CVIndependent

Sat12142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

They say April showers bring May flowers—but here in the desert, April’s warmer weather brings pool-party season!

We’re in the land of heat and pools, and it can be hard to decide where to take a dip—in part, because poolside affairs in the Coachella Valley usually bring more than just swimming. Depending on where you go, you can enjoy great food, drinks, entertainment and more. Therefore, this month, I’ve decided to share with you my two favorite places to hang out and relax in the valley. (Full disclosure: I have performed, and continue to perform, at these venues.)

So … where do you start? Locals can find plenty of options for poolside fun, but one of your best options is always going to be Arrive in Palm Springs. This resort sits on the edge of downtown Palm Springs and offers a heavy nod to the midcentury-modern style that shaped Palm Springs. Arrive hosts an array of food choices, too; grab a bite at Wexler’s Deli for lunch (they have a poolside menu, too) or take a short walk to Draughtsman for some serious libations. You can also find a coffee shop and an ice cream shop on site. Saturday and Sunday at Arrive bring entertainment in the form of DJs. There’s always plenty of room to sunbathe or sit and soak up the sun. Like games with your pool parties? Enjoy some poolside pingpong and cornhole in between float sessions. The sound varies, depending on what day you go, from Top 40 to house. You can find me there every other Sunday, bringing my original blend of house and disco.

The Saguaro in recent years has become known as one of the biggest pool-party spots in the valley. Not only is The Saguaro one of the regular hosts of the twice-per-summer Splash House festivals; it also books a range of DJ acts throughout the summer. Here, you can enjoy a colorful, vibrant, very Palm Springs experience. Grab a cabana; order some tacos; and enjoy carefully curated sets. Hammocks behind the pool and endless loungers make it so you can relax in multiple ways. I’ve been fortunate to work with The Saguaro and their music programmer, Dominic Saldana, aka SABIO, for the past few years. It’s worth noting that the Saguaro is the host of some of the best Coachella pool parties. One of my favorite things to do for “No-Chella” is hit the Palm Springs pool circuit. You can find world-class entertainment without breaking the bank while skipping the crowds. Given the size of the pool area at The Saguaro, you rarely feel squeezed in.

So … what do we do at night? Good question. I was out in downtown Palm Springs on a recent Monday, looking for drinks and good music, and we found ourselves hopping through several locations. Many closed at 10 p.m. and/or had no entertainment … and things felt a little dead. Now, to be fair, this was on a Monday night, but it was during the middle of season. We did manage to find some fun, enjoying drinks at Bootlegger Tiki and Lulu California Bistro, before finishing the night at the Village Pub, where there was a DJ and karaoke, for those brave enough to try.

So … there it is! I’m always searching for new spots, old spots and the best spots to enjoy our valley—even if they’re off the beaten path. I’m excited to kick off another poolside season, and I look forward to seeing you all out there!

Published in Subatomic

Help the Desert AIDS Project by Dining Out for Life on April 26

Thursday, April 26, is one of my favorite foodie days of the year.

It’s not a day featuring a lot of great deals and food specials; instead, it’s a day during which local restaurants and their customers (i.e., you) do a lot of good for the community.

April 26 is this year’s date for Dining Out for Life, the annual fundraising extravaganza for the Desert AIDS Project and other HIV/AIDS service organizations around the country. It’s simple, really: On that day, restaurants across the Coachella Valley have agreed to donate anywhere between 33 and 110 percent of their sales to DAP.

It really is simple: All you do is go out to eat, like you probably would anyway—and DAP gets a big chunk of whatever you spend. (If you feel like you must do more than simply eat out, never fear: Many participating locations also have donation envelopes available.)

My friends at DAP tell me that even though the Coachella Valley is one of the smaller markets in which Dining Out for Life takes place, it’s one of the larger markets in terms of money raised. Last year, we ranked No. 3 in North America—and this year, the folks at DAP are keeping their fingers crossed for a jump to No. 2. Our li’l community does so well, in part, because of the generosity of some large and very busy restaurants: Lulu California Bistro (donating 50 percent), TRIO (donating 60 percent) and Spencer’s (donating 75 percent) generally rank near the top of the continent-wide list in terms of the amount of money donated.

