THE NIGHT STUFF
Fresh cocktails: The secret is in the juice
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
Why does the sweet and sour in my mai tai taste like fresh lime and orgeat, and not Mr. & Mrs. T?
Honolulu's best restaurants have long used fresh, seasonal fruits, vegetables and other ingredients in the kitchen. But that kind of fresh-is-best reasoning has proved slower bellying up to the bar.
In the past couple of years, however, a handful of bartenders and bar owners have learned to embrace the fresh mint sprig, the pinch of fresh thyme or sage and the flavor of muddled pomegranate.
Fresh-squeezed fruit juices instead of canned. House-made syrups and sweet and sours instead of bottled or powdered mixes. And wherever possible, infusing cocktails with the freshest ingredients available.
So welcome to The Night Stuff's first Fresh Cocktail Tour of Honolulu.
I visited five restaurants and bars over five evenings of, uh, research. Three offered a small, yet creative, selection of cocktails using fresh ingredients. The other two have committed to a fresh-ingredient cocktail program — going so far as to enlist internationally known mixologists to craft drink menus filled with signature cocktails.
If I've missed a spot that's embracing the fresh-ingredient concept, or a great fresh-stuff-only cocktail you're fond of, let me know. Perhaps I'll get to do this again. (Though with the tab I ran up, I doubt it. The best fresh cocktails don't come cheap.) Chin-chin.
3435 Wai'alae Ave.
Signature sips: Town Lemonade Drop, $8.64; summer sangria, $7.20
Ask Town co-owner and chef de cuisine David Caldiero what lemon verbena is and he'll step outside the front door to snip a sprig for you from the restaurant's fresh herb garden fronting Wai'alae Avenue.
Break a leaf of it, he instructed. An intense rush of citrus scent escaped.
The fragrant herb is a flavor base for Town's summer sangria — bar manager Antonio Zanis infuses house-made brown-sugar simple syrup with it. Also flavored by dry Protocolo rosé, fresh peach and peach brandy, the light, sunset-colored drink is refreshing on a warm pau hana evening.
With the hot season ending, Zanis said, a slightly spicier sangria cocktail for the cooler winter months will soon replace the summer sangria.
Like the dishes on the food menu, drinks are subject to change as various fruits and herbs come into season. Other cocktails include a caipirinha de uva, made with the Brazilian spirit cachaca and muddled fresh lime and grapes; and the Town Collins, gin with syrup infused with lavender grown at chef Ed Kenney's house.
The Town Lemonade Drop appeals with its promise of fresh lemon juice, locally produced honey and float of garden-fresh herb juice.
Clear and light olive green, the cocktail left us struggling to identify its herbs. We got as far as sage before finishing.
PANYA BISTRO & BAKERY
Ala Moana Center, second floor
Signature sip: Panya green-apple martini, $7.50
Panya's green-apple martini is a marvel of simplicity: Fresh Granny Smith juice and vodka — that's it. The juice, pressed in-house all day, is shaken with the booze and ice, then strained and served frothy. Taste one and you'll never accept a martini filled with bottled sour-apple schnapps again.
Panya's light-green version of the modern bar favorite balances natural apple flavor with a smooth vodka kick. Rings of apple pulp line the glass interior as the martini is consumed.
"The fresh juice makes the martini very smooth, and more refreshing than drinking one (artificially) sweetened," said Panya managing director Alice Yeung, who developed the cocktail.
Other Panya cocktail offerings with fresh ingredients include its purple passion martini ($7, with cranberry vodka, Chambord and fresh apple juice) and a handful of happy hour (4 to 6 p.m., 9 p.m. to closing) menu concoctions Yeung experiments with as seasonal fruits become available.
LEWERS LOUNGE AT THE HALEKULANI
2199 Kalia Road
Signature sips: Pink Elephant, $9.50; ginger-lychee caipirissima, $9
Honolulu's fresh-ingredient cocktail movement started here. A full two years after Halekulani management enlisted Dale DeGroff — a veteran of Manhattan's Rainbow Room and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail — to re-imagine its entire beverage services program, the master mixologist's Lewers Lounge cocktail menu remains the city's best.
Among DeGroff's goals was to create a Lewers Lounge menu honoring the pre-Prohibition "golden age of the cocktail," when bartenders made their own fruit juices, bitters and syrups, and used fresh ingredients, not mixes. These days, he's still the fresh-ingredient cocktail movement's most vocal cheerleader (see Page 19).
At the low-lit, jazz-clubby Lewers Lounge, there are far too many creations — from other-era classics such as the Bee's Knees to DeGroff's own innovations — to recommend for the fresh-cocktail fanatic. But a visit here demands a Pink Elephant — fresh pineapple and berry juices and ginger syrup shaken with vodka yields a smooth balance of sweet (the berries), tart (pineapple) and spicy (the ginger).
Likewise, the ginger-lychee caipirissima combines a swirl of flavors poured over crushed ice for a modern take on the Brazilian classic. Fresh lime pulp gives the cocktail a tart bite; the ginger a palate-cleansing heat.
"The keys to a good cocktail are the same as with a good glass of wine: A good fruit-to-acid balance. No different," said Lewers head bartender Eileen Harrington.
Other Lewers Lounge must-try cocktails include the Whiskey Smash (rich with fresh lemon and mint flavor), melon daiquiri (with a kick of orange bitters and sweetened fresh lime), Adelita (strawberries, lychee, tequila) and the coffee lover's dream Espresso Indulgence (espresso, fresh whipped cream, vodka, Kahlua, Tia Maria and a rim of fresh ground macadamia-nut coffee and raw sugar bits).
