In the last Presently Tense (April 7), I called out a local café owner for treating customers like shit. Several readers let me know they'd had similar experiences at the joint in question. But a few got upset. One said I was like a “disobedient child who cries for its mother every time it doesn't get its way.”
True, but I can be nice, too. This week I'm calling out an establishment that treats people right and really cares about those who choose to spend money there.
But first, as a point of comparison, I'd like to bash yet another local business. Next week it's back to bashing right-wingers. I promise.
Prohibition is lame.
No, I'm not talking about the ridiculous 73-year-old American marijuana prohibition, now in its death throes. I'm talking about the weak-ass speakeasy Downtown.
Prohibition feels slapped together: The design is pedestrian, the big TV behind the bar is annoying, the music is loud and wrong for the space and the cocktails are unimaginative and mediocre. I was so disappointed by both of my visits there (yeah, I'm down with second chances), that I wrote to the owner. His response? He's giving the people of Downtown San Diego what they want. In other words, it's dumbed down for the Gaslame riff-raff.
I've never bought that approach. I think that if you offer quality experiences, enough folks will recognize or learn the difference. San Diego can be as good as we make it. And the newest cocktail bar in town, Noble Experiment, is helping make it world-class.
Some scoff at the speakeasy concept in general as gimmicky. After all, there's nothing law-defying going on in these pseudo-underground, legal drinking establishments, as far as I know. But there's a viable reason for creating a layer of difficulty in gaining access: By regulating the flow of guests, the proprietors can devote the time required to mix good drinks and ensure an uncrowded atmosphere conducive to civilized drinking. This is the method to the madness of required reservations at bars like Milk & Honey in New York, Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco and now Noble Experiment in San Diego.
Whereas Prohibition's exclusivity seems manufactured and unwarranted, like a velvet rope in front of an empty disco, Noble's seems necessary to the creation of the art and experience. Granted, the heavy door disguised as a stack of beer kegs tucked in the back corner of a casual, popular Downtown restaurant is indeed unnecessary, but I would argue that when a business takes its product so seriously, it earns the right to engage in a little playful fun.
The Noble Experiment approach to cocktailing reflects the passionate geekery of co-owners Arsalun Tafazoli and Nate Stanton, who enlisted Milk & Honey's Sam Ross to teach them some of the techniques that have made that New York bar famous.
Here are the key ingredients to the success of this truly noble experiment:
Talent. In the golden era of cocktailing—a uniquely American invention—at the dawn of the 20th century, artists of the stimulating beverage were as skilled and revered as great chefs, and each of them mastered hundreds of drink recipes. When prohibition hit in the 1920s, elegant hotel bars in Europe hired top American mixologists to achieve the level of quality made famous in places like the Savoy Hotel in New York.
At Noble Experiment, bartenders Nate, Anthony and Danielle are passionate about what they're doing, but not stuffy or pretentious. They're clearly reveling in reviving—and, in some cases, updating—drinks from bygone eras, as well as creating new recipes that show respect for the simplicity and balance of the well-prepared cocktail.
Imagine hanging out in a great chef's kitchen and learning exactly what they're doing and why. The bartenders at Noble Experiment share their enthusiasm, while carefully measuring, tasting and adjusting the drinks, which are always properly chilled and thoroughly shaken or stirred according to each recipe's requirements.
Ice. Bartending guides of the golden age were very exacting about the quality and use of ice. Noble Experiment uses only large blocks of pure, clear ice, hand-cracked to order for each drink to ensure the right rate of icy cold water to spirits, juices, bitters and other ingredients in each cocktail.
For example, in their Improved Whiskey Cocktail, a large, single chunk of ice dominates the glass. This is not for show; the increased surface area keeps the drink cold without watering it down.
Quality. Recently, Nate recommended a remarkable mescal and used it to prepare an invention of bartender Anthony: the Oaxacan Cup—a spicy, smoky, sweet, tangy and refreshing potion enhanced with fresh herbs and black pepper that blows away any mojito I've ever had. These guys use quality liquors, carefully, not arbitrarily, chosen, fresh-squeezed juices, homemade syrups and garnishes that are never an afterthought.
Atmosphere. Noble Experiment is cozy, inviting, clean, and smells good, thanks to a unique bar drainage system. The decor has touches of the elegant, the gothic and the whimsical. From the wall of golden skulls to backlit paintings on the ceiling, you'll surely think of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, as has been noted by everyone I've talked to. I've never asked if this is what the owners intended, but the white leather booths that seat parties of up to six offset the hauntedness with comfort: There may be spirits present, but they are most definitely benevolent.
San Diego will never be New York when it comes to culture, but at least the art of the cocktail is alive and well in our sleepy little border town, thanks, in part, to Noble Experiment.
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