The Boulevardier

BoulevardierThe Boulevardier cocktail, in case you’ve never heard of one, is what you’d get if the Negroni and the Manhattan ever had a love child: two parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, and one part Campari, poured over ice in an old-fashioned glass and garnished with an orange twist. It’s one of those rare retro-cocktails-making-a-comeback that doesn’t call for ingredients you’ve never heard of or a funny-shaped glass. It’s also very enjoyable. I’m surprised, now that I think of it, that the drink hasn’t had its own Negroni-style mini-craze. Anyway, if you like Manhattans, you’ll like Boulevardiers, especially if you happen to be running low on bitters . . .

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A Shandy, When You Need One

shandyThe effect of aging I find I enjoy the least is the constraint it has put on my ability to constructively drink during the day.  It wasn’t always like this—a fact I was reminded of a few years back when Mrs. Banks and I went to see our daughter at college to participate in a Greek tradition there called “Fraturday.” I wasn’t sure what Fraturday actually was, and assumed on the drive up for some reason that it must involve croquet. Turns out that was wrong. Rather, Fraturday—at least at my daughter’s school—consists from start to finish of undergraduates spending their Saturday afternoons lounging on the front lawns along Greek Row, drinking beer and in general enjoying each other’s company. The one we attended that weekend was a delight. As I stood there holding my can of Keystone Light, talking with my daughter’s pals, it occurred to me that this was basically how I used to spend my college Saturdays, too.  During fall semester back then, for instance, the pre-football-game cocktail party started at the fraternity house at 10:00 a.m. or so, continued at the stadium through the game, and then went on from there until around 6:00, when we’d take a short break back at the dorm to rest our eyes. Then we’d shower and change, have dinner, and head to whichever party we’d deemed would be the launching point for the evening’s festivities. Those, as they say, were the days.

But time has since slowed me down. Now if I so much as have a bottle of beer too early, I run the risk of an involuntary three-our nap later on, followed by a general grogginess that renders me less-than-sparkling in the dinner-conversation department. Bloody Marys at Sunday brunch can nearly finish me off for good. It’s better, I’ve found, to stick with diet soda until 5:00 or so. But I occasionally find myself in a daytime situation that cries out something stronger. My mother’s annual summertime visit from Florida coincides with the British Open, for instance, and for years she, Mrs. Banks, and I have made a habit of watching the Thursday and Friday rounds over lunch at some bar or other in town. The early rounds of the Open are among the most enjoyable TV events of the year for me–but the notion of watching all that golf dry is ludicrous. Twenty or so years ago, my chosen beverage for the task was draft beer, one pint after another, until the last group finished. But as I say, I can’t keep up that pace anymore. Rather, I’ve found that the best libation to accompany long-term golf-watching is a Shandy: essentially equal parts beer and a sweet, non-alcoholic mixer, combined. In Europe, for instance, they’ll mix beer with Coca-Cola and call it a Krefelder—a drink that sounds so vile I won’t even try it. But at South End this year—which is where we watched the Open on Friday—the bartender mixed pilsner together with lemonade (in France, this is called a Panache). The result was light and refreshing and not overly sweet—just the sort of drink one can toss down for hours without inflicting too much damage. Sort of like a low-octane gin and tonic, if you can believe it, or 3.2 beer with a bit of style. In any event, we watched golf at the bar for hours that day. I had one Shandy, and then another. The golf of course was terrific. And for a moment there, I felt young again.

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The Joy of Negronis

negroni with lemon wedgeI’ll never forget the first time I was served a Negroni, a few years back. I was sitting at an Italian place here in New Canaan called Cava, on Forest Street, waiting for Mrs. Banks to arrive for dinner. When I asked the waiter for a Negroni on tap, I couldn’t figure out why he looked at me as if I had two heads.

“Eh?,” was all he said. Then he cocked his head the way people sometimes do when they suspect they’re dealing with a moron.

“A Negroni on tap. In a chilled pint glass, if there’s one around.”

