critic's picks 206

How curious it is that three of the finer releases in an especially weak pack of new holiday recordings this year belong to jazz pianists whose take on Yuletide sounds could not be more varied.

Pianist Harry Connick, Jr.’s Music from The Happy Elf may be the most unexpected of the three. A veteran of several Christmas-themed recordings that showcase his big band and traditional (as well as overtly commercial) pop preferences, Elf presents Connick in one of his most inviting and overlooked settings: the piano trio.

It’s hard not to smile at the percussive cracks of drummer Arthur Larkin and Connick’s sparse piano mischief during Naughty Children of Bluesville (which sounds like O Tannenbaum trying to escape from a blues cellar) or the way the light, lullaby turns of Christmas Day melt into the intimate swing of What a Night.

Music from The Happy Elf is, aside from a 10 minute opening medley with narration, completely instrumental. Add to that the fact that all of the music is original (but revisited from works Connick composed for the stage musical of The Happy Elf) and you have a holiday recording both risky and refreshing.

One of Connick’s prime piano mentors, Ellis Marsalis, embraces his longstanding Crescent City inspirations on A New Orleans Christmas Carol

There is an understated robustness to this recording, typified by the muscular modal playing behind We Three Kings that could pass for a vintage McCoy Tyner knockabout with John Coltrane. Fun as those moments are, A New Orleans Christmas Carol delights most when Marsalis plays things cool.

Among such highlights is a duet arrangement of O Holy Night where Marsalis provides stately support behind the lean but beautifully expressive vibraphone lead of son Jason Marsalis. It’s a serene little street corner moment on an album that wears its abundant New Orleans jazz heritage proudly without overplaying its hand.

The real surprise of the pack is Geri Allen’s A Child is Born, a fascinating solo piano/keyboard recording that lightly accents a deep spiritual cast with vocal and choir accents.

The most immediately arresting example of the album’s rich solo-and-then-some sound is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It allows Allen to overdub piano and celeste in a manner that recalls the great Bill Evans. But then vocal samples by the Women of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective recorded in 1941 enter as if summoned by a séance. The resulting music is beautifully (and sagely) ancient.

The tune is reprised at the end of What Child is This, minus the vocals, to affirm the spiritual roots that remain at the heart of the sounds of the season.

Mix & match: selecting the right mixer for your flavor, operational and cost objectives can make or break a cocktail.

Cheers January 1, 2008 | Ursin, Cheryl What goes into making today’s hottest cocktails?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] A lot of thought. That, and quality ingredients–not least among them a quality mixer.

Bar and restaurant guests now expect a high level of quality in their cocktails, both in taste and presentation. The right mixer can deliver on both, and operators are testing and evaluating their mixer options like never before.

“It’s a ‘class to mass’ movement,” says Fannie Young, vice president of marketing for Fall River, Mass.-based Stirrings, which markets cocktail mixers, garnishes, essences and sodas. “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to find some of these popular Margarita flavors anywhere except at the finest Mexican restaurants. Now you can find them across the board, in all kinds of accounts, and mixer companies are striving to provide the taste and quality today’s customers demand.” Today’s operators are evaluating mixer quality like never before. A quality-assurance team of food scientists approves the ingredients used in cocktails, including mixers, at Olive Garden, the 621-restau-rant Italian chain headquartered in Orlando, Fla. “They look at the plant where the product is made and research where the company gets its ingredients. Then we decide, by our own standards, what the shelf-life of the product is,” says Darren Loscalzo, beverage operations manager.

Developing a cocktail at Olive Garden is “a five-gate process,” says Loscalzo. First, the company decides upon a theme–fruit-based Martinis, for example. Second, it starts developing cocktail ideas that fit that theme. Third, it looks at all the different ways each cocktail could be made, as well as what products could be used. The resulting cocktail recipes then are tested in the restaurants and, if popular, tasted for final approval at the company’s headquarters.

