Cocktail impresario Sam Ross was in town last week to train the staff of Hinoki & the Bird in Century City, which, as this goes to press, is in soft-open mode. I went to the unfinished restaurant last week to sample some of the new creations, but on the day I arrived the bar itself looked like a failed cocktail experiment, as its surface was being finished with various jellied enamels and waterproofing potions, splattering the bartop like a battleground of spilled drinks. So instead we sat down to talk.
Ross is with the influential New York cocktail group Milk & Honey. He was lured here in 2007 by chef David Myers to curate the cocktail program at Myers' bistro Comme Ça. That assignment was the group's first foray west, but the route has since become fairly routine -- so routine, in fact, that a number of the Milk & Honey team are, like Ross, leading mildly inebriated double lives on two coasts.
This is Ross' fourth collaboration with Myers -- after Comme Ça came Sona, then Comme Ça's Las Vegas satellite. It was hardly the first time a restaurant had served up a drinks program, but in Los Angeles, few to that point had been as rigorous, or as steeped in tradition, or as creative. Ross drew from old recipes and old methods, tweaking them and reviving classics. That is Milk & Honey's stock-in-trade and remains its most enduring contribution to the cocktail scene nationwide.
Ross pays homage to the past with themed sections of Cups and Swizzles, with seasonal muddles and froths. But to reflect the Asian influence of the food menu, Ross was tasked with creating what Myers called a Tokyo-style bar menu, a thing that Myers had to translate for Ross, since Ross has never been to Japan. (They're discussing a concept, and a collaboration there, down the road.)
"What they do," Ross explains, "is find a fruit that's perfectly in season, and they'll puree or juice or muddle it, strain and mix with just one spirit. It's a really simple, seasonal approach."
So it is with the Hinoki Swizzle, blending Granny Smith apple juice, Champagne and Amontillado sherry for a bracing aperitif. And it's certainly the case with the Nakatomi Plaza (named for the fictional Century City tower where the first Die Hard movie took place), which blends Yamazaki malt whisky, Choya plum wine and freshly pressed green apple juice. Ross says he's thrilled to be working in the shadow of the original tower -- now the Fox Plaza. "I'm a huge Die Hard fan," he says.
But he may be most excited about his Negroni section, which will feature a classic Negroni and then three riffs on its basic components of spirit, fortified and bitter elements -- a section of the menu I would have a hard time straying from. "They're all riffs on the classic," he says, "all using a spirit, a bitter and a fortified element." He pauses for a moment, lost in thought, then smiles. "Negronis," he says, "they're like a gift from God."
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Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.