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What to Drink at Masa Azul, Now Open

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Aug 19, 2011 4:20PM

Agave rules the bar at Masa Azul, the newly opened Logan Square restaurant serving a mix of Mexican and Southwestern food. More than 70 varieties of tequila, 10 mezcals and (very soon) even a few bottles of rare-to-see sotol line the colorful tile-backed shelves of Masa Azul's bar. And there is scarcely a mass-market tequila brand among the collection - a testament to the efforts of owner Jason Lerner, a passionate and knowledgeable connoisseur of independent, small-batch agave-based spirits, who has taken pains to assemble a kind of personal all-star team of intriguing, high quality products, discovered over the years at seminars and tasting events and during his travels.

While we do enjoy sipping on a fine tequila, what drew us even more to Masa Azul was word of its ambitious agave-centric cocktail program. As Lerner and his partner, executive chef Alvaro Chavez, conceptualized the restaurant, they decided that their robust agave spirits program had to be carried through to the cocktails. Lerner brought on Jenny Kessler, a brand ambassador for HUM Spirits, to help shape a cocktail list that relied heavily on tequila, mezcal and sotol for the base spirit of each drink. More importantly, he wanted to show off the versatility and range of Mexican spirits without simply presenting a dozen variations on the Margarita.

Much like Lerner's hand-selected spirits collection, the results of he and Kessler's collaboration handsomely reward the curious and adventurous drinker. The cocktail list consists of reinterpreted classics cocktails such as a Latin Manhattan and AviaciĆ³n; Margaritas, which feature housemade limonada and can be customized with your choice of tequila; several original creations, including a couple of intriguing sotol-based cocktails (not yet available at the time of our visit); and a few post-dinner drinks made with coffee beans and spirits.

We are partial to smoky, complex Del Maguey mezcals, so we gravitated immediately to the Smoke and Mirrors cocktail. It combines Del Maguey Vida, HUM liqueur, muddled lime, agave nectar and a dose of Red Alaea Hawaiian sea salt, procured from the Spice House. Salts in cocktails have the ability to lift and accentuate other flavors, and here the smoky mezcal and richer botanicals of the HUM both stand tall. With all the elements in balance, plus that touch of savoriness from the salt, the Smoke and Mirrors is graciously drinkable.

The El Jardin cocktail is a milder, more fruit-forward option, combining a blend of passionfruit, blood orange and pomegranate juice called El Corazon (which was created by Napa, California-based Beverage Artistry for Kessler's cohort at HUM, Adam Seger), tequila, maraschino liqueur and lemon. It's garnished with a few sprigs of thyme, which when you sip the drink add herbal aromas on the nose to the exotic fruit flavors on the palette.

Though not officially on the menu, the Habanero Lemonade is another stellar creation. To prep this drink, Kessler soaks cherries and Mexican vanilla bean in HUM. Those then get muddled for their juices, which is added to Siembra Azul Blanco tequila, and habanero chile-infused lemonade. The drink gets topped with soda water and garnished with a lemon wheel and a slice of habanero. It's light yet intensely flavorful, spicy at first blush yet held up with a citrusy, slightly sweet backbone.

For us, Masa Azul's cocktail menu overall takes a welcome turn away from the overly sweet drinks you sometimes see presented with Latin or otherwise spicy food. Why can't a drink be balanced and complex and still pair well with bold and expressive food? Well, it can. And the innovative bar program at Masa, which Lerner and Kessler agree is just getting going, seems bent on proving that exact point.

Masa Azul is located at 2901 West Diversey Avenue.