And the bars — there are two book-ending the dining room, one built for beauty, the other for speed — she noted, were buzzing.
But how was the booze?
Head bartender Conor Cook carved out some time on a recent afternoon before service to chat with us about the restaurant’s approach to cocktails and amari, the category of bitter, herbal Italian liqueurs that the bar serves both straight up and in mixed beverages.
“With our cocktail menu, our idea was to introduce people slowly to amaro and things like it,” Cook says. The bottles, all hailing from their own small regions of Italy, have been placed intentionally front and center across the shelves behind the bartenders, so that you can’t miss them. “So we’ll throw a little bit into a cocktail here, a little bit into a cocktail there, and sort of bridge that gap with people to the point where they’ll get more adventurous and start trying the amari on their own.”
But it’s a massive dining room, with seating in the hundreds, and so the bar’s colorful curation of amari can appear awfully far away. The restaurant mixes their Caesar salad tableside for guests, just like the Mission (from the same restaurant group) has done for years with their pestle-and-mortar guacamole, and so Cook has been experimenting with a similar approach to beverage service, by literally rolling out an array of amaro choices directly to tables. It happens on a lean brass cart that rattles and jingles as Cook comes through the floor, filled with bitter gifts from Italy: cinnamon-sweet Meletti, saffron-hued Strega, low-proof and orange-bittered Aperol, and the Sicilian-spiced Amaro Averna.
“A lot of people have heard of Fernet, so I’ll have it on the cart. It’ll be like the first time they drink coffee; you’re probably not going to fall in love with it instantly,” Cook says.
“Some people are more receptive to it than others, but I think it’s a nice touch.”
Cook likes Montenegro — a popular amaro that has made fans of both experts and novices, alike. He’ll often start an amaro sampling there, he says.
“The amaro Sibona is really good, too,” Cook adds. “It has that bitter cola flavor that American palates can pick up a little bit easier.”
For something a tad more challenging, he prefers Braulio.
“It’s more of an alpine style, sort of similar to Jaeger, which people can love or hate,” Cook says. “But it’s really great for mixing, especially in the wintertime.”
These various amari take on new identities in cocktails, where they often add punches of spice and herbs, in addition to richness and, in the cases of more syrupy versions, viscosity.
Reminiscent of a New York Sour, the Bulleits Over Bordeaux, a whiskey cocktail rooted in — you guessed it — Bulleit Rye, gets balanced by a syrup made from Bordeaux wine and gets its green note from the herb-tinted digestif Becherovka.
In the Count cocktail, strawberry is infused and matched perfectly with citrusy Tanqueray No. 10 gin and the wine-based amaro Cardamaro, which plays like a nutty sherry, harmoniously sandwiched next to the jammy, lip-smacking flavors of its bedfellows.
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“It’s a constantly evolving thing,” Cook says about the amaro offerings and the cocktails list. “And we hope to just keep introducing it to people.”