As January gave way to February, the calendar change could only mean one thing: it was time for Blogger Barhop 3: High Roller Edition, the latest in the series of annual bar crawls hosted by Caroline on Crack and Aidan Demarest (Neat, Tello Demarest Liquid Assets). As the National Brand Ambassador for Barhop sponsor elit by Stolichnaya, Demarest pulled out all the stops to create an epic itinerary centered on the Golden Triangle of Beverly Hills. The lucky participants invited to this year’s Barhop included Busy Beth’s Blog, e*star LA, Jessica Gelt (Los Angeles Times), Lanee Lee (Société Perrier), The Savory Hunter, Julian Stern (Maxim) and yours truly. Thanks to Caroline and Demarest, we were privileged to step for one night into the bespoke shoes of high rollers (or “whales,” as casinos like to call them).
The inaugural Blogger Barhop in 2011 featured the now-legendary Trolley of Death and set the bar(s) high for all Barhops to follow. Sadly, I had to miss last year’s Blogger Barhop 2: Mustache Ride Edition, which hit a mix of nine classic and new school bar favorites. Instead of the expected stretch limo or Town Car, this year’s transportation was what my dad likes to call the “Number 11 Bus,” i.e. we walked from stop to stop. Since all of the locations were near each other, walking around the 90210 was no problem. Dressed up and looking sharp, the Barhoppers hobnobbed with stars and celebrity chefs, dined on world class cuisine, and of course sipped on top notch cocktails and high end spirits.
LA DOLCE VITA
The Barhop began at La Dolce Vita, an old school hangout of Frank Sinatra and other Hollywood legends. Our host was bartender Amanda Gunderson (The Bazaar by José Andrés), who recently consulted on La Dolce Vita’s cocktail menu. Gunderson got the Barhop off to a proper start with Vespers, shaken with Stoli Elit, Fords Gin, and Lillet Blanc. I was one of the later arrivals and joined the Barhoppers in the corner booth, Sinatra’s favorite.
Apparently I was too busy stuffing my face with chilled lobster claws, meatballs and mozzarella fritters to take photos at La Dolce Vita. Fortunately, there were plenty of tweets that tracked the night, including this photo of Gunderson tweeted by Demarest:
With the rest of the itinerary still ahead and the clock ticking, we reluctantly bid farewell to La Dolce Vita. As we were leaving, Sean Penn walked in, wearing a trucker hat and sporting a ponytail and goatee. No idea if that look is for a current role, but one can’t help but wonder what Ol’ Blue Eyes would think of a younger generation’s idea of getting dressed up to go out for dinner. At least the Blogger Barhop crew kept it classy.
SPAGO BEVERLY HILLS
Our second stop was Spago Beverly Hills, the flagship restaurant of legendary chef Wolfgang Puck. Spago recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a floor-to-ceiling redesign by Waldo Fernandez. The updated interior features a sleek design and subtle palette, an open kitchen, a massive 7,000-bottle glass wine cellar, contemporary artwork and a retractable roof atop the famed patio. The group was seated adjacent to the patio in a corner nook of the main dining room, all the better to sneak glances at guests like Clive Davis, who was holding court at a nearby table. Moments after drinks and apps were ordered, Puck himself stopped by to sit, chat and patiently pose for photos.
Cocktails for this stop included Stoli Elit on the rocks with a lemon twist, and The Garden of Eden: Garden of Eden tea-infused Stoli Elit with lemon juice.
To go with Spago’s renovation, chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi features a new Asian-influenced menu with a focus on smaller plates meant for sharing. But the Barhop stayed true to the old school with two off-menu Spago classics: Puck’s signature smoked salmon pizza with salmon pearls, and the delightful ahi tuna sesame-miso cones.
Given Spago’s clientele, a ban on flash photography is to be expected. But as we demonstrated at La Dolce Vita, celebs like Rod Stewart (who walked into Spago as we were leaving) had nothing to worry about. The Barhop crew played it cool and the cameras were focused on the food and drinks.
