Mr. Miyagi Must Make Mean Manhattans

Tomorrow is a national holiday, to my indescribable delight, so tonight I attended a small gathering at a friend's apartment in the suburbs. I provided the drinks and my friend made food, and I'm so stuffed now I can hardly move.

I made two cocktails for the occasion, fairly simple twists on standards. Before dinner we had Yuzu Sidecars made with Courvoisier, Cointreau and fresh-squeezed yuzu juice instead of lemon juice. (A yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit very similar to a lemon, but maybe a little more pungent.) With desert I made Maccha Brandy Alexanders. Maccha is powdered green tea used in Japanese tea ceremony. It's very bitter and a little goes a long way, but it worked quite well shaken with cognac, creme de cacao and cream.

I was happy to be able to come up with some drinks for the event, because I haven't been thinking about new cocktails at all in the past six months. My studies (if you can call them that) at the Roppongi Hills Club have been a back-to-basics approach: classic recipes (often lifted directly from the Savoy Cocktail Book) and the Japanese way of making them.

There's a lot to learn. My martini-stirring technique is coming along but my cocktail shake is still far from perfect. The difference between the other bartender and me is obvious. There's clearly a lot of practice involved, and the Japanese, ever-obsessive about such matters, spend hours learning and mastering the technique. But I don't have it yet; something's eluding me.

For research purposes I went last night to my Saturday-night spot, Lady Jane Booze and Jazz. LJBJ is a jazz club in my neighborhood, a very cool one with an extensive selection of obscure liquors on one wall and an extensive collection of jazz records on another. After listening to my iPod for six months I have become thoroughly disenchanted with the sound of .mp3s. Once a skeptic and a naysayer, I now completely understand the appeal of some good, warm-sounding vinyl.

So after my marathon double shift on Saturdays I usually find myself against the dark wood bar of LJBJ, admiring the jazz posters pinned to the ceiling and talking to the bartenders over a fifteen-dollar, two-ounce manhattan. After working fifteen hours straight, I feel like I've earned one expensive, carefully-made drink. I've learned a lot just talking with these guys and watching what they show me.

Tanaka, the head bartender, told me that Japanese bartenders fill a shaker with rice and practice shaking that, listening to the noise of the uncooked rice for rhythm. He also said that I would be able to tell if my shake is correct by filling a shaker with ice, water and maccha, the aforementioned powdered green tea. If my shake was good, the maccha would be dissolved in the water. If my shake was off then the maccha would be lumpy.

It doesn't matter if these little bits of lore are true measures of skill, or if they're nothing more than the bartender's equivalent of tying a cherry stem with my tongue. It's fascinating just to know that bartenders throughout Tokyo, on their days off, are filling shakers with rice and concentrating for hours on the sound like a percussionist. The dedication to focus and control is awe-inspiring.

When I was ten and taking tae-kwan-do, I broke a board with my bare hands. I have no idea how this was possible. I remember holding an inch-thick board in my hand and striking it with my fist. Then I remember watching the board tumble out of my hand in two pieces, broken on the first attempt. I also remember the shocked expression on my face. Since then I have tried occasionally to break a board with my fist but have never succeeded again. For some reason this came to mind last Saturday, when I learned how to crack ice with a knife.

We have changed the ice program at the Roppongi Hills Club. Instead of buying bags of ice--wonderful ice though it was--we are now hand-cracking our own cubes from massive blocks. Of course there is a right way and a wrong way to do it and I spent most of Saturday night practicing, a block of ice in my rapidly-numbing left hand and a chopper in my right, tapping away.

Cracking one's own ice cubes is a very soothing act (once your hand loses feeling). You can do it with an old, crappy knife if you don't care about the blade. You're not cutting the ice, you're cracking it, so the blade's sharpness is irrelevant. Strength is irrelevant, too. Ice will absorb violent attacks like stone, but light strokes will send chips flying. You could spend the entire evening futilely hacking at a block of ice where a few light taps would usually do the trick.

Light strokes are surprisingly effective. Hold the block in your hand and lay the blade against it. Start tapping quickly and gently, keeping the blade along the same line at all times. Smoothly increase the strength of the strokes, but never get to the point where you're hacking. Control yourself. Since you're holding the cube in your hand it is important to "snap" the blade up afterwards. If the cube suddenly breaks, the knife will not follow through and cut your hand. This snap also adds power to the strokes.

Rather than "cutting" the ice, the goal is to send shock waves through the block that crack it clean and straight down the middle. The blade should strike the same spot repeatedly with a ringing, metallic sound. If it sounds like it's "crunching", if you can't keep to the same line, or if ice shards are flying around then you're just chipping at the surface. You want to hear the clean, high-pitched chink of the entire edge striking the ice at once, distributing force evenly along a single plane through the cube. Ice fragments should be minimal.

If this technique is observed properly, shock waves will cause a long, straight crack to appear almost immediately and blocks of ice the size of my thigh can be cut in clean halves with a few strokes. I have this sense that people who are really good at this can cut a block with a single stroke, like the Karate Kid driving a nail into a board. Maybe after twenty years' practice, I'll be there, too.

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