Sunday, September 2, 2012

Holland House Bar & Refuge: Nashville, TN

Holland House Bar & Refuge

Ward 8
As we walked up the flower lined steps to the Holland House Bar and Refuge, in the east Nashville neighborhood, I could see Jeremiah, the bartender, waving and smiling from inside the big front windows.  This normally would make me happy, to feel welcomed and known, but on this day it was particularly warming because we had patronized the rustically elegant neighborhood joint only once before, on the previous night.  From the moment we entered the HHB&R, I felt a sense of comfort; a square bar sits center stage in the restaurant under soaring, exposed wood ceilings and the soft glow of chandeliers.   The suspender clad bartenders possessed an easy going air, serving up intricate craft cocktails to a full bar, yet not rushing or looking harried, instead taking time to converse genuinely and at length with the patrons.

Admittedly, part of our newly found nostalgia could also have been enhanced by the $5 cocktail happy hour menu.  While we are not cheap, and would happily have paid triple that for a truly wonderful libation, somehow the sense of landing a deal, heightened the experience even further.   While the full cocktail menu consisting of multiple pages of concoctions was still available, the 10 listed on the happy hour menu were plenty diverse.  On our first visit, as a whiskey loyalist, I opted for the Ward 8 -- composed of rye whiskey, lemon juice and grenadine and served up.   This drink was more tart than a Manhattan or old fashioned, yet in a very balanced, palate pleasing way. In researching the history, I lovingly found that the recipe originated in Boston, Massachusetts, just like me, and would have been served with a little paper Massachusetts flag garnish.  Instead of a flag, mine came with a sidecar.  While I am tempted to hunt down miniature Massachusetts flags, now that I am south of the Mason Dixon line, I will happily accept a diminutive carafe of the extra cocktail to top off my glass.

Pimms Cup
Mark ordered a Pimms cup, a light, refreshing summer highball, hailing from Britain.  Named for the gin based citrus and herbal liqueur, Pimms no. 1 cup, the cocktail also includes lemon juice and in this case cucumber soda.  Fittingly garnished with a cucumber, this is by far the best version we have every tried.  A bowlful of truffled popcorn was the perfect accompaniment, as we relaxed and peppered Jeremiah and the other guests with questions about great local eateries.

Clearly when deciding our cocktail destination the following night, it was no surprise that we were drawn back into the HHB&R fold.  After catching-up on the day’s events with our new found friend, Jeremiah, he whipped us up an Americano and a Chelsea Sidecar.  He sold the Americano perfectly, when he described it as the ideal way to slide into your night.  Not a drink for those with something to prove, he extolled, as it is void of a base liquor and instead made up of Campari, which is a fruity herbal aperitif, as well as noilly prat, a sweet vermouth, and lastly a bitter lemon phosphate soda.  Sweet and ascrebic notes blended easily and when served in a highball over ice, the red punch color made for a stunning glass.  The Chelsea Sidecar was also a fresh summer selection.  Gin was shaken with lemon juice, angostura bitters, and a lavender simple syrup, served up in a sugar rimmed glass with a sidecar.  

Pickled Produce & Chelsea Sidecar
The second night we enjoyed a little taste of their farm-to-table menu with the pickle and hummus plate.  A crunchy toasted baguette smothered with creamy, garlic hummus and topped with crunchy pickled okra, could easily top my bar snack list, and add carefully crafted, summer cocktails and you now have happy hour perfection.

While this aptly named refuge could easily be described as upscale, it is refreshlingly unpretentious.  In fact during a lull in activity, when we inquired about the dozen different amaro varieties, the bartenders spent time explaining the history of the herbacious digestif.  They pointed out the various flavors and nuances, based on the Italian region of their origin.  After hearing Mark complain about Cynar, an artichoke flavored amaro stocked in his childhood Italian home, they even poured Mark a small taste and encouraged him to try it as an adult.  Surprisingly tasty, they shared simple recipes with us, mentioning that while they serve fancy, classic cocktails at work that can include up to a dozen ingredients, when they are home, they typically lean towards easier concoctions, like a high-end sweet vermouth on the rocks or amaro and dry cucumber soda.

While I know I will miss the zealously made drinks, as usual, I am reminded that it was the people who clearly made the experience. The guys next to us who turned us onto the Food Truck Awards in Centennial park, the yoga instructor who texted us about a free class the next day, the adorable, witty couple and their parents whom reminded us of dear friends back home, and of course authentically charming Jeremiah and the other bartenders, all bring me shamelessly close to quoting the Cheers theme song.  To save you, I will simply leave you one thought - happy hour at the HHB&R is perhaps the best kept secret on this planet, but please do not go, as I would hate to not have a seat the next time I visit.

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1 comment:

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