Spago Beverly Hills
176 N Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
It was a short walk across the street from Spago to the Montage Hotel for a multi-course dinner with paired cocktails at Scarpetta, the Beverly Hills location of the collection of award-winning Italian restaurants by acclaimed chef and author Scott Conant. We were escorted through the sprawling European-style kitchen and were greeted by the Scarpetta team, including Executive Chef Alex Stratta, most recently the Executive Chef of ALEX at the Wynn Las Vegas, as well as a Season 3 contestant on Top Chef Masters.
Demarest outdid himself by arranging for the dinner to take place at the Chef’s Table, a private dining room with seating for 12 and views of the kitchen. The subdued lighting, crackling fireplace and views of the adjacent Beverly Canon Gardens added to the elegant ambiance. As we “oohed” and “aahed” any semblance of nonchalance disappeared. Flashes went off and pictures were snapped, much to Demarest’s chagrin. We calmed down enough to be seated and noshed on the bread basket, which included the famous stromboli, along with mascarpone butter, caponata (eggplant relish) and olive oil.
The drinks were created by Scarpetta head bartender Sofia Szabo. Her CV includes a number of New York fine dining restaurants, such as GILT Restaurant at The New York Palace (which closed in December 2012) and Corton, the modern French collaboration between restaurateur Drew Nieporent and chef Paul Liebrandt. Other stints include the Grand Havana Room, a private cigar lounge; Bar Veloce, an Italian wine bar; and four years at Marshall Stack (“I can write a book about just this place and what it meant to me, the lessons I learned, and the incredible beers I tasted.”).
Szabo said her favorite New York place was The Dutch, by chef and restaurateur Andrew Carmellini. She gives great credit to The Dutch bartender Matthew Taglialavore, of whom she said, “I would not be where I am today if not for him. I always knew how to bartend, and make great drinks, but he made me respect what I do and strive to be better. More importantly, he demanded I take my job seriously and therefore, I was inspired. After I left The Dutch in September 2012, I took all that he taught me, stole a few ideas, and ended up as the head bartender at Scarpetta in October 2012. I think I’ve made some great improvements and inspired the bar staff to be inspired. I’m just lucky I had someone so great to teach me. I had tremendous management, and ended up sending Chef Carmellini a wonderful thank you email about my time there.”
Szabo connected with Marcos Tello, Demarest’s partner in Liquid Assets, through Antonia Fattizzi, a mutual friend at The Dutch who is the East Coast rep for Bols Genever. “Marcos has been an incredible influence, and I couldn’t put a value on the time we spend together. He and Aidan made me feel welcome from the moment I arrived, and have helped me get into places like The Edison, where I spend the rest of my week.”
After finding out about the Blogger Barhop a scant three hours before our scheduled 8pm arrival, Szabo sat in the Chef’s Table “to understand the environment.” She said, “I wanted your point of view. Was it a swanky, sexy vibe? Was it more wine focused? I figured since it was right next to the kitchen, and intimate with its own fireplace, it should be more food-forward and warm. So I approached each cocktail with a focus on complimenting the food and with integrity, rather than having its own personality that would be a conversation piece.”
Without much time to prepare, Szabo wasn’t able to draw on her usual arsenal of cocktail techniques. “However, I wanted at least one ingredient to stand out so there was something special about it, but was aiming more for a sophisticated and subtle approach.” Their relative simplicity would also allow Szabo to replicate the cocktails if we enjoyed them, which we definitely did.
Szabo began with the Mock Caviar: frozen Stoli Elit and “pomegranate caviar,” served on a demitasse spoon. She encouraged us to enjoy the Mock Caviar in whatever manner we preferred.
The Mock Caviar was an ideal pairing for the duo of raw yellowtail with olio di zenzero (ginger oil) and flaked sea salt, and the tuna “susci” with marinated vegetables and preserved truffles.
To pair with the scallops, Szabo offered the Espuma de Mar (Sea Foam), made with Stoli Elit, English cucumber juice, mint oil, fresh lemon and simple syrup, with a float of olive oil and Maldon sea salt. Szabo noted that many things can pair with scallops. “You find raw scallops often, which still has that buttery slippery taste, and although yours were seared, much of that texture remains. I really enjoyed using a bit of olive oil to keep that finish longer. The Maldon sea salt sprinkled on top makes you want to sip it more, and therefore a success, also a nod to the sea.”
