The Best (& Less Than) LA Cocktails 2014
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
A few weeks ago, I returned to LA (past years of recommends here), a region where I spent 12 years of my life and still have family — where I used to frequent music venues and continue to dig into its endless (vastly spread out) food enclaves.
Drink research is easier to manage. For a city that has vastly improved in terms of quality cocktails in recent years, it’s still not exactly overflowing with dream drink destinations as many of my favorite cities in the world are. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of standouts, but I find it pretty easy to keep up on the notable newcomers each year.
Let’s get the not-so-stellar out of the way. My recent returns have yielded a number of spots that fall into underwhelming or decent — and sometimes even bad — categories. Sassafras in Hollywood charms with live Dixieland-meets-soul bands playing from a balcony overlooking a bar that is decidedly Disney-ified New Orleans under a sprawling faux oak tree with interior walls painted to look like an old Southern mansion. Enter this “house” and linger over a drink on vintage furniture. The cocktails are fine – of the simple ginger beer or soda or basic classics kind – but they have definitely improved from what they were when they first opened. The place is more about the kitsch and invigorating-but-deafening live music, although beware: you won’t be able to speak a word to your friends right next to you when bands are playing.
Melrose Umbrella Company, open since January in Fairfax, is absolutely beautiful. They win big points in my book for being decidedly chill and not obnoxious, even on a weekend, which can be hard to come by in LA. Unfortunately, drinks can be unbalanced as with a far too sour (and you’re talking to the queen of sour who can’t stand too-sweet cocktails) Romance Without Pressure ($14), a mix of Oxley gin, passion fruit, cucumber and grapefruit — a hint of simple syrup would have let the flavors sing instead of the whole thing coming of as puckeringly sour and flat. Twig & Berries ($12) fared much better in terms of balance, however, with a vibrant garden mix of muddled red grapes, red and orange bell pepper and lemon with Dos Armadillo Reposado Tequila, perked up with little heat from Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur.
Worst service award goes to The Commissary, upstairs from Roy Choi’s new POT restaurant at the Line Hotel (more on POT in my next LA dining article). I was eager to see what Matthew Biancaniello, who created the menu, has been up to since the 2011 days when he first impressed me as one of LA’s real standout bartenders at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, realizing it wouldn’t be the same without him behind the bar (he’s been doing these intriguing pop-ups). Though the garden atrium setting next to the pool on the Line Hotel rooftop could be seen as “magical” from some angles, the experience is also a bit odd, while serving cocktails in plastic tubs (to take poolside) is not merely odd but annoying.
Far worse were female bartenders who acted disinterested to downright rude with the women among us yet fake-friendly with the men.
The cocktails ($13)? They tended towards herbaceous and garden-fresh as one would expect with Biancello recipes (like passion fruit and Calisaya liqueur in a White Fir), but in the case of a Gin & Juice, it was frustrating to pay $12 for basic well gin (City of London) mixed with one juice in a plastic tub, even if earthy-fresh beet juice and gin is tasty. With literally no other components – and without being a more complex gin like St. George Terroir or the like — it felt like a case of one of those little-effort cocktails that costs the same as labor-intensive cocktails.
And now for the 3 standout new-ish bars, 2 of them in restaurants and all 3 of them in Downtown LA, which as far as I’m concerned has become one of the very best parts of LA for food and drinks lovers:
BAR JACKALOPE inside SEVEN GRAND
After my recent mind-blowing travels around Japan, I more than appreciate the concept and inspiration behind Bar Jackalope, opened in January and hidden in the back of Seven Grand (one of the first better cocktail bars that opened in 2007 after years of hunting for quality cocktail spots in LA – it’s way too mobbed for me to bother going any more but it was one of the early signs of change in LA).
Bypass the noise of Seven Grand (although you’ll still hear its live bands through the wall in Bar Jackalope) and ring the back doorbell in the hallway. Despite the speakeasy nature of such a set up, Jackalope is not pretentious and the intimate bar is blessedly mellow and chill, like the great (and often tiny) Japanese bars. In fact, what the doorbell and regulation does is exactly what it needs to do, which is keep the space intimate and relaxed.
One key difference from countless incredible bars in Japan is certainly the whisk(e)y selection, although it is still a broad and in-depth selection, covering all whisk(e)y categories from American to Scotch. But as those of us who have traveled around Japan know, the bottles available behind so many of the best bars in Japan are unreal, rare and shockingly affordable — bottles we would never see elsewhere or if we did, would be at a huge premium for a taste. So for those of us who “have tasted it all” or have extensive whisk(e)y selections at home, it can be disappointing to pay a lot for a dram that is not that rare.
