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Dress to Impress in New Orleans

Shaun Tolson

Mardi Gras fashion is all about masks and, to a lesser extent, beads. That’s all well and good for Fat Tuesday, but for every other day of the year, New Orleans couture is decidedly less ostentatious. Given the city’s penchant for jazz, it should come as no surprise that New Orleans also embraces a classic, Roaring Twenties style. For men, that decade’s fashion was centered around the hat, and at Goorin Brothers—a hat purveyor with locations in the French Quarter and on Magazine Street—classically styled hats are the specialty. “New Orleans is pretty rich in hat history,” says Kevin Doyle, the French Quarter store’s general manager. “You’ve got all these old cats walking around in beautiful, handmade hats—tall crowns and wide brims, the real classic hats. People walk around in this town in these classic hats and they wear them well.”

According to Ben Goorin, the company’s president and CEO, summer and winter each bring about 300 new styles, but every Goorin store (there are now close to 30 across the United States and Canada) includes a variety of styles unique to its region. For example, the 1,100-square-foot shop in the French Quarter, which opened in an early-19th-century townhouse in 2011, offers a more diverse selection of wide-brimmed, panama-style hats than other stores around the country. Inventories may be unique from location to location, but the company’s old-fashioned philosophy imbues every store, as evidenced by the French Quarter shop’s service bar. “We want customers to settle in for a minute and see what they come around to,” says Doyle. “It’s a consultation, really. You’re getting them to conjure up an image of them in the hat during their day-to-day lives.”

That laid-back approach not only reflects the company’s desire to match a customer with just the right hat; it also echoes the type of customer service that once was present in most specialty boutiques and that Goorin Brothers aims to bring back. “We’re harkening back to a different era when you could go in and they custom-made your hat,” Doyle says. “We’re creating an atmosphere where it feels like you’re stepping back in time a little bit.”

Closing the Deal

Chelsea Curtis

Happy Valentine’s Day, New York. Today is about love, lust, and outrageously high expectations.  Some will fall short, but some—a savvy few who know to take their dates down Doyers Street—will likely succeed.  The mad chemists at Apothéke, the city’s favorite opium-den-turned-cocktail-bar-that-changed-America, are ready to equip the romantically ambitious with the only tool they’ll need: The Deal Closer.

This cocktail of cucumber, vodka, mint, lime, and vanilla essence makes for a refreshing—not to mention highly satisfying—libation.  The secret ingredient: Epimedium, which is better known as horny goat weed or rowdy lamb herb. While there’s little scientific evidence to support the herb’s aphrodisiac qualities, dubious research shows that several rabbits found it highly effective. That’s good enough for us.

Apothéke takes pride in its “farm-to-bar” credo. Every ingredient is sourced from local farmers markets, the bar’s own rooftop garden, and—for aphrodisiacs—an undisclosed Chinatown tea shop.  Enjoy, and good luck; though something tells us you may not need it.

All's Fair in Love and Chocolate

Michael Olsen

On Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but think of a quote from the movie The Devil’s Advocate, in which Al Pacino (as Satan) dismisses love as “biochemically no different than eating large quantities of chocolate.” That may not be exactly true, but a good case still can be made for chocolate as the catalyst for an amorous relationship.

Can chocolate really help to win a woman’s heart? Well, we know from conventional wisdom that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but some scientific research suggests that women own more acute senses of taste and smell than men. So while many guys might be elated with a good burger and an exceptional ale, many women require a bit more. In those cases, chocolate can help. What follows is our guide to giving chocolate.

The First Date

The trickiest of negotiations is always the first date. You have to be on your best behavior, but you don’t want it to appear as though you’re trying too hard. Sending a small box of simple chocolates ahead of time with a note about how you’re looking forward to the date should do the trick. A discreet box is key, otherwise your sweet gesture will come across as grandiose.

If you’re lucky, your date will enjoy a few pieces before the occasion. Chocolate contains caffeine, which acts as a stimulant for the central nervous system, so those few pieces of chocolate will leave her feeling warm, energized, and more alert (and hopefully looking forward to the date). But chocolate also contains dopamine derivatives, as well as dopamine reuptake inhibitors to slow the absorption, which means those few pieces will deliver a mild sense of euphoria. Not a bad way to start a first date, huh?

