Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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You’ll Drink Better at the Cedars Social

You don’t need to know they use liqueurs invented by a French nun to enjoy it.
photography by Jason Janik

My grandmother was born just before Prohibition and came of age during the years without alcohol. Her family was well-off, and her early years were filled with horses and glamorous older sisters. Agnes, who sent the prince’s pearls back. Gertrude, who married a state senator. My grandmother, homely and smart, the baby. A number of letters documenting their youth survive, and one of my favorite anecdotes has them all on the coast, barbecuing with college boys. Agnes pointed her foot skyward and said, “Look, my toes match the sunset.”

Prohibition (1920–1933) takes center stage at the shiny new Cedars Social, as drinks from before, during, and after are remade and renewed. Former NFL star Brian Williams opened the bar, sommelier DLynn Proctor consults on the wines, and Michael Martensen, the mixologist from the Mansion and man at the forefront of the rising high-end cocktail movement, developed the drinks menu.

Red raspberries sit in a bowl on the bar. Light, sliced cucumbers rest near the dark green mint, blueberries, and sunburnt grapefruits. Bartenders pick through the mint leaves to find the right ones. Ice cracks and slivers in cocktail shakers. A woman beside me asks for Jack and Coke, and though I acknowledge that the palate wants what the palate wants, I can’t help feeling as though I’ve just watched someone go to Paris and eat at Chili’s.

The seasonal menu changes regularly. Ingredients are treated the way chefs treat food. In other words, you won’t find a bottle of electric green margarita mix anywhere. Drinks that would be cloying or frankly gross if made with sweet and sour are instead light and clean and interesting. The Scofflaw is made with Rittenhouse Rye 100, Dolin Dry Vermouth, lemon juice, and house-made grenadine. Ruby’s Kiss is Bulleit bourbon, Combier Rouge, lemon juice, and house orange bitters. You don’t need to know that Combier Rouge is a cherry liqueur invented by a French nun in 1632 to appreciate the clean flavors in Ruby’s Kiss; the fact that it’s made with real lemon juice is alone enough to make a difference.

My grandparents had cocktails each evening, my grandfather mixing up Manhattans, handing one to his wife. My great aunt Gertrude was not shy about her delight in periodically getting tight. Gertrude’s life was slower than mine in many ways, and I imagine her husband making cocktails slowly and precisely, taking the time to do it right—though I doubt they bothered with hollowed cucumber and French nun liqueur. That’s the modern twist—the artisanal/foodie sensibility and globalization and better access to Combier from Saumur, France.

Things move faster now, 90 years after Prohibition, and it takes confidence to assume that people will wait for a bartender to cut a grapefruit or rifle through mint leaves to find the best ones. (It takes savvy, too—a bartender’s quiet nod to a waiting customer to let him know he’s not unseen.) The Cedars Social exudes confidence. The deft John Tesar (formerly of the Mansion) designed the menu, and it’s easy and sophisticated—lobster pot pie, for example. The kitchen makes cookies available for $1 each, one of the smartest bar moves ever.

The space is confident, too, full of taste, from the round cement fire pits to the organized-by-color books to the patio with views of downtown. It’s a relaxed sureness that would make Out of Sight fans proud. In my handful of visits, people-watching was intriguing; beautiful people, of course, but some also unexpected in their sleekness, seductive as iPads. And, a mix of ages, styles, and races.

Last summer at the beach, my brother had a bunch of leftover limes and some Patrón tequila. I offered to make margaritas; he said it was a waste of Patrón. I stirred together fresh lime juice, simple syrup, a little sparkling water, and tequila, as I had seen done in Oaxaca some years before. We each sipped a little, poured over ice. “Why,” he said, “would you ever drink anything else again?” He held it up to the afternoon sun, a pale green drink that light could penetrate and move through. One real ingredient, just one, in a drink made casually, inexpertly, led him to swear off crap forever.

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