Baptiste and Bottle, Chicago, April 2017

Baptiste and Bottle is a relatively recent addition to the burgeoning craft cocktail-upscale bar food scene in Chicago. I love this niche for nights I don’t feel like a big meal or a fancy place, but still want to eat and drink well. Apparently I am not the only one who feels that way. It can be as hard to snag a reservation at some of these places as at some of the  Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-winning restaurants.

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Located in the Conrad Hilton hotel, the restaurant is named after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, generally credited by historians as the founder and first permanent resident of the city of Chicago. Chef Richard Sandoval, who runs an empire of over 40 restaurants around the world, is the driving force behind Baptiste and Bottle. The menu is grounded in American cuisine, but there is plenty of international influence. Similarly, the drink menu is built on that most American of spirits, Bourbon, but you will find a wide range of spirits, beers and wines if Bourbon is not your cup of tea.

When I arrived, the hostess could not find my reservation in the system. She handled it beautifully, even though the place was almost full and would be packed in another half hour or so. She found us a table in the lounge area and we settled in. 

When I checked my OpenTable app, I found that I did, indeed, have a reservation—one week later. A bit of operator error on my part, but they accommodated us, nonetheless.

There are several types of seating in the restaurant. You can sit at the bar, of course, which is large and beautiful. Next to the bar is a lounge area that has a combination of sofas with coffee tables and high-topped tables (where we were seated). Then there is a more traditional restaurant area with booths and tables. All the same drinks and food are available wherever you decide to perch.

It’s pretty common in nicer restaurants for the waiter to bring you a complimentary little bite “from the chef” before your meal starts. It is much rarer, at least in my experience, for a bar to offer a free sip of something, but we got one here.

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It was a refreshing blend of gin, Campari and rosé wine—a twist on a classic Negroni cocktail.

 

The mixologist at Baptiste and Bottle substituted less sweet, less complex, but more fruity rosé wine for the classic sweet vermouth. I don’t know the proportions of the three ingredients, but the drink was nicely balanced. The juniper from the gin, the fruitiness of the wine and the bitterness of the Campari came through and played together very nicely. 

To my mind at least, going to a bar/restaurant that specializes in crafted cocktails and ordering beer, wine or water makes about as much sense as going to a steakhouse and ordering vegetarian. You can certainly do this. It’s not illegal or immoral and I will not judge you either way, but my simple brain says to go to places that focus on what you want to eat at that particular moment. So, we focused on the Specialty Cocktail menu out of the gate.

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I don’t know how often the drink and food menu changes, but I will include a link to the menu on the website in case you want to check for current offerings. The Southside Mule caught Valeria’s eye as pineapple, rosemary and ginger are all favorite flavors of hers. The drink comes in a unique presentation.

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The name and the copper serving vessel are clearly a nod at the popular Moscow Mule cocktail, made with vodka, lime and ginger beer.

 

Equally clearly, the Southside Mule is a very different drink, using Bourbon instead of vodka and pineapple instead of lime. Like the Moscow Mule,  however, is is light and refreshing and goes down all too easily. The Bourbon, pineapple, rosemary, and ginger flavors combined beautifully  Valeria thought it was a little sweet, but she prefers cocktails that have almost no sweetness or that are even a little tart. 

I took a different path, ordering the Sazerac Flight.

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The Sazerac is a very old cocktail invented in New Orleans. It was originally made with  Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac, from whence the cocktail got its name. Later, rye whiskey replaced the cognac and nowadays Bourbon is often used. Regardless of which spirit you choose to use, it will be combined with a little sugar, a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters (also invented in New Orleans) and just a hint of absinthe.

 

By the way, Robert Hess’s prediction in the Sazerac video (made in 2008) that rye whiskey would grow in popularity has come true with a vengeance. There are dozens of excellent ryes available in any good liquor store these days, and you’ll find a lot of them on the list at Baptiste and Bottle. If you are ever in New Orleans, be sure to stop by The Old Absinthe House where the Sazerac is said to have been invented and where it has been served for 200 years.

The differences between the three Sazeracs, while clear, were not nearly as dramatic as I expected. The classic version made with rye, almost certainly the most common recipe over the decades by a wide margin, was, well, classic. The distinctive rye nose mixes well with the spicy, floral notes of the bitters with hint of licorice from the absinthe. I don’t know what rum was used, but, from the color, it was clearly an aged rum that gave a hint of sweetness to the drink, or maybe I imagined it because I expected it. The cognac version, which is supposed to be the original version of the cocktail, was slightly more flavorful and smoother than the other two, but again, the differences were nuances, not in-your-face.

