Have you been to Levant yet? Do yourself a favor and go. It is a quiet (as restaurants go these days) oasis of comfort with tantalizing aromas emanating from the open wood-fired hearth oven, and even more tantalizing cocktails served up in the bar.
Even though the tables are perfectly inviting, and provide a lovely venue for gazing out through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking East Burnside, the bar at Levant is a particularly lovely place to enjoy the restaurant. It is nicely located, allows you to peruse the restaurant, situates you just far enough away from the hearth oven to smell but not close enough to feel the heat, and puts you in proximity of both food and spirits.
Go for a full meal, or graze on bar food; doesn’t matter. Either way you’ll enjoy yourself, and quite likely strike up some new acquaintances as well. It’s that kind of place.
The food? Some find it hard to describe. “Levantine; what’s that?” It’s just the center of the cradle of Western Civilization, that’s all, home to the greatest, most influential and most powerful human cultures in our history. When you say Levant, most people who even know what you’re referring to automatically think, “Ah, the Turkish Empire! So Turkish food then.”
Yes. And no. Because the Turkish Empire was nothing but a fairly loosely managed amalgamation of different countries and cultures encompassing everything from the Caucasus all the way around North Africa and the Mediterranean Rim and halfway up Europe. And before that the Levant was the heart of the greatest mercantile sailing empire in antiquity, the people that had no fixed land-based home but spread all through all the oceans: the Phoenicians. (You might know them better as the latter-day Carthaginians.)
So Levant is the meta-cuisine of the crossroads of culture for thousands of years. It is Israeli, Lebanese, Arabic, Kurdish, Syrian, Armenian, Anatolian, Grecian, Italian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Libyan, Spanish, and hundreds of other cultural combinations. Most of all, it is flavorful.
The bar program is as exotic as the food. It has all the necessary standards; yet it also has the best collection of Turkish arak (or raki) in all of Oregon (mind you, having more than one arak makes it the biggest selection of arak in Oregon). If you have never had arak, it’s the Turkish counterpart to Greek Ouzo. The talented bar staff nightly whips up some unusual and fascinating cocktails utilizing the spirits and flavors of the Levantine, and playful variations thereof, almost like jazz riffs from a swing band.
Here’s the list of House Cocktails at Levant:
Honey White – vodka, chamomile grappa, honey liqueur, mint 10
Ivy Rose – gin, raspberry, lime, honey, mint 10
Lebanese Swizzle – Arak Brun, elderflower liqueur, Dolin Blanc, lemon, mint, crushed ice 10
Alpine Azhar – Aixa Blanco, Genepy des Alpes, Raki, lemon 9
Son of Sidon – Cazadores, Campari, grapefruit, red pepper shrub 10
Bitter Brunette – James Pepper Bourbon, Ramazzotti, Zucca, fruits rouge 10
The Golden Mean – aged rum, dry curacao, Dolin Blanc, apricot butter, citrus, mezcal 10
Messinian Ruby – pisco, allspice, hibiscus, citrus, orange blossom water 11
Alaska Mini Cocktail – gin, yellow chartreuse, orange bitters 5
Kitchen Meeting – shot of four roses & miller high life
The Lebanese Swizzle has been singled out by customers for its refreshing, lively, tall-glass gush of icy fruit and flower and mint. At the other end of the meal, one of the favorites is the Alpine Azhar, with Spanish Aixa vermouth, the wormwood/herbal explosion of Dolin Genepy des Alpes from the Haute Savoie in France, Turkish Raki and lemon. As you can see, there is sufficient variety within the menu to both tantalize and please everyone.
A special drink that has debuted on the list to great popularity is The Serpent and Apple (pictured).
The Serpent and Apple is another of those enticing boozy drinks achieved by blending different types of spirits then accenting them with splashes of bitters. No juices, no sours, no foamy egg whites; simply three different spirits, an aromatized wine and two bitters.
Bartender Michael Maliski happily stirred up the Serpent and Apple for me. I immediately noticed that for this drink, which is served without ice, Michael used a frozen mixing beaker of heavy glass to provide the chill without any diluting water, a nice professional touch. He used the same technique for a well-made Sazerac later that night. He also mentioned that he liked the cocktail himself, but preferred it with food and suggested the Hummus Masabacha, prepared in the Israeli style, a creamy hummus with whole chickpeas, soft and tender, cooked in cumin, parsley and lemon juice, served over. Michael was correct: the cocktail and hummus were lovely together, and the pillowy, fresh pita bread did yeoman’s service with the appetizer.
I tracked down Justin Siemer, creator of this cocktail, and he informed me that the Serpent and Apple is a composition of Laird’s Blended Applejack (Siemer prefers the Laird’s Bottled in Bond Apple Brandy, but the state is out; seems the producer can’t make enough to satisfy demand and was forced to suspend bottling in order to fill the orders for the Blended.), Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, Mancino Italian Vermouth, Krupnik Spiced Honey Liqueur from Poland, Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters and Angostura Bitters.
The debut cocktail I had was actually in development at the time, Siemer reported he was working on a garnish for it, something along the lines of a sugared, spiced, bruléed apple slice to echo the Laird’s apple brandy. That would no doubt add flair to the drink, but the version I had, with a burned orange peel expressed over the drink then dropped in, provided a nice accent and decoration.
There’s an adage used in the cocktail game—although it most certainly applies in every endeavor—that says your drink is only as good as the ingredients you use. The Serpent and Apple is a prime example of that: each and every one of the ingredients used is of the highest quality, and that alone gives the cocktail power and style. The rest is in how the bartender puts it all together—and at Levant the bartenders know what they’re doing.