Naomi Levy was promoted to the role of bar manager at Eastern Standard in July, and since then she's really shaken up (pun intended) the cocktail menu. Eater had the chance to chat with her about the inspiration for these changes as well as what's to come.
Since taking on your new role, what changes have you have you made to the bar program?
The biggest change that we made to the program is cutting down the cocktail list significantly. We went from about 55 cocktails to 22 cocktails, so that's really huge. It's something that I worked on with our beverage director. We did it so that we could change it up more often than we used to in order to keep things fresh and a bit more curated.
Can you walk me through the menu a little bit?
Currently, our two highlighted sections — we have the Ode to N'oleans, and we put this on about a week before we all went down there for Tales of the Cocktail, so this region was really on our mind. Also, for summertime, these drinks are just great. This top area has all classic cocktails, but we do our own recipes for them. We also try to do little plays on the classics, and we think about how we can make them into Eastern Standard cocktails while still staying true to the original.
We also always have a milk punch on the menu that changes very regularly. That's been my baby for quite a while — maybe three years now, I've been doing the milk punches? That one is always super seasonal. Currently it is peach and bourbon, and I will give a little sneak peek on what the next one will be: plum. It's just fun to change these up regularly, and we have guests that sometimes only come here specifically for the milk punches. The other drinks in the middle of the menu are takes on classics, and then at the bottom of the menu, we have some old Eastern Standard favorites.
The bottom highlighted corner is really inspired by food. We've just had such fun stuff. Right now we have a "Street Maize" cocktail which pairs mezcal with a fresh corn syrup that we're making, and it gets lime and salt and gets served with a little sidecar of popcorn. This is supposed to be like Mexican street corn. We then have a cocktail with white balsamic vinegar in it, which we use for the acid, and then finally we have one that is essentially a spiked Thai iced tea. We're using lemongrass and infusing it in gin, and then we're using local teas, which is fun. It's all local ingredients, but the drink is inspired by somewhere else in the world.
Where do you get your inspiration for drinks?
Inspiration comes two-fold, really. I get a lot of inspiration from the classics, something that this bar program has always been built on, and we do different spins on those classics. I personally get my inspiration from a very culinary way. Every time I go out to eat or I have dessert, it really makes me think about how those flavors could work in a cocktail.
How closely do you work with the kitchen here to develop your cocktails?
I've been able to develop a very collaborative relationship with the kitchen, more so than we've had the opportunity to have in the past. Myself and our chef have been working together when it comes to getting produce, and he's always telling me what's at the market and what's cool for me to get. I also let him him know about things that I want to get, and every once in a while he'll come to me and ask me about a spirit that he wants to use in a culinary preparation. We've had a really wonderful rapport. I ask his opinions on my infusions, and he helps out by introducing me to ingredients that I may not be as familiar with. It's just been a really wonderful relationship. It just feels like a little more of a collaboration between the front of the house and the back of the house.
What's the most unique ingredient that you've used so far in a cocktail?
We've been using a lot of interesting ingredients on the menu, like lemongrass. We made a lemongrass-infused gin. The lemongrass is coming from Eva's Garden in Dartmouth, and it's not like the lemongrass that you may buy at Whole Foods, which is very fibrous. Instead, this one is more like actual grass, and it's pretty cool. It acts a little differently than the traditional Asian variety. We've also done a carrot and lovage-infused Lillet Blanc, so we're getting more into ingredients that you may not classically think of in cocktails.
Have you found that guests are open to these ingredients being in their cocktails?
People get psyched about it. It might take a little more talking from the service staff here to get somebody into a cocktail like that, but more and more people are looking for more vegetal and savory cocktails, and it's become more and more en vogue. Certainly Bloody Mary drinkers are right at home and are seeking something a little more savory. It's just been really fun. There have been some people who aren't sure, but then you put it in front of them, and they're just like, Oh, OK. Cool. It's just a really fun experience.
I understand that you also professionally compete with your cocktails. What's that like?
Yes, I do participate in cocktail competitions. I haven't this summer, though. The big one I did, which was the Bacardi Legacy Competition, I won in the United States and then I was sent to Russia to compete, so that's been really fun. I've had a lot of luck with the competitions, so I took a little break as I come into this new role here. I did just enter a new one recently — I'm not going to say what it is because I haven't even heard back yet to know if I made it past the selections round, but I do intend to do them every now and again when the timing is right.
We also encourage our bartenders to do these competitions because it's such a great opportunity to meet with other bartenders and to be able to see what other people are doing. Whether it's within the city, nationally, or even internationally, it's just such a fantastic learning experience. There's just great camaraderie and you build this really wonderful network of bartenders. The thing about bartender competitions that I just think is so unique is that it never once felt like a contest. We're all tasting each other's drinks, and it always felt way more together than us at each other's throats.
When you're not working, where do you like to go to get a drink?
I would say that I probably go out for a drink once a month. We're all guilty of just going out close to where you live, so everywhere I'm going to say is close to where I live, and there are other fantastic places around the city as well. I've been going to State Park and Trina's Starlight Lounge a lot. I also was part of the opening staff at Hungry Mother, and I love those guys; I just love supporting them. If I can schlep myself across the river, I like to go to Drink. So, some people know this about me, but I actually am not a big drinker. I actually don't really drink at all. I can tell you all of the great places to go to get a good cocktail, but I drink beer and ciders and simple things like vermouth on the rocks, so I just go to my favorite places in my neighborhood.
As we're heading into a new season, what are you most looking forward to?
This menu is constantly evolving, and what people can look forward to it getting to its next evolution, which I'm not going to talk about just yet, but look for it towards the end of September. What's really nice is that with our seasonal section, we've been able to change it up pretty rapid fire throughout the summer as fresh produce changes. We've also been able to switch up this little section of the menu almost once a month. We are really looking forward to working more with local farms. That's something that Chef really works with me on. We're keeping this section really local and super seasonal, and we're working on some other cocktails that really go outside of the box. We also have the classics, and we'll be taking those just a few more steps away as well.
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