1.5 oz Gin
Twist of Freshly Ground Black Pepper
2 Basil Leaves
0.25 oz Agave Nectar (or Rich Demerara Syrup)
Strained Watermelon Juice
Pre-chill a rocks glass
Gently muddle basil leaves in glass
Add ice, then all ingredients but watermelon juice
Fill remainder of glass with the juice
Stir to combine
* * *
Back in December of 2007, the company at which I had been working for seven year shut its doors, and we all found ourselves – two weeks before Christmas – with an unexpected surplus of time on our hands. While I began the hunt for my next gig, I decided to take a little time and return to one of my favorite pastimes – cooking on the line. It wasn’t the grueling, low-paying job alone that I was after, rather, it was the experience working for a chef whom I truly admired. The man I called was Tim Kilcoyne, chef-owner of The SideCar in Ventura, CA.
Lesley and I had first met Tim as customers of the restaurant, and our appreciation for his commitment to great, local food was sealed upon first bite. Like his food, Tim grew up in the area, and he’s spent a considerable amount of time building relationships with purveyors up and down the central coast. If you’re not familiar with the area, the Ventura region of Southern California boasts some of the best produce on the planet — from Ojai pixies and Oxnard strawberries to locally-raised cattle and organic vegetables – and the daily menu at the Sidecar isn’t written until after the shipments arrive. “Fresh” means everything. Now, of course, this doesn’t set Tim apart from a myriad of other chefs who embrace the same principles – it just makes him properly “of the moment” if anything. No, what makes dining at The SideCar such an enjoyable experience is the casual, beach community ease with which everything is presented. When we decided to visit a few weekends ago – Tim tweeted that he had just gotten in some grass-fed beef tripe, so we had to go – it was a spontaneous drop-in, but I made sure to call and ask if jeans and sneakers would be okay. “It’s the beach,” Tim replied, his point made even clearer by his laid-back tone.
We had gone to Ventura that weekend to beat the 100+ degree heat wave that was gripping our valley, and our plan for dinner had been to visit the Local Cafe, Tim’s second restaurant and one which is appropriately low-key and toddler-friendly enough for our tribe. The tripe, however, sucked us in. In the age of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, I guess it’s the greatest compliment that I’m always anxious to return to The SideCar, especially after having spent months working in its kitchen. I had turned to Tim with my “internship” request because, not only was he a friend, his credentials working as sous chef for Joshia Citrin and his afore-mentioned commitment to local farmers and seasonality made him a perfect mentor. And while the bulk of my time under his tutelage was spent (rightfully so) chopping vegetables and making salads, his techniques and enthusiasm were as contagious as I had hoped. With all honesty, I can say that whether I’m cooking or making a drink, Tim’s Obi-wan-like wisdom often guides my hand.
As you might expect, the season-centric quality of The SideCar’s menu extends beyond the kitchen to the bar, and while Ventura is certainly a vodka martini and Cosmo kind of crowd, there are always a handful of specials on the drink menu that reflect whatever is currently market-fresh. Featured in this month’s Sunset magazine is the restaurant’s Ventura Lemonade, made with local Ventura Limoncello Company’s limoncello. Lesley had this and loved it; I opted instead for the Watermelon Cooler.
While the drink in the above photo is red, Tim used a yellow watermelon, as that was what his supplier had on offer – either will do. The flavor profile with its black pepper and basil is a classic watermelon palette. I’ve made a black pepper tincture in the past and would be tempted to use it here, but the simple twist of a pepper mill not only makes the drink easier to throw together on the spur of the moment (a hallmark of beach hospitality), it also adds a nice bit of visual contrast. The basil provides a beautifully fresh in-glass garnish and bouquet, and while the Hendrick’s gin which Tim uses is the natural choice here, any of our suggested gins will shine. Agave nectar can be found at most markets (Trader Joe’s stocks it), but feel free to substitute a rich light or medium brown sugar syrup. As you will quickly discover, the Watermelon Cooler really is a symphony of just a few ingredients with a minimal amount of alteration done to them.
Thirsty for Coolers? Our friend Erik Ellestad over at Savoy Stomp is currently working his way through the cooler section of the Savoy Cocktail Book. Be sure to check him out.