Monday, December 7, 2009

FoodTrek: Grape Expectations at Barrio

"Don't drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life" - Jack Kerouac. In the same whiff of a Beatnik quote, an equal sentiment could be said for food. In a perfect world devoid of overly-processed meals within more degrees of Kevin Bacon than actual bacon, we could sit atop ivory towers and preach quality over quantity. But the truth is, food fuels us, and we don't always have the luxury of choice -- a slice of cold pizza more often than not becomes the breakfast of champions. When it comes to the topic of alcoholic beverages, because they are not nutritionally crucial, they exist within that rare luxury of choice. And for that, Kerouac's witticism has a relevance worth considering the next time you sidle up to the bar and you're asked, "What's your poison?" The Prime decided to fully enjoy that luxury of choice by letting the bartender call the shots, and that night it happened to be at Bellevue's Barrio, via their mixologist of ceremonies, Mark Sexauer.

Putting the "man" back in Manhattan - Photo courtesy of South Sound Garden

I was lucky to have made the acquaintance of Mark through the Plymouth Gin dinner at Crush, as familiar names and favorite places were bandied about the table. I got a chance to read his blog, and his post about making vegetable powder for drinks waves the awesome freak flag of cocktail nerd-ness, and compliments a notable appreciation for using fresh herbs and other blessings from the garden in drinks. Given Wasabisaurus Rex's interest in craft cocktails, the amazing experiences at Chantanee's Naga, and the Sorrento's Drinking Lessons events, letting Mark create an omakase-like experience with frosty beverages felt like a wise choice.

The theory of cocktail evolution - just keep drinking! Photos by Wasabi Prime

Fellow cocktail-weenie and gardening blogger, Ms. South Sound Garden (aka Ms. Picket Fence) was in attendance, with her own twist on the drink-mixing. Ms. SSG had two whole quarts of pressed Concord grape juice to present as an Iron Chef-like challenge to Mark. This wasn't some factory-made, chemical-laden fruit juice -- the grapes were grown and harvested from SSG's impressive garden, and the juice was hand-pressed to much crime scene-like results. Like all valiant efforts, the reward was a near opaque, gem-hued liquid that truly tasted like the nectar of the gods. While not an ideal grape to make wine out of, the Concord juice speaks of so many flavors familiar to everyone's palate: childhood days of PB and J sandwiches and lingering on those last summer days of fresh grapes plucked right off the vine.

Mark composed a revival of warmer days and less-gloomy nights, pairing several different spirits and fresh herbs with the grape juice to explore the way it would react with flavors. The grape juice was both ally and opponent; in lesser hands it would have been watered down or used as a cloak to hide larger quantities of potent spirits. Instead, much like the way a chef would build a dish, Mark understood the importance of guiding the palate's reaction to such a prominent flavor. The juice's distinct sweetness was balanced by bitter and sharp flavors, and softened with creamier additions like egg whites.

Befitting of an UnRecipe raid in the Wasabi pantry, no printed drink menus or cocktail sourcebooks were used, just a thorough understanding of flavor elements. One of the first drinks incorporated two types of gin -- sloe and dry, with a bit of citrus to enhance the grape's floral quality. This drink evolved into a revised 2.0 version, swapping the gin for pisco, an appropriately grape-based liquor from South America. Topped with a cloud of egg white foam and a decorative swirl of bitters, we suggested that it should be called a Pisco Valentine, not that anyone was really making official names. Because of the pleasant sweetness, a color befitting February 14th, and a sneaky dose of alcoholic whoop-ass, it felt like it would make for a dreamy -- or bleary --eyed Valentine's date.

Aquavit and grape - behold, the Water of Life! Shai' Hulud and stillsuits not required - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The frosty beverages evolved into more summery notes -- there was a bright-flavored drink that used tequila with some amaro and bitters to add some depth and cut the heavier grape flavor, and then there was a twist on the caipirinha, using cacha├ža, Brazil's answer to rum that uses fermented sugarcane juice instead of molasses, with Mark adding a bit of lemon thyme for freshness.

