In many ways I was glad to walk into Stage well before opening time.
It meant we had the full attention of Nate Caudle, the man responsible for putting a new face on the bar menu at this transformed small-plates eatery in Fernwood village. By transformed I mean the popular pre-show gathering place for Belfry Theatre patrons is becoming Victoria’s answer to a Parisian neighbourhood spot.
Stage changed hands last year and Caudle, a Fernwood resident, and co-founder/creative director of the Nimble Bar Co. (Monday featured fellow co-founder Kyle Guilfoyle in January’s Behind Bars), was happy to lend a hand. While he technically only works two days a week here, he is working to blend the bar offerings with the food vibe being created.
“I’m putting systems in place and putting together a (bar) menu that “really communicates the French aspect of what we’re trying to do here, like a French neighbourhood restaurant,” he says.
The new lettering on the window, topped by the traditional French phrase MAISON DE QUARTIER and followed by MEAT, VEGETABLES, VIN, BIERE, says it all.
It’s their way of saying this “neighbourhood house” specializes in those four elements. But as Nate shows us, the cocktail element, while not front and centre – wine is still number 1, he says – is adding to the vibrancy of what’s going on here.
High up one of the brick walls that add to Stage’s ambience is a chalkboard with the featured cocktails. Being written in chalk, Nate says, makes it easy to change if the mood strikes.
After chatting briefly about the mysteries surrounding absinthe, he serves up an Absinthe Frappé. This previously banned spirit was legalized in North America in 2007 when testing showed that proper distilling would virtually remove any hallucinogenic properties of wormwood, one of absinthe’s main ingredients (anise and fennel are the others).
“It’s like an absinthe mojito, it’s a beautiful drink,” Nate says.
Given its ingredients, this refreshing cocktail will find favour with anyone who enjoys black licorice. Added to 1-1/2 ounces of Taboo absinthe – this spirit is often consumed straight, over ice – are lime juice, a splash of simple sugar, a sprig of fresh absinthe to perfume the mixture. He finishes it with a sprig of fresh mint. It’d be great on a hot day, but on a rainy winter afternoon it hits the spot.
With other premium cocktail lounges in Victoria moving away from featuring absinthe, Nate is grabbing the ball and running with it.
Ruby chooses the Calvados Sidecar, a twist on the traditional Sidecar, combining Calvados apple brandy with orange-flavoured Cointreau liqueur, lemon, simple syrup and a “cheek” of orange – a sliver of peel to reduce the harshness of the lemon. Very flavourful, she says, but her tastes lean more toward the freshness of the Frappé.
But let’s hear more from Nate:
Your claim to fame/best up-the-sleeve trick or technique? Looking like a psycho and talking to myself while making off-the-cuff cocktails for guests. My colleagues have called this “beautiful minding it.” Honourable mention: crazy hand gestures.
What’s hot right now? Flavoured gins and craft vermouths.
What traits make a good bartender? The three H’s – humility, hustle, hospitality.
What’s your signature drink? I seem to be known for making the best margarita in town.
What are you drinking these days? Parallel 49 Ruby Tears Northwest Red Ale.
Best memory from behind the bar? Any of the numerous blind bartending competitions we’ve had at Little Jumbo.
Stage, 1307 Gladstone Ave.
Previously in Behind Bars:
Cocktails from fresh and approachable to spirit forward
Learning about the versatility and nuanced flavours of sake