded classic.
Savvor uses Ransom Old Tom, a barrel-aged variety that’s noticeably darker in complexion than the typical gin. It’s surprisingly drinkable on its own, with whiskey-like notes of oak alongside the signature flavor of juniper. Combined with Punt E Mes, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters, it’s outstanding – robust but nicely balanced, with a little citrus to smooth things out.
If egg drinks and bitter spirits aren’t your speed, more approachable options abound. In particular, Savvor’s spectacular rum selection is like a tour of the Caribbean. “If people ask us for a rum punch,” says Eddy, “we can ask ‘which island do you want to visit?’”
The more appropriate question may be, which island do you want to visit first. The Painkiller, which Lee says is one of the bar’s most popular selections, is made with Barbados’s Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, pineapple, orange juice, and a thick coconut cream. A dusting of nutmeg adds an aromatic touch.
Ti Punch is kind of like the daiquiri’s French-Caribbean cousin. Savvor’s version channels the spirit of Martinique with Clement Premiere Canne Agricole (a rum made from sugar cane juice instead of molasses), spiced sugar cane syrup, and fresh lime juice.
The Grilled Pineapple Daiquiri offers a few unexpected twists on the Cuban favorite. Locally distilled Bully Boy white rum, its principal component, is drier and more complex than most rums. Combined with lime juice, pineapple syrup, and Angostura bitters, it makes for a fruity but unusually dry tropical cocktail. A grilled pineapple garnish provides a sweet and smoky essence up front.
That island spirit extends to the dinner menu as well, with an eclectic offering of snacks and small plates that infuse southern cuisine with Caribbean flavors. It may seem like an unconventional blending of styles, but Eddy exhibits a casual approach to taking chances. “I got together with my general manager and the chef, and we figured, ‘why not?’”
Crispy plantain chips, with a sweet, earthy banana flavor, are accompanied by a rich aioli seasoned with cinnamon, coriander, and cumin.
The BBQ cracklins are easily the most novel entry on the snack menu. After being boiled and deep-fried, these slices of pork fat become airy, crunchy, and amusingly unwieldy. They’re fun to eat, though the seasoning is reminiscent of BBQ potato chips and would benefit from a little more complexity.
As conspicuous as the cracklins may be, it’s the crawfish hushpuppies that truly steal the show. Served with a delicious, spicy dip, these deep-fried balls of cornmeal are soft, savory, and perfectly crispy on the outside.
The snacks are great for sharing and come in surprisingly generous portions. And from what I can tell, the “small” plates are anything but. “From the Larder,” a glorious platter of meat, features a substantial helping of Tripp’s country ham, a smoky duck prosciutto, and goat terrine.
A salty and savory dish like that might work best with a beer, and Savvor’s draft selection is small but thoughtful. Local microbrews by Clown Shoes, Slumbrew, and Pretty Things share space with Anchor Steam and the timeless PBR. In case you’re wondering, Clown Shoes’ imperial IPA, “Galactica,” is named for its use of Galaxy hops – not for Battlestar Galactica. Apparently.
Since I was duly impressed with the drinks and found Kellyanne’s recommendations to be helpful, I couldn’t resist asking if she’d whip up something wholly original before I left. She appeared to take my request to heart, contemplating various spirits, perusing fresh ingredients and mixers, and occasionally muttering “What can I make for Matthew…” The result? A return trip to the Caribbean. Combining Haiti’s Barbancourt rum, egg white, lemon juice, and simple syrup, this rich, creamy cocktail had notes of vanilla and a hint of tartness.
Kellyanne dubbed her invention a Barbancourt Sour, and while she cautioned me that she’d never tried the recipe before, her experimentation paid off in decadent fashion. And that seems entirely befitting of Savvor’s adventurous spirit. “We’re all about taking chances,” Eddy proclaims. “Being risky.” To be sure, there’s a certain boldness to Savvor’s approach. Both the dinner menu and drink list have their share of curveballs.
The location itself is a bit of a risk. The Leather District is a fashionable neighborhood to live and work in, but it’s a little out of the way if you’re downtown and looking for a drink. And while it’s bordered by neighborhoods with no shortage of restaurants and bars, the eating and drinking options within this two-block radius are fairly limited. (As I discovered in a mercifully brief visit, the dive bar a few doors down from Savvor reeks of alcoholism and disappointment.)
But that means opportunity. The neighborhood could use a good cocktail bar, and Savvor also hosts live music four nights a week.
It might be a far cry from the “aggressive design” and “exotic tone” of District (I’m not making this up, it’s on their still-functioning website), but an approachable place with a casual vibe is a welcome addition to any neighborhood.
Address: 180 Lincoln Street, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Aging, weathered signs atop discount jewelry shops. Narrow side streets that never see the sun. An enormous, unsightly crater where once stood a humble but iconic local institution.
Amid the budget retailers, seemingly endless construction, and a few long-vacant storefronts, it’s almost difficult to believe that Downtown Crossing was once the thriving epicenter of Bostonian commerce and culture. It’s still a bustling neighborhood, of course, full of shops, food carts, and throngs of pedestrians traipsing through brick-lined streets that are mostly closed to vehicular traffic. But these are mere vestiges of Downtown Crossing’s early 20th century heyday, when Jordan Marsh and Filene’s pioneered the concept of department store shopping and Bostonians flocked to the downtown area to eat, visit theaters, and browse the latest fashions.
The neighborhood’s popularity and prestige diminished rapidly after WWII, when the suburbs siphoned off a quarter of the city’s population and new malls pushed stand-alone department stores to the brink of obsolescence. Since then, the aspect and character of Downtown Crossing have been in a state of perpetual flux – bold store openings and quiet closings, stop-and-start efforts at revitalization, and prolonged periods of general seediness.
But downtown Boston finally started trending in the right direction when Suffolk University and Emerson College expanded their campuses into the longtime shopping district. Their presence attracted new businesses, many of which embraced the golden era of the historic neighborhood. When Stoddard’s opened in 2010, for instance, it assumed the name of the 19th century cutlery shop that once operated in its space. The long-shuttered Paramount Theater, a 1930s-era movie palace that was among the first cinemas in Boston to show “talkies,” was renovated and reopened as a modern performing arts venue.
Likewise, the newest contributor to the rebirth of the downtown area hints at the bubbling potential of this evolving neighborhood while paying homage to its storied past.
The Merchant, a self-described American brasserie, opened its doors last month on the edge of Downtown Crossing and the cusp of the Financial District. Serving an eclectic French-American menu with an emphasis on local ingredients, the large restaurant and bar evokes the sophistication of old-school Boston dining and infuses it with a modern sense of comfort and style.
A long bar with a beautiful wooden top is surrounded by 21 comfortable leather seats. The navy blue, pinstriped aprons donned by the bartenders recall an age gone by, as do the vintage-looking brass table lamps spaced along the bar’s surface.
A spacious dining area is populated by small tables and a few red leather booths. The dark wood and burgundy color scheme gives the interior a conservative, distinguished look, but globe lighting, chandeliers, and brass floor lamps give the space a warm, welcoming appearance.
“We wanted something that would stand the test of time,” co-owner Shane Smyth says of The Merchant’s look and feel. “Not something trendy, not something that might look good for 5 years and then you have to do it over again. We wanted to open a place that was classic, timeless.”
For that, they couldn’t have chosen a more auspicious location – the previous tenant, luggage retailer London Harness, occupied the space for nearly a century. “We wanted to keep some of the character, keep with the merchant theme,” he explains. They retained portions of the infrastructure as well. “We kept as much of it as we could,” Smyth says. “We were able to keep the mezzanine, the flooring, the ceiling is original.”
The notion of a brasserie originated in France and refers to an informal restaurant that serves food all day and late into the evening. It also translates to “brewery,” and while The Merchant doesn’t brew its own beer, it does boast an impressive selection. The 36 draft options span a broad range of styles and feature a number of regional offerings, like Slumbrew Happy Sol.
“Being in the Financial District and downtown, we couldn’t have all craft beer,” Smyth acknowledges. “But we want to have something for everyone, and having that many lines gives us the opportunity to change it up on a regular basis.”
A few local, limited release beer specials are posted on a chalkboard behind the bar. This farmhouse saison from Fort Point’s Trillium Brewing is crisp and fragrant.
If microbreweries are too big for you, try a beer from Boston’s only “nanobrewery.” Each batch of Everett’s Idle Hands Craft Ales is limited to five barrels, making it a pleasant surprise to find one on draft. This Belgian stout, appropriately called “Absence of Light,” has notes of chocolate and unexpected hints of fruit and spices.
