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June 16, 2005
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Liquid Salad - Caprese

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ODE TO A COCKTAIL

I've never been that big on booze. Back in the day, I was known to bend an elbow over a bottle of bourbon, or take my Tequila straight, or gingerly pound some gin. But time has taken its toll, and liquor no longer makes me quicker. And when you consider how sweet, overpriced and juvenile most cocktails have become, beer and wine seem like the only way to drink and retain your dignity. Unless of course you're the type that likes having chopped-up Oreos, jawbreakers, and jello in something you have to be over 21 to order. I mean what's next? Baby food highballs?

With stuff like that around, I've been thinkin' that adult drinkin' has become passé. Then along comes Sensei to blow me away. And it wasn't even the bar itself, perse, but a single cocktail.....called the Caprese. The name Caprese comes from the Isle of Capri, that 4 by 2 mile island off the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy known for its dramatic vistas and incredible sights. The name also denotes a salad made with fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese-preferably burrata-made from creamy buffalo milk. A caprese salad can be a thing of elegant simplicity. The perfect acidic and fruity tang of a ripe tomato accented by the lemony freshness of basil, and creamy cheese.. Fruit, herb and milk in perfect harmony. Dribble a little olive oil on it (or maybe some aged balsamico), and you have tasted sun, earth, and sky.

Now what does this have to do with a cocktail? Well, Drew Levinson, master booze maven at the Bellagio, has taken these elements and turned them into..... a drink. And you can only get it at the bar at Sensei, the architecturally stunning restaurant in the new Bellagio tower. Starting with overpriced vodka (is there any other kind?), he muddles basil leaves with intense, almost clear but very tomatoey tomato water, shakes it all with ice (which creates a silky layer of foam, and garnishes it with basil, a cherry tomato and a small mozzarella ball. A few grinds of the pepper mill and voila! You have a caprese salad in a glass!

Skepticism runs high among first time imbibers, according to the bartenders....er...uh excuse me....the mixologists here, and I must confess that even an old road food warrior like me had to be cajoled into his first sip. After one succulent, savory slurp though, a look of delicious amazement came over me that apparently is also common around this bar.

I've never tasted anything like it, and I like it because it is the perfect antidote to all those sugary kiddie cocktails that exist solely to get college girls hooked on booze. And the wonders of this bar do not end there. Non-tipplers get a rare treat with the freshest and best-made ginger-ale, this side of Blenheims. That's right, they make their own ginger ale Sensei and dare I say it.... It is Sensei-tional.

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