Stripper Nachos and the Margarita Lesson

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What could possibly make quittin’ time even better? Happy hour!

My girlfriend Renee was meeting me after work. I worked through lunch so that I could leave early and snag us a table at the bar. Downtown bars filled up fast during happy hour with people trying to score cheap eats, house drinks, and someplace to go to wait out the horrible traffic.

Renee was my newest gal pal, so I wanted to pick out a nice bar for our first meetup, one with extensive happy hour offerings. She liked Mexican food, so I figured a nice, upscale Mexican bistro with a death fetish and flaming coffees would make for a great impression. I think she mentioned she was vegetarian, so I ordered non-meat nachos from the happy hour menu as our starter snack. And of course, a good, solid margarita (this place uses fresh lime juice, not sweet and sour mix) to celebrate the end of the day, and the beginning of a new friendship!

 

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I chatted with the bartender a bit, told her I noticed they made margaritas with just tequila silver, a blanco, as opposed to a reposado or anejo. She explained that because the anejo and reposado were smoother and sweeter than the blanco, they would make the margarita too sweet and the tequila too difficult to detect. Plus the anejo and reposado, being aged and smoother, were more expensive than the blanco. Mixing them into margaritas would be wasteful, and should instead be enjoyed neat.

 

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A few minutes into my margarita, I texted Renee to see if she was still coming. When I looked up, there she was with her sparkly hazel eyes and grinning red lips. Even after a full day’s work, she looked wide awake and unstoppable! I offered her the nachos while she was reaching for the cocktail menu. “Oh, I can’t.” Renee said apologetically. “I’m vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free.”

We scoured the menus for animal-free/gluten-free items and came up empty. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll just order a side of carrots.” This place was a fail and utterly unacceptable. I was open to suggestions.

 

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Renee was familiar with the dietary restrictions food scene, and suggested a place I’d never heard of that was just a few minutes away. The entrance was in a narrow, seedy alleyway. Fortunately, it wasn’t completely dark yet. But at this time of year, 4:30 pm was sundown.

 

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Looking at it from outside, I thought, “Wow, what a hole. Renee comes HERE?”. Walking in, I noted that the place was small but clean, and did have a respectable bar with a good liquor selection. The prayer candles were an interesting detail, too. There were lots of them, for whatever reason. I decided to trust and roll with it.

 

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It was still happy hour, so we could get deep discounts on food, well drinks and cocktails. Renee ordered vegan nachos and I got tacos. In my experience, happy hour margaritas were mostly fruit-flavored sugar water with almost no tequila, and the one I had there lived up to all my expectations. Still, the food was really tasty.

 

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Halfway through my drink, I needed the restroom, and was told to go through this strange door to get there. The signage confused me. No minors allowed in the restaurant, or no minors permitted to use the restrooms?

 

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As I opened the door, the first things I noticed were darkness, and loud throbbing music. Not the clubby, dance-y kind you’d bounce to while sipping your appletini; more like the slow, grinding raw kind you listened to while sullenly throwing back shots. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a silent crowd drinking, watching young pretty girls on stage writhing, swaying, and whipping their hair around.

On the dimly lit path to the bathroom, I had stumbled into a labyrinth of sin and nubile flesh that left nothing to the imagination. I watched as men walked up to the stage and shoved their dollar bills into unmentionable places on ladies bending, kneeling, waiting to receive their treat.

Where the hell was I??
Oh. Right. I’m at a Mexican restaurant that shares bathrooms with a strip club, of course.

 

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I took no pictures of all this because the bouncer seated by the door was looking at me like that would be a really bad idea. Seeing the ladies prance and dance with money tucked into their naughty parts really made me think about the dollar bills in my wallet. Oh, the places that paper money may have been. I think I’ll be transacting on a credit card-only basis from now on.

From that day forward, to Renee and me, that restaurant was code name: Stripper Nachos.