That celebration of local wares and devotion to craft is especially evident in the food menu. Executive chef Matt Foley and sous chef Tim McQuinn are both alumni of the renowned Craigie on Main, so it’s fair to say they know their way around a kitchen. Their menu centers on locally sourced ingredients and caters to just about anyone who might be passing through downtown – theatergoers seeking a quick pre-meal bite, businesspeople on lunch from the adjacent Financial District, and those in search of a creative, meticulously prepared meal. The kitchen even stays open until 12 or 1 a.m., depending on the night of the week, for those working the late shift.
Traditional French items like duck l’orange and steak frites share space with steak and eggs, slow-roasted chicken breast, seafood dishes, and a raw bar. Chef Foley brings elements of Craigie on Main’s “snout to tail” approach to The Merchant, with items like the crispy pig ear on the late-night menu and the most eye-catching entry on the appetizer menu – veal sweetbread “nuggets.”
“Sweetbread,” for those of you sort of know but are afraid to know more, is a most delightful name bestowed upon the thymus or pancreas of a calf, pig, or lamb. Nothing about it is sweet and there’s usually no bread involved. I guess the term just sounds more appetizing than “organ meat.” The Merchant’s tasty version is reminiscent of a veal cutlet, but milder and with a much softer texture. Crunchy house-made chips provide a simple contrast.
More straightforward options are available too, if that’s your speed. Crispy wings are served in a sweet and sour sauce over a spicy Asian slaw.
And there’s nothing deceptive about the hot and cold crab dish, which is exactly what its name implies – a traditional, seared crab cake topped with a zesty tartar sauce, and a chilled citrus crab salad topped with a soft house-made pretzel.
Even the bar staff seem genuinely impressed with the kitchen’s efforts. Andy, a veteran bartender who’s worked at No. 9 Park and Clio, remarks that Foley always manages to get “amazing” crab. Bartender Becca calls the sweetbread “special.” Another bartender, Mike, is effusive as well. “They put more work into food preparation than I’ve seen anywhere else,” he says, noting that in addition to the chefs’ locavore tendencies, they make nearly everything from scratch and brine meat for at least 24 hours. That even goes for the phenomenal country fried chicken sandwich on the lunch menu.
Topped with a sweet, nutty Gruyère cheese and a smoked tomato aioli, the tender chicken isn’t the heavily breaded fare you might expect of a fried chicken sandwich, and the aioli gives it a mild smoky essence.
The Merchant’s appreciation for Boston history, fondness for local brands and fresh ingredients, and penchant for innovation all converge on the cocktail list.
“I’d call it ‘big tent,’” bar manager Ian says of the cocktail program and the diverse set of tastes it appeals to. “You can come here with a big group, and everyone can find something they like.”
The time-honored Old Fashioned gets a Back Bay-style makeover in the Newbury Fashion. Combining bourbon, a house-made mixed berry syrup, Angostura and orange bitters, and splash of soda, it’s a strong, sweet cocktail with a hint of spice.
That mixed berry syrup adds a rich, fruity character to the effervescent Ritz Spritz, combining with Aperol, fresh lemon, and sparkling wine.
The Boston Collins uses locally distilled Bully Boy vodka, Earl Gray syrup, fresh lemon, and soda. Sweet and light, with mild flavors of black tea and lemon, it’s a drink well suited to the gradually warming weather.
Another local distiller shines in the Violet Hour. GrandTen’s Wire Works gin combines with Crème de Violette and fresh grapefruit juice for a vibrant, floral cocktail with a pale purple complexion.
As inventive as the drink list is, there’s a certain simplicity to the offerings – and a deliberate sense of approachability. “Some places are just overreaching,” Ian says. “No one will come in here and feel like they ordered the ‘wrong’ drink.”
Speaking of which, the Negroni has never quite been the “right” drink for me. I regret to say I have an uneasy relationship with the popular aperitif Campari. So I probably wouldn’t have ordered The Merchant’s “Pegroni,” which adds Punt e Mes to the already bitter proceedings, had Ian not handed me one unsolicited.
But his interpretation is unlike any other Negroni I’ve encountered. While it maintains its trademark bite, orange-infused Cold River gin and orange bitters mellow the bitterness and give the drink a surprising citrus character. An orange twist provides an effervescent bouquet.
The drink list will change periodically, as will the food menu; the availability of local, seasonal ingredients will likely influence both. But that only means The Merchant’s offerings will remain fresh and dynamic. And for a restaurant in a neighborhood long characterized by transition, that seems entirely appropriate.
The glory days of Downtown Crossing exist mainly in our collective memory. Faded black and white photographs attest to the neighborhood’s pre-war vibrancy, and our elders’ stories of visiting the beloved Enchanted Village, the Jordan Marsh window display that grew into an annual holiday phenomenon, offer hints of what was once its special charm.
“We felt that downtown was making a comeback,” Merchant owner Shane Smyth says. And while the 21st century iteration of Downtown Crossing might not be anchored by large department stores, the neighborhood is already growing into a contemporary entertainment district with deep historical roots. Even the notorious hole in the ground that was once Filene’s Basement, the store that popularized the concept of bargain basement shopping, is finally being filled with the foundation of the much-ballyhooed Millennium Tower.
Downtown Crossing’s identity will continue to evolve, but its geography won’t – which means it will always be a busy area. Smyth understands this, and recognizes that The Merchant’s success depends on its broad appeal. “We wanted to open a neighborhood place for a neighborhood we believe in,” he says. “Open early, open late; a focal point for people moving into the area, people who are already there, people who are shopping, tourists.”
It’s a simple vision and a laudable goal in a neighborhood poised to recapture its onetime splendor.
Address: 60 Franklin Street, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
The hotel bar once represented the high water mark of American drinking culture. As grand hotels became symbols of high society and economic prestige in the early 20th century, the bars and restaurants within them reflected the very same dignified air. Hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Lenox in Boston served not only as comfortable stopovers for business travelers but as upscale drinking and dining destinations for well-heeled locals. A clear step up from taverns and saloons, hotel bars employed master bartenders who used the freshest ingredients to craft exceptional and often experimental drinks for guests. Many of our most enduring classic cocktails, like the Sidecar and the Aviation, originated behind the bar of a hotel.
But the onset of Prohibition in 1920 dealt hotel bars a blow from which they never truly recovered. Career bartenders took their talents to Europe, and by the time Prohibition ended, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression and Americans’ drinking habits had changed. Bars in classic luxury hotels endured on the strength of name recognition and continue to thrive today, but the proliferation of chains have largely earned hotel bars a reputation for exorbitant prices and uniform mediocrity. Unless you find yourself in an area otherwise lacking in bars or are actually staying at a hotel, why would you drink at one?
“People find us almost by accident,” admits Shauna Ottina, manager of City Bar in the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel. In the ever-growing but still oddly configured Seaport District, that’s entirely plausible. It’s also easy to see why people stay.
City Bar’s comfortable, den-like atmosphere appeals to hotel guests who might prefer a quiet drink at an upscale lounge to standing in line at the hippest bar in the city. But even a seasoned local can appreciate the contemporary touches and a drink list aimed at modern customers who demand quality and creativity.
The long, sleek bar is surrounded by a dozen leather chairs. A pair of leather sofas in the center of the room set the stage for a leisurely evening of cocktails and conversation.
Candlelit tables offer a chance for a more intimate dinner. And in the middle of the bar, a bed of ice chills a few martini glasses, illuminated from below with soft blue lighting.
City Bar’s cocktail menu balances conservative and contemporary elements – a necessity, Shauna acknowledges, when one considers the sometimes conflicting forces of location and clientele. Having fashionable cocktail bars like Drink and TRADE within walking distance means you can’t get away with Captain and Coke as your signature offering. But given the varying tastes of guests from all over the country, you need to account for travelers who are uninterested in local trends and just want something straightforward and familiar.
“We try to put some of the classics on the menu,” Shauna says, “but we put some curveballs on there too.”
The classics are indeed well represented, with options like a Sazarac, a Sidecar, and a Pisco Sour.
But the “curveballs” actually take up more of the menu, with a variety of original house drinks and modern twists on old favorites.
One of the bar’s most popular items is the Mango Mai Tai. City Bar sweetens up this tiki classic by combining mango puree and pineapple juice with dark rum, light rum, and amaretto. A funky tiki mug contributes the requisite Polynesian flair. The City Stormy adds Fernet Branca for a more bitter version of a Dark and Stormy.
On the more experimental side, the Kentucky Flu combines Maker’s Mark bourbon, Licor 43, and a blend of citrus juices. This one made for an odd mix of flavors, but it grew on me. I was pleasantly surprised to see the seldom-used Licor 43 feature in a drink, but Shauna explained that City Bar encourages a spirit of imagination and exploration among its staff; the bartenders, in fact, are responsible for much of the cocktail menu. “It gets their creative juices flowing,” she said. “They’re not just selling a list.”
