Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sinfully Good Sips at South End in New Canaan

South End, a restaurant and bar in New Canaan, Connecticut, is a can't-miss spot no matter what your restaurant "must haves" are. From a casually upscale interior to Chef Nick Martschenko's menu of dishes that are so good you could just close your eyes, point, and be pleased, and a bar program that's a Fairfield County standout headed up by the charming Sean Nye, its no wonder that it's a hopping spot every day of the week.

While I could wax poetic about Chef Martschenko's cooking (Try the meatballs. Just do it.), my most recent visit focused exclusively on their cocktails. Sean Nye, the face of South End's inventive cocktail menu, treated me to a memorable flight of 5 drinks, some of which are new additions for spring, while others, like the bloody mary, are ongoing house favorites.

As Nye began mixing, grabbing bottles, clinking ice into glasses, shaking, and stirring, he explained some of the things that make the cocktails at South End unique. First, his personal philosophy that it's possible to make a great tasting drink that's still nice and boozy. It's not necessary to mask alcohol with syrupy sweetness or make a drink palatable for an inexperienced drinker by going light on it, but on the flip-side, he doesn't make drinks that feature alcohol as their primary flavor note. Lucky me, as my favorite drink is one where I know it's good and strong, but it's flavorful enough to be pleasant to drink. Yes, I can appreciate the flavors when drinking whiskey neat, but it's not something I find particularly pleasurable. 

The second standout element of the bar program at South End is the use of fresh and house-made ingredients. The bacon in the bloody mary is house smoked, the mix is made from scratch, and it's topped with bright green micro-cilantro. The pineapple juice in the Mai Tai isn't from a can, it's juiced right there. The difference is clear. You're drinking a quality product, made with care and thought. 

On to the drinks. First, a refreshing concoction (as of now, still unnamed - Nye takes the time to invent creative monikers, usually with a touch of sass or humor) of Giffard Pamplemousse Rose Liquer, Vizcaya Cristal Rum, and a touch of Hum Botanical Spirit. I was genuinely blown away by this one. The first sip tastes like the offspring of grapefruit juice and lemonade, and a second sip reveals the undertones of vanilla in the rum (oak barrel aged, then filtered so it's completely clear) and the interesting combination of hibiscus, ginger, cardamom and kaffir lime in the Hum Liqueur. It's the kind of drink that makes you pause and think as you try to discern all the things you're tasting. I've really never had anything like it, and I could really feel my brain cells firing as it tried to categorize the various elements. I'd happily buy a jug of this drink and then take it to a sunny field for the best picnic libation I have yet to encounter. Sangria, step aside! Chardonnay, to the left!

Next, in the spirit of cocktails meant for sunny days and warm breezes, Nye mixed a hibiscus margarita using a larger amount of the same Hum spirit he used in the previous drink. The difference was surprising; the ginger and hibiscus came through much more than the first drink, and of course, the color was gorgeous. It made for a great twist on a standard drink, and it would be all too easy to put away several of these at a rapid pace. It went perfectly with the fish tacos we had ordered for lunch. 

Next, an in-house barrel aged Manhattan that blows, but by, every other Manhattan I've had out of the water (and I've had quite a few, from California to Connecticut). After aging for several weeks in an oak barrel, the drink is smooth, drinkable, and complex, with a lightly sweet aftertaste. If you like Manhattans, get in the car now and order one. If you don't like them, you need to give this one a try.

Nothing like day drinking! Photo courtesy Jason Varga
Moving along, I tried two very popular drinks: a bloody mary, and a Mai Tai. As I mentioned before, they're both made with fresh, house-made ingredients. The bacon on the bloody mary, smoked in-house, is to die for. This is a great accompaniment to South End's bustling Sunday brunch, and Nye says they have to make many gallons of the "liquid salsa" mix to keep up with the demand.

We ended on a tropical note with the Mai Tai; it's visually pleasing and absolutely delicious. Thanks to the use of fresh pineapple juice as opposed to canned, it's vibrantly pineapple-y and refreshing. Careful, it's strong! Rum mixed in, and a dark rum float.

Good thing there was delicious food to soak up the alcohol: fish tacos and meatballs. From start to finish, at brunch (try the whole wheat oatmeal pancakes with lemon curd and blueberries), lunch or dinner, South End is memorable. Take the trip to New Canaan, order a cocktail, settle in, and prepare to be impressed.
South End is located at 36 Pine Street, New Canaan, CT 06840. Call 203-966-5200 for reservations.
Cocktail photos courtesy South End

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