DINNER THEATER: UNCORKING THE PAST IN BERN’S STEAKHOUSE

BERNS STEAKHOUSE

The movies have one thing over the theater: No matter how sublime a live performance, when it’s over it’s over, with no record of the event save in the memories of the audience … and that record fades faster than the dyes in even the cheapest film stock. The text of the play, if published at all, provides only the bare bones of the evening, stripped of all life, with no indication of how the dialogue was spoken, the set was designed, the laughs or the tears conjured.

In this respect, the restaurant experience parallels the theater experience. A memorable dinner is ephemeral. You can order the same dishes with the same drinks several nights in a row, but your evening can never unfold twice the same way. The attentiveness of the staff, the mood of the guests, the quality of the conversation — to name only a few of many elements — can turn a meal into the best or the worst you’ve ever had, even if the kitchen hews to the recipes as faithfully as actors to their lines.

The Beachbum recently enjoyed one of the best ephemeral “dinner theater” experiences he’s ever had — one that took him completely by surprise, in a city he’d never been before, in a restaurant he’d never even heard of.

May 16th found the Bum in Tampa for the annual Wine & Food Festival. He was there to assist Francesco Lafranconi, the world-renowned spirits educator who was headlining two of the festival’s cocktail seminars, “Bring Sexy Back” and “Tiki Beach.” First up was “Sexy,” in which Francesco demonstrated how to create seductive exotic cocktails while the Bum shook up samples for the audience. The fast pace — six drinks mixed in 35 minutes — soon took its toll on the Bum, who, despite his advanced years, had yet to acquaint himself of that level of activity. The tipping point was an original of Francesco’s called the Hibiscus Kiss. (Recipe: Into a champagne flute pour 3/4 ounce each elderflower liqueur and pear vodka infused with star anise; top with champagne, stir, release the oils from a zest of lemon over the drink, and garnish with a hibiscus flower.)

In his haste to serve this final sample before the seminar ended, the Bum added the champagne to the other pre-batched ingredients, sealed the plastic container … and shook. You don’t need a degree in physics to guess what happened next: The container swelled up like a bullfrog in mating season, popping the seal and drenching the Bum’s sexiest vintage Polyester shirt in elderflower liqueur, pear vodka, and Moet & Chandon.

On the plus side, he has never smelled better. But instead of bringing sexy back, he’d brought stupid back — in front of an audience of national journalists and liquor industry professionals.

Nevertheless, that night Francesco charitably invited the Bum to dinner with the owner of the ZYR Vodka Company, David Katz, and David’s wife Lindsey — who took us to the “stage” of our aforementioned dinner-as-theater revelation, Bern’s Steakhouse.

The decor of this 1956 landmark, typical of many postwar steakhouses, was Gilded Age Barbary Coast Bordello, complete with burgundy flocked wallpaper and marble cherub statuary (the illustration above depicts Bern’s circa 1965). David ordered the house specialty, Steak Tartare with truffle oil, while Francesco combed the wine list for exactly the right champagne to escort the dish. As far as we’re concerned, he found it. If the evening had ended then and there, it would have been a perfect “performance.” But that was merely the first of three acts.

The plot thickened as we took a postprandial tour of the wine cellar — which really was a cellar, cut from bedrock, with damp, dank, chill air, and racks of old bottles stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a dark, romantic dreamscape; it was also, our tour guide informed us, the largest wine cellar in the US, with upwards of one million bottles. Many were wrapped in plastic to preserve their aged labels, but others were on display; we rubbernecked at these as we spelunked deeper into the cavern: An 1822 Madeira … an 1862 Cognac … a 1910 Port … it was as if William Cameron Menzies had dressed a set in collaboration with Alexis Lichine and Edgar Allan Poe.

We emerged from the cellar at around 11 p.m. All night David and Lindsey had been singing the praises of Bern’s upstairs “Dessert Room,” but dessert was not uppermost on the Bum’s mind: with the “Tiki Beach” seminar the next day, he had one last shot at drink-sample redemption, and he wasn’t about to let dessert cut into some much-needed sack time.