That immediately prompted me to ask my bartender, Heather, if she had contributed something to the menu. She told me that her creation, the Pet Dragon, was a mix of butterscotch schnapps, Irish cream, and – much to my dismay – Fireball Whiskey. This put me in a tight spot. On the one hand, I’d look like a tool if I didn’t order Heather’s drink, which I’d just inquired about; on the other hand, I long ago swore off any liquor imbued with the vile flavor of hot cinnamon (let’s just say I’m still feeling the “aftershock” of an unfortunate drinking episode dating back to my college days). Needless to say, I smiled politely and agreed to have one. Heather remarked that the drink tasted like an oatmeal cookie; I was highly skeptical.
In fact, that’s exactly what it tasted like. This wonderfully well-made drink was rich, sweet, and creamy. The Fireball Whiskey, despite my apprehension, was actually quite subtle – no heat, just a warm cinnamon essence.
City Bar’s food menu offers a fairly extensive selection of appetizers, sandwiches, and comfort food standards – calamari, burgers, steak tips, that sort of thing. But as with the drink menu, there are curveballs, too, like a flatbread pizza topped with mashed potatoes, steak tips, and bacon, and a sesame seared tuna salad. I opted for a classic.
Jazzed up with three different types of meat – chorizo, Italian sausage, and ground beef – City Bar’s meatloaf is delicious and unusually complex. Topped with mashed potatoes and a rich mushroom gravy, with a side of green beans, it’s a hearty meal and good for soaking up strong cocktails.
The cookie-esque Pet Dragon would have made for a good dessert drink, but since I’d already blown through that, I asked Heather to recommend something else to close out the evening. She directed me to City Bar’s selection of champagne cocktails and suggested the Sunday Morning, a vibrant, effervescent mix of pomegranate liqueur, blood orange liqueur, orange juice, and champagne.
This potent, spruced-up mimosa might be designed to start your Sunday morning with a bang, but it can also end your Saturday night with a flourish.
By and large, the era of the hotel bar as both a touchstone of upper-class culture and a laboratory of cutting-edge mixology is a thing of the past. And while some of the most renowned cocktail bars in Boston are actually housed within hotels, their identities tend to be distinct – do you ever think of Eastern Standard as “the bar at Hotel Commonwealth”?
Fortunately, the days of the hotel bar being a celebration of commercial blandness, peddling overpriced food and unimaginative drinks to a captive audience, may also be coming to an end. A place like City Bar might not be setting any mixology trends, but they’re aware of a drinking public that’s come to expect at least a little ingenuity. By giving their bartenders the latitude to experiment and contribute to the drink list, City Bar observes an increasingly common practice in today’s cocktail lounges and renews a tradition that began in the celebrated hotel bars of yore.
Aside from guests staying at the Westin, City Bar’s location makes it an unlikely destination for anyone not already planning on being in the Seaport District. But in an area of Boston that continues to see tremendous growth, City Bar is an upscale, laid-back alternative to some of its more boisterous neighbors, like Atlantic Beer Garden and Whiskey Priest. As Shauna indicated, it may indeed be the kind of place that people simply happen upon. But when they inevitably return, it will be by choice.
Address: 425 Summer Street at the Westin Hotel, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
Since last fall, Wink & Nod has been the subject of anticipation and speculation, with local media, industry onlookers, and would-be guests clamoring for closely guarded details about the South End bar and eatery’s cocktail offerings, décor, and food menu. After a pair of soft openings earlier this week, Wink & Nod finally opened its door to the public last night. Finding that door, however, might be a challenge unto itself.
Only the number of Wink & Nod’s Appleton Street address appears above the unmarked entryway to this speakeasy-style bar. Beyond the nondescript black door is a flight of stairs leading down to a well-appointed subterranean lounge. It is both a tribute to an era when discretion was essential and a celebration of the high-quality liquor and expertly crafted cocktails that were in exceedingly short supply during the dark days of Prohibition.
Oozing style and eschewing gimmickry, Wink & Nod infuses its high-end, contemporary décor with vintage accents. The upper half of the bi-level room comprises dinner tables and a living room-type area with comfortable leather chairs.
Dark, mahogany walls, black and tan carpeting, and table lamps conspire to create an intimate atmosphere, and soft music allows for conversation. Occupying the lower level is a 15-seat, wraparound bar with a smooth wooden surface and a layer of faux red snakeskin below. Funky chandeliers and a backlit liquor shelf cast a warm glow about the entire area.
Under the guidance of general manager and veteran mixologist Curtis McMillan, Wink & Nod’s cocktail program is second to none. The drink list, printed in an old-school typewritten font, is organized by type of spirit. Nearly all of the cocktails are named for Hollywood actresses, film characters, and socialites, like Joan Collins, Halle, and Vera Prescott.
They feature once-common ingredients like sherry, sloe gin, and egg whites, along with all the fashionable mixers that make modern craft cocktails so attractive, like house-made ginger beer, fresh herbs, and wonderfully flavored bitters.
And every drink starts with a top-notch spirit – a point Curtis insists on after seeing how many bars use low-quality liquors even in high-priced drinks. “I just couldn’t sleep at night if we did that,” he says. “That’s why our well liquors are all micro. Berkshire Mountain bourbon, GrandTen, Bully Boy makes our vodka,” he says, rattling off an impressive list of Massachusetts distilleries.
That dedication to quality – along with some quick thinking – was on display in Tuesday evening’s featured cocktail, the Basil Bourbon Smash. “We ordered two pounds of mint from our supplier,” Curtis says. “When it arrived, we opened it up, and it was all basil. I said, I can work with this.” He did better than just work with it. The fresh aroma of basil and lemon preceded every sip.
It’s the sort of ingenuity that permeates the entire cocktail program. And despite Curtis’s renowned mixology skills, he employs no bar manager and leaves much of the cocktail design to his staff. “Each bartender designed a drink; their baby,” he tells me, adding “if their drink is the best-seller for a quarter, they get to pick their shift.”
That may lead to some friendly competition among the staff, but the clear winners are those of us on the other side of the bar. The Raquel, for instance, is the brainchild of Rich Fiorillo, late of Church. It combines Mount Gay Old rum, Monkey Shoulder scotch, freshly pressed apple juice, orgeat syrup, and Gran Classico. Served in a funky tiki mug, it’s a sweet cocktail with a pronounced apple flavor that’s well balanced by the scotch and the bitter Gran Classico.
The Cattrall is an even bolder blend of flavors – Montelobos mezcal, Cocchi Americano, a grapefruit cordial, fresh lime juice, and prosecco. Because the smokiness of the mezcal is so distinctive, it can be a challenging spirit to work with. Fortunately, Curtis knows a thing or two about mezcal, and the resulting cocktail is extraordinary. The smoky flavor is unmistakable but doesn’t overpower the drink, enabling the bitter, sour, and citrusy components to shine. The prosecco provides some effervescence and a little dryness.
Bartender Jason Rykiel, another Church alum, says that he found the recipe for what would become the Madonna in an old tiki cocktail book. This creamy mix of Plymouth gin, sloe gin, simple syrup, dry curacao, and egg white is smooth, sweet, and fruity, with a thick layer of foam on top.
There’s even a selection of “Shooters,” and while shots are typically just a quick and easy way to tie one on, they aren’t exempt from Wink & Nod’s high standards. The surprisingly complex Sharknado combines cranberry liqueur, fresh pineapple, blue curacao, orange bitters, and Notch Session Ale. You can throw that down in one big gulp if you so desire, but like everything else on the drink list, you’d be better served by taking it slow and appreciating the composition.
It was long considered a given that Wink & Nod would be serving exceptional craft cocktails. For months, though, the dinner menu was afforded all the secrecy of a speakeasy password. When finally unveiled, it was something of a bombshell – the menu would be handled by pop-up restaurant Whisk.
For the past several years, Whisk chefs Philip Kruta and Jeremey Kean have been showing up in restaurant kitchens throughout Boston, impressing chefs and foodies alike with their experimental but approachable recipes and use of local ingredients. They agreed to take up a permanent residence at Wink & Nod, so long as they maintained final say over their avant-garde fare. They remain independent, and the kitchen is called Whisk at Wink & Nod.
With Whisk at the helm, even the simplest of recipes are deftly handled in unexpected ways, like warm bar nuts topped with candy garlic, cilantro, and nuac cham (a Vietnamese dipping sauce).