Playing off the burrata’s apples, the Autumn Orchard was made with Stoli Elit, applejack, apple juice, Baked Apple Bitters, lemon, simple syrup and egg white, garnished with dehydrated apple soaked in Ron Zacapa XO. Szabo said, “I love sours. It kind of represents a lot of the tastes we have, and apples can be very savory, not just sweet. I like the egg white for some texture.” She explained that the Autumn Orchard was inspired by her memories of Christmas, when she and her family would go to Muldoon’s Irish Pub in Newport Beach. Muldoon’s would serve wassail (hot mulled cider) in a snifter, with a little apple floating in it. “As a kid, I always wanted to eat the apple. That was where the dehydrated apple bobbing on the rock came from. It’s a nod to my childhood.”
Then it was time for Conant’s celebrated spaghetti with tomato and basil, which absolutely lived up to the hype. In his review of the original Scarpetta, New York Times food critic Frank Bruni wrote that Conant’s dish had “a roundness of flavor and nuance of sweetness that amount to pure Mediterranean bliss.” Bruni also noted, “I had this dish twice, and twice it stacked up against any spaghetti al pomodoro I’ve had in Italy.” Just as a classic cocktail like the margarita can be refined with fresh, quality ingredients and well-executed technique, Conant elevates a traditional favorite with a deceptively simple dish of fresh pasta, ripe tomatoes and not much else. Best of all, Conant freely shares the recipe, which makes it even more remarkable that the Scarpetta locations collectively sell over 10,000 plates of it a month.
The sublime spaghetti was paired with La Sudicia: Dirty Stoli Elit with tomato water and muddled basil, shaken and garnished with sun-dried tomato and basil leaf. Szabo said, “I love me a good dirty Martini (always gin for me), and will usually have that or a Gibson when I go out for dinner…to start. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth before I eat – I want salt – so that Martini meant a lot to me, because it reminds me of the anticipation of a great meal, of which I have had many. I also know how much I love that spaghetti dish, so I wanted to make [the Martini] very much like it; simple but fantastic. I loved the idea of just making a classic a little different. I liked the choice of sun-dried tomato because it is so fragrant, and the pasta only has fresh tomatoes. It added a perfume-y kind of quality I was very happy with, alongside the giant basil leaf. To me, it was a cocktail that was very respectful to Scott Conant. I really just wanted something that was like, ‘Here, I made something that can be Robin to your Batman.’ Also, I have a raunchy sense of humor and Scott calls me ‘Sucia’ so that was my nod to him.”
The dinner at Scarpetta was superb, every bit the high roller experience that one could imagine. Szabo matched the kitchen step-for-step with creativity and ambition that warrant future visits to her bar. “Scarpetta has a lot of wonderful things to come, and making the bar the best I can is definitely in the future,” she said. “I work with tremendous management, and with the inspiration of Ten Pound, I’m proud to say, there’s no stopping what we can become.”
225 N. Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Speaking of Ten Pound (£10), the Macallan Single Malt Whisky bar located upstairs from Scarpetta, it was time to make our final stop of the night. Joined by Gunderson and a few of her friends, we lounged in the Ten Pound outdoor terrace and indulged in Stoli Elit, Macallan 12-Year, snifters of 50-year-old cognac and puffs of a Romeo y Julieta Rothchilde en Tubo. Ten Pound bar manager Nick Daniels also made a couple of Bulleit Bourbon and Rye cocktails, then pummeled us with an assortment of cheese and Ten Pound’s addictive crispy bacon strips. But the hour was late, and the carriage was about to turn into a pumpkin. Uber cars and taxicabs were summoned, and we made our way back to life, back to reality.
Ten Pound – Montage Beverly Hills
225 N. Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Cheers to Caroline on Crack for organizing yet another stellar Blogger Barhop. And to Aidan Demarest, who made it possible for all of us to enjoy a singular evening of exquisite food and drink, a toast that Gunderson made to Demarest in the Scarpetta Chef’s Table: “MAY ALL YOUR SONS BE KINGS.”
For more photos of Blogger Barhop 3, please visit the Thirsty in LA Facebook page.