Leave it to New Orleans restaurateurs to invent a drink all about outrageous and potentially dangerous spectacle. Combining caffeine and liquor with citrus and aromatics then set on fire, the Café Brûlot embraces all that’s grand, garish, and glam about The Big Easy. After all, this is the town so famous for decadence and drawn-out debauchery that my dear friends in NOLA send their Mardi Gras guests out the door with “If found please call…” messages written on waterproof wristbands or Sharpie’d directly onto their arms. I shit y’all not. The Café Brûlot is oh-so N’awlins: A little drama; a lot of flair; a touch of danger. All wrapped up into one delicious and addictive after-dinner drink.
You’ll find Café Brulot served at the classic bastions of New Orleans Creole cuisine—like Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s—but it’s most dramatically prepared at the historic Antoine’s, where it was invented in the 1800s by the restaurant founder’s son, Jules Alciatore. He called it Café Brûlot Diabolique, or “devilishly burned coffee,” and the drink became famous as much for its jaw-dropping presentation as for the citrus-and-brandy rich flavor profile. As prepared by Antoine’s dapper bowtied-and-black-jacketed waiters tableside, guests watch in awe as the servers carve around the entire circumference of an orange to make one long continuous peel, skewer the entire orange with the peel dangling, then douse the whole thing in brandy and orange liqueur, and set it on fire. They then continuously ladle from high above the table over the blazing orange into a wide bowl of steaming hot coffee filled with cinnamon and other spices. Like a flaming water-fucking-fall of booze. After the inferno dies down, the contents of the shimmering bowl are ladled into demitasse cups and served with a flourish. There’s a good goddamn reason for the two drink minimum order, y’all. Très diabolique!
If asked by suspicious persons where their boozy cup of joe came from, wily and protective customers would answer, “It’s a mystery to me.”
An established tradition by the turn of the 20th century, Café Brûlot’s popularity at Antoine’s soared during Prohibition, where patrons in the know [regardless of sex] entered the ladies’ restroom, and through a side door therein accessed an adjacent hidden barroom. Once there, they’d snag a coffee cup full of liquor before returning to the main dining room, and do a bit of subtle DIY mixing at the table. If asked by suspicious persons where their boozy cup of joe came from, wily and protective customers would answer, “It’s a mystery to me.” After Prohibition, Antoine’s opened “The Mystery Room” for restaurant service sans toilette access route, and brought back the flaming floor show.
Along with wearing hats and heels for Friday lunch at Galatoire’s, snagging an absinthe Sazerac cocktail at The Sazerac bar, and enjoying flaming Bananas Foster at Brennan’s [again with the fire doused everything, New Orleans; we get it, y’all like to live on the edge] no posh visit to The Big Easy is complete without enjoying a Café Brûlot at Antoine’s, maybe to accompany your flaming dessert of Baked Alaska or Cherries Jubilee. In fact, the Café Brûlot tradition has held such long-lasting cache that visiting dignitaries—politicians, actors, coaches of Southern university football teams—vie for the privilege of wielding the flaming ladle in front of their entourage at Antoine’s [see neat-o photos, below].
We recently met up with one of Finca’s most handy/handsome bartenders, Jonny Bonner, and Finca/Pago’s diva of desserts, Pastry Chef Courtney McDowell to experiment with crafting Café Brûlot in Finca’s brand-spankin’-new pastry kitchen [Utah law, for better or worse, does not allow open flames a the bar, flambéed, poured or otherwise. Goddamn killjoys.] The pair just got back from their own romantic trip to New Orleans where they enthusiastically ate and drank their way through the city and then got engaged. Aww. Amazingly, we still needed a lighter to flambé the drink, since it didn’t just spontaneously combust from their combined hawtness. #mrow The raw materials for a fab cup of flaming joy were readily available behind the bar at Finca and the coffee portion of the recipe sourced right across the dining room in the sunny and chic La Barba Coffee Shop [run by our fabulously hirsute friends, the guys formerly known as Charming Beard Coffee Roasters, now La Barba available err’where]. Although beignets aren’t on the menu at La Barba—hello, Finca’s a Spanish tapas place, not Creole—we gladly slurped down our Café Brûlot alongside perfect churros made-to-order by Courtney served with three dipping sauces [rich chocolate, dulce le leche, and guava, oh my!], and delightful Spanish puffed fried donut-like pastries called Xuixos, which are filled with [fuck yeah!] a silky orange pastry cream that will haunt your dreams. Fortunately for we high-west desert dwellers, you can sample the delights of Café Brûlot right in your own home. No need for pre-emptive Sharpie’d name tags. But keep the fire extinguisher handy, just in case.
Drink up, Big Easy style.
Alright, let’s mix it up: This is Jonny Bonner’s adaptation of Arnaud’s recipe [from saveur.com]
Café Brûlot Diabolique [serves 4-6]
Simmer ⅓ cup orange curaçao, ¼ cup brandy, 10 whole cloves, 3 cinnamon sticks, 1 orange [quartered], and the peel of a lemon in a heatproof 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Using a match or lighter, carefully ignite and cook, swirling pan until flames die out. Stir in 3 cups of strong, black coffee and 3 to 5 tablespoons of sugar; cook, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Strain coffee into small glass mugs or demitasse cups. Garnish with some zested orange peel. Drink up, Big Easy style.