If you’ve ever traveled to Tampa, you’ve probably heard of Bern’s Steakhouse. The restaurant is an institution—a classic steakhouse through and through with the largest private wine collection in the U.S. (and second largest in the world). It has been featured on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate for both savory and sweet; Chef Alex Guarnaschelli insists that their most memorable dish is the 22 oz. strip steak, while Sunny Anderson casts her vote in favor of the chocolate peanut butter truffle dessert.
Dinner at Bern’s includes a guided tour through their (huge) kitchen and wine cellar after which you are sent upstairs to the Harry Waugh Dessert Room. Though the square footage is greater than that of all the downstairs dining rooms combined, the dessert room still feels intimate thanks to the 48 individual enclosed booths.
In short, Bern’s is more than a restaurant—it’s an experience.
And now the steakhouse has partnered with Marriott Hotels to expand that experience. Part of the hotel chain’s "Autograph Collection," The Epicurean is a food-centric hotel that aims to be “a place for connoisseurs of life to come and indulge their appetite.” It’s no surprise that the cocktails are handcrafted and the wine shop exceptional, but the Epicurean takes their theme a step further by offering foodie spa treatments (think body treatments like the Dulce Delight, where one is scrubbed with Arabica coffee beans and massaged with sweet cream milk) and cooking/beverage classes.
I was most interested in the classes.
Taught in the Epicurean Theatre and covering subjects ranging from regional wines to foie gras, it was difficult to choose a class. I settled on "The History of the Cocktail," a comprehensive class taught by Dean Hurst, Bern’s own Director of Spirits (more on him later). The class was a historical tour of how the modern cocktail came to be and I was thrilled to find it both completely educational and only vaguely pretentious. The class began with the birth of punch and concluded with a discussion on Speed Rack, an all-female bartending competition with 100% of the proceeds going to breast cancer research, education, and prevention.
When I first arrived to the theater, I was greeted with a glass of punch and told to sit wherever I liked. I grabbed a spot in the front row and found myself face-to-face with one of my favorite things: a plate of fancy meats and cheeses. I wasn’t sure if the charcuterie was meant to be paired with a specific cocktail, so I stared at it longingly, waiting for the class to start. (We were never instructed to pair, but in my opinion almost everything goes great with meats and cheeses.)
Tom Haines, general manager of the Epicurean, made his way around the room, introducing himself to the class attendees and explaining that he would be sitting in on the class. He was very pleasant and made no comment about the large camera hanging around my neck.
Dean Hurst introduced himself and gave a brief history of his credentials; I could parrot them all for you, but you can read them here. The brief version: the man knows his liquor. He had the cool confidence of someone with nothing to prove and while he never hid his preferences or opinions, he also never made the audience feel bad about having an opinion that differed from his own. In a world that lends itself a little too well to pretension, Mr. Hurst has all of the great qualities one would expect from a gifted educator (knowledge, accessibility, a tendency to “geek out”) with none of the snobbery that tends to alienate newcomers.
After introductions, Hurst dove right in, covering how punch won the world (it preserved perishable ingredients and made cheap booze taste better), stirring versus shaking (shake those beverages that contain juice of syrups for uniformity; stir strong drinks for a silky texture), and how TV dinners and recreational drugs almost killed the craft cocktail.
Somewhere around the “shaken or stirred” discussion, my empty punch glass was replaced with a new libation: the Vieux Carré. This very alcoholic but impossibly smooth cocktail was garnished with an orange peel instead of the traditional cherry, an alteration made because Dean doesn’t care for cherries. I didn’t mind the substitution – I love citrus fruits above all others – but I was happy that the change was noted so as not to be sent out into the world with incorrect garnish knowledge.
The lecture had an informal feel. Though he had a slide show to keep himself on track, Dean Hurst is a man that is prone to entertaining tangents. All questions were welcomed and answered, but it was easy (and somehow rewarding) to derail our speaker onto subjects that were only somewhat related to cocktails. This is not a bad thing.
Once I had made my way through the cheeses and charcuterie (purple haze, gorgonzola dolce, speck, and chorizo, if you like details), the plate was cleared and replaced with a trio of crostini.
All were delicious, but the smoked salmon was a triumph. This is odd, because I don’t really like smoked salmon, but I would have eaten my weight in these if they had kept them coming.
The last cocktail served was the Gin Gin Mule, a variation of the Moscow Mule that substitutes vodka for – all together now – gin. It was crisp and refreshing, though maybe a little sweet for some.
That concluded the drinks and snacks portion of the class, which was worth the trip in its own right. Though it wouldn’t completely justify the $65 price tag, when coupled with the informative lecture and lively discussion, the evening was a fair value, if not a steal.
In addition to the cocktails we were served, we were taught how to make a couple others: the gin-vermouth driven Martinez and a proper Cosmopolitan. After noting that the worst Cosmo he had ever tasted was at the Hudson Bar (of Sex and the City fame), Hurst whipped up a beautiful cocktail that looked vaguely related to the violently pink Cosmo I was used to seeing. He was also kind enough to send us home with print outs detailing how to make each of the drinks we were served (plus the Cosmo).
After the lecture had concluded, Hurst stuck around for a while to answer any questions. He made several book and bar recommendations, all of which I am excited to explore. Though the schedule isn’t completely nailed down yet, he plans to add more spirit-themed classes, perhaps a series that builds on itself, allowing for more in-depth exploration.
If every instructor at the Epicurean is as knowledgeable and as entertaining as Mr. Hurst, they have something special on their hands. This class (or any that are similar) offers an opportunity for a unique night out. Because you are plied with tasty snacks and drinks, you hardly feel like you’re in a class at all; like the alcohol in an expertly crafted punch, the learning part sneaks up on you.
Classic Punch by Dean Hurst of the Epicurean Hotel
6 oz. Sugar
3 Lemons, peels only, no pith
6 oz. Lemon juice
25.4 oz. Cognac, whiskey, or dark rum
4-5 cups water, or a 1:1 mixture of sherry and water
Nutmeg (whole) for garnish
1. Make an oleo saccharum with sugar and lemon peels.
2. Add lemon juice, liquor, and water.
3. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg