We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
It’s no secret that one of my favorite bars in the city is Tabard Inn. The creaky lounge – a Victorian Medievalist’s fantasy, with its eccentric patrons circling the fireplace – seems somehow out of time and place, a bit dreamy really. Thankfully its mixologist’s first reaction to the bar’s collection of quirky old ingredients wasn’t to throw them all away, but to find a way to incorporate and celebrate them. It makes perfect sense.
Because Chantal Tseng sees stories everywhere. Stories for cocktails, that is.
As she describes for me her foray into the great old stock of the hotel, I have a vision of her browsing through dusty bottles in search of new worlds to uncover – like some cocktail archeologist. “Wait, what’s that? Don’t get rid of it, that could be fun to play with…” Her enthusiasm pulls me along, for mixing drinks is obviously Chantal’s love, an artistic outlet fueled by the history behind a drink and the stories it weaves afterwards.
Take the tale she spins for Odette’s Curse. It begins with her standing in front of a painting of a man ice-skating. “In a silly pose,” she says, “like a dandy on ice.” The image sets her off on an imaginative journey, like a jazz improvisation, riffing on an ice-inspired drink. She’ll go on to create Dandy on Ice as well, but a co-worker’s mention of the ballet Swan Lake sets her off on another tangent to Odette’s Curse. Its finish is a journey from citrus to spice – Maachu Pisco, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, and St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram with fresh lime juice and fresh ginger juice, served up with a thin lime peel boat and charred piece of star anise – the doomed swan queen’s ending curse mimicked by “the dark element of the spice.”
Chantal’s the head mixologist at Tabard, whose able team also includes bar manager Paul Michel and bartenders Chaim Rubenstein and Shannon MacDonald. She’s originally from Buffalo, NY but left the frozen north for sunny California to study studio art at Pomona. After a summer in DC, she liked it so much she decided to come back to stay and has been here since 2000. “It’s a livable, walkable city,” she says. She’s always worked in the restaurant industry, learning on the ground by reading and experimenting constantly. She’s also achieved the second level at the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“At the time when I started, there were all these sweet, gross concoctions,” she recalls, “I used everyone as guinea pigs, trying out recipes. What am I making for you today?” With both an artistic and a culinary background, she’s got a unique ability to create drinks with both elements in harmony. I noticed this first with the signature cocktail at Tabard, which combines all the senses so beautifully.
“I wanted to evoke the signature drinks of other grand old hotels,” she explains, “It’s classic and savory and sweet, inspired by the food and the people in the kitchen.” It also incorporates some of those old ingredients she found lying about, with Milagro Reposado tequila, Lustau “Los Arcos” Amontillado Sherry, Drambuie, Regan’s Orange Bitters, served up garnished with an orange peel float and fresh thyme. I’ve had this again and again; it never gets tiresome, that note of thyme is just right.
Patrons are right on board with this philosophy of rediscovering old liquors. And in addition to cocktails, the wines are very popular, with “a really nice affordable wine list without too much markup.” I’ve already raved about my favorite, Bruno Porro Dolcetto, and a friend was ecstatic to get Errazuriz chardonnay there as well. Bar manager Paul Michel is working on making the beer list just as popular. The bar itself is a real community, a healthy mix of regulars, hotel guests – many of whom return or even live-ins. It’s full of good, friendly people, with constant collaboration and communication between the kitchen and bar. “It wouldn’t work without awesome people,” Chantal points out, “like pastry chef Huw making the spice mix for the Horse Collar.”
Oh yes, that addictive spice mix almost mysteriously disappeared from the bar the last time a certain author was there, if the container had been just a little smaller…
The Horse Collar features 8 Yr. Barbencourt rum, Huw Griffiths’s Buttered Rum Mix of butter, brown sugar and spices, boiling water and a long clove studded orange twist float. “Tabard loves their winter drinks,” she says, and I could really sip that delicious one all afternoon in front of the fireplace. Or the Wassail she created for the Christmas season, which warmed my Danish heart. Or the Amber Toddy, inspired by the story of Russia’s lost Amber Room, using rooibos tea as the base. Or those crazily named but historically accurate Corpse Revivers and Phlegm Cutters (did you know this was the actual term for your first drink of the day? that’s the sort of thing you learn talking to Chantal. brilliant fun).
We can’t have hot toddies forever, though. “I’m seasonal in my moods,” she says, though sherry will always be a strong love. Though she likes wine with food, she’s excited by the current movement to also pair beer and cocktails with food. “Why just wine with food? Why not cocktails? It’s a spell cast by the French,” she jokes with a grin, “The rules aren’t the rules anymore. It’s ok to play with temperatures, serve a traditional hot drink cold or vice versa. Break the rules, don’t worry, just give it a try!”
When Chantal’s not thinking up drinks (though I’m not sure that ever happens!), she’s at “my pool hall, Bedrock Billiards.” The way she says it I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s also a total pool shark… disarming opponents with a faraway look.
Many thanks to Chantal Tseng, Paul Michel and Chaim Rubenstein at Tabard Inn, and a special thanks to Samer Farha for joining in the fun.