He was still shaking his head as he left for the bar. In the fullness of time, I realized I’d conflated my oni’s. What I’d meant to have was a Peroni, the Italian beer that’s a standard at New York Italian restaurants above a certain price point. (I was feeling snappy that day.) What I’d ordered, and later got, was a Negroni. The cocktail. The drink was entirely new to me and, while I wouldn’t say it was a revelation, it sure was good. I’ve had plenty more since. Pour one-third part gin, one-third part Campari, and one-third part sweet vermouth into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice, and garnish with a wedge of lemon. If your first sip tastes like floor polish, you’ve mixed it perfectly. But then wait a moment for the ice to start to melt, and let the gin to go to work. Heaven. After an especially stressful day, use Tanqueray, for added oomph.

For as trendy as Negronis have since become, I can’t say I know many people who actually like them. Everyone I’ve mixed one for personally has been appalled. At a bar here called South End, near the train station, the bartender, Ursula, tells me that only two of her customers order them regularly. At the late, lamented Gates, there were said to be three of us. Oh, well. I must be more of a hipster than I ever imagined.

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A Word on Martinis

MartiniThe first Martini I ever drank was one I made for myself in college, on a lark. I’d just finished watching a midnight screening of an old Thin Man movie at the student union, and remember thinking afterward that any libation that generated the sort of devotion  that Martinis sparked in William Powell—he seemed to spend half the movie mixing and pouring them–had to be worth a try. So I found a recipe in an ancient copy of an Old Mr. Boston bar book that had somehow become part of my fraternity’s book collection. I poured some gin and vermouth together over ice into a tall glass and stirred them together with a table fork. Then (again, with the fork) I strained the mixture into the nearest thing my roommates and I had to what might be considered a cocktail glass: an oversize wine bubble we’d smuggled out of a T.G.I. Friday’s the weekend prior. There was no garnish. I took a sip, then took another, and immediately wondered what all the fuss was about.

All these year later, and the appeal of Martinis still eludes me. I don’t exactly know why. I’m a big fan of gin, so much so that I’ve been known to substitute it for vodka when I want to add some extra oomph to the healing power of a Sunday-morning Bloody Mary. And I drink more dry vermouth than anyone I know, though usually when it’s mixed on the rocks with a bit of sweet. But mix gin and vermouth together, in my experience, and what you end up with is a concoction that somehow manages to lack gin’s basic stopping power and vermouth’s headiness. What, exactly, is the point?

Maybe I just have a blind spot. If I do, though, I’m not the only one. How else to explain the lengths so many purported Martini fans will go to fiddle with the basic recipe? Nothing seems to be off limits. They’ll substitute vodka for the gin, say, or add olive brine to make the drink “dirty.” They’ll come up with fruity variations like “Appletinis” that sound positively undrinkable. Or they’ll write the vermouth out of the recipe entirely and drink what is essentially chilled gin (or vodka!). You don’t see Manhattan drinkers pulling stunts like that.

None of these variations are improvements, of course. Anyway, if you’re ever out and suddenly find yourself with no choice but to have a Martini, here’s what to tell the barman: stir three parts gin (Tanqueray works well) together with one part dry vermouth (Carpano, if he has it) over ice and strain onto a single large ice cube in an old fashioned glass or, failing that, into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon twist. The drink you’ll get will be better than what I served myself all those years ago at the fraternity house. Depending on your mood, it might actually not be half bad. Alternatively, if you have any discretion in the transaction at all, order yourself a Manhattan.