The Second Date

If that first date goes well and leads to a second—and your date appreciated the first box of chocolates—send another box, slightly larger than the first and with a more complex mix of flavors. If you’ve been paying attention and, you know, actually listening to her, you will have learned enough to tailor a box to her specific tastes.

Someone with high energy might like a box with many different flavors, while someone who is introspective might be more fascinated by the subtlety of the cocoa bean itself. In that scenario, a box that showcases chocolate from different origins will do well. A foodie, on the other hand, might appreciate more inventive and complex flavors. Get this one right and you’re well on your way.

The Third Date

You have a lot riding on this one, so you need something extraordinary. This is the clincher, so it has to be perfect. We recommend a box with different floral flavors and aromas. The best part? She gets to have her flowers and eat them, too. Wait . . . that’s not right. Seriously, though, flowers are the true sign of spring; and one of the most common themes associated with spring is new love. With a box like this, the delicate aromas and flavors combine with the chocolate to tell her that you’re serious. But after this, it’s pretty much up to you—chocolate can only help so much.

Michael Olsen has a passion for all things food and drink. He is the boutique manager for La Maison du Chocolat on Madison Avenue in New York, and he also serves as the presenter for the boutique’s tasting sessions, Parcours Initiatique.

Serving Up Seduction

Dawn Garcia

Aphrodisiac: It’s a term that immediately invokes a healthy curiosity. Etymologically, it stems from Greek mythology; it is a derivative of the name of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and sexual rapture. It’s no wonder that the word sparks a certain playfulness that makes it almost impossible to ignore.

So, given that it’s Valentine’s Day, we thought it best to steal a page straight out of Aphrodite’s playbook. What follows is a spotlight on some of the more sensual aphrodisiacs, all supported by some degree of research. Yes, we know that there’s an ample amount of research to discredit the notion that any food contains aphrodisiac qualities, but it’s more fun to play along. We’ve also pointed out noteworthy restaurants that are serving these ingredients in elegant and memorable ways.

Cardamom is believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, and because it’s high in the ether cineole, which is known to increase blood flow to areas where it is applied, the spice is also thought to be a topical cure for impotence. What you do with that little-known fact is up to you. If ingesting the spice can have similar effects, we recommend a visit to Michael Mina 74 in Miami, where chef Lincoln Carson takes a whimsical approach to dessert. Each of his sweet creations is bursting with color and various textures, which effectively cap off a meal with a big finish. For a generous dose of cardamom, we recommend the coconut–pineapple pavlova, which features roasted pineapple, cardamom syrup, chantilly, pineapple sorbet, pineapple syrup, and lemon verbena.

Oysters are likely the world’s most famous aphrodisiac, but given that we address their virtues elsewhere in this issue (click here for that story), we’ll simply point you in the right direction to enjoy them. Chef Eric Ripert has cultivated a career around his skillful preparation of seafood, and you can taste the merits of his life’s work at Le Bernardin in New York. Yes, you can order a variety of oysters on the half shell, but we prefer Ripert’s chilled Beausoleil oysters, served with sea grapes, pickled shallot, and a “seaweed water” gelée.

By now you may have heard the stories of Emperor Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztec Empire during the early 16th century, who consumed chocolate in copious amounts before visiting his wives. Researchers have found that chocolate contains tryptophan, which is necessary for the creation of serotonin, a chemical responsible for sexual arousal, though many believe that the amount found in chocolate is not enough to measurably alter our serotonin levels. We’re willing to experiment all the same. Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru, is run by chef Virgilio Martinez, who embraces chocolate, in particular locally sourced examples of it. Dishes that Martinez serves may include a mousse topped with Tocache chocolate and crisps of lemon verbena. And then there’s the chef’s Cacao and Coca Forest, a parfait of Gran Pajatén chocolate topped with coca-leaf crisps and accented by cacao and muña-mint powders.

