Handwritten in the pages of an otherwise nondescript journal is a chronicle of sorts; kept by beverage director Brian Kane of Philadelphia’s Zahav, it details three years of drink ideas, recipe development and experimental cocktails—each of them made only once.
It’s not exactly uncommon for a bartender to keep such a record, but this particular journal stands out for another reason entirely: It’s the primary account of the cocktails created as part of the beverage pairing program Michael Solomonov’s chef’s counter, a relatively short-lived pop-up restaurant within Zahav, launched in August, 2012. It was there that Kane instituted a truly unusual concept—a number of à la minute cocktail concepts, tailored to each individual diner, that changed on a daily basis.
“What evolved was this arsenal of these one-time drinks and these ideas that we maybe only tried once, but we kept a record of,” explains Kane. “It was an opportunity to push the envelope a little bit and see how creative we could get with new ingredients and combinations.”
From the start, the beverage team had intended that pairings be geared towards the unusual, and Kane, who began his career as a sommelier, was quick to institute a series of elaborate pairing menus that incorporated sherries, dessert wines and cocktails. But the bar team soon realized that many diners weren’t as adventurous as they’d hoped or assumed. Often, guests would object to sweet wines, or request a red wine-only menu. As a result, the bar team deemed it necessary to rework their strategy.
“We kind of had to curb our hubris,” explains Kane, “and remember that no matter what, [the pairings] had to be based on the guest, which was frustrating at first, but turned out to be kind of an epiphany.”
It was then that he began a process of sitting down with diners—itself made possible by the small size of the chef’s counter, which was limited to reservations on Friday or Saturday nights for two to four diners. From there, Kane would ask about their likes and dislikes, eventually using the conversation to help the bar team come up not only with wine and beer pairings, but with new ideas for cocktails. So whereas a conventional bar might spend a number of weeks working on one drink, the chef’s counter made a habit of debuting new ones each day, often drawing inspiration from the dishes coming out of the kitchen.
“The pairing would be based on whatever you’d mentioned, but we’d kind of incorporate a little bit of Wu-Tang into it,” says Kane. “If we were having a corn consommé at a later point in the meal, and you’d mentioned that you really liked gin Martinis, maybe . . . I’d start you with a basic Vesper martini, but instead of using all Lillet, I’d use a little bit of the corn consommé.”
This sort of hurried, unconventional thinking isn’t feasible for most bars, admits Kane, citing the difficulty of executing what he refers to as “controlled improvisation” for an entire room. But it afforded the bar team a unique opportunity to test out their most unusual ideas on just a small number of willing guests—and, according to Kane, instilled a greater sense of confidence.
Though there were certainly a number of culinary cocktails in play (a guacamole-inspired Margarita, for example, made use of clarified tomatillo juice, cilantro and orange-coriander simple syrup) others called on wines not normally incorporated into the bartender’s arsenal. Prompted by a guest to deliver an “all-riesling” menu, explains Kane, he began replacing simple syrup and honey in certain cocktails with late-harvest dessert wines. (In an even more unorthodox move, that particular menu also saw a wine-inflected riff on a shandy that called for a combination of riesling and beer.)
“As it started to evolve, it was an opportunity to try [these ideas] on actual people who were fired-up and open-minded,” says Kane. “So there was a little bit of selfishness, too.”
In addition, it encouraged the team to expand the backbar. With some guests returning as many as a dozen times, Kane worked with bartenders to incorporate a wide variety of vermouths and amari into the cocktail program, often mixing them together to create new flavors and new drinks. All of this, of course, was to ensure that diners would never have the same experience twice.
Though the chef’s counter closed in late 2015, its ethos notably carried over into the cocktail program at the restaurant group’s more recent addition, Abe Fisher, a snug, casual restaurant and bar that opened in 2014. There, Kane has instituted a cocktail menu with a comparatively high turnover (he estimates that a new drink is added once every three weeks, at minimum) that draws on many of the ideas, recipes and tinctures documented in that journal.
Again, the attention paid to amari and vermouth is ever-present, as is the emphasis on culinary cocktails, evident in a rum-based, pho-inspired cocktail Kane is currently working on. Sweetened with sugar-macerated cinnamon, coriander, star anise and dried lime, and built on a base of charred onions and ginger that have been puréed and strained, the drink is designed to mimic the flavors central to the classic Vietnamese broth.
“The original idea [of the journal] was to keep track of all these things, not necessarily to do them again,” says Kane. Today, the objective isn’t so much to recreate the drinks he’d developed at Zahav, but, he says, “to keep the spirit of the counter alive.”