The Negroni is among the most perfect of cocktails, a happy triumvirate of gin, sweet vermouth and the Italian bitter liqueur Campari that appeals to the bittersweet lover in you. It works as a handy aperitif or a dependable go-to, and it’s got some legs: The recipe dates back to at least the 1950s, though its rumored origins trace back to 1919, when the Italian Count Negroni asked for a variation on the Americano to be made with gin instead of club soda.
As consummate bar man Rocco Milano once said, “It’s a drink that’s greater than the sum of its parts, because they have an amplifying effect.”
That they do. Master bartender Gary Regan calls the Negroni one of the world’s finest drinks. “The balance is of primary importance in a Negroni,” he writes in The Joy of Mixology. “Using equal parts of each ingredient is absolutely necessary to achieve perfection.”
It’s also a drink that oh so willingly lends itself to multiple variations. Sub mezcal for gin and you’ve got a smoky Negroni; use bourbon and you’ve got a Boulevardier. Fancy up your sweet vermouth with Carpano Antica for some extra zing. And so on. It’s a versatile vehicle for your whims.
Which is all the more reason to celebrate the currently ongoing National Negroni Week, as proclaimed by Imbibe magazine. And it’s for a good cause – participating bars are offering the classic drink at special prices this week, with the proceeds benefiting the charity or cause of their choice: At Dallas’ Black Swan Saloon, it’s the ALS Association’s Texas chapter; at Henry’s Majestic, it’s Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. Other participating bars include Proof + Pantry, Dish Preston Hollow, Twenty Seven, Victor Tango’s, Nickel and Rye, Libertine Bar and HG Sply Co.
Get over there and try the Negroni or some variation therein. (At Henry’s Majestic, cocktail guru Alex Fletcher cooked up a Campari infused with dried currant and golden raisin, for example.) Personally, I recommend having one on the rocks with an orange twist and a dash of Pacific Ocean.
There was a moment as I was savoring Remedy’s delicious RxPx cocktail when everything else became insignificant – any thoughts of calories, my tendency to shun “dessert-y” drinks, the bustling bar around me, the very fact that I was an adult – and I simply lapped up my ice cream like an 8-year-old kid. Such was the allure of Mate Hartai’s decadent drink, which perfectly suits the motif at recently opened Remedy on Lower Greenville Avenue.
Pedro Ximenez sherry is probably the richest player among the Spanish fortified wine’s many varieties, and its raisin-like notes make it a welcome garnish for vanilla ice cream. Hartai, the beverage master at Remedy and formerly of Libertine Bar, took that idea further, adding ice cream to an ounce of sherry and topping it with a balsamic cherry. The result is sinfully good. “It’s basically a Pedro Ximenez milk shake,” he says. “The three flavors play really well together, and then you have that cherry, and it’s, like – boom.”
Remedy’s approachable and unique bar program is inspired by the elegant soda fountains of the first half of the 20th century, before they settled into stuffy, Leave It To Beaver versions of themselves. And sodas (available straight-up) are the driving force behind Hartai’s compact, simply conceived drink menu, from its breezy highballs to the more adventurous wild cards and after-dinner treats like the RxPx.
At Libertine, Hartai’s wonkishly thoughtful enthusiasm for the craft made the neighborhood bar’s cocktail program an under-the-radar gem, so it’s not surprising to see him undertake Remedy’s mission with a similar zeal. The innovation here is the carbonated water itself, produced in a recirculating fountain that constantly roils the water to promote carbon dioxide absorption, which Hartai says gives it “the same level of carbonation as Topo Chico, if not better.”
The heightened fizz means Remedy’s bartenders can pump soda water into drinks without having to stir, which lets the drink retain more carbonation. In other words, upping the carbon levels itself becomes a mixing tool. (And skipping that step also means bartenders can theoretically get your drink to you faster. So there’s that.)
For the most part the cocktails pack a light-handed punch, the very definition of soft drinks to complement Remedy’s hearty comfort dishes like fried bologna sandwiches and chicken pot pie. But while the lineup has little to echo the obvious heft of, say, a Sazerac, its soda-jerk pep offers a spirited diversion.
Among the highlights: The French-75-like Bitter Lemon, with Meyer lemon syrup meeting gin, sparkling wine and the herbal bitter Suze; the sturdy Oleomaize, Hartai’s twist on a classic Corn and Oil employing dark rum and lime syrup in its Cuba Libre-like favor, and the playful Mustachio, whose white-chocolate shavings begin to descend into the drink about halfway through to be straw-slurped along with rye, cacao and an orgeat syrup made from pistachio and pumpkin seeds. And the fantastic spiced apple soda is one worth having on its own. “It’s like Christmas in a glass,” my pleasantly surprised friend Hollie said.
