Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Mixology Class

I'll admit that when I got an email about a mixology class and accompanying dinner at a restaurant nearby, I pictured Clint and I like Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail, flipping bottles and dancing around while making fancy concoctions. I eagerly signed us up, and we talked for a week about what awesome bartenders we were going to become. As it turns out, that was not the case, but I do have to tell you about how fabulous this dinner turned out to be.

When we arrived last Thursday night at the restaurant, a place in South Charlotte called Leroy Fox, and were shown to a small private dining room, I instantly knew this was going to be my jam. You see, the hosts had fully embraced the theme in a way that made my little heart go pitter patter.

And so our Tiki style adventure began. Leis, tiki dolls, and palm trees set the scene.

The format for the "mixology" class was actually more of a food and cocktail pairing lesson. Basically, we had a representative for several brands of liquor who led the class, educating us a little about the spirits used and their origins, then the bartender walked us through how to make each cocktail, and then we enjoyed each course and the accompanying drink. I was more than pleasantly surprised at how delicious the food and libations were!
Our first cocktail of the evening, a smoky "Island Campfire"

First course

To begin, we started with tuna tartare with pineapple carpacio on top of fried avocado, with pickled Fresno peppers and a cilantro lime aioli. If you've never had fried avocado (and we hadn't), it does not disappoint; it was a perfect combination of crunchy and creamy and YUM. The dish was served with a drink called an Island Campfire: a smoky margarita style cocktail made with Mezcal and a jalapeno infused ice sphere. This combination was our table's favorite of the night. We were off to a fancy and delicious start!

See what I mean about embracing the theme?

As soon as the beverages to accompany our main course came out, I was giddy. The heavier on the party favors and kitschy decor we go, the happier I become. This was a pina colada made with a local rum, distilled right down the road in Belmont, North Carolina. When I first read pina coladas were being served with our meal, I thought they would be way too heavy and ruin our appetites, but these were blended rather than frozen and they actually tasted light (despite the fact that they probably have a zillion and ten calories). The bartender explained that since they were North Carolina rum drinks, they were served in a mason jar to embrace their Southern roots.

Second course

For our second course, we feasted on Kalua pork belly with jus over ginger and carrot fried rice and a Hawaiian slaw. Naturally, the men in our group were thrilled with all that mouth watering pork belly! The pina colada we drank alongside this course was made with Coco Lopez cream of coconut and Muddy River coconut rum, which (blessedly) doesn't have that overpowering suntan lotion smell that most coconut rums tend to give off. 

Getting into the spirit of the dinner (literally).

I was almost sad to see our third course arrive, because that meant our dinner and mixology class was coming to a close. But it's very hard to be sad about anything when someone puts this drink in front of you, followed by a decadent dessert:

Tiki mug, umbrella, and a crazy straw? It's like they read my mind.

Our bartender, putting the mix in mixology class.

Third (and sadly, final) course

Our last course, to finish off our most fabulous tiki dinner, was a Hawaiian fried doughnut with a lime curd dipping sauce. I could put lemon curd on absolutely anything, so I was over-the-moon to devour this flaky, sugared doughnut with the creamy, zesty lime sauce on the side. The cocktail finale was a Planters punch made with Kraken brand black spiced rum and fresh lemon, pineapple, and orange juices. The giant ceramic mugs were our souvenirs to keep from the night--which I'm sure will be a practical addition to our china cabinet.

The mixologist who led our class told us these type of dinners are really popular right now--in fact, he was doing another one the very next night at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Charlotte. It was five courses, paired with five different bourbon tastings, all for just $100. That sounds great, but I can't imagine it having a whimsical, fun theme like our dinner, so I think our class was the winner, hands down. If you hear about a mixology class that's near you, I highly recommend giving it a try. We may not be slinging drinks quite like the bartenders in Cocktail, but we've got some tiki mugs and leis for our efforts, not to mention a really fun and unique night out.

Amazing food, refreshing cocktails, and great company. Just the right "mix!"

