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There's fire in that little cup

WINE & SPIRITS

The hot cocktail has never been, well, hotter. Naughty Little Elf, anyone?

December 31, 2003|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

It's easy to assume that there's been a mix-up at the bar when your cocktail arrives in a teapot. But when you order the hot sake cider at G. Garvin's 3rd Street restaurant, the warm, fragrant drink is all the more charming presented on a white ceramic tray with a matching miniature teapot, two demitasse cups and a pretty garnish of sliced apple.

The cider (which is not actually cider) is slightly sweet, potent and perplexing. Is that a hint of plum along with the ginger and nutmeg? Whatever it is, it's delicious. And so warming on a chilly afternoon.

G. Garvin's hot sake cider isn't the only new hot drink around. Terrific ramped-up versions of classic hot cocktails are turning up at a number of L.A. restaurant bars. Hot buttered rum is enjoying a renaissance. Glogg is making a comeback. Hot chocolate is given the treatment. And they're all better than ever, thanks to chefs who collaborate with bartenders, and bartenders who aren't afraid to venture into the kitchen.

Besides being wonderful late-afternoon warmers, the drinks also substitute nicely for port or coffee -- or even molten chocolate cake or tarte Tatin -- at the end of a restaurant meal.

Best of all, they're great to make at home for gatherings large or small. Stirring them up on the stove feels more like cooking than bartending. Making these drinks involves more than just lining up bottles of liqueurs and mixing away. Instead of muddling together half a dozen random flavors, these new drinks make sense. Their flavors are harmonious, their textures appropriately lush or delicate, enriched with butter, softened with malt or heightened with plum sake. Their bouquets are as intoxicating as the spirits that animate them, adorned as they are with aromatic ingredients such as cardamom, almonds, ancho chile, cloves and vanilla bean.

Keeping these drinks hot is easier at home than it is at a bar, where a cocktail waiter often must make an extra run to the kitchen to heat ingredients or retrieve whipped cream. Hello, crock pot, pump pot and insulated carafe, the hot-drink master's friends.

The Writer's Bar at Raffles L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills is offering some of the season's best hot cocktails, thanks mainly to the hotel's chef, Bruno Lopez, who created them. He makes a spectacularly rich hot buttered rum, creamy whipped eggnog (served hot on request) and glogg, the Scandinavian spiced wine.

To make the hot buttered rum, Lopez makes a batter by combining sweet butter, vanilla ice cream, brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla. He freezes the batter, keeping it ready for when a patron orders the drink. He pours rum and boiling water into a simple white mug and heaps a scoop of the batter on top. It melts into a luscious, creamy layer.

Try it at home in a clear glass mug -- the layers remain distinct until the moment you take a sip. Past your lips, the hot bottom and cool top layers mix, creating a kind of warm and potent bliss.

Lopez's glogg is less sweet than many versions of the Scandinavian drink, and more exotically spiced. He suspends aquavit-soaked sugar cubes on a wire rack over warm red wine infused with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. He sets the sugar cubes afire; they flare up brilliantly and drip molten and flaming into the pot until they're extinguished by more spiced wine poured over. (Use caution when making this at home. As the flaming sugar drips into the pot of wine, it can spread the flames to the wine. If the fire doesn't quickly die down, put a large lid over the pot to extinguish it.)

At G. Garvin's, Greg Provance crossed a line when he came to work as a bartender when the restaurant opened 2 1/2 years ago: He begged chef Gerry Garvin to let him work in the kitchen. "Finally, he moved me up to working on the line with him. He was teaching me a lot of things about food," said Provance, who now is general manager. Provance has also given himself a new title: bar chef.

"Creating a hot drink is more like cooking than bartending," said Provance. "Heat changes the flavor."

The only apple involved in Provance's hot sake cider is a garnish. In early versions, he experimented with infusions of rose petals, loose tea leaves and vanilla beans in the warmed plum sake and white sake mixture. But as he tried each version, he found that increasing the ratio of white sake to plum sake -- and eliminating the rose petals and tea leaves -- gave the drink a grassier, less sweet taste that appealed to sake lovers. Adding a vanilla bean and brown sugar turned it into something that reminded him of spiked apple cider, perfect for drinkers who don't want to taste alcohol.

When Provance serves the drink at home for friends, he sometimes brings back the rose petals -- strewing them atop the drink as a garnish. He recommends using only organically grown rose petals, and using them judiciously.

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