It is a cold October evening in Chicago, but it is warm inside the city's newest Latin restaurant and lounge, De La Costa. At 7 p.m., the bar is busy. Men and women in suits sip wine as young, beautiful people stream through the doors, which, framed in lush purple and red velvet drapes, make you feel as though you're walking into a theatre. That's no accident. General manager Ron Garcia says the goal was to invoke a theatrical, performance-driven feel. “It's our little playhouse,” he says.
It's anything but little. Straight ahead are two bars: one for drinks, and one for tapas. From above, gorgeous lights shaped like tulips hanging over the bar offer a sexy glow. Beyond is a main dining room, and a chic lounge overlooks the Chicago River. Here, private cabanas can be rented out for an average of US$100 per person a night. The price includes your own private bartender.
Head bartender Joseph Busicchia, 27, moves quickly, picking fresh fruit out of big, clear containers. The fruit is essential–for everything from mixed drinks to one of many sangrias. I start with one of the restaurant's signature drinks on offer: a poptail. A poptail is essentially a martini garnished with a homemade Popsicle. Busicchia mixes up a Persephone. “According to Greek mythology,” he says, “persephone means the destroyer of all men.” Busicchia is trying to destroy me: at one point, I have five drinks going.
To slow the flow of poptails, I order food. Chef Douglas Rodriguez is the mastermind behind the restaurant, drawing inspiration from Latin America, Spain and the Caribbean. Nina Zagat, of the Zagat guides, has hailed Rodriguez as “the most important Latin chef in the restaurant world.” It's easy to see why. I start with a ceviche appetizer; a beautiful pile of hamachi fish infused with sour orange nectar, aji Amarillo, elephant garlic and Thai basil. To finish, I try Da Mini Bomb, a semi-sweet hazelnut-chocolate mousse.
Now, I'm ready for the ultimate De La Costa poptail: the Morella Martini. Busicchia pours three ounces of Effen black cherry vodka, which has a hint of vanilla, with one ounce of cherry bourbon juice from Italy and a half-ounce of simple syrup (two parts sugar to one part water, then boil). He adds fresh lemon and lime juices, mixes it up and pours it into a frozen martini glass garnished with a homemade cherry Popsicle. It is divine. So what's his secret? “Always make sure the drink is made with exactly the required amount of every ingredient,” he says. “Drinks can be destroyed if you put a little more vodka, or a little less. The balance of the drink has to be exactly right. That makes very good martinis.” It sure does.
The Morella Martini Poptail
3 oz. Effen black cherry vodka
I oz. Italian cherry bourbon juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Splash of fresh lemon and lime juices
Where the martini is thought to have originated: Martinez, Calif.
What Londoners added to the martini when it arrived in the U.K.: Absinthe
Another term for shaking gin: Bruising
James Bond's preference: Shaken, not stirred