The cocktail Force continued to be strong with this one, and Mark finished out with what everyone agreed was the best of the bunch, an aquavit-based creation that used the caraway seed flavor of the popular Norwegian spirit to impart almost an herbal, fennel-like undertone with the grape's sweetness. The final drink had a velvet texture from the egg whites, but it wasn't dessert-sweet, which made it easier to savor. A truly enjoyable cocktail is one where you immediately get a sense of its complexity with room for nuance, and makes you want to take the time to really experience it with all the senses. That is to say, don't chug it, you frathouse punk.

Comparing all the cocktails, the grape juice's color is as distinctive as its role in the drink's flavor, so no one's putting this Baby in a corner anytime soon. Mark made a version of Ms. SSG's favorite drink, the Aviation, with a bit of the grape juice, and while tasty, there was no mistaking the difference. The magenta beet-like coloring of the grape juice is as dominating as the taste, and yet, mixed in cocktails, its moments of Valentine pinkness belies its potency. Similar to other libations on Barrio's menu which incorporate fresh fruit and vegetable extracts, pastel-innocent drinks saunter out with a hidden roundhouse kick. The curse of the Cosmo has left too many in a false sense of Girl-Drink-Drunk-security. If there is to be any lesson learned, in capable bartending hands, never judge a drink by its seemingly delicate exterior, as they are all like an icy Hitchcock blonde, a femme fatale lying in wait.

Developing cocktails really is as much of a culinary art as its solid-food counterpart. Too many recent cocktails rely on overly-processed sweeteners, and sugar in general, not allowing the natural flavors and botannical hints of liquors to fully develop in a mixed drink. The green thumb efforts of Ms. South Sound Garden were truly appreciated, as were the creative talents of Mark Sexauer and the team at Barrio. What a treat it was to sit back and let the ingredients guide the way. But since this is a food blog and one should have solids with potent liquids, I'm happy to say a plate of fried hominy is a tasty snack to nibble on while you're taking a spirited tour. If you get the chance to visit Barrio, let the power of Jack Kerouac lesson for life's enjoyment compel you to let someone else choose your poison for the night.

Oh fried hominy... I just can't quit you. Photo by Wasabi Prime

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  1. I'm not a huge cocktail person, but these do look pretty! And that fried hominy? Yum!

  2. As a person who's cheeks get bright pink after half a cocktail, I'm always looking for non-alcholic cocktails. My cheeks would match the aquavit and grape juice. Perhaps a good look for the holidays?

  3. I couldn't agree with you more about sweet cocktails... I can't stand them... And I couldn't agree with you more that creating a great cocktail is a cullinary art. I love to dabble in it myself now and then... I love this post! As always you did a fantastic job!
    PS: The fried hominy look sinful... :)

  4. YUM at the fried hominy -- that looks amazing and the COCKTAILS...DOUBLE YUM!!!! -- i am not a fan of sweet cocktails either (my tolerance for alcohol is low enough as it is) but they always seem to make my stomach hurt and eventually ends in my demise. I completely agree that creating the perfect cockatils is an art, after reading this post it makes me never want to order a "fancy" $15 cocktail from a n00b bartender at some pish posh bar ever AGAIN, next time I'll leave it up to the professionals :)

  5. Denise,

    Mark (whom is far better at trickin' out your cocktail glass than figuring out how to log onto his Google account), would like to say how thouroughly humbled he is by your kind words. Your writing style captures the same passion and enthusiasm you bring to the table when discussing gastronomy, spirits and wine. We were blown away by the generous gifts of the most ethereal grape juice I have ever tasted.

    Here's to future Monday nights.....we love having you.

    Respectfully with cheers,

    Elisabeth Wolf (& Mark Sexauer) :)

  6. Now I can log on??? Thank you for the post! You take fantastic pictures by the way. I think Elisabeth sumed it up, thanks agian and I look forward having you sit at the bar again...

  7. I'm not a good drinker! I shall omit that... but I would love that fried hominy! Thanks.


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