One for the Road – Green Russell

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I recently had the good fortune to travel to Colorado, my first-ever trip to the Centennial State. I spent some time in Estes Park, a resort-like town about 70 miles northwest of Denver that serves as the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’ve never been, take it from me – the scenery there is absolutely breathtaking.

Wherever you are, and whichever way you turn, the majestic peaks of the Rockies are on your immediate horizon. And when you’re exploring the mountains themselves, either by car or on foot, the experience is truly fulfilling. My very soul felt somehow renewed by gazing at the stunning vistas and breathing that crisp Rocky Mountain air.

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It would far exceed my writing or photography skills to faithfully convey the essence of that experience, so I’ll stick with what I’m reasonably good at. After a few days in Estes Park, I traveled to Denver. Now, Colorado is a beer state, widely known and renowned for its concentration of breweries. But its capital city also boasts a pretty impressive cocktail scene. A growing number of Denver bars have won national acclaim for their innovative approaches to mixology. One, Williams & Graham, was even named Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.

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With so many choices and so little time, I relied on a friend’s advice and opted to check out Green Russell, a subterranean, speakeasy-style bar in the heart of historic Larimer Square. As with many modern speakeasies, finding Green Russell means knowing where to look. At first, the bar appears to be clearly marked, with a sign above a flight of stairs leading below ground level. You walk in, see a pretty conventional-looking bar to your right, and think, “Well that wasn’t so hard to find.” But not so fast! That’s the bar of Russell’s Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant.

So, if you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the place, you’ll awkwardly amble over to the hostess and say, “Yeah, I’m looking for the bar? Uh, not that bar, but I guess there’s another, uh...bar…” at which point she’ll mercifully put an end to your blather and ask you for your name and the number of people in your party. After a few minutes (10 minutes in my case, since the bar hadn’t opened yet, which only added to the awkwardness; and I’ll tell you, nothing makes you feel more like an alcoholic than standing outside a bar by yourself, waiting for it to open), someone leads you beyond a pair of service doors that give you the impression of sneaking into the kitchen of a bakery. Past the doors is no bakery, though, but a dark room that looks like a partially finished basement with a fancy bar set up in it. In other words, like a speakeasy.

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But unlike so many bars that try to capture the look and feel of a 20s-era illicit watering hole, Green Russell’s speakeasy character has genuine historical roots – the space actually did serve as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It certainly looks the part, with its rough-hewn stone walls, wooden posts, dim lighting, and vintage fixtures.

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But as the bartender explained to me, Green Russell calls itself a pre-Prohibition bar, focusing on classic drinks and techniques that were in vogue before the so-called Noble Experiment. Think fresh, house-made ingredients and hand-chipped ice.

Further, the emphasis here is less on secrecy and more about fostering a comfortable drinking experience, with the cocktail appropriately at the center. The small space can be busy, but not jam-packed – you’re admitted to the bar only when your whole party can be seated. Enjoy talking on your phone while you’re at a bar? There’s a phone booth for that. And if you truly don’t know how to comport yourself in a modern cocktail lounge, there’s a sign at the door offering a few helpful suggestions.

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Overall, Green Russell is built around the experience of enjoying a well-crafted cocktail, and my own experience was outstanding. Maybe it’s because I was there early on a weeknight, or because I was alone, but I got such individualized attention that my bartender, Heather, seemed more like a guide – offering suggestions, answering questions, and making conversation.

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At the heart of this “chef-driven cocktail joint” is a dynamic, highly contemporary beverage program that features a dozen seasonal offerings, several barrel-aged cocktails, and a “bartender’s choice” option, if you’re willing to put your faith in your bartender. (Note: The drinks in this story were part of Green Russell’s summer menu; I assume the fall offerings are what you’ll find now.)

At Heather’s suggestion, I began with the Castle Black, inspired by the ancient, beleaguered center of defense against supernatural predators in the Game of Thrones series. This vibrant drink combined two brands of 10-year-old scotch – Glen Grant and Laphroaig – along with Amaro Lucano, black pepper, and citrus bitters. The pepper served to intensify the smokiness of the scotch, and despite the gloomy name, the citrus gave the drink an overall sense of brightness.

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Normally at this point I’d explore the menu a little further, but since Heather’s first recommendation was so good, I opted for the bartender’s choice. I expressed a preference for bourbon, and she responded with a creative variation on a Manhattan. Combining Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon, Amaro CioCiaro, maraschino liqueur, and angostura bitters, the drink had a bold, deep sweetness with distinct orange notes from the amaro. The maraschino liqueur added a little dryness and bitterness.

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Since I’m a sucker for good gin and bad puns, my next choice was the Mousse with the Fir, a mix of St. George’s excellent Terroir gin, Pampelmousse grapefruit liqueur, black pepper, lemon, and mint. This sour, invigorating cocktail had a complex but well-balanced blend of herbs and botanicals, with just a hint of sweetness. (I appreciated the clever name but was unhappily stuck with that “boots with the fur” song in my head for the remainder of the weekend.)

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Green Russell’s food program largely comprises bar snacks that are equal parts inventive, upscale, and playful, such as candied spiced nuts, brisket sliders, and pigs in a blanket. The emphasis is on shareable dishes, but most are substantial enough to serve as full serving. I went with the delicious charred octopus, served with hush puppies, smoked aioli, and a spicy chorizo salsa verde.

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For my final drink of the evening, I again deferred to Heather’s judgment. Deciding that I needed a rum drink to complete the equation, Heather consulted some of her personal notes before whipping up a doozy. Made with Appleton dark rum, silver rum, maraschino liqueur, and Cocchi Americano vermouth, this potent cocktail balanced strong sweet and herbal notes, ending with a surprisingly smooth finish that lingered on the palate. It was a thoughtful combination of ingredients and a satisfying (if boozy) conclusion to the evening.

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It’s easy to get carried away with the speakeasy theme, and some bars allow novelty to trump substance. The ones that get it right, like Green Russell, use the motif as a means to elevate the cocktail experience. The focus here is on creative drinks and a talented, attentive bar staff – not passwords and gimmickry. And if that means standing outside those nondescript kitchen doors for a little while, chances are your patience will be rewarded.