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Rum Punch Without Tears

Planters Punch.2dtryJPGAs to the question of mixing rum-based cocktails, my default response tends to be, “no.” The typical tiki-style concoction is larded up with too many hassles, if you ask me, from having to squeeze all those limes to hunting down the bottle of coconut schnapps hiding in the back of the top shelf of the bar. Oh, rum mixes well enough with tonic water, I suppose. But in that case, why not drop it altogether and go instead with a high-octane gin like Tanqueray to boost the drink’s wattage? A few years ago when the family was having dinner at Mexican restaurant here in town called Tequila Mockingbird—it’s famous for its selection of (duh!) tequilas–I can’t say I was entirely unhappy when the waitress declined to put in my daughter’s order for a mojito. “This is a tequila place,” she told her, by way of excuse. That seemed reasonable enough. But I think the girl just wanted to give her bartender a break. Any drink recipe that starts out, “place mint leaves and lime wedge into a sturdy glass and muddle” is, nearly by definition, not worth the trouble.

Not that my bar inventory doesn’t have its share of rum bottles scattered around. Some of them, like the Mount Gay, are there for the benefit of the rum partisans among my more active-drinking friends. Others are gifts (or re-gifts), usually on the occasion of our annual Christmas party. Almost all are unopened, even the ones from places like Ecuador. There’s a half-full bottle of Gosling’s, from a brief fling Mrs. Banks and I had with dark ‘n stormies a few summers back. However, one bottle—and, it’s a handle—sees regular use, especially in the summertime. That would be the Meyers’s. I use it to mix planter’s punches.

No one in the family seems to know where exactly our family’s planter’s punch recipe came from or, for that matter, when we realized we even had one. Even so, this recipe presents none of the problems that made me such an anti-tiki-ite in the first place. All its ingredients are easily at hand can be used in other cocktails. There is no special juice prep, or (thank heaven) blender to haul out. More to the point, the cocktail is a perennial favorite among guests and family. It’s delicious and refreshing without the cloying sweetness that bedevils so many beach drinks. And it’s magnificent to look at. So without further ado:

Planters Punch:

Pour a shot of Meyers’s rum (none other) into a highball glass filled with ice.

Fill three-quarters of the way up with orange juice.

Top off with club soda.

Drizzle on a splash and a half of grenadine.

Do not stir! The sight of the rum, orange juice, and grenadine swirling around together is what gives the drink its visual appeal.

My pal Chris Bartlett goes one step further and pours a thin layer of rum on top as a final flourish. But Chris’s hands are way steadier than mine, so I don’t dare try the move. Either way, you’ll surely enjoy.

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On The Cheeseburger Question

Whenever I’m out at a restaurant wondering whether or not to order the cheeseburger that’s inevitably been included on the menu, I follow a simple rule: the classier the joint I’m in, the rule says, the worse the burger will be. It never misses. More-upscale restaurants, especially those aiming to project a certain air of bohemian chic, feel obligated for some reason to overdo things. The result is always ludicrous. Thus at the prototypical Calling-All-Hipsters Modern American Bar & Bistro, your cheeseburger will arrive sitting on an oversized, organic, (and likely stale) multi-grain roll that has an Italian-sounding name, and will be garnished with things like avocado, capers, and slices of hard-boiled egg. The patty itself will almost certainly be too large, too lean, and will be a pain in the neck to pick up. If there is ketchup available, it will be house-made and not nearly as good as Heinz. And don’t even think about asking for American cheese. The entire package will be virtually inedible. So, trust me, stick with the short ribs and couscous.

By telling contrast, every time I’ve had a cheeseburger at a diner or luncheonette anywhere here in the tri-state area, the result has almost always been sensational.

Moral of story: when it comes to making cheeseburgers, stick to the essentials. My pal Curt Townshend commented to me one day awhile back, for instance, that the key to a good burger is the roll it’s served on. He’s right, of course. The roll’s job in the project is to aid in the delivery of the burger to your mouth, and beyond that, stay in the background and not kick up a ruckus. To me (Curt, too), that means it should be fresh and not doughy, with a soft crust rather than a hard one. It should also toast nicely. Which is to say, you could do worse than Pepperidge Farm.