Any food rich in elements that can positively affect testosterone and estrogen levels is certain to be considered an aphrodisiac. One such element, boron, is found in rich supply in honey. Chef Enrique Olvera, whose passion for creative and artistic cuisine has fueled an entire culinary movement in the south-central region of Mexico, puts honey on display at his Restaurante Pujol in Mexico City. The dish in question features nixtamalized papaya, yogurt, honey ice cream, and crystallized lemon.

Caviar Courtship

Michel Emery

Another year, another Valentine’s Day, another surplus of boring, unoriginal gifts. Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against a stunning bouquet of flowers or a box of handmade artisan chocolates. But if you’re looking to mix things up this Valentine’s Day, may we suggest the gift of caviar

Intrigued? We thought so.

When it comes to luxury foods, it doesn’t get much better than caviar; and there’s a reason why caviar has been held in such high esteem for more than a century. That pop, that delicious burst of pure, clean, briny freshness—there’s nothing else like it. The Russian caviars of gourmet lore are sourced from three species of sturgeon—beluga, osetra, and sevruga—harvested from the rivers that feed into the Caspian and Black Seas. However, these species have been pushed to the brink of extinction by lawless overfishing and poaching, so you can pretty much forget about getting a Russian jar.

We realize that such inaccessibility only adds to the intrigue; that’s human nature. Gourmands desire Russian caviar just like cigar aficionados pine for Cuban tobacco and at-home chefs crave fresh truffles. Sadly, the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba isn’t going anywhere, and fresh truffles aren’t about to start showing up in neighborhood supermarkets. However, when it comes to exceptional caviar, high-grade examples are widely available to consumers, and surprisingly, some are sourced right here in the United States.

In wild U.S. waters, three species of sturgeon—the paddlefish, hackleback, and California white—are in abundance. Conversely, in North Carolina, farm-raised osetra are producing caviar that even discerning palates have difficulty differentiating from its Russian cousin. Caviar produced by California white sturgeons, domestic osetras, and wild American hacklebacks is suitably briny and buttery. Make sure to keep it chilled and, when serving it, to use a stainless steel or mother-of-pearl spoon (a silver spoon will leave add an unpleasant metallic taste).

As for how you should enjoy it, we’ll leave that up to you. For our money, we’re keeping it simple, dropping dollops onto lightly buttered toast points or combining it with crème fraîche on warm blini. Regardless of how you serve it, make sure you pair it with a chilled glass of Champagne. You can’t go wrong.

Michel Emery is the vice president of sales for Catsmo Artisan Smokehouse, a New York–based purveyor of high-end food products.

Amorous Affairs on the Half Shell

Kevin Joseph

Are oysters really aphrodisiacs? I’m asked that question every time I present an oyster-and-wine-pairing seminar, host a group of oyster lovers out at the farm, or train a restaurant’s staff. I am far from the first to opine on the subject, but I do have my own take on what I consider to be the most interesting, storied, and—yes—arousing of all foods and rituals.

For years we’ve known that oysters are loaded with zinc and amino acids that support brain function, and since the brain is the largest sexual organ (aside from the skin), it stands to reason that eating oysters will turn us on.

Oysters are among the most virile and fertile creatures on the planet. Not only is most of their body mass dedicated to reproduction, but these bivalves also dedicate most of their time and energy to the production of sperm or egg in the summer spawning season—their sexual organs can produce both. Will eating fertile or virile things put you in the mood? Science can’t prove the connection, but I believe that an undeniable psychological effect does take place.

Also, eating oysters, in my opinion, suggests that you are daring, taboo, or wild, willing to consume things others are not. Don’t misconstrue: “I’ll try the Kumamotos” doesn’t translate to “Yes, let’s get undressed right after dinner.” But at the very least, oysters are indulgences and the act of indulging oftentimes can help to set the mood.

Finally, we can’t ignore the consumption itself. Choosing your oysters, dressing them, delicately slurping them from the shell, savoring them... it’s all foreplay.

Kevin Joseph is an oyster aficionado, a cofounder of New York Oyster Week, and the director of sales and marketing for the Blue Island Oyster Company.