The artfully presented scarlet butter lettuce, with stilton cheese and a farm egg, is far from your traditional salad.
Served in a miniature cast-iron skillet on a wooden board, the duck meatballs with foie gras may be the high point of the small bite menu. With black garlic and pickled blueberry on the side, they’re delicious and bursting with flavor.
But the real showstoppers are the Yakitori “in-smoke” offerings. While my words and pictures can scarcely do this dish justice, here’s how it works. Your choice of quail, short rib, or pork belly (I opted for the last) has been marinated overnight in a soy sauce blended with all manner of spicy goodness. Your skewered meat arrives at your table in a mason jar filled with smoke.
Take a good minute and enjoy the fact that you’ve got a jar of smoke in front of you, then open the lid, whereby you’ll release a plume of aromatic smoke that reaches to the ceiling.
Enjoy your brief celebrity status while everyone around you turns to gawk at the spectacle and remark on the heavenly scent of the cherry wood smoke. And the meat more than lives up to its unique presentation. The confit pork belly is fall-apart tender, and small pickled apples contribute a bit of acidic tartness.
Curtis expressed genuine disappointment that I was forgoing the signature dessert – a homemade Twinkie filled with brown butter cream – but I couldn’t resist one more cocktail. I asked Jason to recommend something, and he responded with one of his own recipes. The Susan is a mix of Brugal 1888 rum, Brugal Silver rum, Averna, simple syrup, and strawberries. In a word? Phenomenal.
I tend to think of strawberry-based cocktails as light, sweet, and unremarkable (daiquiris, margaritas, the sort of drink you sip by the pool on a summer day). The Susan, by contrast, has tremendous depth and complexity. Brugal 1888 is a serious rum aged in whiskey barrels, and the bitterness of the Averna keeps the sweetness in check. The result is a rich, balanced cocktail with a fresh, natural strawberry flavor profile. And it’s been in the works for some time. “It was a recipe I was working on at Church, but I could never get it right,” Jason says. “Even when I tried it here, something was missing. It went right down to the wire. Then the other day I turned around [to the bar], saw some black walnut bitters, and tried them. That did it.”
Whether it’s black walnut bitters to the rescue or a mint-based cocktail improvised with basil, it’s clear that the culture at Wink & Nod fosters experimentation but demands excellence. And that’s only fitting for a bar that honors the classic approach to making a good drink.
Wink & Nod draws its name from a quote famously attributed to long-time Boston politician Martin M. Lomasney: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.” Sage advice on the topic of discretion from the legendary boss of Ward 8, and a prudent way to communicate about an illicit watering hole. But everything’s above the table at this below-ground bar, so you needn’t be concerned about a liquor raid. Nor do you have to worry about it being campy or high-concept; Wink & Nod is refreshingly original and devoid of Prohibition clichés. The unmarked door and the lack of windows give it a speakeasy vibe, but the elegant décor and outstanding drinks recall the golden age of cocktails, when making a drink was an art and a night of fine dining was a glamorous affair.
Although Tuesday was Wink & Nod’s first night with a crowd, everything seemed to be humming along pretty smoothly. Curtis roamed from table to table and throughout the bar area, checking on customers, telling stories, and getting people’s impressions. Service was excellent, and with three or four bartenders operating at any given time, there was never a long wait for a drink.
Speaking of long waits, Wink & Nod has been on the local radar since last October. Without question, it’s worth the wait. And while there’s no neon sign trumpeting its arrival, chances are the door will be easy to spot when there’s a line snaking around the block.
Address: 3 Appleton Street, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
In a city that has seen its share of colorful political figures, Martin M. Lomasney may lack the name recognition of a Kennedy or the notoriety of a James Michael Curley. Maybe that’s because, despite a 50-year career in which he did hold a number of public offices, his substantial political clout was largely cultivated in his unofficial capacity – as a ward boss.
A ward boss was the de facto leader of a political machine, a fixture of municipal politics in America’s Gilded Age. Political machines were organizations that influenced elections and dominated other local affairs through a system of political favors and patronage. Unsurprisingly, allegations of corruption and voter fraud were frequent and widespread.
But in a political system vulnerable to abuse, Lomasney was widely respected for his integrity and generally revered by his constituency. Unlike other ward bosses, Lomasney was quick to embrace immigrants, even greeting them on the docks upon their arrival in Boston. Granted, this was more about political expediency than genuine benevolence. But in a climate of fierce nativism, he treated immigrants in his ward the same as he did his other constituents (provided they could vote, of course).
Not that Lomasney should be considered for sainthood. Plenty of his methods were ethically questionable, and his motives may have been entirely self-serving. But the fact remains that while many political bosses were rightly accused of cronyism and graft, Lomasney is remembered for fostering a sense of community. Nowhere was this more evident than in the old West End neighborhood he presided over – known on the Boston voting map as Ward 8.
Political bosses are a thing of the past, and the boundaries of Ward 8 have been redrawn multiple times since Lomasney’s day. But more than 80 years after his death, Lomasney’s legacy of community building lives on in a new bar that honors the old name of his district.
“This area needed a neighborhood place,” owner Nick Frattaroli tells me. “So many people work around here, and you see them pouring out of their offices at 5.”
He’s right – Ward 8, which opened last December, sits on the outskirts of the North End, a block or two from the TD Garden. Populated mostly by office buildings, it’s an area people tend to pass through en route to Italian restaurants or sports pubs.
But for Nick, “neighborhood” is more about attitude than geography. “I wanted a place with neighborhood energy,” he explains. “Approachable” is a word he uses often, and his desire to engender a friendly, welcoming atmosphere is evident throughout Ward 8, from the menu to the reasonable prices – even the infrastructure. “That’s why we have a 30-seat bar,” he says of the large, wraparound rectangular bar that is the focal point of the restaurant. “People can see each other and talk; they’re not looking at bottles and labels.”
The gorgeous marble bar is a modern touch in a room that evokes vintage Boston. The hardwood floor and subway-tile columns have a throwback look, and the exposed brick wall, with “Ward 8” painted in floor-to-ceiling characters, is visually striking. A set of tables look out onto the street, and a separate dining area offers a quieter alternative to the bar.
The dim, candlelit ambience may recall intimate North End dining, while the plaid-clad staff and lively crowd give it the casual vibe of a Canal Street sports bar. But Ward 8’s menu offers thoughtful alternatives to both Italian food and typical pub fare. Described by Nick as “approachable, with a twist,” there’s a raw bar and selection of mouthwatering starters like butternut squash bisque and lamb meatballs. Comfort food staples like a burger, lobster roll, and mac and cheese are all given a modern spin by executive chef Kenny Schweizer. But the “Snacks & Sharing” menu is where you’ll find one of Ward 8’s most popular dishes – maple chili duck wings.
Delicious but absurdly messy, the wings are sweet, spicy, and tender, with meat falling right off the bone. You might want to ask for a few (hundred) extra napkins, but they’re worth the trouble.
The bacon cashew caramel corn is just as good as it sounds. Sweet, nutty, and smoky, this is pure stick-to-your-teeth decadence.
But the food menu isn’t the only thing that distinguishes Ward 8 from its nearby peers. “There aren’t a lot of places around here with this kind of cocktail program,” Nick notes.
That cocktail program is headed by bar manager Mike Wyatt, late of Eastern Standard. His drink menu is mostly arranged by type of spirit – Agave, Gin/Vodka, Rum, Whiskey, and Brandy. Beneath each heading is a mix of what Mike calls classics and modern classics. “We wanted to start with a foundation of classic drinks,” he explains. “Some places make all these crazy ‘craft cocktails’ but can’t make a Manhattan. We teach the bartenders to make the classics.”
Cocktails that date back to the Gilded Age share space with tiki drinks and more contemporary concoctions. The Corpse Reviver, a blend of cognac, Calvados apple brandy, and sweet vermouth, is strong and smooth, with a mild bitterness.
The Painkiller is fruity and potent. A mix of Pusser’s rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and orange juice poured over crushed ice, it's served in a ceramic coconut cup and topped with a dusting of nutmeg.
The Maharaja’s Revenge combines Old Monk rum, Apry (an apricot brandy), and fresh lime juice. With the vanilla flavor from the rum, the apricot, and the zing from the lime, this modern tiki drink is at home among the classics.
The cocktails have their share of twists and innovations, but Mike uses Nick’s word to describe them: approachable. “It’s not like we’re making Martinezes or anything,” he says, referring to the bitter gin-based cocktail that has yet to enjoy the same resurgence in popularity as martinis and Manhattans.