However, it is most certainly not all about the big places: The biggest generosity, in many ways, comes from the smaller, mom-and-pop places. Rooster and the Pig and Ristretto are both donating 100 percent of their sales on April 26 to DAP—while Townie Bagels is giving a whopping 110 percent.

On Dining Out for Life day, you’ll be able to find me at a half-dozen or so—maybe more—participating restaurants throughout the day: having bagels, coffee, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner, a post-dinner snack and then probably a few drinks. Follow my exploits via the Coachella Valley Independent Facebook page.

Please join me for Dining Out for Life on April 26. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s literally the least you can do.

Visit www.diningoutforlife.com/palmsprings for a complete and constantly updated list of restaurants and their donation percentages.


In Brief

The much, much delayed opening of Grand Central Palm Springs, a restaurant and event space in La Plaza in downtown Palm Springs, is apparently close. Yeah, we’ve heard this several times before over the last two years, but co-owner Rita Capponi is so confident it’s actually happening this time that she gave me a “firm” opening date: May 1. More details to come; watch www.grandcentralpalmsprings.com for updates. … Alicante, the tapas-themed restaurant at 140 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in downtown Palm Springs, is gearing up for a name and theme change. Revel Public House will offer sports, great food and lots of drink, led by three new exclusive beers brewed by San Marcos’ Mason Ale Works—under the name Palm Springs Brewing Co. Visit the brand-new Revel Facebook page for details. … Draughtsman, at 1501 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, just started a new late-night menu. “Late Night at Draughtsman” takes place from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., Wednesday through Sunday. The menu includes fare such as Cauliflower “McNuggets” ($9) and a braised pork belly banh mi ($14), along with late-night beer specials and frequent entertainment. Get more info at draughtsmanpalmsprings.com. … The owners of CCBC—a gay, clothing-optional resort and play place (*ahem*)—have announced plans to build an adjoining 2,560-square-foot restaurant, called Runway; it’ll also have a 568-square-foot dining patio. We cannot wait to see this! See plans at www.ccedd.org/project/ccbc-resort-runway-restaurant. … Try (hopefully) great chili and benefit the Cathedral City Senior Center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, April 7. The annual Chili Cook-Off takes place at the Big Lots Center at Highway 111 and Date Palm Drive; $20 gets you chili tastings and a box lunch from Aspen Mills. Yum! Find more details at www.cathedralcenter.org. … And now, in the “Why in the hell not?” category: The Village Pub Palm Springs, at 266 S. Palm Canyon Drive, has launched two new food challenges. On Wednesdays, you can try one of two challenges: Eat 10 blazing wings in five minutes ($13); or gobble down one pound of potato chips and two pounds of fish with homemade beer batter in 10 minutes ($30). Beat the challenge, and the food is free. Hmm. Learn more about the “Village Idiot Food Challenge”—and see if any idiots actually succeed—at www.facebook.com/villagepubpalmsprings.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

TRIO Closed Indefinitely After Early-Morning Fire

Sometime around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 2, a fire broke out in the parking lot behind TRIO Restaurant, located at 707 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The ever-popular restaurant suffered significant smoke and water damage during the fire—and is now closed indefinitely.

In the aftermath of the blaze—which also devastated the neighboring Shag Store—TRIO owner Tony Marchese said he hoped Trio would reopen by Labor Day weekend. However, in late August, he announced via TRIO’s Facebook page that the cleanup and other work would not be completed by then.

Keep your fingers crossed for a reopening date sometime in mid-late September.

Authorities deemed the fire “suspicious,” but had not released any further concrete details as of our press deadline.

Watch www.facebook.com/TrioPalmSprings for updates.


