At the French Quarter bar and cafe Manolito (508 Dumaine St., 504-603-2740; www.manolitonola.com), bartender Nick Detrich and his team specialize in Cuban cocktails. Detrich spoke with Gambit about the bar.
What is the inspiration for a Cuban-themed bar?
Detrich: I started going to Cuba about three years ago. Having the opportunity was a big deal for me, and being able to go back as frequently as I have is kind of how this all came about. (Manolito co-founder) Chris (Hannah) was with me on more than half of those trips.
In the early 1920s, Cuban bartenders were looked upon in the same way as Japanese bartenders are today as far as being pillars of technique and hospitality. We wanted to build a place that really honored what these Cuban bartenders were doing. Because the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is largely outside of the scope of American bartending, we wanted to make sure we used a lot of techniques they still practice in Cuba.
Last year, unfortunately, our friend Manuel Carbajo Aguiar passed away suddenly, so this past summer, when we were talking about the bar, we knew we should name if after him, Manolito, for his nickname.
The layout of the bar really reminded me of this bar in (Old Havana) called O'Reilly (304), where you walk in and the kitchen and bar are under a gallery seating area. It's a room that's set up very much like a Caribbean room should be, which is why I also wanted to sink my teeth into this space.
What sets apart Cuban bar practice and culture?
D: They refer to bartenders as cantineros, and in order to become a cantinero, you have to go through a fair amount of schooling and an apprenticeship. It's still a very highly regarded profession there; it's considered a highly skilled craft. Manuel — whom we named the place for — had been at El Floridita for 20 years. Hospitality is paramount for them; it's the first thing that they learn.
Also, no one does blended drinks the same way that Cubans do, and yet we have such a rich daiquiri culture in New Orleans. It's more about the texture. The flavors are there, the balance is there, but the first point of reference is the texture. It's unique in that it goes against a lot of what bartenders have learned in the last 20 years during the cocktail revival and cocktail movement, where it's so pedantic and it's all based on recipes and exacting measure. This puts that whole bottle on its head.
What techniques are you using at the bar?
D: We're practicing these techniques that are more geared toward texture. We use Hamilton Beach blenders on a low setting, add all of the ingredients except for the rum, measure out the ice, start the blender and then slowly add the rum until we get a smooth, sort of rotation or a vortex in the blender where we can read the consistency. It shouldn't be super slushy. Frozen drinks are really popular right now, but a lot of them are too frozen. If they're coming out of a machine, usually the texture is too dense. We're looking for something that is more on the frappe end, as far as blended drinks go, which is what you would have seen in the early days, after (Fred) Waring introduced the blender.
We also throw cocktails as well, which is something that was very popular in Cuba. You take two glasses, or tins, and put ice in one and the drink in the other and you basically pour it from a height of at least 2 or 3 feet, so you get a lot of big bubble aeration. It's not as violent as shaking, and you don't get the tiny bubbles. You get a much bigger, silkier and airier texture. We don't do a lot of shaking and stirring. We do a lot more blending and throwing than anything.