The mindfully seasonal menu is about to undergo a revamp with ingredients like Meyer lemons going out of season, but Remedy sports a sufficiently good foundation to ensure that happy days will be around for some time. The warmer weather to come should prove an ideal setting for soda drinks to shine. Not to mention sherry milkshakes.
I’m sitting with another right now and all I can think about is you. Your curves: finer. Your colors: brighter. Tucked into every pocket of a memory, some drop of precious time holding echoes of so many bright moments. Warmth and comfort lined with intrigue and amazement, there is no inch of you that has not sat silent vigil to the chaotic magic of a serendipitous night. Some light up a room when they walk into it, but you, you are the room. You have seen me in the most revealing moments of the triumph of gravity over a single stubborn object more times than I would wish. You have also watched me stand many times my height with steel in my gaze and lead in my feet. I have watched over you as you gave warmth to many in a dim cold haze and I have seen you let the wind wildly shake tail over every curve and dimension. The days you cracked, tore and buckled – but never fell – charged me with the same will. You showed me the pain of compassion in the witness of true loss. Truly there is no light I have not seen you in but always in the most intimate of proximity. Soon that will become distance; familiarity, perspective; and responsibility, pride. I can’t say goodbye because you will be the object of my many thousand-yard gazes. Hopefully tomorrow we will have the perspective to see how much we were for each other yesterday.
Your barman true, Máté Hartai
You’ll have to forgive Máté Hartai if he’s got some strong feelings about the Libertine, the Lower Greenville institution whose bar program he’s headed for the last several years. In that time, disguised as merely a popular neighborhood bar, the Libertine has instead been the Trojan Horse in our midst: Under Hartai’s stewardship, both its beer and cocktail selections have emerged as among the most daring and erudite in DFW, and yet its subtle bearing, modest location and reluctance to promote itself as much more than a community servant conspired to curb it off the star-bar radar.
Cellared beers, morel-mushroom-infused rye, beer- and cocktail-paired dinners – Hartai had them all underway before they were trendy around these parts.
But the moment has come, Hartai says, to – well, he can’t even say the words. Not to move on – no, to move in a different direction. The Cold Standard, the nascent ice enterprise he’s been nurturing for several years is demanding more and more of his attention, as are other projects he’s got in the works, so…
“It’s time to let the Libertine go,” says the Hungarian-born Hartai, who joined the Libertine as a bar-back in 2009. “I’ve trained that baby to where it can run on its own.”
Tuesday, May 27, will be Hartai’s final day at the Libertine (his final day behind the bar will be Sunday the 25th), and fittingly his stint will end with one of the bar’s signature dinners – this one a Utah-themed event featuring both of his passions, beer and spirits.(Click the link above, then the box to the right.) It’s also his birthday, and Hartai is letting it all out, planning to unveil some of his rarest cellar keepsakes.
“It’s the bridging of two things I’m passionate about,” he says. “The beer is going to be out of this world.”
Hartai, whose family came to the U.S. when he was a middle-schooler – “just young enough to lose my accent,” he says – is among the most knowledgeable of bartenders, quirky and wonkish, with a nerdy, scientific approach to his work. When Bar Smyth, the Knox-Henderson speakeasy to which Hartai was briefly attached, was invited to compete against other bars at a national cocktail-industry convention last year, it was he who devised the ingenious backpack keg with which he waded through the crowds with his Texas-stamped helmet, pouring cocktail shots.
In an industry where mobility is a constant, Hartai was a mark of steadiness and community involvement, even as he shunned social media — he had to be goaded into joining Facebook — and self-promotion. Within bartending circles, his grasp of the craft is well known.
“Everybody on this side knows what Máté has been doing,” said Eddie Eakin, bar manager at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier. “He’s intelligent, he’s cutting edge. Definitely among the upper crust in Dallas.”
Yet some still scoff when Eakin directs them to the Libertine for cocktails, deceived by the bar’s unassuming presence. By excelling in all areas – including its solid kitchen – it couldn’t be pegged as making its “thing” any single one of them.
“It’s one of the most well-rounded bars in the city,” says bar manager Ryan Sumner of Driftwood. “If you open up a neighborhood bar – that’s what it should be.”
