In Chicago, the recently opened Acadia has developed buzz quickly, not least because of head bartender Michael Simon's cocktail program. Simon, lately of Chicago's Graham Elliot and a sommelier by training, has developed drinks with a decided culinary bent, including an ingredient mix incorporating savory blackberry and shallot syrup; cardamom, vanilla and black pepper infused rice milk; and dill coconut ice cubes, among other innovations. What does it take to craft a cutting-edge culinary-influenced cocktail menu in the Windy City today? Let's find out.
Mix: Opening a restaurant menu means every decision is important: what’s the first step you take?
Michael Simon: The first step, and it is not an arbitrary commodity, is to find an identity in your program. I don't mean some prophetical nonsense, like Moses coming down from the mountain; the point is to have a clear, concise vision of how and why you're doing things. In tandem, there must be a ubiquitous understanding of the level of excellence/ambition you want to strive for.
Michael Simon, head bartender at Chicago's Acadia. Photo courtesy of Acadia.
Mix: Is keeping within the culinary theme of Acadia a challenge?
Simon: It could be if Chef Ryan and I didn't share the same ethos/philosophies/passions for this business; i.e., he knows we're on the same page and lets me run the program as I see fit. Themes or styles of service can and should be challenging, however; true cohesion is the sign of a great restaurant. I've found the collaborative process — if you put down the ego and give yourself to it — always yields special results you may never have found on your own.
Mix: Many of the ingredients you use — such as tomatillo with agave and blackberry shallot syrup — represent culinary aspirations. Do you see that as an important ability for today's bartenders?
Simon: I think the precursor of the culinary inspiration is a true understanding of flavor profiles and how best to exploit/augment them. This is an essential ability for today's bartenders. I personally feel, humbly speaking, that part of my skill set includes my culinary knowledge and how conducive it is to bridging flavor combinations to update classic drinks. That being said, just tacking on culinary flare because someone feels it's now, in 2012, part and parcel with making drinks — well, that's a slippery slope.
Mix: Your drinks also embrace many of the new distiller and boutique brands. Does curating a unique selection of spirits have drawbacks? Advantages?
Simon: Drawbacks are I don't have the giant companies shoving money in my pocket or the pocket of my restaurant... kidding. Advantages: taking solace in serving out guests a superior product with integrity. All jokes aside, this is paramount to everything.
Mix: Besides the culinary component and curated spirits selection, what's most important about your menu?
Simon: Thoughtful, evolved takes on classic cocktails/drinks. My background was actually as a sommelier, so commodities like structure and balance are very important to me, and what's in the glass. I look at it as more of a laboratory; the focus is on the work, not myself, my ego or my "brand."
Mix: Does this sort of refined drink menu require much hand selling and customer explanation, or are customers now expecting this level of cocktailing?
Simon: I can say with humility/pride that my fellow Chicagoans are expecting and enthusiastic for the most part. That being said, we still sell/explain with the utmost care and credulity; we also bust our asses to be as efficient as possible. Having an intricate/ambitious bar is not tantamount to being aloof or out of touch that guests want their drinks in a timely manner.
Mix: What's your favorite drink these days?
Simon: Fernet branca in my tea mug mostly.