27 April 2015

They Demolished The Hilltop, But They Can’t Take My Memories

The Hilltop Steakhouse in brighter days
Photo courtesy of bothkindsofmusic.com
I felt a twinge of ambivalent nostalgia today at the news that The Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, once a legendary national landmark, was undergoing its final demolition. Countless Bostonians, myself included, recall it fondly as an early experience of Special Occasion Dining in the form of choice-grade steak and gummy lobster pie.

I'll never forget being one of the vast crowds waiting boistrously in its ever-present long lines, the bustle of its enormous dining rooms, and its kitschy Old-West-themed fun, epitomized by the herd of petrified fiberglass cattle out front. “The Smith party of six for Sioux City, Sioux City”, intoned over a scratchy PA by an ancient hostess in a beehive hairdo and cat’s-eye glasses, is an ineffable memory for many of us.

We can all skip the part where Frank Giuffrida -- the founder who opened The Hilltop in 1961 and built it into one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the United States by the early 1980s -- decided eventually to sell it to new owners, who through some combination of cupidity and incompetence began shepherding it through its long, slow decline into irrelevance and eventual oblivion.

The ultimately ignominious end of The Hilltop, once so iconic it was frequently name-checked as “The Hungry Heiffer” by barfly Norm Petersen on the long-running, Boston-set network sitcom “Cheers”, got me thinking about how former restaurant powerhouses lose their luster over time. Hang around long enough, and you're often faced with the question: "Did that place really go downhill, or did my tastes simply evolve past it?"

Both are true with The Hilltop, I think. Plenty of factors beyond its control pushed it into the grave: the rise of attractively-priced national chain steakhouses, the slow fade of US Route 1 roadside culture, the increasingly sophisticated tastes of and options available to the American dining public. It's a rare restaurant I revisit after a couple of decades that: a) is still thriving, and b) still delivers the same joy I remember from my youth. The restaurant business and its customers march relentlessly onward. But not every restaurant is doomed to lose its power to satisfy old hungers, to beguile with no-longer-fashionable charms.

Some of my most treasured dining experiences of the last few years consist of revisiting one of the few restaurants that my dad could afford to take his large, dubiously-mannered brood out to dinner when I was a kid. The family uniformly recalled it fondly long after we had moved away from the area, often talked about it at holidays. So in my dad’s last years of failing health, we decided to bring him back there, hired a wheelchair van to do it. Confounding our muted expectations, the place turned out to be practically preserved in amber, every bit as terrific in its humble way as we'd remembered it. It still had the same icy pitchers of Bud, superb local seafood dishes (steamers, stuffies, and clams casino, particularly), hearty Italian-American fare (notably the house special, a spicy, soupy pasta with white or red sauce and littlenecks, langoustines, shrimp and scallops), and a few Portuguese specialties. (Chouriço and peppers! Pork and clams!)

They even made Manhattans just the way my pop preferred them, with Canadian rye and one of those awful neon-red Maraschino cherries in a squat, sturdy cocktail glass. The granddaughter of the owner who used to take care of us had taken over that duty, though the ancient restaurateur still kept his hand in, tottering around to inspect the place a couple of times a week. It was an uncanny, beautiful time-trip. My family remains deeply grateful for the several occasions we got to take Dad there near the end: it meant a lot to all of us, especially him, to return to a place for which we had such deep affection long ago and yet find everything we loved about it still perfectly intact. Those kind of profound, lovely restaurant experiences are too rare.

RIP, The Hilltop. RIP, all those other restaurants and bars we once loved that the inexorable slog of time has consigned to memory. RIP, oh my papa, a man who wasn’t the most worldly of gourmands -- he adored The Hilltop, too, after all -- but knew enough to recognize a joint with good, unfancy, lovingly-prepared food and drink for not too much money when he saw it, share it with his family and friends when he could, and find that enough.

06 January 2015

Friends of Eater Boston 2014 Year-End Questions: My Responses, Plus Some Honorable Mentions

Illustration courtesy of Eater Boston
Eater Boston, the local affiliate of the national Eater network of city-based blogs covering restaurants, bars and nightlife, is essential reading for local food dorks. Editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal and a cast of contributors cover the length and breadth of the Boston dining and drinking waterfront with impressive depth and welcome sly humor. I've participated in a few of these year-end retrospectives of and looks ahead at the Boston scene, featuring a small group of local professional food and drink feature writers, restaurant critics and bloggers. It's great fun, and I'm always honored to be included. I'm collecting my answers here, including some Honorable Mentions that didn't make it into the Eater features. Check out the whole motley group's responses as well as Eater Boston's other 2014-in-review coverage here.

Eater Boston: What were your top restaurant standbys of 2014? 

MC Slim JB: Friends envy me my restaurant-reviewing gig, not understanding that continually having to research the next new place crimps the time I have to devote to established places I already know and love. Here are a few I managed to get back to repeatedly in spite of that:
  • Café Porto Bello, City Point, the kind of modest, old-school, red-sauce Italian place your grandparents would love, with a welcome bit of Old Southie sass in the service. Pro tip: upgrade to the house-made pasta.
  • J.J. Foley’s Café in the South End, a nonpareil family-run Irish-American tavern with a palpable hundred-plus years of history. Puts the city’s countless dull fake-Irish bars to shame and disgrace.
  • The Franklin Southie, a more modern neighborhood joint with a genuinely loveable bartending crew (one example here). I mourn its imminent passing, though I’m hopeful for its successor, Moonshine 152, from first-time chef/owner Asia Mei. Her cooking at Sam’s at Louis Boston was about the only thing I’ve ever liked about the Seaport.
  • Gene’s Chinese Flatbread, DTX and Woburn Center, lonely local outposts of Shaanxi cuisine, with its emphasis on hearty wheat-based foods like astonishing hand-pulled noodles and mind-blowing accents of garlic, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Soulful, satisfying and cheap: a food nerd’s dream.
  • Dumpling Café, Chinatown. I’d go just for the best soup dumplings in Greater Boston, but its long menu of Taiwanese fare is consistently rewarding and a great bargain.
  • Moody’s Delicatessen, Waltham. The one new place on my list. It plugs a giant hole in our scene with astonishing Jewish deli meats like brilliant pastrami and corned beef, but offers so much more, drawing on French, Italian, Spanish, German and other notable traditions of cold cuts, sausages, and pâtés. If the Food Dork Gods are just, Moody’s expanded wholesale operation will mean you can buy their singular artisanry from your local market soon.
  • The Hawthorne, Kenmore Square. Absolutely brilliant craft bartending on both the technical and hospitality sides of the coin, in a lovely, dimly-lit, hiding-in-plain-sight setting. The short menu of bar snacks is very nice, too. Long, slow kowtow to its sublimely talented bar manager Katie Emmerson (whom I called Boston's best bartender in this year's Boston's Best issue of The Improper Bostonian), who decamped to L.A. late this year.
EB: What were the top restaurant newcomers of 2014?