Village Pub Closed for 'Rehab' After Liquor-License Violations

Whoever is in charge of the spin effort regarding the month-long closure of the Village Pub—at 266 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs—deserves a raise.

Here’s what happened: The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control suspended the Village Pub’s liquor license for 30 days due to a couple of major violations: A now-former employee “battered” a customer, and the pub had a bar manager who did not meet the state’s qualifications.

Oops. Well, how did the Village Pub handle the mess? The brilliant answer: Management ’fessed up and embraced the punishment.

Managers did TV interviews. Owners answered reporters’ questions. They announced the closure—which was cleverly branded as the bar’s “Rehab”—would take place starting Thursday, Aug. 24. They said that between then and a planned Saturday, Sept. 23, reopening, they’d “clean, refresh and retrain.” And they announced some great parties—some pre-“Rehab”-themed—before the closure.

Bravo for the PR effort … but not so much for the rules violations.

Watch www.facebook.com/villagepubpalmsprings for updates.


In Brief

The Ace Hotel and Swim Club, at 701 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, is holding its sixth annual Craft Beer Weekend on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 9 and 10. A craft-beer festival, a beer brunch and all sorts of other events are on the docket; get details, tickets and reservations at www.acehotel.com/palmsprings. … Congrats to our friends at Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill. On Sunday, Aug. 20, the restaurant, at 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, celebrated the two-year anniversary of its wildly popular Desert Divas Drag Brunch. The Sunday brunch and the show are a steal at $16.95; get info at rioazulpalmsprings.com/drag-brunch. … When Johnny Costa’s Ristorante, at 440 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, reopens for its 42nd season on Friday, Sept. 1, it’ll have a new look. “The new concept has a modern feel with exotic woods and soft earth-tone colors,” according to a news release. “The beautification of the dining room will feature new carpet, all new upholstery and seating, and new paint throughout the restaurant. Custom angled framed mirrors will showcase the walls; new chandeliers, sconces and other enhancements will allow the dining experience to be more intimate.” Visit johnnycostaspalmsprings.com for more info. … After a series of violent incidents at The Block Sports Bar and Grill, 68955 Ramon Road, in Cathedral City, the city shut down the restaurant on Aug. 10, apparently due to an expired business license. However, management jumped to resolve the paperwork issues, and reopened two weeks later. Watch www.facebook.com/theblocksportsbar for updates. … Coming very soon to the space at 68525 Ramon Road, in Cathedral City, that most recently housed Mike’s American Bistro: Bubba’s Bones and Brews. Watch this space for more information. … Coming soon: The valley’s fourth Koffi, to Tahquitz Plaza, at 600 Tahquitz Canyon Way, in Palm Springs. It’ll be the third Palm Springs location for the popular hangout; watch www.kofficoffee.com for more information. … Fans of the Desert Fox Bar, which called downtown Palm Springs home until closing in 2015, have cause to celebrate: The bar is making a return, at 44750 San Pablo Ave., in Palm Desert. Watch www.facebook.com/desertfoxbar for an exact opening date. … New to Palm Desert, specifically the Westfield Palm Desert mall: Burgerim, a “gourmet” chain burger joint. Customers who sign up can get all sorts of free food during a grand opening celebration on Wednesday, Sept. 13; visit www.facebook.com/BurgerimPalmDesert for info and signup details. … Grocery-delivery service Instacart has come to the Coachella Valley. For $5.99, you can get your grocery order of $35 or more—from stores including Stater Bros., Ralph’s, Smart and Final, Petco, Whole Foods and Costco—delivered to your door. Get more info at www.instacart.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

New: Chop House at Jackalope Ranch

I must confess: Before I walked into the new Chop House for a media preview dinner on Jan. 31, I thought the move by Lee Morcus and his Kaiser Restaurant Group to re-open the steakhouse inside of Jackalope Ranch was a gimmick.

