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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Vintage Cocktail Adventures: l'Entree des Artistes

l'Entree des Artistes
8 rue de Crussol
75011 Paris

The Paris cocktail scene has
done a lot of growing up over the past 4 years. We've gone from a handful of successful forerunners to a nicely growing network of drinking options. Paris bar talent is expanding internationally with the ECC setting up shop in both the UK and the US. And we're seeing international cocktail trends showing up in bars here locally - the latest of which is aged cocktails. The first mixology maostro to experiment with bottling a premixed cocktail and leaving it to age was Tony Conigliaro at 69 Colebrook Rowe in London. Jeffrey Morgenthaler followed up with more barrel aged cocktail trials in Portland, Oregon. And now, Paris l
ocals can weigh in on whether or not a few weeks of storage can improve the taste of their tipples at the newly opened l'Entree des Artistes.

The team behind this laid-back locale, hit the ground running with pre-opening anticipation on the part of Paris cocktillians. Fabien, having honed his skills at Prescription Cocktail Club, teams his bar skills with Edouard, who handles the wine side. The result: a relaxed, low key, pint-sized cocktail bar with a significant food and wine list as well.

I stopped in last week with a few friends to form my own opinions on the 'vintage' drinks. My friends were surprized when i led them to the place telling me it used to be a 'divey' bar where'd they'd hang out for cheep beers. It's been renovated, but not so much that it's lost the laid-back local frenchie feel. The casual space is enhanced with well chosen touches like the antique cash register and swank bar accoutrements. Also, on my visit, I ran into Thierry Daniel of Liquid Liquid/Cocktail Spirits doing his own sampling, which is a good sign that the drinks are worth trying.

I tried a negroni and a vieux carre, both of which had been aged in barrels for 6 weeks.
The aging brings a mellow and interesting melange of flavors that i think make them worth the 14 - 15 Euros price tag. However, patrons looking for something a little less invasive on the pocketbook, can play with their impressive menu of cocktails at 10 - 11 Euros each. And the standard cocktail menu offerings are no less interesting with options like the Mon Vieux Tabac (Peychaud's bitters, Bob's Bitters licorice, tabacco liqueur, Carpano Anica Formula, Cognan Grosperrin and Rittenhouse Rye 100). Clearly this is no mojito mecca. Given the care that's going into these drinks, l'Entree des Artistes currently rates as one of Paris' best values for money in cocktail options.

I see a bright future for these boys amongst the serious cocktail crowd as well as residents looking for a refreshing change of pace from the so many just so-so bars in the Oberkampf area. And, while I like to see local bars bringing in already established cocktail practices, I'm also looking forward to spending more time there to explore what they can bring to the cocktail trends themselves.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Drugstore Cocktail Adventures: Drugstore Publicis

Drugstore Publicis

133 avenue des Champs-Elysées

75008 Paris

This ain't your granny's drugstore. The shiny Drugstore Publicis sits in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe and serves as a one-stop upscale shop for books, food (both sit down and to go), drinks, cigarettes, movies, magazines and more. I’ve passed this place countless times and never been moved to try any of its offerings, assuming – given the locale - it would be overpriced and pretentious. Recently, Kim and I found ourselves stumped for a nightcap spot in the area and stopped onto their airy terrace expecting nothing more than a mediocre drink and a bit of girlie gossip.

Once we looked at the menu, we realized that this might be an unexpected hidden cocktail gem. First off, they have a long list of martinis on offer – including a classic dry. Cocktails, at 14 Euros each, fall under several categories: shorts, longs, champagne based, and after or before dinners. Alongside the typical bloody mary’s and ti punch, some in particular that caught my eye as more unusual for Paris were the negroni, Pimm’s cups, mint juleps and a pink gin, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a Paris cocktail menu. Finally, their list of 15 different gins (including a genever and without a Gordon’s in sight) sealed the deal and we decamped from the terrace and headed in for a front row seat at the bar.