MCSJB: My favorite new places included:
  • Alden & Harlow. Folks who have been reading me for a decade know I’ve long tried to bring attention to the assiduous work of Michael Scelfo, who elevated a succession of other owners’ restaurants out of deserved obscurity. His first place of his own got my Best New Restaurant of the Year nod in The Improper Bostonian back in July, and I stand by that in December, despite some stiff competition. A humble, dedicated craftsman is finally getting his due. About effing time.
  • Sarma, which I know opened in late 2013 but I was slow to get to, so please indulge me. Running delectably around the Mediterranean, with some emphasis on one of my favorite underrated-by-Americans cuisines (Turkish), this ultra-cool Somerville place makes every sequence of small plates a memorable night out. Vik Hegde’s terrific bar program is another huge plus. One protracted, 20-plate, overstuffed January evening there – did we really say yes to four helpings of the Turkish-style fried chicken thighs with yogurt remoulade? -- was a close second on Single Best Meal of 2014. 
  • La Brasa. Beautiful, eclectic, inventive food, much of it kissed by wood fire and smoke, with another fine bar program. I don’t live in Somerville, but places like this and Sarma make me wish I did.
  • Thao Ngoc. Humble room, incredible Vietnamese fare from a huge menu, and prices so low it feels like theft. Don’t call yourself a food geek if you haven’t been here.
  • Moody’s. I’m no longer bitching about the lack of a proper delicatessen in Boston, even if it means I have to extend my definition of Boston to Waltham. Feast on one of their shockingly good sandwiches on premise if you can, but regardless, don’t leave without an armful of sausages, charcuterie and salumi. No deli in my experience this side of New York or Montreal holds a candle to it.
EB: Describe 2014 in one word.

MCSJB: Smoky! The flavors of wood fire and smoke beguiled me at dozens of places, including Alden & Harlow, La Brasa, Pastoral, Viale, River Bar, the Stoked truck (with its genius wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven on wheels), Row 34, and many others.

EB: What was the best dining neighborhood in 2014? 

MCSJB: I say it every year: Allston. The most diverse concentration of affordable restaurants serving amazing traditional cuisines from all over the globe. I’m hopeful it can sustain more grownup, Western-tradition restaurants like the fine new Glenville Stops, too easily overlooked in its location on an obscure side street. 

EB: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2014?

MCSJB: I was gobsmacked that in the age of Yelp and Instagram I could still uncover a new restaurant that had been open for eight months yet was entirely overlooked by the local press and barely acknowledged by amateur reviewers: Thao Ngoc, a homey Vietnamese place in Fields Corner. One of my favorite new restaurants of 2014: a place to bring six friends, feast like a king, and collect $20 apiece to cover the check, including a fat tip. I’m truly grateful that The Improper occasionally lets me review more modest places like this in sorely under-reported neighborhoods like Dorchester.

EB: What was your single best meal in 2014?

MCSJB: A tasting menu at Giulia in Cambridge. Gorgeous, ravishing yet subtle from start to finish, notably in the house-made pastas that were rolled out earlier in the day on the very table at which we dined. Just a fantastic, traditionally-centered, chef-owned Italian indie, with evident love and long-honed finesse in the cooking. Mike Pagliarini is another original who toiled for years in service to more-famous owners (I long admired his work running Michael Schlow’s Via Matta) that I’m really gratified got the chance to helm his own place.

EB: What was the biggest restaurant grievance of 2014?

MCSJB: The proliferation of popular but mediocre chain restaurants in tourist neighborhoods like the Seaport, which is inflicting a line cook and server shortage on far worthier independent restaurants around town. I cringe at the advantages that deep-pocketed nationals have over home-grown talent. Every dink city in the US has those chains; the quality of Boston’s currently-fantastic scene depends on its indies. Support them, I beg you.

EB: What are your headline predictions for 2015?

MCSJB: I'm not a prognosticator, but I'll offer a few hopes for the new year:
  • Against a welter of evidence to the contrary, I hope that Uber will retire the “Be Evil” plaque that seems to currently inspire its executives, and become a more ethical thorn in the side of our corrupt, deplorable taxi system. Affordable ride-sharing alternatives are not just a boon to customers, but to the many restaurant employees who work past the T’s closing.
  • I firmly expect that the legacy of the great John Gertsen, whom I literally wept to see leave Drink for San Francisco this year, and still-here peers like Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard, Row 34 and The Hawthorne – specifically, their indispensable training of successive waves of highly-skilled craft bartenders -- will continue to be felt in the presence of fine cocktail, wine and beer programs in bars and restaurants all over the city. The next time you raise a glass here with something really good in it, remember how uncommon that was ten years ago, and thank those folks and their gifted lieutenants.
My honorable mentions that did not make their way into Eater Boston's year-end questions:
  • Shojo, already a unique venue for Chinatown with its hip atmosphere and superb cocktail program, getting a serious kitchen upgrade with Mark O’Leary’s smashing, street-food-driven cookery. The most memorable, delicious iteration of the wildly-overblown burger trend I had in 2014 was his witty, mantou-based gloss on a McDonald’s Big Mac. 
  • Chef Chang’s on Back Bay, which offers Bostonians rare glimpses of the foods of Henan, Shaanxi and Xinjiang, among other more familiar regions of China. I’m hopeful that this represents growing local desire to visit the lesser-known corners of the world’s greatest collections of regional cuisines, but at the very least, it’s a huge addition to the Back Bay, a neighborhood that has long been a food-nerd desert.
  • Erbaluce, to my mind the single most consistently soul-satisfying Italian restaurant in Boston, if for nothing else than the way that chef/owner Charles Draghi quietly makes the case for sustainable seafood. One sure way to get people eating less-familiar species is to present them so deliciously that you don’t necessarily notice that the chef’s sourcing choices are better for the health of our scarily-overtaxed fisheries. Not hurting the cause: Draghi’s impeccable grounding in Northern Italian tradition, nor partner Joan Johnson’s heartfelt hospitality and extraordinary, idiosyncratic Italian wine list.
  • Viale, for hitting the ground running with exceptional food, drink and service, admirably filling some very big shoes: the former home of the long-running, beloved Rendezvous in Central Square. Having a team of old pros at the wheel doesn’t guarantee that you will avoid some ugly shakedown-cruise bumps, but Viale crushed it from about Week Two on. 
Happy 2015: good eating and drinking in the coming year!

