Robin Leventhal is charming in person. Much more charming than you might suspect from watching season six of Top Chef, where she is grossly misrepresented as a nag. In person, she's a dynamo. Her feisty smile and bright, dark eyes convey her mischievous sense of humor and contagious enthusiasm for the task at hand.
She has invited me into her sunny kitchen to experiment. Our goal: the perfect summer cocktail, utilizing fresh fruit. Robin's involvement in the project is spur of the moment, so we're going to use ingredients she already has around her house. Which, if you're Robin Leventhal, includes handmade sarsaparilla simple syrup, handmade rosemary simple syrup, a flat of blueberries, fresh peaches, a full liquor cabinet with an extensive collection of liqueurs, and all manner of fresh herbs from her garden.
The garden, like the house, is an artistic jumble--an overgrown collection of rarities that nonetheless betrays the touch of a discerning hand. In the garden: hundreds of varieties of succulents clustered like sea anemones, wild tangles of sage and rosemary, clouds of bees hovering over a thicket of blush-pink stone crop. In the house: a windowsill of antique bottles, a wall of copper baking tins in fantastic shapes, a refrigerator of pictures and mementos that capture a vibrant and busy life.
In addition to culinary consulting, catering with her company Crave, fund raising for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and teaching cooking and ceramics, Robin is heavily involved in the Seattle food scene. She has also recently returned from judging the San Francisco Rum Festival, a presentation of the Ministry of Rum.
"It's a celebration of rum and rum tasting," she explains, adding, with a slightly wicked smile, "I mostly went for the tasting."
As we both have a fondness for the beverage, rum seems a natural choice for our first experiment. We eye her collection speculatively.
Robin claims that she has the entire day off-- a rarity. She has been invited to attend an event featuring local food bloggers, but she has decided, for once, to rest. Or so she says. "It sounded cool, but I like the idea of having an entire day off. It's been go, go, go lately," she muses. "This will be fun." I decide not to point out that she's still doing something food related and, in fact, is still hanging out with a food blogger of sorts.
Once we get started, it's easy to see why Robin considers our project recreational: starting without a set idea establishes a realm of possibilities to play with, and Robin's enthusiasm for experimenting is palpable.
"For the first drink, I'm thinking rum and sarsaparilla simple syrup," she says. "What do you think?"
Unlike many chefs I have met (and worked with) she actually seems to think I might have a valid opinion on the subject, which is rather charming (though, given my lengthy study of rum-related incidences, not entirely inaccurate).
Robin's sarsaparilla simple syrup is a revelation: honey sweet with undertones of star anise and cinnamon, and when she pairs it with Appleton Estate Reserve rum and fresh, muddled peach the result is as divine as a distilled southern afternoon on some infinitely gracious veranda.
It's perfect, so I'm surprised when she suggests we move on to creating another drink. I'm not typically opposed to this particular suggestion, so I comply and we cast our eyes to the gin, a bottle of Bombay Sapphire that looks particularly beguiling in the slanted afternoon light. (Though it may be made slightly more lustrous by the cocktails we just sampled.)
We start with muddling blueberries in a martini mixer since our directive, after all, is 'fruit cocktail'. The gin creation proves more difficult. Our first experiment, a rosemary rickey, which incorporates blueberries, rosemary simple syrup, gin, and soda, is a gorgeous shade of lavender.
Robin takes a sip and closes her eyes. "I could drink these all afternoon," she says. "But the flavor is unremarkable." I agree. The drink is certainly delicious, but it's not something that would inspire you to make a call from the bar (as in "Get over here now and try this!"). We simultaneously decide it needs a touch of Lillet, a wine-based aperitif. It's an improvement, but the flavor is still a little flat. Robin is not perturbed. "Let's try that again," she says.
"We could just go with one recipe. The sarsaparilla cordial..." I suggest. I feel bad monopolizing too much of her supposedly free afternoon.
"Do I hear you giving up?"
We go back to the blueberries. Robin thinks the rosemary isn't coming through enough, so in addition to using her homemade rosemary simple syrup, she vigorously muddles rosemary leaves with the blueberries and a lime.
The wonderful thing about creative drink mixing is the element of leisure not found in most other genres of culinary creativity. There's no worry that the drink is going to burn, and if you step astray, you've only ruined a cocktail, not an entire meal. As long as you serve the drink before it gets warm, timing is not an issue. If you have a barful of thirsty patrons, of course it's a very different story, but today we don't, and the afternoon is an uncommon alchemy of creativity and leisure.
Robin has a master's degree in the fine arts, and it's evident in her work--even though we are just using a point-and-shoot camera, she has her eye on the details, briskly obscuring unsightly elements (a splash of water on the wooden chopping block, a club soda label) from the still life. Like most good chefs, there's a graceful economy to her movements, and it's clear that she's thinking about the drinks on multiple sensory levels--the color; the arrangement of rosemary, lime, and ice; the perfect glass, and, of course, the taste. Despite her constant movement (and occasional Tigger-like bounces), I realize that I'm watching a driven woman in her moment of repose--and there's something lovely about that.
By our third try, our rosemary rickey has morphed into an elderflower martini served in a silver rimmed glass. It's lethal (6 oz of gin!) yet delicious. Blueberries are a succulent base note, and rosemary is a strong counterpoint to the floral bouquet of St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur. Though all of our scientific sampling may have left me slightly tipsy, I can't help but think that the drink perfectly evokes the summer evening that is settling down around Robin's garden--gilding the fruit trees and casting shadows in the pink stone crop.
Although we used Appleton Estate Reserve because that's what we had, Robin pointed out that the Sarsaparilla Summer Cordial would actually work quite well to dress up a less expensive silver rum. Sarsaparilla root is often available at Latin American grocery stores and can be purchased online at herb retailers, but if you can't find it, Robin says that, despite the name, the simple syrup would work with just star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and bay leaves. The cordial should be served in a small glass.
Robin's Sarsaparilla Simple Syrup
3 cups of water
2 bay leaves
1 stick cinnamon
1 pod star anise
3 roots of sarsaparilla
1/8" chunk of ginger
3 cups of sugar
1. Add bay leaves,cinnamon, anise, sarsaparilla, and ginger to water.
2. Bring water to a simmer and turn off burner.
3. Steep for ½ hour
4. Add 3 cups of sugar and stir until dissolved. (If necessary, turn burner to low as you stir.)
(To make rosemary simple syrup, follow the directions above but replace sarsaparilla, bay leaves, anise etc. with fresh rosemary and, if you like, raspberries.)Sarsaparilla Summer Cordial
2 teaspoons of sarsaparilla simple syrup
2 slices of fresh peach
2 oz of rum
1 ice cube
1. Using a martini mixer, muddle 1 slice of peach in rum and sarssaparilla syrup.
2. Strain into glass over one cube of ice.
3. Garnish with peach.
2 teaspoons of rosemary leaves
2 teaspoons rosemary simple syrup
¼ cup of blueberries
6 oz of gin
2 lime wedges
1 teaspoon of St. Germain
1. In a martini mixer, muddle blueberries, 1 lime wedge, rosemary, rosemary simple syrup, and 2 oz of gin.
2. Add ice and remaining gin.
4. Pour St. Germain into martini glass and swirl until the interior of the glass is coated.
5. Strain contents of mixer into the glass.
6. Garnish with lime.
All photos original and/or property of Robin Leventhal. Used with permission. Photos can be reposted elsewhere, as part of this article.