While the outdoor area is nice, in a rather nondescript way, the inside is brightly lit, clean and modern with its sleek white counter tops, neon light touches and flashing screens. Surprisingly it feels slightly dated even though it was remodeled not long ago. But I’m cool to ironically do the 80’s deal if it comes with a good drink. And, it did.

My Bombay Sapphire (although not my preferred it is the house gin) martini was stirred and served in a chilled glass with an olive. More attention to cocktail detail followed. Kim’s French martini came with freshly crushed pineapple, all glasses were chilled and double straining was happening. As we watched them make others’ drinks it was clear that a lot of consideration was going into each one. Although one thing I'm unsure on is that he uses a milkshake blender instead of shaking. I think this might work well for certain cocktails to really whip them up to a froth, but for others, I'm not sure it's appropriate.

We were both taken by the approachable barman who chatted with us without being overly intrusive. In between building drinks, he refilled our water glasses and offered up bowls of salty crisps.

The clientele is a mixed bag of tourists taking in a rowdy meal, awkward dates sharing fishbowl-sized Movenpick ice cream dishes and even more awkward business associates (?) who stare blankly into the center of the room neither speaking to each other nor appearing to enjoy themselves as their large servings of ice-cream melt away. But, to offset the somewhat odd vibe, they had yet more surprises in store for us. They are open 365 days a year. So, if you need a cocktail on Christmas day, this is your stop. And, unlike so many bars in this area, they have a happy hour. From 6 to 8, cocktails are a reasonable 9 Euros. Glasses of wine range from 6 to 13 Euros, which is also a decent pricetag for the Champs.

However, I’d personally save the wine sipping for the terrace since the place isn’t busting with dimly lit vino-inspiring ambience. But mostly, I’d either hit this place for a nooner cocktail or keep it up my sleeve as an unexpectedly good spot for a happy hour cocktail after a day of shopping (or more realistically, in this area, window-shopping). So, I was wrong. It’s not just about watery, overpriced Champs-Elysees tourist trap cocktails here. They’re actually putting some TLC into their drinks and at a pocket-friendly price. And, I’m okay with being wrong.... because it’s a lot easier to eat crow when you can wash it down with a decent drink.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Groupon Fail Cocktail Adventures: Will et Cie Cocktail Classes

Will et Cie
10 Place du Colonel Bourgoin
75012 Paris
Tel: 06 59 92 10 57

Recently, I took a full day off the computer. When I logged on the following morning I had close to 50 mails. I deleted every single one without reading. Being online most of the time, I bin things as they come in so I never realized just how much junk comes into my box on a daily basis. A large portion of these mails are Groupons, which come so frequently, I've stopped reading them. Unless...the word 'cocktail' catches my eye. And, that's how I ended up buying a Groupon for a cocktail class at Will et Cie. For 45 Euros (instead of 119 Euros) I got a pass for two to learn to shake "two or three" cocktails, bake goodies to go with them, and partake in a 'warm and convivial' tasting after - all in one hour!

So, Mel and I rocked up to the tiny studio that serves as their classroom. This space is adorable as a studio apartment. But, as a professional classroom, not so much. The large flat screen TV played old Buffy reruns, the frisky house pup jumped about licking classmates' fingers and the fridge was stocked with, well, the same things mine's stocked with: half of last night's dinner, bits and bobs. But, then again, I'm not running a cooking class out of my house.

A friendly and pleasant instructor broke us into three groups of two and set us each to a different baking project. I was assigned the savory gateaux au yaourt while the others worked on cookie type things and mini-muffins. I was slightly surprised by the simplicity of what we were learning. I was mixing up something that children learn to bake at an early age in France. But, it's not like they were teaching me to put Cheezewhiz on Ritz crackers, so I rolled with it. As she instructed, she periodically called up to a man lounging in the little loft just above the kitchen (Will, I presume?) to ask how much of what ingredient went into which dish. I wasn't expecting Alain Ducass, but I was hoping the person teaching would actually know how to do it themselves.