31 October 2014

RIP, Tom Menino, the Boston food nerd’s friend

Mayor Menino at a charity event
(Photo courtesy of Hubbub)
I can’t add much to the countless heartfelt remembrances of Boston’s late, beloved, longest-tenured mayor, Thomas M. Menino. Myself, I ran into him personally three times, always when browsing the way-marked-down suit racks at the original Filene’s Basement in Downtown Crossing, looking for bargains on my lunch hour. The third time, we exchanged more than pleasantries: I told him I was proud as a Bostonian that he had upped his sartorial game lately with better suits and ties and tailoring. He seemed genuinely pleased. I meant it: I thought he looked more dignified and statesmanlike with his newly-smart dress sense, bringing a much-needed, high-profile dash to our famously schlubby burg.

That’s my only anecdote, one of tens of thousands among a citizenry that, according to one famous survey, more than half of had met Menino personally, an astonishing statistic, and doubtless a big part of the reason he endured and thrived as a popular and effective change agent in Boston for so long.

My real point here is to encourage you to check out these two pieces by Corby Kummer, the longtime restaurant critic of Boston Magazine whom I’ve long admired for his food journalism and estimable books on the history of food. One is a video interview with The Mayor at Esperia Grill (one of my very favorite Greek restaurants in town, in part for its phenomenal pork gyros). It’s part of a promised series by Boston Univerity's BU Today that trailed Menino as he visited local, family-run restaurants out in the neighborhoods. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of those.

The other is a piece Kummer wrote for The Atlantic that makes a convincing case for Menino’s stunning, positive influence on our food scene. I was a longtime Menino supporter, especially appreciated his pioneering advocacy of our food-truck movement, but I had scant idea of how broadly and pervasively he improved our access to quality food, benefiting Bostonians of every age and stripe.

Thanks, Corby, for shining some light on that. And thanks, Mr. Mayor, for being a fellow food nerd, but also one with an aggressive social conscience and political dedication to making good, healthy food available to every one of the citizens about whom you so obviously, deeply cared over a lifetime of public service. That ought to humble every one of us who merely writes about the pleasure in good eating. You left an indelible mark. We owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

22 October 2014

Vanna White Rules the Food World

Vanna White, courtesy of Flickr
Don't ask me how the Facebook comments on a photo I uploaded of my lunch at Gene's Chinese Flatbread, a terrific Boston purveyor of Shaanxi cuisine, somehow morphed into a discussion of so-called food hacks, then devolved into an extended "Chuck Norris Facts"-style riff centered on Vanna White, "Wheel of Fortune" star. But it happened. For my part, I blame a few Guinnesses at a failed night of pub trivia earlier in the evening. But I had enough fun with it to want to reproduce it here. I have since learned that Ms. White, like many people in the entertainment business, has had a troubled relationship with food in her day, no joking matter, so I hope readers take it purely in the affectionate spirit it was intended.

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Marc Hurwitz [esteemed food writer and author of the Hidden Boston collection of blogs, which you should really read if you care about the Boston dining scene]: Vanna White is doing the garlic thing [shaking garlic cloves vigorously between two bowls to quickly peel them, a famous food hack] on Wheel of Fortune right now. I promise this will be on half a dozen food blogs tomorrow at minimum.

MC Slim JB: It's not really a thing until Vanna does it.

Marc: Who cares about Vanna White?

MC: She was way ahead on kale, on food trucks, on poutine. She's an oracle in a spangly evening gown.

Drew Starr [another well-known Boston food writer you should follow]: She taught Jean-Georges how to not finish baking a chocolate cake.

MC: She rearranged her food vertically on opening night at Gotham.

Marc: Wheel of Wow! Who knew? Consider me a convert.

MC: Vanna taught Ferran how to spherify.

MC: Sous-vide was based on Vanna's bathtub regimen.

MC: Vanna put a fried egg on everything when she was in grammar school.

Drew: And told Robuchon to add more butter to his potatoes.

MC: Vanna shames all her bartenders into measuring.

MC: Vanna gently suggested in an early Chowhound post that Danny Meyer should focus on hospitality.

Drew: But she can free pour.

MC: Vanna stabbed James Beard in the heart for being a cold, fish-eyed bastard.

MC: Vanna knows that they're called jimmies, not sprinkles.

MC: Vanna's soufflés rise on the better angels of her nature.

MC: Vanna out-eats Chuck Norris at churrascaria rodizio.

MC: Vanna once drank Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Peter O'Toole under the table.

Drew: When she was running the OSS, Vanna tasked Julia and Paul Child to France, knowing it would result in the reawakening of the American palate.

MC: When Vanna orders dancing shrimp, the shrimp aren't drowned in booze, but voluntarily dance for her before jumping into her mouth to die happy.

Marc: I heard that Vanna has never waited 15 minutes after finishing a meal before returning to the pool.

MC: Vanna eats ortolan without a linen napkin over her head. What does she have to be ashamed of?

MC: Vanna thinks ghost chilies are wimpy, but is too polite to say so.

Drew: If Vanna accidentally puts ketchup on a hot dog, it turns to mustard.

MC: Vanna White forgives Pat Sajak over 4am scrambled eggs.

MC: Vanna White saved David Chang's failing ramen shop by showing him how it's done.

MC: Vanna checked Anthony Bourdain into rehab, but has mixed feelings about it now.

MC: Vanna nearly broke up Bowie and Imam's marriage when he couldn't stop talking about her carnitas tamales.

