As cocktail culture becomes more sophisticated and permeates further into the mainstream, more and more restaurants have decided to dispense with their dusty bottles of unrefrigerated vermouth and start taking their cocktails more seriously. A great wine list alone, restauranteurs are learning, does not make a great bar. Sophisticated drinks, created by mixological experts and made with first-rate ingredients, are no longer the exclusive property of hipster bars-that-also-serve-food, or a handful of forward-thinking proper restaurants. All over Manhattan, eateries are ramping up their cocktail menus for a mainstream clientele.
Take Toscano's, a red-sauce Italian place on the Upper East Side that's almost the textbook definition of a neighborhood restaurant. The food -- mostly pastas and Neopolitan-style pizzas -- is simple, humble, and beautifully made. Walking in the place, you'd probably expect to see a small selection of Italian wines. If cocktails were available, they'd probably be along the lines of vodka martinis or Campari on the rocks. Right? Wrong! Instead, they've got a bonafide cocktail menu, designed by mixologist, brand ambassador, and all-around cocktailian supreme James Moreland.
The small but potent selection includes a delicious twist on the Old Fashioned, with Knob Creek bourbon, Angostura, orange bitters in place of a muddled orange slice, and a Kingston lemon cube. The Ariana is made with Inocente blanco tequila, Cointreau, lime, pomegranate and pineapple juices, which Moreland describes as "inspired by a perfect tequila and the beautiful women of the Upper East Side." It truly pains me to mention his newest creation, the Iced Chocolate Cake, featuring Frangelico and Skyy citrus-infused vodka. However, despite the fact that it goes against everything I hold dear as a cocktail aficionado, the ladies I was with could not stop raving about it. And for the calorie-counters among us, it's a mere 137 of 'em, not counting the sugared rim.
A quick cab ride away, in midtown, you'll hit Michael's, a media industry power-lunch destination spot that's quietly been dishing out first-rate California-inspired cuisine in elegant, upscale surroundings since 1989. With such a clientele and pedigree, you'd think they'd stick with the sophisticated wine list that's served them well for 20-plus years, right? Wrong again! Owner Michael McCarty and mixologist Michael Flannery joined forces to create "Mixology Wednesdays" (soon to become an everyday feature at the bar, from what I've heard) featuring sophisticated, forward-looking cocktails along with bar bites by Executive Chef Kyung Up Lim.
There are some drinks here that any downtown bar would be proud to feature on its menu. The two that really knocked me out were both Negroni variations (the Negroni being the hot cocktail of the season, thanks to a big promotional push by Campari). The Parisian Negroni employs Campari with the high-proof Louis Royer "Force 53" VSOP Cognac in place of gin, along with Punt e Mes and allspice dram, for a most potent and complex cocktail.
Even better -- one of the best cocktails I've had anywhere recently, in fact -- is the Oaxacan Negroni, with Campari, mezcal subbing for gin, sweet and dry vermouth (as opposed to solely sweet), and grapefruit bitters. It's dry and deliciously smoky, with a long, lingering finish, and it's not like much else that I've tried. Even if you think you need shots and a passport to travel above 14th St., the Oaxacan Negroni is worth the journey. The bar bites -- Kobe beef sliders, spicy Korean fried chicken, and a stellar maple bourbon B.L.T. among them -- don't divert that much from the mainstream, but they're all impeccably prepared and served. They taste wonderful and they provide some ballast for the cocktails.
I'm still waiting for a restaurant that can pair food and cocktails the way wines and, more recently, beers are coupled with meals. Sure, it's a challenge. Even the most adept bartenders will generally recommend wine with meals, and it makes sense. You don't want your taste buds overwhelmed by high-proof spirits, let alone the sugar and citrus that goes into so many mixed drinks. And you certainly don't want to be too drunk to remember the food by the end of your dinner. There are plenty of fantastic bars which also happen to have great bar bites or even full meals, from Death & Co. to Char No. 4. The Beagle, which opened earlier this year, takes the next step with a small pairing menu of cocktails and dishes, such as burrata (a creamy version of mozzarella) with braised celery, olive oil and a "mini-Martini." But the giant leap into full-fledged meals-with-cocktails still awaits.
While I wait for the Neil Armstrong of the cocktailian set to make that leap, I'll belly up to the bar at Eleven Madison Park, which happens to be not only one of the finest restaurants in New York, but my favorite watering hole in the city as well. Led by the brilliant Leo Robitschek, their "bar bites" include foie gras, stunning tagliolini with crab and lemon, or a perfect small beef tenderloin.
Ask Leo or any of the staff to make you a cocktail to go with your dish and they'll whip up the perfect accompaniment to your food without batting an eye. The last time I was there I had the foie gras, tagliolini and a cucumber salad; I was served an "Air & Rye" cocktail made with rye whiskey, Strega, triple sec, lemon and Angostura bitters, which somehow complemented all three dishes. And while he's said he prefers to pair food with wine for larger, multi-course meals, cocktail (or "beverage") pairings are available on request for Eleven Mad Park's insanely good (and pricey, of course) tasting menu in the main dining room. How could something be wrong when it tastes so right?