Like so many things in New Orleans, the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention is deeply frivolous on its face, but the subtext is completely serious: thousands of liquor distributors, restaurateurs, bartenders, and cocktail geeks gather to wheel and deal, attend seminars, and drink all night. The amount of press here (national and international) has to gladden the battered heart of the city's tourism bureau ("I can't believe how well the city has come back!" marveled a writer from the Los Angeles Times). There are waits at Galatoire's...in July. And perhaps best of all, no one seems to be talking about l'affaire Tremé; they're too obsessed with weightier matters, like single-batch rums, artisanal gins ("Juniperlooza" was a popular event), and hooking up in the Monteleone's Carousel Bar, which is ground central for cocktail geek groupies.
Below the cut: tales of flaming desserts, gossip from The Times-Picayune, and a "spirited dinner" that ended with naked swimming....
Last night brought the event's "spirited dinners" in a variety of local restaurants -- imagine wine pairings, except with about 6 different cocktails between the courses. I headed over to The Country Club in the Bywater, where Chris DeBarr (late of the Delachaise) and chef Miles Prescott were preparing a 12-course meal with tiki-drink pairings by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry and New Orleans' own rum guru Wayne Curtis.
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The Country Club is a uniquely New Orleanian restaurant/ venue: fine dining in the front parlors, swimming pool and cabana bar in back, catering to the Bywater crowd -- clothing optional and not necessarily encouraged. Jeff and his wife spent most of the day prepping their cocktails at the outdoor bar and getting an eyeful of various sunburnt body parts.
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Inside, Chris DeBarr had prepared an over-the-top tiki food-porn menu for a sellout crowd of amused locals, tiki enthusiasts, and fervid bloggers, most of whom had showed up in their exotica best. ("macadamia-crusted green tomato in a bush-tomato profiterole with tomato chutney, bleu cheese, durian, and wattleseed molé" was just one dish), culminating in a flaming dessert ("tiki-carved meringues hiding macadamia nut and Hawaiian honey ice cream and roasted pineapple crystallized ginger cake"). Everything was a huge hit -- the crowd went crazy over a "Phnom Penh pork belly" braised in star-anise caramel and served with sticky black rice -- and the consensus was that the first restaurateur who snaps up DeBarr and just turns him loose in the kitchen is going to make a mint.
A couple folks from The Times-Picayune were there as well: food editor Judy Walker and editorialista Stephanie Grace. Judy confirmed the rumor that T-P food critic Brett Anderson will finally begin reviewing restaurants again in next week's Lagniappe section; the beans are back, after three years of letting the city's restaurants rebuild. (About time.) And Stephanie said that the editorial staff isn't any happier than the public is with the paper's new abbreviated Monday op-ed page ("Viewpoints"), but didn't seem optimistic that any changes were in the offing, despite grumbly letters to the editors and yawps from the local blogosphere.
(Other gossip from the local food scene: Todd Price, longtime food writer for Off/Beat, has departed the magazine. And slow-food doyenne Poppy Tooker, who had a gumbo-off on this week's episode of the Food Network's Throwdown With Bobby Flay (and kicked his butt), found the whole experience wry. Would she want to throw down with any other Food Network hosts? "Yeah, I'm gonna do a show called Bend Over, Boys," she said.)
The dinner wrapped up at midnight with a toast by the newly unemployed DeBarr ("I can't think of a better way to celebrate my freedom," he said) and a big hand for Berry and Curtis, who left the crowd well-lubricated and oozing into a line of United Cabs for the ride back to the Quarter. All, that is, except one local fellow and a visiting publicist who had become fast friends and decided to repair to the moonlit pool for a midnight swim. New Orleans hospitality at its best.
(For more from the Tales fête, check out the event's mob blog.)