Rarefied Russian Vodkas

Tony Sachs

Russia’s connection with vodka goes back a long way, possibly as far as the 12th century. Vodka is one vice that was common among royalty and peasantry alike; and while various czars over the centuries tried to limit or ban the spirit (despite the fact that most of them drank it themselves), all failed miserably. By the 18th century, vodka was not only legal but a big moneymaker for the aristocracy, which controlled the distilleries. The Bolshevik Revolution drove the distillers out along with the rest of the upper crust, and as they resettled in the West, they introduced Russia’s signature spirit to the rest of the world. In 1967, 50 years after the revolution, worldwide vodka sales outstripped those of gin for the first time. Russia’s national spirit now belonged to the world.

Today, vodka is made everywhere—from Japan to Texas—and distilled using everything from grapes to coconuts. Nevertheless, vodka will always be associated with Russia, and grain-based Russian vodka will, for serious drinkers, be the standard by which all other vodkas are judged. What follows are a few of the best brands coming out of Russia. You may have to look a little harder to find them, but you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts.

The Gold Standard

Upscale packaging and high-end products don’t always go hand in hand, but in this case the bottle corresponds with the spirit. Beluga’s pinnacle vodka, Gold Line, is lightly flavored with esoteric ingredients including rice extract and milk thistle, which gives it a fascinating balance between sweet and dry notes. It also offers just a hint of citrus. This is Robb Report’s reigning Best of the Best vodka, and with good reason.

Russia’s Crown Jewel

Jewel of Russia’s Ultra is made from a combination of rye and winter wheat, and it undergoes what the brand describes as “additional rectification treatment,” which supposedly eliminates almost all congeners—the impurities responsible for those morning-after headaches. While we can’t say for certain that a night spent with this Russian spirit won’t lead to a pounding headache, we can report that it’s quite smooth, with the softness of the wheat tempered by the slight bite of the rye. Also noteworthy is the stunning hand-painted bottle, which depicts a traditional Russian miniature scene and is signed by the artist.

Secret Strength

We’ll get the bad news out of the way first. Sibirskaya’s Strong Russian vodka is not currently available in the United States. Produced by the Russian government, the spirit registers a hefty 45 percent alcohol by volume, or 90 proof—a significant upgrade in strength over your standard 80-proof vodkas. Despite the fact that Russia doesn’t export it to the States, Sibirskaya Strong has been tasted here; it recently won the Double Gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For now, we can only keep our fingers crossed that it will make a U.S. retail debut soon. Until then, this should be the vodka you look for first when you’re killing time in the duty-free.

Russian Revolution

The world is growing smaller every day. Want proof? Look at Zyr, a Russian vodka brand founded by a transplanted New Jersey native. Its founder’s hometown notwithstanding, the product is a quintessential Russian vodka, made in Russia, and comprising all Russian ingredients. It’s smooth and clean and provides just a hint of sweetness.

A Spirit of the Season

Outside of Poland’s Vestal, Kauffman’s vintage vodka is the only vodka that is bottled according to the year in which it was produced—the thought being that grain from different years produces different flavors. The brand’s wheat is sourced from a single harvest of carefully selected fields, and each vintage is limited to about 25,000 bottles.

May It Please the Court

Shaun Tolson

We would like to tell you that the Russian imperial stout was born in Russia, brewed as a robust and hearty ale that could stave off the country’s harsh, cold winters. No doubt such a fact would romanticize the style. Sadly, it’s not the case.

The Russian imperial stout actually began in England as a porter, which at the time was an easy-drinking dark ale characterized by a dose of highly roasted malts. During a trip to England in the late 17th century, Peter the Great fell in love with the style and requested that some be sent to the Russian imperial court. Much to his dismay, the beers spoiled over their 1,000-mile journey. As a remedy, the English brewery drastically increased the hops and the amount of alcohol, to better preserve the ales over the long voyage to the Russian capital.

