While the city of New Orleans lays claim to inventing the cocktail, it can’t take credit for pairing cocktails with fine cuisine. That idea comes from renowned bartender and cocktail creator Dale DeGroff, formerly of New York City’s Rainbow Room supper club.
DeGroff, other mixologists and some of the city’s best known chefs are mixing it up at “Spririted Dinners” in the second annual “Tales of the Cocktail” event (Aug. 19-21). Setting aside the wine, cocktails will be paired and presented with each course at the dinners, and other cocktail parties and events will feature new drinks, bar trends, entertaining and more.
The Tales of the Cocktail event grew out of a French Quarter history tour of the same name, still offered daily (569-1401). The bar hopping tour takes visitors to famous restaurants, bars and sites offering the not surprisingly rich history of drinks and drinking in New Orleans. It covers the creation of Southern Comfort by a French Quarter bartender to Antoine’s secret dining rooms where alcohol was available to knowing patrons during Prohibition.
The highlight of the three-day August event are the Spirited Dinners. The idea isn’t a new one but it’s finally spreading across the country. DeGroff, perhaps one of the industry’s best known bartenders and bar managers, came up with the idea while he was running the bar at the the Rainbow Room. He was dining late one night after work when a strange pair crossed his palate.
“I had ordered a spicy Thai fish soup and was planning on ordering a glass of Gewurtztraminer to go with it,” he says. “I was still drinking a glass of scotch when they brought me the soup. It was Lagavulin, a smoky single malt scotch. I cancelled the wine because I was still drinking the Scotch and I noticed the smoky scotch paired well with the smoked fish in the soup. It got me thinking.”
DeGroff was already behind the revival of the cocktail. While many bars and restaurants now have signature drink menus, that wasn’t the case in the mid-80s when he was hired at the Rainbow Room. Most bars had one type of glass that all their cocktails went in, he says. In fact, he had to talk his way into the Rainbow Room by selling the owner on doing a special cocktail menu to suit its concept. The Rainbow Room is a ’30s-style supper club and he suggested developing a menu of ’30s cocktails. When he went looking at other places to see what they were up to, there wasn’t a cocktail menu in sight. Drinkers of all sorts of new martinis have him to thank for bringing cocktails back into fashion.
Almost like wine, he tends to pair white spirits with fish and darker spirits with meat and game. Fish dishes often go well with gin, vodka and rum drinks mixed with citrus or sour ingredients, DeGroff says. A mojito goes well with many Caribbean fish dishes. Dark spirits also stand up well to spice. He’s paired spicy Cajun-styled dishes with a classic Blood in the Sand, a drink of equal parts scotch, Cherry Herring, sweet vermouth and orange juice. Sometimes a sauce may tilt his pairings as he either seeks to augment or counterpoint its key ingredients.
Many of New Orleans’ more senior Creole restaurants are featuring dinners, perhaps suggesting that New Orleans’ tastes have always matched well with cocktails. Restaurants hosting dinners include Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Broussard’s, Galatoire’s, Louis XVI, Muriel’s Jackson Square and Tujaque’s. See www.TalesoftheCocktail.com for the complete list of participating restaurants and other events, like the book signing cocktail reception with visiting authors. All dinners are on Thursday 8/19, and reservations should be made directly with the restaurants.
Other guests and topics include Ted Breaux on the history of absinthe, magazine writer Thomas Conners on classic hotel bars, food writer John DeMers, Mittie Hellmich, author of Highballs High Heels, Sharon Herbst, author of The Ultimate A-toZ Bar Guide, cocktail expert Robert Plotkin and many more.
It’s a great chance to raise a toast to some true New Orleans history.