I am a big fan of the Chop House. If memory serves, the first meal I ever ate in the Coachella Valley was at the old Palm Desert Chop House (which is now a Kaiser Grille), and I had many special meals at the downtown Palm Springs Chop House before it closed last year. I was sad to see the Chop House go, and I feared Morcus and co. were simply taking a room inside the sprawling, 660-seat Jackalope Ranch; calling it “Chop House”; throwing some old Chop House items on the menu; and calling it a day.

Boy, was I wrong.

Not only did Morcus revamp and bring back the full Chop House menu; he completely renovated one of the spaces inside the Jackalope Ranch complex, and created a new, dedicated kitchen specifically for the Chop House. He’s treating the restaurants as separate entities: A special occasion here or there aside, diners can only get the Chop House menu in the Chop House area, and can only get the Jackalope Ranch menu in the other areas.

I liked what I saw and tasted. The ahi tuna tartare ($16) was amazingly fresh, and the heirloom tomato and buratta salad ($12) was excellent. Unfortunately, I had to leave early due to other commitments, so I didn’t get to sample any of the main courses, like the 36-ounce Tomahawk rib chop for two ($98, with two sides).

Morcus is clearly taking the new Chop House seriously. He spoke at great length about all of the work he and his team have put into the new space, and talked passionately about the quality of meat he serves—aged at least 28 days, and never pre-sliced.

He also hinted at future plans for the Jackalope Ranch complex: He mentioned the possibility of a separate microbrewery/restaurant concept taking over a third kitchen in the building, and noted that Indio could perhaps use a hotel on some of the adjacent vacant land.

The Chop House at Jackalope Ranch is located at 80400 Highway 111, in Indio. For more information, call 760-342-1999, or visit www.thejackaloperanch.com/chop-house.


In Brief

Do you have your tickets yet for the Palm Desert Food and Wine festival? If not, now is the time: The foodie-dream weekend takes place Friday, March 24, through Sunday, March 26. Chefs’ demonstrations, wine dinners and other special events are on the schedule, along with the Grand Tasting main event. Grand Tasting tickets start at $100. Get them and more info at www.palmdesertfoodandwine.com. … If you have not yet tried the new menu at the Village Pub, at 266 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in downtown Palm Springs, do so. PR goddess Chris Martelo invited me to lunch there one recent weekday, and I was impressed by chef George Gonzalez’s food. The menu offers entrées from locales world-round, and my mouth now waters whenever I think of the fantastic gorgonzola, chicken and pear salad. Mere bar food, this ain’t. Visit palmspringsvillagepub.com for more info. … The downtown Palm Springs Pho Vu is no more. The restaurant, at 285 S. Palm Canyon Drive, has changed ownership and is now called Fuzion Five Vietnamese and Lao Cuisine. We’ll share more details after we check the place out; in the meantime, visit www.facebook.com/fuzionfive. … Congratulations to La Quinta Brewing Co., which nabbed two medals in the Best of Craft Beer Awards in Bend, Ore.: a gold for the Heatwave Amber Ale, and a silver for the Tan Line Brown Ale. … Congratulations are also in order for two beloved local restaurants which are among Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. for 2017: Rancho Mirage’s Shabu Shabu Zen and Sake Bar came in at No. 78, while Indio’s TKB Bakery and Deli is No. 5. Amazing! … Happy Sushi Ro Ba Ta, at 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, has seen a change in focus in recent years—and now, it has a different name, too. Kaikou highlights ramen and poke in addition to sushi offerings; more info at www.facebook.com/KaikouRamenPokeSushi. ... Speaking of sushi: You can now get more of it in Desert Hot Springs, thanks to the debut of Best Sushi and Grill. It’s located at 13525 Palm Drive, No. 3. Visit www.bestsushigrill.com for a menu and more info. … At long last, the relocated Bernie’s Lounge and Supper Club is open, at 69830 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. More info at bernies.club. … After closing rather suddenly back in September due to the death of the owner, Morongo Valley’s Willie Boys appears to be on the path toward reopening: The restaurant’s Facebook page says the restaurant is hiring for all positions. More info at www.facebook.com/willieboyssaloon.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

BEVMO! Opens in Downtown Palm Springs—but I'm Still Going to Total Wine for the Better Prices

Fans of booze and spirits who reside in the western portion of the Coachella Valley got good news in November, when BevMo! opened at 333 S. Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs, in part of the building that formerly housed The Alley.

