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30 Jan 2018

On Cocktails: Our Intrepid Drinker Hits Up The Nest, Sullivan's, Mastro's and the Brand-New Sandfish

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The milk punch at Sandfish. The milk punch at Sandfish. Kevin Carlow

Sometimes, I go looking for innovative cocktails; sometimes, I go looking for good happy hours.

I’ve done a little of both recently.

After a long afternoon of exploring the East Valley, and my first trip to the Salton Sea, I needed a little food and drink to resuscitate my sun-worn state. I remembered hearing about the happy hour at The Nest, and made a beeline for Indian Wells. I caught them on a slow day, which was fine by me.

I started with a solid, old-school old fashioned, and a tall glass of water. (Hey, it was a long day out in the desert.) I chatted with the staff, and when the bartender found out I was a craft-bar guy, he busted my chops a bit, saying The Nest is too busy for any of that craft stuff. While one should always aim for a balanced drink no matter how busy you get, I agreed that going all the way into a full craft program isn’t always worth it. On the bartender’s recommendation, I filled up on some Adriatic sausages with house-made pita, which were very tasty (and only $8 during happy hour!).

Then I saw him pull out a bottle of slivovitz … and I thought: Here we go!

I love to work with all manners of fruit brandy, and apple brandy has been a particular favorite as of late. Well, this is nothing like those elegant spirits on our back bar: It’s a harsh kick to the palate, made all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans, usually from plums. If you’ve had grappa, you might get the idea; it generally tastes as much like a plum as grappa tastes like a grape (although some versions are fruitier). I often drink a Bulgarian cousin to this spirit, called rakia. These Balkan brandies are rough at first … and at second, and at third. But with some practice, they go great with a plate of sausage or stuffed grape leaves, or frankly, whatever, because you’re tipsy anyway by then. I showed a little restraint and stopped after one (OK, maybe two), and it was a nice little evening. I won’t be featuring any slivovitz cocktails anytime soon, however.

An evening of exploring El Paseo found me at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, and it was a Thursday, so I was happy to hear it was happy hour all night. I wasn’t even in a cocktail mood, but for $7, how could I resist?

I started with a barrel-aged Vieux Carre. A quick aside: I loathe barrel aging cocktails. They usually taste oxidized, flabby or muddy to me. Maybe people overdo the aging; maybe it’s a crime against nature, and the gods punish it accordingly. What made me give it a go this time was that there were no barrels, but small bottles with oak staves immersed inside instead. I figured this was a good way to keep an eye on the process, at least. My first sip was, “Uh oh, here we go again,” but then I realized the drink wasn’t fully diluted yet (a problem with using a large ice cube). After some patient stirring, I gave it a second sip, and it was pretty good. It had an unusual, almost-spicy flavor that wasn’t off-putting and actually kind of intriguing. I ordered oysters Rockefeller to complete the New Orleans pairing. I still prefer to see my drink made to order, but this time, the cocktail gods were clement.

Next I tried “The Ice and the Rye,” a mix of rye, Cointreau, mint, berry preserves and lemon. I was wondering how this was going to work out; having used preserves in drinks, I know how hard it is to get a consistent measurement for balance. Man … this was almost there. The flavor was nice, but the jam and Cointreau overpowered the lemon and rye a bit. As the large cube melted, it got better, and by the end, I was enjoying it. I definitely would like less sweetener next time, though.

I had a great time joking around with the staff and stuffing my face, and I really appreciated it more when I stopped into Mastro’s Steakhouse down the road … where the drinks were almost all $20 or more. While the drink I had, the Scotsman—a mix of Islay scotch, Aperol, basil and grapefruit juice—was much better than the last $20 drink I had in the valley, it was a shame I couldn’t afford to try another.

To end things, I violated my usual rule about avoiding a place when it first opens, and I stopped for some sushi at the much-anticipated Sandfish. (Sandwish has ties to El Paseo, as it has the same chef/owner as The Venue, so I am calling this a segue.) This is a Chad Austin (Bootlegger Tiki) cocktail program, so I had been hearing about the ambitious list for months through our Palm Springs Bartender Club meetings. (Just kidding … we don’t really have those, although it is a tightly knit scene.) Boy, is this menu ambitious—he has a milk punch on there, for gosh sakes!

If you haven’t had a milk punch, you’re not alone. A bar manager has to be a little crazy to put one on a list. They take days to make—three days for this one, specifically. I did a lightweight version once, and it sold so well, I kept running out. Basically, you take a spirit, spices, tea, fruit—or whatever else you want, really—and pour it into milk. There are recipes going back to colonial days; Ben Franklin had one, no kidding. The original purpose was to tame the harsh flavors left by ancient distilling methods … but today, they are just plain cool. This one is heavy-duty, with seven spirits, lots of fruit and some spices. After you have your ingredient mixture, you pour it into some scalded milk (although I’ve had great success with cold milk, too). Then, techniques vary, but I like to curdle the milk with citric acid. Most people use lemon juice. Then you rack it and let the curds settle. Filter it—and if those fickle gods are smiling, you will have a clear mixture with only about 10 percent loss to the curds.

But back to Sandfish’s milk punch: The first thing I noticed was the oily note of mezcal, and the herbal hit of chartreuse (yellow?), and maybe whiskey, too, with clove, anise and maybe pineapple. (I don’t want to give away any secrets accidentally, but feel pretty confident about those.) I like my milk punches shaken; it gives them a cool whey protein foam, and that didn’t happen here, but that didn’t affect the experience for me. Give it a try.

The banana, yuzu and matcha sour was tasty as well, although I might have preferred the Japanese whisky highball, also featured for only $10, to pair with my nigiri sushi. All and all, Sandfish is a nice addition to the cocktail scene.

So, whether you want cheap booze and eats or obscure cocktail techniques, get out, and get your fill. To heck with New Year’s resolutions …

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