ArtBar's Winter Menu

ArtBar, Cambridge, Mass.

I was recently invited to preview ArtBar's new winter menu, so last Wednesday afternoon, Jeff and I headed over to check it out. We were greeted by Amanda (Web media manager) and introduced to Troy (director of food and beverage) and Brian (executive chef) and then seated at the bar.

Troy made sure we got a good sampling of the new cocktails while Brian sent out new menu items for us to taste. First up was a shooter of the roasted winter root vegetable and white bean soup. The mixture of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and white beans was topped with a piece of crispy salsify. The soup was amazing. I even convinced Jeff to try some -- the only thing in that mix he usually enjoys is carrots, but he agreed the soup was very tasty. I found it very warming and rustic.

Our first cocktail was the Writer's Block. ArtBar's cocktails are divided into four different categories: Vintage, Primary Colors, Paint Box, and Elements of Art (in keeping with the art theme). The Writer's Block is in the Primary Colors category, which contains original drinks created at ArtBar, and it is so named because when Troy came up with it, he couldn't think of a name for it. The cocktail is made with Barsol Pisco, ice wine, Noilly Prat, and grapefruit shrub and is garnished simply with bitters. (ArtBar's shrubs -- mixtures of macerated fruit and vinegar -- are all made in house.) The drink was very clean and smooth.

As we sipped our first cocktail, our server, Liz, brought out our next course: a charcuterie platter with prosciutto, speck, chicken liver pate, pickled vegetables, house made grain mustard, and a basket of breads. I usually find chicken liver pate to have an off, almost bitter taste, but I actually enjoyed this one with some of the mustard. And of course the salty speck and prosciutto were well received.

For the next cocktail, Troy made us the Winter Vacation, which is also in the Primary Colors category. I thought the drink had the perfect name since Jeff and I both had the week off from work and were sort of on a mini vacation ourselves. The name actually originated based on the idea that winter is the perfect time to let your mind escape to warmer locales -- so this drink is sort of Mexico in a glass.

It's a beer cocktail, so it starts with some Smutty Nose IPA, which is then mixed with Mezcal, Solerno, fresh lime, and agave. You have the option of having the drink as is or adding a little hell fire shrub to it for a little heat from the habaneros it's made with. While I am a wimp when it comes to heat, I definitely recommend trying this drink with the hell fire shrub -- it just adds a little complexity to the drink and a touch of heat at the back of your throat.

I enjoyed this cocktail with some Great Hill Blue fritters and fig chutney. The fritters were very light and crunchy and the cheese came through only mildly. I loved them paired with the sweet chutney. These fritters are on the menu as local cheese fritters because the cheese will be changing based on what's available. ArtBar tries to use as much local, seasonal food in its dishes as possible.

Next, we tried the roasted beet salad with shaved fennel, blood oranges, peppercress, and house made ricotta. I usually find that beet salads are paired with goat cheese, and the ricotta lightened the salad up and was a welcome change. I definitely recommend trying this salad if you're looking for a not-so-heavy appetizer.

This next drink has an interesting story and is named the Secret Cocktail. It falls under the Paint Box category, described as containing spontaneous, crafty cocktails. Troy explained to us that the two things most likely to turn someone off a drink are its color and its name, hence why this one is just called the Secret Cocktail. It contains Beefeater Gin, Laird's Apple Jack, fresh lemon, egg whites, and house grenadine -- and last but not least that stunning, real maraschino cherry. (I've been sworn to secrecy and can't tell you the real name of this drink, but you should definitely head to ArtBar and order it, drink it and enjoy it, and then ask the name.) This was Jeff's favorite drink.

One of the main courses we got to try was the seared monkfish with chorizo, escarole, purple potatoes, and essence of lobster butter sauce (Brian actually made a second version with chicken broth so Jeff, who's allergic to lobster, could also try the dish). I had never had monkfish before and wasn't sure what to expect, but I discovered it's a very unfishy fish with a more dense than flaky texture. This one was nicely crusted and pleasantly salty, and I enjoyed it with the lobster butter sauce, spicy chorizo, and colorful purple potatoes. I would definitely go back and order this.

We also sampled some deviled eggs. Jeff polished off the one topped with roasted red pepper tapenade before I could try it, so you can tell he enjoyed it. I tried the one topped with blue cheese and bacon, and while it was good, it wasn't my favorite dish of everything we'd tried that evening. The deviled eggs are actually served in a trio, but we just tried two because the third is topped with grilled shrimp, which Jeff is allergic to. It's probably a good thing, too, after everything else we ate and all that was left to come. They make for a hearty appetizer.

While we were sitting at the bar enjoying our cocktails and food, Troy taught us a lot about alcohol and drink making. He's actually working on a barrel-aged Negroni and a barrel-aged Manhattan that may even be available by the time this post is up. The barrel-aged cocktails will be served as is, carbonated, and aged and can be ordered in a flight so you can try all three styles.

I mentioned that I was a fan of gin, so Troy brought down a bunch of gins and taught us about how gin started and how it evolved and why it's doing so well these days. Then we began talking about whiskey as he moved on to making our next drink. I can tell just from the few hours we spent there that Troy knows his stuff and is really passionate about it. He actually teaches cocktail classes at ArtBar, and I definitely suggest checking one out if you get a chance. Upcoming classes include Classic Punch, American Whiskey, and Brandy.

