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Vive Libertine

“I don’t like the word mixology, really,” said Neal Brown, glancing down the long bar toward his busy staff at The Libertine Liquor Bar (38 E. Washington St., 317-631-3333), which opened last week. “These guys are barkeeps. But if the word means making drinks like a chef makes food, then it does apply.” Call them what you like: they’re mixing the most innovative and delicious cocktails—not to mention serving up some of the tastiest grub (“bar food,” in the menu’s designation)—in the city.

To designate this latest venture from the L’Explorateur chef “long-awaited” is an understatement—since opening Carmel’s Pizzology in late 2009, he’s had more starts and stops than North Meridian at rush hour. But if you seek food and drink practiced in the most contemporary manner, in a high-ceilinged, subtly lit contemporary space, you’ll find it has been worth the wait.

Among the most popular drinks so far has been The Seelbach Cocktail, a refreshing mix of Kentucky Vintage bourbon, real orange and lemon (here replacing Cointreau), and prosecco. A sip offers up citrus aroma, bourbon bite, and effervescent sweetness, in the same intriguing balance that characterizes most of the original offerings on the list. The Screw & Bolt—Smalls gin, grapefruit, violet, bitter orange, and tonka bean (offering a whiff of nuttiness, or perhaps vanilla)—embraces the core flavors of the small-batch hooch but blends it into a sweet-sour-savory-aromatic whole that will have you smiling and pondering down to the last sip.

The hipsters on duty at Chicago’s Violet Hour have nothing on the guys behind the bar here, sharply outfitted in vests and large-knot ties. Their concoctions tilt toward modest proportions, but do not be fooled; you’d best eat something. Try the heirloom tomato terrine, sourced from Seldom Seen Farms, while it’s still in season—a little loaf of pressed gold and red tomatoes, resting in a shallow pool of creme fraiche and white balsamic—or perhaps the scallop crudo, exquisite chunks of raw mollusk decorated with radish, matcha (a green tea powder), and tiny florets of pickled cauliflower. It perhaps goes without saying that you’ll be trying the Bacon Flight, a little meat bouquet of three flavors served in a silver chalice, sourced from the new Smoking Goose Meatery.

A beef tartare was straightforward and delicious; same for a bison sloppy joe. The disc of indulgent, spot-on chicken liver pate, from Gunthorp Farms, is reminiscent of a foie preparation, served as it is over a waffle, accompanied by hot pepper sauce and a little pitcher of buttered bourbon-maple syrup. Ironically enough, the only misstep we’ve had from the kitchen was in the hamachi carpaccio—a cousin of L’Explorateur’s most popular (and labor intensive) appetizer. It was too fishy here, with a horseradish garnish and seasonings that seemed a bit less carefully prepped than everything else.

The wines, about 75 percent Old World, were chosen by Lindy Brown, Neal’s better-half certified sommelier, for their food-friendliness. The 2009 Mencos Joven Tempranillo ($8 a glass, $33 for the bottle) would pair with a lot, though you couldn’t go wrong with a bottle of 2008 Robert Chevillon les Prulier premier cru burgundy ($131). Proving the place is not without a sense of humor, a tight beer list mentions “Budweiser Lager, Missouri,” alongside “Dupont Forget Organic Saison, Belgium”). In the true libertine spirit of getting the pleasures you want, you can even get a regular old martini if you want.