Cover Story

Passing the Bar

by Anna Purdy

What a few local experts in the area of wine, liquor and beer have to say about having spirits.

by Anna Purdy
Photos by Robin May

Booze. Hooch. Vino, hard liquor, spirits, beer and malted liquor - call it what you want but chances are you might drink it occasionally, and if you do it means you probably graduated from Mad Dog 20/20 to a nice Powers whiskey.

What a few local experts in the area of wine, liquor and beer have to say about having spirits.

by Anna Purdy
Photos by Robin May

Booze. Hooch. Vino, hard liquor, spirits, beer and malted liquor - call it what you want but chances are you might drink it occasionally, and if you do it means you probably graduated from Mad Dog 20/20 to a nice Powers whiskey.

Alcohol is the lagniappe to a night out to hear a great band. We toast with champagne at weddings. Here in Acadiana it's almost unthinkable to have a crawfish boil that doesn't have beer in a nearby cooler. Many people consider alcohol an enhancement to their daily lives. And we each have our poisons; I know a writer who swears that gin can heal broken pens and hearts alike. We drink what we like and we tend to each recede to our favorite corners for spirits, but this doesn't make us experts. That's where these people come in.

We took a minute to ask questions of some of the leading alcohol experts in town. The answers were startling and wide, each plunking down some experiences and take-home tips from both behind the bar and in front of it, and in some cases dancing on top of it.

Cochon's Brian Fuller

One thing remained the same, however: Each is passionate about his or her field. Frankly, you don't wind up in this profession because you are a prohibitionist.

"If you like it, drink it and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise," says Dane Melancon, Marcello's Wine Market spirits director, who lives by this adage and serves it up as advice. A Certified Spirits Specialist, Melancon has seen his share of bottles and their owners come and go from Marcello's.

Maybe not if it's Boone's Farm, sure, but we all had to start somewhere.

After graduating from UL Lafayette with a degree in education, Melancon left a life of young minds for fine wines and got his CSS credentials. This isn't, however, what gave him most of his knowledge to share with his Marcello's customers. "Most of what I've learned has come from my interest in the spirits themselves and the stories behind them. Lots of reading. And drinking."

Just like with cooking or most anything else ending in -ing, if you want to become learned at it you have to practice it. Someone like Melancon is there to help guide you, but first an expert needs to know a few things about what you are looking for. Think about your "purpose, price, likes and dislikes," he says. "Yes, you need a bottle of something, but for what? Dinner, gift, back porch get-together or memory suppression? How much are you willing to spend? The old adage holds true here, You get what you pay for.' If you don't want to spend a fortune on a bottle, ask someone for recommendations. Finally, be aware of what you like or dislike." No need to spend money on something you know you'll hate simply because someone with liquor, beer or wine knowledge suggested it.

"There are a lot of resources on the web or your local book store," says Melancon, a self-education advocate. "I've got some nice whiskey books that have a load of great information that helps me when I'm buying."

So what is one favorite hooch of a spirits expert? "I get the opportunity to taste many different spirits here so to try and pick my favorite is a little difficult," admits Melancon. "I think the last thing that really made me appreciate my job was tasting a 30-year-old bottle of Highland Park [single malt scotch]. It was incredible to taste something that old and think about what someone was doing 30 years ago when they made this stuff."

Since November 2009, Brian Fuller has worked for the Link Group, as a server at Herbsaint at Calcasieu, a bartender at Cochon Butcher and a manager at Cochon New Orleans before coming to helm the Cochon in River Ranch.

Growing up in America's version of the Loire Valley in terms of wine production - Sonoma County, Calif. - Fuller has been around it for quite literally his whole life. It was at his parents' dinner table where Fuller became enamored with it. "Growing up where I did, I enjoy wine so I figured I may as well do it for a living," he says.

