Boulevardier, in Oak Cliff, boasts a well-established tradition of supplementing its terrific bistro cuisine with a great selection of cocktails, including Eddie Eakin’s Steep Buzz – its Maker’s Mark version was the official cocktail of Chefs for Farmers 2013 – and its most impressive spin-off, last year’s autumn-spiced Buzz-Cat.
The bar at this Bishop Arts mainstay is deceptively small and craftily appointed, and it’s always worth checking out the daily mirror special for the staff’s latest whims, like this one from bartender Ashley Williams.
KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Orange spice
WHAT’S IN IT: Whiskey, dry curaçao, honey, orange acid, Chinese bitters, nutmeg
WHY IT WORKS: This is an orange-n-spice mashup, a mix of bourbon, citrus and cold-weather spices to usher you into spring. What sets this apart is orange acid, orange juice tarted up with citric and malic acid, an ingredient the restaurant always has on hand. Here it adds acidity and a nice shrub-like tang, negating the need to add lemon or lime to the drink so that the orange flavor can shine through.
Williams wanted to make a whiskey cocktail that wasn’t heavy on whiskey; in the Citrois, it serves as the sturdy undercarriage for a drink built like a sour (spirit, sweetener, the acidity of either lemon or lime and occasionally egg white). Instead, Williams began with the orange acid, which she correctly posited would pair well with honey and the cardamom-clove spice of Chinese bitters. After adding a splash of curacao for a boost of booze and even more orange flavor, she kept groovin’ on that orange spice riff by topping the drink with orange oils and a shaving of nutmeg. The result: Orange-y goodness with an edge.
The name? It’s a blend of citrus and trois, the French word for three. With the French-inspired restaurant’s cocktail packing three expressions of orange, it seems tres apropos, non?
Bartenders are a mobile bunch, so it’s rare that a name becomes as synonymous as a place as Kyle Hilla’s did at Bolsa.
Friday was Hilla’s last day at the Oak Cliff restaurant, marking the end of a seven-year run that saw him rise from server to bartender to manager of Bolsa’s vaunted bar program, among the pioneering establishments of DFW’s craft-cocktail scene.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Hilla said at the end of his busy final night, after the place had pretty much emptied out.
The talented barman is on his way to NorthPark Center, where he’ll be heading up the bar at The Theodore, the new venture from the owners of Bolsa, nearby Bolsa Mercado, Chicken Scratch and The Foundry. In his stead, the gifted Spencer Shelton will be assuming Bolsa’s bar reins.
Like many a bartender, Hilla didn’t set out to pour drinks. Instead, he tired of a retail manager position (“To this day, I’m still the youngest store manager in Dollar General history,” he said) and aimed to head back to school. In the meantime, he figured, he’d be a server. That eventually brought him to Bolsa, where then-bar-managers Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Dub Davis kept prodding the Boy Wonder to get behind the bar. He resisted – until the night Campbell asked him to help make drinks at an art gallery special event.
“I had the time of my life,” he said. Two days later, he was walking the aisles of a Kroger store with now-wife Jessica and realized he’d been transformed. “Everything I saw in the store, I was like, `Hmm, what can I make a cocktail with?’ “
Hilla embraced the jigger and shaker, and in the ensuing years, as the cocktail scene began to grow, both Davis and Campbell (and Jason Kosmas, who had left New York’s Employees Only to raise a family in Texas) departed for other projects. In 2010, Hilla took over the bar.
He further streamlined the program, making his cheerful, quip-smart presence a Bolsa mainstay, along with attentive service and creative mixology. “People before me laid an amazing foundation,” he said. “I just focused it.”
Campbell and Kosmas had created one of the bar’s best-known features, the weekly cocktail challenge on Wednesdays in which two bartenders would face off, creating cocktails based on a pair of customer-chosen ingredients and let the night’s sales dictate a winner. Those ingredients occasionally verged on the ridiculous, stretching bartenders’ talents and imaginations to extremes – for instance, banana ketchup. “Think about that, buddy,” he nodded with a wry smile. (He made a Bloody Mary.) “There was a time when I hated Wednesdays.”
Others included oysters, black garlic or Pop Rocks. “Pop Rocks were terrible,” he said.