And yet the biggest hits are the drinks that might be considered the most daring. “The egg drinks are flying out of here,” Mike notes with surprise, referring specifically to the Pisco Sour and the Rye Flip. The Pisco Sour seems to be increasingly in vogue in Boston bars, and it’s easy to see why. Ward 8’s version, which combines Macchu Pisco, lemon juice, sugar, and egg white, is sweet, tangy, and creamy. Angostura bitters are decoratively swirled on the foamy top.
The Rye Flip, made with Bulleit rye whiskey, a whole egg, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, is perfect for a cold winter night. With a creamy texture from the egg, a little bite from the rye, and seasonal spices, all that’s missing is a roaring fire.
Customers’ willingness to try uncommon cocktails may be due in part to the approachability of the bar staff and the emphasis on presentation. “A lot of these drinks spark interest,” Mike says. “We use glass mixing jars, so people can see things like the egg cracking. They ask about the ingredients.”
Few drinks elicit more conversation and questions than the Oaxahan Old Fashioned, which offers an exciting twist on one of the oldest drinks in the book. Ward 8’s version, based on a recipe by Death & Co., trades whiskey for a combination of tequila and mezcal, making for a strong, smoky drink. “Some people don’t even know how to pronounce it,” Mike says. “But they ask, and it sparks conversation. People ask about the difference between mezcal and tequila. And they really like the flaming orange,” he admits, referring to the match-lit orange peel garnish, which contributes a smoky citrus essence (I lament not capturing the momentarily flaming peel, but I was too mesmerized to operate the camera).
The Moscow Mules, unfortunately, inspire not just conversation but larceny – the traditional copper cups they’re served in tend to disappear. “We got hit pretty hard last weekend,” he says with a sigh.
A small selection of House Cocktails is separate from the spirit-driven categories, but the plan is to eventually have a single, unified list. I’d say the original concoctions are already strong enough to stand alongside the traditional favorites. The Il Pompelmo is bright, tangy, and sour, with its combination of No. 3 gin, Campari, St. Germain, and grapefruit bitters.
The New England Daiquiri, as its name would suggest, interprets the traditional Caribbean cocktail with regional ingredients – Berkshire Mountain Distillers rum and Vermont maple syrup. A mere half-teaspoon of syrup means the maple flavor doesn’t dominate the rum, allowing for a fairly restrained sweetness.
And of course, no exploratory venture to Ward 8 would be complete without trying its namesake cocktail. The story behind the drink named for Lomasney’s neighborhood is a blend of history and legend, and its accuracy is subject to debate. But the generally accepted version goes something like this: on the eve of Lomasney’s 1898 election to the state legislature, his supporters, assured of their candidate’s victory, gathered at the Locke-Ober restaurant to celebrate. They asked the bartender to create a drink to commemorate the occasion. The resulting cocktail, a mix of rye whiskey, grenadine, lemon juice, and orange juice, was named for the district that ultimately tipped the election in Lomasney’s favor – Ward 8 – and was the signature cocktail of the Locke-Ober until it closed its doors in 2012.
So how does Ward 8’s version stack up to the original? Mike responds with a now familiar refrain: “It’s more approachable.” The most obvious difference is swapping out the traditional, spicy rye for the softer bourbon, but other changes are more subtle. “We use freshly squeezed juice and a house-made grenadine,” he explains. “It might not seem like a big deal, but we make [the grenadine] here and it’s not as sweet.” The result, he says, is a bit closer to a whiskey sour. “It’s fruity, not too tart. You don’t have to be a whiskey fan to enjoy it.”
That’s especially fitting for a neighborhood bar built on the concept of approachability. Inclusiveness for Martin Lomasney may have been little more than a means of shoring up votes and securing political advantage, but Nick’s intentions seem genuine. “Anyone can come here,” he proclaims. “Foodies, sports fans, cocktail drinkers. There’s something for everyone.”
Ward 8’s excellent cocktail list is not static; I’ve seen several additions and subtractions just in the past few weeks. But if you get attached to a particular drink and it goes missing from the menu, don’t fret – Mike assures me that the small crew of well-trained bartenders can still make it for you.
If cocktails aren’t your bag, there’s also a respectable offering of microbrews on draft and more in bottles. The draft options, like this smooth Left Hand Milk Stout on nitro, are served in chilled beer steins.
And true to Nick’s word, there is indeed something for everyone.
Prices are eminently reasonable. Drinks will run you $10 to $12, which is pretty standard for craft cocktails. Entrees range between $15 and $24, and there are plenty of good deals on the Snacks & Sharing menu.
The bar can get a little loud, particularly in the after-work hours. But then again, Ward 8 is a place that’s supposed to have neighborhood energy. And who’d want to live in a dull neighborhood?
Address: 90 N. Washington Street, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
I cannot precisely recall the first time I tried apple cider, but I’m almost certain it was at a Thanksgiving dinner when I was a kid. For my family, cider was a turkey day staple, complementing the food on our table while reflecting all the wonderful flavors of autumn in New England.
The first time I tried hard cider? That I remember vividly – and not a little bit fondly.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I was introduced to Cider Jack, which at the time was one of few commercial hard ciders widely available in the United States. As a beer drinker, I was no fan of “malternatives.” But I figured, hey, it’s cider, right? How bad could it be?
Turns out, it could be pretty bad.
Cider Jack was a scratchy, artificially flavored, sharply carbonated beverage that bore scant resemblance to the thick, fresh juice that heralded the holiday season. You know how leaving the cap off a bottle of apple juice for a week or so will supposedly cause it to ferment? I imagine the result would taste something like the now defunct Cider Jack.
If there was one benefit to Cider Jack’s inexplicable popularity, it was that it helped open the door for other – and much better – hard ciders. Eventually my harsh opinion mellowed a bit; I learned to appreciate an occasional Magners and later developed a genuine fondness for Harpoon’s cider, which at least tasted like actual apples had made an appearance in the brewing process. But I never loved it, and I resigned myself to the depressing reality that the chasm between non-alcoholic apple cider and industrial hard cider would never be bridged.
And then, on a summer night in 2012, something happened that forever altered my understanding of hard cider.
I was enjoying drinks in Cambridge’s Central Square with a few fellow barhoppers, and when it came time to change locations, my friend Jen lobbied for a trip to Kendall Square’s Meadhall. Her reason? They had a cider on draft that she really liked. Now as much as I enjoy Meadhall, it hadn’t really been on that evening’s agenda; and going there specifically for a hard cider was hardly incentive. But Jen was persistent, so we headed to Kendall. Upon arriving at Meadhall, Jen ordered her precious drink – something called Downeast Cider – and offered me a sip of the much-ballyhooed beverage.
And that, dear readers, is when I first fell in love with hard cider.
If there was one obvious distinction between Downeast and every other hard cider I’d tried, it was this – Downeast resembled actual apple cider. As in, the stuff I always drank in November (but with alcohol!). Not too sweet, not overly carbonated, and – unlike every other hard cider on the market – not filtered. Whereas you could read a newspaper through a glass of most hard ciders, this unfiltered brew had a cloudy complexion, more akin to that of genuine cider – not to mention a rich, natural flavor.
After that I became something of a Downeast evangelist, talking it up to anyone who would listen and dragging people to Meadhall to try it. Not that Downeast needed my help – their cult following was quickly growing into a regional phenomenon. More bars began offering it on draft, and eventually a canned version appeared on store shelves. In February 2013, Downeast co-founders Tyler Mosher and Ross Brockman moved their operation from Leominster to Charlestown; last December, they hosted a big launch party to officially christen their Downeast Cider House and formally announce their Boston presence. And just this past month, Tyler and Ross were included on Forbes' annual “30 under 30” list. Not bad for a couple of Bates College grads with no prior brewing experience.
A few days before their launch party, I met with Tyler for a tour of the new digs and an education on all things cider.
While Downeast is the sexy choice among ciders these days, the place where the magic happens is more functional than fashionable. The Downeast Cider House, which sits in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge, is a large industrial space filled with brewing tanks, canning equipment, kegs waiting to be filled, and cases of cider ready to be shipped.
The gray, concrete floor is strewn with hoses; electrical cables hang from steel beams on the ceiling; puddles of water await a mop. The only splash of color comes from a huge apple tree painted on the back wall.
A few tables constitute a makeshift office, and that’s where Tyler, Ross, and Ross’s brother Matt deal with the business of making, selling, and distributing cider. And while those matters take up increasing amounts of their time, Tyler and Ross’s typical day is still consumed with making their cider – including the drudgery of cleaning tanks and canning their product. It’s an honest, elbow-grease approach that isn’t too far removed from their earliest days of brewing cider in the basement of their college dorm.
