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Saturday, January 29, 2011

DIY Cocktail Adventures: l'Art France Cocktail Class

L'Art France
Art France
7-9 rue Montyon
75009 Paris
Tel. +33 (0)1 77 32 49 69

I've probably made more martinis than any other cocktail. I've surely drank more of them than any other cocktail. But when it comes to mixology, Paris is much more mojito than martini. So I was pleasantly surprised to see them taught side by side at a recent cocktail class I was scoping out. l'Art France is one of a handful of Paris cooking schools getting onboard with the cocktail trend. I enlisted the company of friend and fellow drinker from my old local, Marette, and off we went for some shaker-schooling.

Friendly staff shuffled us into a room with about 16 others already crowded around a long shiny black table loaded with cocktail glasses, straws, etc. The class was led by Antoine, who at the time was working at well-known Plaza Athenee, but will have already moved to long-standing institution, Harry's, by now. He explained that this class for non-pros focuses on basics and uses spirits and equipment that are simple and easy for a home bar. The general idea is making cocktails with what you might already have around the house.

He smartly started with basics on balance and gave suggested proportions for three very important cocktail elements: Strong, Sour and Sweet. I've hosted a cocktail or two and after a tipple everyone's a barman and wants to show off their mad mixing skills. This rarely results in an inspired drink. But, with a bit more foundation in how to incorporate these three elements with grace and forthought, I think these well-meaning budding-mixologists would be more likely to turn out something tasty.

Beyond basics, and onto actual practice, we learned a margarita, mojito, martini and a sort of white lady. Antoine's knowledge and skills were evident as he executed drinks well and fielded questions with ease. He showcased the same cocktail with different sweet ingrediants (e.g. granulated sugar versus syrup) highlighting overall changes as a result of small variations. We finished with a bit of instruction on weight and layering.

Antoine's laid-back, friendly and patient demeanor sets the class at ease as he invites participants to make a cocktail side by side with him. He's an enthusiastic and competant teacher, but some of the aspects of this cocktail class (which presumabely fall under the responsibility of school management) need a bit of tweaking to improve the overall experience.

First suggestion: chairs. In an attempt to make the class more convivial and interactive, participants stand during the session. On a friday night after a long week, I'm just not that interested in standing for 2 hours. I know you bar pros stand for a lot longer than this. But, it's my hobby not my metier, so let me take a seat - or at least warn me so I leave the heels at home.

Second suggestion: more hands-on practice. While people were actively encouraged to come up and participate, there simply wasn't time or ingrediants for everyone to have a go at making a full cocktail. Which brings me too...

Third suggestion: I want an actual cocktail to taste. (okay, more reasonably, a sample of the cocktail for sipping). The class sampled the drinks with straw tastings. I assume this is more to manage stock than for hygiene purposes, since many of the class members sucked the end of their straws and then double-dipped. I personally don't get squeemy sharing a cocktail glass, so I wasn't freaked by this (although it is a bit gross when you think about it too much). But, I'd just rather have my own sample to drink.

And final suggestion: I'd like to see more attention to ingrediants. Depending on what I'm making and for whom there are occassions when I don't think the quality improvement warrants the extra cost of certain things. But, when I'm making something that is essentially booze, i.e. a martini, I want something better than mediocre gin, which is what we were dealing with. The selection was a hodge-podge of miscellaneous mainly low-end product.

I can't help but compare this to a very similar level of cocktail class at La Cuisine. The la Cuisine course rings it at 40 Euros while this one will set you back 65. Both are classes for newbies taught by knowledgeable and friendly barmen. But at la Cuisine, classes are smaller, every student gets hands on practice at making & drinking each drink, and the cocktail selection is more interesting. But Antoine does get props for daring to throw a martini into the mix!

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dramatic Cocktail Adventures: Le Carmen

Le Carmen
22 rue de Douai


I like classics: cocktails, cuisine, clothes, cars… But, I own up to being a bit of a novelty junkie as well. I don’t just want to know what’s “now”, I want to know what’s “next.” New venues are exciting, even more so if they’re nearly on my doorstep. So, I was clearly intrigued when le Carmen opened late last year in a discrete former hôtel particulier not far from the neon light of Pigalle.

