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Bar Talk: Cool Up North

Posted on  | June 23, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Robb Jones, Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis, MN

Last fall, Daniel Boulud disciple Gavin Kaysen left New York for his native Minneapolis to open Spoon and Stable in the funky North Loop neighborhood. Naturally, the restaurant has been packed ever since. While waiting for their tables—or savoring a solo meal at the bar—diners have also realized that head bartender Robb Jones’s cocktails are reason alone to visit.

The Beverage Network: You don’t work in a standalone bar, but a restaurant. What appeals to you about this type of setting?

Robb Jones: I was a cook for a long time and would miss being around food if I didn’t work in a restaurant. It also turns out I’m better at making drinks than cooking. I transitioned from the kitchen to the bar, when I was at Bradstreet Crafthouse here. It was a project of Alchemy Consulting, the guys behind the Violet Hour in Chicago, and when I saw what they were doing with drinks I became enamored. It was refreshing to see someone treat cocktails like food.

TBN: Does your beverage program have a culinary slant?

RJ: Yes, but the drinks are all based on the classics. There is still this big knowledge gap in the city. Some people don’t understand what classic cocktails are; some do and want a twist on them. When they see the margarita, even though this one has coconut and a chile tincture in it, they’re able to say, “Oh, if I like a margarita I’ll probably like that.” Yes, you will. A classic Brainstorm cocktail has Irish whiskey, vermouth and Bénédictine. Ours is made with rye and blood orange bitters. When they try something like that, we tell them the backstory and they realize it’s good, so they trust us.

We’re still easing our way into the cocktail scene in Minneapolis. Many folks come in with pre-conceived notions about drinks and the menu is designed to make them feel comfortable. They might still be cautious about ordering certain things, but they are now asking for drinks that aren’t too sweet. This mentality is the complete opposite of the 1980s and ’90s, and it’s a very good thing.

TBN: How ambitiously do you tweak the classics?

RJ: For most people an Old Fashioned is comprised of whiskey, sugar, water and bitters. Or, if you’re in Wisconsin, brandy, whole fruit and Sprite. But they’ve probably never had an Old Fashioned like this with Barbados rum, Angostura bitters and a smoky, roasted pineapple demerara syrup. It’s become a house favorite, but for the warmer months our herbal variation on the Mojito with basil and hibiscus is more a fit. I’m also particularly excited about our Bee’s Knees with yellow Chartreuse and barrel-aged gin from a local distillery.

TBN: Do you collaborate directly with Gavin on the drinks?

RJ: He trusts me a lot but he also tastes everything, which I like. I want his feedback as much as possible because he has a great palate. For example, I made a strawberry Oleo Saccharum for one of the drinks—instead of using water to dilute sugar I’ve been making syrups by Cryovac-ing sugar and whole fruit to get an intense flavor—and Gavin tasted it. He said, “You know what would be good with that? Anise.” And he was right. It was so much better. Little things like that are extremely helpful to me.

TBN: What is the challenge of working in a restaurant bar?

RJ: The volume is still extremely high right now. We don’t have a doorman so we can’t control waves and people are constantly waiting on tables. We’re so busy, but my priority remains making sure that our ingredients are made in-house and that my staff always turns out beautiful and precise cocktails no matter the size of the crowd. And we put one new cocktail on the menu every day, which is a nice challenge for my staff and me. 


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