Eventually, Hilla rescheduled the challenges to just the first Wednesday of each month, and his final match – against bartender Marcos Hernandez – took place on September 3. Hilla drew saffron and tangerines, Hernandez got plums and blood orange. It was Hernandez who late last year conceived a drink that paired the bitter Italian liqueur Cynar’s artichoke flavor notes with the smokiness of toasted mesquite chips. But it was Hilla who eventually named it, calling it the Imenta.
“When we first came out with it,” Hernandez said, “it was the Oaky Smoky Arthichoke-y.”
“And that’s why we started requiring drug tests at work,” Hilla cracked.
In his seven years at Bolsa, Hilla has gotten to know a few people. “I know 99 percent of the people who come in here,” he said as the minutes ticked down on Friday night’s last shift, and he hopes some of his regulars follow him to The Theodore, set to open late next month at NorthPark. He told one pair of retiree regulars, “Y’all just need to become mall walkers. I’ll tell you what – I’ll invent a drink called the Mall Walker just for you.”
Moving on and up is the next logical step for Hilla, but it’s hard to see familiar traditions end. Bolsa was among my first cocktail finds when I moved to Dallas five years ago, so for my last Hilla-made drink there, I asked for something bitter/sweet to commemorate the moment. He produced a blend of bourbon and Cynar goodness and made clear that in spite of the change, he and Jessica won’t be forgetting Oak Cliff anytime soon.
“We just closed on a house here,” he said. “I’ll always be a part of this community.”
With Dallas’ craft-cocktail cogniscenti waiting on Pimm’s and needles for the long-anticipated official openings of Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry and Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Parliament, even a practiced imbiber could be forgiven for failing to notice the other libationary locales making marks around town. And as it turns out, some of them have Martensen’s and Campbell’s DNA on them anyway.
Here’s six places worth putting on your cocktail radar while you wait.
It would be easy to get lost in the charm of this little house of a bar. A one-time vintage clothing shop off McKinney in Uptown, Bowen House evokes a Prohibition-era estate with its bookshelves and old photographs and your great-grandmother’s precious furniture. Don’t look for a cocktail menu beyond the pair of specials scrawled on the blackboard; there isn’t one. Instead, cite your tastes and preferences to steady bartenders Erikah Lushaj or Brandon Addicks, who are eagerly devouring cocktail knowledge as they strive to build a quality bar program. They’re also capable of devising their own creations – like Lushaj’s lusciously sweet 1874 (a nod to the year the house was built), a mix of rum, Galliano, vanilla and pineapple puree that she came up with for Dallas’ recent Tiki Week celebration.
In case you haven’t been keeping your ear to the ground, Dallas now has an absinthe bar – and it’s right there in the reinvented space at Driftwood, the Oak Cliff seafood restaurant on Davis. The minimal bar that once felt more like a holding area for diners awaiting tables has been expanded into a formidable L-shape that proudly proclaims its own identity. More importantly, bar manager Ryan Sumner’s spirit selection has been pumped up with anise-flavored concoctions from around Europe and the U.S., including 14 absinthes and three versions of French pastis. The absinthes – with notes ranging from juniper to honey-plum – can be enjoyed in the traditional louche style (slowly diluted with ice water and sugar); there’s also four related cocktails, including Hemingway’s classic mix of pastis and sparkling wine, Death In The Afternoon. Menu creator Michael Martensen says the idea of pairing absinthe with seafood occurred to him the more he researched seafood. “We’re doing like they do in the south of France,” he says. You’d do well to take in your Van Gogh experience with a round of fresh-shucked oysters – and even if you haven’t been keeping your ear to the ground, you can still keep your ear.
John Tesar’s new paradise of meat in Central 214’s old space in the Palomar Hotel comes with a solid bar program, too. Another project from barman Michael Martensen, it includes nods to often disregarded “retro classics” like the Long Island Iced Tea, Harvey Wallbanger and Sex on the Beach, the idea being that if the drinks are properly made with high-quality ingredients, they’re actually quite good. For the most part, that’s true – but it’s some of the bar’s other innovations that brighten my day, including the choose-your-own-ingredient Negronis or Gin and Tonics and a smooth, floral olive-oil gin martini softened with a hint of Green Chartreuse. The delicious, slightly salty Planter’s Punch was influenced by Martensen’s recent visit to Martinique: Among a group of bartenders there to learn about the island’s rum industry, the group was enjoying Planter’s Punches on a rollicking boat ride as the craft bobbed in the rough surf. “We were getting salt water in our drinks,” Martensen said. “I tasted it and thought: This is better.” He came back and made Knife’s version with a hint of house-made salt water. He says: “Dude, once you put the salt water in there, it’s like – bam! It takes me right back to the boat.”