At 8 sharp (opening hour), Matt, Vio, Amy, Shannon and I were ushered through the simple entrance by a serious doorman and delivered into elegantly theatrical surroundings. We passed the enormous bird cage and between two massive ionic columns, drawn to the glowing bar, center stage. Dramatic lighting, beautiful drapes, intimate arrangements of fashionable furniture and elegant accents such as the grand piano or heavy candelabras transport patrons to a milieu reminiscent of a film set. No surprise, considering the man behind the impressive transformation is Antoine Platteau, a famous French film set designer.

When we asked for the menu, the waitress told us there was none and offered to send over the “mixologue.” When a bartender is competent, menu-free drinking can be fun. And, this is an environment that could work a no-menu, more personalized service angle on certain levels. But, it’s also a setting that leaves customers wondering just how expensive cocktails might be. And, such a pretty place deters gauche questions of price, so patrons may hold back on “just one more” for fear of sticker shock. My solution would be to indicate price without providing detail - simply listing categories and prices and inviting customers to discuss cocktail options with the bartender. However, I fear that even such a solution will prove too difficult for a venue that looks set to start pulling in substantial crowds leaving insufficient time for one-on-one cocktail collaboration. So perhaps it’s better that I’ve been told they do plan on printing menus soon.

Resident barman, Benjamin (formerly of Paris ice bar, Kube), mixed up our first round, including a very nice martini with Haymans. We were impressed enough by round one, to give him free reign on the next. Round two was a success, with a couple notables. Vio’s drink which included spiced rum, sugar and pink grapefruit juice and was right up her ally. I appreciated the use of Bols genever in mine, which showed an awareness of my taste preferences but a willingness to stray from the obvious spirit choice of gin.

Benjamin is pleasant and enthusiastic about his work and cocktails. In the world of nightlife, superficial often trumps substance. So, I give le Carmen kudos for being more than just a pretty face. I’ll be curious to see what type of following it cultivates as it has the potential to pull in the beautiful crowd in need of a beautiful backdrop. Le Carmen falls into a space between cocktail bar and nightclub, with a coming lineup of music and dj’s and somewhat of a ‘late night’ feel. Closing hour is currently 2am, but that may be extended in the future. The music focus is fitting as this was also where the opera Carmen was written.

Upon paying we discovered the prices to be 12 to 15 Euros for cocktails, fair for the quality and location. Patrons preferring something a little less spendy can partake in the sophisticated swish with a glass of wine or beer at around 6 Euros. Without a menu, it’s harder to get an overall feel for their cocktail direction, so I’ll be stopping back in for further ‘research’ soon. Plus its classic but fresh feel simultaneous sates my cravings for both old and new.

(photos - except martini - are from le Carmen Facebook page by permission)

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Quickie Brithday Cocktail Adventures: Grand Hotel

InterContinental Paris le Grand Hotel
2 rue Scribe
75009 Paris

Recall Ugo from the hand incident at le 47? Not only is he a nice bartender, but he's a fun guy to grab a drink with. So we met up at the preselection for the Trophée du Bar at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel. As it happened it was also my birthday, so while waiting for him, I decided to indulge in an anniversary-of-my-being-born martini.

Upon sitting down, I was ready to love up this somewhat spendy hotel bar. First impression: upscale, rich red in an under-the-radar-ish locale, a bar/lounge area that spans the entire first floor lobby and an "original dry martini" on the menu comprising Tanqueray, vermouth and a few dashes of orange bitters! A few interesting gins on the menu and a selection of classics (Sazerac, vieux carre, etc) and house creations.

Service was top-notch hotel-worthy and I ordered my dry martini. But apparently should have specified I wanted the "original" martini that was listed on the menu. I watched the bar-lady stir up a martini with Gordon's and then pour it into a Grey Goose glass. I payed 20 Euros for a sponsored cocktail glassful of low-grade gin. For 2 Euros more, I could presumably have had the better martini but wasn't given the option and didn't realize until after that in addition to the 'original dry martini' there is 'dry martini' on the menu, so I guess I should have specified.

Ugo arrived and we dropped down to the smaller bar downstairs to watch the participants mix up drinks. The crowd was fun & some interesting cocktails were being created. But I was still cranking a bit after paying 20 Euros for a martini made from a bottle of gin that in its entirety (at grocery full price) costs significantly less than the price of my drink at le Grand Hotel. The annoyance lasted only briefly, because - really - who wants to be cranky on their birthday!? But, I do like the space and will pop by again to try the original dry martini.

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