Address: 1422 Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado

Website:http://www.greenrussell.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Papa Razzi Metro

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I'm sorry to say that Papa Razzi Metro closed in October 2016.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you’ve probably noticed that I avoid writing about chain restaurants. That’s not to say that I never go to a chain restaurant, or that I always have a subpar experience when I do. But very rarely do I have an excellent experience at one. And that’s no surprise, because most chains aren’t striving for excellence – their goal is predictability. The corporate muckety-mucks of chain restaurants want to ensure that your favorite meal or beverage is available every time you come in, that it’s just as you remember it, and that if you’re ever visiting another restaurant in the chain, you can count on finding it there, as well. All of that would be well and good if it didn’t so frequently translate into mediocrity. But that’s inevitable when you’re offering a menu with the broadest possible appeal and trying to ensure an identical dining experience in dozens or even hundreds of restaurants. There’s little room for spontaneity or improvisation. Market data is privileged over innovation or fresh ideas, and individual creativity takes a back seat to heavily vetted research.

Applying those same principles to a beverage program seems incredibly dull – particularly in an age when cocktails have enjoyed such a spectacular renaissance. And what I find even more satisfying than a well-crafted drink is the experience that goes along with it. I love it when a bartender introduces me to a new spirit or brand, something they’re personally excited about. I appreciate the opportunity to learn why a particular cocktail tastes the way it does. I especially enjoy feeling like a bartender is genuinely invested in what they’re doing – knowledgeable of their craft, enthusiastic about their drinks, and interested in making sure I am, too.

That’s simply not a level of engagement I expect to find at the bar of a chain restaurant. And thus it was with an open mind but a hearty sense of skepticism that I agreed to write about Papa Razzi Metro.

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Papa Razzi is a familiar name to many New Englanders. The regional chain has been offering decent Italian fare since 1989 in an atmosphere that’s upscale but affordable. But when the Rhode Island-based Newport Restaurant Group took over a few years ago, they decided it was time to refresh the Papa Razzi brand – a new food menu and beverage program, a whole new look, and the addition of “Metro” to the name.

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Burlington’s Papa Razzi Metro is the first of the chain to undergo a complete renovation. The appearance is more modern and sleek, with a long, curvy marble bar and red leather sofas, but also aims for a traditional look with its hardwood floor and old-school lamps along the bar.

But what might be more jarring to longtime Papa Razzi diners is the revamped menu. Heavy dishes in red sauce are scaled back in favor of small plates designed for sharing. Certified Neapolitan pizzas are made in an oven shipped over from Italy that reaches a temperature of 900 degrees and cooks the pizza in a mere 90 seconds.

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Traditional favorites like calamari are jazzed up with Maine shrimp misto, flash-fried zucchini, and a spicy peppadew aioli.

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Fall-apart tender and bursting with flavor, beef and sausage meatballs are elegantly presented with slices of grilled bread.

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A selection of salumi boards is available, like this one featuring speck, gorgonzola, apricot jam, and almonds.

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Vestiges of the previous menu remain, but Papa Razzi’s objective seems clear – appeal to a younger generation of diners, particularly those moving from the city to the suburbs, and push longtime customers out of their comfort zone without completely alienating them.

And that brings us to the beverage program, which, along with the menu and the space, got a makeover of its own. While wine may be the traditional accompaniment to an Italian meal, Papa Razzi Metro now offers a menu of craft cocktails. On the surface, that might look like a typical chain move – chasing a trend, long after it’s become one, and adapting it for a suburban audience. But a conversation with beverage director Shawn Westhoven convinced me otherwise.

“I want nothing to do with being the beverage director of a chain,” he says, which may seem like a curious remark coming from someone who is exactly that. But as Shawn explains how a chain beverage program is run, and how Papa Razzi runs theirs, it becomes clear that Newport Restaurant Group wisely gave him latitude to create a bar with an independent spirit that doesn’t slavishly adhere to the conventional best practices of a chain restaurant.

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“We go the opposite way from a chain,” he says of Papa Razzi’s evolving beverage program. “The way that a chain has to make decisions, they look at data, and they see what’s trending; and then that’s what they do, because they’re trying to appeal to what guests are asking for. They have to try to line up what’s in their inventory with what the most number of people are going to want. And I want to have the stuff that I want to have.”

What Shawn wants most of all is for customers to have an experience at Papa Razzi bar that they won’t have at another chain restaurant. Indeed, many of the trappings of a chain cocktail menu are absent. In place of cheap, processed mixers are fresh juices and house-made syrups. Where you’d ordinarily see 15 bottles of artificially flavored vodka, you’ll find small-batch spirits from local producers like GrandTen, Bully Boy, and Privateer. And instead of faux martinis and sweet, colorful drinks, the cocktail list is populated with classics and originals, many featuring herbal liqeurs like amaros and vermouths.

The Negroni, made with GrandTen Wireworks gin, Campari, and Carpono Antico vermouth, is a true standout.

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“We dial back the Campari, which is the bitter, quite a bit, and ratchet it up with the vermouth, which is the sweet,” Shawn explains. “A classic Negroni is much more bitter. But the gin is so good, we can’t have too much Campari in there.” The result is an approachable Negroni for someone who’s new to the drink, which can be an acquired taste.

The Negroni’s predecessor, the Americano, is crisp and bitter, combining Contratto Americano vermouth, Campari, and soda.

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For those who aren’t ready for a bitter cocktail, the Italian Greyhound is made with Bully Boy vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit. I’ve always found the Greyhound to be a fairly boring drink, but the fresh grapefruit elevates Papa Razzi’s version.

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So how do customers in a suburban market respond cocktails like that? “With hesitation,” Shawn admits. “Until you get it in their hands.”

The best way to get an unfamiliar drink into a customer’s hands is to have bartenders who are talented, engaged, and willing to encourage their guests to branch out a bit. At Papa Razzi, that starts with inviting bartenders to contribute to the cocktail program. Half of the drink list is devoted to rotating cocktails that are devised by bartenders throughout the chain. Several times a year, Shawn sends out an email that gives the bar staff some general parameters to follow – seasonal ingredients to consider, trends to follow or avoid, spirits he wants customers to start drinking – and gets back a hundred or so recipes that he narrows down.

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“I don’t have a team of hotshot bartenders like an independent place from Cambridge would have,” he acknowledges. “But we have people who have an interest in this, and they’re willing to work at it; I want to foster that.”

By encouraging staff to contribute drink ideas, the bartenders get acquainted with different products and styles, gain a better understanding of how to create a balanced drink, and have a personal stake in the menu.

The Goliardico, made with Hendrick’s gin, elderflower liqueur, and fresh grapefruit juice, is one contribution. The floral elderflower is a natural companion to Hendrick’s, with its notes of cucumber and rose petals, and the fresh grapefruit adds a vibrant, sour punch.