The Downeast story begins in Maine. Tyler and Ross became friends while attending Bates and discussed the notion of starting a business together someday. Cider wasn’t in their plans yet, but after a few overseas trips, they noticed the popularity of hard cider in other countries; the U.S. market was comparatively dry. Another thing they noticed? That most hard cider was “cider” in name only. “It was a real bummer,” Tyler says, “not finding any ciders that were made from freshly pressed apples.”
So when they graduated, they started putting their plans into action. A complete lack of cider-making experience might have given other would-be brewers pause, but Tyler and Ross were undaunted. “We were in college, and we were young and cocky,” Tyler admits with a laugh. But they had a friend whose family owned an apple orchard and an apple press, so that helped. And after eight months of trial and error, they also had a recipe. Before long, the two cider-making novices would be bringing their new product to market. “We had this blind confidence,” Tyler says. “We didn’t know how hard it could be.” They would soon find out.
Downeast set up shop in Waterville, Maine, and began distributing their cider on a relatively small scale. As Tyler recounts, “We made a few kegs, sold them locally, and thought ‘Wow, this is sweet – making and selling our own cider!’” Then a sales trip to Massachusetts resulted in five new accounts – and their first professional crisis. “We got four times the order that we were expecting. We didn’t have enough kegs, didn’t have enough cider.” It didn’t help that it was a bad year for apples, and their supplier ran out.
That led to some tough decisions. Fill the order with an inferior product? Call their new customers back and say “uh, sorry, we’re out of cider”? Of course not. Tyler and Ross ultimately managed to find a new supplier, but it meant moving their home base to Leominster, Massachusetts. Their departure from Maine may have been unceremonious, but it was clear, even then, that the pair were unwilling to compromise the integrity of their product. That “no shortcuts” philosophy remains central to their current vision – and the outcome is a consistently enjoyable craft hard cider.
As we toured the facility, Tyler expounded on what distinguishes Downeast from so many other brands. The cider is made with locally grown, freshly pressed apples – a blend of Red Delicious, McIntosh, Cortland, and Gala. The velvety consistency comes from the type of yeast. “Ale yeast gives it that smoothness,” he explains. “Most ciders use champagne or white wine yeast.” Tannins, known more commonly for their use in wine, provide mouthfeel and body. (In an episode I won’t soon forget, Tyler encouraged me try some dry tannins – which taste roughly like cigarette ash. Apparently something good happens once they make it into the brew. Gentleman that he is, Tyler also submitted to tasting the tannins to share in my misery.)
But if there’s one thing that people immediately notice about Downeast, it’s that the cider is unfiltered. Compared to most commercial hard ciders, Downeast has a darker, richer complexion. “It’s hard to do,” Tyler admits. “When we started, everyone told us we had to filter it.” But filtering affects more than just the cider’s appearance. “We tried a filtered version, but it just stripped all the taste away. We said, ‘we can’t do this to our cider.’”
The process may be more complicated, but the result is a cider with a full-bodied flavor and smooth texture, free of concentrated juices and artificial sweeteners. Other ciders literally pale by comparison.
My tour of the Cider House is illuminating, and not just because of the glimpse at how cider is made. Seeing a business that’s still evolving is just as fascinating. Clearly visible are the vestiges of a young company accustomed to operating on a shoestring budget. There’s the Chinese-made canner Tyler and Ross bought because it was cheap; it didn’t work and they ended up having to buy another one. There’s the pasteurizer that they built themselves, because commercial ones are so expensive.
Tyler still seems astonished by the cost of kegs. And the Downeast workforce is little more than a skeleton crew; aside from Tyler, Ross, and Matt, there are two sales reps and a couple of guys who help with the packing and kegging.
It’s a small operation, but it’s easy to see that bigger things are on the way. Their cider is in ever-increasing demand, and their product line is expanding. Downeast already offers a cranberry cider, an alternative to their original blend. A bit more risky are a couple of non-cider products slated to hit the shelves this year. Tyler seems a tad uncertain about how customers will react to Downeast branching out – a far cry from the “blind confidence” that fueled his and Ross’s earlier ambitions. I’d say there’s little cause for concern; as long as they maintain their dedication to quality and a “no shortcuts” mantra, it’s hard to imagine any of Downeast’s offerings falling flat.
But Downeast’s expansion plans are unlikely to distract Tyler and Ross from their flagship product. And that’s a good thing, because their success is bound to spawn imitators. You can be sure that the market is well aware of Downeast’s popularity, and it’s only a matter of time before an upstart brewery – or even one of the big guys – comes out with their own unfiltered craft cider. It’s a likelihood Tyler is well aware of. “The only way to avoid competition hindering our business is to stay ahead of it.”
I’d say they’ve got a pretty good head start.
If you’re a Downeast devotee and are looking to visit the command center, be patient – the Downeast Cider House isn’t officially open for tours yet. That will be changing, though, possibly as soon as next month. In the meantime, to learn more about the cider, check out the website. You’ll find plenty of amusing stories about Tyler, Ross, and the whole Downeast crew. They even offer cider-based cocktail recipes; I found the recipe for “Downeast on the Rocks” particularly compelling.
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
She was about the last person you’d ever want to see walking toward your bar. An anti-booze crusader with a hatchet in hand and the Lord at her side (or so she insisted), Carrie Nation made a fearsome name for herself in the early 20th century by terrorizing saloon owners and promoting the message of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union through high-profile acts of vandalism and at least 30 arrests.
From about 1900 to 1910, this imposing, six-foot-tall Kansas woman brought the temperance movement to violent, radical heights by storming into bars and smashing fixtures and liquor bottles with a hatchet. Her initial targets were saloons that violated local laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol, but Carrie’s “hatchetations” expanded to any establishment selling liquor, legally or not.
She might not seem like the most obvious figure to name your bar after. But apparently the Carrie Nation Cocktail Club appreciates history and irony in equal measure.
Having opened in Beacon Hill this past spring, Carrie Nation (the bar) is everything that Carrie Nation (the person) would have abhorred. With its flapper-era drink list and opulent décor, Carrie Nation is a modern-day tribute to the 1920s – an era that would have inspired both celebration and consternation in its namesake.
No doubt, Carrie would have applauded the ratification of the 18th Amendment, had she lived to see the day (she died 9 years before Prohibition went into effect). But there weren’t enough hatchets in the world to destroy all the illegal bars that sprung up in its wake. And not even Carrie herself possessed enough self-righteousness to shame all the cops who accepted bribes that allowed such establishments to operate, or the judges and politicians who benefited by looking the other way.
But Carrie Nation isn’t just another Prohibition-themed bar serving up old-school cocktails. It captures the Roaring Twenties in all its glitz, glamour, and legendary style.
The notion of drinking in the 1920s may provoke images of makeshift, backroom speakeasies, but Carrie Nation, with its mammoth size, evokes the palatial luxury hotels and dining establishments that reflected the decade’s gaudy extravagance.
There’s a large, open dining room with round tables and comfortable leather booths.
Long, red velvet drapes and a handsome dark brown and cream color scheme hearkens back to a time when people donned their finest duds for a civilized night out on the town. Ornate hanging lamps cast a warm glow over the whole area.
The Beacon Room, a second dining area, is separate and smaller, but still spacious and grand.
A long, beautiful bar – an improbable sight in the 1920s – seats 17, while five tables round out the bar area.
While the décor offers a glimpse of the gleaming luxury of the Jazz Age, Carrie Nation’s cocktail list largely recalls the unsavory side of the 1920s. The drinks are categorized under headings like Drys & Wets, Politicians & Power, and Enforcers & Instigators, conjuring images of Treasury raids, gangland hits, and crooked cops. Yet Carrie Nation’s cocktails are garnished with a distinct local flair – many are named for early 20th-century-era Boston icons, and drinking your way through the list is like stumbling into the grittier corners of the city’s history.
And Boston certainly had its share of drink-worthy figures, as I discovered a few weeks back when I stopped into Carrie Nation with a handful of coworkers. With me were my friends Andy, Jen, Keena, Jen, John, Katie, and a few others (there won’t be a quiz).
In the annals of Boston history, it would be difficult to find a more colorful and controversial character than four-term mayor and one-term governor James Michael Curley. Few Boston politicians are so equally identified for their popularity and corruption – he even won an election while serving a prison term. Curley was known as the Rascal King, and the drink bearing his unflattering epithet combined spiced rum, brandy, peach schnapps, and lemon. Peach was the dominant flavor in this one, but the brandy gave it depth and the rum provided some bite.