The second shipment of beers that arrived in Russia were not only fresh, but bigger and bolder than those that Peter the Great had first encountered. Thus the Russian imperial stout was born. “It’s the biggest, baddest beer style there is,” says Chris Quinn, the owner of the Beer Temple in Chicago and a master of beer styles and evaluation. “It really is the king of beers, Budweiser notwithstanding.”

According to Quinn, the style attracts a lot of beer drinkers who live by the mantra that bigger is better. Because of that, there are a number of just average Russian imperial stouts that are highly rated in some beer-review circles. The reason for that? Quinn points to the big, bold flavors that are inherent in the style. “You don’t have to go searching for subtleties or complexities or nuances,” he says. “You can also hide a lot of potential flaws in a Russian imperial stout that you could never get away with with a lighter beer.”

That being said, Quinn is quick to praise a number of examples that he feels are exceptional interpretations. In his opinion, the following three stouts (in no particular order) are all medal winners.

Old Rasputin

Produced by the North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., this Russian imperial stout is the perfect introduction to the style. “It’s true to form and very well made,” Quinn says, “and it’s an approachable and accessible version of the style.”

Courage

Courage was one of the first Russian imperial stouts brewed, and it remains one of the best. As Quinn explains, the beer—crafted by Wells and Young’s in the United Kingdom—also ages remarkably well. “Recently there was a bottle opened here in Chicago from 1975, and it was still alive and kicking, if you can believe it,” he says.

What does a well-aged Russian imperial stout taste like, you ask? “The bitterness completely fades away and it takes on this really dark, fudgy, chocolaty note to it,” Quinn says. “What was once an angular beer with different pronounced flavors becomes a very rounded experience.”

Ten FIDY

Want a thick, molasses-like stout that’s as dark as the deepest depths of the sea? The folks at Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colo., have you covered with their Ten FIDY. “You feel like you’re pouring motor oil out of the can when you open that one up,” Quinn says.

The flavors are equally bold, but don’t assume the beer isn’t balanced. In fact, there is more hops underneath all the malty goodness than you can expect to find in even the most hopped-up double IPA. “Because it’s so big, the amount of bitterness in it is crucial,” Quinn explains. “You don’t notice that it’s there, but you would notice if it wasn’t there.”

Get in the Bath

Jenny Adams

With the Winter Olympics officially underway and much of the world’s attention focused on Russia, many people are just now learning about the virtues of Russian bathhouses. These longstanding spa establishments practice ancient forms of healing, but the treatments are, in many respects, far from what you might encounter in a traditional luxury spa. For starters, you should expect to be beaten. You should also expect to burn and then to freeze. And in some cases, you should expect shots of vodka, which help to endure the burning, and the freezing, and the beatings. Oh, and you’ll likely make a few new friends along the way.

Of course, you don’t have to fly to Sochi for an authentic Russian-bathhouse experience. Reputable establishments are rooted around the globe, and they’re nothing new. The Russian and Turkish Baths in Manhattan’s East Village have existed on East 10th Street since 1892. “It’s casual in here, and it can get quite noisy and social,” says Dmitry Shapiro, whose family owns and operates the East Village bathhouse. “People gather to discuss business, chat with friends, and at the same time, they get the benefits of our treatments.”

What to Expect

“People seek out this experience for the benefits of the saunas, or banyas,” says Shirin Azhdari, general manager at Voda Spa in West Hollywood. “It starts with our dry banya, which is a room heated to approximately 200 degrees. Our spa attendants then tap you with a venik.”

This venik (also called a platza) is a small broom made from fragrant leafy oak or birch branches that have been softened overnight through repeated soakings in hot water and oils. In the treatment, which is considered a form of detoxification, visitors lie in the bathhouse’s hottest sauna while attendants conduct a rhythmic series of taps and strokes with the venik. The motion generates heat over the body and releases essential oils from the leaves. According to the bathhouse, additional benefits include improved circulation and healthier looking skin.

Rules of the Rod

“It’s important to remember a few things about these treatments,” says Azhdari: “They are supposed to be intense. Someone new to this will only last about five minutes in the dry banya. Always communicate with your specialist if you are too hot or you need more or less pressure.”

