Infused With a Little Imagination

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 4, 2006

Beastly hot weather drives many people to frozen drinks, primarily frozen margaritas. They can be fun, but there are other ways to beat the summer heat besides colorful adult Slurpees. My suggestion: Head for the lounge at Rasika, where bartender Gina Chersevani is whipping up a new cocktail called the Fraise de Basil. The primary ingredient is Chersevani's homemade strawberry sorbet, and it's just the thing for a sweltering day.

Grab one of the 10 stools at the bar and watch as Chersevani takes a plastic tub from the freezer and begins scooping frozen chunks and shards of icy strawberry sorbet into a tall, vase-like glass. She adds Reyka vodka, which she has infused with purple basil, and tops the whole concoction with sparkling cava. It's the perfect summertime cooler, a rather viscous mixture that coats your tongue and thickens as it melts. By the end, its luscious, sweet taste reminded me of eating sugar-topped fresh strawberries as a kid. (You'll want a spoon to eat the strawberries when the liquid is gone.)

Twice in a half-hour, other patrons asked what I was drinking from the frosty glass. When I described the drink, they ordered one, too. "The first night I made [the Fraise de Basil], before it was on the [printed] menu, I just made one and set it on the bar," Chersevani says. "People just saw it and ordered it. I'd only made enough sorbet to make about 25 [drinks], and I sold them all."

Chersevani, who'll chat your ear off if you give her the chance, says the inspiration came from making sorbet and then wondering how she could turn it into a cocktail. She asked Rasika's kitchen if they could whip up a stock of sorbet for her, but "the chef wouldn't do it," she explains. "He was too busy with his own stuff to have to make one more thing just for a drink. But I'm self-sufficient. 'No' isn't a word that I understand." It takes about an hour to do each batch, which makes enough for about 50 cocktails.

If you'd like to sample something else, try the house-infused bourbon, which steeps in an oversize Woodford Reserve bottle behind the bar. Full of light summertime fruit (peach and white nectarine) with some sage for aroma, this is a refreshing wisp of a sipping drink, served simply over ice. Take a seat on a banquette or on one of the chairs that surround the low tables in Rasika's lounge -- which doesn't require reservations -- and hang out for a while.

Another new concoction, the Cherry Rickey, is more Woodford infused with black Italian cherries and ginger. With a bit of fizz, it tastes like Dr. Brown's Cherry Soda, with a bit of bourbon kick.

In the works: a cocktail made with vodka-infused bergamot, the essential oil in Earl Grey tea. "I have to grow my own leaves," Chersevani says, laughing with a hint of a pout. "I tried calling every restaurant supply place, but they only have dried leaves for tea, and I need fresh ones to make this."

After learning how to mix drinks and manage the bar at Penang restaurants in Washington and New York, Chersevani spent time under Jamie Leeds at 15 ria before coming into her own at the Hotel Monaco's Poste. The kitchen takes ingredients from an organic garden on the restaurant's patio, and Chersevani wanted to do the same at the bar. "I loved the fact that the chef grew a garden -- I wanted to put the garden in a bottle," she explains. "I've always loved gardening."

Her first foray into infusing drinks involved cherries and bourbon, which was dubbed "the most boring thing ever." The next batch mixed bourbon with pears, cinnamon and vanilla. "It was fall," she says. "I took what I'd put in the pie and put it in the infusion." Chersevani began throwing herbs and spices into various vodkas, learning by trial and error.

This spring, she experimented with an Indian variation on the mojito that muddled cinnamon, cardamom and other spices with the traditional mint leaves. The sweet, tangy cocktail seemed a natural fit for a trendy Indian restaurant, but it didn't sell well, so it was pulled.

Chersevani knows that customers can be intimidated by exotic infusions or a list of unusual Indian spices. When she was placing a new summer drink called an Ulta-Flip on the menu, she listed the ingredients as rum, Cointreau and meringue. The latter is just a euphemism for an egg white. "I love the idea of using an egg," she says. "It gets a reaction every time -- when I crack the shell, people are like, 'You're putting an egg in it?' " The frothy result smells like a Creamsicle and goes down smooth.

Planning has begun for Rasika's fall menu, full of warming drinks, but you can expect a few new cocktails to make appearances in between, depending on Chersevani's whims and inspirations. "I might be in my garden, or at the market, or walk past some place that's particularly fragrant," she explains. From there, it's a short hop from her brain to your glass.

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