I tried to treat each drink as though it were a dish — sweet, savory, herbal,” Chef Jason Dady explained to On the Rocks. “So I made a grid with spirits, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices and used that as a building block.” And all the time we thought inspiration came from some great back bar in the sky.
But the handcrafted cocktails at Restaurant Insignia, the latest addition to the ever-growing Dady culinary empire, do bear the mark of conscious creation. And they look and taste like the work of a chef.
Take the Cherry Soda, a perennial crowd pleaser at the bar. It’s composed of black-cherry soda, Tito’s Vodka, cherry jam, fresh sage leaves, and lime juice. (With a little experimentation, you could probably come up with a version of your own.) But sub out the vodka (or not, for that matter), and you have something that sounds great for a pork-loin glaze.
The Bloody Bull appears to be a takeoff on both the Bloody Mary and the Bull Shot — or even other versions of a Bloody Bull, which is made with Worcestershire, Tabasco, horseradish, and beef bouillon — but it’s much more calculated. (And doesn’t have the bouillon.) It also blends a little east with its west. Dady starts with Partida Blanco Tequila, adds Sriracha (an American-made Asian-style chili sauce), includes cherry tomatoes and celery hearts, and — the kicker — he chills the mix with horseradish-infused ice cubes. “I wanted to have the heat change as the drink sat there,” says Dady. “Also, fire and ice is a neat effect.”
As much as Dady doesn’t cleave to the typical bartender mantras (we had the importance-of-ice-cubes discussion, for example, and he prefers to leave that to the booze pros), he does admit to being inspired by a speakeasy-type bar he went to in Manhattan after a presentation at the James Beard House. The bartenders were in pharmacy-coat garb, he recounts, and the drinks were served from apothecary jars. There’s none of this kind of overt theater at Insignia, but there is a brand and ingredient mystique nonetheless.
The ingredient focus doesn’t extend to infusions, however. “I’m not opposed to them,” he says, “but I wanted to concentrate on the spirits themselves.” And he didn’t want his list to read as though it had been created by a liquor rep. It doesn’t — right down to the Hussong’s Tequila used for Dady’s version of the margarita. The tequila is named for a bar in Baja (not necessarily a good omen) and has fervent fans as well as fierce detractors. But all agree that it’s “unique” — clearly what Dady wanted.
Hendrick’s, a Scottish gin distilled with an infusion of cucumber and rose petals, is also unique, and it’s no accident that it figures in the Dady-created A Bitter End: the cucumber and rose seem especially tuned to the addition of lavender in this bittersweet drink. “I don’t believe in culinary secrets,” says Dady, so he readily agreed to share the recipe. (Note: If you find muddling the lemon quarters yields too much oil from the peel for your taste, just substitute 2 oz. of lemon juice.)
A Bitter End
2 oz. Hendrick’s Gin (Try not to substitute the first time out)
2 oz. freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
½ oz. Campari
2 lemon quarters (or 2 oz. fresh lemon juice)
½ oz. sugar cane (available at Latin grocery stores)
1 t lavender blossoms (available at World Market)
In a shaker, muddle lemon quarters, sugar cane, and lavender. (If using lemon juice in lieu of muddling lemon, add it to the muddling mix.) Add 2 oz. ice cubes, the gin, grapefruit juice, and Campari. Shake vigorously. Strain with fine strainer into Collins glass with fresh ice. (Unlike the horseradish, Dady doesn’t want the lavender to linger in this drink, hence the fine strainer.)
I haven’t tried this, but it occurs to me that if sugar cane proves hard to find, you might try a couple of alternatives: a simple syrup made from demerara sugar (start with a scant ½ oz.), or the same amount of agave nectar.
“At the end of the day, a lot of people still just want a classic Crown and Coke,” says Dady a tad ruefully — and of course Insignia can supply it. But at the end of the day he’s also a chef, and by virtue of the kitchen garden planted at the Lodge, an especially attuned one at that. So look for Spring tweaks to the drinks menu. Though I suspect it’s more of a summer libation, I am nevertheless lobbying for the return of Licorice Love, a drink that was 86-ed from the original cocktail list due to lack of popularity. Happens to me all the time. •