But the plus is that Jackalope’s attentive staff are very helpful with recommendations, there are options by smaller pours, allowing people to create flights or taste a few — and there is a cigar porch, another very welcome aspect. Besides whiskies, there are three basic cocktails only: The Highball, which is ubiquitous everywhere in Japan (and served beautifully here), an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
All black leather, dark woods, mounted jackalope heads and candlelight, this place is wins high marks for seeking to bring a touch of Japan to the US.
FAITH & FLOWER
Coastal Luxury Management (CLM) — the group behind Los Angeles Food & Wine, Pebble Beach Food & Wine and my Monterey favorite, Restaurant 1833 — opened Faith & Flower this Spring. It’s one of the more striking dining rooms in LA (a city with plenty of striking dining rooms): lush with greens, leather booths, velvet, crystal chandeliers, feather fans and, as at 1833 in Monterey, absinthe and amaro carts.
Chef Michael Hung came from San Francisco’s La Folie and Michael Lay moved from bar manager at 1833 to oversee the program here. His cocktails ($10-14) are a key draw at Faith & Flower and some of the most refined in LA, whether a perfect English Milk Punch (Jerry Thomas’ 1862 recipe, utilizing the fantastic Smith & Cross rum, among other spirits, for added funk and complexity) or a classic Adonis cocktail from Harry Craddock’s 1933 recipe, layered with Fino sherry, Royal Combier orange liqueur, house orange bitters, angelica root tincture and subtly bitter, aromatic Bigalette China-China Amer.
The Harry Winston cocktail is a favorite and one of the best showcases for Japanese blended whiskey I’ve tasted in a cocktail in any city (including Tokyo and Kyoto!). The whisky is combined with King’s Ginger liqueur, kuro sato (an Okinawan black sugar) and house teapot bitters (various herbs and spices), garnished with a flamed orange twist. It’s bracing and elegant, bold and balanced.
While you can savor the drinks over lunch or dinner in F&F’s gorgeous dining room, there is a separate bar area that is first come, first served along the long, inviting bar housing an excellent and wide-ranging spirits selection.
Bestia has been at the top of every kind of restaurant list since it opened in 2012 and is still one of the hardest reservations to secure in town. Despite almost deafening noise when the place is full, I found the bar (first come, first served, though I’d recommend getting there before they open) not overwhelmingly loud, with the full menu available.
Bestia — from chef Ori Menashe (former chef de cuisine at the wonderful Angelini Osteria), his pastry chef wife Genvieve Gergis and restaurateur Bill Chait — succeeds on all fronts in what can easily be a tired category: modern Italian. The food and the wine list (thanks to wine director Maxwell Leer) are all impeccable and I found not a misstep anywhere (note: the wine list has a section just for Riesling, God bless ‘em. There is also a strong list of whites from my favorites like Croatia, Slovenia, Loire Valley, Austria, Hungary, as well as reds from Italy, France, Spain. I loved a dry 2013 Falkenstein Spatlese — $16 a glass — from Mosel, Germany).
Likewise, service is attentive and servers are far more knowledgeable than many an LA hotspot. Though I am used to servers who know their wines and cuisine (and are often sommelier level) here at home, that is not the average server in a destination Los Angeles restaurant. Here, the staff know their food and drink. The bar staff are crafting impeccable cocktails created by LA bar great Julian Cox. Thankfully, execution follows suit and the many drinks I tasted have that all-important sense of balance — and are delicious. In fact, I was most impressed by these cocktails over most LA offerings namely because of a sense of harmony and sophistication.
Our adept bartender served us off-menu twists on a Toronto cocktail and and one of my all time favorite cocktails for nearly a decade, an Old Pal (bartender’s choice drinks are $13).
On menu (Cox’s recipes), I was impressed with the refreshing yet complex layers of Buena Alli ($14), mixing blanco tequila, espadin mezcal, lemon, quince jam, orgeat, bergamot bitters and seltzer. The Vermonster ($14) was another elegant standout, served up, martini-esque with Barr Hill gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Strega, orange bitters and a fig leaf as garnish. If only Bestia wasn’t so hard to get into, this would be one of my top LA hangouts for food and drink.