That is, until he saw the room. Even darker than the wine cellar, it was a catacomb of semi-private booths, each encased in a circle of wooden posts bent to resemble barrel staves, creating the effect that you were sitting inside a wine cask. Heaven. We piled into a cask and opened our menus, which were the size of phone books. But only the first three pages listed desserts. The next 22 pages catalogued “Dessert Spirits”: Cognacs, Armagnacs, cordials, Scotches, sherries, sauternes, muscats and ports.

Francesco’s voice rose in pitch as he realized that those ancient bottles we saw in the cellar were not just for show — they were for sale. Including that 1862 Cognac, a Frapin Grande Champagne, at $139 for 1 1/2 ounces. Francesco pronounced this price eminently reasonable, and ordered a shot for the table. Before you could say “Check, please,” he’d also ordered a brace of spirits that would make Falstaff blush, including a 1912 Francis Darroze, Chateau de Brise Armagnac ($106 per shot), a 1950 Couer de Lion Calvados Pays d’Auge ($124 per shot), and a sampling of single malt whiskeys from different parts of Scotland, all between 23 and 30 years old.

We soon learned that Francesco was called a “spirits educator” for a reason. With the authority that only a stint behind the bar of Scotland’s Gleneagles Hotel can bring, he enumerated the regional differences that accounted for the fascinating variations among our five whiskeys, whose vibrant aromas ranged from peppercorn and heather to freshly cut lumber and hair of sweaty horse (but in a good way).

Our table top eventually disappeared under a mosaic of emptied tasting glasses … as two, then three, then four hours passed inside our cask, beyond whose staves the outside world had ceased to be, or at least ceased to matter. But satori was still to come.

After the 1950 Calvados (redolent of black tea, leather, apple and raisins) and the 1912 Armagnac (which resisted all attempts to describe it, though Lindsey got close with “a rainbow of colors”) came the pièce de résistance: the 1862 Cognac. The 146-year-old bottle was wheeled into view on a cart, appearing out of the surrounding darkness like a ghost; the server held it up so that we could all inspect its faded, crumbling label, then ceremoniously poured an ounce and a half into a large snifter. We paused to consider the gravity of the situation: This Cognac was bottled the same year that Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, that Victor Hugo published Les Misérables, that Don Facundo Bacardi started his rum company in Cuba.

More to the point, Francesco reminded us, this Cognac was made from pre-Phylloxera grapes. The Phylloxera aphid caused the “Great French Wine Blight” that began in 1863, decimating the country’s vineyards. “To stop the blight, they had to graft disease-resistant plant cuttings from America to their rootstock,” Francesco told us, “so every Cognac bottled after that comes from hybrid grapes, and is not a ‘pure’ French brandy. But this one is.” With that, he divided up our jigger of Civil War-era Frapin Grande Champagne. Strong, surprising scents wafted from the glasses like lost souls summoned from the void: frankincense, myrrh, hibiscus, cedar, and cinnamon. The taste was similarly baroque, though much of the alcohol content was gone.

Also gone, at long last, was our stamina. It was almost 4 a.m. when we exited our cask cocoon. (The Dessert Room staff, in stalwart old-school style, remain on duty until the last of their patrons decide they’re ready to head home.)

Tiki Beach

So much for a good night’s rest before the “Tiki Beach” seminar (pictured above, with Francesco at right). The Bum didn’t spill anything on himself this time, but he did forget to add the soda during his Dr. Funk demo. And once again he screwed up Francesco’s final drink sample, an 11-ingredient fantasia called the Thaiti Hamoa. (Step one: In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 4 teaspoons muscovado sugar until liquid. Add 2 teaspoons butter, 1 ounce each orange and lime juices, and 1 peeled and diced banana. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and add 2 ounces Navan liqueur. Put pan back on the heat; it should flambé. Continue to cook for another 2 minutes, then add a sprinkle of nutmeg. Pour this mixture into a bowl and refrigerate. Step two: Into your cocktail shaker place 2 ounces of the chilled mixture, 3 ounces black tea, 1 1/2 ounces Pyrat XO rum, 1/2 ounce lime juice, and 1 cup ice. Roll back and forth 4 times and pour into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with mint sprig and orange twist.)

Given his inability to recall much of anything these days, the Bum will soon forget his day on Tiki Beach. But he will long remember the night before.

BERN’S STEAKHOUSE

ZYR VODKA

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