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The Tempo Triplo is another. Combining three vermouths and orange bitters, it demonstrates Shawn’s desire to get his staff familiar with a particular spirit and then introduce it to customers. “The reason for this cocktail is to get our guests to taste and enjoy vermouth,” he says. “Most people want to leave vermouth out of the drink; they have this idea that it’s a bad thing. But they’re delicious. You can have a cocktail made just with vermouths and it’s awesome.”

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It may take patience and persistence, but it’s an approach that’s bearing fruit. One of Shawn’s additions to the beverage program is a selection of four Italian craft beers, each of which sells for about $9. That’s a lot to pay for a beer, even in the city; but remarkably, the four beers (together) are now outselling Bud Light.

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As our conversation winds down, we turn to the after-dinner drinks, where one of Italy’s most popular liqueurs awaits. In principle, limoncello is fairly simple – lemon zest is steeped in a neutral spirit that draws out the oils, and the resulting liquid is mixed with simple syrup. But it’s notoriously difficult to perfect, and Shawn’s insistence on offering a house-made version led him to months of experimentation, with discouraging results. Finally he asked whether anyone at Papa Razzi knew of a good recipe, and a general manager from the Burlington restaurant had one from about 8 years prior. It worked like a charm. Made with organic lemons, this vibrant house limoncello practically leaps from the glass, like someone squeezing a lemon right in front of you.

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Also available is an unusual variation – “figcello” follows a similar formula but uses figs instead of lemons. It wasn’t available the night I was there, so I asked Shawn to recommend a different dessert cocktail. His suggestion caught me off-guard: the Café Mocha Menta Panna is hot chocolate with Fernet Branca and mint cream. I was wary; I’m not a big fan of Fernet, nor do I ordinarily drink hot chocolate on a broiling July night.

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But I trusted my host and was glad I did. Neither too bitter nor too sweet, this satisfying drink tasted like a cup of minty dark chocolate. And Shawn seemed genuinely pleased to note that he’d managed to push me out of my comfort zone – which he tries to do with so many customers.

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“No one’s ever going to walk in here and ask for an amaro,” Shawn acknowledges. “But I say, let’s put some amaros on the menu and introduce them to the guests.”

Just letting people know they’re available – and if necessary, explaining what they are – is a start.

“We’re always trying to find ways to say, 'your life is pretty great: you came into Papa Razzi and you know you’re going to have great Italian food, but I’m going to give you one thing tonight that’s going to be special. It’s going to be this craft beer, this vermouth cocktail, whatever'; and people love that. And I love it,” he says.

“And that’s how I try to keep us separated from the idea of a chain restaurant.”

Address: 2 Wall Street, Burlington

Website:http://paparazzimetro.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Committee

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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.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Then there’s olive salad, which I suppose is good if you like olives. I do not. Moving on.

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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.

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Keftedakia are Greek-style meatballs served with tzatziki. These bad boys are wonderfully spiced and fall-apart tender.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Website:http://www.committeeboston.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Menotomy Grill & Tavern

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When you think about the early battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War, towns like Lexington and Concord quickly spring to mind. You never hear much about Arlington. That might be, in part, because Arlington wasn’t called Arlington back then – it went by the name Menotomy, an Algonquin word meaning “swift running water.” But Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride from Boston to Concord took him straight through Menotomy, and British and American blood was most certainly spilled on the streets of the town we now know as Arlington. You tend to pick up little nuggets like that during a visit to Menotomy Grill & Tavern.

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Arlington’s Menotomy Grill celebrated its two-year anniversary earlier this summer, but if you tell owner Billy Lyons that his restaurant looks a lot older than it is, he’ll probably take it as a compliment. Lyons is a lifelong Arlington resident and a history buff with a particular affection for the American Revolution; once in a great while, you might even see him decked out in Minute Man garb.

His restaurant reflects his passion. Paying homage to the town’s history, Menotomy Grill’s décor recalls the character of an 18th century American tavern.

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Brick walls, hardwood flooring, and an exposed ceiling give the space a simple, functional look, while a tall stone fireplace, antique-style chandeliers, and candle-lit tables contribute a sense of warmth. Reproductions of old town maps and the official flag of Menotomy adorn the walls.

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Iron lanterns resting on fixtures add a historical touch; you can almost picture rebels huddled around flickering candlelight, sipping ale and fomenting revolution.

Of course, they probably never had a bar as nice as this one. A large, wraparound bar is surrounded by 24 comfortable seats, and cozy booths round out the bar area.

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And speaking of ale, Menotomy boasts an impressive selection of microbrews that changes on a near-weekly basis. There’s plenty of New England fare among the 20 draft offerings, including Slumbrew, Downeast, and Peak Organic. Wormtown Be Hoppy, brewed in Worcester, has distinct notes of grapefruit, and is just as hoppy as its name implies.

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The spirit selection is expansive as well, and that’s not something to take for granted. It was only in recent years that Arlington, long a dry town, shrugged off some of its more arcane liquor laws and allowed restaurants like Menotomy to pour more than just beer and wine. Freed from such restrictions, Menotomy’s cocktail program is modern, inventive, and diverse. Bar staff are encouraged to contribute drink recipes, and the broad spirit assortment features offerings from Massachusetts distillers such as GrandTen, Privateer, and Berkshire Mountain Distillers.

The New Old Fashioned is a smart twist on the most classic of cocktails, combining Maker’s 46 bourbon, muddled Luxardo cherry, orange, brown sugar, and rhubarb bitters. It’s a bit sweeter than a traditional Old Fashioned, but the rhubarb bitters give it an earthy touch. This is an excellent cocktail.

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The Menotomy Sunset is an original drink created by one of the bartenders. This mix of Milagro silver tequila, Aperol, agave, and lime has shades of a margarita, but the Aperol gives it an unexpected herbal bitterness and – true to its name – a warm, orange hue.

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So it Goes, meanwhile, is crisp, floral, and dry. Made with Berkshire Greylock gin, lavender simple syrup, and lemon, it’s a simple, refreshing cocktail with a lot of flavor.

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And have no fear – rosé, the most fashionable of wines at the moment, is available too.

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Overall, Menotomy’s beverage program is thoughtfully balanced. While the beer selection leans heavily toward popular microbrews (definitely not a bad thing), the cocktails are as modern as they are accessible. That’s a smart move – given Arlington’s location, the bar draws customers from Cambridge and Somerville who may be accustomed to the latest trends in mixology, along with guests from farther-out suburbs who might be nonplussed by, say, a bone-marrow-fat-washed scotch.