This is the second valley location for BevMo! The other is located at 79715 Highway 111, in La Quinta.

I reside in Palm Springs, within walking distance of the new BevMo!, and I was looking forward to no longer having to drive to the Total Wine and More at 72339 Highway 111 in Palm Desert when I needed to stock my personal bar.

Then I tried to get a bottle of my go-to bourbon at the Palm Springs BevMo!—and found it was about three bucks more expensive than it is at the lovely Palm Desert Total Wine.

Hmm. That made me wonder: Which of these two mega-booze chains have better prices? Might it still be financially prudent for those of us in Palm Springs and La Quinta (and beyond) to head to Total Wine?

I decided to do a little experiment. I checked the prices at each place of eight spirits and two wines that I happen to have at home: Maker’s Mark bourbon (750 milliliters); Evan Williams bourbon (750 ml); Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin (1.75 liters); Tanqueray gin (750 ml); Herradura reposado tequila (750 ml); Don Julio blanco tequila (750 ml); Fireball (don’t ask why I have it; 750 ml); Ketel One (750 ml); Bogle Vineyards merlot; and Toasted Head cabernet sauvignon.

The verdict? I’m still going to be making the drive to Palm Desert.

The tally (before taxes) for the nine items both BevMo! and Total Wine had—BevMo! does not stock the Toasted Head cabernet, according to the website—came to $179.39 at Total Wine, while it came to $204.91 at BevMo! That’s a substantial difference of $25.52, or more than 14 percent.

Total Wine’s prices are basically lower across the board: Eight of the nine items were between $1 and $5 cheaper at Total Wine. There was one tie: The Herradura reposado was $38.99 at both places.

Check the prices on your own favorite liquors at www.totalwine.com and www.bevmo.com.


Cello's Bistro Closed; Cello's Pantry, Catering Remain Open

Cello’s Bistro, a cute restaurant with yummy food at 35943 Date Palm Drive, in Cathedral City, is no more.

The owners announced the news in an email on Nov. 8.

“After seven seasons, we have decided to close the restaurant,” the email said. “This was not an easy decision, but every year when we are off during the summer, we ask ourselves the same question: ‘Do we want to open the restaurant this season?’ Unfortunately, the answer this year was no. We want to thank all of our lovely and gracious guests who were so supportive to us over the years.”

The owners will now focus on Cello’s bustling catering business, as well as serving grab-and-go meals at Cello’s Pantry, at 70225 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Customers can get breakfast at Cello’s Pantry on the weekends, too.

For more information, call 760-328-4200, or visit www.cellospantry.com.


