The other night at Melisse, chef Josiah Citrin, beverage director Brian Kalliel and their new cocktail consultant, Pablo Moix, were working on reviving the Zombie.
Not the undead, flesh-eating sort, but the cocktail variety, brought to life in the '30s by Donn Beach at his Hollywood restaurant Don the Beachcomber, just after the repeal of Prohibition. It required three rums — Flor de Caña 4-Year, Appleton VX and something called Smith & Cross “Navy Strength,” which, at 100 proof, probably had the power to zombify all by itself.
At Melisse, Citrin and his chef de cuisine, Ken Takayama, mixed these rums with gelatin for perhaps the most exotic Jell-O shot ever devised. They next infused pineapple with lemon and lime zest and made a soda of that, then composed a mousse-like sphere of mint and something Citrin called “dipping dots”: passionfruit sorbet, dosed with liquid nitrogen. The result was a kind of half-state for several suspended flavors, which, as they came up to room temperature, combined in a way that seemed creepy and thrilling at once, more zombie than any Zombie before it.
That's what happens when a two-star Michelin chef gets behind a bar.
This past week, Citrin, Kalliel and Moix rolled out a wildly ambitious new bar program at Melisse, made all the more ambitious because there is no bar, per se, in the restaurant — at least, not one the guests can see or belly up to. This fact was not lost on Moix, a consultant who, with partner Steve Livigni, was behind some of the more successful (and Spirited Award-nominated) bars in the city, including La Descarga and Harvard & Stone, as well as the opulent new Hollywood venue Pour Vous.
Moix is generally leery of working with restaurants. Although he's been employed by them most of his life, he sums up his previous experience developing cocktail programs for them this way: “They didn't really want what they hired me for.”
“So we sat Pablo in the restaurant,” Kalliel says, “and presented him with almost nothing — a couple of amuse-bouches — and he's like, 'OK, wait a second, I gotta go think about this.' And then he, like, left after two bites and a sip of rosé.”
Moix explains that he didn't need to go any further. “They told me to go with the style of the dining,” he says — and in just two bites, he could tell that style was one of the most refined in the city.
The cocktail list represents a robust and powerfully flavored set of drinks: many classics, as you'd expect, but also many unexpected twists, whether it's the Cynar-scented Manhattan or the Cameron Coup, with two whiskeys brightened by orgeat syrup and lemon, served with a single massive cube of ice that crowds the drink and seems never to melt, keeping it chilled without diluting it.
Kalliel and Moix's biggest challenge was working in a bar without the benefit of the most arresting visual cues in a bar: the bottles. “I had to really work with the staff,” Moix says, “making and tasting every drink over and over again, tasting through every spirit, until they could represent every category. Now they're my back bar, you know what I mean?”
Kalliel, for his part, contributed some of the most vivid and evocative tasting notes I've ever seen in a cocktail menu. With a sommelier's acuity, Kalliel parses the subtle distinctions between, say, Highland and Speyside scotches, Dutch and English gins, rum and rhum agricole. Hell, he even makes vodka sound like something you might want to drink. “It was the only way to marry the back bar to the front of the house,” he says.
“People don't think about drinks like that, but I do.”
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Have a spirits question for a future column? Ask him. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.