Drew: Vanna doesn't have to hand-pull noodles; when they see her, they pull themselves

MC: Vladimir Putin fears no man and no thing, but he quakes in hope that Vanna will like his beluga and vodka service.

MC: Vanna was the only one of Keller's friends with the guts to tell him his ratatouille dish in "Ratatouille" was the least appetizing thing in the movie, and as she tartly put it, "That film has a lot of scenes of rats eating garbage."

Drew: I'm sad. Only 5 results on twitter when I searched "vanna garlic"

MC: Vanna once told a young Rene Redzepi, "You know, your food's pretty good, but you know what would make it great? Put a bunch of twigs and stuff on it."

MC: The finest Kobe beef from Hyogo Prefecture comes from Wagyu steers who get daily massages, dine on rice straw, drink sake, and watch an endless looped video of Vanna turning over the letter "K".

MC: The most prized copy of Playboy among collectors features a lingerie shoot of Vanna in which she confesses her favorite dish is "sashimi made from the flesh of my enemies."

MC: As heir to the fortune of a great-grandfather who invented the orange powder essential to Kraft Macaroni n' Cheese, Vanna was expected to go into the industrial food business. Her entertainment career was her way of breaking from the soulless path laid out for her by familial obligations. She has no regrets.

MC: If, after a night of passion with Vanna White, she serves you grilled Fluffernutters in bed the next morning, you did well. If it's Fage with fresh strawberries, don't expect her to return your subsequent calls.

MC: Vanna White gets a nickel royalty for every hamburger served in the US. Yep: everybody serving a hamburger was her idea.

MC: Vanna White likes to tilt at windmills. She's the secret mastermind behind a SuperPAC whose goal is to legislate public-school teaching of European-style dining with the fork in the left hand, knife in the right. Its secondary goal is the US adoption of the metric system.

MC: Vanna White's favorite beauty secret is a good night's sleep. She just texted me to remind me of my early alarm tomorrow.

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I know. Food nerds.

31 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part VI: Moira Costello Horan of The Franklin Southie

Moira Costello Horan of The Franklin Southie
Photo courtesy of Moira Costello Horan
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here.

Here’s number six, my unedited interview with Moira Costello Horan, whom I first ran into at Union Bar & Grille in the South End, later at Local 149 in Southie’s City Point neighborhood, and later still at The Franklin Southie, where she is currently the bar manager. Here are Moira’s original, unvarnished words.

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MC SLIM JB: The life of a professional bartender is a vampiric existence, in the sense that you don’t see a lot of daylight. Plus there’s that pesky requirement to work weekends and holidays, times that many professions enjoy as time off. How do you manage to work a social life, let alone a romantic life, around these constraints? Aside from the professional compensations, are there other advantages to the night owl’s existence that civilians aren’t aware of?

MOIRA COSTELLO HORAN: It is a vampiric existence, but there are many advantages to it. I'm never stuck in traffic, there's never a line at the supermarket, the days I have off are slow ones at bars and restaurants. Restaurants become your family, so holidays are spent with the people you love and care about. I honestly don't have a lot of friends who aren't in the industry because it just doesn't make sense. My boyfriend is a fellow bartender, so we understand each other's schedules. Being so social as a profession makes me want to just stay home on my time off. There is no better place than my couch and being quiet. 

MCSJB: Measure or free-pour?

MCH: Measure cocktails, free-pour mixed drinks.

MCSJB: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

MCH: Gin martinis with a twist. They're delicious. 

MCSJB: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

MCH: Dirty vodka martinis. They're disgusting.

MCSJB: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

MCH: I have lots of tools, but don't particularly feel like the tools make the bartender. 

MCSJB: Most annoying customer behavior?

MCH: Don't wave in my face, don't interrupt me when I'm talking to someone else, don't give me a drink order when I ask you how you're doing.

MCSJB: Spirit that more customers should be trying, and your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?

MCH: Gin is one of my favorite spirits because it’s so versatile. People have so many negative thoughts about gin because of one bad experience in their youth. Screw vodka: I like to get every vodka drinker to at least try gin because essentially it's just flavored vodka. Start with something simple like a Tom Collins, because who doesn't like a Tom Collins? 

MCSJB: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

MCH: On a quiet night when it’s slow. Ask if I have the time first. I will always try to find the time to talk cocktails.

MCSJB: You may have seen this NY Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

MCH: Two words: “bar meeting”.

MCSJB: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

MCH: Beer and a shot: Rittenhouse straight American rye and a Notch Pils, please.

MCSJB: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

MCH: A piña colada. That love came from when I used to live and bartend in Puerto Rico. The difference is now I can use quality ingredients, none of that frozen nonsense. 

MCSJB: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had other than at your place?

MCH: Sarma. Delicious. Great staff. I can't wait to go back.

MCSJB: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

MCH: Tom English's on Dot Ave. Whitey's. Delux Cafe before it closed. 

MC, aside: Happily, the Delux Café has since reopened under new ownership.

MCSJB: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

MCH: Hair of the dog. Pedialyte and Green Chartreuse.

MCSJB, aside: I assume that’s a sequence, not a cocktail.

MCSJB: Most interesting current trend in cocktails?

MCH: Amaro-based cocktails are the jam right now. 

MCSJB: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

MCH: Yeungling. Who cares?

MCSJB: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

MCH: Vermouth in the well.

MCSJB: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

MCH: Tavern Road, because every bartender there is amazingly talented. They make you feel like family as soon as you walk in the door. That's my kind of bar. 

MCSJB: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

MCH: Peter Cipriani [currently at The Franklin Southie]. He is the whole package. 

MCSJB, aside: I'm a big fan of Mr. Cipriani, too.

MCSJB: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

MCH: Try and find the balance between hospitality and knowledge. 

MCSJB: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

MCH: Tom Mastricola [most recently of Commonwealth Cambridge, currently preparing to open Café Artscience]. I met him over three years ago and he's been my go-to guy since. He's legendary and has helped me become the bartender I am today. 

MCSJB: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

MCH: Patience. 

MCSJB: Compose the question you think I should have asked, and answer it.

MCH: “What do you love the most about bartending?” Giving the best possible guest experience, making people smile, and learning.

