Walking up the stairs to the bar inside the new Gaspar Brasserie feels a little like stepping through a portal into early 20th century France. If the polish of the brass and newness of the surfaces didn't gleam so bright, you might believe yourself transported to the bohemian era in Montmartre.
What could be more fitting to those surroundings than one of barman Kevin Diedrich's Absinthe Frappés ($12, absinthe, aloe liquor, lime, mint, soda)? The Frappé, a classic drink that combines absinthe, sugar, and crushed ice, is herbaceous and powerfully flavored. "I was determined to put an absinthe drink on the menu, but wanted to make it really approachable," says Diedrich.
His version is a wonderful cross between a classic absinthe frappé and a mint julep, equally refreshing yet somehow more delicious than either.
No other spirit carries the same kind of mystical allure that absinthe does: tales of addiction, hallucination, and the narcotic effects of wormwood gave this elixir a formidable reputation.
In 2007, when it finally became legal in the U.S. again after being banned for nearly a century, the mania surrounding it was out of control. Absinthe drinks were on every list and people were buying it in hopes of attaining the same kind of high that artists in the late 19th and early 20th century like Picasso, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec were reputed to have enjoyed. The hangover taught us two things: There are safer, cheaper, more effective ways to hallucinate, and Americans don't like anise seed's black licorice flavor. The absinthe craze died down.
Making an absinthe drink that is both French and classic yet so easygoing that you could drink them all night is quite a feat. "The cucumber, melon, and mint flavors [of Chareau Aloe Vera Liqueur] go so well with absinthe I felt it was the perfect pairing," says Diedrich. "I added a touch of citrus to balance the sweetness and a splash of soda water to give it a nice refreshing quality."
Other drinks on the list also balance the line of being exotic, classic, and extremely friendly. Drawing much of his inspiration from Louis Fouquet's 1896 French cocktail book, Bariana, Diedrich used the flavor combinations and techniques as starting points.
His aperitif Pyrenees Crossing ($10, sherry, crème de noyaux, curacao, bitters) has all the richness you'd want, yet without the heft and kick to flatten you before dinner. Don't miss out on another standout drink, the Banane ($12, French single malt whiskey, banana, lemon, orange, bitters), a cocktail designed to enhance the tropical notes of the whiskey. A tiki drink this isn't — rather a smart, refreshing tipple that isn't too sweet and treks more into the Riviera than into the tropics.
The menu will evolve over time with the bar staff contributing new cocktails, as Diedrich moves away from daily duties behind the bar to overseeing the operations as a consultant. For the time being, this is your chance to experience Diedrich's menu as a solo exhibition — just think of Gaspar's bar as a cocktail salon, where you're encouraged to touch and taste the art.