When we’re looking for a bar to write about for this column, it usually helps if a space has an actual bar. Until recently that wasn’t really the case at Pops, the small South End bistro with the cozy greenhouse dining room. A recent major renovation has remedied that, flipping the four-seat service bar over to the other side of the room and expanding it to about 16 seats. In conjunction with that they’ve also just introduced a new seasonal cocktail and small plates menu.
Breaking new ground always brings a few inherent risks, however. The cocktail menu, which covers a lot of interesting territory, is a little bit all over the place in terms of quality. Fortunately it’s broken down into five categories - Fresh, Fizzy, Fruity, Bold, and Luscious - so drinkers can more easily steer themselves toward their personal tastes. “The categories come from the fact that the menu was designed by a chef, and flavor profiles are usually what chefs think about first,’’ says chef Felino Samson. “It is a way of simplifying the choices that can be overwhelming to novices.’’
Novices will find the Yuzu Lemondrop (limoncello, Grey Goose Citron, yuzu, with tapioca pearls, $11) from the Fruity category user-friendly. The tapioca is a fun touch, like big bubble tea pearls that bring a hint of vanilla to the acidic fruit. They pick up a lot of the lemon in the preparation process, says bartender Terry O’Donnell. “It’s kind of like a last mouthful of citrus.’’
The old classic variant of the Biltmore 560 (Bombay Sapphire, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, fresh pineapple juice, $10.50) certainly earns its designation in the Bold category. “I feel customers are expanding their options and vodka drinkers are rediscovering gin again,’’ says Samson. “I love fresh pineapple juice, and it was used frequently in cocktails in the 1920s and 1930s. The Biltmore has layers of flavors that I love. There is a balance of the bite of the gin with the sweetness of fruit from cherry. Pineapple adds a beautiful froth and vermouth gives it complexity.’’
Balance is harder to find in the Absinthe Horchata (Kubler absinthe, cinnamon schnapps, almond milk, orange blossom water, $12.50; pictured). Every ingredient in here needs to be used sparingly in other cocktails. Mixing them together is a bit of a mess. The Fresh Grape Caipirinha (grapes muddled with lemon, 51 cachaça, Gewürztraminer, $9) is also a bit off. A smoother cachaça like Leblon might alleviate some of the burnt-wood qualities that overshadow the grape.
The Lychee de Tigre (Grey Goose Citron, sake, guanábana fruit, lychee, $10.50), representing the Luscious team, washes those two away. Lychee is ubiquitous now, but it’s not so easy to balance as they’ve done here. The more interesting fruit comes in the guanábana puree, a slightly sour citrus with creamy coconut-like qualities. The mild Dreamy Clouds sake adds a little acidic, milky sweetness.
“I didn’t want to stick in a bunch of weird ingredients for the sake of being different,’’ says Samson. “I wanted to focus on flavors people related to and to be as fresh and natural and clear in flavor to pair with our food.’’ For the most part he’s done just that.
Pops Restaurant , 560 Tremont St., Boston. 617-695-1250. www.popsrestaurant.net