Menotomy’s food program takes a similar approach. Chef Mark Thompson, who’s previously worked as a chef at Stoddard’s and the defunct Chez Henri, has authored a dynamic menu that is both creative and approachable. Upscale but reliable pub fare is served alongside daily specials that allow Thompson and his kitchen to flex their culinary muscles. The taco of the day always offers some surprises, like the combination of braised beef, purple potatoes, quinoa, and shaved radish that was available during my first visit. Topped with a spicy ají sauce, these bad boys were peppery and vibrant.

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Brussels sprouts with bacon and mustard are available as a side dish, but their ample serving size makes them perfect for sharing with the table. The mustard adds a little pungency, and what vegetable dish is not elevated by bacon?

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There’s no bacon in the chef’s vegetarian tasting, but it’s artfully presented and offers a mix of seasonal veggies, like orange glazed beets (which might make me rethink my aversion to beets), yucca rosti, and grilled green onions, served with gingered quinoa pilaf. The crispy yucca patty steals the show.

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One of the true highlights of the menu is the seared mahi mahi. This generous portion of tender fish in a crunchy coating is served on a bed of coconut scallion rice with vanilla-scented pineapple and crispy plantain. A habañero vinaigrette provides a distinct kick, but the sweeter notes from the fruit serve to complement the heat. There are plenty of unique flavors on this plate, but they work in concert – no individual component stands out or, worse, gets lost. At one point I wasn’t even hungry anymore but just kept eating.

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Which is not to say that I couldn’t manage to force down some dessert. Menotomy’s pastry chef creates a rotating array of mouthwatering treats and confections, like the orange creamsicle bomb. With a name like that, I was expecting something heavy and decadent, and was surprised to find that this mix of ice cream, orange, and a graham cracker crust was simple and light.

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And yes, it did sort of taste like an orange creamsicle. Elegantly presented, it made for a sweet conclusion to a summer evening.

Last Call

Arlington’s always had its share of culinary treasures. It’s short on chains and long on independently owned restaurants. But Menotomy Grill & Tavern is the only place I know of that embraces so many of the culinary and beverage trends that characterize the bar and restaurant scene in Boston and Cambridge. They have their finger generally on the pulse of what’s popular in the city, but they’re not just mimicking that. Their approach is fresh, authentic, and tailored to a diverse customer base. And the enthusiasm of the staff, from owner Billy Lyons on down, seems entirely genuine.

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Oh, and one more thing. As I mentioned earlier, chef Mark Thompson previously worked in the kitchen of Chez Henri, the popular French-Cuban restaurant that closed in 2013 after a 19-year run just outside Harvard Square. While Chez Henri’s inventive, high-end cuisine garnered widespread acclaim, it was the Cuban sandwich, available only at the bar, that won the restaurant such a fervent local following. That sandwich was absolutely amazing, and ever since Chez Henri closed its doors, countless fans (myself included) have mourned its loss.

Well, good news – chef Thompson made more than his share of those sandwiches during his time at Chez Henri, and he hasn’t forgotten the recipe. The Cubano isn’t on the regular menu at Menotomy Grill, but it does appear as an occasional special.

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I was fortunate to get one on a return visit to Menotomy, and it was just as divine as I remembered – house-roasted pork loin, cheese, ham, spicy aioli, and pickles on buttered, grilled, crunchy bread. I haven’t laid eyes on this beauty in far too long, and yet with just one taste, the lost time melted away and I fell in love all over again.

Address: 25 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington

Website:http://www.menotomygrill.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

One for the Road – Taverne Midway

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As anyone who lives or works in an older city can attest, gentrification can be something of a mixed blessing. There’s no denying the benefits that accompany the revitalization of a neighborhood gone to seed, so to speak. The convenience and glow of new infrastructure, the excitement of modern businesses opening their doors, and the influx of new residents with cash to burn all contribute to the restarting of an economic engine, making a once-avoided neighborhood a destination for locals and tourists alike. Then again, if you already call that neighborhood home, a reboot might mean heartache. Gentrification inevitably displaces longtime residents and small businesses, either because they’re physically in the way of new construction or can’t keep up with rising rents. The process often disrupts traditionally ethnic enclaves and alters the character of a given neighborhood. It’s a difficult, painful balance to strike – how do you clean up a region of a city without scrubbing out its culture?

Montreal is no stranger to this issue. Over the past 10 years or so, the downtown area now known as the Quartier des Spectacles has emerged as the epicenter of the city’s annual summer festivals and year-round performances.

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Stretching nearly one square kilometer, this central location has been transformed by public real estate and construction projects into a polished, pedestrian-friendly hub that’s inviting, spacious, and comfortable. As an annual attendee of the Montreal Jazz Festival, I can’t exactly criticize the results.

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But the ongoing initiative has encountered its share of resistance – particularly from the remnants of Montreal’s red light district. Once populated by a slew of shabby bars, strip clubs, and prostitutes, the portion of Boulevard Saint-Laurent that overlaps with the Quartier des Spectacles has long been home to an element that isn’t exactly consistent with the sparkling vision promoted by city planners.

But that’s just the problem – you can’t expect corporate real estate executives to distinguish between a decrepit tavern and a humble but cherished local landmark. Like the venerable Montreal Pool Room. Established in 1912, this divey restaurant hasn’t actually had pool tables for years but is beloved for its steamed hot dogs and poutine. The business butted heads with developers before agreeing to move across the street in 2010.

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Café Cleopatra, meanwhile, remains in the same spot it’s stood since 1976, despite many spirited attempts to close it down. At first glance, this dated, seedy looking strip club might not seem worthy of preservation.

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But it isn’t your typical den of iniquity – while Cleopatra’s ground-level floor is occupied by a traditional strip club, the upstairs is home to drag queen and transsexual shows. None of this is my particular cup of tea and may not be yours either, but a business that welcomes such a disparity of clienteles is unheard of. Western culture is only at the dawn of widespread transgender acceptance, and yet this club has coexisted above a bastion of male heterosexuality for decades. Whether that should bestow upon Cafe Cleopatra any special privilege as the neighborhood evolves is not for me to say. But it’s a reminder that a building is more than its façade, and that an institution deemed out of place by an ambitious urban planner might be a sanctuary for people who don’t feel welcome elsewhere.

Situated across the street from Cleo’s and adjacent to the Montreal Pool Room, Taverne Midway has a long, colorful history of its own. It’s resided on Boulevard Saint-Laurent since 1927, though its sharp, modern exterior belies its age. The bar presumably had its heyday, but for much of its long existence, Midway blended right in with the other nondescript, faded storefronts nearby. It was a dive you might walk right past, if you happened to be walking in that area at all.

