Monday, February 21, 2011

Liquid: Chain Reaction

THE JINJA NASHI AT WAGAMAMA | Photo: JOEL VEAK

There are any number of reasons you might find yourself in a chain restaurant. Maybe you live in some horrible suburb and don't have many choices, or maybe you're visiting your family back home. Could be you've got, like, some disgusting stomach cramp fetish that can only be satisfied by cream sauce and chicken strips. Hey, do what you've got to do.

For the most part, the bars at these chains are no better than the food. They're usually way too bright, sticky with children's ketchup-paws, haunted by the mediocre souls who frequent them, and convoluted with weird deals: add bacon and cheese to that 22-ounce beer for $3.99!

It doesn't have to be like that though. And increasingly, more chains are taking cues from the better bars in the city, incorporating the ideals and the motivations, if not always the execution, of the craft-cocktail movement.

Not all chains are bad, of course. In Boston, better-than-average and upscale ones, like Burtons Grill, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, P.F. Chang's, and Haru, are making strides toward cocktailing respectability. Even Pizzeria Uno has a version of a Tom Collins on its menu now. If you need any further evidence that the cocktail movement is fully entrenched, I don't know what else to tell you (besides the fact that two of my snooty bartender friends swear by the Lemon Drop martinis at The Cheesecake Factory).

The latest entrant into the world of cocktails is the international noodle bar chain Wagamama, which has been rolling out its cocktail program over the past few months. At the moment it's working with a cordials license only, which limits its options somewhat, although that should change soon. Fans of its fresh juices might be pleased with options like the Jinja Nashi ($8.95), made with DonQ Limon rum, fresh ginger root, lime, mint, and Asian pear juice (even if it's a little bright for this tippler's taste).

Wagamama marketing director Nancy Barrett, who worked on the recipes, says an interesting cocktail menu is expected now. "I think it's a consumer trend that's important to acknowledge, and it's just one more choice to provide for our diners." She adds, "People are taking notice of the fine dining and higher-end cocktail craze. . . . I think it's a competitive element that everybody needs to have."

It's not just cocktails made with flavored liquor and fruit juice that are gaining a foothold on these lists. At P.F. Chang's, they feature a number of bourbon, tequila, and rum cocktails as well. At the Prudential location, I had an Orange Peel Manhattan ($8.50) made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, blood-orange bitters and, surprisingly, the right amount of sweet vermouth that was quite good, even if the food was - well, never mind that for now.

"It's becoming par for the course for chain restaurants to serve well-made cocktails," says Mary Melton, P.F. Chang's beverage director. "It's been improving for the past couple years with people using fresh juices, quality spirits, and taking the lead from classic cocktails with modern twists."

At Legal Sea Foods, director of beverage operations Patrick Sullivan tries to give his bartenders a solid foundation of the basics to build from. "They need to know what a whiskey sour is so they can move on from it and have it be part of their bartender DNA." Theirs is on point, as is the Kentucky Sour ($8.95), made with Eagle Rare bourbon, fresh-squeezed lemon, and simple syrup. They sell their share of fruity bullshit here too, but Sullivan says they've just ordered eight barrels of bourbon to sell in the Boston market alone (a good sign).

When I spoke with Sullivan, he was at the Cheers Beverage Conference in New Orleans (another good sign). "All the big chains are here," he said. "You can just see everyone is taking it more seriously. The whole cocktail thing sort of blew up, and it hit the big restaurants. What happens is guests go into these [cocktail bars] and they become more savvy. They want what they want, and they ask for it."

One of the biggest factors in improving the quality of the drinks they serve has been a reliance on actually working from recipes; that's not always as self-evident as you might think. "It's easy to teach them," Sullivan says. "You make it the wrong way and then make it the right way and let them decide what's better."

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