As the Dallas cocktail scene exponentially matured behind names like Michael Martensen, Brian McCullough and Charlie Papaceno, Hartai always viewed the Libertine, with its homey, den-like atmosphere, as a place to feel comfortable enough to take those first few steps into a much deeper pool of alcohol knowledge. Co-owners Simon McDonald and Michael Smith trusted his oddball seasonal menu inspirations, with experiments like the cocktails named after Smiths song titles; you wouldn’t know what you got until you actually ordered the drink.
Libertine’s classic cocktail menu has stayed the course since Hartai instituted it, but that’s since been supplemented by bar favorites and other rotating theme menus like “By Friends, For All,” a tribute lineup with cocktails designed by fellow craft-cocktail bartenders like Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan. “The Brave, The Bold” featured Hartai creations named the Coburn, the Bronson, the McQueen and the Brynner with ingredients like pulled-pork-infused tequila and five-spice rum. “All it is, is a liquid kitchen to me,” he says.
He’s loved his job, he says – and why shouldn’t he? He gets to throw a party every day. But in moving on, Hartai will leave behind a consummate bar – not a great beer bar, not a great cocktail bar, but a great all-around hangout. He’s eager to see the Libertine continue to develop without him, supported by a training program he willfully built over time. “There’s a lot of talent in that house,” he says.
Co-owner McDonald wishes Hartai the best, knowing that he helped build the bar into what it is today. “He’s a really smart guy who just worked his way into knowing everything about everything,” McDonald said. “But he’s so humble about it.”
No matter where he lands, Hartai says, it won’t be for long. “I like being behind the bar too much,” he says. “It’s like when you cut down Obi-Wan: I’m going from being the old man in the robe to being the blue glowie.”
The May 27 dinner begins at 7 p.m. and seating is limited. The price is $60 a person – more than worth the opportunity to wish Hartai a happy birthday and see the Jedi in his temple one last time.
“It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been working for,” he says. “It’s gonna be a magical night for me.”
LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Avenue. 214-824-7900.
UPDATE, April 30: Barter has postponed its pisco dinner until late May. Stay tuned for updates.
Posted April 29: Hump Day is coming and the pantry is empty. What’s a person to do? A pair of drink-paired dinners on the schedule might help you make your decision.
First up, in Lower Greenville, is the Libertine Bar’s monthly beer dinner, which this month showcases the brews of Central Texas. The five-course menu features items like Texas sturgeon and venison blood sausage, complemented by a beer lineup that includes Adelbert’s Flying Monk (Austin) and Rogness Rook (Pflugerville). Price is $60 and the full menu is available here.
If Peruvian brandy is more your thing, Barter in Uptown is offering a three-course meal paired with cocktails featuring Pisco Porton, which thanks to a big marketing push seems to be everywhere these days. For $30, you’ll start with a welcome punch before noshing on drink-supplemented goodies like tuna crudo and banana-ginger empanadas.
Bar manager Rocco Milano knows the first thing — and probably the only thing — people think of when they hear pisco is a Pisco Sour and so he promises a Pisco-Sour-free drink lineup. “It’s a fun spirit that has totally been pigeonholed,” he says.
Reservations are required for both events.
LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-824-7900.
More than three years later, the memories linger. Five courses at one of the city’s best restaurants, each paired with cocktails made by five of the city’s best bartenders, and all featuring Maker’s Mark whiskey.
The scene was Seattle’s Spur Gastropub, and the chefs were rocking it as usual. (Example: sous vide pork belly with sunchokes and Bing cherries – whut whut?) The all-star bartender lineup cranked out an assembly line of original cocktails like the Pine Box, with its grilled-pineapple garnish. There was even some Maker’s 46, which was about to hit the market in summer 2010. We were a happy bunch.
I moved to Dallas soon afterward, and since then I’ve been to barely a handful of spirit or cocktail-themed dinners, though not for lack of want. Last month some friends and I hit a Hudson Whiskey-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake in Plano. And as I do every time I go to one of these events, I wondered: Why doesn’t this happen more often?
Wine and beer dinners have long been a thing, but bartenders like J.W. Tate – formerly of Tate’s Dallas – at first faced resistance to the notion of making a one-stop night of cocktails and food. That’s starting to change as DFW’s cocktail culture comes of age – a welcome and logical step in the scene’s continuing evolution.
Tate’s offered two spirits-paired dinners before J.W. left Dallas earlier this year to head up a company venture in Winston-Salem, N.C., and places like Dallas’ Libertine Bar and La Duni have experimented with the idea too. “People are trying it,” says Libertine’s Mate Hartai. “It’s just going to take a while for the wheels to hit the ground.”