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“It wasn’t exactly a cocktail bar,” one of the bartenders tells me, diplomatically. Well, it is now.

Under new ownership, last year Midway reopened its doors after the completion of a dramatic makeover. It’s a new bar with an old name – and in many respects, an old soul.

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Despite the facelift, Midway’s décor remains simple and understated, with wooden fixtures and exposed brick giving the space a timeless appearance. A long bar is surrounded by about 20 wooden stools, and the shelving behind is made to look like brass or copper pipes.

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Cage lighting emanates from pipes affixed to the walls, casting a dim glow throughout the spacious room. Spread along the wooden surface of the bar are fresh ingredients, various bitters, vintage bar tools, and large jars of pickles and pickled eggs that recall the bar snacks of a bygone era.

Best of all, Midway’s cocktail program is devoted to the sort of drinks the bar may have served back when it first opened its doors nearly nine decades ago. The menu, organized by type of spirit, is heavy on the classics – Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, Americanos, you name it ­– and each is made with the care and precision that define contemporary mixology.

As timeless cocktails go, it’s tough to top the Manhattan. Midway’s version plays it by the book but still manages to surprise. It’s made with Canadian Club 12-year whisky, which I didn’t even know existed. I’ve had Canadian Club’s flagship offering plenty of times, but this version, aged six additional years, is rich, complex, and well suited to a Manhattan. For a garnish, the bartender recommended that I opt for an orange peel instead of a cherry, and the citrusy zest brought out some of the spicy and fruity notes in the whisky.

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While a Manhattan is pleasant under any conditions, I chose the rest of my drinks with an eye toward cooling off on a hot July night in Montreal. Midway’s Mai Tai is faithful to the Trader Vic original, with Bacardi Superior rum, Brugal Añejo, orgeat syrup, lime juice, and hand-crushed ice. Refreshing but not too sweet, a sprig of mint adds a fresh aroma to every sip.

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The Paloma is something I don’t see often enough on drink menus, and I was excited to revisit this sour, fruity classic. Made with tequila, Campari, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and agave syrup, and garnished with an impressive grapefruit wedge, it’s crisp and invigorating.

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Midway’s Caipirina is made with Leblon cachaça, simple syrup, and lime juice, and poured over hand-crushed ice. Cachaça is earthier than its more popular cousin, rum, and this traditional Brazilian cocktail is ideal for a hot summer night.

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My final choice was a drink I’ve never seen on a menu at an actual cocktail bar. The Long Island Iced Tea is one of those drinks that has something of a dark aura surrounding it. With its reputation of essentially being a hyperspace jump to a state of astonishing drunkenness, the potent libation tends to appeal mostly to college-age drinkers who value quantity over quality when it comes to their booze. Of the Long Islands I’ve personally consumed, none have ever been made the same way, and most of them have tasted like crap (not to mention their lack of any resemblance, in color or in flavor, to iced tea, unless Long Islanders have a very different conception of the summertime beverage). Honestly, I figured there was no common recipe for the drink and that it involved little more than dumping a bunch of low-quality spirits into a glass and topping it with a splash of Coke.

Not so, Midway’s bartender told me, as he assured me it should be counted among the classics. Well…I was on vacation. So I watched as a parade of liquors – vodka, rum, gin, and Cointreau – got poured into a tall glass, along with orange juice, simple syrup, and of course that critical splash of Coke. And you know, it was pretty good!

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Boozy but respectable, I think I even detected something resembling the flavor of tea. Whether it was the use of quality spirits, or an artful, professional approach to making the cocktail, or some combination of those factors, Midway’s Long Island Iced Tea is bright, smooth, and surprisingly drinkable.

Now granted, I don’t remember anything that happened after I finished it…

Last Call

Taverne Midway links this Montreal neighborhood’s colorful past with its inevitably gentrified future. More than that, it presents an example of how a sense of tradition might be preserved while the city around it evolves. As far as I can tell, this bar has been at the same address since before the Great Depression and has always been called Midway. With a contemporary cocktail program based on the classics, the bar’s future looks bright. Patrons of the earlier, scruffier iteration may not be thrilled about the new look and the trendy $12 cocktails, but I think it’s preferable to a condo or an office building.

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And on that note, here’s hoping Montreal finds a way to keep improving its beautiful Quartier des Spectacles without totally eradicating its character. Maybe not every business in the area is on point with the larger message, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a place in the city’s growth. And a little grit doesn’t spoil the grandeur.

Address: 1219 Boulevard St-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Website:http://tavernemidway.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Grand Opening of Committee

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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.

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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.

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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.

Not quite as dramatic as it looks. Just one of my more amusing failed attempts to capture the flaming orange peel garnish.

Not quite as dramatic as it looks. Just one of my more amusing failed attempts to capture the flaming orange peel garnish.

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The Bitter Mendez, made with Milagro tequila, pineapple juice, fresh lime, and celery bitters.

The Bitter Mendez, made with Milagro tequila, pineapple juice, fresh lime, and celery bitters.

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Pins and Needles.

Pins and Needles.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

Gergely Szabo whips up a couple of Blood Orange Old Fashioneds.

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Committee – A Preview

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The American flag cap is a nice touch.

The American flag cap is a nice touch.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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 Collage

Committee Collage

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.

One for the Road – Pangea Lounge

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Craft cocktails are by no means new to Florida, but the popularity of bars devoted to serving innovative drinks with fresh ingredients and small-batch spirits has been somewhat slow to develop. Modern cocktail lounges are sparsely distributed throughout the state but generally confined to cosmopolitan cities like Miami. Bars serving light beer and neon-hued, slushy rum drinks seem to vastly outnumber those that are up on the latest cocktail trends. I suppose it makes sense. Manhattans probably aren’t big sellers at beachside bars, and given the scope of Florida’s tourist industry, catering to an audience that favors quantity over quality is just smart business. But that’s not to say that Floridians are cool to the latest cocktail trends; you just have to look a little harder to find a bar that specializes in them. And in the case of Pangea Lounge, you might have to look really hard.

One of a handful of cocktail bars in Sarasota, Pangea Lounge embodies all the best characteristics of a speakeasy (like a hidden entrance and a sense of novelty) and none of the worst (like toxic liquor and the possibility of arrest). To get inside, you enter the Monkey Business sandwich shop and walk to the back of the room, past the counter.

