Dale DeGroff is a man on a mission — to re-introduce Americans to the pleasures of home bartending. Not, mind you, the oafish bailings of rye or vodka into glasses full of ice that you or I practice, but that vanishing art of mixing classic cocktails, those expansive, nuanced drinks whose names evoke images of tail-finned cars, white-gloved doormen and chrome cigarette cases.
If FDR led the country out of the wilderness of Prohibition and spurred home-bar construction with his White House martini making, DeGroff wants to take our foolishly neglected legacy of drink back to the future. And so, as part of a national tour sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, the former “master mixologist” of New York’s fabled Rainbow Room arrived in town last week for appearances at Linq, the Sunset Room and the Bel Air Hotel, where he demonstrated the relative ease of mixing Sidecars, Manhattans and Rusty Nails.
OffBeat caught up with him at Musso & Frank’s bar, where he was enjoying a dry Rob Roy and chatting with bartender Manny Aguirre about the late, lamented Chasen’s, Scandia and Cock ’n’ Bull. DeGroff is a likable man who’ll begin an anecdote while in mid-handshake. He began his career in L.A., tending bar at the Bel Air Hotel for seven seasons and waiting for an acting break that never came. (Ask him about the time actor George C. Scott sheepishly appeared at the entrance of the Bel Air’s bar and called to DeGroff to send over a scotch after he’d been banned from the bar for slugging Richard Zanuck.)
A true diplomat, DeGroff blames L.A.’s dreary bar culture on California’s antismoking laws, and even managed to think of one contribution our city has made to the arsenal of booze — the apple martini. But he is clear that New York bar culture is king.
“People in New York follow their favorite bartenders around from place to place,” he says about his profession. “In New York, bars are a natural resource like redwoods, and we are the rangers.”
The history of the cocktail is one of DeGroff’s passions, and he’s deep in the writing of a book on the same. “The Manhattan is one of the few cocktails whose origins can be definitely traced,” he says. “Winston Churchill’s mother, who was American, threw a party at the Manhattan Club for Governor Tilden of New York. She asked the bartender to come up with a special drink for the occasion, and that’s how the Manhattan was born.” DeGroff, more controversially, also places the martini’s origin in New York. But he is never less than charming as he holds forth on its continuing evolution from the 3-1 (gin to vermouth) Prohibition variety to what he calls the 11-1 Cold War martini.
With our cocooning nation gripped by gourmandism and tougher DUI and antismoking laws, DeGroff senses that the Zeitgeist is right to re-acquaint Americans with the home bar. “People are taking pride in their bloody marys and martinis,” he notes approvingly.
Still, OffBeat remembers the brute simplicity of mixing at home in the 1970s, when “making a drink” meant going to the kitchen, opening the cabinet above the toaster and pouring a shot from the bottle marked “scotch” — with ice if one was feeling particularly ambitious. Granted, today’s young live and die by their cosmopolitans and lemon drops, but are they willing to labor over these potable feasts at home?
DeGroff says it’s really not so difficult, although “The making of a martini is more important than the drinking of it,” he counsels in a Zen-like aside. Correct measurements are essential, he advises. “Why would you embark on making eggs Benedict for the first time without following a recipe?” And proper glassware. “My generation was responsible for the one-glass bar in the ’70s,” he confesses, but “If you look closely at an Irish-coffee glass, you’ll see it was made that way for a specific reason — [its curves] let the bartender know exactly how much whiskey, coffee and cream to put in. If you pour that drink into an old-fashioned glass, the coffee’ll drown out everything.” (DeGroff also has a particular fondness for the classic V-shaped martini glass: “Anything in that sexy glass is going to be popular.”)
Although DeGroff is a demanding taskmaster (one of his courses at the Peter Kump Cooking School is called “Bartender’s Bootcamp”), his message is always to most definitely try this at home — a place that never sounds Last Call.
For drink recipes, trade tips and philosophy, visit Dale DeGroff’s Web site at www. kingcocktail.com.