Once the baked goods were in the oven, the cocktails commenced. And rather than "two or three" we were to learn one: the Cosmo. A shaker, Smirnoff, lime syrup, triple sec and Oceanspray were set out and she instructed Mel on how to make it. She had her pour the ingredients into the shaker (without ice) and while I don't remember her proportions, I do remember thinking at the time that they were surprisingly accurate. Given what I had seen up to this point, I had expected some bastardized version of the Cosmo calling for copious amounts of cranberry and a drop of vodka. Then she gave us the 'secret' to making a good cosmopolitan: use just two ice cubes and shakes it until they melt. Sigh....

After Mel did so, she asked us which glasses we'd like to use. Our choices: tumblers or wine balloons. Call me an overdemanding traditionalist, but if you're going to charge people to come to a class to learn about a specific cocktail, wouldn't you maybe splash out a tenner at Ikea to get the proper style of glass? We went for the wine balloons. And, the cosmo tasted pretty much as I expected a watery and too warm mixture of the above ingredients.

About this time the finger foods were coming out of the oven and tasting began. But, the strange thing was we were all just tasting what we made. There was no instruction or suggestion to share with the group. Having a wealth of mini-savory cakes, Mel and I offered ours up to the class. But, no one else did, rather boxing them up in the provided to go containers to gorge on them all alone later. If we aren't all going to taste everything, what was the point of us all being there at the same class or making different things?

And there's more. After Mel made our drinks, the instructor cleared away the ingredients. The other four students neither made nor at the very least tasted the cocktail of the "cocktail workshop." In fact, she pleasantly shuffled them along once they filled their boxes while offering us the opportunity to make a second one if we wished. She was so cheerful and friendly, but this whole thing just seems wrong on so many levels that I'm really just shaking my head here.

Their website is cute and looks professional enough. They seem to be partnered with other professional-type businesses. I even noticed that some of my acquaintances in the cocktail world like their page on Facebook. It was the twilight zone of cocktail courses. All external indicators point to something useful and fun, but the reality is entirely different. If I were Will, I would completely change my marketing on this one. Rather than presenting it as an apero dinatoire and cocktails workshop I'd play it as a class on "Entertaining on a shoestring" or "Entertaining with an empty fridge" because we weren't learning gastronomically interesting things. We were working with minimum, cheap ingredients and very simple recipes.

I debated on posting this for awhile because our instructor was so nice and they seem so woefully out of their league that it feels almost cruel. But, I got to thinking: we get enough junk mail and junk experiences in life that clog up our time. So, I decided to post so you know you can just delete that mail on the Will et Cie Cocktail Workshop Groupon immediately when it pops into the inbox.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Club Sandwich Cocktail Adventures: The Club

24 rue Sourcouff
75007 Paris

One of the fun aspects of writing a cocktail blog is getting invites for launch parties and the like. Last night, I made a stop into an event organized for press and interested parties by newly opened The Club. Antoni Pascual and Stephane Bilard have paired cocktails with club sandwiches in this 'chaotic chic' two floor space designed by master milliner turned shoe maker, Philippe Model.

Two specific cocktails were planned for the event, so I forwent my usual martini order and let Stephane (who previously has worked such big names as Pershing Hall, le Meurice and Plaza Athenee) mix me up The Club (42 Below vodka, lime, Fever Tree ginger beer and Angostura bitters) With its vodka base, this wouldn't be a typical order for me, but it does highlight something they're doing right: fresh and well chosen, good quality ingredients. [I'm a fan of Fever Tree] Downstairs, Stephane Verga of la Maison du Whisky was mixing up a St Germain cocktail (St Germain, Bottle Green cordial & champagne) which is an interesting choice considering St Germain is not in any of their cocktails listed on the menu. But, I'm a St Germain fan as well, so I shan't complain.

Reasonably priced at 10 Euros a drink, their regular cocktail menu features 14 choices based on a range of spirits, only three of which are vodka based, which is a good sign that they are avoiding the lazy route of a mainly vodka menu. I predict that their more easily accessible options like the Red Mojito or the Berrie Breeze will be their biggest sellers - which is a shame because they've got some respectably better options on offer like manhattans, old fashioneds or a white lady with egg white.

