With any luck, every once and a while I attend a drinks tasting where cocktails and setting perfectly align to create a rather magical experience. Ok, maybe the magic is all due to the haze of booze, but there are worse ways to spend an sun-soaked spring twilight than sitting outside at Saint-Ex’s patio with a few fellow drinks lovers and be catered to by the gentlemanly charms of bar manager Jonathan Fain. Al fresco gets me every time; start me off with a champagne cocktail and you definitely have my attention.
Cafe Saint-Ex is something of a Logan Circle/U Street institution now, weathering the changes to the neighborhood and its clientele while still maintaining its credo to feature local sustainable ingredients in a relaxed bistro environment. Do I grumble about its popularity denying me space at the bar? Sure, but I still value it after the eight years it’s been open. And after trying six of Jonathan’s spring cocktails last week, I will definitely be rotating up to that bar on a more regular basis.
First up in that marathon of spring sips was their famous Champagneson. Jonathan explained that you could improve the taste of cheap bubbly by adding whiskey (in this case, Jameson). It makes sense upon reflection, as the oakiness of a good whiskey will elevate the sparkling wine to a more vintage taste. It certainly worked for me, and as I’ve got loads of whiskey at home I intend to blind taste test this on guests very soon. Garnished with a lemon twist, this was a seriously refreshing drink and far sexier than you might think.
Next up, A Sour Thyme. Jonathan pulled out a sheaf of pressed gelatin, some eggs, and got to work making foam.
This cocktail had a beautiful aroma courtesy of its base of Absolut Wild Tea and housemade thyme sour mix, with a bit of one of my favorite Italian liqueurs, the artichoke-flavored Cynar. The foam topping was composed of Saint Germain and Campari. Sweet and sour and savory – it was extremely hard to just sip this one and not wholeheartedly gulp.
From a cocktail with a rather complex process (at least for my limited skills!) to one that’s so easy anyone could do it – the Bees in a Beer was surprisingly delicious, a combination of Lagunitas IPA and Wild Turkey American Honey liqueur, with a honeycomb to mix things up inside. Though this was obviously a gorgeous looking drink, with the sun shining through the honeycomb texture like an amber jewel, I was really worried it would be too sweet for me. But, the flavor combination was extremely drinkable and could do some damage to a spring afternoon.
The Ruffled Shirt was another lovely champagne cocktail, with Saint Germain liqueur, Angostura bitters, white sparkling wine and an orange twist. Honestly, if I had only one drink for the rest of my life it would be champagne cocktail, as I never get tired of the magic that happens when bitters and bubbles meet.
The last two cocktails were not only delicious but humorous, essential for a season where you just want to shake off winter’s grip and laugh. The Poptail is a cocktail in a posicle, and yes you can suck it right out of the plastic like you used to do as a kid at the beach. It’s potentially messy and just plain fun. Jonathan will be rotating different selections throughout the season; this one was a St. Germain Poptail with the ubiquitous elderflower liqueur, housemade lemon simple syrup and sparkling white wine. It had quite a kick! Since I’m not sure I’ll see the beach for another month, sipping a poptail on Saint-Ex’s patio is a fine substitute.
Last up was DJ’s Cadillac Luxury Drop. The DJ refers to the Don Julio tequila, the “luxury drop” to the small portion it will be served in as a sort of adult shooter. We were given a larger version, and this is where day turned to night and the moon rose and suddenly the sun did too. Ok maybe not quite like that, but you’ve been warned. This dessert style cocktail also has rosemary infused Cointreau Noir, serrano habanero infused agave, lime juice, and rosemary grapefruit sorbet. It’s spicy and fruity, refreshing and exhilarating at the same time. Like the poptails, Saint-Ex will feature different luxury drops as the season continues.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that chef Billy Klein provided three small plates as well, with interesting flavors that went down fast. A dish of wood-grilled prawns with cannellini beans and orange gremolata, a plate of BBQ brisket sliders with surprisingly delicious avocado mousse and spicy oranges, and a decadent carrot parsnip cake with cream cheese frosting and orange rum anglaise sauce – all reminding me that Saint-Ex’s popularity is well-founded.
In DC we tend to devour new restaurants and bars like we’ve been starving for years, lining up and crowding them up like a ravenous horde. Not every one survives the onslaught. That happened to Saint-Ex for a time, and I’m glad to see that despite continued popularity, it’s maintained its dedication to good inventive food and cocktails. After an evening lounging on the patio watching the graciousness of chef and bar manager, I’m convinced it’s worth going back, again and again.