28 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part V: Tyler Jay Wang of Audubon Boston

Tyler Jay Want of Audubon Boston, Boston, MA
Photo courtesy of onthebar.com
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s number five, my unedited interview with Tyler Jay Wang, whose bartending talents I’ve enjoyed for quite a while at places like Drink, the bar at No. 9 Park (particularly when I had an office nearby), and the Kirkland Tap & Trotter, but about whom I hadn’t seen much written. At the time of the interview, Wang was still at the Kirkland, though he would leave shortly to help launch the bar program at the just-rebooted Audubon Boston. I’m happy to present his unedited responses to my interview questions here.

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MC SLIM JB:  I’ve long praised [Kirkland Tap & Trotter chef/owner Tony Maws's other restaurant] Craigie on Main for its somewhat overlooked bar program, and think Kirkland has much the same thing going on, including my preference for dining and drinking at the bar. What does a KT&T customer get dining at your bar that she might miss sitting in the dining room? Are you a bar or a dining room customer on your own time? Does anyone ever come in for drinks and not get anything to eat? (Maws does some pretty alright food, after all.)

TYLER JAY WANG: The bar at Craigie is a staple for any thoughtful bar patron in the city. Their bar, like No. 9’s, is both elegant and enthralling. While the environment at the Craigie bar is more casual, Tony’s philosophies towards perfection in the kitchen are reflected in the bar program. The bar at Kirkland works the same way. And to cap it off, Tony is generally about three feet away from the service bartender, so his influence is always felt. At Craigie, the bar almost feels like another restaurant. It’s somewhat secluded from the hustle and bustle of the noisy kitchen. In the bar room at KT&T, and especially in the first few seats next to service bar, you can feel the heat from the grill. It becomes a much more interactive experience to sit at the bar.

Frankly, working the service bar at KT&T is the only time I’ve ever felt like no one is watching the bartender. The grill cooks over our shoulders are captivating, and Tony’s open kitchens are always a great show. So a bar patron gets that, but like most bars what really sets the experience apart is the interaction with my ‘tenders. The relationships forged between guest and bartender are always more interactive and personal than those at a table. That’s why I always choose to sit at the bar and one of the reasons I became a bartender.

Yes, we definitely get bar guests who just want to have a couple drinks and hang out with us. They are neighborhood folks and I honestly take their visits as a greatest compliment. To choose our humble bar as the place for your late night tipple against all the other great bars in the area means we really must be doing something right!

MC: Measure or free-pour?

TJW: Measure.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

TJW: Stirred gin cocktails, and shaken ones, and gin neat. Really any gin.

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

TJW: Dirty Martinis. I can eschew judgment on virtually any other beverage, but why do you want the leftover waste from old olives in your cocktail?

MC, aside: This!

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

TJW: My muddler. My dad made it for me from Osage orange wood. It’s modeled after [Drink GM John] Gertsen’s.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

TJW: “Can I have [insert house cocktail] but with vodka, and just a little bit of citrus, and not too sweet, but also like a splash of grenadine?”

MC: Spirit that more customers should be trying?

TJW:  GIN! The “New World gin” category is vast and ever-expanding. People get hung up on Hendrick’s and then never get to try all of the wonderful new gins the craft spirit move is producing. Drink more gin!

MC: Your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?

TJW: Tom Collins. It’s a familiar name, but when made right, a Tom Collins really stands out.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

TJW: Wednesday from 5:30-6:30, and then 10 to midnight.

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers? 

TJW: We’re too new for any of those.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

TJW: Stout and a shot Monday to Saturday, a Sazerac on Sunday.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

TJW: [Broadway musical] In the Heights. What can I say? I went to school for musical theater.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

TJW: No. I’m not a bashful drinker.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your place?

TJW: Astonishing? Shit, probably Per Se last year. But astonishing has like a wow factor to it I wouldn’t attach to Per Se. Per Se was just perfect. Everything was perfect. Astonishing has like, a magical quality to it. On second thought, Ribelle.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

TJW: I make it to Brick & Mortar once a month or so. That place is pretty divey.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

TJW: Don’t drink so much, dummy.

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails (or beer or wine)?

TJW: Can’t say I’ve ever been trendy.

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

TJW: Having every whiskey or amaro that has ever been produced. Curate those lists a little!

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

TJW: Standing up for what they believe in! Don’t just buy shit spirits for no reason. Advocate for better products. Advocacy for our guests and our craft is the most important part of our job. Be excited about something behind the bar and then sell it to me with enthusiasm.

MC: What Greater Boston bar (besides your own) is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

TJW: Visiting Katie at Hawthorne is one of life’s great joys.

MC, aside: Amen to that.

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

TJW: Bar High Five - Tokyo, Polite Provisions - San Diego, Wherever Scott Marshall is working.

MC, aside: For the curious, the brilliant Scott Marshall is now at 22 Square in Savannah, GA.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper has ever said about you or the place you work?

TJW: Plead the 5th

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

TJW: Misty [Kalkofen]. Scotty [Marshall]. Josey [Packard]. John [Gertsen].

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

TJW: Slow down! If you want to be good at what you do, slow down. You can’t call yourself a craft bartender if you don’t take the time to learn about the craft.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

TJW: I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best bartenders in the world, let alone our little town. I would not be who I am today without the patience of Ted Kilpatrick.

MC, aside: For the curious, No. 9 alum Ted Kilpatrick now runs Manhattan's Roof at Park South bar for Boston restaurateurs Tim and Nancy Cushman of O Ya

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

TJW: Sweat the small stuff, make it perfect, and then say fuck it and take it like a shot.

MC: Compose the question you think I should have asked, and answer it.

TJW: Boston needs a small bar that focuses on rum, agave and Latin food. That’s the answer. I’ll take half credit.

25 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part IV: Frederic Yarm of Russell House Tavern

Frederic Yarm of Russell House Tavern, Cambridge, MA
Photo courtesy of  Maggie Campbell of Privateer Rum
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the fourth one, my unedited interview with Frederick Yarm, a relative newcomer to the bartending scene whose work as a cocktail writer I’ve been reading for years, both for his blog and his 2012 book Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book, a historical tour of Boston's cocktail scene. His was another interview that space constraints forced me to slash drastically, so I’m glad to be able to offer the unwhittled version here.