For those of you who may not know the differences between rye, bourbon, rum, cognac, etc., a quick primer. Without doing deep dive into every detail and exception, the general class of spirits called brandies are made by distilling fermented grape juice. Cognac is a brandy made in a certain region in France. Grappa is an Italian brandy while Pisco is a brandy made in Peru and Chile. They are often, but not always, aged in oak barrels after distilling, which produces the brown color.

Whiskies are distilled from grains that have been fermented. Rye, corn and barley are common grains used individually or in combination to make whisky. The Scotch and the Irish use barley to make their Whisky (note: no “e” before the y). Bourbon must use at least 51% corn in the mix, while rye must use at least 51% rye. Whiskies are almost always aged in oak barrels, which adds to the flavors and aromas of the finished product.

Rum is produced by fermenting and then distilling molasses or the thick, black residue that is left after sugar and molasses are extracted from sugar cane as the starting material.

The best way to think of bitters is as seasoning for a cocktail, like salt, pepper and herbs in a recipe. Traditional bitters are a concentrated extraction of herbs, spices and other aromatics that are added to a cocktail in very small amounts (drops or dashes). Fruits and essential oils have also been used for a long time. Today, mixologists often make their own bitters using all sorts of new ingredients, even chocolate.

Absinthe is an alcoholic spirit which, like gin, is flavored with various botanical (herbs, spices, etc). The main flavor and aroma of gin comes from juniper, but absinthe gets its anise (licorice) flavor and aroma from green anise and florence fennel. The third major ingredient is grande wormwood, which contains a chemical called thujone, which can be poisonous in large amounts (only trace amounts can be detected in absinthe). While all absinthe will include these three ingredients, different producers have proprietary recipes that include varying amounts of many ingredients such as angelica, coriander, hyssop, melissa, peppermint, petite wormwood, star anise, and veronica. 

Wormwood has been used as a medicine and flavoring since ancient Egyptian times, but the first distilled spirit similar to modern absinthe appears to her been a patent medicine developed by in French doctor in the 1790s. Absinthe became enormously popular in France and Switzerland and, to a lesser extent, in many other countries in the 1800s. It is most often green in color (though it can be colorless as well) and so became known as The Green Fairy. Adding water (as it is most often drunk) turns it from clear to cloudy. The water is traditionally poured over a sugar cube that dissolves and sweetens the drink. 

Absinthe became a target of prohibitionists in the early 20th century when a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray murdered his family and tried to commit suicide after drinking two glasses of absinthe. What the prohibitionists left out of the story was that Lanfray was an alcoholic who had consumed copious amount of wine and brandy before drinking the absinthe. The negative PR campaign against absinthe worked. Many people were convinced that it produced hallucinations, violent behavior, sickness, even death. It was banned in many countries, including France and Switzerland, in the early 1900s.

In recent years, science has triumphed over superstition. It has been shown that there is nothing particularly dangerous or poisonous in absinthe beyond its high alcohol content. Absinthe is normally bottled at over 160 proof (over 80% alcohol) while a typical gin, vodka or whiskey is closer to 80 proof (40% alcohol). The bans have been lifted in most countries and absinthe is legally sold and produced around the world.

There are many great books on the history and production of these spirits, and they have all played an important role in history. Here are some I have read and enjoyed if you’d like to learn more.

 

While our first round of drinks were consistent with Baptiste & Bottle’s reputation as a purveyor of craft cocktails, we were as interested in the food menu as the drink menu. It comes in three pages: a 1-page bar menu and and 2-page main menu.

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Valeria ordered the Endive and Gorgonzola Salad.

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Fresh endive leaves, grilled endive, frisée, radicchio and ground walnuts combined nicely with a blue cheese dressing made with gorgonzola dolce.  Gorgonzola is an Italian blue cheese that is relatively mild, usually creamy and comes in several styles. Dolce means “sweet” in Italian, but the cheese is not sweet. It is named after the small town where it is said to have been invented in the 12th century. It is a soft, creamy cheese that blends well into a salad dressing. Put it all together and you have a blue cheese salad that has been elevated several notches. Grilling part of the greens really gave a nice extra dimension.

I, as usual, made a less healthy choice from the bar menu: Chicken Wings.

