Friday, August 6, 2010

Mayahuel: Where Food and Cocktails Pair Like Magic

Winner of the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail World’s Best New Cocktail Bar.

If you are a regular reader, you know we like cocktail and food pairings. Preferably small bites, as big plates of food are usually too cumbersome to match with all the disparate flavors, alcohol level, and acid inherent in any given cocktail.

Arachnophobes need not fear the spider chandelier that presides over the East Village bar and restaurant Mayahuel, where the spirit of the Aztec goddess graces every sip and nibble. [photo from Mayahuel Web site]

Mayahuel, a bar and restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, serves small plates that pair remarkably well with the agave-based cocktails on its extensive drink menu. The smells coming out of the kitchen are redolent with the aromas of Mexico, Oaxacan, and a single bite will confirm what your nose already knows: this isn’t your ordinary bar food. In creative chef Luis Gonzalez’s hands, bold combinations of traditional herbs, spices, and all kinds of peppers combine with new techniques and surprising, revelatory combinations of flavor, all making you want a Margarita, or something akin. Master bartender and shaman of flavor, Philip Ward, is there to help. Phil opened Mayahuel (named the Aztec goddess of the maguey plant [agave spp.]) to proclaim his passion for Mexican cuisine and the highly prized spirits tequila, mezcal, and sotol (a Chihuahuan agave spirit). The menu also boasts an array of sherry and beer cocktails, if that’s where the spirits of ancient Mexico lead you. There’s something for everyone.

Recently, we visited Phil and the gang for a simple happy-hour pairing of cocktails and small plates, in the dining room located on the second floor of Mayahuel. A huge chandelier in the guise of a techno spider hovers over the room not in a menacing, but a carnival-like way. High banquets upholstered with abraded leather adorn the corners of the room offering both style and comfort. But what’s so cool about the dining room is the skylight, underneath the spider, that allows you to peer down at the bartenders carefully crafting your just-ordered cocktail. Steve had a Kurling Cocktail made by the illustrious Katie Stipes, who, when challenged to create a cocktail with cedra, a grappa-based liqueur made from the peel of the cedro lemon, came up with this smooth beauty, balancing sweet and sour by adding three spirits (pisco, blanco tequila, mezcal), a generous pour of white vermouth, and some spicy yellow chartreuse; Paul sipped on a Nicosia, a complex, smoky blend of mezcal, Cyprus Commandaria (a dessert wine), and Amaro Lucano (a less bitter amaro that is extremely popular in Italy).

Kurling Cocktail
(created by Katie Stipes, Mayahuel)

1 ounce Barsol Pisco
1/2 ounce El Tesoro Blanco Tequila
1/2 ounce San Luis del Rio Mezcal
3/4 ounce Dolin Blanc Vermouth (white vermouth)
1/4 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
1/4 ounce Acqua di Cedro (lemon liqueur)

Stir in ice and strain into a chilled glass.

Both cocktails opened up our palates for the food we were about to receive, and we both shouted “Amen” after eating just the tortilla chips that accompanied three fresh and tantalizing salsas: one tomatoey, served warm, with a blast of chipotle (smoked jalapeños) and onions; a hot salsa verde; and one of the creamiest guacamoles ever to grace our gullets. A shrimp and black bean quesadilla fulfilled our seafood and bean craving, but the chorizo croquettes that Phil surprised us with made us realize that standard bland croquettes have no place in this cuisine. Using chorizo in this appetizer, with its strong pimentón flavor, was a revelation, one we hope to imitate at home.

Another thing to note about Mayahuel, besides its friendly staff and creative chefs, is the space itself. There’s a quiet area as you walk in that’s separated from the general din of the main bar. If you like to sit at the bar, which we love to do, you will be entertained by the men and women behind the stick making your drinks to perfection. There are several stools in various alcoves, and small tables to round out the first floor, and of course the main dining room on the second tier. Summer’s a perfect time to visit Mayahuel to nosh on some drinks and eats using fresh produce (the air conditioning will keep you cool as you decide on your second drink), but be warned: it fills up quickly. Best to go early to be guaranteed a seat.

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