Sunday, November 22, 2009

Foodie Rant - Properly Sauced? Try Properly Ripped Off.


As every good foodie knows, each new and exciting trend produces plenty of stale, unexciting hangers-on. Exposure quickly dampens our enthusiasm, but even lasting trends are hurt by the legions of high-priced, low-quality imitators. I've seen this happen with cupcakes, creme brulee, bacon, boutique pizza - and now it's happening with cocktails. Recently, I've been ripped off by a lot of bad cocktails, and it's reaching the level of a trend.

Let's be clear: I'm not complaining that every corner bar doesn't have an in-house mixologist. I'm also not complaining about the cocktail trend; it's one I happen to love and write about. I'm exceedingly happy that Americans are being reminded that there is more to drink than light beer and bad vodka. But, in a city where you can get one of the best cocktails in the world at the Violet Hour (for $12) and have a master mixologist make your cocktail tableside at The Drawing Room (also for $12), how can bad $14 cocktails be explained away? At Trader Vic's, a perennial Chicagoist favorite, you can get a great cocktail for $9 - what's the excuse?

Sometimes, one expects to be overcharged. If you're having a drink at the Signature Room, you're renting space at the top of the world. If you order a martini at Charlie Trotters, you probably don't care about the price. On the other hand, when I walk into an average 2-star restaurant and get charged $14 for a martini, I want to go beat the bartender over the head with a bottle. If the martini is bad, as it often is, the situation deteriorates. A decent $14 cocktail is a mild insult; a bad $14 cocktail is a slap in the face.

Now that every restaurant feels the need to have a cocktail menu, sometimes the evil is more transparent. Recently, before looking at a menu, I ordered a Sidecar at a relatively posh, well-established Chicago restaurant. A venerable old cocktail, the Sidecar is classically made with Brandy or Cognac, Cointreau and Lemon Juice. I got my Sidecar (which cost me $13) and almost spit it out - it was so badly made that I wouldn't have been able to recognize the drink blindfolded. When I looked at the menu, the cocktail was listed, and described as a combination of an anonymous Brandy, Dekuyper Orange Liqueur and Sour Mix. Bottom shelf liquor and sour mix out of a gun, and for this they charged $13? AND they admitted it? Standards need to be reestablished.

A few hints to avoid this silliness. If you want to drink cocktails and the restaurant has a cocktail menu, pay attention to what they're putting in your drinks. If a drink is more than $8, it had better have high quality ingredients and fresh juices. If they're not clear, feel free to ask the waiter or bartender. If they don't have a bartender, and random waitstaff are mixing drinks, don't pay top shelf prices - you're paying for the craft as much as the ingredients. Don't hesitate to ask about prices in advance - often, cocktail prices aren't on the menu, leading to an unhappy surprise later on. Lastly, return often to those restaurants and bars that do a great job at a reasonable price. Let them know you appreciate it and pad their bottom line - hopefully, they won't be tempted to jump on the high-price bandwagon.

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