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sweet Tea: The House Wine of the South

This is going to be controversial, I know it. What I'm about to tell you will no doubt draw plenty of surprise, disappointment, and critical comments, but I won't (pun intended) sugarcoat it: I don't like sweet tea. I've pretended over the years, but I'm an impostor, a fake, a genuine sweet tea fraud.

Cue the gasp from the peanut gallery. Sweet tea is sacred in the South, the fuel that gets so many of our genteel engines running. You didn't see Uncle Si on Duck Dynasty forever clutching a cup of orange juice, now did you? Dolly Parton's character, Truvy, so wisely sums it up in Steel Magnolias, "It's the house wine of the South." Around here, tea is an all-day beverage, the perfect quencher for any and every occasion. Just to show how serious Southerners can get about their sweet tea, in 2003, the Georgia State Legislature (jokingly) considered making serving unsweetened tea at any restaurant operating within its border a criminal act. 

Southern church suppers practically revolve around the sweet tea station. A gallon pitcher of extra sweet iced tea is as much a staple in a Southern house as the Bible or a can of extra hold aerosol hairspray. The bigger the holiday, the more tea we're going to need on hand. Easter Sunday? That's a two pitcher occasion in our house. Thanksgiving and Christmas? Those gatherings call for at least three pitchers, because no one wants their yuletide turkey and dressing ruined by having to drink tap water. Tea is such a fixture in the South that the popular 1990s band from South Carolina, Cravin Melon, even had a song entitled "Sweet Tea." I'll let you listen to the catchy ditty on your own, but I'll go ahead and tell you the gist of the lyrics: "Cause on the eighth day, God made sweet tea."

In fact, we don't even bother to call it "sweet" because down here, if it doesn't have a cup or five of sugar in it, it's not really tea. Southern mamas are renowned for their sugar sweet iced tea making--my mother-in-law's tea was famous among my husband's college crowd for being so sweet it would make your teeth ache, and they loved every sip of it. On many an occasion, I have watched my own mother pour straight from the bag of Dixie Crystal sugar, or "eyeball it" as we like to say. When in doubt, sweeter is better than not sweet enough. Can I get an amen?

Except I, as Southern as they come, prefer unsweetened tea. Shock and awe, I know. I remember being taken, very much against my will, to PoFolks restaurants as a child. Sitting there with a huge mason jar full of the sweet stuff in front of me, while being forced to endure a plate of vegetables, was pure torture. For many years, once I was old enough to control my own drink destiny, I didn't drink tea at all, opting for my beloved Diet Coke or a simple glass of water whenever the syrupy stuff was served. And then one day, whether out of boredom or desperation I can't say, I ventured into unsweet tea territory. Without the sugar, we are basically talking about a tall glass of caffeinated water. As it turns out, I'm a fan.

This causes confusion at fast food chains, bewilderment from waitresses, disapproving looks even from friends and relatives. It seems contrary to practically everyone I encounter that someone with my Southern drawl would order the most Yankee of beverages. I've been asked why, how? Maybe it has to do with the fact that I prefer salty snacks to sweets? Or, since I am a girl who is perpetually thirsty, a sip of concentrated cane sugar just doesn't quite quench it for me? Whatever the case, I notice the looks and reactions my drink choice garners. I have to push aside the guilt I feel for shunning deep South protocol. Surely, since I have always been willing to say sir and ma'am, wear a slip, curl my hair, and pledge allegiance to grits, I can be forgiven for this one wayward faux pas?

Maybe it's the way that tea cuts through the grease of fried chicken, or the sweetness that's right up there with the pralines and pies we love so much, or the idea of a tall glass of iced tea enjoyed in the shade of a porch on a hot day. Whatever the allure is, sweet tea is absolutely considered the nectar of the Southern gods. Even after all this talk of good taste and tradition, I still remain inexplicably immune to the charms of the sweet stuff, which is why I'll continue to (sheepishly, with an apologetic shrug) sip my unsweetened version. I like to think, as my granddaddy would have said, it's because I'm sweet enough already.