In Brief

Gelson’s Market, at 36101 Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage, is offering several free wine-tastings this coming weekend! Stop in between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2, to try Catena malbec and Fat Bastard chardonnay, and/or Saturday, Dec. 3, between 2 and 5 p.m. for three different Donati wines. Again, tastings are free—and everyone who attends will be entered into a raffle to win a $25 gift card. Call 760-770-0010 for more information. … Mark your calendars: Draughtsman, the “renderer of fine foods and craft beer” from the team behind the Arrive hotel, will mark its for-real grand opening on Monday, Dec. 5. The venue is located at 1501 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs; get more details draughtsmanpalmsprings.com. … The long-delayed and much-anticipated reopening of Bernie’s Lounge and Supper Club at 69830 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage is close enough that management held a job fair just before Thanksgiving. Keep your fingers crossed for an opening around Christmas. Ironically, it was on Christmas day in 2014 when a fire doomed Bernie’s at its old location at 292 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Watch for updates at www.facebook.com/Berniesfans. … More good news: Rocky’s New York Style Pizzeria and Restaurant, at 12856 Palm Drive in Desert Hot Springs, finally reopened in November. Some folks (myself included) feared Rocky’s was gone for good after a “summer closure” drifted well into the fall—especially since the building that houses Rocky’s was at one point gutted. Peruse the menu at www.rockyspizzadhs.com. … Rubio’s, a chain known for its fish tacos and other “coastal” fare, will open another valley location on Thursday, Dec. 8, at 73399 Highway 111 in Palm Desert. … Coming soon to the West Elm building in downtown Palm Springs: Blaze Pizza. The first valley location of the chain can be found in Palm Desert, just down from that new Rubio’s. … I was startled to see the building that houses beloved Palm Springs Italian restaurant Johnny Costa’s, at 440 S. Palm Canyon Drive, listed for lease on a commercial real estate website. Turns out Johnny Costa’s is slated to move sometime in the new year to 333 S. Palm Canyon Drive, the same building the aforementioned new BevMo! calls home. … Village Pub, at 266 S. Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs, is celebrating its 21st birthday with a new menu. Find details at www.palmspringsvillagepub.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Bartending competitions … are they a test of ability, or just a sideshow full of tricks and gimmicks?

This is a question I have debated for years—and now that I reside in California, I see bartending competitions everywhere. This isn't to say they don't exist back in my former home, Boston, but during my bar “upbringing,” the competition came every night behind the stick: We were earnest (mostly) tradespeople—just a little wilder, perhaps—and competitions seemed alien to us. We were drink-slingers, masters of ceremonies, psychologists and peacekeepers, and we had the final word on all debates. Then something happened all over the world: Bartenders started caring more about knowing obscure recipes, using showy techniques and developing complex cocktails. We rediscovered the craft, and—for better or worse—everything changed.

So this is 2016, and bartending is a sport—get used to it. It can be a pretty fun sport, too. I did my first bartending competition right here in Palm Springs. The first round included a mystery basket (basically like on the TV show Chopped), and I got knocked out early. To rub salt in the wound, it was on my home field, Seymour's, and I was the hyped “new guy in town.” That said, I had a great time and met some fantastic bartenders and enthusiasts, and I got to nerd out about drinks and techniques all night. Fast-forward to October, when I was invited to compete in a competition at Village Pub hosted by Templeton Rye Whiskey. This time, I did really well in the cocktail-creation round and moved on to the exhaustive final round against 11 other bartenders from all over the area. Five hours of events later, I finished fourth behind three of the best in the valley (David from Workshop; Chad from Bootlegger Tiki; and Patrick from Workshop). It was a blast hanging out with some great bartenders over (too many) shots of Jameson.

After all that, it was nice to just take it easy at the Coachella Valley Independent’s Craft Cocktail Championship on Thursday, Nov, 17. I was excited to meet some bartenders from outside of my usual circuit—and thrilled about visiting the Purple Palm at the Colony Palms, which had been on my list of places to visit for months. What a beautiful venue—exactly what I thought Palm Springs would be like before I ever came here. Sadly, the event and other obligations kept me from fully exploring the drink list (I will be back), but I managed to try the Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week special: The very busy bartender, Jeff, made me the Bangkok Sling (created by bartender Brandon), and with a name like that, I looked forward to a combination of gin, liqueurs, citrus and soda. I was right about the gin (TRU Gin) and citrus (lemon), but the rest of the ingredients were guava purée, Thai basil, pink peppercorn and Fruitlab Hops Organic Liqueur. I tend to avoid drinks with purées, because they can easily overwhelm a cocktail, and I generally don't like the texture. However, this drink avoids that pitfall by bringing strong flavors to the party. The gin and hops hit first while the guava lingers, and the basil finishes strong. I am a pepper junkie, so I wish I’d gotten more of that, but all together, it was an unexpected and tasty cocktail.

