My first sip of puckery cranberry infused vodka came from one of my many nights at the Russian Samovar on West 52th Street. In this comfortably warm and perfectly bourgeois Theatre District hideaway (co-opened by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Roman Kaplan, and Joseph Brodsky) you can feel and smell that this place is straight out of the homeland even without ever stepping foot in Russia. I discovered this spot through partners Misha Von Shats (grandson to Roman Kaplan), Roman Gambourg, and Darren Sussman (also co-founder of TheatreMania), as they now serve their dumplings at The Great Comet (Roman & Darren are also producers of Comet). We've since formed a great relationship and I've even hosted and did some prep cooking in their kitchen for my birthday party in December. Shout out to Miguel and team, some of the hardest and fastest line cooks anywhere.
Russia is everywhere in here. The ornate samovars lining the walls, the shiny white baby grand piano and mirrored walls, the Tolstoy room upstairs - where they have dinner performances and poetry readings. The menu sports smoked fish, beef stroganoff, or the classic country borscht and black bread you'd definitely eat in Babushkas kitchen. And then there's the vodka. All 20 some jars of fruit and herb infused vodkas lining the velveteen green walls behind the bar. They're not only pretty but SO SO tasty. For the savory drinkers - there is horseradish, coriander, or pepper vodkas and for the sweet - the cherry, pear, and cranberry are on point. If you haven't discovered this little gem in the theatre district, pop your head in sometime. If Roman’s there, tell him Nick Belton sent you, he might even show you upstairs through the fur curtains into the hidden back room where Sinatra used to gamble and socialize late into the evening. Enough Said. Time to make some vodka!
All this Russian inspiration and the cold weather screams for a tart cranberry vodka. How could it not? Soon after the holiday I noticed a lot of lonely bags of fresh cranberries at the grocery store. Florida oranges are also the best this time of year and the peel adds a nice bite. Let the flavors infuse and mingle for about a week with some vanilla and sugar and that's it - you have a festive drink to get you through till spring and then some. I like mine more tart than sweet and I'll have it super cold over ice or cut it with seltzer. Note - this is not the Russian Samovar's recipe, just my take on a festive spirit, play with the flavors as you wish.
*Hint. After straining the cranberries, for God’s sake don't toss them! Muddle in drinks or freeze them and add to drinks like you would ice, toss into a bread or cake recipe or mix into a jello or a tipsy preserve. Lots of options here.
I pound of fresh or frozen cranberries
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, split
2 oranges, peels cut into 2 inch strips, and 1 tablespoon of the juice
1 bottle of vodka (Tito's or an 80 proof works great)
1. Add cranberries, vanilla, sugar, and orange juice to a saucepan over medium heat and stir. Simmer the mix until the berries start popping, about 5 or 6 minutes. Let cool slightly.
2. Drop the orange peels into an airtight sealable glass container or mason jar. Add the cranberry mix and pour in the vodka. Cover, shake it up, and set aside for 1 week, giving the jar a good shake every few days.
3. After a week or longer, strain out the cranberry mix and carefully pour or funnel the liquid into a long necked bottle or jar. Put the cranberries in a sealable container for later use. Keep them in the fridge or freezer.
4. Serve very cold over ice or neat or with equal parts seltzer and a sprig of mint.