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Cognac: A Warm Beautiful (Cocktail) Memory

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It was a bright summer morning in Victoria. Mom and my aunties were in deep discussions over which beauty salon to go to. My uncle was waiting patiently with cup of coffee in one hand, and car keys in the other. I was sipping my coffee in the balcony, looking out at the marina, and watching planes skim over the water when I got a text from my brothers. They had all decided to go downtown right after an early breakfast. No doubt, I’ll meet up with one or all of them later today, after their afternoon of selfies and shopping.

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Until then, I decided to go exploring on my own. Our condo was just a five-minute walk to the Inner Harbour and Empress Hotel. As I wandered in and out of alleys along Government Street, I briefly checked out a number of trendy bars and cheery pubs, making mental notes of which ones I’ll visit later.

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One shop I popped into sold beautifully-cut crystal liquor decanters imported from Ireland. I had lunch at a patio on Trounce Alley, and chatted with a sous chef from Montreal on his smoke break. He gave me his card and suggested, with his heavy French accent, that we have dinner at his place some evening. “I cook for you, we have some wine and…”, he let the sentence trail off with a nodding smile and a crook of his brow. I kept the card.

My brother Arthur texted me that he was cocktailing at a bar in Chinatown. He invited me to join him if I was nearby, before meeting up and dining with family in a couple of hours. Past the fruit stands and tea house, I found an alley that looked almost too narrow for two people to walk through, shoulder to shoulder. I took my time exploring the tiny shops and fragrant varieties of burning incense. It was summer, warm and perfect. And I had no intention of rushing anywhere.

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I found the bar just a block and a half away. Arthur wasn’t seated at the counter, where I expected him to be. I saw through a glass partition that he was sitting at a table, staring at an oil painting hanging directly in front of him.

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I wish I knew the name of the artist who did this painting

He was completely absorbed by that gorgeous painting of what appeared to be a sort of costume party, which took up half the wall. He could barely look away, even as he spoke or took pictures of it with his phone. More interesting to me was the cocktail my brother was sipping. He called it the Warm Beautiful.

The cocktail

The Beautiful is a delicious, potent and citrusy cocktail made of cognac and Grand Marnier orange liqeuer. Arthur preferred it topped with a lemon zest. Having worked part-time as a bartender while in medical school, he knew that cognac’s flavor and aroma deepened when warmed. Cognac lovers would often just cradle the snifter in the palm of their hand, warming the cognac with their body’s heat. My brother wanted something a bit more imaginative.

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The cocktail was served in a snifter. He then asked for a “heater”, a small glass half-filled with hot water. Arthur placed the snifter on top of the water-bearing glass. As my brother waited for the cognac cocktail to reach the proper temperature, he rotated the snifter now and again, still gazing in awe at the absurd yet fascinating painting across from us.

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Age of the cognacs

According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), there are three official classifications of cognac, depending on how long the cognac had been stored in casks:
VS (very special) – At least two years
VSOP (very superior old pale) – At least four years
XO (extra old) – At least ten years

Other classifications have also been used by producers when the cognac had been stored beyond official age scales, such as Extra and Hors d’age (beyond age), which can be as much as 100 years old.

“Rules” of enjoyment

Cognac connoisseurs have very strong feelings about cognacs being used in cocktails. One forbes.com article mentioned that, whereas it is acceptable to use a young VS or VSOP cognac as part of a cocktail mix, it is considered a tragedy to do so with an exceptional-tasting, wallet-busting XO or older cognac. Those can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per bottle.

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My brother’s Warm Beautiful cocktail was created using Hennessey VS, but a Courvoisier VSOP could have also been used, instead. On the other hand, Remy Martin’s $3,000-a-bottle Louis XVIII, which is very popular in China (along with all the other premium cognacs), is an example of one that should be showcased as a solo act.

All drinking aside (for the moment), younger cognacs should also be used for flambe, marinades, sauces, chocolates and fruit preserves.

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And if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all things cognac, the French town this liquid luxury was named after hosts the annual La Fete du Cognac , where you can party for three days with cognac cocktails, crowds, cuisine and concerts.

Cheers!

The Beautiful cocktail recipe

1 oz Hennessey or Courvoisier VS/VSOP cognac
1 oz Grand Marnier orange liqueur

Add both ingredients into a brandy snifter, mix and serve. Optional: Top off with a lemon zest, the way my brother and I like it.

Enjoy!


All photos of Victoria BC, Canada by Alexandria Julaton
Remy Martin shop photo by Weng lei – Imaginechina/AP
Still shot of Cognac Festival, courtesy of La Fete du Cognac YouTube video

Life as a Cocktail: Trying Something New

 

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I had a rough week – the kind of rough week that made me want to re-think several of my life and career choices.  After surviving yet another one, I was trying to put it out of my mind and get to a happy place, as I sipped my vodka lemon drop. My thoughts started drifting off randomly to paths taken, and experiences that shaped decisions made along the way as I felt, figured and clawed my way through this existence. All while trying not to feel completely overwhelmed. Or fall flat on my face.

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I meditated and thought back to choices others I knew have made, and the happiness and fulfillment those decisions brought (or didn’t). It was easy to conclude that making those same choices, walking that same path, would result in the same for anyone else. Treading well-worn paths. But if our lives become all about playing it safe, how can we know there is another path, or level of happiness, that could be more rewarding? One more unexpected, surprising, even exhilarating, and perhaps more fulfilling? We really can’t know until we…pivot.

A great idea or quest for some form of happiness had to start somewhere, and it might have been an amazing journey along the way.

A cocktail analogy.

Pivot. Twist. Zag. Change IS scary, with no guarantees of success. Then again, it doesn’t guarantee failure, either. Think about THAT for a moment!

A well-made cocktail is a thing of beauty and wonder. The balance of ingredients, one in step with another, and that with another, and so on, creating the mesmerizing dance of flavors. But is it a perfect cocktail? That depends.

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On YOU, and if you want to stick with one recipe and be perfectly happy to never deviate from it, or decide that tweaking it a wee bit would make it different, and possibly better. Perhaps the art of the cocktail can be more interpretive dance, than classical ballet – creating your own new combination of moves, instead of following someone else’s footsteps.

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The well-worn paths, the classic cocktails, have withstood the tests of time, but they haven’t always existed. Someone started with a gin, aged and smoothed to perfection, added – just for giggles – a liqueur of 130+ herbs and botanicals whose recipe has been guarded by monks in Europe for centuries, then sweetened it with the fermented juice of a thousand cherries. A few more ingredients and experiments later, one of the most famous cocktails (and one of my personal favorites) was created.

But anyway, back to the story.

One evening at home, I decided upon a vodka lemon drop. Nothing like a sweet, citrusy kiss to smooth out my ragged soul after a long week. A few minutes relaxing in my lounge chair with a cocktail, and the world was slowly obscured by a veil of bliss. I wandered over to the refrigerator to choose ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Deciding on stir-fried veggies, I reached for the fresh ginger and noticed the stalks of lemongrass beside it.

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Hey…what if…?

I pulled out another martini glass and poured in a couple of ounces of vodka.

I sliced off a thick piece of ginger, pounded it with a mallet, and let it sit in the vodka while I finished my cocktail. Later, I put some ice in a mixing glass, and added the piece of ginger I had used to infuse the vodka.

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Zag (Ladies and gentlemen, now for my NEXT trick…).

I chopped some of the lemongrass and dropped it into the mixing glass. After muddling and pounding the lemongrass and ginger on the ice, I added a quarter ounce of triple sec, and a quarter ounce of simple syrup, then the infused vodka.

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I poured in a wee bit more vodka (wink), shook the whole thing for a few seconds, then strained the exciting concoction into my martini glass.

MMMMM!! Ginger lemongrass martini – a delicious vodka martini with a couple of exotic twists. If the ginger is too strong, add less next time. If you like it sweeter, add more triple sec and simple syrup. The idea is to adjust it to your taste. As with life, the cocktail is all about you and your happiness, after all.

Also with cocktails, as with life, you can start over and try again – fix something, make it even better, or try something new. Who knows what brilliant schemes and cocktails you’ll dream up next!