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.

Since the late '90s, the trend has been for bartenders to create what I call "Sex and the City" drinks -- sweet, fruity concoctions that try as hard as possible to mask the flavor of alcohol. (This is why we have strawberry-flavored vodkas and melon-esque rums.) But if most of the world is crafting variations on the Cosmo for Carries and Mirandas, Derek Brown's happier mixing old-school gin martinis for Nick and Nora Charles. At Agraria restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront, Brown's back-to-the-future cocktail menu is heavy on bitters and vermouth, flavors that fell from favor decades ago but are returning to fancier bars in New York and London.

Bitters are alcohol derived from aromatic plants and roots, and for most drinkers (and bartenders), adding a dash from a paper-wrapped bottle of Angostura to an Old Fashioned or the occasional Manhattan is about as serious as it gets. Back in the 1930s and '40s, though, bitters were regularly found in many cocktails, including the martini. Sometimes tongue-curling or puckeringly tart, it's always a treat.

Brown, Agraria's general manager, made cocktails and cocktail menus at Palena and Firefly before coming to the restaurant earlier this year, but he discovered bitters on a trip to Barcelona. "There was a bar that proudly displayed an old recipe for a martini," he says. "I didn't realize that the original martini recipe had orange bitters. I didn't even know what orange bitters were, so I started looking for bitters. It's been a progression, learning more and more about how essential they are to a cocktail."

The orange bitters in Agraria's martini fall perfectly in between the botanicals of the pungent Miller's Westbourne Strength Gin and the woody Vya dry vermouth, adding a touch of citrus that's the necessary balance. Also important: By default, Agraria's martini is served "wet," with a heavy pour of vermouth. Most bars merely swirl a few drops of vermouth in their martini glasses before dumping it out.

But, Brown adds, current tastes have strayed so far from the classics that "the more we try to make drinks the way they're supposed to be made, the more send-backs we get. Like a guy orders a Belvedere [vodka] martini, and after he tastes it, he says to the bartender, 'I ordered a vodka martini, and I think you made this with gin.' We say, 'No, sir, we make it with a high-quality vermouth, and that's probably what you're tasting.' People are used to getting a martini that's just straight vodka in a glass, but that's not what we do."

"I've never made a better drink than the martini, and I don't think I will. A well-made martini is a thing of beauty. It's nice to make inventive cocktails, but these are classics for a reason." As Brown tried more commercial bitters -- the bar now stocks eight varieties -- he also decided Agraria should make its own. The house "Sunflower" bitters, used in the Agraria cocktail, are lighter and sweeter than others on the menu, especially compared with the Bronx, which uses two kinds of vermouth and orange bitters and has a sharp, tangy flavor that hits the back of your tongue like an uppercut.

That's not to say that the light-filled bar at Agraria is only for fans of retro cocktails. Half the menu is devoted to original creations, including margaritas made with prickly pear juice and the Cynthia, a smooth, delicate mix of citrus-infused vodka, the French aperitif Lillet and muddled tarragon.

Brown is leaving Agraria later this month for a position at Michel Richard Citronelle, but he says that manager Bryan Murphy will maintain the bitter-heavy menu for the foreseeable future. This is, after all, a bar that eschews apple martinis -- which Brown dubs "the pinot grigio of cocktails" -- for the Jack Rose, an obscure drink made with rich apple brandy and grenadine that's 180 degrees from the sweet, popular apple martini. "We sell a lot of them," Brown says. "When people ask for an apple martini, we tell them we don't have one -- we don't carry apple pucker -- but we can make you this. A lot of people enjoy it. I hope they go into other bars and ask for a Jack Rose. I'd like to have that problem."

Rasika 633 D St. NW; 202-637-1222 The scene: Inventive cocktails flow in the trendy Indian restaurant's small, low-lit lounge.

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