Classic cocktails and new discoveries

I’m a big fan of a well-made cocktail. I appreciate the combination of skill, passion, creativity and great ingredients that goes into mixing the perfect drink. All of these are important, perhaps not in equal measures, but without the presence of all four ingredients, that post-prandial you’ve been craving for might just leave you a little disappointed. These days, my tastes run pretty simple. I pretty much stick to ordering classic drinks. A glass of Champagne or some ice-cold sake and I’m happy. If pushed to order a mixed drink, I’ll take a bellini, vodka gimlet, mojito or Pim’s cocktail over newer, fancier libations any day. Of course, I was not always so simple. In fact, when I was younger, I’m embarrassed to say, I was quite the wanker. My tastes in my early teen years ran to bottled wine coolers. From these disgusting alcopops, I soon found myself exploring and enjoying sickly-sweet, garishly colored cocktails with stupid names like Woo-Woo, Fuzzy Navel and the way-too-popular Sex on the Beach. Pathetic, right? Thank God by the time I went to university I had moved onto microbrewed beers and handcrafted vodkas.

Despite my current penchant for classic combinations, I still enjoy occasionally discovering (and tasting) smartly-crafted and unique cocktails. One of my favorite finds of the past few years is the Alberto #1, named after and created by Alberto Alonso, who spent 40 years working behind the bar at the famous but now closed restaurant La Caravelle. It combines fresh lime juice, mint, sugar, and vodka, and is topped off with Champagne. It’s a delightful, zesty drink that packs a huge punch.

photos courtesy of American Express Publishing Corporation

I recently had the opportunity to peruse Food & Wine‘s Cocktails 2006, a cool, pocket-size guide with over 150 drink recipes. While I have to admit that I probably would never attempt to mix many of the cocktails in this book, there were several that did catch my eye and a couple that had me drooling over the book’s glossy and well-designed pages. I really like that the recipes are all attributed to bartenders and bars across America. It’s a great way to discover interesting drinks and interesting places to drink in at the same time. Many of the drinks in this book have some pretty wacky names, like Label Whore, Heavy Petting, Finding Nemo, Periodista, and The Naughty Greek. In addition to the cocktail recipes, Cocktails 2006 also has a chapter containing 14 very yummy-sounding bar snack recipes. I was particularly excited by the stilton sirloin burgers with onion jam, attributed to the bar at the Peninsula in Chicago (pictured at the top right of the above montage). As a resource, this is a fun, attractive and informative book. I urge any amateur mixologist to pick one up. It’s available in bookstores across the USA and off Food & Wine’s website.

As a sneak preview, I’m transcribing 3 drink recipes that I find particularly yummy and one snack recipe that I’m sure you’ll all love.

Blackberry-mint margarita
From The Hungry Cat, Hollywood, California
8 blackberries, 2 skewered on a pick
10 mint leaves
1.5 ounces reposado tequila
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce sugar syrup

In a cocktail shaker, muddle 6 of the berries. Add ice, the mint, tequila, lime juice and the syrup shake well. Pour into a rocks glass; top with the 2 berries.

Boa 405
From Boa, Santa Monica, California
2 strawberries, hulled and halved
1/2 ounce sugar syrup
1.5 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
dash of balsamic vinegar
large pinch of coarsely cracked black pepper

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the strawberries and syrup. Add the vodka, lemon juice, vinegar and ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with pepper.

Vanilla old-fashioned
From Mas, New York City, New York
one 1-inch piece of vanilla bean, split (they recommend Madagascan or Tahitian)
one 1-inch piece of orange zest
1/4 ounce sugar syrup
2 dashes of orange butters
2 ounces bourban
1 orange wheel

In a rocks glass, muddle the vanilla bean and orange zest with the syrup and bitters. Add the bourban and ice. Stir and garnish with the orange wheel.