But back to that whiskey drink... it's called The Closer and also falls under the Primary Colors category. Troy was looking forward to making this drink for me after I mentioned that I love St-Germain. I was a little wary of the whiskey though. I can handle small sips, but I would never order whiskey. Luckily for me, this drink is not meant to hit you in the face with whiskey. The drink got its name because whiskey is so hard to sell guests on. However, I learned that if you top whiskey with St-Germain foam, I can be sold. The Hibiki Japanese Whiskey is stirred with ginger liqueur (King's Ginger) and orange bitters and then topped with the foam (St-Germain, egg whites, lemon juice, and water), which is bruleed with a little green Chartreuse. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this drink. Note that it is still pretty strong and best taken in small sips.

Jeff didn't enjoy this drink as much as I did, so Troy made him the Perfect Bubbles, a drink I had tried on my previous visit to ArtBar. It's under the Elements of Art category, which includes drinks that have an artful take on a classic. The classic here is a French 75, one of my favorite drinks. Death's Door Gin is combined with clove syrup, fresh lemon, and prosecco for an effervescent, sweet, and spicy cocktail.

Getting back to the food, the dish we had next was one of my favorites of the evening and definitely perfect for a chilly winter night. The braised short rib appetizer comes paired with creamy cheddar polenta, and a panko-fried poached egg. The moment of truth came when I cut into the egg to reveal a gorgeous runny yolk. I was so impressed. In order to cook the egg like this, the chef has to poach it and then shock it and then coat it and fry it. There's so much potential for the egg to overcook, but it was just perfect. And that short rib was fall-apart tender. This dish was a huge hit with both Jeff and me.

The house made cavatelli with broccoli rabe, roasted butternut squash, shaved Vermont Ayr, and brown butter also got a gold star in my book -- and I don't even like broccoli rabe. The cavatelli was tender and nicely cooked, and the pairing of butternut squash and brown butter can never be a bad one in my opinion. The Ayr cheese is made with sweet milk from Ayrshire cows and is sweet, smooth, creamy, and nutty -- flavors and textures that play well with the other ingredients in the dish.

For our last entree, we tasted the pan-seared Atlantic salmon with maple-mustard glaze, watercress salad, and heirloom bean succotash with grilled corn and bacon. Jeff raved about the glaze and decided this was his favorite dish of the evening. I was filling up at this point but managed to squeeze in a few bites of salmon and succotash. The pairing was interesting and unique.

Now it was time to end with the desserts. To go with them, Troy made us the Ginger Oatmeal Flip, another ArtBar cocktail creation from the Primary Colors menu. I had not expected to like this drink and would never have ordered it because it's a beer cocktail, and before I had the Winter Vacation earlier in the evening, I had always thought I wouldn't enjoy a beer cocktail. I was so wrong. The Ginger Oatmeal Flip was my favorite drink, and I will definitely get it when I go back to ArtBar. It starts with some Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout to which Snap (a ginger liqueur), Demerara syrup, and a whole egg are added. It is then garnished with -- not nutmeg, as you might expect, but -- fresh shavings of black cardamom, which is a little smokier than green cardamom. The drink was just amazing. It was sweet but had depth, and it was so smooth and frothy. It's my new winter cocktail.

And because I like gin so much, Troy also made us a Ramos Gin Fizz to try. This drink was also incredibly frothy, but it was more citrusy and light, as it's made with Tanqueray 10, fresh lemon and lime, egg whites, sugar, cream, and orange flower water.  If I were in a different mood and it were a different night, I might have preferred it to the Ginger Oatmeal Flip, but that night all I wanted was that flip -- even though the Gin Fizz was right up my alley too.

To go with these final drinks, we had two desserts. The first was the sticky toffee pudding. When it came out, Troy drizzled the little pitcher of caramel sauce it came with over the dessert. It was definitely sticky and also gooey, warm, and dense. The caramel was a wonderful addition to this comforting dessert, as was the creme fraiche ice cream on the side.

I had my eye on the next dessert though: the chocolate chestnut mousse torte. This dessert is featured on the minis menu, and you all know how I feel about mini foods. I couldn't resist digging in. The crunchy cookie crumbles were the perfect accompaniment to the light and airy mousse. I'm so ordering this dessert again. I may even try to re-create it at home -- Jeff loved it too.

I truly appreciated having the opportunity to sample so many of ArtBar's cocktails and kitchen creations. That short rib and the chestnut mousse are already beckoning me back. Jeff must have suggested at least three times during the meal that we plan to come back for dinner and breakfast.

A huge thank you to Amanda, Troy, and Brian for having us in and for treating us to such a wonderful evening. And another huge thank you to Liz, Stephen, and Christina. 

Brian also sent us each home with a jar of homemade raspberry-lemon jam, which I cannot wait to try!

ArtBar's winter menu is currently available.

So... when are you going to ArtBar?

Full disclosure: I was invited to preview ArtBar's winter menu and everything we had was complimentary, but as always, all opinions are my own.

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