From the fifth floor terrace of Chicago’s Le Meridien Hotel, you can stare forever at the panoramic view of the Windy City’s remarkable skyline. Unless, of course, you get distracted when you realize that the lavender, thyme, purple basil, chocolate mint and other herbs climbing up trellises and spilling out of faded terra cotta pots and planters seem familiar: they were delicious enhancements to the dinner you just finished, and are featured in the after-dinner cocktail you hold in your hand.
The brainchild of Executive Chef David Burns, the terrace herb garden serves a variety of purposes. First, it adds a pastoral touch to the downtown hotel’s drinking and dining spot. “It’s especially pretty when the plants put out their flowers,” Burns says. The herbs also tie nicely into the menu at Cerise, the hotel’s dining room. Named for the French word for “cherry,” Cerise is a European-style bistro operated by Levy Restaurants. “Our menu features traditional French food prepared with ingredients from American markets,” he says. “We create simple, clean dishes. Herbs fit right in.”
Although the herbs grown on the terrace represent only a fraction of the quantity needed in Cerise’s kitchen, they all are herbs Burns likes to have in the kitchen. In addition to the herbs already mentioned, Italian parsley, lemon thyme, anise, mint, sage and chives all grow just a short walk from the kitchen. “I use them for marinating, finishing sauces and as garnishes.” Thyme is his favorite. “I just love the fragrance and its versatility. You can use it in a lot of dishes,” he says.
Herbs also play a role in the hotel’s unique cocktail menu. To promote the terrace and the hotel’s Le Rendez-Vous Bar, and to take advantage of the popularity of martinis, Burns and the bartending staff created a repertoire of about a dozen “Herbacious Libations.” Their creations like the Herbtini — made from vodka infused with sage, rosemary and thyme — the Citrus Lavender Martini and the White Chocolate Mintini, put a fresh herb twist on the traditional vodka martini.
Infused or flavored vodkas are big sellers with the cocktail set right now, but they’re hardly new. Distillers in Russia, Poland and Sweden have been adding herbs, fruits and spices to vodka for centuries. At first, the botanicals were added to make the spirit more palatable. Later, flavor variety was the goal. Gin, the spirit of choice for some martini drinkers, is a distillation of white grain spirit and juniper berries, which provide its distinctive flavor.
Burns tried creating his own flavored vodka by infusing the liquor with the herbs used in his kitchen. Using an age-old and simple process, Burns “bruised” the leaves of fresh herbs by crushing them slightly with the broad side of a large chef’s knife. Then, he added them to a bottle of vodka and allowed them to steep in a dark place for about a week. Before taking them to the bar, the vodka was strained through cheesecloth.
“We weren’t happy with the results when we infused an entire bottle of vodka,” Burns says. “The flavor was too strong and medicinal.” A more flavorful and fresh-tasting alternative, he found, was to add the herbs to the martinis as they were made and use a sprig of the herb to garnish the drink. This approach allowed him to offer a wider variety of herb-flavored martinis and paved the way for developing endless new creations. It’s also a good approach for those who want to create unusual cocktails at home. “To get the best possible flavor,” Burns says, “always use very fresh herbs.”
Since Le Meridien’s martinis with an herbal twist were created to promote the outdoor terrace, they’re only available at Le Rendez-Vous during the spring and summer. These unusual cocktails, though, have year-round appeal and are a great way to perk up those upcoming holiday parties. To plan your herbal cocktail party menu, check out what’s growing in your outdoor garden or on that sunny windowsill. Nothing there? Then, see what looks the freshest in your local market. You don’t have to go overboard with selections. Le Meridien’s bar usually offers about four different herb-flavored cocktails at a time. For designated drivers and those who don’t imbibe, provide tomato juice with parsley and basil or sparkling water with lemon mint or lemon verbena.
Most bartenders will tell you that anything served in a martini glass is bound to be a hit. Be sure yours are sparkling clean and rinsed free of any soapy residue. Before serving, chill glasses by swirling crushed ice or ice water around in them. Discard the ice or ice and water and pour in your herbacious libations. For a festive holiday touch, purchase some red and green glasses, available at many discount and home stores.
To accompany the cocktails, serve raw vegetables, salted nuts and other finger foods. One of Burns’s favorites is bite-sized pieces of quail or chicken breast, marinated in honey, orange juice, fresh lavender and rosemary, skewered on rosemary sprigs and quickly sautéed, or try tiny tart shells filled with butternut squash. Since your cocktails will be making a distinct flavor statement, keep the food simple, Burns says.
Le Meridien Hotel, home of Cerise and Le Rendez-Vous Bar, is located at 520 N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.