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It's 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday at the Capital Hotel Bar and Grill and Spencer Jansen is moving fast. He's got a line of regulars wrapped around the bar, a table of Stephenses by the door and a flood of conferencing insurance agents, spouses in tow, who push capacity to the point that they're allowed to take over the hallowed backgammon table typically reserved for Jack Stephens' ghost. The Ted Ludwig Jazz Trio cooks in the corner, and, with everyone in the place nearly shouting to be heard, the room vibrates at that high pitch that distinguishes bar from restaurant.
Jansen, who is 26, tall and rosy-cheeked, stops, momentarily, hopping from one end of his bar to the other to pull a stream of tickets out of the register and get his bearings. Then it's a Gibson with two cocktail onions; a strawberry daiquiri, blended under a plastic, noise-canceling hood; several duck-downs to his lowboy for beer and endless Crown and Cokes. Somehow, he steals a moment to dash across the hall to the kitchen in Ashley's.
He's back by the time my drink's empty with a bell pepper in his hand.
“You say you like savory?” he asks like he knows the answer, but now that he's holding a bell pepper, feels compelled to ask again.
The night started more decisively — with me ordering a Sazerac. It's the kind of drink Jansen likes to make, a classic often sullied, he intimates, like so many old school cocktails, by lackluster ingredients, presentation or technique.
Here's how he makes his: ice in old fashioned glass, ice out, absinthe along the inside edge of the glass, absinthe out, Sazerac Rye, simple syrup, Angostura and Peychaud's Bitters and a lemon peel for garnish, with some mixing and muddling along the way that's done almost sleight of hand. It's not water to wine, but tastes something like a minor miracle. Ice cold, but neat. Sweet, but not cloyingly. Something to be sipped, savored.
Jansen is of a piece with the Capital Bar's old-school ambience (which netted the bar top prize in our readers poll for bar, hotel bar, bar for food and martini; Jansen earned tops in the bartender category). But he's not merely channeling a sensibility. He cares. In fact, he's fulfilling a dream he's had since childhood. It's OK, go ahead and laugh. He knows it's a funny dream for a kid to have, but he says he always thought there was something romantic about the idea of working behind a bar that served a transient crowd, of interacting with people for just a moment in time. Which makes sense, since he comes from a family with a history in the business. His grandparents ran an early predecessor of Vieux Carre and opened the Afterthought. And he calls Dottie Brennan, one of the grand dames of Brennan's restaurant empire in New Orleans (Commander's Palace, Brennan's), “Aunt Dottie.”
When he came onboard almost two years ago, a month after the hotel opened following a $24 million renovation, he made himself a student of spirits. He read books like “Imbibe!” and “Alcoholica Esoterica.” He shadowed the Capital's Tim Stramel, who let him learn by doing. He looked for tips from local pros, long-tenured types like Alan Napier at Ferneau and Lee Edwards at Salut. And he experimented and continues to experiment, mostly on Sunday afternoon, when a crowd of regulars never seems to mind serving as guinea pigs.
Nor do I. Green pepper is not a problem. Beets, which Jansen once put in a martini that he swears was delicious, might be, but green pepper sounds promising. After a bit of furtive chopping, muddling (there's always muddling) and mixing, he plops down a cocktail that my neighbor at the bar likens to “a salad on ice.” It's cucumber-flavored vodka, pulverized green pepper and sweet and sour on the rocks, with a sprig of rosemary for a garnish. He's looking for a name. Southern Bell has been a popular suggestion, which sounds about right for a cocktail menu. But here's another idea, which might be a bit awkward on the menu, but cuts to the quick. Call it “The Best Bartender in Little Rock for a Reason Cocktail.”