There are probably two things you think about when you hear Meddlesome Moth: 1) the flutter and thump of a lepidopteran under the shade of your bedside lamp; and 2) beer. While there are indeed a mighty number of quality brews to be had at this Design District mainstay, cocktail program director Lauren Loiselle, with the help of beverage director Larry Lewis, has compiled a formidable selection of craft drinks, too, from a lineup of seasonal drinks (including dandy spins on the Margarita and Moscow Mule) to a top-notch supply of barrel-aged concoctions. One recent highlight: Loiselle’s divine barrel-aged Negroni, uncorked in time for last month’s National Negroni Week, with Ford’s gin, Aperol and Dolin Dry and Dolin Blanc vermouths.
Hump Day is already worth the trip to Tate’s in Uptown for half-price specials on most of their extensive whiskey selection, but even more so now that craft bartender Ian Reilly has joined the team on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Reilly, a one-time People’s Last Stand stalwart who’s also played significant roles behind the bar at Bowl & Barrel and Chino Chinatown, is a bit of a whiskey connoisseur who has written about Japanese whiskey for both CocktailEnthusiast.com and The Dallas Morning News. With the addition of Reilly to GM Robbie Call’s crowd-pleasing squad and a stable but solid cocktail list, Tate’s is golden right now.
The former J. Pepe’s space on Greenville has been reborn as a neighborhood bar with bocce ball and a quirky array of local art. (My favorite is the one of the dog that reminds me of a Chihuahua mix my family used to have.) So yes, come to Vagabond for the art and the kitschy bar-top lamps. Come for the quality food, like excellent beef tongue pastrami. But you should also come for the drinks: The house menu devised by mixologist Eddie “Lucky” Campbell includes delicious versions of under-recognized vintage cocktails like the Bijou and Scofflaw as well as tasty modern ones like the red-pepper-influenced HydroTonic and the rum-and-white-wine-combo Ninja Sangria. (In a nod to GM Stewart Jameson, there’s a handful of Jameson whiskey cocktails, too.) Cocktail director Stephen Vasquez plans to roll out a revised menu by next month, including the excellent Aurelius, a slightly bitter, refreshing drink featuring apricot-infused Aperol that he first made for me while doing time at downtown’s LARK on the Park.
I first met Eddie Eakin in July 2012 at the Libertine Bar, where he was in the habit of ordering a bun-less burger as part of his gluten-free fitness regimen. At the time, he was readying for his job at bar manager at Boulevardier, which was just about to open in the Bishop Arts area of Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood.
Since then he’s headed up one of Dallas’ better bar programs with quiet aplomb, and now it’s paid off with some national recognition: Town & Country Magazine has chosen one of Eakin’s as its signature cocktail.
That’s right: Town & Country, the high-society lifestyle magazine that’s also the longest-running general-interest publication in America.
Well done, Mr. Eakin.
About four months ago, Eakin caught wind of a national competition the magazine — which dates to 1846 — was holding for a signature cocktail to which to lend its name. Editors ultimately chose 20 recipes from bars and restaurants nationwide and submitted them to a judging panel at Harding’s restaurant in NYC.
“The only rules were that you had to send in a picture,” Eakin said. “That’s what piqued my interest. I’m a total Instagrammer. I like it more than Facebook.”
And in the end, it was his concoction that grabbed the honors. “I was very happily surprised to hear that I had won,” he says.
His now-official Town & Country cocktail ($11) is a melting pot of bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, dark amber syrup and apple bitters. The result is very much like an Old Fashioned with an extra smooch of sugar.
Eakin’s genius was in the concept: He just wanted to come up with something a reader could replicate at home with readily available traditional American ingredients. No fancy infusions, no juices to squeeze, no syrups to make. And since the publication goes back to the mid-1800s, he wanted his drink to echo American classics and flavors (hence the apple and maple). “If you break it down,” he says, “it is really a blend of a little Manhattan and a little Old Fashioned, two of the most quintessential classic cocktails.”