As for the stock, they're working with la Maison du Whisky, and take pride in the fact that it's a small but well thought out selection. Hendrick's and Tanqueray are the listed gins and seem to be good choices if you're going with just two. And, although not listed on the menu, I also saw a bottle of Bombay Sapphire on the shelves.

While cocktails were being shaken and stirred, plates of grilled cheese and club sandwiches were circulating. Their 9 clubs on offer (15 to 18 Euros and served with veggies or potatoes) range from the classic to the luxe (roast beef, foie gras maison, roquette and piment d'Espelette) I tried their salmon (from Petrossian) version and also the magret de canard/dried tomato sandwich. And for the Berko fans, that's who's providing the cheesecakes on their menu.

While cocktal bars like the ECC trio, la Conserverie and le Forum are now Paris standards in superior cocktails, the Club belongs to what I consider Paris' second wave of noteable cocktail activity. After a taste for a better crafted cocktail has been instilled by the forerunners on the cocktail scene, we're beginning to see existing or new bars who are reaching for something more than just a basic mojito and giving more thought to ingredients and methods. No bones about it: the Club is not another craft cocktail lounge or haven for hardcore cocktail geeks - but they're not trying to be. Their aim seems to be a focus on a smaller and simpler selection and injecting a bit of fun with food and cocktails into an area that is a notorious cocktail dead zone. If the service remains as accommodating and friendly as it was last night and they maintain the quality of their ingredients, I'd say this will be a valid option for a decent drink in the area with a good price/quality ratio.

Admittedly, it's difficult to objectively review a place when you attend an event that removes you from the normal customer experience. So, readers, I encourage you to report back on your own experiences there. And that reminds me of another fun aspect of writing a cocktail blog: great readers. You ask good questions, give good information and are generally just pleasant to interact with. So, I'll take this opportunity to say "Thank you, Readers. You're a good lot!"

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Spodie Cocktail Adventures: Speakeasy

25 Rue Jean Giraudoux
75016 Paris, France
01 47 23 47 22

Articles abound on the 'speakeasy' bar trend; some proclaimings it's in, others proclaiming it's over. I think it's over. That's not to say I don't highly enjoy many of the places touted as modern day speakeasies. But, a little variety is good and I don't think a bar need necessarily employ faux-prohibition tactics to prove their cocktail cred. However, a bar with the name 'Speakeasy' is going to catch my attention.

With red velour stools, dark leather sofas, nightly jazz and a discreet fumoir, the Speakeasy attempts to transport clients back in time to the smoky, jazz-filled Chicagoan dens of iniquity of the twenties. The menu features over 20 cocktails, including the usuals like margaritas and mojitos and more unique house creations at 14 Euros each. Nothing looked exceptional and some were hovering suspiciously close to spodie territory such as the Gin Imperial (Bombay, Malibu, grenadine, pineapple juice, mandarin imperial, raspberry juice and tonic water.) Although what was exceptional for this generally expensive area was a happy hour (17h30 - 19h30, all cocktails 8 Euros)

I was very early and set off solo for my first drink. Cheerful besuited staff set out dishes of chips and jarred salsa. I don't like jarred salsa. It simply does't taste good. I ate some anyway and washed it down with the glass of ice water the barman had thoughtfully put in front of me. I've been living here long enough to know better. It wasn't water. This was my martini: sweet vermouth over ice with a big lemon chunk in it. I think he may have dropped in a few drops of gin because I had asked for a 'dry gin martini.' It's is a shame because there are more than a few gins I would happily put in my mouth from those listed on their menu (Gordon's, Tanqueray, Beefeater, Tanqueray 10, Bombay Sapphire, Pink 47 and Hendricks.) However there is one gin they list which has me a baffled. I have never heard of (and find no information on) "Cavendish" which they also have listed on the menu as a gin. [note: Paul-Eric of Sipeasy just notified me that this is the private label gin of France Boisson]

Mel and Vio arrived and took two drinks whose names and don't recall and which left them nonplussed. Unable to find anything imbibe-inspiring on the menu I went the when-in-Rome route with the amicably votre, a crazy concoction of whisky, light rum, Malibu, pineapple juice, blue curacao & strawberry juice. I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn't. And the color. Anyone ever see the modern day freak show that is the Jim rose circus? The color recalls Matt "The Tube" Crowley's act. I'll leave you to look the description of that one up at your leisure in case you're having lunch right now.

