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Bar Talk: Food is His Co-Pilot

Posted on  | April 4, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Richard Fell, GM & Beverage Director, Serpico, Philadelphia

Last year, acclaimed restaurateur Stephen Starr’s ever-expanding Philadelphia empire made way for Serpico, the South Street restaurant helmed by James Beard Award-winning—and David Chang of Momofuku fame’s former right hand man—chef Peter Serpico. The food is not the only incentive to settle into a booth, however. The cocktail list, overseen by general manager and beverage director Richard Fell, strikes a balance between simple and engaging.

THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: You worked in New York, but headed to Philadelphia to join the Serpico team. What has that transition been like?

RICHARD FELL: I’m excited to be down here. Ever since washing dishes at 14, I knew I wanted to work in restaurants, and being a part of this group is awesome. The food and beverage scene in Philadelphia is really gaining momentum, so it’s an interesting time.

TBN: Chef Peter Serpico is getting well-deserved raves for his food. How does your beverage program accentuate that?

RF: Overall, our goal is to feature wines, beer, cocktails and spirits that are balanced, tasty and complement the food—because the food is the showcase. We also like to shed light on smaller producers, whether winemakers, brewers or craft distillers, because it introduces our guests to brands they might not be aware of. We hammer out each cocktail so we can make them with speed and efficiency. Guests don’t like to wait for a drink and I don’t either; I’m very impatient.

TBN: As you mentioned, the drink scene is shifting in Philly. How do your customers approach the cocktail list as a result?

RF: What I always tell guests when they come in is that I promise they will find something they like. They should throw caution to the wind, just as they would with the food. I find it’s a lot easier for guests to try a new drink if they’re dissecting a reimagined classic. Our Dream Soda, for example, is a twist on the Dark and Stormy. It’s an approachable and different play with Indian-spiced Amrut Old Port Rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Fernet, lemon and ginger beer. We also did a Negroni with aquavit, and most guests were not familiar with that flavor profile, so we helped spread the word.

TBN: Which cocktails have proven to be big hits?

RF:A fan favorite is the Fall Guy, with Rittenhouse Rye, applejack, lemon and a spritz of Laphroaig. Even though it’s off the list now because it’s a fall drink, we always have all the ingredients available. If a guest comes in looking for it again because they had a memorable experience, we can tell them, “Not a problem. We can still do it for you.”

TBN: Anything new for spring?

RF: We don’t usually do a complete overhaul of the menu. We always have five drinks, including a classic. But we tasted Voyager, a citrusy American dry gin from Washington State, and it was delicious. The bar team said we had to have it on the cocktail list. We waited until spring was almost near to make a drink, the Lydia Deetz, with it. We use spiced pear shrub, Dolin Blanc Vermouth and lavender bitters. It’s well balanced and perfect for this time of year.

TBN: What is the team’s approach to creating cocktails?

RF: We never want to overpower any of the food or cuisine. It’s very organic the way we develop cocktails. There are three bartenders and myself and we’re always thinking out loud or coming up with an idea. Then we go back to the kitchen and say to Peter or Anne, the chef de cuisine, “Hey, taste this. What do you think?” They always help us take drinks to a different level. The next thing you know we’re using pink Sichuan peppercorns that we normally wouldn’t think of.


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