Houston's recent wave of heat, humidity and spontaneous afternoon thunderstorms isn't the only evidence of summer's arrival. Some of Houston's newest bars are greeting the season with new menus. Purely out of an altruistic desire to better educate CultureMap readers, I present the following options as the best of my recent drinking expeditions.
After all, cocktails should be a solution to the heat.
In general, summer cocktails are a little lighter and a little sweeter than those served during other times of year. Rather than challenge patrons with bitter flavors or super boozy concoctions, the goal is to utilize fresh fruit and herbal accents to deliver refreshment. After all, cocktails should be a solution to the heat.
Weights + Measures: Judith's Pho Cup
It seems as though the Midtown bar/restaurant/bakery is benefiting from its proximity to Vietnamese restaurant Thien An. Named after its creator, Weights + Measures bar manager Judith Piotrowski, the Pho Cup is a gin-based cocktail that combines Thai basil, cilantro, muddled cucumber, "aromatized pho syrup" and a housemade Sriracha sauce for a drink that's bright and fresh-tasting with just enough heat to keep things interesting. Unlike the Pho-King Champ at Dallas cocktail bar Midnight Rambler, the pho cup doesn't including beef broth, which means its even vegetarian friendly. Just be sure to enunciate clearly when ordering — wouldn't want to offend any nearby patrons with an inadvertent obscenity.
La Grange: Watermelon Fresca
An agua fresca is an excellent source of refreshment on a hot summer's day, but, when the sun goes down, people want something with a little more zing. Enter the watermelon fresca at new Montrose hotspot La Grange, which combines the traditional watermelon juice, simple syrup and lemon juice with tequila and Aperol. Although it sounds like a drink that could be overwhelmingly sweet, the vegetals notes from the the watermelon rind and the aperol keep things balanced enough that the drink is truly refreshing. Perhaps it will even spawn a frozen variation.
Johnny's Gold Brick: Boilermaker
Admittedly, a shot and a beer doesn't scream summer, but I've been drinking more than my fair share of them over the course of many visits to the Treadsack Group's "bar ass bar" in the former Boom Boom Room. Instead of just being a bar and a shot of straight liquor, the Johnny's boilermaker is an Old Fashioned shot made with cult favorite Mellow Gold whiskey; similar to a tequila shot, it's "dressed" with a sugar/salt rim and an orange wedge. Chase it with the included Lone Star. As one of the house cocktails at Johnny's, it's only $8 — a price that almost makes it thrifty.
Houston Watch Company: Blackberry shrub
Generally, the focus at this month-old bar in the Bayou Lofts on Franklin Street is well-executed classic cocktails, but a seasonal, housemade shrub is always on the menu. When Houston Watch Company opened, the shrub used strawberries, but, with those already mostly come and gone from area farms, blackberries have taken over. The shrub is served with gin, lemon and ginger beer for a refreshing combination of sweet and tart. Co-owner Eric Bogle is already planning the next version that will use Texas peaches, which is sure to keep patrons coming back all summer.
Lillo & Ella: Subtly Scotch
Currently celebrating its first anniversary, this Asian-inspired restaurant in Shady Acres from Roost chef/owner Kevin Naderi delivers an intriguing cocktail menu as well as creative cuisine. This cocktail blends Scotch with blanc vermouth, mole bitters and lemon; it's sweet and a little smoky with just enough acid to balance the flavors. Surprisingly, Naderi recommends pairing it with the restaurant's Nutella pie with Cloud 10 banana ice cream; everyone's favorite chocolate hazelnut spread finds a fitting complement in the mole bitters.
The Boulevardier: The Drastic Drip
Although ice chef Hope Clarke only completed her move to Houston last week, she's already making an impression at The Boulevardier. In addition to crystal clear, hand cut ice spheres, Clarke is also working with the staff at the stylish cocktail bar on a summer cocktail menu. The drastic drip combines Old Grand-Dad bourbon with Campari, muddled grapefruit and coconut nectar; it's sweet, but also has some bitter elements that make it way too easy to finish quickly.
Spare Key: Unlock the States
On Sunday, this cocktail oasis in the middle of the Midtown party scene rolled out its summer menu of 51 drinks inspired by bar manager Chris Frankel's visits to every state and Washington, D.C. While it would be needlessly wordy to list them all, Frankel provided this description for Massachusett's representative, the Periodista: "a Daiquiri-like rum and apricot brandy cocktail of Cuban origin, which is readily available throughout Boston cocktail bars, but remains largely unknown outside the city." The margarita represents Texas, of course. Anyone who samples all 51 cocktails get a book containing the recipes for every drink, but collectors may only travel to two states per day.
Honorable Mention: Public Services Wine & Whisky, Half-off wine
Admittedly, this promotion at downtown bar Public Services doesn't have anything to do with cocktails, but it's too good a deal not to share. Throughout the month of May, all bottles of wine are half-off during happy hour, which is every day (including Saturday) from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Having recently met a friend there and split a bottle that would have normally been $75 for $20 each, I'm consider it one of the better affordable luxuries currently available to wine enthusiasts. The promotion has proven so popular that the bar is considering extending it throughout the summer, so rush over there and encourage it to do so.