Not so long ago, a drink menu was barely an afterthought, certainly nothing resembling important to a restaurant’s basic concept (unless we’re talking Tiki). However, the industry increasingly is seeing menu integration and an awareness that selling drinks is a smart way to sell an establishment's entire operation to customers.
At Burlap, north of San Diego in Del Mar, Calif., a celebrity chef (“Top Chef Season 3” finalist Brian Malarkey) serves “Asian Cowboy,” with drink concepts coming from an in-house mixology team called Snake Oil Cocktail Co. The food seems fiery, savory, sharp and tangy, with some influences from the company’s sister restaurant in downtown San Diego, Searsucker. The new cocktail program, inspired by the Chinese Zodiac menagerie, offers a drink for each sign, all listed on a paper placemat in an approach that sounds much like the 1970s style Chinese restaurant place setting that was found even in diners in those days.
The Cock, featured on the drink menu at Burlap in Del Mar, Calif.
Founded in September 2009, Snake Oil Cocktail Co. is a boutique cocktail design and consulting firm specializing in creating distinctive cocktails for select bars and restaurants, luxury events and couture weddings. Snake Oilers Ian Ward and Lucien Conner say they were inspired by childhood readings. Says Ward: “I used to love reading ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a child where I was given a few options as to where I'd like the story to go. That was the inspiration behind the Zodiac cocktail menu at Burlap. Since certain Zodiac signs are compatible with one another, it seemed appropriate to craft a progressive menu so that guests can choose their own paths. The way our Zodiac cocktail menu works is that all compatible animals/cocktails share either the same spirit or same mixer, allowing guests to enjoy something different with each order.”
In practice, this yields drinks including the Rat — gin, plum wine, maraschino and Chinese five-spice bitters; the Dragon — Szechuan peppers, tequila and Champagne; the Dog — whiskey and lemongrass sour; and the Tiger — gin, King’s Ginger, housemade orange soda and Fernet.
Green tea, yuzu, wasabi and sesame also make appearances in the ingredient list, and the menu employs the team’s interest in housemade sodas. (See my interview with Boulder, Colo., barman Bryan Dayton for more on that trend.) In fact, three of the drinks — the Ox (Benny’s housemade plum soda), the Sheep (Calpico — a brand of cultured milk — egg white, orange blossom and soda) and the Boar (lemon poppy soda) — are alcohol-free but refreshingly adult in description, which in my books gets the cocktail team kudos for recognizing that iced tea and cola alone are not acceptable non-alcohol offerings.
Quenchable drinks make perfect sense in restaurants filled with savory, pungent and fiery flavors, so sodas fit well here. Gin, too, can offering thirst-quenching qualities if employed in a cocktail properly. It’s a slightly gimmicky approach, but one that offers a break-out from the standard menu that emphasizes creativity and arcane knowledge over refreshment and fun.