Truffled popcorn
From Suba, New York City, New York
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced black truffle (optional; I suggest using black truffle salsa)
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup popcorn kernels (7 ounces)
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the truffle, truffle oil and a pinch of salt; keep warm. In a large heavy pot, heat the vegetable oil. Add the popcorn kernels, cover and cook over moderate heat until they start popping. Cook, shaking the pot continuously, until the popping has almost stopped. Carefully pour the popcorn into a large bowl. Add the truffled butter and toss well. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Cocktails lovers looking for an alternative guide should check out The Cocktail by Jane Rocca. I wrote a little about this gorgeous book in my holiday gift guide last December. With 200 recipes and stunning illustrations, The Cocktail is as much an art book as it is a fantastic resource. Like some of the drinks in Food & Wine’s guide, Ms Rocca has given many of her drinks some pretty witty names, like Violent Little Ol’ Lavender Girl and Tina’s On A Taipei Bus. Of the many drinks in this delightful book, the one I’m planning on making very soon is the Geisha Fizz. To make it, muddle 2 lychees in 10ml lemon juice. Then mix 15ml sake, 110ml Champagne, 15ml creme de gingembre with the muddled lychee and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake and strain into a flute. Garnish with a broken kaffir lime leaf.

Best iced coffee

One of my favorite (non-boozy) drinks is a good iced coffee. I’ve noticed that in some countries, an iced coffee comes with a scoop of ice cream. And while t

hat’s yummy, it’s not quite right to me. I like my ice coffee pretty simple: good quality coffee, served ice cold, sweet and milky. What I really don’t like is when lazy baristas prepare iced coffee by pouring hot coffee into a glass filled with ice. They might as well call that “somewhat cool, watered down coffee”. Not only is the temperature not right but the flavor is diluted, thanks to all the melted ice.

When researching a story a few years ago, I came across the description of a café in Tokyo that had been pitched to my colleagues and I as the home of the best iced coffee in Japan. The owners of this café used only the very best and most expensive Blue Mountain coffee. The coffee was mixed with milk and sugar and then poured into a cocktail shaker. This was sealed tightly and then spun… yes, spun… on top of a giant block of ice. The coffee gets chilled without any additional water diluting it. Fantastic! And of course a tad extreme.

One of the best iced coffees in Singapore used to at the Four Seasons Hotel. In the past, they served their iced coffee with coffee ice cubes. That way, as the ice melted, not only was there no dilution, but the coffee in the glass was replenished. Unfortunately, they’ve stopped serving it this way. Another good iced coffee drink can be found at Café Rosso, in Holland Village. They do a drink there which consists of a tall glass filled with coffee ice cubes. This is served with sugar syrup and milk, which you add to the coffee ice cubes.

I’ve wanted to recreate this at home for a long time. But I’ve long felt that the drink just wasn’t right with small ice cubes (like the ones used at Café Rosso). Then, a few weeks ago, during one of our regular Ikea runs (yup, S and I like to visit Ikea every few months, just to see what’s new), we spotted some great rubber ice trays. Not only were they fashioned in bright colors, but they came in a variety in shapes and sizes. We were immediately drawn to a set of red ones that would hold 4 very large cubes each.

I’ve been in iced coffee heaven ever since. We use these trays to make large blocks of frozen coffee. Each cube is large enough for one drink. All I do is place it in a nice glass and add a splash of cold milk. I then mix a tablespoon of sugar with another 2 ounces or so of milk and zap it in the microwave, just long enough to melt the sugar. I mix this up well and pour this over the iced coffee ice cube, which helps melt it just a bit. The beauty of using a large ice cube versus small ones is that the larger the ice cube the slower it melts. Of course, this means I’m forced to take my time enjoying this drink, sipping it slowly as the cube melts. But that suits me just fine.

The Green Fairy

During our adolescence, there are certain things that we all aspire to experience once we’re “old enough.” Some are quite commonplace, like driving or having sex. Some are more particular to our own personalities, like (for me for instance) getting a suit made on Saville Row, skydiving, dining under the stars at Lasserre with my wife, authoring my own comic book, and drinking absinthe.

I forget when I first read about absinthe. I may have first heard of it through an early teenage fascination with impressionist and post-impressionists painters, many of whom both depicted absinthe consumption and were themselves avid fans of the stuff. I heard the rumours that when consumed in large amounts, absinthe could induce hallucinations and visions, and that this was a great source of creativity and inspiration for some of the early 20th Century’s most celebrated writers, people like Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and Rimbaud. The fact that it was a banned substance, illegal in almost all of the Western world, made it even more exciting and exotic. I remember watching Francis Ford Coppola’s version of ‘Dracula’, staring open-mouthed as Gary Oldman’s Dracula seduced Wynona Ryder’s Mina Harker over glasses of the Green Fairy.

