Spirits: Tender is the night spot

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The name itself invites confusion, and I suspect that the ambiguity is at least somewhat intentional. Is Tender about the quality of the foodstuffs? The men and women who tend the bar and mix drinks? Actually, it's C, none of the above. Tender Bar + Kitchen, the soon-to-open lounge and restaurant in Lawrenceville, was named after the former bank building that the bar will call home. (Or rather, it was named after the legal tender that changed hands at the old Arsenal Bank, still standing where Butler and 43rd streets intersect.)

So that explains how the name was divined. But to the larger question -- is this a restaurant with a nice cocktail menu, or a cocktail bar with some nice things to eat? -- the answer is that Tender will be, first and foremost, a cocktail bar, one of just a few spots in Pittsburgh that honestly can make that claim.

Owner Jeff Catalina (who also owns Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina in Garfield) has recruited some of Pittsburgh's best-known bartenders to mix drinks on either a full- or part-time basis: rum and tiki-cocktail expert Craig Mrusek, cocktail evangelist and educator Marie Perriello, Verde beverage director and PLCB watchdog Nathan Lutchansky, Verde's and OTB's Sarah Clarke, Silk Elephant sommelier Sean Rosenkrans, and Fredrick Arnold, the lone import of the group -- he recently moved to Pittsburgh from Kansas City, having worked at the city's now-closed R Bar. (The head kitchen chef is Neal Heidekat, formerly the sous chef at Verde.)

While Tender's food menu hopes to draw inspiration from regional American cuisines and their iconic dishes and recipes, it wasn't practical to take the same, regional approach with the cocktail menu. "We flirted with that," Mr. Mrusek said, "for about 10 minutes -- should we structure the cocktail list in sort of the same way?" But that would have been limiting, he said. Outside of New Orleans, the Bay Area, New York City and a few other spots, "how many times can you mine those same areas for iconic drinks?"

So there will be no specific cocktail menu theme, or even a broad governing philosophy, other than to stock the bar with as much American product as possible, spirits as well as wines. Expect the unexpected.

"We'll be [featuring] craft-distilled spirits from across the country," Mr. Lutchansky said in an email. "Germain-Robin brandy from California, Pollyodd chocolate-cello from Philly, Rock Town bourbon from Arkansas, North Shore aquavit from Chicago, Prichard's rum from Tennessee, OYO honey vanilla vodka from Ohio."

Tender also plans to stock some obscure foreign spirits -- a Greek spirit called Metaxa, and a Scottish gin called Caorunn, to name just two. Part of the fun in planning the cocktail menu was thumbing through the PLCB's 770-page catalog; bartenders were free to order whatever they wanted.

"We sat there for three hours [saying], 'OK, who wants what?'" Mr. Mrusek said. "It was basically a Christmas wish list."

And that level of freedom plays to the staff's strengths, Ms. Perriello said, as each bartender has different backgrounds and specialties, and brings those specialties to the menu. Mr. Catalina called it the "Avengers model" of building a bartending staff.

"All of our styles are different," Ms. Perriello said. "That's another thing that we're doing that no one else has done in Pittsburgh," allowing all the bartenders to have an equal say in -- and stake in -- the cocktail menu.

Most new places, in developing a cocktail menu, focus on a theme (whiskies or tequilas or pre-Prohibition drinks, to name a few), or have a bar manager, head bartender, or a cocktail consultant guide the program. Not so at Tender, which is shooting for a March 15 soft opening, if city inspections go well.

"We each were very hands-on with this opening," she said, with each bartender submitting three to five recipes for consideration for the opening day menu. Over a period of two months, weekly meetings -- they called them "cocktail jams" -- helped to tweak the recipes. They mixed the cocktails, passed them around -- and then the drinks either made the final cut, or they didn't.

After "those first sessions, we knew we had a good thing going," Mr. Catalina said.