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Right when you expect someone to reprimand you for stumbling into the kitchen, you’ll discover a pair of black curtains, beyond which is a spartan but stylish two-room space that looks like it was built in the sandwich shop’s storage area. Just beyond a dining area is a small, six-seat bar with circular shelving behind it. Bottles lying unevenly upon the shelves give it a deliberately makeshift appearance.

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With its unfinished concrete floor, low lighting, and dark blue walls, Pangea captures the look and feel of a bar that prefers to fly under the radar. While the speakeasy trend may have played itself out a bit in other parts of the country, here it still feels fresh and fun.

The cocktail program, meanwhile, embraces some contemporary mixology practices with its original concoctions and clever ingredient choices. Bartender Brad Coburn, who took care of my brother and sister-in-law (both of whom are new to Sarasota) and me when we visited last week, has won a number of regional cocktail competitions and been involved with national cocktail events as well. It’s fair to assume that he’s picked up a few ideas along the way.

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One of those, which I wish we could have here in Boston, is the practice of pouring your guests a complimentary glass of punch when they arrive. It sets a casual, welcoming tone, and it’s nice to have something to sip and chat about while perusing the drink list.

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The drinks are grouped by character in categories such as “Rich & Calming,” “Fruity & Exciting,” and “Tart & Invigorating,” and the cocktails live up to their descriptions. The Great Scot combines Great King Street scotch, Fruitlab hibiscus liqueur, fresh lime, tangerine syrup, and beet water, and is topped with a hibiscus foam. Although I have long disdained beets, I’ll admit the drink was balanced and complex, with a soft, floral sweetness from the hibiscus foam.

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The Chupacabra – Spanish for “goat sucker” – is named after a spiny, reptilian creature that is alleged to attack goats under the cover of night and drain them of their blood. First spotted in Puerto Rico but reportedly sighted throughout the world, the creepy chupacabra is largely dismissed as legend…but its existence hasn’t been completely disproved. The cocktail of the same name is far less terrifying. Made with pisco, habañero honey, fresh lemon, watermelon water, and – for the chupacabra in all of us – a goat cheese garnish, there’s a lot going on in this one. The big glob of goat cheese adds a funky essence to the proceedings.

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I personally wasn’t sold on the Chupacabra (by which I mean the drink; when it comes to the creature, I want to believe) until our deviled eggs showed up. Served on a bed of kale with a balsamic vinaigrette, the dressing was a perfect match for the goat cheese, giving the drink a different flavor profile. The bacon in the deviled eggs didn’t hurt, either.

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Speaking of eggs, this was my first experience with pickled eggs. Cured in vinegar and seasoned with spices like clove, these intriguing puppies make for an offbeat, tangy snack.

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Pangea doesn’t actually have a kitchen, but you can order this stuff from the neighboring restaurant Melange. They offer an eclectic menu (as evidenced by the pickled eggs), with plenty of late-night treats like krab rangoons. Aside from the enigmatic “k” spelling of crab, these dollops of deep-fried cream cheese are faithful to that celebrated but completely inauthentic staple of Americanized Polynesian cuisine. A guava habañero dipping sauce adds a spicy bite.

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Inspired perhaps by the rangoons, my next choice was a Mai Tai. It wasn’t on the menu, but Brad seemed happy to whip one up, even giving me a choice of the Trader Vic Mai Tai version or the Don the Beachcomber version. I opted for the former, with aged rum, orange curaçao, fresh lime, orgeat, and simple syrup. Fruity but not too sweet, it’s a tribute to the original recipe.

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Similarly, the Old Fashioned is made exactly as it should be. No graveyard of pulverized fruit or unnecessary soda water, Brad’s version combines Redemption rye, simple syrup, and a lemon peel.

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Brad also offered to concoct something original if we didn’t see what we wanted on the menu, so my brother helpfully requested “something mojito-ish.” With only those vague instructions to work from, Brad mixed up a complex variation of the classic rum drink, swapping rum for whiskey and adding grapefruit, mint, demerara sugar, lime, sparkling wine, and angostura bitters. My brother deemed it “exceptional.”

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But for all the complex and creative drinks on Pangea’s menu, it was one of the simplest that truly won the three of us over. The Salty Sailor combines Papa’s Pilar blonde rum, fresh grapefruit juice, and falernum syrup. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s exploits in Florida and the Caribbean, Papa’s Pilar is a fantastic rum with a rich, creamy flavor; pairing it with the sour grapefruit and the sweet, spicy syrup makes for a wonderfully refreshing, tiki-style cocktail with depth and complexity.

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Served in a bowl-like glass coated with salt, which further enhances the flavors, it’s a simple drink that allows a few very basic ingredients to shine. And that’s the sort of thing that works as well in a sunny, beachside bar as it does in a clandestine speakeasy.

Address: 1564 Main Street, Sarasota, Florida

Website: http://pangealounge.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Puritan & Company

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When someone invokes Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage, it’s often in the context of annoyance or inconvenience. For many of us, Puritans are synonymous with blue laws, antiquated zoning regulations, and idiosyncratic rules about the sale and consumption of alcohol. Anytime we encounter a local or state ordinance that inhibits our freedom to engage in some pleasurable pursuit, we have a tendency to point our fingers at our stern, colonial-era forebears and their infamous zealotry. It may be unfair to blame the Puritans for the arbitrary vestiges of conservatism that infect our collective mind set, but make no mistake – these people were the enemies of fun. Theirs was a no-nonsense culture characterized by strict piety and a hearty intolerance of anything that didn’t accord with their religious principles. Puritan life was short on TGIF moments, since weekend festivities were prohibited. No such thing as Christmas cheer, either; the Puritans banned the popular holiday. Drinking in moderation got the Puritan stamp of approval, but drunkenness was harshly punished (I’m sure I’d spend half my days in the stocks). We won’t even get into the Salem witch trials.

The curtain closed on American Puritan culture about three centuries ago, and today stodginess and dogmatism are hardly the qualities that a restaurant or bar would wish to promote. Which makes “Puritan & Company” a curious choice of name for a contemporary eatery in Cambridge’s Inman Square.

Puritan & Company features classic American cuisine interpreted through a modern lens, with an emphasis on locally sourced and independent products. The restaurant’s moniker may evoke religious settlers and their rejection of pleasure, but its true roots are not quite so antiquated – the Puritan Cake Company, a full-service bakery, stood in this same location from the 1930s through the 1950s. Some of the bakery’s infrastructure remains; the ramp leading up from the front door was once used for wheeling baked goods down to delivery trucks parked outside on Cambridge Street.

