Friday, November 25, 2011
KPBS arts and culture reporter Beth Accomando visits Noble Experiment.
Noble Experiment is a downtown San Diego bar that harkens back to an era just before speakeasies when mixing a drink was a craft. Unlike most businesses, though, it has no outside signage, no phone number to call to speak to someone, and never advertises. KPBS arts and culture reporter Beth Accomando takes us on a clandestine visit. Watch the video and listen to the radio feature.
The cocktail is an American invention and when William Powell used to mix a drink in any of the old "Thin Man" films of the 1930s, he made it look like something special.
FILM CLIP: William Powell [as Nick Charles in "The Thin Man"]:Now a Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot, a Bronx to a two-step, but a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.
Noble Experiment in San Diego is reviving the fine craft of making a mixed drink, and it's doing so in a unique way. The first thing you'll notice is that have to send a text message in order to secure a reservation. Then, as writer and columnist David Klowden says, you have to find the place.
DAVID KLOWDEN: In the back of a certain restaurant, you walk in the back, past the restroom s you'll a freezer, you'll see a ladder, and some old beer kegs stacked up here, and what you do is, hopefully you have a reservation, push on the beer kegs, this is the secret door, not that big a secret....
Now you're inside Noble Experiment.
DAVID KLOWDEN: When I came to Noble Experiment and saw what Anthony was trying to accomplish here, I was so relieved that there was a place that had this kind of attitude about the cocktail.
And that attitude is one of craftsmanship because when done right a cocktail can be a thing of beauty. Which bring us to something else that makes Noble Experiment unique: ice.
DAVID KLOWDEN: A cocktail should be very cold. This was really cold like to the point where you could almost not touch it when I started and it's still cold and good. I recognize when someone cares passionately enough about something to do the research and it was clear that somebody here had done their homework.
And that person is bartender and manager Anthony Schmidt.
DAVID KLOWDEN: You have to use incredibly good, hard, cold ice... So if you use cold draft ice, which they do here and you use hand cut ice or hand cracked, then it won't melt as fast it won't ruin the quality of the drink so ice is very important.
ANTHONY SCHMIDT: This type of ice and the reason we purchase this ice is that it's crystal clear there's no impurities it is the same ice they would use for ice sculpting.
Schimdt purchases 300 pounds of this ice every other week to use in what he calls "spirit forward presentations..."
ANTHONY SCHMIDT: Where the spirit is by far the emphasis.
Each cube is hand carved.
ANTHONY SCHMIDT: I am working the corners off. Here's where I'm making a slight V. You can see most of our glassware actually has that V shape, so then it fits nice and neat. I have to mindful that every block I use, every piece is carefully shaped and that's takes time.
Time well spent because ice can alter the quality of a drink. Schimdt uses a second, less clear kind of ice for drinks mixed in a shaker can.
ANTHONY SCHMIDT: Less air inside the ice means denser ice so we can shake harder, we can stir a little bit longer, we can control temperature... I don't want to start shaking right away, especially if I have just taken the ice out of the freezer, the ice is brittle, so after we've cut it we're storing it and we pull the ice right out, the ice would just shatter as soon as I would have started shaking it. I really want it to keep it's form so I go into a little warm up and then I go into my[shaking]. That pounding is the goal and I can't do that unless I have those perfectly fit ice cubes, again fit to design this. The frothiness is fleeting it won't be there forever... when I make a drink I'll be anxious if someone doesn't sip right away... the froth on top of the drink is, you can't compete with that presentation the aroma that you get from your first sip is so memorable and so profound. It's what Harry Craddock in the classic cocktail manuals claims as the laughter of the drink.
And it's the ice that lets him create that laughter and much more.
ANTHONY SCHMIDT: It gives us more flexibility with the presentation so when the drinks are finally on the tray they are going to be right.
That please patrons like David Klowden who want to savor their drinks.
DAVID KLOWDEN: By far the finest cocktail bar in San Diego, and probably one of the best in the country if not the world.