Eventually, the feature list was chiseled down to about 15 original drinks, to be lumped into three categories that play on the banking theme: Bulls and Bears (stronger cocktails), Recovery Measures (lighter cocktails), and Luxury cocktails (which will be sweeter). There also will be a "banker's list" of about 30 classics -- Negroni, Corpse Reviver, the Last Word, and so on.

While Mr. Catalina expects Tender will be best known for its cocktails -- hopefully, on the same level as some of the bars that inspired him, such as Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston and the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland -- the sales mix will be about 50-50, between food and drinks. (His other restaurant, Verde, does a 60-40 split, weighted toward food.)

They'll have to move a lot of food, he said, because with quality cocktails, "the margins are much lower." A typical bar might set its cocktail cost-to-price ratio at 11 or 12 percent -- in other words, a cocktail selling for $4 costs about 50 cents to make. But that's generally not possible with craft cocktails. "Sorry, we don't serve Jack and Coke here," he joked.

Tender's classic, old-money theme will carry off the menu pages and into the bar itself. "We're really going for that 'Great Gastby' feel," Mr. Catalina said. Servers will be wearing black dresses and strings of pearls; patrons will sit in tufted chairs; the bar top is made of marble from the bank's walls.

"You're going to walk into that space and you'll say, 'This is cool. I want to be here,' " he said. "At least, that's the goal. [But] we have to earn it."

Wigle Whiskey, the Strip District-based rye and wheat whiskey (and gin) distiller, is releasing its second batch of aged rye this Saturday, March 2. No reservations, no dibs, no online pre-orders -- it's first come, first served.

Just show up at the 2401 Smallman St. distillery before the 9 a.m. opening and try to snag a good spot in line. Only a few hundred bottles are available, so if this release resembles the first one, the aged rye will sell out by noon, if not earlier.

The marketers behind the Philadelphia-based "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" spirits line -- it now includes the historically and botanically inspired Root, Sage, Rhubarb Tea and Snap -- have come up with (or revived, I suppose) a wine-based Depression-era hooch called Spodee. The fortified, chocolaty concoction somewhat resembles a port, and probably would fall in the dessert wine category but for its packaging, which is intentionally down-market, meant to resemble milk bottles.

Best anyone can tell, the original "recipe" involved pouring whatever port or wine you had on hand into a bucket, then spiking the wine mixture with fruit and cheap whiskey.

Visit spodeewine.com for more information. And just for the heck of it, Google "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Stick McGhee. It is, by some accounts, the first rock-and-roll song ever, and was the first big hit for the legendary Atlantic Records label.

Redbeard's, the popular Mount Washington sports bar and sandwich spot, is opening a second location Downtown, on Sixth Street, next to Olive or Twist, in the former Palazzo Ristorante. Redbeard's is planning a March opening.

In the South Side, a liquor license is pending for the former Tom's Diner, the long-time East Carson Street after-hours stop. The license is being held by a company called "Tres Rios" (Spanish for Three Rivers), which is owned by Emilano's, a Mexican restaurant and cantina in the SouthSide Works.

Acacia, the bourbon and cocktail bar in the South Side, will soon be serving up pre-bottled cocktails. Using a bottle-capping machine, the Acacia staff will be putting classics such as the Americano and some of the bar's staff recipes into small bottles.

Strip District Sequel

This cocktail will be among those found on the opening-day menu at Tender. To build it, you'll need thyme-infused simple syrup. It's easy to make -- mix 1 to 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, stir, and add several fresh thyme sprigs, allowing the mixture to simmer as the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from heat after 5 minutes, and let the thyme steep for up to an hour. Then remove the thyme, strain the syrup into an airtight jar, and refrigerate.

  • 2 ounces Wigle unaged rye

  • 3/4 ounce thyme-infused simple syrup

  • 1/2 ounce Lillet blanc

  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

Shake everything in an ice-filled cocktail shaker, and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

recipes - libations

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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