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Spirits: The Passenger's inner sanctum

Derek Brown at the Columbia Room. (Jim Webb)

Last week, I visited the Columbia Room, Derek Brown’s new reservation-only, ultra-private inner sanctum within the main bar, the Passenger, that he owns with his brother, Tom. I didn’t know quite what to expect, and was frankly a little worried. I really hoped it wasn’t another speakeasy project, with all the pre-Prohibition costumes and role playing, not to mention the requisite history lesson accompanying the cocktails.

What I’ve been liking about the Passenger is it’s lack of fussiness. Sure, the bartenders make great cocktails, but there’s no cocktail menu and no one acts like you’ve entered a Temple of Mixology. Which is a good thing. I mean, man cannot live on cocktails alone. Some days you just want to wash down your kimchi hotdog with Dale’s Pale Ale in a can.

The Columbia Room — which you enter through a door in the back room of the Passenger and then through another, sliding door— is a different scene. You are completely removed from the noise and music of the main bar. If one were a certain type of hack lifestyle journalist, one might call the Columbia Room “a quiet oasis.” Brown says it’s partly inspired by cocktail bars he visited in Tokyo, but the room doesn’t scream “Japanese design!” in a pretentious way. The influence is subtle, mostly in the intimate, human-scale environment. There’s never more than 18 people at once in the Columbia Room. You sit on real cushioned chairs instead of barstools, and the bar itself sits lower than normal, so you and the bartender interact face-to-face, more like a sushi bar. It’s got a much different feel than the usual speakeasy vibe.

Here's what happened when my companion and I arrived:

Columbia Room's Kat Bangs. (Jim Webb)

We were greeted by Kat Bangs, formerly sommelier at Komi, who wore a gold-painted orchid headband and served us glasses of champagne. As we took our seats, Brown stood behind the bar with a huge knife, hacking away at a block of ice. This was the beginning of one of the strangest yet most enjoyable bar experiences I’ve recently had.

Our first cocktail was the Busy Girl, a mix of Irish whiskey, house-made curacao, turbinado simple syrup, a dash of Pernod and float of Cruzan Black Strap rum. The Busy Girl’s flavors were complex and layered, and the drink was paired with a snack of corned beef and cabbage on rye toast.

Next up is what I would call the Chartreuse Course. My companion was served a Champs Elysees, a classic mix of cognac, Chartreuse and lemon juice, and one of my favorites. Then, Brown made me a martini that included a couple dashes of a very rare ingredient, the famed 142-proof Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal, the original recipe Chartreuse with 130 herbs that dates back to the 17th century. I have only ever seen it at the Chartreuse monastery/distillery in Voiron, France. This, I have to say, was an inspired gesture and made for probably one of the most memorable martinis I’ve ever had.

The Chartreuse course was paired with a snack of popcorn tossed with truffle oil, perhaps the only misstep of the evening. These were some high-octane cocktails we were sipping, and a little heartier of a snack might have been in order. But no matter the size, popcorn with truffle oil was a surprisingly good pairing with Chartreuse. For the final flourish, Brown made us his signature Martinez, the 19th-century martini variation of Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and orange bitters. (Yep, it was a pretty boozy evening: My companion joked in an email the next day that she was having trouble remembering anything but the gold orchid in Bangs’ hair.)

The price for all of this: $65 per person. That's because we had a third cocktail; the basic champagne-plus-two-cocktails-and-bites price is $49.

I think it was totally worth it. The Columbia Room is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re interested in spirits and cocktails, it’s wonderful to spend an evening with knowledgeable people like Brown and Bangs. In this environment, they have the time to chat, to let you sample something you’ve never tried, and then make a cocktail based on the conversation you’re having. It’s like being in the living room of someone who’s got a really great liquor cabinet.

-- Jason Wilson
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  March 26, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, Spirits  
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