By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 4, 2008
J ust as cooks embraced the slow-food movement (bringing the focus back to ingredients, preparation and overall taste), the D.C. area is having a welcome resurgence of bartenders who are doing the same with their cocktails. So much so that in this type-A city, some even feel the need to warn customers about the time required to mix their drinks.
Each week, Bar Pilar manager Adam Bernbach spends "20 to 30 hours" devising a handwritten menu of five complex, and always delicious, drinks for Tuesday night's Cocktail Sessions event at the Northwest Washington bar, using a laundry list of seasonal ingredients and hard-to-find spirits. The menu warns: "Due to the preparation required, these drinks take a lot of time to produce. Your patience with this process is very much appreciated."
Across the river at PX in Alexandria, the menu asks patrons of the '20s-style speak-easy to "relax, my friend, and listen to the ice" as drinks are being prepared. Cocktail lovers would be wise to take the advice.
Cozy, inviting Bar Pilar is best known as a place to take a date for wine and tapas or as a weekend meeting spot before heading down the block to the Black Cat or Cafe Saint-Ex. But on Tuesdays, it's a destination for some of the best cocktails in the city.
One recent selection, dubbed Seafoam, was made with smoky Peat Monster Scotch, dry Lustau manzanilla sherry, Meyer lemon syrup, fresh lemon juice, an egg white, grapefruit bitters and soda water. To make it, Bernbach cracked an egg and separated the yolk, squeezed a lemon and then shook the combined ingredients vigorously before pouring it into a salted glass. The result was a stunning and unexpected symphony of flavors.
"The guy makes caraway seeds and grapefruit bitters as an ingredient. I don't know where he gets it from," says writer and musician Chris Grier, who often finds himself on 14th Street.
There is, of course, a caveat: Bar Pilar is not a destination for anyone in a hurry. All the measuring, stirring, shaking and muddling fruit means it can take Bernbach more than six minutes to prepare and serve just two cocktails. (Bernbach's drinks are $11, no matter the ingredients.) When the crowd builds to a few dozen people, it's sometimes a 15- to 20-minute wait even before Bernbach starts making your drink. Logistically, the Cocktail Sessions are pretty much a one-man operation: Bernbach re-creates his menu, while assistant bartender Adrian Carroll handles more mundane orders.
You can see why Cocktail Sessions are only on (typically slow) Tuesdays.
"Pilar isn't the correct establishment to do this full time," says Bernbach, who says his deliberate pace on Tuesdays is "one-eighth or one-twelfth of the speed I would need" to serve customers on a busy weekend.
But despite the time it takes, it's not costing the bar business. In fact, it has helped, Bernbach says. "Were we to do this on a Wednesday or Thursday, I think it could work its way into being a negative," Bernbach says. "But because Tuesday was already slow, it's been a positive for us."
Cocktail Sessions regulars don't seem to mind the wait. Miriam Goldstein says she appreciates "the obvious care and the craft that goes into [the cocktails] -- they're not just putting ingredients into a shaker, like a gin and tonic." Goldstein, a book editor for an educational association, says "they take a while, but [the drinks] are given the same emphasis that you'd see with a plate of food at a restaurant." Besides, she says, waiting for your next drink with friends "adds a leisurely, laid-back kind of feel."
Even so, dropping in unawares can be frustrating. Seth Jacobs, an associate at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stopped in on a recent Tuesday with friends. He tried to order beers and a scotch and soda from Bernbach, who told Jacobs that he had to make a few cocktail orders first, so it might take a while. Jacobs hung around at the bar for a couple minutes, then turned away and went to grab a seat with his friends. He didn't look happy.
"Luckily, we were able to come down [to the other end of the bar] and get a drink [from the other bartender]," Jacobs said later. He lives a few blocks north of Bar Pilar and used to be more of a regular. "It was better before it went upscale. I don't know who they're trying to attract."
The answer, Bernbach says, is cocktail aficionados. "Spirits and the bar-going industry have become more focused on 'we're going to meet up and hang out,' and the cocktails have been pushed to the margin a bit. I think the appreciation is returning," he says.
PX founder Todd Thrasher has been pushing that message for several years. "All the good things in life take time," he explains, and the creations that Thrasher and bartender Clinton Terry whip up are certainly some of the best things around. Look no further than the rich, smoky Sherlock Holmes, a recent addition that mixes Laphroaig scotch, Lapsang souchong tea and lemon balm, or the milkshake-like Irish Flip, which combines Powers Irish whiskey, cream, sugar and eggs. It's shaken vigorously before fresh nutmeg is zested onto the bubbly crown.
Thrasher's vivid imagination leads to complex drinks: Racks of jars behind the bar contain flavored bitters, lavender syrup, raw tobacco (for the Smoker's Delight cocktail) and more, and raw eggs show up in a half-dozen menu items. Not surprisingly, they take time, so expect to wait as long as 10 minutes for a pair of drinks. The PX's intimate size (only 40 seats in three rooms) and strict reservations-suggested policy help keep waiting times down.
PX doesn't use mixes, cheap brands or even any name-brand liquor that doesn't live up to Thrasher's exacting standards. (When he found a vodka he liked better than Grey Goose, he had no qualms about kicking the better-known bottle off the shelf.) The high-end ingredients are why most cocktails on PX's menu are $12; champagne cocktails are $16.
Thrasher says his philosophy about cocktails was developed while working under award-winning chefs Josï¿½ Andrï¿½s at Cafe Atlantico and Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve. (Thrasher also serves as Restaurant Eve's general manager and sommelier.) "A lot of people believe in cutting back the steps or taking shortcuts to save time, but chefs don't do that to get food out faster, so I don't think I should do that, either.
"I want to make the best cocktail you've ever had in your life," Thrasher adds. "But I can't rush that."
Bar Pilar 1833 14th St. NW Phone:202-265-1751 Cocktail Sessions: Tuesdays from 5 to 2 PX 728 King St., Alexandria (Entrance on South Columbus Street) Phone:703-299-8384 Bar Pilar 1833 14th St. NW Phone:202-265-1751 Cocktail Sessions: Tuesdays from 5 to 2 PX 728 King St., Alexandria (Entrance on South Columbus Street) Phone:703-299-8384