David Rosoff wants to change the way you think about vermouth (and, yes, he realizes that you might not currently think anything of it at all).
A bit of background: There probably is no bar beverage more misunderstood or underappreciated than vermouth. By definition it is a slightly fortified wine that's aromatized with various herbs and bittering agents, such as quinine bark and wormwood. Despite its crucial role in the most essential drinks of cocktail culture – the Manhattan, martini and Martinez, to name a few – it has languished in America for decades as a mere bit player (and, in the case of the extra-dry martini, something to rinse a glass with before pouring it down the sink). Few spirits producers in American were actually making good vermouth, thus few bars were featuring it prominently in their drinks; as a result, there was little to no demand for the good stuff. A vicious cycle – until recently.
Modern bartenders have begun to embrace vermouth as the essential, wonderfully expressive cocktail ingredient it is (“50-50” martinis, made with equal portions of dry vermouth and gin, have popped up on bar menus at places like Terrine and Salt’s Cure), but few bars or restaurants, if any, have gone so far as to showcase the beauty and charm of vermouth by itself. That’s where Rosoff comes in.
Rosoff, who spent a decade as a general manager for the Mozza group and worked with Nancy Silverton at Campanile before that, is now managing partner at Moruno, the newly opened restaurant in the former Short Order space at the Original Farmers Market, as well as the soon-to-open Bar Vermut, located just upstairs, and another forthcoming location in downtown’s Grand Central Market called Bar Moruno.
The food menu at Moruno, developed by chef Chris Feldmeier, takes loose inspiration from the pintxo bars of Spain. There are plates of marinated anchovies gilded with shaved French butter, artichokes a la plancha, grilled tripe with white beans, tortilla española and little skewers of grilled lamb or chicken called morunos. But what Feldmeier and Rosoff sought to capture most with their menu of small plates was a seamless marriage between eating and drinking – or, to borrow a Spanish term, el aura del vermouth. “It’s a convivial, social way of consuming,” Rosoff says. “You’re pouring vermouth out of barrels and jugs and your table is covered in little plates.” The duo decided there was no better pairing for Moruno’s food than vermouth, which is served as a light aperitif in corner bars and bodegas throughout southern Europe.
The house vermouth at Moruno, called Vermina, comes on tap from biodegradable 5-gallon kegs beneath the bar. It's crafted in collaboration between Rosoff and Steve Clifton, a brewer and winemaker at Palmina Wines in Lompoc. Clifton forages most of the herbs used in the vermouth from the hillsides around Santa Barbara County, using them to flavor a blend of pinot grigio and malvasia wines for the white vermouth, and a red vermouth, which gets its color from a slight addition of Sangiovese.
Vermina at Moruno arrives on the rocks in a glass tumbler, served with a skewer of green olives and a slice of orange. “You’re essentially drinking wine, but it feels more like a cocktail,” Rosoff says. The white variety is bright and lemony, with a gentle herbal bitterness at the finish. The red is slightly earthier. Each is the kind of drink that pairs well with the near-continual California sunshine.
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At Moruno you’ll also find a short cocktail menu crafted by Dave Kupchinsky of the Fiscal Agent, which makes use of vermouth and sherry (and limited shelf space) in simple but brilliant ways, including an old-fashioned made with brandy aged in sherry barrels, a riff on a vermouth Collins called the Inigo Montoya, and a vermouth-heavy Negroni called the Vergoni. In addition, there’s an attractively priced wine list (most bottles are less than $50) that offers unheralded finds from across Spain, Languedoc and southern Italy. At any other restaurant, the wine list or cocktails would be stars unto themselves, but at both Moruno and Bar Vermut, the vermouth undoubtedly and perhaps improbably remains the star.
In two weeks of service, the popularity of vermouth at Moruno has surprised even Rosoff, its biggest booster. “Most of the customers have heard of vermouth, but they've never tried it on its own,” a server explained. "But they're totally down to jump in and order it." So far, it’s been the restaurant's biggest seller, and Rosoff is already looking into bottling Vermina for take-away sales.
The success of vermouth at Moruno has emboldened Rosoff’s vision of Bar Vermut, which he hopes to open in the coming months. “My dream is to serve only vermouth, sherry and gin. And the food will be just things on toothpicks,” he says with a grin. “But we’ll have to see if L.A. is ready for that first.”
Moruno, 6333 W. Third St., Fairfax; (323) 372-1251, morunola.com.