We had the much-buzzed-about Salt (4356 Lindell Blvd., 314-932-5787) in mind for this week's column. Its website, which emphasized the farm-to-table, ingredient-driven focus, made no mention of drinks. It seemed certain that a place as on-trend as this one would have an innovative cocktail menu, but then again, the restaurant's liquor license was but a couple of weeks old. We decided to roll the dice, figuring we could always get a glass of wine or a beer if the Salt bar didn't have its sea legs yet.
As soon as we step across the threshold it is clear we needn't have worried. The bar itself is lined with bottles of bitters and tinctures, behind which a bartender in a vest and tie is vigorously working a silver cocktail shaker and cup.
The cocktail menu is as-of-yet brief, only five strong, but it hardly matters in an operation like this. The idea is that the bartenders have the tools and knowledge at their disposal to please every taste. We ask Matt Obermark, who is described on the menu as Head Barman, to make us his Salt Smash.
Riffing on the classic Whiskey Smash, he shakes bourbon, blood orange juice, salty caramel syrup and Angostura bitters with a few sprigs of chocolate mint. He strains the raspberry-colored liquid into a footed glass with a silver rim, adds a blood orange twist and finishes with more chocolate mint.
It's gorgeous. It's delicious and perfectly balanced. The garnishes are pretty, but also add fragrance. The caramel gives it a lovely viscosity. Sipping this drink is like firing a pinball in your brain - it bounces around and hits all the sensors. First sight, then smell, taste quickly followed by feel, and then the fifth one, booze.
Early on a Monday night, the bar is not especially crowded, but Mr. Obermark is busy readying himself for service. The amount of prep that goes into what Salt's menu calls "culinary cocktails" rivals what goes on in the kitchen. In addition to the usual stocking and polishing, juice must be hand-squeezed, fresh herbs picked over, and egg whites infused with lavender.
The thing about all this fancy cocktail business, which does yield some darn fine drinks, is that it can be a little fussy. Take, for instance, the fixation on ice. It must be a perfect cube, or perfect cylinder, perfectly clear and just the right size, which means it must come from a custom ice machine.
We get it, bigger ice cubes melt slower, which mean less dilution. It also means, when lifting the glass to drink the bottom third of your beverage, a huge ice cube will slide forward and hit you in the face.
While genially chatting with us, Obermark mentions that he hopes to see Thor this weekend, although he thinks they have the love interest all wrong. She should be a tall, Nordic blonde, but is instead played by Natalie Portman, who is a fraught figure in geek culture (see The Phantom Menace). The way his brow furrows when he says her name, we wonder if he doesn't have a few long boxes stored under his old bed at mom and dad's.
It wouldn't be too surprising if his dapper exterior were hiding an inner geek. Cocktail culture and geek culture have a lot in common. Is the sea of cravats, arm garters and waxed mustaches at bar competitions really any less dorky than the superhero outfits at Comic-Con? The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy may haughtily correct interlopers with a nasally, "Actually..." but he has nothing on the dude who subjected Drink of the Week to the finer points of the comparison between Cuban and Puerto Rican rum.
One of our favorite bartenders, when asked which drink he likes to make best, replies, "The beer I crack open for myself when I get home." Having a drink, at its heart, is about unwinding. Sometimes cocktail enthusiasts come off as awfully wound up.
Paying ten bucks to order a drink from a nearly indecipherable cocktail menu and sip it in an atmosphere thick with pretention is not a good time for most people. There are those who are so far gone in the world of obscure liqueurs and vintage glassware that they fail to understand this. Matt Obermark is not one of them. We don't know what he does on his nights off, but when he's behind the bar his suave, friendly alter ego will put you at ease.