One reason for the slow going is that these dinners — which generally run from $35 to $100 — aren’t easy to pull off. Cocktails are time-intensive and demand smaller groups; achieving drink consistency can be difficult when produced in a bunch. And the kind of patron who embraces the idea of a cocktail dinner isn’t going to tolerate pre-batched drinks.
On the other hand, the ever-broadening assortment of quality spirits, cordials and apertifs give bartenders a grand palette to work from.
“It’s rewarding when you do it right,” Hartai says. “But it’s much more difficult than people think.”
The glasses are set, pretty orbs in a row, when a legion of Sazeracs appear in our midst. The classic cocktail is the evening’s first volley at last month’s Hudson-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake. The Plano restaurant’s dinner showcased the Hudson line’s various incarnations, from its New York Corn Whiskey, well paired with chef Brent Hammer’s charred octopus; and Four Grain Bourbon, solidly supporting an extraordinary, In-N-Out-inspired dry-aged-sirloin burger; and more.
Sean Conner, Whiskey Cake’s beverage director, tackles pairings the way he does cocktails, dissecting courses’ flavor profiles to match. “Certain things go with blackberry or cinnamon or basil,” he says. “It takes six weeks to plan out four or five different cocktails and make them really special.”
Pairing cocktails with food offers some of the same challenges that went into creating, say, sweet-and-sour chicken, with its mix of sweet and savory. “You try to figure out how someone else solved that puzzle,” says Libertine’s Hartai. “To me, that’s really fun. It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.”
Last year, when Tate’s offered a cocktail-paired dinner with chef DAT (David Anthony Temple), “DAT sent over a menu, and I riffed on that,” Tate says. “We talked a bit, and I threw out a cocktail menu, and we each made changes as it got closer…. It’s a lot like making music, with two people jamming – you throw something out there and the other person runs with it, and five weeks later you’ve got something.”
When Temple said he was doing garlic soup, Tate immediately thought of Campari and came up with a drink called the Italian Resistance. On its own, the drink’s various elements struggled to mingle, but fared much better as a pairing. Similarly, a chanterelle-and-pink-peppercorn-infused vodka drink went nicely with Temple’s speck and arugula salad but its savory character made it less pleasurable as a stand-alone cocktail.
The bar’s whiskey-themed dinner in April was a treat, pairing peppery Buffalo Trace Single Oak Barrel whiskey, for instance, with corn soup with fried pig ear, parsley crème fraiche and house-made hot sauce.
And last year, at Libertine’s whiskey-and-beer-paired dinner featuring three Scotches and two hefty beers, Hartai wanted to echo the flavors of Lagavulin. “I sat down with the chef and said, `I need smoke, earth and some kind of heat.’ He did a mushroom compote with this awesome smoked-pork thing and some vinegary thing for a kick. It took the whiskey apart into its larger flavor components.”
More recently he did what he called an Italian dinner, but by dinner’s end he had unveiled it more precisely as a vermouth-paired dinner. “The whole point was to change people’s minds about vermouth,” he says. “By the end, people were drinking straight glasses of vermouth and saying, `This is great!’ Well, yeah, it is.”
Hartai likes to save a palate-testing curve ball for the last course. “I want to jar people, give them a reason to talk,” he says. “If you realize you’re putting together an experience aimed at creating lasting memories and challenging palates, you can make an awesome dinner.”
Looking for a cocktail or spirits-themed dinner? Contact these spots and see what’s on the schedule, or follow them on Facebook.
WHISKEY CAKE KITCHEN AND BAR, 3601 Dallas Parkway, Plano. 972-993-2253. Offers quarterly alcohol-paired dinners.
LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-824-7900. Does dinners monthly, generally beer.
LA DUNI LATIN KITCHEN, four locations in Dallas/Fairview. Offers cocktail-paired, three-course dinners. Join the restaurant’s “inner circle” at one of its locations or at www.laduni.com to advance notice of such events.
You could say that Texas did itself proud in New Orleans yesterday, but then again pride in Texas has never been in short supply. Anyone taking in Tuesday’s festivities in front of the venerable Hotel Monteleone would have seen a state standing as one, with two dozen bartenders and liquor promoters firing a collective bar gun of Lone Star hospitality.
