Periodista Tales: Chez Henri—Point of Origin?

“Chef Paul takes over the bar tonight at Chez Henri!” Twitter told me first, Facebook close behind. Gmail shot me the inbox wink a few seconds later, that same message on the subject line.

Chez Henri was where it had all started for me—the first Periodista I ever tasted—so five minutes to six found me standing in a light rain holding my bike helmet and waiting for them to unlock the door.

Chez Henri sits about fifty feet from Massachusetts Avenue on Shepherd Street, a mostly residential block that shoots off Mass Ave at the Starbucks and cuts along the southern edge of the Radcliffe quadrangle. Chez Henri’s bold red facade and gold-lettered sign have weathered the years well enough to become a Cambridge icon.

When they opened I grabbed a seat at the end of the bar closest to the kitchen. Raw concrete shapes decorate the red walls of the interior, bulwarking light fixtures and gilding the edges of the bar. At six on a Wednesday it was dead in there—just the way I like it.

I frowned as Rob Kraemer, the bar manager, swept in and slid a glass of water in front of me.

“Something to drink?”

I told him I was waiting for someone.

“Someone” appeared moments later, standing behind me with his hands on his hips, staring up at the chalkboard that displays the daily specials. Paul O’Connell, Chez Henri’s owner and chef de cuisine. O’Connell is a sturdy man in his middle-forties with a concentration-lined face and thick-rimmed glasses. He wore a blue-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled past his elbows, and his hands looked like they belonged to a lumberjack.

Apparently satisfied by what he saw on the chalkboard—Tonight! Chef Paul takes over the bar!—he walked over to me and held out one of those massive hands.

“You here to check out the new bar menu?” His eyes twinkled cannily as we shook.

I told him why I was there.

“Oh, sure.”  And suddenly he launched into it. O’Connell speaks with a sense of urgency, like a man who’s spent years trying to tackle too many things at once. “Yeah, we’ve had the Periodista on the menu from the beginning. I think we found it in some Esquire book—da, da, da—I forget, but it was like Hemingway’s favorite drink. And you know, we were doing Mojitos from the beginning, too. Probably the only other place doing them was Division 16 way back.”

Chez Henri opened “way back” in the mid-90s. O’Connell bought the restaurant from its previous owner on the sole condition that he retain its character as a French bistro. So Chez Jean (est. 1958) became Chez Henri (est. 1995).

“And—not like I was a visionary or anything—you know, people ask me, like, ‘How did you do the Cuban sandwich thing?’ I just liked it, and I did it, you know? And Mojitos—when we first started doing these drinks people were like, ‘What is it?’ Now you’ve got raspberry Mojitos, everything.” He chuckled. “But yeah, the Periodista was one of our first.”

I asked how it came to be that you could get one at any bar in Boston.

O’Connell furrowed his brow and sat down at the bar next to me. “Well, you know, Joe started here, then went to the B-Side, so then they had it there. And Dylan worked there and then came here, and now he’s got Green Street. And Scott was here on and off for years, and he’s at Rendezvous now. So there’s been a lot of cross-pollination.”

He was talking about Joe McGuirk, Dylan Black, and Scott Holliday—all prominent names on the Boston bar scene.

“So, it really is a Boston thing, and—I don’t know, maybe we should get—”

O’Connell paused, thoughtful. Latin guitar chords floated down from the bar speakers. I took a drink of water.

“You know,” he said, “We’re not at the forefront of—like Eastern Standard, all these places with the super-duper, startender thing. There are people in town who are incredible, people like Tommy Schlesinger who can make you a drink that’s just unbelievable. But here we keep it simple. Like, I’ve been tweeting ‘Chef Paul takes over the bar’—but I’ve been in the kitchen all day, you know? And yesterday I was tweeting, like, ‘I’m working on my gin and tonic recipe, my rum and coke recipe,’ right?”

I asked about all the tweeting.

“Well, I went to a seminar for it,” he said, “you know, the social media thing. I wanted to try to see if we could push an event just using Twitter and Facebook and all that.  Just reaching for something, I guess.”

I wondered what social media could do for a place like Chez Henri, fifteen years old and full of regulars every weeknight, walls bulging with drinkers on weekends. Then I thought about the look on O’Connell’s face when he mentioned the buzz around Eastern Standard, ten years Chez Henri’s junior.

I told O’Connell about looking for Periodistas outside of Boston and coming up empty.  That I hadn’t been able to find references to it even in cocktail books, including Esquire’s Drink Book from ’54.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t really see it in other cities.  And try to find it on a menu before fifteen years ago. It wasn’t in that Esquire book, huh?”

I shook my head.

“Joe McGuirk will know,” O’Connell said. “He’s got a mind like a steel trap. But he’s always busy, and he’s grumpy. He’s also—Joe’s sort of anti that stuff, you know? He doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who are that enamored of what he does.” He laughed. “Unless you’re a twenty-four-year-old girl.”

I smiled and suggested that wherever it came from, Boston had claimed the Periodista as its own.

“Well,” O’Connell said quietly. He shrugged. “Maybe we should get some credit for that.”

In the end, Rob Kraemer made me my Periodista, but Chef Paul did end up behind the bar, apron around his waist. Beth, Chez Henri’s general manager, was there to get pics with her iPhone and post them on Facebook. I don’t know if O’Connell deemed his social media experiment a success, but I counted two small triumphs for myself that night. One, it seemed likely that Chez Henri was the Periodista’s point of origin in Boston. And two, I finally managed to get a recipe.

Chez Henri’s Periodista (2010)

2 oz Gosling’s dark rum
¾ oz Bols triple sec
¾ oz Bols apricot brandy
¾ oz lime, half fresh-squeezed, half Rose’s

Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a small wedge of lime.

Tasting notes: The main things to notice here are the Gosling’s rum and the split pony of Rose’s and freshly squeezed lime. You’ll find a lot of people using Myers’s dark, but the Gosling’s adds a hint of spice, almost like subbing rye for bourbon in your whiskey sour. Beth asserts that Periodista purists, many of whom have been drinking at Chez Henri from the beginning, will insist on 100% Rose’s lime, no fresh, and that the split pony is a small concession to the hoards of cocktail revolutionaries who want everything to be fresh-squeezed. These are Rob Kramer’s proportions, and he claims to like his Periodistas a little more tart. Rob has been with Chez on and off since ’95, and he notes that this may not be the original Chez Henri recipe.

6 thoughts on “Periodista Tales: Chez Henri—Point of Origin?

  1. Ari Barbanell

    Ewww, RK adds fresh lime? I need to test that. I’m faithful to the Rose’s, that’s what the boys of Chez yesteryear taught me when I worked there. I can’t stand Rose’s, but somehow the Periodista magically makes it ok. Good luck on your journey to the origin…

  2. fred

    I can now officially say, the periodista is quite a tasty treat. Especially at Chez Henri.

  3. Frederic

    We went to Chez Henri last night and I got my first Periodista there. It was rather lackluster. The reason was that the bartender used no lime juice, just Rose’s lime cordial. It was sweet and insipid and lacked any crispness. I was as apathetic about drinking the thing as the bartender was in making it.

    My bartender was a female and someone went this weekend on Chowhound and had the same experience with a male bartender.

    I’ll stick to making them at home or getting them at Eastern Standard or elsewhere.

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