Why Bartenders Need to Think Like Chefs

It often feels like bartenders and chefs at the same restaurant operate in the own worlds. But at Nightbell, drinks are meant to pair with and even season the food.

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Jan 1 2017, 5:00pm

Persephone's Sin arrives at my table, wisps of aromatic smoke from a freshly lit sprig of rosemary still circling the rim of the low rocks glass. I lean back into the plush, velvet loveseat adjacent to the Nightbell bar and take a sip.

It's sweet without being sugary, smoky and herbaceous, with a heady build of alcoholic heat and a final citrus-vinegar punch. It's as close to perfectly balanced as a cocktail can get—and stays that way through several small plates (dishes like a creamy "deviled egg" with corn sabayon and smoked trout gravlax served in a precious halved egg shell, or steak tartare poised in a feuille de brick cone).

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Steak tartare. Photo courtesy of Nightbell.

The secret to the pleasantly cohesive experience? It could be that the idea for this cocktail started in the kitchen—making Nightbell one of many restaurants transforming the standby "drinks before dinner" routine into something more intimately connected to the whole dining experience.

But let's rewind just a bit. I was in Asheville, North Carolina on a whim for a weekend of biscuits, barbecue, and the off-chance that I might snag a reservation to Chef Katie Button's acclaimed Cúrate; her first cookbook of the same name was released October 11. Button, a José Andrés restaurants alum, is known nationally for the restaurant's modern Spanish tapas menu. When I got into town and checked, tables were booked two weeks out.

"But," a helpful CVB rep offered over the phone. "Maybe you could try Katie's other concept, Nightbell? It's like upscale Appalachian comfort food. Small plates, too."

That night, I arrived at the restaurant—a small space with exposed brick and sleek furniture—with several minutes to spare before my table would be ready. Time to check out the bar. After a quick scan of the menu, I chose Persephone's Sin based on the name.

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Persephone's Sin. Photo by the author.
10624975_517209968425716_7414916722012833935_n A "deviled egg" with corn sabayon and smoked trout gravlax. Photo courtesy of Nightbell.

Partly because it sounds just a tad suggestive. Partly because of its clever nod to Greek mythology, in which Hades gives Zeus' daughter Persephone pomegranate seeds—which is why the cocktail features pomegranate-rosemary syrup (in addition to vodka, orange, amaro Montenegro, a splash of red wine vinegar, lemon twist, and soda water).

Like the small plates that came after it, Persephone's Sin was tightly composed, seasonal, and playful. The balance that makes Button's bites memorable was successfully replicated in craft cocktail form, leading to a totally consistent dining experience—from bar to table.

It's a concept that sounds easy in theory, but often lacks when it comes to execution. Surely you have been to a restaurant where it seems like the bartenders and back-of-house staff are having some kind of standoff because the food and beverage options are so disjointed?

That's definitely not the case here.

Felix Meana is the beverage director and co-owner of Nightbell and Cúrate, as well as Button's husband.

"What I love about our bar program at Nightbell is the effort that our bartenders put into creating drinks that will complement the dishes on our menu," Meana says. "They are super passionate about that and it makes the whole experience in the restaurant that much more cohesive."

Meana says Dan Byers, one of the restaurant's bartenders, is responsible for the creation of Persephone's Sin.

Byers, in turn, says he came up with the idea while making a pork loin rubbed with rosemary and a pomegranate glaze. The lightbulb went off while cooking and he began experimenting with the cocktail the next day at work.

"I believe that when creating any cocktail, having love for cooking and spirits alike is an integral part to its success," Byers says. "Our team behind the bar prides itself with being creative and diligently working on finding new ways to incorporate many different profiles into each cocktail."

That's a point bartender Phoebe Esmon (who has establishing quite a reputation for herself thanks to her innovative work in craft cocktails) takes seriously, especially when it comes to translating Nightbell's focus on Appalachian foodways into a drink.

"While it is true that some of the most comfortable of the comfort foods hail from Appalachia, a major part of the food culture centers on various methods of preservation," Esmon says. "At Nightbell we take a historical view of seasonality, which means that we use what needs to be used immediately, and preserve everything that can be preserved for use when it is no longer available."

Esmon explains the restaurant's preservation program, which encompasses both the bar and the kitchen, embraces jams, jellies, preserves, shrubs, pickling, bitters, and tinctures.

"This allows the kitchen and the bar a greater breadth of potential creativity, while cutting down on spoilage and food cost," she says. "All of those things can be and are used in cocktails on the list."

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The Nightbell bar. Photo courtesy of Nightbell.
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When the kitchen is working on a new menu—which changes seasonally—Esmon says they give her a list of potential dishes, so she can begin to develop drinks that work alongside the food, in addition to standing on their own.

She says when it comes to food pairing, you can go for closeness or contrast. For instance, one of her favorite new dishes is a butter-poached flounder, which has a richness accented by a bittersweet lemon peel reduction and grounded by an earthy black walnut gremolata.

"I pair it with the Go Down Moses, a -inspired riff on a 19th-century classic, Jerry Thomas' Japanese cocktail," Emson says. "A generous pour of locally produced apple brandy balances with a richly textured walnut syrup to match the body of the velvety fish meat, and orange and fig bitters pick up the earthiness of black walnut and the pithiness of the reduction."

Nightbell manager Joe Minnich—who has a background as a sommelier—sums up the restaurant's pairing philosophy.

"Just as with wine, you take like flavors and place them together, or complementary flavors create harmony," he says. "In a sense, the drink pairs and even seasons the dish on the palate."

And ultimately, it's this harmony that Byers feels customers appreciate our of a restaurant bar program.

"The bar scene is changing and people expect more from their drink of choice," he says. "Our combination of knowledge of the kitchen and spirits is hopefully what will set us apart."

This story previously appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2016.