Cool slabs of watermelon and cucumber. Fiery slivers of hot pepper. Dark dollops of sour tamarind. Bright dashes of orange juice and muddled cilantro. These are some of the unexpected flavors and textures featured in the cocktails I sampled at the New York, New Indian restaurant, Tabla, this week.
The best part? Each deliciously different drink was simple enough to make at home.
You'll often hear there are two schools of cocktails: The old school - the classics - are short and strong, built mostly out of alcohol. (Martinis and Manhattans are charter members of this group.) And then there's the new school. The culinary cocktail. Bringing all the tricks and flourishes of the kitchen to the glass with fresh juices, muddled fruit, infused syrups, earthy spices, leafy herbs. This is Tabla's terrain.
I sat down to sample three standout Indian-accented drinks with executive chef, Floyd Cardoz, and beverage director, Leo Barrera, who were generous enough to share their recipes. Each cocktail was a cool refresher, perfect for sultry August weather, using simple, fresh ingredients available in most markets:
First up was the Kachumber Cooler (below), a Tabla classic, made from muddled cucumber, green chili pepper, and cilantro, with a gin base. Expecting a strong shot of heat, I was instead struck by how complex and subtle the flavor was. The vegetal coolness of the cucumber came out on top, with the cilantro and chilies (these were strained out after muddling) adding intrigue without overpowering the drink in any way. I was curious about the choice of gin, since so many bartenders are using Hendrick's in cucumber-laced cocktails now. But Leo explained that Hendrick's would be too delicate to pair with chili and cilantro. So he instead chose Plymouth, which has "broader shoulders" – a fuller texture to carry the flavor load.
Next was the Watermelon Mojito (top), a cool spin on that Cuban classic, with the sweetness of watermelon balancing out the sourness of the lime, and giving a little extra body and fruity fullness to the drink. It was pure refreshment. Clean and simple. A perfect summer patio sipper. I sampled it with Tabla's Rock Shrimp Balchao, and found it paired beautifully with spiced food.
Last up was the Tamarind Margarita (below), one of the most popular drinks on Tabla's list. Executive chef Floyd Cardoz is something of an authority on seasoning and spice (he authored a book on the subject), and carefully orchestrates a fine balance of salty, bitter, sweet, hot, and sour flavors in each of his dishes. And this technique extends to Tabla's beverage program: "Our cocktails mirror the food," Floyd explained.
And so, sipping the Tamarind Margarita, I tasted salt (here, rimming the glass), bitter (tamarind and lime), sweet (triple sec, and an unexpected shot of orange juice), heat (again, the mellow warmth of tamarind), sour (lime juice/tamarind), and lastly, grassy, earthy tequilla. Beautiful balance in a glass.
makes one cocktail
2 half-inch slices of cucumber
8 leaves fresh cilantro
2 quarter-inch slices of fresh green finger chili (any medium-mild chili, such as jalapeno or Anaheim can be substituted)
1 3/4 ounce gin (Tabla uses Plymouth)
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Muddle cucumber, cilantro, and chili in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass until well broken and slightly mashed. Add gin, lime, and simple syrup and shake vigorously. Strain into a double rocks glass, half filled with ice. Garnish with a slice of cucumber.
makes one cocktail
2 ounces rum (Tabla uses Cruzan dark, 2-year aged, but white may also be used)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
6-8 mint leaves
3 1/2 ounces watermelon flesh, cut into cubes
Muddle watermelon and mint in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Add rum, lime juice, and simple syrup, and shake well with ice. Pour (without straining) into a double rocks glass.
makes one cocktail
1 1/2 ounces tequila (Tabla uses Sauza Blanco)
1 ounce triple sec (Tabla uses Luxardo, which is less sweet than Cointreau)
2 ounces lime juice
0.4 ounces orange juice
0.4 ounces simple syrup
0.2 ounces tamarind paste (available at Kalustyan's in NYC)
Shake tamarind paste with tequila and triple sec until dissolved. Add remaining ingredients. Shake well and pour into a salt-rimmed double rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a lime wheel.
Related: Recipe: Authentic Chai
(Images: Nora Maynard)