Drinking through the flavors
When my husband’s drink arrived, it was as golden as a Caribbean sunset, with three tart, vibrantly red cranberries suspended in it and a sprig of sturdy, green rosemary as a garnish. It was nearly too beautiful to drink; however, it was also delicious.
Watching the bartender concoct it was entertainment. Not simply a pour-and-splash endeavor, this was mixology as art. The ingredients had already demanded a gourmet’s touch: cayenne cinnamon syrup was one of six elements that were measured precisely and poured into a stainless-steel shaker to be prepared for service. My own drink had involved only four elements, but they were complicated. The foundation of the drink was rye whiskey infused with bacon.
Having experienced the transformation of American restaurant cuisine through the farm-to-table movement and the elevation of chefs to rock stars, we now expect thoughtfully prepared, locally sourced elements on our plates. Alice Waters’ philosophy of seasonal cookery, that she pioneered in the 1970s at her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse, is now demonstrated from sea to shining sea. It is routine to find fine food made in the tiniest kitchen, in the most unassuming bistro, in the smallest town.
What’s left to transform is the bar.
Ninety Acres Culinary Center in New Jersey occupies the main building of what was once a thousand-acre estate. In part a cooking school, it is also a comfortable, modern restaurant and a swank bar and cocktail lounge, located on land now preserved in a public-private partnership as a park. Reservations are so tight that we accepted a 5:30 p.m. seating, then arrived early enough to grab spots at the bar for a couple of drinks beforehand.
That is where we encountered a bartender with the heart of an artist. Working from an inspired list of cocktails, he made our drinks as if each was to be displayed and admired before being consumed. Before putting together a gin-based concoction, he produced tiny, gorgeous tasting glasses and filled each with gins infused in-house with herbs and conifers grown onsite. We sipped and considered. For the season, other ingredients included locally pressed apple cider and maple syrup.
My drink was called The Sow’s Jowl. The description overcame my exhaustion with the current trend of putting bacon in everything. On a chill winter’s evening, bacon-infused whiskey sounded like just the thing. It was mixed with ginger, maple syrup and lime to produce a drink both savory and sweet, served in a tall glass with ice.
A tequila-based drink included falernum, an ingredient new to me but typical in Caribbean drinks. A syrup, it includes notes of vanilla, almond, ginger, cloves and lime. The bar continued the kitchen’s discipline of house-produced flavors from home-sourced ingredients. A good portion of Ninety Acres is given to its herb garden.
Another drink offered lemon balm. And another, elderflower. Rosemary syrup flavored yet another. Apple schnapps and Granny Smith apple juice formed the foundation of a gin drink infused with pine.
One could drink her way through the cocktail menu simply for the flavors, if standing up afterward was optional.