Posted on | December 18, 2014
Written by | Alia Akkam
The seasonal cocktail program that sommelier Matthew Conway has assembled at Restaurant Marc Forgione, in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, is a compelling complement to both the thoughtful wine list and the acclaimed chef’s cuisine.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: Just like the food, the use of fresh ingredients is one of the cornerstones of your beverage program. Now that we’re in the throes of winter, does that up the ante?
MATTHEW CONWAY: Winter is the hardest season because it’s the one dominated by citrus, when we transition to Meyer lemon and blood orange and use stuff like pomegranate and hibiscus. We don’t ever like to duplicate drinks on the menu, and that becomes more challenging when we have limited seasonal fruits to work with.
TBN: The way diners like to eat has changed considerably. How has the bar scene shifted as a result?
MC: It’s harder to get a table in the dining room, so more people are eating at the bar. You can drink a bottle of wine to close a deal here, get snacks and cocktails, or order a full-blown meal. Some people really like this casual aspect and we have a lot of bar regulars as a result.
TBN: The cocktail list certainly takes cues from the kitchen. Are they a hit with customers?
MC: An enormous percentage of our bar sales—70—comes from the specialty cocktails. We probably sell four martinis and a dozen gin or vodka tonics a week. At other restaurants, fine or casual, classics like these, as well as Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, are popular calls. Not here.
TBN: Why is that?
MC: We list our cocktails only by the spirit—never by a cheeky name or a brand or even mention how the drink is served. Very early on, Marc wanted it to be a cocktail program that was built around the flavor profiles of spirits—the sweetness of rum, the smokiness of tequila and the botanicals of gin—not ingredients that masked them. When people see the menu, it’s usually the combination of the spirit and whatever the second ingredient listed is that drives their decision, like reposado tequila and concord grapes.
TBN: Does this somewhat mysterious menu provoke many questions from patrons?
MC: I’m surprised we don’t get more. If the pairing of rye and quince catches their eye, they’ll order it. Even if it’s something they’re not expecting, the generic description creates pleasure and excitement.
TBN: Beyond an unconventional menu approach, why else do you think the drinks have become so popular here?
MC: Because of the reputation of the program and our presentation. Right now we have 15 different glasses, from single rocks to double rocks to Sazerac. People see other people drinking around them, and whether it’s something in a flute or topped with a flame, they enjoy it. The next time they come back they remember this is where they had a great cocktail. We could do a lot to lower costs and increase margins, but just like Marc in the kitchen, it’s not in our nature to use an inferior product to increase bottom line. Our sophisticated clientele know we don’t take shortcuts. Marc is adamant about using the best ingredients at all times. Ninety-nine percent of people might not notice if we use a less superior quality finishing salt, but Marc would know, and he wouldn’t allow it to happen.
TBN: How do you find staff equally committed to creating such an experience?
MC: I don’t care what your background is, but you have to be passionate about being the best. If a guest asks a server which wine to have with the pork chop and the server asks for my recommendation, I always ask for theirs, because they’ve tasted all the wines, too. In my head, I might never pair the Bordeaux with the pork chop, but if they would it means something to them. That conviction is better than regurgitating what I believe.