Dane Melancon of Marcello's

Fuller has risen to what is known as a Level 2 sommelier. The Guild of Sommeliers bestows this title, which means someone must pass the Level 1 written test and the Level 2 written and taste tests to receive this honor. It is at this level where you are given both red and white wines and asked to differentiate the varietals - the type of grapes used and therefore what kind of wine it is - along with where it is from and its age. "You spend a lot of time concentrating all of your senses on what you are tasting and smelling," says Fuller of his Level 2 sommelier status. "You drink a lot and you take a lot of notes."

It is up to Fuller to educate Cochon's staff about the wines as well as selecting them for the menu. He's also there to educate you. "Just ask for me and I can help find you a wine you'll like. It's what I'm there for," he says. "I always suggest drinking as much as possible," advises Fuller. "There are wine shops in Lafayette where they do wine tastings. I suggest going and taking lots of notes and asking questions when you go to eat. Try something new. If you don't like it, you don't have to drink it."

Luke Tullos is our answer to "Flashdance" - ice sculptor by day and bartender by night at Jolie's Louisiana Bistro. Also a CSS plus a BarSmart Advanced-certified bartender, Tullos grew up in a non-drinking family, which made him late to the game. He soon realized, however, how much fun being a mad scientist of liquor can be, mixing and creating new and wonderful drinks. He's as passionate about what he does as he is about educating patrons of his bar tips and tricks of the trade.

"Drink everything you can," Tullos encourages. "Drink and think about what you're drinking, think about what it tastes like, what it feels like in your mouth, the flavors on your breath after you swallow. Keep notes if you're keen. Talk to people who are also interested in wine and spirits. Talk about what you've tasted and what you've read. Don't be judgmental, and remember that everyone's palate is different. There are very few wrong answers, so don't be afraid to speak up."

"For my customers, it's not that you don't like X, Y or Z; it's that you just haven't had it in the right way," elaborates Tullos. "Everybody deserves a quality drink, quality information and quality company. Strive to provide all three."

Home Bar Essentials from the Experts

Dane Melancon: "At my house, I try to keep a little bit of everything because you never know who might show up for a drink. Clean glasses and ice never hurt either. I have been known to keep a secret stash of some of my good stuff, though, away from those late-night bar raiders."

Brian Fuller: "Have a good muddler. Get a martini shaker. A lot of fruit, whatever is seasonal. I always suggest having a bottle of champagne because you never know when you are going to need to celebrate. The best days are started and finished with a glass of champagne. Also single malt scotch. The best cure for insomnia is a double shot of scotch with one cube in it."

Luke Tullos: "A decent bottle of vodka, gin, bourbon, scotch, 100 percent agave tequila, rum, triple sec, sweet and dry vermouth. As far as building your spirit selection, just pick a cocktail that you like and buy the ingredients for that drink. After a little while, pick something else that might use some of the ingredients you already have. Soon you have a selection of ingredients that will make your mother blush. A waiter's friend [is the double-hinge wine key]. I can't tell you how many things I've opened with my wine key: wine, beer, cardboard boxes; it's the drinker's Leatherman. Get the classic pint glass and tin combo. It's so much easier to use [and clean] than the cobbler shakers. Pair that with a Hawthorne strainer and you're good to pour out your homemade concoction."

Photos by Robin May

The results of our first Readers' Choice Awards are in and they clearly demonstrate one thing: Ind readers are passionate about food. It's probably why the Lafayette area has more restaurants per capita than just about anywhere in the world, New Orleans included.

Truth be told, we've been less than surprised by Lafayette's recent success in national contests - Southern Living magazine just last week and Rand McNally last year - branding the Hub City as not only a great place to eat but the best place to eat. This spring's restaurant guide attests to the abundance of choices local foodies have for attaining gastronomic nirvana. And as we survey the winners - the nominees were so varied in Cajun, Old-Line Eateries and Weekend Drives we chose not to designate a champ - we at The Ind realize you can never have too much of a good thing.