We’d also like to point out that while it’s 200 degrees for you—the client stretched out on your back or stomach—it’s also 200 degrees for your therapist, who is performing manual labor on your prone body. Tipping 20 percent for their services is strongly encouraged.

Cold Shots

The cold plunge follows the dry banya, and we’re here to tell you that it’s exactly what it sounds like—a giant pool of 40-degree water, which shocks your system and promotes increased circulation (reducing inflammation). Unlike at normal spas, visitors to a Russian bathhouse typically pay a one-time fee of around $30 or $40 that allows for as many rounds of the hot-to-cold plunge as they would like (or can stand). Many bathhouses also offer food and drinks, which fosters a social atmosphere.

“We are coed, so we require people to bring bathing suits,” says Azhdari. “Other places that are separate, you might expect to be naked.”

At Voda, the rounds of hot and cold are accompanied by rounds of shots (see, promoting good circulation isn’t complete drudgery!). “Most people come here in groups. They will hang out at our bar, eat, and have shots of Russian vodka,” Azhdari says. “You have to be more careful drinking here than you would at a regular bar, because of the heat. Our bartenders are diligent about not over-serving, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say it’s a party in here.”

Russian Dining on the Rise

Troy Johnson

Caviar-spackled blini are currently the hottest trend in the United States. Wait. No, that’s not quite right. Russian food has never trended here in the States—unless of course you consider vodka a Russian food. There are, however, some truly exceptional Russian restaurants you should explore, all serving a side of zeitgeist this winter. 

Russian cuisine is built for the country’s soul-crushing winters, which means it is heavy on carbs, fats, tea, and, yes, lots of vodka. Nyet to fruit salads. A traditional Russian meal typically includes zakuski (appetizers such as smoked and salted fish, cold meats, and potato salad), a little caviar, soups like borscht or ukha (perch with saffron broth), and then a heavy main dish—think beef stroganoff. Restaurants are often ornate and lively, with live music, plush furniture, and a constellation of chandeliers.

When it comes to Russian restaurants in the United States that are worthy of a visit, it makes sense to begin in the city with the most Russians per capita. So our journey starts in Pikesville, Md. Surprised? So were we. There, Vernisage reigns supreme with classics that include zharkoe (a meat-based stew with potatoes or potato dumplings) and tabaka (Cornish game hen in garlic sauce).

Chicago’s classic Russian Tea Time offers the superlative stroganoff. Theirs is a hearty combination of sour cream, Madeira wine, mushrooms, onions, and dill.

In the nation’s capital, the Russia House Restaurant and Lounge may be known for its wall of more than 90 vodkas, but its fare—which includes a decadent potato-mushroom cocotte accented with cherries, Tomme de Savoie cheese, and truffled cream—is equally compelling.

On the West Coast, the banquet-style Maxim in Los Angeles hosts a party each night that masquerades as dinner, complete with live music, crystal, courtly red chairs, and duck stroganoff. Conversely, the Richmond District of San Francisco is enhanced by two standouts: the homey Red Tavern, which serves potato vareniki (a Russian potato pierogy) and a tower of blini complete with smoked salmon, roe, and sour cream; and Katia’s Russian Tea Room, which is known for its eggplant caviar and excellent beef-broth-based borscht.

And we can’t forget about New York. Manhattan is full of comrades, and while the Russian Tea Room boasts unparalleled history, the Moscow import Mari Vanna owns the moment. The restaurant feels like a Moscow garden party, with 17 infused vodkas (try the seaberry), sushki (tea bread), and its specialty dish Herring under a Fur Coat (chopped herring covered with roasted carrots, beets, potatoes, mayo, and hard-boiled eggs). For more czar-worthy treatment, try Firebird, an authentic prerevolutionary Russian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen where eating a meal is akin to dining inside a tiara. The establishment offers table-side caviar service, a knockout chicken Kiev, and beef pelmeni (Siberian dumplings).

With Mari Vanna expansions in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and beyond, it’s clear that Russian cuisine is enjoying a moment in the spotlight. We have a hunch it will stay there long after the closing ceremony wraps up in Sochi.

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