For all the big talk about swagger and oversized steaks and all things big in Texas, our city still suffers from an inferiority complex. For example, we swoon over even the most ordinary pop culture figures, such as Colby Donaldson or Kato Kaelin. The presence of a has-been draws hordes of pretty people to galas and openings. City planners convince us that a signature bridge over Trinity creek puts us up there with other locations around the globe. Even worse, we continually seek validation from the outside. So despite the presence of top chefs--Joel Harloff (Landmark Restaurant), Gilbert Garza (Suze), Kent Rathbun (Abacus), David McMillan (62 Main), Nick Badovinus (Hibiscus), Marc Cassel (Dragonfly), just to name a few--we still insist the opening of a New York chain puts us on the map.
Dallas needs a good sit-down with Dr. Phil.
We expect that sooner or later, Dallas will shake the cowboy hats and big-hair image, the deplorable need to mimic New York and Los Angeles, and all the other attributes of a people with no clear sense of identity.
We're more concerned with the sad state of nightlife in this city.
From time to time the Burning Question crew examines the lemming-like nature of barhoppers, bouncing around from one hot spot to the next. On occasion we implore people to ignore marketing messages when selecting a specific brand of liquor. We've encountered beer drinkers who won't touch Guinness, claiming the dense Irish stout packs too much alcohol, and found ourselves trapped in countless arguments over the qualities of high-end vodkas. Geez. With the exception of XO and Monopolowa, most vodkas are essentially odorless, colorless and tasteless. Distilleries nowadays strive to soften (our euphemism for "remove") flavor characteristics in order to satisfy the demands of what Cuba Libre's Dan Riley calls a "homogenized drinking public." Guinness, meanwhile, weighs in at a meager 4 percent alcohol, comparable to Bud Light (4.2 percent).
Now, we've ventured to Europe many times, mostly to sample venerable liquors unavailable in these climes. German schnapps, for example, bears almost no resemblance to the sickeningly sweet version favored by underage drinkers in this country. Neutral spirits steeped in mixtures of local herbs emerge as unique and astounding ouzos, aquavits, zubrowkas and so on. "The U.S. is a corn-based culture," says Simon Brooking, ambassador for Dalmore scotch--a great job, if you can get it. "You grow up on corn flakes. In Europe, malted barley is the base flavor." More to the point, adds Leann Berry, bartender at Ciudad, "We're flooded with mainstream liquors." Importers select brands with the broadest appeal. Prohibition wiped out a more traditional drinking culture. And the government still bans the sale of certain liquors, such as absinthe.
Simply put, advertising, history and familiarity have distorted our drinking habits. So the Burning Question crew hopped a flight to Europe. We downed gallons...well, liters...of schnapps in Austria and Germany, chugged beer at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, sipped genever in Brussels and so on. One highlight: drinking zubrowka in a cafe by the Seine in Paris and running off with the bar manager's tie. Another: lingering over Nuts!, an aptly named liqueur, in Bastogne.
There's some significance to that moment, but it's probably not what you think.
Our purpose was to bring back some of our favorites and introduce them to a panel of expert lushes (and by that we, of course, mean people with highly developed palates) in Dallas.
To sample our contraband and render opinions, we invited Ciudad's Berry, Brad and Brooks Anderson from the Puppet Lounge, chef Joel Harloff and assorted others, assembling at the Melrose Hotel.
First we passed around a bottle of zubrowka, a Polish rye grain vodka infused with "bison grass" from the Bialowieza Forest. Somerset Maugham compared the ancient spirit to "listening to music by moonlight." The panel settled for more prosaic praise, such as Berry's "Whoa, that's smooth." Zubrowka smells like new mown grass with a taste similar to liquid clover. "It's got a great mouth feel and is incredibly smooth for an 80 proof spirit," Brooks Anderson says. "And at just room temperature, it's really remarkable." Next we pulled out a bottle of genever, the original gin. According to some stories, gin entered Britain after redcoats tried the stuff before a battle on the continent--hence the term "Dutch courage." The Brits, however, transformed gin into something almost screaming for a mixer to mute the heavy juniper flavor. Genever is a more mellow form of gin, and we brought an aged version with noticeable hints of oak.
And more than noticeable hints of alcohol.
"God, that was an explosion of heat," Brooks Anderson said after his initial taste. "It's good," Harloff added, "but I expect juniper berries." He likened it to whiskey, both in flavor and color.
"That is just one of the most interesting drinks," Anderson says. "That is for the mature alcoholic."
Finally, we turned to a bottle of pear schnapps from Germany. Just about everyone tries one of the generic schnapps varieties found on American shelves, the nasty, sweet, hangover-inducing beasts. Traditional schnapps, however, is potent but dry, tasting of fruit rather than sugar. After an initial burst of alcohol, it confuses your taste buds into believing you've bitten into a ripe pear.
We actually had to subdue Harloff, who tried to grab the bottle and rush to his kitchen, muttering something about a fruit sorbet.
So that's about it. Some spectacular liquors exist around the world. They lack the marketing bravado of Grey Goose and the like. They may even require a bit of patience as your palate adjusts to unfamiliar flavors. But they're worth a shot.
Oh, sorry. Bad pun.
As Renee Jones of Ciudad pointed out after our third round of drinks, "We're so ruined over here with what our idea of schnapps is."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.