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MC SLIM JB: Improper readers may not know about your Cocktail Virgin blog, or how it has found you sampling and documenting thousands of cocktails from Greater Boston bars for over six and a half years. Russell House Tavern is your first professional bartending gig. How has being a prolific cocktail blogger shaped your experience and outlook as a bartender? And vice versa: how has manning the stick professionally changed your perspective as a cocktail blogger?

FREDERIC YARM: Tasting and writing about a lot about drinks has not shaped my outlook as a bartender so much as the experience of sitting at lots of bars in the process; observing both the good and bad of hospitality, techniques, recipes, and interactions has been an invaluable learning experience. My work with the blog has given me a lot of exposure to a wide variety of styles out there and the pros and cons of each. Discussing my knowledge about cocktails, techniques, and local establishments does help with guest rapport and has helped to solidify some regulars.

Manning the stick professionally has encouraged me to be a more easy going guest, and this has caused me lighten up a bit both in my attitude and the posting rate. If I do not see something on the cocktail menu that I wish to write about, I often will order a beer. If it is a slower night, I will see if the bartender has some off menu items that they wish to make, but I will not push the issue. I definitely want to keep the blog going, but it has become one of my cocktail outlets instead of the main one.

MC: Measure or free-pour?

FY: I originally thought I was only going to jigger everything, but after working a few busy brunches, I got tired of the amount of washing it took to get all traces of serrano pepper-infused mezcal that we use in our Mezcal Mary out of a jigger. I tested out my free pour, and my count is pretty solid for a 2 ounce pour. I will not free pour for anything other than simple drinks like Highballs and Bloody Marys though.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

FY: Drinks with vermouth. For some reason, the Manhattan drinker does not shy away from vermouth nor specify the proportions, but the Martini drinker does. Fresh vermouth is delightful, and I often opt for a 2:1 or equal parts Martini at home. And many guests look confused when you tell them that vermouth and other aromatized wines are a delight to drink on the rocks with an orange twist.

MC, aside: Right on!

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

FY: I have a section in my bar notebook dedicated to “those 70s drinks.” I cannot (or choose not to) remember the difference between a Bay Breeze and a Sea Breeze, and most of them are just fruit mixtures to hide the flavor of vodka.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

FY: A beautiful inlaid three-wood ice crushing mallet made by CME Handworks that I have at home. Actually, it’s a furniture wood carving mallet and they were surprised and amused by my application. I also bought one for Ryan Lotz when he was at Lineage for I felt that he deserved better than the camping mallet he was using to crush ice at the time. At work, I have access to crushed ice from our Kold-Draft machine, so the mallet stays at home.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

FY: Impatience, feelings of entitlement, and lack of sense of humor when things get busy. If guests want a more perfect experience, they should go on the off hours and slower nights. Then again, that suggestion would fall on deaf ears to those types.

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

FY: So far there has been little that has gone too wrong bartending-wise save for a few customers who have gotten a little splash of water from our glass washer or other minor mishaps. Therefore, I’d have to say go with not refusing service to disruptive customers. There was one guest who kept harassing customers more so with each return to the bar during the day, and had to be ejected after the third return. Or the two townie drunks who made such a mess of the place. Besides sucking up a lot of my time, it can make the other guests rather uncomfortable to the point that they transfer from the bar to the table or leave the establishment completely.  I am getting better at dealing with these characters but it is sometimes difficult to switch from a hospitality mode to a more authoritarian state. And this discomfort to guests is probably far -worse than splashing a customer or spilling some drinks.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

FY: Lately, I work mostly day shifts during the week that only can get busy during the lunch burst and the pre-dinner rush. Still, I can generally find time to talk to guests at length save for some Fridays, holidays, and brunch shifts, especially if they are fine with interruptions as I attend to drink tickets and other guests.

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

FY: Yes, we have them, but they are usually tied to a bartender’s, bar back’s, or regular’s name (making it into a verb), so no I don’t feel at ease mentioning them.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

FY: When I have worked nights, it has been Fernet Branca and/or a shift beer from our bottle and cans collection. During the day, my shift drinks have to be done elsewhere. Often, I just wait until I get home, but on a bad day, it’s often stopping in somewhere close by or on the way home for a beer unless I can think of an out of the way place that has a new cocktail on their menu to check out for the blog.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

FY: Not sure I have guilty pleasures like that save for drinking High Lifes although I do that without shame. And when lowbrow things like Fireball or blackberry brandy shots are consumed, I am often with my peers. I do remember when Josh Childs interviewed me for Boston.com after Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book came out, he forced the question and I answered a Rusty Nail, although that’s a legitimate enough drink that I am not embarrassed about consuming.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

FY: Last dive I went to was Paddy’s Lunch for one of the Russell House Tavern bartenders does a few shifts there. But that falls into the realm of why I go out drinking which includes being in front of a specific bartender.  Luke O’Neil included Charlie’s Kitchen in his dive bar book [Boston's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown], so I’ll add that, but I generally go there with co-workers instead of choosing it on my own.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

FY: For settling the stomach, ginger beer or Angostura bitters works well, as does dried candied ginger. For the headache, Advil and coffee will be your friend. Getting fluids is key, but water alone will not provide the lost electrolytes. I am a fan of toughing it out, but if the malaise cannot be shaken by mid-afternoon, sometimes a single drink can even things out.

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

FY: I deleted my response – I don’t want to speak negatively about anyone’s bar program or things they include in their bar program, at least publicly.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

FY: Turning over bar menus. It has become rather common at many establishments that cocktail menus stay static for great lengths of time indicating a lack of focus on the program.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?

FY: I have only made it into one Yelp review; it was more praising the brunch food and it happened to mention that the bartender was great. Between the food order and the party size, I was able to deduce it to the crew of eight who showed up to my ten seat bar on New Year’s Day a few minutes before open.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

FY: John Gertsen for having a vision and enacting on it to elevate Boston’s stature in the cocktail world, and Josh Childs for showing that keeping it simple and focusing on warmth and hospitality is just as important as what is in the glass if not more so.

