Monday, July 23, 2007

It’s all fun and games until someone loses a city

July 20

Tales of the Cocktail is an extraordinary drinkfest held in New Orleans ostensibly, in part at least, to further educate the cocktail cognoscenti about local, national and global spirit trends. But mostly it’s a four-day-long, booze-drenched party.
I’m not complaining, I’m just saying.
I hear the seminars are well-attended, however, but I wouldn’t know because the only one I went to was the one I participated in.
I could only make it there for a day: My pages at NRN were closing on Wednesday and I was going to Chefs & Champagne in the Hamptons on Saturday, so a brief commando-style arrival on Thursday afternoon with a Friday afternoon departure was all I could manage.
And during my time there I was fully booked.
I landed, took a shower, checked e-mail and headed to Café Adelaide for drinks with Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, because they’re charming people with whom I drink at every opportnity (you might recall that I drank with Ti in Aspen), and also because they’re from the Brennan family, which makes them as close as the American restaurant world has to royalty.
Lally drank a classic Daiquiri, Ti had a Tequila Mockingbird II (reposado tequila, limoncello, Angostura bitters and something else that I have forgotten; it tasted like an older, more worldly cousin of the Margarita) and I had a Corpse Reviver II (gin, Cointreau, Lillet, lemon juice and herbsaint, garnished with a stemless cherry). We shared sips. Ti tried my cocktail and immediately handed it to a member of the restaurant staff and said “Uh-uh. Try again.”
Oh how embarrassing for the bartender. Imagine that your bosses are entertaining a national food writer like me and your cocktail is rejected. What if he wrote about it in his blog or something?
But hey, I guess that’s what makes the Brennans successful. (It turns out that the lemons they were using were unusually sour, requiring the addition of two drops of simple syrup).
We chatted about many things, including of course New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina (universally called “The Storm” in The Big Easy), in which infrastructure repairs are held-up by delays in funding from Washington, in which nearly every night someone dining in Commander’s Palace (which suffered $6.5 million in damage) is doing so because it’s their last night in town.
Ti asked me what the rest of the country thought of New Orleans these days, and I decided to be honest and tell her that we weren’t thinking much of it at all.
So that was sad, but Ti and Lally said that the people of New Orleans had risen to the occasion, and that as many people were moving to New Orleans as were leaving.
In the restaurant world, Ti pointed out that New Orleans Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson had stopped rating restarants with stars since the storm. Instead, he was simply describing them, because who wants to pick on the restarants of a city that was nearly destroyed?
Ti gave me a ride to my next appointment, at Sucré, the new dessert restaurant of another veteran New Orleans restaurateur, Joel Dondis, who had imported chef Tariq Hanna from Detroit as his partner.
I meant to just pop in, say hi, and then find a quiet corner in Commander’s Palace to go over data for my Friday morning panel, but instead I stayed for two-and-a-half hours, sampling the strawberry shortcake milkshake, four kinds of ice cream (coconut-basil, brown butter-pecan, chocolate and something intended to taste like Snowballs) and ten different chocolate bonbons.
That was followed by dinner at Commander’s Palace with chef Tory McPhail’s food paired with Audrey Saunders‘s cocktails. Perhaps I’ll list the menu for it when I find it.
At that party I finally met Stephen Beaumont, who does NRN’s Beer, Wine and Spirits page and recently took over from Gary Regan as our beverage columnist. He seemed very much the good-natured bon vivant I expected, and I ended up hanging out with him and others (Robin Schempp and Ron Givens, a beverage writer, among other things, who recently moved from New York to Iowa) at the Carousel Bar, so named because it rotates — a quality that I found literally nauseating, but not so much so that it kept me from sampling the local beer.
I declared a need for fried food, and the four of us set out to find some, finally finding Alibi. I was thinking of something like a fried oyster po’ boy, but instead we had breaded, fried things in baskets and fries drenched in chili and cheese. I made do.
I was also thinking that we would eat fried food, have a last beer and head back to the hotel. Instead I found myself back in my hotel room at 4 a.m. So I spent half an hour taking notes for my panel the next day and then called it a night, which it most certainly was.
I woke up at 9 a.m. for my 10 a.m. panel (I had to check out of the hotel and check into the conference, something I hadn’t had a chance to do yet).
I was at the conference because of my friend Erica Duecy. She had introduced me to the people who organize Tales of the Cocktail because she wanted me to come down and drink with her, and they soon invited me, asking me to organize a panel discussion and develop a cocktail to present.
I pointed out that, as a food writer, not a beverage writer or cocktail expert, I didn’t actually have the expertise appropriate to develop an intelligent panel and produce a cocktail for it. But they asked if I’d at least be on a panel and I said I would.
Fortunately, Nation’s Restarant News had orchestrated a beverage-trend survey that I had access to, and I had moderated a four-hour-long beverage roundtable that we sponsored at the Restaurant Show in Chicago in May, so I had enough data to speak intelligently about trends.
My fellow panelists — James Meehan from New York, Todd Thrasher from DC (really Alexandria these days) and John Kinder from Chicago — bartenders all, were amazing and smart and articulate and I wanted to drink their cocktails.
Todd actually made one that was served during the discussion that contained a sweetened tobacco infusion, honeycomb (not the cereal but the real thing), rum and other stuff. We all gulped it down, except for James who wanted an Advil and said so. In retrospect, someone should have gotten him one. What were we thinking?
Our panel was relatively well-attended, and people theoretically paid $50 just to go to that panel, so that’s nice.
I slept well on the plane home.

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