And while the staff doesn’t dress in somber colors and won’t rebuke you for enjoying yourself, the restaurant does embrace some Puritan values. Just as extravagance was anathema to the Puritans, the eponymous restaurant thrives on a refreshing sense of simplicity.

The décor is one of an “urban farmhouse” – bright and modern, but unadorned. Skylights bathe the hardwood floor and exposed brick walls with natural light, giving the space a country-like, almost outdoorsy feel.

Vintage cabinetry and hanging lights encased in mason jars add to the historical complexion.

The main bar has a plain white surface and 12 comfortable chairs.

In the rear is a six-seat charcuterie bar, which saw a reboot in time for Puritan’s spring menu and now serves amaro flights in addition to fancy meats.

That sense of calculated reserve extends to Puritan’s cocktail program, starting with the unassuming glassware – drinks are served in either a very basic tumbler or a tall glass that looks a bit like a mason jar. Bartender Colin Kiley explains that the drink program has been evolving over the past year. When Puritan & Company first opened in 2012, their liquor license only allowed for beer and wine. The license was later expanded, but Colin admits that coming up with the drink menu at that point was like “repairing a car that someone’s driving.”

Wisely, they opted to keep things fairly simple and to create drinks that complemented the restaurant’s modest décor. Even the garnishes are understated, as is the case with the Up from the South cocktail. Combining Zucca mezcal, blood orange shrubb, pineapple-clove simple syrup, and lime juice, a malted salt “garnish” is simple but effective.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Colin says of the cocktail program. He’s playfully dismissive of offbeat ingredients (specifically mentioning kumquat) and favors a minimalist approach. “If it doesn’t need anything…” he says with a shrug, content to let quality ingredients and smart combinations do most of the work.

The Kingston Negroni stands as a representative example. A simple but thoughtful interpretation of the Negroni, it combines locally made Privateer rum, Aperol, and vermouth, with the sweetness of the rum balancing the bitter components.

Of the Paper Plane, Colin says “if [the drink list] were an album, this would be one of our covers.” Attributed to Sam Ross of Attaboy in New York, this mix of bourbon, Nonino amaro, and lemon juice is a straightforward cocktail in which each ingredient somehow brings out the most subtle notes of every other ingredient.

This interplay of flavors is not only central to Puritan’s cocktails but designed to interact with the food program. “We try to keep the drinks as food-friendly as possible,” Colin explains. “We’re a restaurant with a bar,” he says; not the other way around.

Puritan’s menu features dishes that would be familiar to any native New Englander, though even some of the most traditional recipes are transformed. The soft-shell crab isn’t blended into a typical crab cake but instead has a crispy exterior. Red jalapeño gribiche and succotash make for a sweet, spicy dish.

For those unfamiliar with Giannone chicken, it refers to a method of chilling fresh chicken using icy cold air instead of water. Pioneered by a farm north of Montreal, Quebec, the technique is said to inhibit bacteria and, ultimately, result in meat that is uniquely tender and moist. That’s certainly the case with Puritan’s Giannone chicken. Accompanied by artichoke, asparagus, and farro, the chicken is full of flavor and fork-tender beneath a crispy, buttery skin.

One item long absent from Puritan and Company’s menu was a burger. Which is not to say that a burger was unavailable. Debuting as a special and then retreating into the shadows as a “secret” item available to guests at the bar, Puritan’s patty melt has emerged from obscurity and can now be found on the bar and brunch menus. While many Boston-area burgers are lauded for their increasing complexity – think stuffed patties, unconventional toppings, buns infused with herbs or bacon – this rendition is like pure New England nostalgia on a plate.

Puritan’s patty melt is a generous slab of dry-aged ground beef served between two slices of grilled, house-made rye bread, with Swiss and American cheeses oozing out of the sides and a spicy homemade sauce on top. No sooner was it placed before me that I was reminded of the pan-fried burgers that my mom used to make back in our East Boston apartment when I was a kid. And while that may be a personal memory, the presentation is meant to conjure a certain wistfulness – as Colin notes, the patty melt recalls the sort of burger you’d get at a classic diner or a Friendly’s. Even the name is something of a throwback; how many people call it a patty melt these days?

Reinforcing the bar’s intent to design food-friendly drinks, Colin offered to make a cocktail that would pair well with this splendid burger. His variation of an East India Cocktail fit the bill. Made with Armagnac (a robust brandy that he referred to as “cognac’s country cousin”), Plantation 5-year rum, pineapple-clove syrup, lime, and angostura bitters, it was a bold yet refreshing drink with prominent notes of orange and a touch of spice.

Less deliberate but still effective, the Thaw in the Straw cocktail is a good partner for the pineapple brown sugar cake. Made with bourbon, honey, lemon, and ginger beer, the Thaw in the Straw is an odd mix of tartness and sweetness.

On its own, I can’t say I loved it. With dessert? Different story.

Evoking the Caribbean via New England, the pineapple brown sugar cake combines lime curd, graham caramel corn, and coconut-lime sorbet. It’s an intriguing mix of textures, with the crunchy popcorn offsetting the spongy cake. And the sweet, tangy flavors liven up the cocktail, bringing out the spice of the ginger beer and the vanilla notes in the bourbon.

In addition to the not-so-secret patty melt and an ever evolving cocktail list, Puritan & Company has unveiled a few new features to coincide with its spring menu. A six-course chef’s tasting menu, with the particulars changing nightly, is available for a reasonable $70. On Saturdays, the space next door to the restaurant becomes the “Puritan Meat Market.” From noon until 2 p.m., traditional New England lunch items, such as corned beef sandwiches and meatball subs, are available for takeout. And on Sundays, Puritan’s chef de cuisine Alex Saenz creates a southern-themed menu featuring fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and catfish.

Taken together, it’s exactly the sort of innovation and variety that I’m sure the Puritans would have just loved

Address: 1166 Cambridge Street, Cambridge

Website: http://www.puritancambridge.com

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Wink & Nod Gears up for Spring

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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.

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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.

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(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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Another favorite is the Indian Summer, which combines Nolet’s Silver gin, fresh grapefruit, St. Germain, and the house ginger beer.