A fellow blogger Cat - who hits some nice bars - reported a very good experience there. And with the friendly staff, good tunes and relaxed atmoshphere, I have no doubt that one could pass an enjoyable evening here with the right drink orders. (wine? Whisky?) So perhaps it's hit and miss here.

And, I imagine speakeasies during prohibition had that same range in quality. In some cases, the liquor restrictions forced a flourish of creativity as bartenders invented new recipes with limited resources. But those with less cash or connections were unlikely to be celebrating this new bout of cocktail creativity and probably ended up in sketchy speakeasies with even sketchier spirits. At this Speakeasy: Cat had a good experience and I had a bad one. At Prohibition era speakeasies: Sometimes you get a legendary Last Word cocktail. But then sometimes you get bathtub gin related deaths. So perhaps this place - with its bads as well as goods - is actually more representative of real speakeasies than I initially thought.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Romantic Cocktail Adventures: Hotel Saint James

Hotel Saint James
43 avenue Bugeaud
75116 Paris
Tel: 01 44 05 81 81

Tucked discretely away in the quiet 16th, the insouciantly elegant Hotel Saint James radiates cheeky chic thanks to a makeover a la Bambi Sloan who manages to marry the traditional with the trendy in its bold and breathtaking decor. In addition to being a dreamy spot to lay your head for a night or two, this hotel and private club features two very different and drop dead gorge drinking spaces: the library and the terrace. This summer has been a bit hit and miss weather-wise in Paris, so when the blue skies broke through, I made a beeline for the fairytale-like terrace for a bit of al fresco imbibing.

While waiting for Matt, Vio, Mel and Thibault, I gave the drinks menu the once over. It begins with 15 mojito variations including a USA mojito made with bourbon. Otherwise, one can choose from somewhat pedestrian 'classics' like cosmos and sex on the beach or - possibly more appropriate in this setting - a dozen or so champagne cocktails. They also invite you to 'ask the barman for your classic cocktail of choice', which I did. Unfortunately, my martini was a wash. It was served warm, with sweet vermouth and over-enthusiastically boasting a twist, an olive and a straw.

The others were more successful in their orders of caipis or mojito variations which were iced up and refreshing and a good choice for some summer sipping if that type of drink is your thing. Based on their limited spirits selection and uninspired 'classics' offerings, they seem to sway towards the fruity summer drinks and focus on pleasing the mojito crowd, but fall a bit short when it comes to the classic cocktail capabilities.

Service was friendly enough, cocktail nibbles were replenished regularly and the surroundings are undoubtedly luxe. Yet, even so, at 18 - 25 Euros a drink, I'd love to see a tiny bit more attention paid to the classics and ingredients. That said, I am quite simply enamoured with this place. So much so that I briefly flirted with becoming a member. Apparently, benefits include preferential booking policies, exclusive access to club events and entry to a network of some 200+ private clubs worldwide...for a price. But, if you're not flush enough to enjoy the privileges of membership, non-members can still stop into both the bar or restaurant from 19h00 onwards in the evenings.

While it's unlikely I'll order another martini at the Saint James, I will surely return. In summer months, I'll partake in its delicately feminine side on the terrace with a girlfriend or two, a (surprisingly reasonably priced) bottle of wine and a cheese plate. When winter rolls around I'll indluge in its more masculine side and while away a chilly evening in the splendid library bar with something straight and strong (and I am still talking about the drinks.)

*Note: First and last pics are from the Saint James facebook page. Want to know more about the Hotel Saint James? Check out Not Just Another Milla's post on her wedding there.

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