A Tale of Two Shvitzes
Why would anyone want to spend time in a room heated to a temperature of 190 degrees? It’s a good question. Here’s another: Is there an animal that would willingly endure it? None, surely, but Homo sapiens, wiliest of God’s creatures. For some reason, he (or she) enjoys it.
At least some people do — devotees of the sauna, the steam room, the Russian bath, the Turkish bath, the plaitza massage and the ice-cold plunge. We like it a lot. I suspect that indolence is at the heart of the attraction, for there is something perversely satisfying about working up a sweat while doing absolutely nothing. To accomplish this goal, at City Spa in Southwest Los Angeles, all you have to do is walk into one of the saunas and sit down. In short order, you will look like someone who’s just completed a marathon. According to the Web site Sweat, a 15-minute session in a properly heated sauna will relieve you of a liter of perspiration. Of that, 99 percent will be water, with the remaining 1 percent consisting of toxins that your kidneys would normally take 24 hours to remove. Never have lassitude and health been so happily combined.
In New York, I used to indulge in this peculiar pleasure at the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village. The baths occupied three floors of an old brownstone, and they were small and crowded and, for the most part, coed. (For a brief period they were so intoxicatingly coed that men and women shared the same changing room, not to mention relaxation beds. A dividing wall has since been inserted.) There were four different kinds of sauna — Swedish, Turkish, Russian, along with a small steam room of no known nationality — and a small, ice-cold pool braved only by the hardiest regulars. Though relaxation was the stated purpose, the place felt hectic in the traditional New York fashion. There was a continuous stream of arrivals and departures, and an enormous custom in massage (the smell of Johnson’s Baby Oil permeated the second floor, along with some suspiciously pleasurable groans). Downstairs, in the saunas, there was a line for the showers, and more lines of people sitting, post-sauna, on benches that faced each other across a narrow passageway, next to the ice-cold pool. All in all, it was a bit like a subway car invaded by clouds of steam.
You won’t feel as if you’re on a subway at City Spa, which is much more relaxed and spacious and has a slightly decadent, Old World feel. As it says on the flier, it’s a place “where men and women go to escape from the pressures and burdens of everyday life without actually leaving the city.” (Women, it should be pointed out, can escape only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.) There are three saunas, of which the best are the Russian Rock Room, a multitiered chamber heated by stones in two large dome-shaped ovens, and the Eucalyptus Steam Room. The latter is the best for escapist purposes, for the moment you enter it you vanish — like Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca — in a thick swirl of fog. There are two levels, the upper one being so hot that those who choose it either lie down flat, inches below the hottest layer of steam, or sit hunched over with towels and gowns wrapped around their heads for protection.
If you couldn’t leave after a few minutes, it would be a miniature hell, complete with fiery bodies and guilt-racked souls sighing and groaning in dimly lit corners. (And there is something curiously penitential about the posture the body instinctively adopts in extreme heat: hunched over, face buried in hands, life force slowly dribbling away in a million beads of sweat.) But hell doesn’t come equipped with a swimming pool, and City Spa does. It’s not ice-cold (there’s a “Swedish cold plunge” for that), but it’s certainly chilly, and cools you off pronto. Every so often you will see someone who has just been taken to the limits of his endurance by a burly masseur wielding a bushel of leafy eucalyptus branches — the plaitza massage — run shrieking from the Russian Rock Room straight into the swimming pool, in which he then splashes around, howling in relief like a drunk seal.
What kind of experience you have at City Spa depends, to some extent, on when you go. On Thursday nights, a.k.a. “Russian night,” BMWs and SUVs jam the parking lot and the atmosphere is positively boisterous with Eastern European bonhomie. Everyone’s talking, but chances are you won’t understand a word, and the good vibes don’t always extend to those born west of Ukraine. Personally, I prefer the place on just about any evening after 8, when tranquillity reigns. Just a few lost souls flitting in and out of the mist, ready to do penance.