Martin Michael Lomasney didn’t have Curley’s reputation for graft, but his political clout remains unrivaled in Boston politics. The boss of Boston’s Ward 8 for nearly 50 years, Lomasney was nicknamed “the mahatma” for his influence over all matters affecting the old West End. The Boston Mahatma is Carrie Nation’s take on a Rob Roy, combining Glenfiddich, Punt e Mes, Maraschino liqueur, and Angostura bitters. A little heavy on the Punt e Mes, this one was too bitter for my liking.
Of course, politicians weren’t the only public figures known to loosely interpret or even outright break the law. Boston police officer Oliver Garrett, whose lavish lifestyle far exceeded his $40 a week salary, was known as the Million Dollar Cop. Garrett was widely suspected of padding his regular income by accepting bribes from the speakeasies and brothels he was supposed to be shutting down, though he was never charged with a crime. Katie ordered the drink named in his honor, a mix of Hendrick’s gin, lemon, Chambord, egg, raspberries, and champagne.
By far the prettiest drink of the night, the Million Dollar Cop was rich in its own way – bursting with raspberry flavor, the egg gave it a creamy texture, and the bubbles added a sense of luxury that Garrett no doubt would have appreciated.
Al Capone was the most notorious gangster of the 1920s, and even now, his name is synonymous with organized crime. But Boston had its own big-time mob boss – Charles “King” Solomon. A prominent nightclub owner, Solomon was also a racketeer who controlled bootlegging, gambling, and narcotics rings in and around the city. Carrie Nation’s King Solomon, ordered by Andy, was a vibrant mix of barrel-aged tequila, house-made limoncello, mint, and ginger.
With an up-front honey essence and a strong tequila bite, Andy described it as “explosive,” which seems appropriate for a drink named after a mob kingpin.
Tempting as it might be condemn the actions of an underworld boss, we all know who keeps those guys in business – and in the 1920s, that was anyone wanting a drink. We were, as historian Ken Burns noted in his PBS Prohibition series, a “Nation of Scofflaws.” The term scofflaw, incidentally, was coined after the Boston Herald sponsored a contest to give a name to this new class of common criminal (two Boston residents came up with “scofflaw” and split the $200 prize). The Nation of Scofflaws cocktail combined rye whiskey, Lillet Blanc, pomegranate grenadine, and lemon. The pomegranate grenadine was a little intense, but it was good overall.
While the 18th Amendment banned the production and sale of intoxicating liquors, it was the Volstead Act that specified which liquors would be prohibited, which would be allowed, and how the law would be enforced. How appropriate, then, that the Volstead cocktail was difficult to swallow. Made with extra dry rum, yellow chartreuse, maraschino, a house lemon cordial, and grapefruit bitters, it was dry and sour – a lot like Prohibition. The bitters doubled down on the grapefruit, making this one a little tough on the palate.
Not all of Carrie Nation’s drinks are inspired by those who flouted the law. The Archers Evening Law, in contrast, pays tribute to the founder of nearby Suffolk Law School. When Gleason Archer, Sr., opened Suffolk in 1906, it was one of the only law schools in the country to offer night classes. Jen ordered the drink named in his honor, a fresh and fruity mix of blueberry vodka and a house lemon cordial, garnished with a fragrant leaf of basil.
Along with their many thematic concoctions, Carrie Nation also has a selection of straightforward, time-honored cocktails. John opted for the “Old Fashioned, Old Fashion.” The name might seem redundant, but considering the ghastly incarnations this poor drink has suffered through, it’s worth pointing out that this is a traditional recipe – rye whiskey, bitters, simple syrup, and a lemon peel. No splash of soda, no graveyard of muddled fruit; just a faithful rendering of one of the oldest cocktails on record.
Keena kept the classics going with a vodka Martini. She reveled in the three huge olives while I averted my eyes (I despise olives).
While the Old Fashioned and the Martini can trace their origins to the 19th century, the Orange Blossom was actually a product of Prohibition. That’s when bartenders started employing heavier mixers to mask the horrendous taste of poor-quality, homemade spirits. Though typically made with gin, orange juice, and sweet vermouth, Carrie Nation’s Orange Blossom uses Ketel One Oranje in place of the gin and Punt e Mes for the vermouth. This one was a bit challenging; I think the orange-flavored vodka was overkill.
If none of the 20 offerings on the cocktail list appeal to you, the bartenders seem more than capable of whipping up something on the spot. One of the best drinks of the night arrived when Katie asked for advice on what to order. After inquiring about Katie’s preferred spirits, our bartender served up an excellent drink made with Hendrick’s gin, Prosecco, St. Germain, and lemon, with a cucumber garnish.
An elegant conclusion to the evening, Katie’s drink was a combination of elements you’d be hard-pressed to find in the 1920s – legal, top-shelf liquor, made with fresh ingredients by a knowledgeable bartender. It is a stunning irony that an era flush with exciting new freedoms – the mobility afforded by automobiles, the luxury of hearing a baseball game on the radio, the purchasing power of the average citizen – is remembered more for what you could not do. Big cities pulsated with dazzling sights, sounds, and diversions, and yet Americans were forced underground – often into basements and stockrooms – if they wanted a beer.
This paradox was not overlooked by the people at Carrie Nation.
While the main room is awash in Gatsby-esque splendor, you only need to turn the corner and head toward the long, burgundy curtains at the end of the hall if you want to immerse yourself in the boozy underside of the Roaring Twenties. And you don’t even need a password to get in.
Carrie Nation’s backroom “Cocktail Club” has all the glamour we associate with a speakeasy and, thankfully, little of the reality – no sawdust on the floor, no bathtub gin, no chance of getting busted.
Still, it exudes that shadowy sense of intrigue that we associate with an illicit bar, and it stands as much in contrast to the main restaurant as the illegal bars of the 20s did to their glittering surroundings. Considerably darker and more intimate than the main area, the windowless speakeasy is dimly lit with antique, tassled lamps.
There’s a smaller bar with 13 plush, burgundy chairs.
Ten stools sit opposite the bar, with plenty of shelving for your drinks if you’re hanging around and chewing the fat. Beyond that are large but cozy seating areas, handsomely outfitted with leather couches, loveseats, and chairs.
There are even two pool tables.
Slinking into the speakeasy about a week after my visit to the front room with my coworkers, I grabbed a seat at the bar and was immediately struck by the more casual, laid-back atmosphere. The old-school jazz playing in the dining room gave way to a playlist of 80s music, signaling a shift from the buttoned-down formality of an upscale eatery to the nonchalance of a neighborhood tavern. Case in point – when I declined a food menu, the bartender, Kristina, responded “Just drinks? Good; I like that.”
I could tell right away I was in good hands back here.
Returning to the “Classics” section of the cocktail list, I opted for a drink that dates back to at least 1916 – the Aviation.
"I’ve been drinking those a lot lately,” Kristina mentioned.
I was encouraged to hear this.
Even better – when I said I’d never tried one before, her response was swift and confident: “Ohhhh, I’ll make you a good one.” And that she did.
This mix of Beefeater gin, Maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon was fantastic. The crème de violette, difficult to find and thus often omitted from modern versions of the drink, was smooth and subtle, lending it a floral essence and a pale blue complexion.
I requested Kristina’s counsel on what I should order next, and she recommended one of the oldest drinks in the book – a Gin Fizz. Made with Tanqueray gin, simple syrup, lime, egg white, and soda, this was a worthy follow-up to the Aviation. The egg white gave it a creamy texture, but the soda countered with a pleasant crispness. A Luxardo cherry served as a classy garnish.
A visit to the speakeasy was the perfect way to round out my Carrie Nation experience. I’d been finding the cocktails a little uneven up until that point; some were really good, while others focused too heavily on bitter ingredients (though in all fairness, I should probably just stop ordering drinks with chartreuse and Punt E Mes, since my reaction is nearly always the same). But the best cocktails were the oldest ones; the no-frills Old Fashioned, along with the Aviation and the Gin Fizz deftly made by Kristina, prove that no matter how dizzying the heights of modern mixology, the classics are sturdy enough to endure anything – Constitutional amendments, passing fads, evolving tastes, the general passage of time.
Address: 11 Beacon Street, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.
The reviews were not exactly effusive.
“We prefer the roof deck for drinks and appatizers (sic) when it is open. Otherwise, a typical bar scene.”
“bland mexican food? find it here! great rooftop bar, especially on a cool summer night.”
“Food is ok, drinks are also decent- the roof deck makes this otherwise blah place.”
“Awful. Just plain awful. Fun for a drink.”
“The food is nothing special, but thats (sic) not why you go to Rattlesnake - you go for the drinks and the rooftop bar. So fun in the summertime!”
The above comments, which are a little more than four years old, offer a lukewarm appraisal of what was then known merely as the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill. Opinions of this Boylston Street bar may have varied, but at the time, most people agreed on a few things: it was a fairly unremarkable establishment, greatly enhanced by its having a roof deck; the margaritas were good; and the food certainly was not.