Leon's afternoon
creation' at Tsunami

Tsunami Is Still Riding the Wave
Best known for introducing Lafayette to the sushi scene, Tsunami is still a foodie favorite after 12 years on Jefferson Street in the heart of downtown. Patrons flock to Tsunami for the always fresh sushi and other specialties, but owner Michele Ezell says she also credits Tsunami's success to extraordinary relationships with customers.

"[We] have built a kinship with our customers that extends well past lunch and dinner," Ezell says. "At the end of the day, we strive to be an important part of the community, and our success is dependent on believing that our customers are part of our family."

The special at Johnson's on a recent Friday
was catfish courtbouillon.

Johnson's Brings Down-Home to Downtown
Southern Living writer Paula Disbrowe singles out Johnson's Boucaniere in the April edition of her magazine that announced Lafayette as the Tastiest Town of 2012, and with good reason: It's a family restaurant and it shows.
Located on the edge of downtown with ample parking and fantastic al fresco seating, Johnson's serves up plate lunches, smoked meats, barbecue and boudin like every customer is an extended member of their own family. If you've yet to try the Stevie's Stuffed Grilled Cheese featuring either brisket or pulled pork nestled between American cheese, it's where Cajun Country meets the rest of America and the rest of America proclaims, "OK, you guys win for the best food ever." Plate lunches are served Tuesday through Saturday, and check out its site online for what is being served that day.

We're Crazy for Krazy Klaws
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That might as well be the motto of Krazy Klaws, which in just one year in business has rocketed to top of a lot of people's list as the best spot in Lafayette to get boiled crawfish - in the epicenter of crustacean culture, no less. Among all the categories in this year's Readers' Choice Awards, in fact, no other restaurant received more votes that Krazy Klaws. That's saying something.

Located on West Pinhook between Broussard and Lafayette proper, this little boil house turned on the propane in February of last year and quickly established itself as a place where they know what they're doing.

"Best flavor, spice, easiest to peel and always a good size because they won't sell them if they are small," raves one reader in our survey. "By far, the best boiled crawfish in town!" chimes another.

Owner Jeffery Hernandez keeps his business focused on doing a few things well: boiled crawfish, Gulf shrimp and crabs. But that's not all that goes into the pot. In addition to the usual corn and onions, look for red potatoes, smoked sausage, carrots, garlic cloves, mushrooms and even asparagus when you toss a Krazy Klaws order onto the newspaper. Yes, asparagus.

Marcello's Keeps it Authentic
Marcello's is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. One theory is they take those two closed days to taunt us. The menu borrows from the heritage of owner Gene Todaro. Try the Pollo Arrostito, half a chicken from Opelousas deboned and grilled and served with a luscious risotto and sauce made of shallots. The lamb ragout simply made with that rich red sauce and tender lamb tossed with fettucini and Parmigiano-Reggiano is a perennial favorite. "I always save some to take home because it's even better the next day," writes one lamb lover.

Most of the staff is knowledgeable about wine, and you can snatch a bottle for a reasonable fee from a huge selection that greets you upon entry. Another reader sums up the Marcello's experience: "A great atmosphere, super romantic and delicious, and no one can beat the wine selection!"

Café Habana City: What Embargo?
Celebrating a decade of bringing authentic Cuban flair to Acadiana, Café Habana City has also staked a claim for the palates of serious foodies. Cuban native and owner Rafael Garcia's eatery on Bertrand Drive near Cajun Field was once better known as a great happy hour/night spot with a to-die-for mojito - the national drink of Cuba, and there's a full menu at the café devoted to the rum-mint-and-lime libation - but over the last several years Habana City has made a name for itself as a primo player in Lafayette's culinary scene. Top-notch are the Cuban tamales, the pollo a la barbacoa and the ropa vieja - a savory shredded-beef dish. In addition to the beef and chicken (pollo), Habana City does pork and seafood equally well.

But don't underestimate the Cuban vibe, a goodly part of the draw of Habana City. Friday night is Latin Night, and if your sense of rhythm doesn't go beyond familiar two steps and waltzes, Latin dance lessons - salsa, merengue and bachata - are offered on Thursdays after 10 p.m. And you can fuel your Hemingway hootenanny with two-for-one mojitos.