Absinthe, for the uninitiated, is an extremely strong distilled anise-flavored liquor made from extracts of wormwood. According to popular histories, absinthe was invented by a French doctor, Dr Pierre Ordinaire, in 1789. It was said that he discovered the plant wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) while in exile in Switzerland. He mixed wormwood and other herbs with alcohol to create a 136 proof (68% alcohol) elixir, which he employed in his treatment of the sick. As with so many other medical remedies (like Coca-Cola for example), absinthe was soon commercialized and by the early to mid 1800s was being sold by the bottle as a popular liquor.

During the early 20th Century, many countries, including the USA and France, where the bulk of it was being produced, outlawed this potent drink. Absinthe was a curious drink, with slightly (at the time) inexplicable properties. Visions, as mentioned earlier, were a reported side-effect. It was also known to have “miraculous restorative powers.” Essentially, what was really happening was that people were getting high from it. The principle active ingredient in absinthe is thujone, which comes from wormwood. Thujone is chemically similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which many of you might recognize as the principle active ingredient and psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Which means that people taking absinthe were simply getting stoned and drunk at the same time.

My first taste of absinthe came in 1997. At the time, absinthe was illegal (and I believe still is) in the United States and across most of Europe. Only Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic hadn’t banned it. And despite having visited, worked and/or studied in Europe many times prior to 1997, I had never visited any of these three countries. But in the Fall of 1997, I had quite my job and decided to spend a month with a friend from university slumming around different parts of Europe. In particular, I had planned to visit my closest friend from my first few years in primary school, whom I had just recently reconnected with after having lost touch for over a decade, and who was living in and working as a journalist in Prague.

It was great seeing her, and despite having not seen each other or spoken in 12 years, we were amazingly similar. We spent a fantastic week together, touring the sights and the many, many bars that were fast becoming a haunt for young expatriates who had heard of a scene akin that of Paris in the 1920s. And it was during this heady week that I tried absinthe, real absinthe, for the first time. It was powerful and delicious and also quite fun. I like the fact that absinthe requires specific accessories. To drink it properly, you set a specially-designed, perforated “absinthe spoon” over a glass, in which a bit of the gorgeously clear green liquid is poured. On the spoon, you place a sugar cube. Over this you pour cold water. The water dissolves the sugar into the drink, and as the water reacts with the liquid, it takes on a milky complexion. The water and sugar is used to offset the liquor’s strong, bitter taste, making it a delightfully refreshing, albeit still strong drink.

Here in Singapore, we can’t get the real stuff. I once carried a small bottle into the country though. My wife S, myself, my brother and 2 friends helped drink most of that bottle on one night, with rather memorable results. Especially for one friend in particular, who was gulping down Absinthe martinis—an ice-cold vodka, absinthe, and sugar syrup concoction I had come up with that night. Suffice it to say she passed out in the parking lot at the end of the evening, but not before attempting to French kiss my wife.

One gourmet store here brings in something called Absente, an absinthe like liquor that claims to be “Absinthe refined” and that’s legal all over the world. Instead of using wormwood, Absente’s manufacturers use a botanical cousin called Southern-Wormwood, which I am going to assume does not contain thujone. Absente is also a tad weaker, at 55% alcohol as opposed to the normal 68%. That said, it looks the same and has an almost identical taste and flavour. Which suits me fine, at least until I can get my hands on another bottle of the real thing.

50% Viognier, 50% Marsanne, 0% Cork

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I’m a big fan of Viognier. It’s a wine varietal that I only discovered 4 years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The first one I had was a D’Arenberg “The Last Ditch” Viognier. It was one of many wines served at an amazing al fresco lunch thrown for a bunch of foodies and winos by Tasting Australia and held at Geoff Hardy’s vineyard in McLaren Vale, South Australia. The Viognier was fresh from the barrel, poured into clear glass bottles by the winemakers at D’Arenberg, and rushed over to satisfy we hungry alcoholic-gourmands. The wine, we were told, wouldn’t actually be released for several months, so we were getting a special preview. I’ve also since learnt that New World Viogniers are often best drunk as early as possible, and we couldn’t have gotten this batch any earlier. It was sensational.

Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed tasting many Old World and New World Viogniers. I have to admit, oddly enough, I prefer many of the New World ones over the more well-known French Condrieus. One of my favourites is the Clay Station Viognier, a reasonably priced, multiple-award winner.

I saw the above pictured wine, a Viognier-Marsanne blend, a couple weeks ago in the wine cellar of Singapore’s latest uber-chic (and expat oriented) gourmet store/café, Corduroy & Finch. I was amused by the bottle’s label. “How very un-French,” I thought, as I admired the clean, bold graphics. That all the other text was also in English meant that this wine was clearly designed for international export. I was especially tickled by the text on the bottle’s back label, which suggested the wine would go very well with Chinese food and a description of the wine itself, which read, “50% Viognier, 50% Marsanne, 0% cork.” Obviously, someone working in the marketing section of La Vieille Ferme wines has been having a helluva time amusing him or herself. Even if I wasn’t a big fan of these grapes, I would have bought the bottle based on the labels.

The wine turned out to be only so-so. There was too much alcohol present in both its nose and on the mouth. I’m not sure if it would age well either. That said, I was pleased by the efforts that the winemakers (and their colleagues) made to make the wine extremely marketable and attractive. As I said, it looked, well, very un-French.

A Lunch with Krug

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It’s great to be married to a food writer at times. Take today for example. S was invited to a fabulous lunch and Champagne tasting and was allowed to bring me along. It was a double treat for me. The lunch was held at Iggy’s, one of my favourite restaurants in Singapore, and the Champagne brand was Krug, by far my favourite Champagne house.

Krug’s young and incredibly friendly winemaker, Nicholas Audebert, had flown in for the occasion, as did an old friend, Anouk Blain-Mailhot, who is Veuve Clicquot and Krug’s regional marketing director. Monsieur Audebert was a fabulous host and before we ate, he led all of us present through one of the most novel and enjoyable wine tastings I’ve ever gone through. We were presented with a glass each of Krug’s Grand Cuvée, Rosé, and Vintage 1990. We were then asked to think about the wines according to our senses. To help us, Audebert offered for each sense, 6 things that he felt would help us describe each wine. For smell, for example, he passed around 6 cups, each with a markedly different scent and asked us to pair the smells to the wines. For hearing, he played 6 different kinds of music and asked us to match the balance in the songs with the balance in the wines. What was most interesting about these exercises was the variation in how all of us present interpreted the wines. For example, with the music, I paired the Vintage 1990 with a slow, seductive vocal jazz piece, while quite a few others paired the song with the Rosé. A Russian operatic piece that I paired with the Grand Cuvée, someone else had matched with the 1990. To end the tasting, Audebert divided us into three groups; each was assigned to one of the wines, and put in front of a blank canvas, with paints and brushes. We were then asked to paint what we felt our assigned wine represented. My group was given the 1990 and we painted a naked, high-heeled woman, dancing in a forest—sensual, wild, yet elegant.

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After our art session, we got down to some serious eating. Iggy, as always us, fed us well. Our menu consisted of Avruga with angel hair pasta tossed in classic caviar condiments; Steamed foie gras with tofu and ponzu; Marinated tartare of tuna; Gourmet salad with maguro, French beans and soft boiled quail eggs; Sakura ebi cappellini with extra virgin olive oil and chili flakes (my favourite course); Roasted quail with truffle risotto; and Champagne jelly and sorbet with elderberry foam. Phew!

In all, it was a fantastic meal. My favourite of the 3 Champagnes we tasted was easily the Vintage 1990. It had a softness and a sweetness, with a structured maturity, that the other two didn’t have. That said, the 1990 still doesn’t come close to the Clos du Mesnil, my all-time favourite Champagne and the superstar of the Krug stable.

A Blind Tasting Wine Dinner

This weekend, my wife and I made dinner to celebrate the visit of two close friends, now living in Turks & Caicos, where they run one of the world’s best resorts (yah, tough life!). Four other friends joined us. At the suggestion of N—one half of the couple being celebrated—each couple brought along a bottle of wine, wrapped in foil or otherwise disguised. Each couple would test the other diners’ knowledge of wine through a series of multiple choice questions, things like, “Is this wine from Australia, France, or Chile?” or “Is this a Cabernet Sauvignon, a GSM, or a Merlot?”

