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Fresh on Fresh: inventive produce garnishes enhance the cocktail, taking drinks to the next level of aromatics, flavor and eye appeal.

Handsome hosts notwithstanding, the cheery "Hello!" bar and restaurant guests get from their cocktail is the welcome they look forward to most. So what is "she" wearing? A simple strip of pristine lemon? Long green stalks of fragrant lemongrass? A whimsical swizzle of candied rhubarb? Whether simple and understated, or spicy and daring, with a little planning, produce garnishes can say a lot about the drink and the establishment.

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Just ask Jeff Creamer, beverage director for Two in San Francisco. "We've always looked at the produce garnish as a way to make a cocktail more interesting, to add the right finishing taste and touch."

Aromatic, edible and artistically appealing, fruits, vegetables, nuts and flowers have the power to punctuate, complement, clarify and elaborate on what's happening in the glass. And now, at the height of the cocktail craze, so very much is happening in the glass that it's imperative that produce garnishes be worthy cocktail accompaniments.

At the most basic level, produce garnishes should be edible, no bigger than the actual drink and act as an aromatic or as a flavor extension of the drink they adorn.

"The garnish shouldn't distract, it should complement," says Thomas Waugh, bartender at San Francisco's Range, where a new cocktail is added every night.

"Don't just add something to a drink as a garnish because it's pretty or witty," cautions Jennifer Contraveos, bar manager at Graze in Chicago. "It needs to match or enhance the drink."

Joy Perrine, bar manager at Jack's Lounge and Equus Restaurant in Louisville, Ky., adds that basic isn't bad--but quality is essential. "Today, simpler in many cases is better," she says. That said, ensuring that twists, curls, slices and wheels made from fresh fruits are never presented dried out or blemished is critical.

Although there's no hard and fast rule on what garnishes to stock, most bar experts agree that fresh lemons, limes and oranges are indispensable. Varying the citrus can add interest. At Range, for example, Waugh likes key limes or Mexican limes because their tiny size makes for fun slices. Beyond citrus? "The red cherry!" Perrine says.

IN THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASONAL

Kathy Casey, beverage development consultant and principal of Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle, Wash., would add "fresh or frozen cranberries, Kirby cucumbers and fresh thyme" to her must-have list. "Seasonality is also key," she says. "The bar is an extension of the kitchen, and just as a chef is always in tune with what's coming up seasonally, bar managers need to pull in seasonality for produce garnishes."

Scott Beattie, mixologist at Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif, couldn't agree more. His commitment to fresh produce is a never-ending pursuit: he works with a farm that plants basil, borage, anise hyssop, melons, tomatoes, echinacea and more for Cyrus' bar, and visits farmers markets daily.

One of Beattie's recent cocktails--the Lotus Potion, a blend of tart orange juice, Meyer lemon juice, Chinese Five-Spice honey, Hangar One Mandarin Orange Blossom Vodka and orange bitters--is topped with orange foam made by whipping tart orange juice with a little gelatin, Thai coconut milk and Five-Spice honey. "The foam creates a nice little cloud to float garnishes on," he says. The garnish? A beet-dyed lotus root chip (steeped in simple syrup, dried and sprinkled with vanilla sugar) floats petal-light on top of the drink.

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Other fun garnishes recently spotted around the country include candied rhubarb swizzlers in the Meyer Lemon Press at Two in San Francisco. In San Diego, lemongrass stalks enhance the flavor and look of Celadon restaurant's Celadon Mojito, which highlights fresh pressed Thai basil leaves, fresh lime juice and Bacardi Limon Rum. Executive chef Bill Kim does a Kumquat Mojito with candied lemongrass and mint syrup at Le Lan in Chicago. And Lisa Nakamura, chef at Qube Restaurant and Lounge in Seattle, Wash., drew on knowledge she gained as a botany major to guide her use of edible flowers such as the orchids that adorn the lounge's Pink Asia Saketini (Nigori sake, triple sec, cranberry juice).

Trendsetting chef Sam Mason and partner Eben Freeman, who will soon open Tailor in New York City, create produce garnishes as an integral flavor and experiential component of a drink. Their new take on the classic Collins garnish (cherry and orange slice) is to freeze a fresh thin slice of orange in an egg cup, which, once unmolded, becomes a little boat to hold a brandied cherry in the drink. And their Kir Royale will come with the requisite flute of dry Champagne, but the accompanying cassis is gelatin, served up on a skewer next to the flute.

