This week's trip to Red Dog Tavern, the new "casual" dining experience inside Five-Star Rod's Steakhouse in Morris Township, was a trip to a theme park where all the menu items seemed to be gleened from the casual dining playbook. The cocktail list is no exception.
The "specialty" cocktail list is heavily into drinks that I would never attempt to try. There are wine-based drinks that combine hard liquors and wine ... not for me, thank you.
After spending a week down in New Orleans at the Tales of the Cocktail, I learned that it doesn't have to be a complicated version of the Larousse Gastronomique to make a delicious drink. The drinks at the Red Dog Tavern aren't bad, they just don't taste like they read.
The signature cocktail for the Red Dog Tavern is known appropriately as "The Red Dog Cocktail." This drink listed on the menu as $10 actually was $9.50 on the check. It is comprised of several known ingredients: Stoli O, Campari, simple syrup and muddled oranges. What I received was served in a Martini glass, stained red from the Campari with no evidence of vodka. They could have used $5 vodka sold in a plastic jug for all I know. The muddled orange was missing in the drink, as was the addition of basil.
Although crisp and quite refreshing, the additional ingredients were not sensed, nor even tasted in the drink. It wasn't a complete failure, yet this mixed drink was not memorable in any way. I would have ordered a Negroni if I wanted this type of drink. At least good gin would have been the first flavor, rather than the bitter-sweet click of Campari.
Don't get me wrong, I love Campari. I just think Aperol would work better. As for the basil, I didn't detect any in the cocktail, nor was there any tell-tale threads of the green-tinged herb in my glass. The orange slice was uniform and sweet. It wasn't sliced to order, but it was full of juice. To figure out this cocktail wouldn't be too hard, it wasn't a re-order, or something that I would talk about to my peers in the business of mixology.
Since we were having dinner, next I ordered a Manhattan made with Rye Whiskey. Our well-meaning waitress had to go to the bar to ask which Rye Whiskey they served. Good sign. Rye is not Jack Daniels. My southern friends would rue the day that a Manhattan is made with Tennessee sippin' whiskey. We settled on Wild Turkey.
The drink was served in a short Rocks Glass. Another good sign. They used too much ice, maybe, and they used that type of ice that just fills the glass with water the second any liquor hits it. Bad sign. The balance of Rye to Vermouth was not bad. But the real horror show revealed itself in the cherry garnish. I'm not impressed to the PR printed on the menu or on a website when a chef calls attention to himself or herself for all their accomplishments in the kitchen.
That's OK, though. What isn't OK is the cherry used for a garnish. Sure, that Manhattan was a fine combination of the spicy rye to the sweeter Vermouth–maybe a bit too much ice. The killer for this cocktail was the cherry. What does it take during the growing season to buy a tray of cherries? Get the stewards in the kitchen to pit them out, put them in a Mason Jar and cover them with Laird's Applejack? In two days the bartender would have better cocktail cherries than almost anything on the market.
It's obvious the executive chef does not manage all parts of the Red Dog Tavern. Otherwise I hoped there would be a closer attention to all the details. The bar is every bit as important as the food, primarily because the first thing a diner tastes is a cocktail and often the last thing with an after-dinner drink.
The cherries in the Manhattan Cocktail ($7.95), are an embarassment to a drinker of fine cocktails. They speak of the cheap, cloying flavors of corn syrup and red food dye. Not my idea of farm to table cooking.
If the Red Dog Tavern is to be known for their cocktails, they must upgrade their cocktail garnishes right quick. To use these substitutes for locally grown flavors is just wrong. They should do away with the specialty cocktail list and focus on the individual flavors. Sure they do the rest of the drink OK–OK enough, anyway. The red dyed bottled and cheap tasting maraschino cherries are just a thing of the past. What does it take to be better than all the rest of the bars in town?
Splitting the difference between the two drinks, this experience gets 2 out of 5 stars.
Warren Bobrow is the author of a column for our sister site, Morristown Patch.