When was the last time I found myself in a bar downing Manhattans three nights in a row? Like, ah, never! Much as I love a good drink, hanging out in bars and belting back hard liquor is not my normal M.O.
But, I guess there’s a time and a place for everything, and last week in Charleston S.C. with about 50 fellow members of the Association of Food Journalists was clearly that time and place.
We were in the picturesque coastal town for our annual conference, four days of seminars, speakers, business meetings, tastings, field trips and fabulous meals. Straight off the plane on Tuesday night I headed to FIG (Food is Good) with two West Coast colleagues. We all knew about chef Mike Lata (who won “Best Chef Southeast” at the 2010 James Beard Awards) and our mouths were watering for such Lata specialties as Carolina Shrimp Escabeche and Tomato Tarte Tatin.
But the cocktail menu turned out to be a serious speed-bump.
For starters there was the list of Proprietary Cocktails that included the Marfa Daisy (Espolon Blanco tequila, elderflower liqueur, aquavit, grapefruit juice and grapefruit bitters) that was the sassy super-model of margaritas; and the Greenthumb (Cathead Vodka, green Chartreuse, lime, mint, cucumber and celery bitters).
Then there was the Make-Your-Own Manhattan extravaganza featuring 15 bourbons (and a few ryes), eight types of sweet vermouth, and 13 types of bitters, mostly homemade. Feeling like a kid in a candy store, I poured over the lists, then picked Old Overholt Rye (new to me but Lata' favorite), Dolin Rouge Vermouth (another new friend), and Angostura orange bitters. Served straight up in an old-fashioned “champagne” glass it was a delicious swirl of sweet, smoke, herb and tang.
The third page featured riffs on the Negroni, a classic Italian aperitif of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin that was invented in Florence in the early 1900s. Calling it the “short and perfect aperitivo,” the menu lists nine versions including the Rhubarb Negroni with Farmer’s Gin, Zucca Rabarbaro (syrup) and Dolin Rouge vermouth; the Negroni Sbagliato with Campari, sweet vermouth and Prosecco; and the Hummingbird (Beefeater, Campari, elderflower, Nouilly Pratt and crushed ice). (This photo is from a cool Website called Cocktails in Charleston that seems proof positive that I am not the only one who has spent time tippling in this historic town.)
Reporters being reporters, word about FIG’s creative cocktails and lively bar scene spread fast among AFJ members, each of whom by definition is obsessed with finding delicious things to eat and drink. So it was that I found myself back at FIG for nightcaps the next two nights, with colleagues who were equally smitten by the talented mixologists.
I’m now a big fan of subbing Prosecco for the gin in a regular Negroni (the sparkling wine makes for a lighter aperitif with no bite); and injecting a bit of the USA in the Italian drink with a splash of Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon.
I'm also intrigued by Basil Hayden's minty bourbon; Blanton's "Original Single-Barrel Bourbon;" and Elmer T. Lee, the guy who makes Buffalo Trace. I now know that most sweet vermouths sold in the U.S. are Torino-style, and that there are a whole lot of new ones, such as Cocchi and Carpano, that I need to try.
And, I'm about to jump on the bitters bandwagon. There's been a surge if interest in these alcoholic sidekicks that are flavored with herbal essences and have a bitter or bittersweet flavor. Today, homemade or small-batch orange, cherry, rhubarb and Aztec chocolate bitters are giving the old-fashioned Angostura a run for its money.
The tomato tarte tatin (left), “salted” with tapenade and smoothed with fromage blanc, managed to taste like mid-summer even though the season is just about over. The escabeche featured plump, tender fresh white Carolina fresh shrimp with the usual marinated vegetables and the unusual addition of grated ginger.
We also flipped over the cloud-like ricotta gnocchi with Bolognese sauce; the local triggerfish with roasted cauliflower and caper; and the Coddled Sea Island Farm Egg that, when pierced, quickly swirled itself into the accompanying red wine-braised mushrooms and celeriac cream. On the side was a dish of chewy, pea- and prosciutto-dotted farro from Anson Mills that was so good I ordered packages of the grain on-line as soon as I got back to San Diego.
Dinner and drinks at FIG was a perfect introduction to Charleston, a town with only 300,000 people but a whole lotta knock-your-socks-off restaurants.