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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

Website:http://winkandnod.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Stellina

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Few of life’s pleasures are more satisfying in combination than jazz and cocktails. The two have enjoyed a long, productive relationship, dating back at least to the 1920s, when illicit speakeasies jumped and swayed to the sounds of live jazz. The pair may have reached their cultural zenith in the nightclubs of the mid-20th century; the image of men in sharp suits and women in glamorous dresses, sipping martinis while a crooner and big band fill the room with swing music and sultry classics, remains iconic. Jazz and cocktails have never truly been out of style, though their popularity has certainly ebbed and flowed over the years. Today you can find exceptional craft cocktails in any number of Boston-area establishments, and there are plenty of places where you can hear some smokin’ jazz. If you’re looking for nightly jazz played by an ever-shifting lineup of locals, Wally’s is your best bet. If nationally renowned performers are your thing, there’s Scullers and Regattabar. Fashionable entries like the Beehive and Beat Hotel fall somewhere in the middle.

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Watertown’s Stellina probably isn’t even on your radar. That’s understandable – it’s a suburban Italian restaurant, not a jazz club, and they only have live jazz on Tuesday nights. But for me, Stellina hits the sweet spot – solid jazz, above-average cocktails, a cozy bar, affordable food options, and a laid-back atmosphere. (It’s also a 10-minute walk from my home, which doesn’t hurt.)

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Having served Watertown for nearly 30 years, Stellina is a bona fide institution. Their Italian cuisine has won awards from Boston Magazine, and their beautiful back patio provides for elegant dining beneath the stars. Walled off from the main dining room is Stellina’s bar area, with a 14-seat bar and several two-seat tables. Dark wood and red lighting give the space an intimate appearance, but the mood is decidedly casual.

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This is where the Noteworthy Jazz Ensemble, the house band since 2008, sets up around 6 p.m. every Tuesday. The quartet – sax, guitar, bass, and drums – seamlessly blends timeless standards like “Caravan,” “Black Orpheus,” “Moanin’,” and “A Foggy Day” with original numbers and off-the-cuff jams (you might even hear a Black Sabbath riff or two thrown in).

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Overall, it’s a laid-back affair. The band fields occasional requests from customers and chats with regulars during breaks. If you’re sitting close enough, you can hear them discussing which key to play a particular song in. The music isn’t so intense that it inhibits conversation, but it doesn’t fade into the background, either. And while you can hear the Ellington and Coltrane tunes from just about anywhere in the restaurant, the bar is the place to be if you’re a jazz fan.

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Obviously, it’s the best place to be for drinks, too. Italian restaurants may be better known for wine than for cocktails, but Stellina is the only place I know of in Watertown with a cocktail program of this caliber. The rotating drink menu reflects some of the broader trends in nearby Boston and Cambridge, updating classic cocktails with inventive twists and offering a few original concoctions with house ingredients.

The Cool-Manhattan is the quintessential partner for some cool jazz. It’s an appropriately straightforward Manhattan made with Maker’s 46 (aged a little longer than the flagship Maker’s Mark), Carpano sweet vermouth, bitters, and a Luxardo cherry.

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In a similar vein is the Cocktail Italiano, combining Old Overholt Rye, Amaro Montenegro, grapefruit bitters, and lemon syrup, garnished with a mint leaf. Dry and sour, a fresh, minty aroma accompanies every sip.

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The Hot Toddy has no doubt been a popular item in this hellish winter, and it demonstrates Stellina’s tendency to mix things up a bit with some of the supporting ingredients. Applejack brandy combines with lemon peel and a ginger- and chamomile-infused honey for a sweet, apple-forward drink with plenty of flavor. Warms the belly and the soul on a brisk night.

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The Cocktail 47 (named after Stellina’s address) is sort of a vodka-based riff on the Hemingway daiquiri. Made with Belvedere grapefruit vodka, maraschino liqueur, fresh grapefruit, and lime, there’s a lot going on in this one – a blast of sourness and a prominent grapefruit flavor.

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The Caipirinha Sour is a more recent addition to the menu, and one of the few missteps. This mix of cachaça, muddled lime, homemade sour mix, and fresh tangerine has all the right ingredients for a refreshing variation of traditional Brazilian cocktail, but it’s topped with a flat soda that mutes those great flavors.

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There are plenty more creative high points, though, like the simply titled “Pear.” Made with Belle de Brillet Pear Cognac, Grey Goose vodka, reduced pear, and vanilla nectar, it’s a soft, smooth drink that nonetheless packs a punch.

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The Ransom Citrus-Lavender combines Ransom Old Tom gin, a lemon cordial, and lavender-citrus infused agave. It’s dry and full-flavored, with a distinct citrus component and a delicate floral essence.

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The Royal Snap is an unusually complex rendering of a whiskey and ginger, made with the intriguing Whippersnapper Oregon whiskey, which has some gin-like botanical notes to it, along with muddled blood orange, homemade orange bitters, a ginger reduction, and ginger beer.

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For those craving something more straightforward, the Moscow Mule is simple and traditional – Tito’s Handmade vodka, ginger beer, and lime, served in the customary copper cup.

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My good friend and fellow barhopper/Watertown resident/jazz fan Mario and I have resolved to hit Stellina at least one Tuesday a month for this jazz-and-cocktail combo, and so far we have a perfect record in 2015. It’s an endeavor made easier by some fairly economical dinner selections. On the antipasti menu, the handmade sweet potato gnocchi, tossed with Gorgonzola, sage, and Parmesan, is generously sized and delicious. I’ve always been curious to try gnocchi made with sweet potato; it adds a nice dimension.

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There’s a selection of flatbreads that you can customize if you so desire. This smoked prosciutto, garlic, Fontina, and rosemary pizza, with hot sausage added, is becoming my go-to order.

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And if you’re craving something sweet, the Crème Brulee Napoleon tastes as good as it looks. Layered with phyllo pastry, caramel sauce, and toasted hazelnuts, it’s crunchy and surprisingly light (I’m not necessarily speaking form a caloric standpoint here).

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Concluding with such a beautifully presented dessert seems fitting, in a way. Nearly everything about Stellina reveals a fondness for performance and artistry – from hosting live jazz to serving contemporary craft cocktails with lemon cordials, infused syrups, and fruit reductions. In addition to the weekly jazz nights are occasional opera nights, author nights, and wine tastings. Even the blog on their website is well written and regularly updated. To me that signals a creative spirit, and whether it’s in a restaurant in Watertown, a jazz club in Boston, or a modern cocktail bar, that’s a great attribute to have.

Address: 47 Main Street, Watertown

Website:http://www.stellinarestaurant.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Fairsted Kitchen

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Website:http://fairstedkitchen.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Craft on Draft at Tico

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Paloma is made with Exotico Reposado tequila and grapefruit juice. This understated classic is simple, refreshing, and pleasantly sour.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.).

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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.

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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

Website:http://www.ticoboston.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.