Better believe you'll be back.
HIROSHI EURASION TAPAS
Signature sip: Hiroshi's Eurasion martini with lemongrass foam, $6.50 ($3 weekdays)
You don't have to know what "culinary foam" is to enjoy chef Hiroshi Fukui's subtly flavored take on the fresh cocktail. But finding out exactly what's floating above the shaken green tea and vodka in your Hiroshi's Eurasion Martini doesn't hurt.
Fukui has used culinary foam, a technique pioneered by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià to enhance the flavor of his dishes, on his food (white-shoyu and yellow-mustard foam, chili-garlic aioli foam). But he also applies it to drinks, combining chopped lemongrass and fresh lime juice, boiling it down to infuse flavors. The mixture is then strained, chilled, mixed with egg white, placed in a whipped-cream canister and gassed with carbon dioxide.
Dispensed as a thick float over the martini, the lime-lemongrass foam adds a rich fragrance and light tartness to the already refreshing vodka and tea taste.
It also offers a far fresher and more subtle flavor than using a flavor-infused vodka would.
Fukui uses variations on the recipe — mixed-berry foam, mint foam — to flavor other cocktails, which change every so often as fruits are in season or Fukui works up a new idea.
Hiroshi's current martini selection features seven using lime-lemongrass or mixed-berry foams.
Ala Moana Center Ho'okipa Terrace, third floor
Signature sips: Lilikoi Dream, $8; pineapple mojito, $8
Owner Beau Mohr opened his new Pearl restaurant and lounge with a menu of more than 16 inventive fruit-, herb- and spice-infused cocktails crafted by Las Vegas-based mixologist Francesco Lafranconi.
"What I wanted to do with Pearl was to promote some classic cocktails, but also some very unique flavors of the Islands. Everything that combined the different cultures found in the cuisine of Hawai'i," said Lafranconi, who has designed cocktail programs worldwide for restaurants run by Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, among others.
And so alongside what Lafranconi called "more trendy" flavors such as almond liqueur and pomegranate, ingredients used in his Pearl cocktails include lychee, liliko'i, macadamia, green tea, yuzu and hibiscus syrups.
The ingredient list for the Lilikoi Dream seems like it has too much going on — Grand Marnier, pisco (a Peruvian grape brandy), passion fruit, fresh orange juice and a float of almond-flavored creme de noya and fresh nutmeg. But the frothy cocktail is a balance of tart, sweet, spicy and nutty.
One of the best mojitos in town has to be Pearl's pineapple version. Lafranconi based it on the classic Cuban recipe, which emphasizes a tart, minty taste over the sugary version of the cocktail often served stateside.
His recipe calls for sprigs of fresh mint and generous wedges of fresh pineapple muddled gently with the juice of a whole lime and rock candy syrup. The concoction is shaken with premium 10 Cane rum, vanilla liqueur and club soda, poured over ice and finished with a float of pineapple rum and a fresh sugar-cane stirrer.
"In Cuba, they muddle the mint with fresh lime juice, cane sugar and a light rum," said Lafranconi. "It's served with iced cubes, not crushed ice. It's not shaken. No lime wedges are muddled with the mint, and the mint is never churned up. It's just pressed gently in order to release the oils."
The visually appealing result (whole green mint leaves, bits of yellow pineapple, opaque white liquid) is a balanced swirl of tart and sweet flavors with a refreshing alcohol bite.
"Five years ago, only a handful of places were able to promote the fresh-bar concept — in New York and perhaps Chicago," said Lafranconi. "Now it's becoming more contagious. Mixologists are popping up like mushrooms and along with them, cocktail lounges.
"It's a great business card for the venue because people spread the word (that) there's much more craftsmanship involved. More commitment."
SHAKEN & STIRRED: DALE DEGROFF
Master mixologist Dale DeGroff earned his “king of cocktails” moniker with a determination to restore the American cocktail to its pre-Prohibition luster. Following classic bar service rules of no soda guns, no pre-mixes and all fresh ingredients, he has become the go-to consultant for restaurant and hospitality businesses worldwide looking to freshen up their beverage programs. The Halekulani’s director of beverage arts in residence since 2004, DeGroff talked to TGIF about the fresh cocktail movement.
How is the fresh cocktail movement progressing?
It’s still on the verge. There’s a lot of fine, fresh-fruit bars that have opened in the big cities. But it’s still a drop in the bucket, in a sense, because 95 percent to 98 percent of the bartenders in the U.S. are employed by big restaurant groups (and) the theme groups. … We are just starting to make inroads into the big hotel chains.”
What are the basics for a fresh-ingredient bar?
You cannot have a cutting-edge beverage program unless you have fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice in-house. … Lemon and lime are the basis of so many drinks. It provides the acid that balances the sweet. Without it, all you have is a bunch of sweet liqueurs mixed together with some orange juice.
Cutting edge is all about ingredients, balance and recipe knowledge. And until all of that comes together and until we have the kind of training in place where bartenders can have those skills the way chefs do, it ain’t gonna happen on a larger scale.
No matter how elaborate the recipe, is the modern fresh-ingredient cocktail really just a classic cocktail updated?
In one sense. Because in those days, there were no artificial ingredients. (Artificial) ingredients came in post-Prohibition when (bar owners) tried to figure out how to create some consistency from an unskilled labor pool.
On the other hand, it is different today. The whole business of savory- and culinary-style ingredients being introduced into the cocktail really didn’t exist in the 19th century. You didn’t find sage, basil, thyme and all these things entering into cocktails.
Now that we have a global community, I can get ingredients from Southeast Asia tomorrow. … So much more is possible now than it once was.
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.