Sunday, August 8, 2010

Desparately Seeking Bar for Adults

When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
thought like a child, and reasoned like a child.
When I became an adult, I no longer used childish ways.

1 Corinthians 13:11

When you are 25 years old, not much is better than sucking down multiple DayGlo-colored shooters on a Saturday night while trolling about for members of the opposite sex. The whole gang would have dinner at TGI McFunsters, eating fried foods and burgers. Good times had by all. The quality of the drink was equal to the quality of the food.

The bars that serve the twenty-somethings thrive on volume and cost control. For a small decrease in price (or a 2 for 1 happy hour) mass numbers of young patrons will move from one bar to the next. Most of the ingredients are pre-prepared, such as margarita mix, which might contain (as does one popular brand):

Water, corn syrup, sugar, citric acid, natural flavors,
sodium citrate, sodium benzoate and potassium
sorbate (to preserve flavor), cellulose gum,
polysorbate 60, gum arabic, glycerol abietate and FD&C yellow no. 5

This is a far cry from the classic margarita, made of triple sec, lime juice, tequila and a little sweetener.

On a recent trip to George's Brasserie, my party of four was thrilled to sit in the beautiful bar and have a cocktail before dinner. From my last visit, I knew that the kitchen was highly qualified and used great ingredients. Why should I expect less from the bar?

My wife and I arrived first. I asked for an Aviation Cocktail. First I was asked how to make it. They didn't know it. After I explained the recipe, I was told they did not have maraschino liqueur. I then asked for a gin and tonic with Hendrick's gin. It should have been simple, but it was undrinkable--it was cloyingly sweet, coating my entire palate with an unpleasant aftertaste. This was the type of drink that has sent gin into near oblivion, until its more recent revival.

My wife ordered another simple classic, a vodka gimlet (vodka and Rose's lime juice), which also disappointed. It was poured without measuring and had too much Rose's lime juice. It was also not shaken very well --shaking makes it cold and dilutes the alcohol a bit to make it more drinkable.

I gave up on the G&T, and asked for another easy drink, in which the quality of the ingredients is known: a Negroni, made with equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. The barman knew what I needed and proceeded to collect the bottles, none of which had a speed pourer. Instead, he poured each ingredient free-hand from the open bottle into a steel cocktail shaker. He had only a splash of gin left, so he opened a new bottle and continued his pour, again without measuring.

The resultant cocktail was an undrinkable mess--overly bitter and unbalanced. Although the Negroni is a simple drink, it has to be carefully measured. The bartender needs to ensure that the sweetness of the vermouth and the bitterness of the Carpari are in harmony. Alas, I pushed my second drink to the side.

About that moment, our friends joined us. Although they are not cocktail crazy like I am, they know what they like. One of my friends asked for a Gin Gin Mule, a relatively new cocktail that has quickly gained fans around the country. Again, the bar staff asked how to make it. I told them; they didn't have ginger beer. She ordered a mojito instead, a great drink of rum, mint and lime juice that is available in nearly as many restaurants today as the margarita (for good or bad). This drink was a unbalanced mess, with a poorly muddled mass of mint in the bottom and was made too sweet.

Our other friend ordered a gin and tonic. After a sip, he too declared it undrinkable.

The chef at George's would never use frozen french fries in his steak frites; nor would he use bouillon cubes in his beef bourguignon. The sous chef would always measure the ingredients that he would use in his fine sauces (and he would be tasting what he is making to assure that he is spot on with the flavors and balance). Why are we at the point that we expect less from the bar? We paid $10 a drink and received the quality and care that would be given a drink intended for a college kid on a night out. However, the kid's too smart to pay $10 for just a drink.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

McNinch House (Best Restaurant in Charlotte?)

Our friends wanted to celebrate a business success and asked if we wanted to join them at the McNinch House for the celebration. McNinch House is rated the best restaurant in Charlotte by Zagat (subscription required). When I made the reservation, I was told I would receive a menu approximately a week prior to our reservation so that we could pre-order our meal at least a day in advance. In addition, were were to tell the restaurant about any dislikes or allergies prior to our arrival. (I was asked multiple times via email and phone whether we had dislike or allergies.)

On the Monday before the Saturday reservation, I received another email with a menu, offering three different pre fixe meals, ranging from four to seven courses each, and priced from $60 to $90 per person. Or we could choose the Chef's Table, with 10 to 12 courses chosen by the chef, for $109 per person. We threw caution to the wind and asked for the Chef's Table. I hate having to choose on a menu and the best restaurant experiences that I have ever had usually resulted from telling the chef to just "bring your best."

The restaurant is in a late 1800s Queen Anne home near Uptown Charlotte. We were greeted at the front door and told to take a look around while we waited. However, looking around was awkward--the entry room had a love seat and two chairs that were already occupied. We awkwardly looked at some paintings on the wall while we stood waiting. When our friends arrived, we were encouraged to admire the dining room, where other parties were enjoying their dinners. Again, were awkwardly looked at a few paintings on the wall in the dining room, then retreated to the entry hall to chat while we waited to be seated. When the party seated on the love seat was shown to their table, we are invited to sit on the love seat and offered cocktails.

After we had finished cocktails, were were ushered into the butler's pantry where we were to be served dinner. The butler's pantry was a room just off of the kitchen that was about 12"x15" in size, surrounded by counters filled with wine and liquor bottles, and cabinets filled with plates and glassware. The room was interesting and intimate, and a nice setting for the chef to visit us during our meal.

A table in the center of the room was set and each plate had a menu set out:

As we were being seated, we were asked if we wanted to order wine by the bottle, or we could allow the sommelier to choose wines for us. We had already started down the path, and we were happy to be served what they thought was best.

I did not write down the names of any of the wines, but, although they generally were good parings for the food, none were special. Some of the white wines we were served were good, but at least one red wine was not very good quality. At no point did the sommelier make a point of telling us what wines we were getting, and I think for a reason. Although the wine list says that a by-the-glass wine pairing with a dinner is $75, we found out after we got the check that they do not include the Chef's Table with this, which instead was $85 per person extra.

The meal was very well cooked and as described in the menu, but nothing stood out. The chef brought out most of the courses personally and did a nice job of projecting his enthusiasm for the food and for working at the restaurant. After the meal, the chef offered to show us around the kitchen, which was very small for the quality of the work.

What does stand out was the final ticket: over $1,000 for four. It may have been the best meal I have eaten in a Charlotte restaurant, but it still was not as good as many meals I have had at half the price in New York or Las Vegas.

McNinch House
511 N. Church St.
Charlotte, NC 28202
(704) 332-6159

Friday, April 30, 2010

George's Brasserie (A Preview)

George's Brasserie opened Wednesday night in the location of the former Oceanaire in Southpark. The space at George's is very nicely laid out with a large, comfortable bar area with several "conversation pits." Within the bar area is a very nice looking raw bar displaying several types of fresh raw oysters, lobster and crab. The menu is French comfort food, with steak frites (steak and french fries), cassoulet (sausage, duck and bean stew), and other French classics, including a fabulous beef bourguignon.

The only restaurant I have ever been to that is similar to George's is Bouchon in Las Vegas, a restaurant operated by Thomas Keller, one of the best chef's in the world. I was not surprised when I found out that the chef at George's had formerly worked at Bouchon.

I plan to check on George's in a few weeks and see how they are doing.

George's Brasserie
4620 Piedmont Row Dr., Suite 110
Charlotte, North Carolina 28210