While Visalia may be far removed from the festivities of New Orleans’ French Quarter, both in distance and in atmosphere, a little piece of Mardi Gras came to town in the form of food, fun, and creative mixology.

In early February, a lively group of 60 guests gathered at two of Visalia’s most frequented restaurants for a unique and delicious Mardi Gras dinner. In partnership with Paso Robles’ Hovannisian Vineyard and Almesa Winery, the staff from Jack & Charlie’s and The Depot created a Louisiana-inspired menu, pairing each course with specialty cocktails featuring Hovannisian’s Iago port-style Syrah.

The restaurants’ manager William Sa elaborated on how the Mixology Circus event evolved. After two successful “Wine Circus” dinners that featured the Iago Syrah along with wines from Baker & Brain and Sinor La Valle, William explained, “winemaker John Hovannisian would talk…about cocktails and how he experimented at home with his Iago port replacing a gin or vodka. We went from a wine dinner to John’s new passion of mixology using his Iago port as the spirit in cocktails.”

Only about 75 cases of Iago are made each year, using approximately 98 percent Syrah and two percent Viognier grapes grown at Hovannisian Vineyard, Paso Robles. Aged for three years in French Nadalie oak barrels, the resulting port-style Syrah is dark and complex, which is why John chose to name it “Iago,” after one of Shakespeare’s worst villains.

John revealed that before becoming a winemaker, he was a trained Shakespeare actor cast as Iago in a production of Othello, directed by Brewster Mason of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thus, his connection to the character and his many complicated layers inspired the name of the Syrah.

The Main Event

It was clear from the start that this would be an extraordinary evening. With cocktails composed by Hovannisian and complementary dishes refined by The Depot, the evening’s menu was nothing short of magnifique.

The experience began with a reception in the bar at Jack & Charlie’s, as the attendees arrived and donned strings of Mardi Gras beads. Passed appetizers of Fancy Deviled Eggs and Spicy Pork and Ricotta Meatballs complemented the evening’s first cocktail, the Iago Kir Royale. This delightful mixture of champagne and the featured port, in place of the Kir Royale’s traditional Crème de Cassis, made an effervescent and flavorful first toast.

After the cocktail hour, the spirited crowd took the party across the street to The Depot, where they were seated for dinner at community-style tables in the Dome Room. Bartender Tate Darwin mingled graciously with guests as he mixed the cocktails for each course, making sure they were garnished beautifully.

Each dinner plate and cocktail brought exciting taste experiences that melded traditional Mardi Gras dishes with new and unique libations. The Crab Cakes Louisiana were served with the “Halo on Wheels” cocktail, a mix that included Halo juice with Iago, scotch, and orange bitters. A rich and creamy New Orleans Seafood Bisque was balanced with the interesting flavors in the “La Louisiane,” a mixture of absinthe, rye, and Iago with a Halo garnish. The decadent beef Wellington provided a smooth backdrop for the strong flavors of the “Bijou Cocktail’s” gin, Iago, Green Chartreuse, orange bitters, and an Amarena cherry garnish.

Dessert was perhaps the crowning glory, made by John’s wife Karen Hovannisian. An assortment of “Kingslayer Cookies” for sharing included burnt butter chocolate chip, almond and cherry biscotti, chocolate topped with chocolate-covered Amarena cherries, shortbread with caramel and chocolate, and Mardi Gras mask iced chocolate sugar cookies. A glass of the Iago port-style Syrah, with its fruit-forward black currant flavor and luxurious velvety finish, was the perfect companion for the sweet treats. (Lucky guests were able to take some cookies home to share.)

Seated at our table, Patti Ziebol, Dr. Richard Clutson, and Tina Tetz kept our conversations lively and fun as we tasted and compared dishes and drinks. Patti’s favorite course was the crab cakes with the “Halo on Wheels” cocktail, while Tina preferred the “La Louisiane.” She shared that she thought the “Bijou” was very strong; we all agreed it was most likely because of the Green Chartreuse Liqueur, which we soon learned is a mixture of 130 herbs fermented in alcohol and made by Carthusian monks since 1737. Armed with a different perspective gleaned from this new knowledge, Tina tasted the “Bijou” again and discovered an increased appreciation for the layers of flavor. Tina also thought the crab cake was fantastic; her favorite course was the dessert.

The atmosphere was warm and lively with conversation, an abundance of laughter, and the occasional “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” It was a most festive evening, enjoyed by all in attendance. Future dinner “circuses” are in the works – you won’t want to miss the chance to be part of the next extraordinary event!