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Bar Talk: The Middleman

Posted on  | April 25, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Daniel Brancusi, Vitae, New York City

When a restaurant opens in Midtown Manhattan, a suited crowd, in search of post-corporate unwinding, is a probable demographic. Elegant newcomer Vitae is no exception. During “cocktail hour,” the x-shaped table in the entry is packed with movers and shakers sipping the likes of ZD Napa Chardonnay and Parusso Barolo—there are 30 wines available by the glass—and sharing charcuterie plates. How does bartender Daniel Brancusi, an alum of José Andrés and B.R. Guest restaurants, reach this business-centric crew? By simply giving them what they want.

THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: Unlike, say, an edgy East Village bar, where patrons seek out adventurous cocktails, guests at Vitae seem more likely to play it safe with martinis. How do you navigate predictable predilections?

DANIEL BRANCUSI: Very carefully. There aren’t that many wild drinks on the menu, but we cement it with classics. Many mixologists create these crazy cocktails without looking back. I always want to be rooted. Our menu progresses through cocktail eras, starting with the Fish House Punch from the 1790s. We’ll offer a modern spin on the Sazerac [the El Gallito with jalapeno-infused tequila, mezcal, hibiscus cordial, mole and celery bitters and Herbsaint] but then the staff also needs to understand how to make a proper Sazerac.

TBN: So educating the staff is key?

DB: The staff has embraced the cocktail program, so they know how to sell it. But they also have an understanding of the classics. If a guest asks for something with Nonino grappa, we have to know what to do with it. Some bars have Pernod sitting on the shelf but they don’t know how to use it in a drink. Whether a guest wants something with bourbon that is not sweet or with tequila that is sweet, we have to be able to deliver.

TBN: You used to work for José Andrés. How do you feel that experience influences you behind the bar at Vitae?

DB: We used to do a salt air, an essence, on the margarita there. But time is an issue here. These guys aren’t going to wait around for drinks. We can’t be as serious. We have a Painkiller [the classic rum and cream of coconut drink adapted from George and Marie Myrick’s circa 1971 recipe] but at the same time there’s an attention to detail. We make our own orgeat, tonic and ginger beer.

TBN: What are the most popular drinks on the menu?

DB: The highest-selling is the Bourbon Sidecar [with Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon instead of the usual Cognac] and then the Bayou Buck [Tito’s vodka, St. George absinthe, honey-ginger syrup, fresh lime juice, ginger beer and Peychaud’s Bitters]. I don’t think of it as a vodka cocktail, though, but as an absinthe and ginger drink that has vodka. If things don’t work we take them off the menu. It’s evolving. It should always be evolving.

TBN: How do you encourage your guests, who might be set in their ways, to try something outside their comfort zone?

DB: To push boundaries in Midtown, maybe this sounds corny, but you need to stay true to yourself. Maybe they’re asking for a martini, but you want that martini to be so well made that they’ll trust you, and then the next time they’ll maybe try a Sidecar, and then the next time they’ll try a Negroni. People are jaded by the eccentricities of cocktails, not classics done right.



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