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Now, chicken wings are hardly original and certainly do not immediately make you think “upscale bar food.” There are approximately 1,234,849 bars in the United States alone that serve chicken wings. OK, I made that number up, but there are a lot of them. Buffalo wings are everywhere. Some places keep to the original recipe with some Frank’s hot sauce, celery sticks and ranch dressing and call it good. Others compete to see how hot they can make the sauce. Asian wings are also common as are wings dressed in a catsup-based, sweet and/or spicy barbecue sauce. Honestly, if the wings are plump, cooked properly (they can be baked, grilled or fried and each of these techniques can be done well or poorly) and the sauce is flavorful, I enjoy all these styles. 

I think B&B succeeds in elevating their wings above the ordinary. First, they were huge and meaty. Second, the batter they were fried in was crisp, not greasy and (I am guessing) involved both flour and corn starch to give it an Asian texture. Finally, the sauce was outstanding. I really like a sweet and spicy sauce—hot enough to get your attention and maybe bring a small tear to my eye, but not hot enough to melt the lining of my esophagus. Some sweetness balances heat nicely and garlic is always welcome on my plate. A splash of Sherry adds it’s own unique flavor and the alcohol helps to bring out the flavors in the other ingredients. These are great wings.

I had polished off my Sazerac tasting while Valeria was still sipping her Moscow mule. (I hasten to point out that the three Sazeracs in the tasting were very small—an ounce or so—so all three together were equivalent to one normal-size cocktail.) I decided to try something from the classic menu, a Manhattan.

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The first thing you might notice is the small size of the glass and the serving. In a time when some bars compete based on the size of the drinks they serve, this may look odd. I was quite pleased to see it, however. To me, at least, you go to a craft cocktail bar so you can try different cocktails, much as you go to a high-end restaurant so you can taste your way though many small courses on the chef’s tasting menu. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with ordering one bathtub-size Martini and a steak the size of a large city block. Sometimes I’m in the mood to do exactly that. (I may have exaggerated the size of the portions just a bit for literary effect.) It’s always a bit sad to be presented a list of fascinating, unique cocktails and know that one or two—maybe three if you are having a full dinner—is all you will be able to try. (For reasons, I will never understand, Valeria objects to me drinking 8 or 10 cocktails and then having to throw me over her shoulder and carry me home.) 

Once upon a time, the glass used here was a standard size for cocktails. It not only helped control the pace of drinking (though you could, of course, knock it back like a shot if you chose to) but also helped ensure that the cocktail did not warm up too much before you finished it. I actually figured this out watching one of the old Thin Man movies starring William Powell and and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. They drank a lot in these movies as a running gag that might not be as funny in todays culture, but these were made in the 1940s and living through World War II probably made for a different perspective on a lot of things.

Here is a clip from the first Thin Man movie that introduces Nick and Nora Charles (and their dog) and their drinking habits.

 

Note the small size of the Martini glasses. Before I saw these movies, I had heard about “three Martini lunches” and could not imagine how anyone could function the rest of the day after three Martinis. Ordering a typical meal in a typical restaurant, I can start with a Martini before dinner and perhaps have a second before the meal is over. A third one in most restaurants would make me start speaking Egyptian—and I’ve never been to Egypt. As with a food tasting menu featuring small bites, a “cocktail tasting menu” featuring small pour is, for my money, a good idea.

If you haven’t seen the Thin Man movies, do give them a try. They are a lot of fun.

 

I have written quite a bit about the Manhattan cocktail in the past, most notably here, but in other posts as well. Fundamentally, it is just a mix of whiskey (usually rye or bourbon) with sweet vermouth and some bitters. However, because there are so many styles of whiskey and vermouth available, the quality and flavor of a Manhattan can vary as much as the flavor and quality of “roast chicken” in restaurants. B&B makes their classic Manhattan with a high-quality rye whiskey (Rittenhouse) and one of my favorite Italian vermouths (Carpano Antica) so it is not surprising that the drink was delicious.

One again I’ll let Robert Hess give more information on the drink.

 

You may have noticed that I often link to Robert Hess’s videos on cocktails. I like his style and he literally wrote the book (ok, a book) on making cocktails.

 

We came into B&B wanting a casual date night (yes, even  married couples can have date nights!) and, so far, had not been disappointed. The drinks and menu selections had all been good, and we were chatting and enjoying the view of the city. We were in no hurry and our waitress did not mind at all.

It was time for some more food, however. Valeria ordered the Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle.

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Another excellent choice. There was a rich mushroom flavor in the equally rich garlic-cream sauce, topped with nice shavings of Parmesan. The tagliatelle (the long, flat pasta noodles you see, similar to fettuccine) was perfectly cooked. Also, again, a very reasonable portion size that can be shared or eaten by one and still leave room for trying other things.