The “Texas Tailgate” — among the kickoff events for the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail conference — served up a double-digit selection of punch-cooler cocktails, plus a handful of Texas distillers and brewers offering samples of their work. Breaking a sweat in the NOLA humidity, they poured: Charlie Papaceno of Windmill Lounge, Creighten Brown of the late Private/Social, Sean Conner of Plano’s Whiskey Cake and a smattering of representatives from the Cedars Social and Bar Smyth.
There was the bourbon-fired Leather Face Mask, from Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch in Las Colinas; the tiki-ish Paradise Dream from Republic Distributing’s Chris Furtado, made with Mount Gay small-batch Black Barrel rum; and coolers of Shiner beer. Brisket was served. Austin’s Treaty Oak distillery handed out sips of two limited-release products – Red Handed Bourbon and Antique Reserve Gin – scheduled to be available by year’s end.
“Every good party needs a good kickoff before the festivities,” said Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, president of the North Texas chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. “We’re just celebrating what we do in Texas.”
And apparently, that’s good times and drinks: McCullough’s Garden District Punch was among the day’s best concoctions, a tart and refreshing burst of Dulce Vida tequila blanco, watermelon, raspberry, strawberry, lemongrass, jalapeno and red wine vinegar.
Suddenly, Papaceno’s voice boomed, as if over a megaphone: “WE HAVE EIGHT MINUTES UNTIL THESE COCKTAILS SHUT DOWN, SO PLEASE, DRINK HEARTILY WITHIN THOSE EIGHT MINUTES.”
The able and willing complied. After all, it was barely 4 p.m.
“Yeah!” someone shouted. “Texas!”
“Texas has four little gems,” said Juan Pablo DeLoera, the state’s rep for Milagro Tequila, referring to the cities of Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio. “There’s a lot of talent and passion. It has the right to show what it’s made of.”
The Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno: Unpretentious before it was cool.
Interesting story yesterday from The New York Times, which notes the number of craft cocktail joints popping up around the country that are striving for a more casual vibe. These places, the article says, are “part of what is shaping up as a fresh chapter for high-end mixology: a new breed of cocktail bar that seeks to retain the profession’s hard-won artistry while shedding the pretensions that often come with it.”
In other words, the complete opposite of cocktail culture’s stuffy stereotype – things like secret entrances, purposely subtle signage, bans on canned beer and rules against standing at the bar.
But for the most part, when it comes to serious craft cocktails, Dallas ain’t that kind of place anyway. Even The Cedars Social, which this year earned a prestigious James Beard nom for best bar program, has made a habit of stocking Lone Star and Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can for a crowd as likely to come in wearing T-shirts and jeans as much as stiletto heels and Saturday Night sport jackets.
Another draw of these casual bars, the story notes, is their bartenders’ ability to rapidly churn out quality craft drinks for dense crowds without the pomp and production that can often leave you wanting. In other words, what Uptown’s Standard Pour and Tate’s – neither of them exactly hidden away – do on a regular basis for the weekend throngs full of yuppies who thirst more for a quick buzz than for obscure cocktail knowledge. (For the record, I avoid these nights.)
Neither place is particularly stuffy, either, though it must be noted that in Standard Pour’s earlier days Tate’s own head barman J.W. Tate was turned away at the door because of the cap he wore backwards on his head.
As far as strict, quality-cocktail casual goes, these places already exist here: Charlie Papaceno at the divey Windmill Lounge on Maple has been crafting quality drinks since before it was a thing in Dallas. The Black Swan Saloon in Deep Ellum wears no fancypants, and the pubby Libertine on Lower Greenville has Mate Hartai, one of the better cocktailian minds around.
Granted, none of these spots went into business proclaiming themselves to be craft cocktail bars, so maybe the comparison is unfair. But pretension doesn’t go very far in Dallas’ cocktail culture, and so far, the jury is still out on whether people will stand, in line or in temperament, for even the tiniest bit of speakeasy pretension. (I’m looking at you, Bar Smyth.) There’s something genuine about the scene here that evades the haughtiness that comes with being first. New York and the Bay Area no doubt paved the way for the country’s classic cocktail revival, but those cities are now also, according to the story, discovering the value in being a little less like themselves and a little more, well, like Dallas.
“I do think there are some bartenders out there that have a pretentiousness about them,” says Chris Dempsey of The People’s Last Stand. “But they’re quick to change once they see it affect their business. Most of the guys I know are humble and knowledgeable, which is a pretty good combo, if you ask me.”
What do you think? Do you find Dallas’ cocktail bars pretentious? What do you think about bars that take a “speakeasy’ approach?
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