Zeus Strikes Again
A comment from one reader encapsulates Zeus Café's meteoric success in the Hub City: "Love me some Zeus at least twice a week."

Restaurateur Nidal Balbeisi wasn't the first entrepreneur to bring Mediterranean cuisine to Lafayette, a city with long-established ties to the region in names like Boustany and Abdalla. What Balbeisi has evidently perfected is a recipe for success that combines value, volume and quality.

The Jordanian opened his first Zeus in the old Sahara location on West Pinhook just a decade ago. Today, there are 10 eateries bearing the Zeus brand. But whodathunk Middle-Eastern fast food? Balbeisi did, expanding the concept of a sit-down ethnic restaurant into the Zeus Express line - simple menus emphasizing can't-go-wrong gyros, hummus, chicken shawarma, falafels and  salads - a line that now comprises the majority of the Zeus eateries in the greater Lafayette area. Quick in, quick out, and it won't set you back an arm and a leg (of lamb). When a family-owned restaurant expands that quickly, you know they're doing something right. Not only has Zeus kept the concept simple, Balbeisi has maintained a proven approach to success: "Hard work," he says, "and loyalty to the customer."

Sisters Molly and Katy Richard of Taco Sisters

The Taco Sisters Keep it Fresh
When sisters Molly and Katy Richard opened their Taco Sisters restaurant in a unique mango-yellow (evolving into peach) building at the edge of Freetown in February 2009, they realized a dream more than 20 years in the making. It didn't take the sisters nearly as long to establish themselves as one of the most unique and satisfying dining experiences in the Hub City, bringing a laid-back California take to a Mexican-American staple: the fish taco. Just more than three years in, Taco Sisters has bubbled to the top among Ind readers in the Neighborhood Faves category.

The sisters smoke fresh Gulf fish, use nothing but the freshest vegetables and add a little Cajun zing with their own secret taco sauce. Everything served here - all dining at Taco Sisters is al fresco at colorful picnic tables - is locally sourced, but if a fish taco sounds a little too exotic, don't worry, this menu is dynamic. Choices also include shrimp, chicken, pork and melt-in-your-mouth brisket cooked in adobo sauce, and virtually anything on the menu can be served on a fresh salad chockablock full of spring greens, carrots, celery, chopped apples and more. Gushed one reader in our survey: "It is just wonderful there is such a variety in the salad that you get a different flavor and texture in every bite, and the fish is just awesome."

Patrick Dupuis of Pat's Downtown
with the Pat's Special

Pat's Makes Downtown Soulful
Pat's Downtown owner Patrick Dupuis has been serving up quintessential South Louisiana plate lunches in his downtown hot spot for 11 years. The secret to his success? "Some really good cooks," he says with a smile.

The plate lunch mecca, which comes equipped with a full menu of other options in addition to plate lunches, is best-known for its Friday seafood platters that include fried crawfish and catfish. On Mondays and Wednesdays, patrons flock to Pat's for the Creole fried chicken, but whatever plate lunch option you choose, take comfort in knowing that it's all made from scratch. Bon Appetit!

Café V's sumptuous

Café Vermilionville Weds Class and Comfort
Executive Chef Mike Collins alongside the relentlessly innovative sous chef Pat Waters and pastry chef Boubekeur Aliouche consistently turn out the standard for fine Lafayette dining. Have a seat by the huge fireplace with gleaming floors shining back at you, in the bar that looks like a picture from 50 years ago, in the main dining room overlooking the courtyard or in the courtyard itself. In fact, enjoy the Wednesday specials whipped up for The Courtyard Series featuring some of the finest local musicians playing an acoustic set during happy and dining hours. The menu changes seasonally so see them often or check out the menu online. Try the savory crawfish beignets or the silky bisque and the Steak Louis XIII meant for a king to never be dethroned.