November 30th, 2009
OK, I get it. After my first visit to Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR, I get why I’ve never met anyone who has said of either city, “I just had to get out of that hellhole!” The people are friendly, the mood is casual, the roads are civil (no one jaywalks!), the cultural scene is vibrant, and the weather is … well, a bit warmer in winter than New England. Most important of all, the bars and restaurants are tops.
Honestly, about half the reason I took this trip was to go to the ZigZag Cafe and to meet the inestimable Murray Stenson, who has tended bar in and around Seattle for more than 30 years. The thing about Murray, the reason why his fans include the arbiters of the cocktail and bar renaissance in addition to legions of regular customers, is that he combines the chops and charm of an old pro with the mixological enthusiasm of today’s cocktail geek — all in a manner that comes across as completely genuine and welcoming to all.
And it’s not like Murray’s the only talent on the ZigZag team. The place as a whole — its dark-wood bar anchors a contemporary-looking restaurant — radiates an easygoing hospitality, and co-owners Kacy Fitch and Ben Dougherty and the rest of the bar staff turn out expertly made drinks with often rare ingredients. A couple of the cocktails Murray made for me involved Giffard products from France, which are generally unavailable in the States: Mangalore liqueur (made with cardamom and other spices) and macadamia-nut syrup. Then there was the pre-Prohibition bourbon. Oh, and something special that caught this Bostonian’s eye: on the ZigZag’s cocktail menu was the Bohannon, created by our homeboy Casey Keenan.
I visited several other Seattle bars, including:
Sambar – Thanks to Charles Munat for insisting on driving me and Paul Clarke out to Seattle’s Ballard-Fremont neighborhood to experience this smart, little cafe connected to Le Gourmand restaurant. Bartender Jay Kuehner is well respected for mixing some of the most creative and tasty cocktails in the city, and he is a sweet guy to boot.
Tavern Law – Part contemporary saloon, part speakeasy (the speakeasy is upstairs behind a semi-hidden door). Bartender Miles “Scrappy’s Bitters” Thomas mixed me a couple of refreshing drinks from the old school — the Kemble House (orange gin, dry vermouth, Fernet Branca) and the Rose Cocktail (dry vermouth, kirschwasser, bitters) — which I enjoyed in the company of Paul Clarke and his wife, Leonora, and Jamie “the man, the legend” Boudreau, who is between bartending gigs at the moment.
Plus … the artisanal cocktail bar Vessel, where Keith Walbauer’s mixture of bourbon, Pommeau de Normandie, Benedictine and Fee’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters was inspired by Misty Kalkofen‘s Fort Washington Flip; the hip, den-like Rob Roy, where I said hello to Anu Apte, who just started the Washington State chapter of LUPEC; the Hideout, which lives up to its name and where you can get a good cocktail and admire (and purchase) cool, local art; Spur Gastropub, whose creators are also responsible for Tavern Law; Bathtub Gin, a narrow and cozy speakeasy where Marley Tomic-Beard, formerly of Eastern Standard, now tends bar; and Brouwers Cafe, a beer bar with an impressive list of Belgian and northwest U.S. brews. Finally, I must mention that I stayed at the historic Sorrento Hotel, which itself has joined the Seattle cocktail scene with its Drinking Lessons led by some of the country’s top bartenders and drink historians.
After a pretty ride to Portland on Amtrak’s Cascade line and a brief gawk at beautiful, old Union Station, I made a beeline to Clyde Common in the Pearl District (one of those industrial-turned-artsy neighborhoods). It was happy hour, and bartending/mixology blogger, Repeal Day impresario and international playboy Jeffrey Morgenthaler was helming the bar. Twenty-somethings who were attractive in an approachable way filtered in for what appeared to be a continued sampling of Morgenthaler’s cocktail menu, with solid stuff like the Bourbon Renewal (Maker’s Mark, lemon juice, cassis, bitters) and the Norwegian Wood (Krogstad Aquavit, applejack, Cinzano Rosso, yellow Chartreuse, bitters). A “European-style tavern” — think northern European in design — Clyde Common is a jewel in Portland’s considerable culinary crown, with its pronounced focus on local ingredients and simple preparations.
Another such jewel is Laurelhurst Market, a butcher shop that expanded into a hip steak house in the Laurelhurst neighborhood (a little ways across the Willamette River from the Pearl). There’s a fine bar program here, too, and I had a Swoon cocktail — applejack, lemon juice, egg white, burnt chamomile syrup — before digging into my steak frites.
A quick cab ride got me over to Beaker and Flask, which has no sign and appears to occupy a building that was once a show room for cars or home appliances. It sits on an elevated spot, and its large windows offer a great view of the city lights across the river. Bartender David Shenaut, who also pulls shifts at the Teardrop Lounge (see below), made me a tasty Norwegian Negroni with Krogstad Aquavit, Cynar and sweet vermouth. Then, what with Blair “Trader Tiki” Reynolds walking over and introducing himself to me, we decided to do something experimental with falernum, Irish whiskey, egg white, bitters and I honestly don’t remember what all else. It was interesting, though.
The Teardrop Lounge is one of those must-visit bars for any cocktailian visiting Oregon. They make a lot of their own ingredients, including tonic water, liqueurs and bitters. The space, with its large, oval bar, is like a shrine to the artisanal cocktail, and the bartenders dress sharply. I was happy to see dry-humored Daniel Shoemaker, whom I had met at Tales of the Cocktail, again on his home turf.
After all that cocktailing, man, was I thirsty for a beer. Luckily, Portland can satisfy those cravings and then some. On my last night I pub-hopped from the venerable, English-style Horse Brass Pub (terrific mix of British, European and Northwest brews) to Belmont Station (a no-frills beer bar that grew out of a kick-ass craft beer store) to Prost (new and a rarity in the States — a contemporary beer bar focusing on German beer and cuisine; great stuff) to, finally, Cassidy’s — a 30-year-old saloon-style bar that attracts industry types late-night after their shifts. Given Cassidy’s reputation, what choice did I have but to end my Northwest bar hop with a Rainier tall-boy and a shot of Fernet?
Thanks to all my friendly Northwest guides for a fabulous time!