As to the meat, more fat is better than less. You might, I suppose, select a variety of cuts and grind your own beef, the way the cooking magazines are endlessly needling you to do, but that violates the spirit of cooking burgers in the first place. If you’re going to put that much time and effort into a cookout, just throw some sirloins on the grill and be done with it. Cheese? Nothing melts like American. (Oh, stop making that face and be a little broad-minded.) Brie, Monterey jack, and cheddar will also work.

But the real key to serving a truly creditable cheeseburger, in my experience, is the logistics of its construction. It is the closest thing the home-style grillmaster has to putting together a General-Patton-style order of battle. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Indoor Prep.

First, make your patties (4-7 ounces; no exceptions). Ground chuck works best. Put the patties on a large platter. Spread mayonnaise on the inner halves of your hamburger rolls. (Yes, mayo, not butter. Butter burns too easily.) Place the rolls on the platter, too. Count out your cheese slices and put them on the platter, as well. Lay your spatula over everything. If you are feeding very many people at all, this will by now be a very crowded platter. Keeping your wits about you, carefully carry it out to your grill.

Step 2: The Grilling.

First, toast the buns. Over a medium fire, place the buns on the grill mayo-side down and watch them like a hawk. The time it takes to go from an attractive, homey toastiness to total incineration is measured in nanoseconds. As each roll half browns to your taste, put it back on the platter. When they’re all done, stack the bottoms in one pile on the platter and the tops in another.

Now to grilling. Place the patties in the center of your grill. As the burgers cook, quickly arrange the roll bottoms in a row on the platter and roll tops in another alongside, so that they’ll be ready when the time comes. As soon as you see burgers’ juices start to bubble up, flip them. Let cook for 1-2 more minutes, place a slice of cheese (or two) on each burger, and lower the grill’s cover to allow cheese to melt. That should take another minute or so. Don’t be shy about checking. When cheese is melted to your liking, place each burger on a roll’s waiting bottom half and cover with a top.

Not so simple right? As to garnishes, the logic behind the default of lettuce and tomato has always eluded me. All the tomato does is soggify the bun, while the lettuce doesn’t provide near enough crispy contrast. Try pickle slices instead or, if you don’t like pickles, cucumber slices with a few torn basil leaves and a turn of pepper mill. You will be pleased.

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A Proper Gin and Tonic

ginandtonicYou’ll have your own mental calculation for deciding when exactly to make the springtime switchover to white liquor from brown. I find I break out the gin every year on Masters weekend, whether I’d planned to ahead of time or not. It has something to do with seeing all those azaleas in bloom on television. For some, though, the transition doesn’t always go smoothly. Here then is a reminder on how to make a gin and tonic the right way:

Go out and get yourself a Scotsman model tk home ice maker and have it installed in whichever room in your house you use to mix drinks. The tk produces cubes that are cold, large, and clear and won’t melt away to nothing immediately on contact your tonic water the way most machine-made cubes—especially the ones that come out of those cussed ice makers that are hooked up to kitchen refrigerators—always seem to do.

  1. Fill a highball glass with ice. If you are feeling frisky, use a pint glass the way my pal Kevin Taylor does.
  2. Pour in a jigger of gin. (A jigger-plus if you chose the pint glass.) Any brand is fine, but you can do a lot worse than Tanqueray. Substitute vodka if you’d like, although I can’t imagine why you would.
  3. Fill the glass with tonic water. Schweppes is fine, but I occasionally have a weakness for one of those gourmet brands like Fever Tree.
  4. Squeeze a lime wedge into the drink, then run the wedge around the rim of the glass.
  5. Sip and enjoy.

Sounds easy, right? Yet I’ve been served gin and tonics over the years where one or more of these steps was mangled badly or omitted altogether. There’ll be no garnish, for instance, or the drink will arrive in the wrong shape glass, or will contain too large (or not large enough) a portion of gin. (And don’t get me started on tonic from a gun compared to tonic out of a bottle.) In any event, the gin and tonic is one of those rare drinks that are better homemade than out at a bar. Follow the steps above and you can’t miss.

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