The competition itself involved five local bartenders, each using a randomly assigned sponsor spirit. Fernando González (Cuistot) led off with his “Carolus’ Cobbler.” This was a blend of Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, homemade peach purée, cinnamon and aromatic bitters. Two drinks with a purée in one night is a record for me, but this, too, was done well; Fernando put a lot of effort into the product and did his homework on the gin. Nolet’s has a fruitier and sweeter profile than a traditional London dry, with the addition of … guess what … peaches! I think a dash of something to temper the gin a bit (maraschino liqueur?) might have helped bring it all together, but he earned extra points for the homemade element, the research and the horse’s neck garnishes.

Kevin Helvie (Chill Bar and Scorpion Room) had the toughest spirit to work with, in my opinion. He mixed Crown Royal Vanilla, lemon, blueberry sour, tarragon and simple syrup into the “Royal Blue XL.” One of the judges put it best, saying it was “a good time in a glass.” It had the party-drink trinity of boozy, sweet and sour. It was also the favorite of many attendees. I was wondering the whole time what I would do with that spirit. Honey? Lemon? Ginger? Egg white? Heck, port? Luckily, I was just observing this time.

Michael Phillips (Fix a Dessert House) prepared a drink called “Citrus Rose” using Ketel One Oranj, fresh orange juice, local honey, homemade rose water, orange flower, rose sugar, a lime wedge and an edible flower. I wouldn't advise drinking it near a hive of killer bees, but I thought the floral focus was an intriguing and unique choice. It could have been overwhelming, but I found it to be nicely balanced and tasty. I also enjoyed hearing his story and about his passion for making drinks, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next time.

The audience favorite was Joey Tapia (New York Company) and his “Mellow Melon.” Joey is relatively new to bartending, and he smartly kept it simple, with Captain Morgan White Rum, cantaloupe, fresh lime, muddled mint and sugar. The drink was light and tasty. From an aesthetic point of view, I might have fine-strained the mint out, but the Mellow Melon is the kind of drink that pushes bar sales. Simple can be good, too.

The champion was Sherman Chan (Trio), who came ready to rumble. Her spirit was Bulleit Bourbon, which some would say was the luckiest pull because of the wealth of bourbon cocktails from which to draw inspiration. Luck only gets you so far, though, and she clearly knew her stuff. She made a chimera of a “Brown Derby” (bourbon, honey syrup and lemon) and a “Kentucky Mule” (bourbon, ginger, citrus), with Peychaud’s Bitters and rosemary “straight out of Trio’s parking lot!” Despite the potential for a spit-take from the judges after that remark, Sherman rolled with emcee Shann Carr’s increasingly “blue” commentary with confidence and humor. She also brought “dragon balls”—round ice balls with herbs frozen into them. Word to the wise: Behind the bar, “the show” is almost as important as what you make. The drink itself, “Bulleit Proof,” was not just smoke and mirrors, though; it was extremely tasty. It’s debatable whether the “dragon balls” would be feasible for a busy bar program, but the drink itself would sell for sure.

How much does a contest truly reflect one’s worth as an elite bartender? Winning can get you fame, money, magazine features, gigs shilling for spirit brands, Instagram followers, guest spots on reality shows and so on, so I understand why some people devote so much time and energy to competing. Frankly, it's pretty much the only way to get noticed in our new culture of “Rock-Star Bartending” (unless you happen to work at a world-famous establishment), but that shouldn't be what it's all about. I guess it all comes down to staying grounded and having fun—taking it seriously, but not tying one’s worth to winning or losing.

My advice to bartenders: Give it your best if competing, and cheer your hardest if attending. Realize it's not always fair, that it's subjective, and that no contest will determine accurately how good a bartender is in one’s natural environment. Winning a competition and actually tending bar are two different skill sets. As with any skill, you have to practice. I will be better the next time I compete, if and when I do, and so will all of these competitors.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to practice flipping bottles and breathing fire.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails