by Eric Ginsburg
The best drinks at LaRue, the sleek new French restaurant in downtown Greensboro, aren’t on the menu. You have to know to ask.
Anyone behind the long bar at the venue, the long- vacant spot directly across from the Carolina Theatre, can whip up one of these special cocktails, but if she’s working, ask for Tayler Rizzi.
The Winston-Salem resident with blue streaks in her long hair is one of several folks who made the jump from Marshall Free House to LaRue, including owner and head chef Trey Bell. Before that she put in several years at Foothills.
Rizzi is the kind of bartender who will ask — if you say you’re not sure what to order — whether she can make something up for you. And then, before she does, Rizzi might stop and ask, “Are you allergic to anything?”
The whole team at LaRue exhibits the same energy and eagerness to stretch their creativity in the kitchen or behind the bar, which is how things like the late-night Justin Citty Wok Noodle Bar end up happening (more on that in a minute). It’s a spirit that is likely innate, but also one that appears to be encouraged by Bell, who is trying several things that are uncommon — or entirely nonexistent — in the Triad.
One of those things, the one that’s not on the menu but that is fantastic and a must-have, are LaRue’s shrub drinks (photo above).
Plenty of people, local booze columnists included, haven’t heard of shrubs around here, but the old-school cocktail base has already made the rounds in larger metro areas. There are technically a few types, but at its core, a shrub is a vinegar base for a cocktail, often including spices, fruit juices and herbs. At LaRue, it depends on what Bell has available, meaning the options rotate.
A few days ago, Rizzi had two off-menu shrub options to serve up, including one with rosemary, strawberry and balsamic vinaigrette to which she added Bombay gin. It’s similar to the color of a blood orange and served on the rocks, the kind of subtly sweet drink befitting the spring.
It’s great, to be sure, but it doesn’t begin to parallel the other shrub drink that Rizzi also had on deck: one with peach, Thai basil, jalapeño and rice-wine vinegar. That, with some mescal thrown in, is not the kind of drink just anyone will like. The vinegar and jalapeño are the cocktail’s heavy hitters, but after a brief initial shock, it’s the kind of thing that will make you feel like someone has been holding out on you since that first time you snuck some of your parents’ booze.
Welcome to the big leagues.
“That oak-rested gin is money in any shrub,” another bartender said as he walked by, referring to a darker gin made by Cardinal, a North Carolina distillery. No doubt he’s right, but Rizzi switched up her liquor with each drink under her command, making a strawberry basil version of a Tom Collins with Botanist gin for one patron, and later expressed excitement when a different customer asked her to make him something with bitters in it. She returned with a bourbon cocktail containing Evan Williams 1783; Campari, a pomegranate style liqueur; Lillet, a French aperitif wine; and bitters.
The list for another cocktail Rizzi came up with on the spot, after being asked to make something akin to the jalapeño and peach shrub drink, was long enough to lose track, but rosemary, a vinaigrette, white wine, strawberry-nut compote, simple syrup, lime and soda all appeared, topped off with a little orange juice and liquid smoke to give the cocktail with Bombay dry gin a wilder edge.
There are plenty of items on LaRue’s menu itself too, including three entries each under martinis, old fashions and Manhattans, each with a different liquor. And the menu suggests a beer, wine or cocktail pairing with each main course. LaRue even does its own infusions, boasts seven draft beers and a range in its fridge too that reaches all the way down to Schlitz.
The off-menu intrigue isn’t limited to cocktails, either: Starting last week, LaRue began serving pho or noodle dishes on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m., beginning after the normal kitchen has closed down and well after southeast Asian restaurants in the city have shut their doors for the evening. Last Friday, bowls of beef pho with dried shrimp were almost as popular as the cocktails Rizzi and her coworkers were slinging, quickly solidifying LaRue as the type of venue that must not be ignored.
Visit LaRue at 313 S. Greene Street (GSO) or find it on Facebook.