A couple weeks before we went to B&B I had seen their burger on one of the ubiquitous “best burgers in Chicago” lists. I don’t remember which one it was and it seems like I see a new one every week. I always look through them for new places to try, but don’t take them too seriously as, after all, my idea of a great burger might be your idea of a lousy burger. Too many possible variations and individual tastes. Nevertheless, I did order the burger.

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The waitress described it as a kicked up version of a Big Mac, and that is a pretty good description. Two beef patties, nicely seared and juicy, with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, homemade bread a butter pickles and a remoulade “secret” sauce. Remoulade is a French condiment that can be very similar to tartar sauce, but there are lots of variations. It starts with a mayonnaise base, usually flavored with garlic (making it an aioli), and then other ingredients such as herbs, pickles, anchovies, capers etc may (or may not) be added.

There is a Louisiana version of remoulade that is more commonly used in the US. Again, there are many variations, but, being Cajun, it is made a bit spicy with mustard, Cajun seasoning, horseradish and hot sauce in various amounts and combinations. Pickles and pickle juice are common ingredients. The B&B version seemed to be somewhere between the two.

The bun—something restaurants often fall down on—was perfect. Just the right size and hearty enough to stand up to the juices and handling of the burger, while being soft enough and in the right proportion to compliment, rather than cover, the burger.

One of the best burgers in town? I can’t say, but I liked it a lot. The fries were outstanding, too; nice and crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and served piping hot.

After all that food, I though I could safely try one more cocktail and still walk home. Valeria had switched to a nice Sancerre (French Sauvignon Blanc) that was available by the glass. 

The cocktail that caught my attention both for its name and for the list of ingredients was A Curtsy and a Bow (Basil Hayden 8 yr Bourbon, orgeat, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters, orange bitters, Tonka fog)

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This drink comes with a show, as the ingredients are wheeled out on a cart and it’s mixed table side. The drink starts with dry ice and a Tonka bean in the bottom of a beaker.

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The black, wrinkled bean in the bottom front of the beaker is the Tonka. It comes from South American and has an amazing ability to perfume any dish. A small amount is usually grated into a recipe and it gives an intense vanilla aroma. Depending on the temperature of the dish (cold or hot) it gives additional aromas and flavors or cherry, almonds, honey, caramel, cinnamon and other spices.

For this drink, hot water is poured over the bean and dry ice creating a “Tonka fog,” a cloud of vapor that carries the aromas of the bean up and out to be breathed in and enjoyed.

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The actual cocktail is made by combining the rest of the ingredients, stirring with ice, and serving in a glass that fits on top of the beaker of Tonka fog.

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The fog adds the aromas of the Tonka bean to those of the cocktail.

This drink is a variation of the Attorney Privilege cocktail made with just bourbon, orgeat and bitters. Basil Hayden is a great bourbon and forms the base of the drink. Orgeat is an almond (sometimes peanut) flavored liqueur that adds sweetness and nuttiness to a cocktail. Many modern cocktail recipes use two or more different bitters to “season” the drink. In this case, both Peychaud’s and orange bitters were added along with a little absinthe, the “Green Fairy” that we discussed above. 

I thought it was fun to watch the drink being created and I enjoyed talking to the bartender about the ingredients and process. More importantly, the drink was delicious. The Bourbon flavor came through the nuttiness of the orgeat, while the absinthe and bitters added more subtle flavors that combined beautifully with the aroma of the Tonka fog.

With that, we ran out of capacity for both food and drink and called a it night. It was a great casual date night with good food and good drinks. There are a lot of drinks and individual spirits to be explored on the B&B menu. To help you try numerous whiskeys without falling out of your chair, many are available in flights, small pours of three spirits. We definitely plan to go back for more.

Baptiste and Bottle
Address: 101 East Erie Street Chicago, IL 60611
Phone: (312) 667-6700
Reservations: opentable.com
Website: https://www.baptisteandbottle.com
Dress Code: Casual

Price Range: <$30
Hours: Breakfast: Monday-Friday: 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
                           Saturday & Sunday: 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

            Brunch: Saturday – Sunday: 10:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

            Dinner: Sunday – Thursday: 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 a.m. 
                       Friday – Saturday: 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AMEX, Diner’s Club, Discover, JCB, MasterCard, Visa

The author is a member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6500 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F/4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 35mm (52mm full frame equivalent) F/1.8 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins. 

 

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