S (my wife) and I came up with a 4-course menu and emailed it out to each couple, assigning a white wine for the first course, a red or white for the second, a red for the third and a dessert wine for the last. While we were up happy to host a blind tasting, we also wanted some assurances that the wines would match our food.

Our first course was something from Kimiko Barber’s book The Japanese Kitchen. It was a Beef Tataki rolled around cucumber julienne, topped with ginger, garlic and kaiware. With the beef, we served the white, which despite most of us thinking it was a French Sauvignon Blanc, turned out to be a Pouilly-Fume (Chardonnay) from the Loire valley (well, at least we got France right). It was the Chateau Favray 2003 Pouilly-Fume, and was excellent.

Our second course was Mac & Cheese. I’ve been enjoying tweaking Joel Robuchon’s truffled macaroni & cheese recipe over the past couple weeks, and have come up with a variation that I really like. I use mozzarella, comte, and gruyere in the sauce and then a sprinkle of parmesan (which I blowtorch) on top. Instead of fresh truffles, I mix Tetsuya Wakuda’s Truffle Salsa (available jarred at Culina here in Singapore) into the sauce. I also add a bit of bacon, which M Robuchon does not. With this, N had brought along a real surprise, a 2000 Moulin A Vent Beaujoulais by Georges Dubeouf (I later found out that M Dubeouf himself had introduced N to this wine). This is a premium Beaujoulais that actually takes to aging, but is already drinking well. As someone who hates Beaujoulias Nouveau, this was a treat.

The third course was a combination of a slow braised Belly Pork recipe by Tom Colicchio and a Lentils recipe from the Balthazar cookbook. The Pork is oven roasted in broth, first at a higher temperature for one and half hours, and then at very, very low heat for 3-4 hours. It was truly fork tender! We paired this with one of my favourite wines from a vineyard S and I had visited a few years ago in Margaret River, Western Australia, and fell in love with. Cape Grace makes incredible wines, especially, in my opinion, its Cabernet Sauvignon. We opened a 2002 (which, remarkably, was only the vineyard’s 3rd vintage) and floored everyone with just how soft, fruity, but full it was. (James Halliday rated it a 93/100.) If you have not tried this wine, I encourage you to find a way to get your hands on a bottle (unfortunately, the one we opened was the last from the case we brought back with us from our last visit).

For dessert, we had a Sticky Date Pudding with Orange Brandy Butter Sauce and a Seville Orange Marmalade Ice Cream (home-made of course). This was paired with a Torbreck’s The Bothie 2003, a deceptive but yummy Muscat. Most of us had no idea what to make of this wine, especially because it was clear in color. Of course, it didn’t help that P, who had brought the wine, was at this point of the dinner, too drunk to ask his questions properly.

A New Wine Bar

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to tag along with my wife (the food writer) and her editor as they checked out one of the city’s newest restaurants. Townhouse is an airy, comfortable and civilised space that ironically sits above one of the loudest and most popular Irish pubs in town. A joint venture between the company that owns said pub—Molly Malone’s—and a restaurateur famed for his fancy French cuisine and somewhat fiery wife, Townhouse is a sanctuary for wine lovers.

The wine list, lovingly prepared by Townhouse’s manager Tye (pictured above), is both huge and humorous. It boasts some 500 wines, 22 by the glass. But instead of offering up either no descriptions whatsoever or poncy oeneologist’s terms—neither any help to novice wine drinkers—Tye has penned some pretty funny and simple descriptions on this amazing wine list. Some, like the one pictured here, are only one word long.

In addition to these cheeky descriptions, Townhouse offers up simple varietal descriptions printed on paper and wrapped around the vintage silverware. Here, for example, are two shots of a Champagne description that held my fork and knife together.

The menu is a simple and pleasing mix of seafood, charcuterie and bistro classics. We tasted a large variety of dishes, each paired with a different wine, as suggested by Tye. I started with a plate of 4 small items, followed by some escargot (pictured here) and then a chicken vol au vent. After that we shared a cheese plate and a selection of tarts.

While the food was good, the wines were better. I tried 5 different wines yesterday, leaving only around 495 left on the list to get through. And I’ll definitely head back. Townhouse is, as I mentioned, a lovely space for a quiet drink after work…or for a long, boozy Friday lunch.