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

FY: Two sayings that stick in my head are Sam Treadway’s “Bartending is about watering down spirits and babysitting adults” and John Gertsen’s “If you know where everything lives and know how to smile, you’ll be a great bartender.” Both of those sayings remove the ego-driven ideals that plague a lot of bartenders, for a great bartender is one that makes the guests feel special and not one that reinforces the idea that the bartender is the star. And lastly, always keep learning. Read, taste, discuss. And know when guests just want a drink instead of even a hint of pleasantries much less a lecture.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

FY: I would be remiss if I did not name Sam Gabrielli who helped shape me from a restaurant industry newbie into a bartender. I am also thankful for fellow bartender Adam Hockman; when I have complained about certain situations, instead of just giving me a “that sucks” reply, he offers solid advice gathered from his years of experience behind the stick.

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

FY: Always be closing. Bartending is a job that relies on salesmanship, and less about glorified ideals.  Success at previous jobs meant completing projects by a deadline, but that was not tied to my salary which was pretty much fixed. One of the bar backs agreed that learning to close is an important life skill, whether for money or for romance, that should be learned as early in life as possible. Indeed, the movie GlengarryGlen Ross has taught me that coffee’s for closers.

21 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part III: Dan Valachovic of Vee Vee

Dan Valachovic of Vee Vee, Jamaica Plain, MA
Photo courtesy of Dan Valachovic
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the third one, my unedited interview with Dan Valachovic, co-owner of Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain. I included Dan because of his intent focus on local craft beers, a real plus at an already great little indie neighborhood place that I originally reviewed back in 2011. I’m glad to be able to publish his thoughtful answers here, which had to be cut severely for publication.

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MC SLIM JB: Vee Vee is a neighborhood joint leaning local, seasonal and sustainable, with a bar focus on small, local craft brewers. A lot of newcomers seem to be copying your template. Meanwhile, Bostonians have gotten geekier about beer, and their options in like-minded bars have expanded greatly. You were ahead of that curve: what changes have you seen in your customers, suppliers?

DAN VALACHOVIC: The biggest change in the customers has been in trusting what we are putting on our draught list. There are so many new breweries in the area just in the last several years, and many new options for consumers. Our regular customers have come to respect and trust my palate and style of beer that I gravitate towards, and seem happy to try whatever new offering might be available. 

MC: How has it changed your philosophy (if at all) and product mix? What does that rising tide mean for your bar program going forward?

DV: I have found myself digging deeper with specialty distributors and importers in an effort to keep things fresh and current. We are also in talks with JP's Streetcar Wine & Beer shop about collaborating with local breweries for one-off brews. Establishing personal relationships with the local brewers is very important to me and a key to staying on top of things.

Moving forward, I actually like the idea of paring back rather than adding more. We have only four draught lines and about 20 bottles on our list; it's a fun challenge to curate those lists in a way that is interesting and exciting. No fluff or filler.

MC: Beer that you wish more customers would order?

DV: I recently added a rare Belgian beer called De Dolle Arabier to the bottle list. While all of the other beers on the list contain descriptors conveying style and flavor profiles, I simply describe this as "Dan's favorite beer in the world". It's been very interesting to see regulars as well as first-timers order it and monitor their reaction. I've yet to encounter anyone that hasn't thoroughly enjoyed it (or, at least anyone willing to tell me they haven't enjoyed it!)

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

DV: Any of the mass-produced yellow lagers. On the rare occasion that someone asks for one, we point them to a can of Notch Session Pils. It's probably a little hoppier than they are expecting, but most are satisfied.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., tool, book, glassware, etc.?

DV: I built myself a keg fridge in my cellar at home. It's very satisfying to have your favorite beer readily available on demand.

MC, aside: I am green with envy!

MC: Beer style that more customers should be trying?

DV: I really enjoy beers that are fermented with Brettanomyces yeast. When properly used, it can give a beer a tropical, funky complexity that you wouldn't otherwise see.

MC: What’s your favorite example to introduce a newbie to it?

DV: Orval is a Belgian Trappist ale that is fermented with a traditional ale yeast and then re-fermented in the bottle with a slight amount of Brett yeast. So if you try a young bottle next to one that has aged for several months, you can begin to see its effect on the flavor profile. Belgian beer bars often offer different vintages of Orval on their menus: I've been thinking of adding this option as well.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

DV: Tuesday nights either between 5:30-7:00pm or 9:30-10:30pm.

MC: You may have seen this article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

DV: We don't have any of our own, but after that article ran we adopted the "I need you to bar back seat six for me" as a way to retrieve the forgotten name of a regular customer.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

DV: Whatever Trillium beer is currently on tap. Last night was their American Blonde ale, Pocket Pigeon.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

DV: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the Big Star documentary.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

DV: Nothing beats a shandy at the beach. Last summer I bought a case of Leinenkugel’s version, but rumor has it that Narragansett and [RI frozen lemonade maker] Del’s will be teaming up this year, which sounds awesome.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your place?

DV: Last week I stopped off at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine for a quick lunch and had a fried oyster bun and an Oxbow Farmhouse Pale Ale. The sandwich perfectly balances the airy softness of the Asian-style bun with the crunch of the fried oyster and tanginess of tartar sauce and some pickled onions. That lunch is crave-worthy and worth the trip.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

DV: The Galway House on Centre Street in JP is a go-to for a post-shift beer and bar pizza. J.J. Foley’s Fireside Tavern near Forest Hills is the place to go when we feel like darts. Pleasant Cafe is a dependable old-school classic out in Rozzie.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

DV: I keep it pretty simple: a greasy burger, plenty of water and Advil. And a nap.

MC: Most interesting current trend in beer?

DV: Beer brewers experimenting with slight variations on a style. Trillium Brewing and Mystic Brewery are two locals that I see tweaking a standard of theirs just slightly to emphasize how a different hop, grain or yeast can affect the final product.

MC? Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend:

DV: Yuengling.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

DV: Listing serving sizes and ABV of beers on beer menus. It's important to know, especially if you have a long night ahead.

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

DV: State Park. The whole place was designed around having fun and that's exactly what they've accomplished.

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

DV: There's a year-old place in Austin, Texas that I've read about called Craft Pride. They have 52 lines of Texas-only craft beers and park a bacon food truck in their back patio. I look forward to spending an afternoon there some day educating myself on all things Texas beer.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper has ever said about you or your place?

DV: I stay away from reading Yelp. Not much good can come from the anxiety it brings on.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

DV: John Gertsen. He has been a class act innovator for as long as I've been going out in Boston.