Taste and appearance are the top priorities when it comes to approving a new cocktail. Cost is a consideration, but it is not nearly as important as operational ease, says Loscalzo, noting an advantage mixer products have over squeezing juices and muddling flavorings by hand. “We ask our operators for feedback,” he explains. “High-volume restaurants need cocktails that can be made in two to three minutes.” Beverage professionals at 200-location Uno Chicago Grill, headquartered in Boston, Mass., also examine all ingredient options for cocktails, from fresh fruit and ingredients made in-house, including a sour and a Bloody Mary mix, to prepared mixes and syrups. “With each drink, we look at all the tools available to us and pick the best one,” says Marc Sachs, corporate beverage manager. “We have a new Margarita made with fresh ingredients, one made with Monin syrup and a frozen one made with a wonderful Island Oasis product. They all sell equally well.” Not only are restaurant operators considering all their mixer options, but they also are looking for unique ways to use those products. “The mix is now being used more as the base of the cocktail,” says Kristin Katruska, brand manager for Daily’s Cocktails & Mixers at American Beverage Corporation in Verona, Pa. “This allows the bartender or mixologist to customize and garnish the cocktail in their own signature way.” At the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami, Fla., “management and all line staff, including servers and bartenders, [are encouraged] to use and create whimsical ideas with the mixers,” says Anthony Freda, director of food and beverage. Currently, some of the most popular cocktails at the Four Seasons are its pomegranate, tangerine and watermelon Mojitos, made with Stirrings mixers and priced at $13.

FLAVOR OF THE MONTH Flavor trends come and go, however. “There was a time when everything was ‘dark berry.’ Then, it was ‘exotic fruit’ and everything was mango and pineapple,” says Uno’s Sachs. “I think we’re seeing the tip of the end of everything being purple. I think we’re going to see a lot more Asian ingredients, like ginger and lychee, and blood orange is back.” When Uno’s Pomegranate Margarita, made with Monin Pomegranate, was introduced in October, 2005, it “rocketed to the top and has stayed there,” says Sachs. Other popular cocktails at Uno, priced between $5 and $9, include a Lemon Drop Martini made with a fresh lemon sour, a Wildberry Lemonade made with Island Oasis’s new wildberry flavor and a muddled Mango Mojito made with fresh mint and mango cubes. site lemon drop martini

“We’re not trend-setters, but we’re not followers, either,” says Olive Garden’s Loscalzo. “We try to stay innovative.” He points out that the chain’s Pomegranate Margarita Martini, an example of the hot “exotic fruit” trend made with Patron Silver, Patron Citronge orange liqueur, Monin Pomegranate syrup and citrus juices, runs “neck and neck” in popularity with the chain’s more traditionally flavored Strawberry-Limoncello Martini, made with Smirnoff Citrus Flavored Vodka, Caravella Limoncello and fresh strawberry. Both drinks are priced at $7.50.

“Most of our guests still like the traditional fruit flavors–strawberry, peach, raspberry,” Loscalzo reports. “Anything strawberry sells for us.” Olive Garden guests also tend to be “sweet seekers,” he says. And they order dessert-like cocktails before, during and after their meals, cocktails such as the chain’s new Raspberry Sorbeto Martini, made with Smirnoff, Chambord and cream with a float of berry sorbet and a graham cracker rim.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Restaurant operators aren’t the only ones tracking flavor trends. The cocktail-ingredient companies actively anticipate and work to drive new flavor sensations. Monin, which currently has a portfolio of 100 products, introduces an average of 10 new flavors a year. This year’s crop of gourmet flavorings and sauces includes Candied Banana, Rock Melon Cantaloupe, Ruby Red Grapefruit and several chocolate and candy flavors, including Mayan Chocolate, Dark Chocolate and White Chocolate.

“[Most of] our new flavors are totally customer-driven,” says Mark Reinheimer, vice president of strategic marketing and partner alliances at Monin, headquartered in Clearwater, Fla. This year, for example, Monin’s new Chipotle Pineapple was developed while Monin was working on cocktail ideas with Tampa, Fla.-based OSI Restaurant Partners’ Outback Steakhouse. Chipotle Pineapple, like two of Monin’s other new products, Spicy Mango and Mayan Chocolate, which is flavored with cinnamon and chili pepper, was created in response to the trend toward Latin-inspired “sweet heat” both in food and beverage, according to Reinheimer. Tracking another trend, Monin introduced a line of organic syrups last year.

