November 22nd, 2006
I drank the Charles Hotel
It had been quite a while since I’d ventured over to the elegant brick fortress in Harvard Square. I remember, when Rialto opened in 1994, how gaga everyone was about chef Jody Adams’ Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. The restaurant was a lot of people’s Special Occasion destination, including mine. Greater Boston has exploded with new bars and restaurants since then, and I have to admit that the whole Charles Hotel complex came to seem beige and corporate over time. Even a cool-looking, low-lit lounge like Noir had an uptight vibe to it. Then I happened to meet two barmen — one from Rialto and one from Noir — who said, “Come and check out what we’re doing.” Any iffy impression I have about a place gets shoved aside when I’m sitting across from a bartender who knows what he’s doing. So I headed to the Charles.
First stop, Rialto at happy hour. Trays of complimentary bruschetta with succulent prosciutto were being passed around the bar. Nice. Todd Maul, a North Bennet Street School grad who makes furniture when he’s not on the stick, handed us a cocktail menu. It featured stuff that is popular in high-end restaurants, drinks using ingredients like blackberry puree, pear nectar, and pomegranate juice that sound more complex than they really are. Todd told us about his mission to infiltrate the upcoming winter menu with a few interesting vintage cocktails, like the Gin Fizz. We tried one, and it was deliciously silky, thanks to egg white shaken up hard with dry gin, sour mix, sugar and a splash of soda. We also tried a Diabolique Bourbon Manhattan ($11) with locally produced Diabolique infused bourbon (Maker’s Mark with figs, cinnamon and vanilla), sweet vermouth, and fresh figs for garnish. This drink was spicy and rich, like hot gingerbread right out of the oven. I’d call it a perfect beginner’s Manhattan, since it lacked the hard edge of straight bourbon.
Todd has an easygoing, unphony but polite way with customers, who during our visit ranged from younger couples on a date to well-heeled, Martini-with-olive guys in town for the annual Harvard-Yale football game. Instead of stirring his cocktails, he gently shakes them until they’re nice and cold. The vibe in this bar was warm and friendly, and we’re looking forward to seeing what Todd has up his sleeve this winter, particularly in February when Rialto reopens after a month-long facelift.
We went to Noir on a Sunday to catch Ben Sandrof in action. Hired as a manager just six months ago, he’s only behind the bar Sunday and Monday nights. Too bad. He’s a suave guy, which I mean in the good sense, i.e. “effortlessly gracious.” And he’s passionate about mixology. Noir has one of the few cocktail menus I’ve seen that manages to please disparate constituents: people who like their drinks pretty and accessible, classic cocktail enthusiasts who like strong, vintage spirits (yeah, that’d be me), and those who prefer hybrid mixtures that combine new and old ingredients. My favorite drink of the evening actually fell into the last category: a concoction that Ben invented called the Chartreuse Basil ($12). When I saw the ingredients — green Chartreuse, fresh lime, basil and simple syrup, shaken and served straight up — I thought, ‘Oooh, that’s going to be too sweet. And possibly too basil-y.’ But I was wrong. It was well balanced, tasty, original and, like most good cocktails, more than the sum of its parts. Then there was the Champagne Cocktail. While the idea of paying $13 for a drink with no hard liquor in it gives me pause, this thing was damn good. ‘Just because you’re dumping bitters, sugar and lemon juice in it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the Louis Bouillot Grand Reserve,’ is what I’ve always said.
OK, the Charles Hotel might still come across as a bit too slick, but I know I can get good drinks and friendly service there, and that’s enough to bring me back.