Shaken And Stirred Up: Petite Auberge Infuses Olive Oils and Vinegars to Flavor a Creative New Menu and Take Home, Too

Posted on: Jul 19th, 2013 By:

Photo credit: Jaimes Lee.

By Rachel Marshall
Contributing Writer

“We also like the addition of vinegar to our classic martinis.”

Jaimes and I exchanged a look. Much like oil and vinegar, our solutions of total fascination and doubt just did not seem to mix. They just bumped into each other, making a separation that could only be eased by actually experiencing just what a vinegar cocktail could be. Surely, we had heard Michael, our host at Petite Auberge’s  oil and vinegar bar, wrong. Had he really suggested mixing alcohol and vinegar? You may remember Jaimes from the Moe’s BBQ article, and our adventure with the Adios, Motherfucker!. Although three kinds of liquor and Powerade can prepare a girl for practically anything, the concoction could not have prepared us for the main ingredient in a vinaigrette to suddenly merge with alcohol, like Tetsuo on a bender, but with more alcoholism and less orbital lasers.  In any case, the dynamic duo from your last ATLRetro article received more than they bargained for in the best possible way at the long-standing French restaurant, Petite Auberge.

So, if you’ve been kicking around ATL since the mid-70s, you’ve heard and most likely dined at the Petite Auberge. Michael, our host, has more than amply accepted and risen above the challenge of keeping the PA relevant, fun, and with no sacrifice to its already firmly placed integrity. The newest addition to the restaurant’s entourage of gastronomy holds a nondescript, humble portion of the restaurant to itself. A guest entering Petite Auberge could miss the set-up at a glance, but a longer look – even if just for a moment! – would rampantly breed curiosity. What are those metal containers doing lined up like that? What’s in them? Michael was more than happy to show off the answer.

Photo credit: Jaimes Lee.

Infused olive oils and vinegars await the adventurous gourmand, fledgling and pro a-like. Infusion is a delicate process, but Michael is working with the right kind of mad scientists from Cibaria International and Olive n’ Grape to bring his guests a completely unique experience. When it comes to his collection of olive oil and vinegar, Michael is one proud poppa. He took us on a tour of your basic olive oils to start, the canisters of which will greet you in the main lobby of the PA when you arrive.  What was remarkable was the grassy start on most of the olive oils that progressed to a smoky after-bite the further removed you became from extra virgin olive oil. I always liked the floral nature of olive oil, but trying the good stuff from Michael’s aforementioned heavy-hitters not only woke up my palatte, but redefined any and all olive oil standards. He treated us to a fantastic collage of snacks that showed off just what these oils and vinegars could do in the right hands.

In this case? We were put in Chef Tom’s care. He was catching his second wind from preparing a catering order, and took the time to serve us a couple light, but flavorful meals, such as a pecan-praline balsamic vinaigrette that took a pecan-crusted trout above and beyond its simple plating. The lightness of a medium cooked salmon filet was elevated by a drizzling of lemon white balsamic. Personal favorite?  You know, the one that tested Jaimes’s friendship and mine with its ultimate rivalry-inspiring awesomeness? Yeah, that was a frozen crepe served with raspberry coulis in a chocolate sauce boasting a blood orange olive oil as its main components. As good as the crepe was, Jaimes and I kept going back for sauce, and started to fantasize about mousses and chocolate terrines.

Photo credit: Jaimes Lee.

We enjoyed all of these simple, but wonderful dishes with a couple glasses of Michael’s recommended Riesling. We were discussing the industry, Michael’s German roots, and the rampancy of foodies as we enjoyed some crusty bread and herby Tunesian olive oil when the whole “vinegar in the martinis” thing came up. Michael suggested a chocolate martini, probably my least favorite drink in the history of drinks that were ever drinks. They’re always too sweet, too heavy, separate and unbalanced, just a hunk of sugar with some vodka thrust unapologetically and carelessly into the mix. Why would anyone treat vodka that way in the first place? Now that you understand where I’m coming from, let’s get to the cool part – I loved the chocolate martini. The usual ounce or so of chocolate was replaced with a teaspoon of dark chocolate balsamic.

Aside from our bartender’s natural and talented knack for making a damn good drink, the balsamic definitely lightened the mix, and eliminated any burn the vodka attempted to leave behind.  When it comes to my spirits, I pretty much like anything served neat with beer, and occasionally I’ll dabble with a White Russian if I trust the bartender. The sweet-treats and “girly drinks” are just always too cloying, heavy and stomach-ache-inducing from careless, unbridled sugar. That being said, I was in love with each peach white balsamic martini and/or Bellini set in front of me. Each drink was buoyant and delicate on the tongue, sparing my tummy.  Really, think about it. The substitution of syrup or sauces for vinegar – in terms of booze – is not so mysterious. Vinegar, much like distilled liquor or barreled beer, is fermented. The ethanol both vinegar and booze share wind up dancing together in a glass, a matrimony of basic, tasty chemistry awesome enough to make Antoine Lavoisier go weak in the bloomers.

Photo credit: Jaimes Lee.

So, in an age where everyone is checking out the next wine, beer or liquor tasting, I would suggest stopping by Petite Auberge’s olive oil n’ vinegar bar for a change of pace, and a delicious meal that flirts with infusions too numerous to be enjoyed during just one visit.  Being a lover of all things chewable, slurpable and mmmm-able means  sometimes  going outside of what’s cool, trending,  tried-and-true,  and instead venturing into a new, often times unpredictable territory that supersedes any and all expectations.  You would be surprised what amazing components can mesh together so well, just like oil and vinegar.

Category: Wednesday Happy Hour & Supper Club | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday Happy Hour: Shaking, Stirring and Cooling Off from the Summer Heat at the Czar Ice Bar

Posted on: Aug 15th, 2012 By:

ATLRetro has been planning to launch a cocktail and food section ever since we revved up, but we wanted to ensure that when we did, it would be a regular feature that you could count on. The ground rules would be simple – Retro location in a vintage building; Retro cuisine from the best in classic diners and blue plates to tantalizing tiki (guess where, we dare you!); venues that have been around long enough to be Atlanta institutions;  and/or worthy additions to the city’s cocktail scene. In other words, when you want to dress up in your swanky suit or vintage dress and slowly sip a fantastic drink with that special date, spouse or just friends, where should you go? We’ll alternate between supper club and happy hour pieces and promise at least one of each every month, always posting on a Wednesday to help you plan your weekend.

Appropriately, we think, ATLRetro first piece is a Happy Hour because everyone on MAD MEN knows that a great cocktail is the essential apertif to a delicious expense-account dinner, isn’t it? Our drink of the week is Vodka, and with hundreds of different vodkas on the menu, Czar Ice Bar, in Buckhead’s Andrews Entertainment District, has perhaps the largest selection in Atlanta. Normally heading to Buckhead might be a bit too neo-trendy for us, but we found Czar Ice Bar to be a surprise charm with a touch of old world class worthy of James Bond. Atmospherically the intimate blue-lit space was the perfect retreat from summer heat with a bar literally made of ice and a dramatic blue glass ceiling, seasoned with a taste of old Russia thanks to ornate seating, bottles lined in cathedral windows and towering paintings of pre-Soviet nobles. Oh, yeah, we could easily imagine Pierce Brosnan seated at it in a tux sipping a martini with a sexy spy in a slinky evening dress.

We recently caught up with co-owner Stephen de Haan to find out more about Czar Ice Bar’s striking interior design, generous vodka selection, and why sushi is on the menu (we can attest Master Sushi Chef Saito Saito‘s creations are both original and scrumptious). Of course, we also asked for  some advice on crafting the perfect vodka cocktail and how to stock your own bar at home.

ATLRetro: What’s the story behind Czar Ice Bar? 

Stephen de Haan: Czar Ice Bar developed from our passion for amazing cocktails. Specifically, with hundreds of different vodkas, flavors and house-made infusions, we have an amazing palate to paint with. Also, with the success of Prohibition around craft cocktails, we saw a void in the market. Specifically around women who enjoy vodka both in flavor and because it has the lowest calories for any spirit, and who are looking for a sexy nonsmoking environment. How did the owners get the idea for it?  We developed Czar around this idea of a sexy environment focused on vodka. Initially Cold-war era Soviet Union comes to mind, but we went back further to the aristocracy of the Russian Empire during the period of the Czars. We were inspired by the Winter Palace, specifically the sitting room, and what would a modern day Czar’s sitting room look and feel like. Combine this palatial feel with a modern vodka-based cocktail program and Master Sushi Chef Saito’s sushi masterpieces, and you have a place where any Russian princess would want to relax.

How many different vodkas are on the menu, and how do you select which vodkas to serve?  

We have over 300 vodkas. They have all been tasted and selected by [myself]. The first criteria is the nose; they need to be clean, not offensive like rubbing alcohol. The second is the mouth feel. All of our vodkas are smooth, with very little after-bite. Also we look for uniqueness, for example, vodkas that have unique distillates, such as Russian Bear which is distilled from molasses, and Pau which is distilled from pineapple in Hawaii. We love a the story behind the brand, the people, the process, and how it impacts the final product.

Vodka is often thought of as not having a lot of taste nuances when consumed straight-up. Other than flavor-infused vodkas, what are a few aspects that differentiate vodkas and makes one better than another for drinking straight or in cocktails?