RECIPE (as published in Town & County magazine’s Aug. 2013 issue)
2 oz Bulleit Bourbon
1/2 Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
1 tsp Crown Maple dark amber syrup
3 dashes Bar Keep apple bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain over large ice cubes in a rocks glass and garnish with an orange peel and brandied cherry.
BOULEVARDIER, 408 N. Bishop, Ste. 108, Oak Cliff, Dallas
They came to do battle with guava and chili, with basil and peppers and passionfruit puree. Slinging their drinks in shot-sized portions, they implored the parched and perspiring throngs to cast votes in their favor, each angling for the $1,000 crown of Margarita Meltdown 2013.
The third annual event pitched its tents in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District Sunday, and if you came to knock down a little tequila, it did not disappoint: Around 30 restaurants offered their own spin on the classic Margarita, cranking out mini-cocktails dressed oh so many different ways — punched up with pineapple, couched in horchata, spiced with serrano chile.
Everybody started with a common ingredient: Milagro tequila blanco. Plano’s Whiskey Cake, which took last year’s title with bartender Bonnie Wilson’s frozen “Push-Up” Margarita, made another strong push this year with a drink served not in a glass but in a plastic squirt gun. They ran out within two hours.
Here’s how it all worked: Checklists were distributed. Have a mini-Margarita, cross the place off your list. Then vote – via text – for your favorite four. The machinations were a mystery, and voting continued for an hour past its scheduled cut-off point. Then again, the queues moved slowly; I still managed to sample 18 Margaritas in all, from Oak Cliff Social Club’s grapefruit and Squirt-splashed version to the tasty peach margarita pitched up by Cyclone Anaya’s of Oak Lawn.
Sunset Lounge embraced the tiki with a “Zombie-rita” partied up with Bacardi 151 rum, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Velvet Falernum, Angostura bitters, cinnamon syrup and lime, grapefruit and pineapple juice.
“This is the longest line I’ve had to wait in,” a girl complained as she waited to try the Standard Pour booth, where bartender Armando Guillen shook up batches of his special Margarita blend in real time. “It’d better be f-ing worth it.”
And it was: Guillen’s drink featured orange-tea-infused tequila, ginger and passionfruit purees, blood orange bitters and a five-chili balsamic reduction – sweetly alluring with lots of character.
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen – Armando’s brother – also scored with his Bohemia Margarita, flavored with Becherovka (a Czech herbal liqueur), lime and a house-made cordial of cucumber, pepper and star anise, finished off with a Tajin chile-lime powder rim.
So did Asador, whose fruity watermelon and basil version shone with subtle heat, making use of sambal (a Southeast Asian chili sauce) and a ginger/sea salt foam. Another stand-out: The Lucky One, from the just-opened Mutts Canine Cantina, dolled up with a strawberry, cucumber and rosemary shrub for some balsamic beauty. (Though my companion Rachel cleverly suggested sprucing it up even more with a Pop-Rock rim.)
DaLat came prepared to serve up 2,300 of its spectacular “Vietnamese Margaritas,” which were really not Margaritas at all, but with their prune-candy and chili-flaked lime one-two punch kept the booth’s lines long and lingering.
The best of the bunch? For one, Mesomaya’s avocado-pineapple Margarita made with Cointreau – always a plus in my book – and laced with Tajin. “It’s mellow and yellow,” my worthy sidekick said.
My favorite, though, was “The People’s Last Pequin,” from The People’s Last Stand, a complex punch incorporating smoked strawberries, honey agave and two infused tequilas – one with chile pequin, the other with vanilla bean – and, naturally, Cointreau. The rim was a mix of lime zest, smoked sea salt and guajillo chili. All-around goodness.
So who won? Well, does it really matter? Suffice it to say that the victorious cocktail was the one drink that both my companion and I tossed away without finishing, so horrendous was its assault upon our palates. And in case we thought we were mistaken, the guy behind us practically spit his out. Who knows: Maybe we got a bad batch. But really, by the time the results were announced, spirits were high, and this small but populous stretch of Bishop Arts had gotten its club vibe on, with booming beats and dancing in the streets, so for all anyone cared – except for a contingent of disappointed bartenders – the Sonic down the street could have been named winner and the party would have gone on. And it did. Dallas, I salute you.
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com