Excitement runs high when Micah Olson launches new seasonal cocktail menus at either the well-loved Crudo or its newer sister restaurant, Okra. But while Crudo has experience at the summer menu game, Okra hasn't yet reached the one-year mark, and so the summer menu released this week is only the restaurant's second.
Recently, Olson gave us close-up looks at both of his new summer menus, as well as a little insight to how, within a matter of weeks, he goes about creating two unique, but equally refreshing summer menus at two very different restaurants — one a nouveau Italian spot, the other a Southern joint with ample nostalgia.
Early in June, Crudo’s new summer menu billed more than a dozen new drinks.
“This menu is lighter and more refreshing,” Olson says and, despite the sheer number of drinks, “it’s also a little simpler.”
He says to expect more berries, more citrus, and plenty of melon. And from the spirit world, he’ll lean further towards Italian amari and liqueurs for their body and ability to add depth to a drink — something every Crudo menu is characterized by in varying degrees — and Italian herb-infused syrups for sweetening, to fit with the restaurant’s cuisine.
In the Shot In The Arm, we saw the effects of fresh citrus — lemon and grapefruit — on a unique Italian amaro called Borsch San Marzano, which on its own tastes a little like eggnog. The cocktail also includes bourbon, passion fruit, and chocolate bitters, which sounds a little more like dessert than a summer tipple, but ends up being zingy rather than dark or too sweet, and electrifyingly flavorful.
The Oregano You Didn’t checks off the herb box. Olson combines Hendrick’s gin, honey-like and herbaceous yellow chartreuse, strawberry, and lime juice — sweetened slightly with an oregano-infused simple syrup.
And the savory touches don’t stop there. The Beets, Rhymes & Life does remarkable things by making raspberry and earthy beets work in a tall, refreshing cocktail. They’re combined with floral Lillet Rose and Nolet’s Gin, both of which contain berry undertones, as well as lemon and seltzer water.
If this kind of savory play gets your attention, then along very similar lines you’ll want to order the Ring My Bell, a drink that combines two rums with coconut liqueur, lime, seltzer water, and red bell peppers to disorienting yet delicious results.
The Shady Lane is another fizzy drink, but sticks with more traditional fruit. Here, it’s melon and citrus flavors, a tart and spritzed up drink with just three ingredients: reposado tequila, a house watermelon and lime shrub, and elderflower tonic.
“Melons grow really well here,” Olson says. And he uses them as much as possible. Last year, he made a salted watermelon negroni for Negroni Week, and the new menu has the Watermelon Weather, combining bitter orange Aperol with vodka, salted watermelon, and lime. You’ll see the fruit makes its appearance on the Okra menu as well.
“I stay away from Italian influence,” Olson says about developing the Okra menu. Given that there isn’t nearly as much Italian influence on Southern cuisine as there is French, he’s much more likely to complement a spirit with Bigallet China China, a digestif form the French Alps, or Marin Quince, a French cherry-flavored aperitif.
“The French bitter their liqueurs with quinine," Olson says. "The Italians like wormwood. Basically, I just don’t use as much amaro over here.”
A good example of this is the use of new Peychaud’s Aperitivo in a cocktail called the Blind Melon. Olson has a knack for getting stuff fresh to the market and quickly folding them into his menu — here, it acts as much less compact version of the classic Peychaud’s Bitters, drawing similarities to Aperol or Campari. The New Orleans-based Peychaud’s isn’t a French company, of course, but it was started by a French-Caribbean settler, so the influence is there.
Looking at the Peychaud’s liqueur in the Blind Melon also lets us pick up with Okra where we left things off with Crudo: melon. True to its heritage, the liqueur is aggressively bittered with quinine, which Olson balances with crisp and cool Hendrick’s gin, sweet watermelon syrup, a little lime, and muddled pink peppercorn. It’s bright pink — a lot of fun, and a great representation of Southern drinking.
When it comes to history-driven Southern drinking, Okra does it better than anyone in town, so we’d better mention Olson’s superb summer update to his diverse julep menu. On the new menu, he presents the Julep Noir, in which mint gets muddled and swizzled with Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum and mixed with brown sugar, the cinnamon and cardamom-laced Meletti Amaro from Italy, and lime. Dashed with spice-heavy angostura bitters, the julep is tremendous and unlike any you’re likely to have tried before.
“This julep is meant to be the crossover to the more hardcore juleps,” Olson says.
If this is the crossover, then the Ango Colada is the crossover for the crossover. Olson takes the Angostura profile — bitter and baking spiced — and runs with it in what’s typically a cloying and creamy drink, the piña colada. But there's no cream here. Instead there's Kalani Coconut Rum Liqueur, mixed with lime juice, pineapple syrup, and a barrel-aged sugar cane-based agricole rum from from Clément.
“I love piña coladas, but they’re so sickeningly sweet,” Olson says. “So I wanted to do a bitter version.”
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Another highlight from Okra’s summer menu is the Paint It Black. Olson was inspired to create the drink after a recent trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he had a small chat with the cocktail industry’s pre-eminent historian, David Wondrich.
“I was on a historic tour of Old San Juan, and happened to be sitting next to Wondrich,” Olson says. “He was telling me how he tasted every spirit at his home bar — which is pretty much everything — with coconut water. He said he happens to really like it with Genever … something about the maltiness.”
Genever being the malty grandfather to modern juniper-laden gins, Olson decided to mix the two together and combine them with muddled blackberry, lime, simple syrup, and tiki bitters to wonderful effect.