MC: Compose the question you think I should have asked, and answer it.

DV: "What are your top three most inspirational beer bars?" 1) The Other Side, Boston (RIP). I had my beer “Aha!” moment there many years ago when I ordered a Duvel with my lunch. That was the moment I realized there was a lot more to beer than I had thought. 2) Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn. They only have a handful of draught lines but the selection is so well thought out. It feels like a funky European cafe inside and all of the furnishings and art and knickknacks are for sale. 3) ‘t Velootje, Ghent, Belgium. I was there is the middle of the winter-- the place has no heat, just a fireplace that the owner feeds rubbish into over the course of the night. There is no beer list, he just pours you what he happens to have that day. Somehow it is just the most wonderful place to enjoy a few beers.

17 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part II: Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen

Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen, Brookline, MA
Photo courtesy of Will Isaza
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the second one, my unedited interview with Will Isaza of Fairsted Kitchen, an independent restaurant in Washington Square, Brookline. I first got to know Will as I was researching my review of Fairsted for The Improper, where he impressed me as a relatively new talent.

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MC SLIM JB: Will, you've probably seen my Improper Bostonian review of Fairsted Kitchen, in which I note its extraordinary hospitality ethos. You may have read my essay about the importance of hospitality to the bartender's game. Is hospitality something that can be learned, or is it purely innate? Did you come in with that inclination already built-in? How does Fairsted cultivate that attitude in the staff?

WILL ISAZA: I think that if someone wants to make a career out of this industry, hospitality should be the first priority. We are in the business of satisfying people through food and drink, but having that little extra flair to make a guest smile I don't think can be taught. I've always loved meeting new people and interacting with many different personalities, it's pretty cool to have a job where I can do that on a nightly basis. My bosses; Andrew Foster, Steve Bowman, and Patrick Gaggiano, have instilled much of that philosophy at Fairsted. They want everyone who walks through the door to feel as though they're at home having dinner/drinks amongst family. Of course that only works because of the staff, we all kind of have that family sense as a staff including management and ownership, therefore that is reflected when we are in the middle of service. Being a small staff helps a lot, but we all genuinely like each other and I don't think that was a mistake. Those guys just really enjoy creating a home style environment and having a great time with guests, which not many places in Boston can do. 

MC: Measure or free-pour?

WI: Mostly measure.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

WI: Vieux Carre.

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

WI: None, they all should be consumed by those who love them!

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

WI: Just give me ice and a Boston shaker and I'll figure out the rest. I'm not really one to be picky about that stuff.  

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?

WI: To quote Mr. [Andrew] Foster, "Never really had annoying guests, just people who don't know what they want". And that's what we're here for. 

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?

WI: Back when I first started tending bar, I was working a busy Friday night service bar, and the guests in front of me got into a really huge argument and proceeded to start their divorce as they had dinner. I gave them a couple shots and told them to love each other, the woman involved immediately started crying and left the bar. Whoops. 

MC: Spirit, wine or beer that more customers should be trying?

WI: Rum or rhum [agricole]. You would think people drink more of it, but they really don't. 

MC: Your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?

WI: It all depends on the individual and what flavors they naturally enjoy. Everyone is different. I never really have a "go-to" recipe without interacting with someone. 

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

WI: I would say Mondays at around 6pm or Tuesdays at around 5pm

MC: You may have seen this New York Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

WI: "Getting Crowed" is unique to Fairsted Kitchen. We treat our VIP guests to a fantastic shot of Old Crow Reserve. 

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

WI: Whisky or whiskey, that's it.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

WI: Esquire's Handbook for Hosts (1953). An awesome handbook on how to be the life of any party. 

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

WI: Daiquiris all around, please. Guests seem confused when I tell them that, but most of my peers share my affinity for daiquiris -- don't you?

[MC: Yep.]

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your employer's?

WI: In Boston I haven't really had time to go out and about because of work, but on vacation, Sylvain in New Orleans was the last great memorable meal I had and would recommend in a heartbeat. The meal was solid from start to finish and the one dish that stood out the most to me was a braised Wagyu beef belly on a bed of toasted parsnips. Just saying it makes me want to go back! 

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

WI: Sligo in Davis Square has always been great, but recently, O’Leary’s on Beacon Street in Brookline has slowly but surely become a black hole of greatness. 

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

WI: Cure? The key is to never go to sleep. 

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails, beer or wine?

WI: I would put bottled cocktails and beer cocktails at the top of the list for current trends. 

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

WI: Bars calling themselves "craft cocktail bars" as opposed to just bars. Over-hyped and bullshit. All great bars should be able to make you a great cocktail and tell you everything you need to know about the ingredients used. 

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

WI: As a guest, I wish that bartenders would focus more on helping me have a great time, rather than just feed me information on what I'm drinking. Most of the times I go to bars to drink, eat, and have a good time, not to be educated.  

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

WI: I think Boston as a whole is killing it right now. It's really tough to single out any one bar. 

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

WI: Bar High Five in Tokyo is definitely up in my Bucket List. The Floridita in Havana and Bodeguita Del Medio in Havana, which I have had the pleasure of attending were the two bars that I really wanted to go to for a long time. I remember the bartender at Bodeguita Del Medio looked at me and said, "Here is the first mojito you have ever had, all the rest have been merely an imitation". Paired with a handmade Cohiba, it was by far the best bar experience I've ever had. 

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

WI: I would tell an aspiring bartender to always keep in mind that your job is to make other people happy, not just yourself. And to enjoy every moment behind any bar, because if you don't enjoy what you’re doing or where you work, then what’s the point? Cocktails, beer, wine, etc. can always be taught and you will only learn as much as you allow yourself to learn.

MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

WI: The first bar manager I ever worked for definitely showed me the ropes and gave me a chance when a lot of people wouldn't. I would say that my style of tending bar was greatly influenced by what he taught me. Also my brother, Moe Isaza, currently a manager at Grafton Street, always pushed me to try new things, and from him I learned the most important thing of all: if I'm not having fun while I'm behind a bar, the people I'm serving won't be either. 

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

WI: Communication in every aspect has definitely been the most useful life skill that tending bar has taught me. You would be surprised how many people start problems and/or misunderstandings by simply not being able to communicate.