Thursday, November 16, 2006

Greek Revival in a Glass

HOW do you fit 4,000 years of culture into a cocktail glass? "Very carefully," said James Stuart, the beverage director at Parea, a Greek restaurant that opened last month near Gramercy Park. As the author of Parea's short but crisp catalog of signature cocktails, which changes seasonally, Mr. Stuart stirs some aspect of Greek culture into each of his drink inventions.

This is no meager feat. Though Greece was the fountain for scads of our civilized traditions, it didn't give us cocktail culture. Plunking a Kalamata olive into a martini doesn't quite cut it.

For Mr. Stuart, who honed his bartending chops at the late Judson Grill, Parea represents his first stab at what we might term "conceptual mixology." Most cocktails are invented on the tongue; an ounce of this meets two ounces of that, the juxtaposition tastes great, then you give it a name. But the conceptual mixologist begins with a theme, with the cocktail's allusions playing as vital a role as its flavors.

Done well, a concept-based cocktail fits seamlessly onto a menu, complements the cuisine and packs just the right whirl of flavors.

Done poorly, it's a "road accident," in Mr. Stuart's words, with more gratuitous references than a Quentin Tarantino film. (Corporate chain restaurants excel at these. Try a Wallaby Darned at an Outback Steakhouse, a "Down Under frozen wonder" laced with "secret mixers," then go lie down for a while.)

Thus, Mr. Stuart's daily challenge: "How can I harken back to Greek culture and make a good cocktail?" Sometimes the evocation is subtle, but with other cocktails, the links to Greece are as understated as a dancing Zorba. A fondant-coated swizzle stick that Mr. Stuart adds to a layered glass of vanilla vodka and sour cherry syrup pays homage to a children's treat in Greece, while his Ginger Rickey, the list's star, lets Cognac and ouzo duke it out in a rocks glass, with sublime results.

Greece has a rich brandy tradition, which Mr. Stuart represents with the Cognac, and the nickel-sized crystallized ginger garnish evokes the gold coins Greeks tuck into their sweet New Year's breads. "It's just a play on words to call it a Ginger Rickey," said Mr. Stuart, citing the venerable Gin Rickey. A play on words, that is, and a play on culture. And the happy collision of concept and cocktail.

Adapted from Parea

1½ounces Cognac

½ounce ouzo

¼ ounce ginger-infused simple syrup*

4 to 6 ounces soda water, to taste

1 squeeze of lemon

1 coin-size piece of candied ginger.

Stir liquid ingredients with ice in rocks glass, garnish with ginger.

* To make the ginger-infused syrup, simmer 1/4 cup chopped fresh ginger and 1/4 cup sugar, plus 1 1/2 teaspoon corn syrup in 1/4 cup of water for five minutes. Let cool, strain and refrigerate until ready to use.

Source - NYTimes.Com

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