When comparing the traditional vodkas side by side you will find a large difference between a potato vodka, or a winter wheat, or corn vodka. Once you know the flavor profile for each and find a preference, then explore the others in that category to find a personal favorite. Also, some people with a gluten sensitivity have not thought about the vodka, and the clouded head may not be a hangover, rather a reaction to some part of the distillate. A switch in vodka may be all it take to keep you feeling well and the head clear. Then again sometimes it is just imbibing a bit too much.

What traditional vodka cocktails do you serve (i.e. martini, cosmopolitan, etc.)? 

Of course, we have traditional martinis; our Czar Martini features Imperia vodka 8 times distilled and is made in a traditional style with a Dolin Dry Vermouth-rinsed cocktail glass served with blue cheese-stuffed olives. We also serve cosmopolitans, apple martinis and the like. One unique feature is a California Cosmo with your choice of 14 different orange-flavored vodkas.

What are a few of your more favorite, more innovative creations, and any anecdotes about how you came up with them? 

Recently for National Donut Daywe featured our own house-made Krispy Kreme vodka. We chopped one dozen doughnuts, paired with Van Gogh Caramel vodka and spun it in our laboratory centrifuge at 4,000 rpm for 20 mintues.  The result, a clear smooth Krispy Kreme vodka.

What’s your philosophy behind a vodka cocktail? For example, are there some mixers that are go better with vodka than others?

Very simple. Fresh is best, less is more. Start with a smooth clean vodka like Van Gogh Blue, and mix it with any fresh juice. You need not overdo the juice because a clean vodka will already disappear in the drink.

Any secret to the perfect martini? And is it shaken or stirred?  

The perfect martini, is almost like the perfect BBQ. Every region, every person has their take on the perfect martini. Some believe the vermouth should stay in the next room, others a spritz, and still others a rinse. The Czar Martini is what I consider the perfect martini.  Made with eight times distilled Imperia Vodka from Russia, shaken ice cold, served in a Dolin vermouth rinsed martini glass with Cabrales Blue Cheese-stuffed olives.

Sushi is traditionally paired with sake, so why sushi at a vodka bar?

Think Russia and caviar. Caviar is used in many sushi dishes so taking the next step only seems natural. Also, with Master Chef Saito’s house-made sauces that he garnishes many of his dishes with, we are using the same ingredients, mango, fresh orange, etc.

Are there any particular sushi/vodka pairings that you recommend from your menu, both for the conservative and the more adventurous diner? 

I particularly like the Smash Hit, a martini made with 360 Georgia Peach Vodka, fresh mint and fresh-squeezed lemon juice paired with the Lobster Roll. The sweetness of the lobster is enhanced with this clean sweet peach martini. On the more adventurous side, I would recommend the one of Chef Saito’s special dishes, the Pacific Ocean.  With a wonton sheet and sail, mixed fish, fresh cucumber, cream cheese and Shiro Dashi sauce, it pairs nicely with a Square One Organic Cucumber martini.

The interior design of Czar Ice Bar combines traditional elements of old Russia with the giant portraits and bar items displayed in spaces resembling cathedral windows with a very contemporary club atmosphere—blue lights and 2st century furnishings. Who was the designer and how did you come up with the look?  

I researched many images of the Czar Palaces and relayed those to my partner Stan Weaver who took the ideas and ran with them creating our own modern interpretation of these palaces.  We are very proud how all of the elements came together.

Do you have any advice to our readers on how to stock their home vodka bar?  

I see a lot of vodka that has spent tons of dollars on advertising producing a premium image. Those are ok, but I prefer to look at the artisanal small batch vodkas. On the label they will say small batch or pot-distilled. These are made by artisans one batch at a time creating the best product possible.

Finally how did you create the ice bar?  If it has not been done regionally before, how did you develop it?

The ice bar itself, 27 feet long, four inches thick of solid ice was a huge undertaking. We first found an ice skating rink manufacturer that “thought” it could be done but never had himself. They went to great lengths for us custom-manufacturing the refrigeration mat that freezes the ice. After that, we worked with local fabricators for a custom pan to house this in. Next was working with a number of engineers to review the cooling load specifications. Initially we thought we were going to have to use medical grade chillers, but soon found a source with a unit that met our very strict guidelines. As we installed it looking at different insulation technologies developed by NASA so that a guest’s legs sitting at the bar would not be cold from the immense slab of ice resting inches above them. The whole process was an experiment in itself, but it could not have turned out better.

All photographs are courtesy of Czar Ice Bar and used with permission.

Category: Features, Wednesday Happy Hour & Supper Club | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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