But apparently that was enough. I don’t know how many slicker, trendier bars have opened and subsequently closed their doors since the Rattlesnake slithered into town in 1990, but 23 years in business represents some impressive longevity. Not bad for such a “blah” bar.
Maybe the salient point here is that a roof deck and a liquor license will get you far in this town, especially with an address in one of Boston’s most heavily trafficked areas. The Rattlesnake probably could have maintained the status quo indefinitely – with a rooftop bar, potent margaritas, and a decent beer list, who cares whether the food is any good? That’s what makes January 2009 such a fascinating point in the Rattlesnake’s history. It was then that this fairly unremarkable bar made a fairly remarkable move – hiring a renowned chef.
As the story goes, the Rattlesnake’s owner ran into Brian Poe, then the Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage at Millennium Boston Hotel, and asked for his help in recruiting someone to give the maligned food menu an overhaul. Fresh off a culinary vision quest across South America in 2008, Poe picked the best man for the job – himself. He kept the Rattlesnake’s Southwestern cuisine theme intact, but infused it with Latin American flair, amid a host of other creative twists. Adios, grocery store quesadillas and nachos made with Cheez Whiz; hola, duck tacos and grilled cornbread.
The kitchen was rebranded as Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake, and the bar itself became something that its naysayers and even its most loyal customers wouldn’t have expected – a genuine destination for food.
Although the menu got an upgrade, the rest of the Rattlesnake maintains much of its pre-Poe identity. With its aging façade and plain interior, it’s not as fashionable as some of its Back Bay neighbors, nor ironic enough to attract hipsters. The downstairs area oozes early-90s charm, with a green and white tile floor and a blue-tiled wall, strung with lights, behind the bar.
There’s a long bar with about 12 seats, along with plenty of tables and booths. Large chalkboards herald the dinner and beer specials. The layout and décor might be very simple, but it’s a good-size space that can accommodate a crowd.
Now while the Rattlesnake may be famous for its margaritas, its beer list is pretty solid too. (I’ve been here a few times over the past several months, so bear with me if the beer list or food menu has changed.) The 16 beers on draft include the usual suspects, like Guinness, Sam Adams, and Harpoon, along with some rotating drafts like Lagunitas and Left Hand Brewing Company. On one of my visits a few months back, I was intrigued by the three taps devoted to Stone Brewing Company, each of which was marked with a date – 08/08/08, 09/09/09, and 11/11/11.
It was part of Stone’s Vertical Epic Ale series, a project that began in 2001, in which the company released a different Belgian-style beer every year – one year and one month from the previous release. The first beer was released on 02/02/02, the last on 12/12/12. As I have an entirely unwarranted belief that 11 is a lucky number for me, I went with the 11/11/11.
Intense and malty, with a 9.5% ABV, this bad boy had me reeling. Food was most definitely in order.
I wish I’d spent more time at the Rattlesnake back in the day so I could fully appreciate the transformation of the menu. Regardless, one look at the fusion of Latin American, Mexican, and Southwestern flavors will tell you the food is anything but ordinary. Appetizers like calamari are livened up with a dusting of chili powder, guaymas sauce, corn puree, and cilantro puree. Then there’s the taco menu, where you can get spicy cubano tacos (spicy being an understatement, take my word for it), or antelope tacos, made with duck fat infused ground antelope, topped with jalapeno bacon ranch.
Antelope may not be your typical taco filler, but if you’re familiar with Brian Poe’s post-Rattlesnake project, the Tip Tap Room, you know the man a fondness for unconventional meats. So I was pleasantly unsurprised to see that one of the Rattlesnake’s signature entrées is the wild boar burrito – chili-braised boar, Oaxaca cheese, IPA-infused refried beans, green chili puree, verde rice, boar bacon, and plantain salsa.
The result was phenomenal. And I especially appreciate that it isn’t merely a novelty item – simply using boar meat in an entrée would be enough for people to try it, out of sheer curiosity. But this went much further; the other ingredients were thoughtfully chosen, and they combined to create a unique burrito that burst with flavor. The boar bacon contributed a crispy texture, and even the flour tortilla was baked, giving the exterior a nice crunch.
I returned a month or so later, because I would be remiss if I wrote about the Rattlesnake without trying their margaritas. With a house-made mix and a plethora of tequilas to choose from, this is the drink that Rattlesnake made its name on. It’s also the only bar I know of that reportedly makes you sign a waiver if you’re daring enough to try their Ghost Chili Challenge margarita – its central ingredient being a tequila infused with the infamous ghost chili, one of the hottest peppers on the planet. As your faithful bar correspondent, I realize I should have gotten this and reported back on it. But I’ve never much loved spicy drinks, and I wasn’t paying $16 just so I could drink half of it and then spend the rest of the night praying for death.
So I kept it simple and started with the house margarita. It was pretty standard, but satisfying. It strikes me as a recipe that hasn’t changed at all – and probably doesn’t have to.
Next up was the Bostonian Margarita, made with Espolon Silver, Citronage, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice, topped with a prosecco float. This one had a slightly spicy kick, balanced nicely by the sweetness of the agave. The prosecco added complexity and gave it more texture than your average margarita.
For dinner I went with that evening’s special – crispy fried chicken skins with mango mojo and spicy guacamole. If you’re anything like me, you just read that and saw “crispy fried chicken,” then started wondering what “mango mojo” was, and then got excited about the spicy guacamole – skipping right over “skins.”
They were exactly what the name said they were – as in, roasted chicken skin, breaded and deep fried.
You know what? Hats off to whoever came up with this, whether it was Brian Poe himself or someone in his employ. Clever and absolutely delicious. It may not have been the healthiest thing I’ve consumed all year, but it was totally among the most delicious. If you’d put another plate of them in front of me when I was done, I’d have devoured them all over again, right before my heart stopped.
This particular visit to the Rattlesnake took place week or so after the Boston Marathon bombing. Thus, it was with mixed feelings that I closed out with a limited edition “26.2,” brewed by Sam Adams in advance of the marathon.
This “gose” beer was refreshing and citrusy, and probably the sort of thing you’d appreciate after running a marathon. But there was a certain wistfulness in drinking a beer that was made in anticipation of Boston’s signature event, with all the expectancy of it being a glorious day, only to have it end in tragedy. On that note, though, I recently read a story about some loyal patrons who were evacuated from the Rattlesnake when the bombs went off, but came back when it reopened a few days later to pay their tabs. Just another reminder that the good people in this world far outnumber the bad.
I wrote a piece about the Rattlesnake’s roof deck last summer, so I won’t focus too much on it here. Still, it warrants a mention.
One of the only rooftop bars in the Back Bay, the Rattlesnake roof deck draws a strong after-work crowd and can fill up quickly on the weekends. In addition to about 15 tables, the roof deck has its own bar, which makes it ideal for an outdoor drink when you’ve been cooped up in the office all day. The beer selection is not nearly as expansive as it is downstairs, but I suppose drinking on a roof deck in the summer calls for something fruity and refreshing, like a glass of sangria or the Thai mojito, made with coconut rum, lemongrass syrup, and muddled lime.
The atmosphere on the rooftop is just as casual and laid-back as it is downstairs. It’s been spruced up a bit and gotten a paint job in recent years, but for the most part, it’s the same basic, unadorned roof deck it always was. But that’s one thing about the Rattlesnake that probably never has to change. In a city that endures some pretty rough winters, it’s hard to improve upon the simple act of enjoying a drink in the warm weather.
In the wake of such dramatic upheaval in the kitchen, it’s interesting to note what didn’t change at the Rattlesnake. Namely, everything else. A new chef and a bold, innovative menu could have brought a jarring new attitude, an entirely different look and feel. Instead, the Rattlesnake retains much of the identity that preceded the extreme makeover of its menu.
It lacks the snazzy décor of newer cocktail bars, with their modern style or their throwback themes. But the margaritas have survived martinis and mojitos and will probably make it through the craft cocktail phase unscathed. The roof deck will forever be a draw.
The enhanced menu may have resulted in some enhanced prices, but they aren’t exorbitant (especially for good food in the Back Bay). My wild boar burrito was $15.75, which makes it the most expensive burrito I’ve ever had – yet also the only one made with boar meat. Beers are about $6.50, and margaritas range from $8 to $12, or $16 if you think you’re up to the Ghost Chili Challenge.
Back in the day, the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill was a fun place to end your night. That hasn’t changed. But with one of the more creative and satisfying menus in the area, Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake is also a good place to start your evening.
Address: 384 Boylston Street, Boston
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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.