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TC on the top-10 charts, finding a good cocktail in Minneapolis -- and a good play in good hands

The Twin Cities may not be the best at everything, but, by Zeus, it seems we're always among the top 10 of the best of everything. Perhaps it's the weather. We have three months of staying in a cabin and nine months of trying to figure out what we can do indoors, because the moment we step outside our weather is going to resume its ongoing scheme to murder us.

We seem to read a lot. Central Connecticut State University, which likes to track literacy, declared Minneapolis the third most literate city in America this year. And what of St. Paul? St. Paul is seventh. I'm not sure why Pigseye is so far below Albion; perhaps their reading time is abbreviated because it is so time consuming to build ice sculptures and castles. But though they may be below Minneapolis, they're above almost everybody else, and there is a very reasonable life lesson in this: You can't always be the best at something, but it's OK as long as most people are worse than you.

When we're not reading, we're apparently being gay: The Advocate declared Minneapolis the gayest city in America, thanks to an algorithm that seemed to surprise even them. But what are you going to do? We're here, and, according to a somewhat arbitrary mathematical formula, we're queer, so get used to it. You'd think a city in Iowa, where gay people are actually allowed to marry each other, might rank higher, but you'd think wrong. We must have an awful lot of lesbian bars to tip that balance. St. Paul, in the meanwhile, didn't rank.

Minneapolis definitely not in top 10
I'll tell you what we're not in the top ten of, and I'm not afraid to say it: cocktails. There have been a few bars with decent cocktail menus over the past few years, but that menu typically lasts just as long as it takes to change management and bar staff, and then suddenly the bar's pre-Prohibition menu is nothing but variations on vodka martinis. And the few places that maintain a slightly snobbier staff fall prey to a sort of frustrating experimental whimsy. You'll order a Manhattan and they'll suddenly declare they have their own recipe, involving essence of ginger and a mashed up dandelion and salt water from Jerusalem. They'll mix it all up and dip their straw in, tasting it with a practiced pretense of expertise, and then hand you something that tastes like a freshly blended Asian fusion restaurant. This is not what I wanted. I wanted a Manhattan. It's supposed to highlight the flavor of rye whiskey, and instead I've been coughing up yellow petals for the past half hour.

There is at least one decent bar in downtown Minneapolis, the Bradstreet Crafthouse in the Graves Hotel, abutted up against Block E. It takes its name from John Scott Bradstreet, an interior decorator from New England who made Minneapolis his home up until his untimely death by car crash in 1914. Bradstreet was a devotee of the Arts and Crafts movement, which reacted to the cheap gaudiness of the Victorian era with a return to clean, carefully made decorative arts that reflected traditional craftsmanship. There are hints of this throughout the Bradstreet restaurant, including a menu that is bound like a book and a typeface that, while I can't precisely place it, looks a bit like the Golden font designed by Arts and Crafts founder William Morris. The inside of the restaurant is tidy and modern and elegant, and doesn't really look Arts and Crafty — the Parlour Room actually sort of resembles a party room on a space ship. But the spirit of William Morris is there in the bar's cocktails, which are about as carefully made as any I have had.

Cocktails at the Bradstreet Crafthouse Restaurant
Courtesy of the Bradstreet Crafthouse Restaurant
Cocktails at the Bradstreet Crafthouse Restaurant

Mysteries of the sazerac
I spent a nice evening there chatting up the manager one day, who insisted on offering me shots of the various top-shelf liquors they use, as well as tastes of their homemade bitters. On another occasion I spent an afternoon challenging one of their bartenders to make me various drinks, including the Ramos gin fizz, which I've never had well-made outside of New Orleans, until then. The Bradstreet offers a classic New Orleans cocktail called the sazerac, which actually has a reputable claim to being the first cocktail ever made, and it's a tough drink to get right — its recipe calls for rye whisky and asks that the glass be coated with absinthe. The resulting drink has a complex, savory, distinctly antique quality about it, and although a half-dozen local bars offer it on their menu, most get it wrong.

There are a few things I think they get wrong, and the biggest one is that most use one of the newly legal brands of absinthe to coat the glass. It's hard to fault a bartender for getting a drink wrong by actually following the recipe, but I have found contemporary absinthes, which are meant to be drunk with water and sugar, have a very pronounced taste, and easily overwhelm the cocktail. In New Orleans, they typically use a pastis, like the locally made Herbsaint, and they use just a drop of it. But there are all sorts of ways to muck up a sazerac  it's not a very forgiving drink. Use the wrong whisky (oddly, a rye named Sazerac makes a spectacularly bad sazerac), or use a bitters other than Peychaud's (whose inventor also invented the sazerac cocktail), and you've got something that tastes off.

Max drinking a Viuex Carre at the Carousel Bar in New Orleans.
Photo by Coco Mault
Max drinking a Viuex Carre at the Carousel Bar in New Orleans.

Bradstreet gets it right. And, relatively new to their menu, they also offer a drink called the Vieux Carre, which was invented in New Orleans' Hotel Monteleone at a bar called the Carousel, which actually makes lazy perambulations around the center of the building. The Vieux Carre is a variation on the sazerac, although perhaps a bit more forgiving the drink includes benedictine, which makes for a cocktail with a subtle sweetness. Now I know I'm sounding like a fussbudget about these things, but I have actually drunk both cocktails in New Orleans, as I lived there, and had my Vieux Carres at the Hotel Monteleone while circumnavigating the room, and it has made me very particular. The Bradstreet gets both right.

In the realm of terra incognito
It's nice to know of a place that makes classic cocktails just as they should be, but I'm an adventurous drinker, and the Bradstreet's menu is set up so that the most familiar drinks are at the top of the page and, as you work your way down, you enter terra incognito. Last night I drank something called a 56 Flip, which I think they just made up. It's main ingredient is something called Cynar, which is an extremely bitter Italian aperitif made, in large part, from artichoke.

Yes, you heard me. And if that weren't enough to send the timid drinker running for the hills, another ingredient is a whole egg. The cocktail is whipped into a froth and sprinkled with nutmeg, and the end results taste like a Negroni with a sweet finish. I don't imagine every reader has had a Negroni, so perhaps I should explain what it is: It's a cocktail made from Campari, which is a sort of bitters, and it's not something most Americans are acclimated to. It's the sort of drink I imagine very tough men sit around and sip at workingmen's bars, because life is hard to take and bitter and liquor should be the same. The Negroni is an upscale version of this, perhaps intended to be drunk on the deck of a ship just before one plunges over the side to rest in the arms of Poseidon. If you'd like to try one of these, swing by the Bradstreet. I am quite certain they can make one for you.

I've gone on for a bit, which is a risk when I start talking alcohol. But let me close with a quick theater recommendation. The Torch Theatre, which is the company of popular local actress Stacia Rice, is mounting David Mamet's bleak autopsy of the culture of sales, "Glengarry Glenn Ross," which may be the most quotable play ever written. I intended to go and review the thing last weekend, but through a series of mishaps that don't even have the benefit of being amusing, I missed it. Nonetheless, it has a very good director at its helm in the person of David Mann, and its cast is about as excellent a group of performers as you could want, so I can with confidence recommend it.

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Comments (1)

If you're going to do a column on cocktails, I think you have to head down to Town Talk Diner for part 2. As it happens I had a Negroni there last night. Their Bacon Manhattan also happens to be quite good, and their Aviation is out of this world. They even stock Rittenhouse Rye, which is impressive, considering I have to bootleg mine back from Chicago. There are several good cocktail bars in the cities, not just Bradstreet.