IN A PICKLE

Pickling vegetables or house-bottling brandied or sugar-steeped cherries is one way bar managers add depth. This works even at high volume operations such the six New York City-based Rosa Mexicano Restaurants, where "we have to think as much about what works operationally as what looks nice," says corporate beverage director Grace Hu. She pickles carrots in jalapeno and lime for Rosa Mexicano's Bloody Mary.

Molly Finnegan, bar manager for Roux in Portland, Ore., regularly pickles vegetables for her Bloody Mary's, and house-cures cherries for Manhattans. Golden and garnet carrots, Militon squash, heirloom red cipollini onions, okra, cauliflower--Finnegan says she pickles what's in season to use off-season as drink garnishes. For Manhattans, she cures organic Chilean cherries in cinnamon, star anise and pomegranate juice with amaretto, brandy and lemon juice, adding a splash of the reserved cherry syrup instead of sweet vermouth to the finished drink.

Similarly, Steve Budrow, bartender at Viand restaurant in Chicago, heats fresh cherries in a mix of grape juice, cardamom, clove, cinnamon and almond extract sugar. He says the result is a cherry that's "not so neon red, and has a nice cherry/vanilla flavor."

While the trend is toward fresh, commercially prepared items such as brandied cherries and packaged produce can work as garnishes, too--especially during cold weather months. Brandied cherries imported from France garnish the Lavender Martini (Tanqueray Gin, parfait amour, lavender syrup) that bar manager Brandon Clements prepares at the Mercury Appetizer Bar in San Francisco.

DRIED IS FRESH FUN

Along these lines, consultant Casey suggests dried fruits--mangos, apricots and so on--as an alternative to fresh fruit garnishes for high volume operations. "Try dried apricot as a garnish for a Whiskey Sour or Old Fashioned," says Casey. "Dried fruits don't deteriorate, the flavor is good and there are no operational challenges." Dried cherries, she adds, can be rehydrated by heating in red vermouth, bourborn or a combination of raspberry vodka, hot water and sugar.

Somewhere between fresh fruits and commercially dried fruits lies a variety of house-dried or dehydrated fruit garnishes: fruit papers, glasslike fruit cross sections that have been soaked in simple syrup and dried, candied herbs and more. Budrow at Viand dehydrates thin tomato slices to float on his Basil Martini. At Roux, Finnegan makes pear chips to float on her Fresh Pear Martini by slicing a cross section of a halved pear on a mandolin, blanching it in simple syrup and drying the chips in a low oven, then sprinkling with sugar granules.

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Nathan Koval, beverage manager at Border Grill in Santa Monica, Calif., uses the same method to make the razor-thin candied jalapenos he floats on Border's best-selling Blood Orange Jalapeno Margaritas. And Le Lan's Kim candies cilantro by coating it in egg white and sugar and dehydrating overnight. The cilantro is used to garnish the Kiwi Saketini, which combines kiwi, lemon, lime, sugar, sake and ice.

While not all bar managers are equipped to dehydrate produce, some find ready helpmates in their culinary colleagues. "Our kitchen really appreciates knowing what we are doing with drinks and garnishes because those are the first experiences people have at our restaurant," says Creamer of Two. "If you can run the right dynamic between the kitchen and the bar, it's beneficial both ways."

Michel Mincin is lounge manager and assistant wine director for Eleven restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pa., one of Big Burrito's 13 restaurants. He works with restaurant pastry chef Romina Peixoto to produce everything from caramel-dipped candied apple slices for Eleven's Mt. Washington Apple cocktail to the chocolate-covered cherry skewers that go with the Naughty Effen Schoolgirl (Effen Black Cherry Vodka with Frangelico and cream). Peixoto likes the exchange. "I let [Michel] know what desserts I'm going to do so that he can think about what fruits might work well for his drinks. And I listen to hear from him what fruits or vegetables he plans to bring in."

Offering extra refreshment, some operators are freezing produce in ice--whole, pureed or mixed with low levels of spirits--for use as a garnish that melts into the drink. At Roux, Finnegan does a Dirty Martini with a frozen olive-brine-and-ver-mouth ice cube, and has done limoncello icicles in beer. The 126-unit Tampa, Fla.-based Bonefish Grill chain does an Icicle Aphrodisiac with Skyy Vanilla Vodka, passion fruit juice and a watermelon icicle. At Qube, Nakamura does a cardamom-sugar peach ice jewel on a bamboo Popsicle stick in her Lycheetini, an elixir of lychee-infused shochu with gin. That's a garnish good enough to eat.

Michele Grayson writes about culinary and menu trends, as well as foodservice, from Chicagoland.
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Title Annotation:GARNISH SERIES: PRODUCE
Author:Grayson, Michele
Publication:Cheers
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:1538
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