Meanwhile, Daily’s is in the midst of rolling out its new Mango Mojito, Blueberry Mojito and Caipirinha mixes, along with a line of dessert-cocktail mixes called Daily’s Divines in three flavors: A La Mode, Cheesecake and Chocolate. “And in the very near future we will be launching a premium line of Martini syrups,” says Katruska. “Trends that we see coming include the [continued popularity] of classic cocktail–i.e. Sidecars, Manhattans–and ‘superfruit’ flavors.” [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Riding the classic trend with an eye on operational ease is American Mixers, Inc. Its Dirty Sue mixer was created by Eric Toecosky and Terry Fradet, bartenders at Jones Hollywood restaurant in Los Angeles. The twice-filtered brine is made from premium olives and intended for use in Dirty Martinis. here lemon drop martini

SODAS, TOO Many companies are introducing super-premium sodas designed for use in classic cocktails. Stirrings, for example, offers a line of six “cocktail sodas,” three of which are traditional cocktail ingredients: tonic, club soda and ginger ale. The other three are pink grapefruit, tart cranberry and bitter lemon. These sodas are made of high-quality ingredients–the ginger ale contains real ginger root–and are designed for use with super-premium spirits.

Stirrrings’s Cocktail Sodas are available only in single-serve bottles. “More and more high-end bars, lounges and hotels want to serve single-serve bottles. It’s a more upscale, old-fashioned way to make a classic cocktail, rather than getting the soda from a gun,” says Young.

Other upscale soda companies that are targeting the cocktail market include Q Tonic, GuS, which stands for “Grown Up Soda,” and Fever-Tree.

“The newest, hottest flavors? There’s a lot of bitter talk going on,” says Yvan Lemoine, a bar chef and founder of iFood Studios, a food styling and product development firm in Long Island City, N.Y. that consults with companies including Torani.

Tapping that trend, Stirrings is reformulating its Essences line of extracts, increasing flavor while lowering sugar content. The current Stirrings Essences are basil, lavender and rose. In January, the company launches three new Essences flavors: lemongrass, cucumber and ginger.

One issue that remains unclear is whether customers care about the healthfulness of cocktail ingredients. Do they really care if the ingredients are all-natural, such as with the Stirrings and Fever-Tree products, or those offered by Funkin? Do they wonder how many calories are in the drink? Do they order a Pomegranate Margarita because pomegranates have a lot of antioxidants? The jury remains out.

Z Square Cafe * Restaurant + Bar in Cambridge, Mass., offers a lower-calorie Martini, called the Light Rasmopolitan, made with Ocean Spray Diet Cranberry Spray, which contains approximately 30 percent fewer calories than other signature cocktails at Z Square, according to the cafe. “It’s popular, but I think that’s more because of how it looks. It’s got fresh raspberries muddled with lime in it,” says Dan McGuire, general manager.

Meanwhile Atlanta, Ga.-based Coca-Cola Company, which makes the Bacardi Mixer line of products, recently conducted a survey about frozen drinks and mixers and discovered that the least important drink quality for consumers was whether it contained all-natural or artificial ingredients. The top motivators, not surprisingly, were taste and a “nice presentation.” That said, in this environment it doesn’t hurt to mention attributes such as “all-natural” in a drink’s menu description.

Uno, for its part, enjoys great success with non-alcohol smoothies made with low-fat frozen yogurt rather than ice cream. “We have nutritional kiosks in every company restaurant and most franchises where guests can look up information on our menu items,” says Sachs. “We track the hits, and the number-one piece of information looked at is the number of calories.” Whether customers are most interested in calorie content, ingredient origin, color, presentation or taste, one thing is clear: they are demanding high-quality drinks. And that’s why, increasingly, employing a selection of quality mixers matters.

Cheryl Ursin writes about beverages and beverage management in restaurants and at retail from Houston, Texas.

Ursin, Cheryl



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