ABC Cocina's Ann Marie De Bello on using the menu to inspire the drinks
With substantial space carved out for drinkers, newly opened ABC Cocina's bar is likely to get as much play as its dining room, and sure enough, when we stopped by last week for an early taste, the cavernous area was packed to capacity with imbibers sipping fresh, bright cocktails and pitchers of sangria.
We caught up with beverage manager Ann Marie De Bello, who came over from sibling restaurant ABC Kitchen, about her focus, her list, and what's proved most popular so far.
Village Voice: What's your background in the beverage industry? Ann Marie De Bello: I started with ABC Kitchen when it opened three years ago as a runner in the kitchen. I then moved to server, and then I was a somm for a little while. I was a manager at ABC Kitchen for about a year, and I got an opportunity to open up Cocina as the Beverage Manager. Before that, I went to school for hospitality in South Carolina. It's the Jean Georges mentality to believe that the best employees come from within. The company really promotes a learning environment. I've really enjoyed working here -- the managers have always been super helpful and incredibly encouraging of my love for this industry.
Tell me about the beverage program. When I started with ABC Kitchen, the only thing I really knew was Jean Georges. I knew his background and what he did, and that was fascinating. But I got to really know chef Dan Kluger and his goals and drive for the restaurant. What really impressed me was his relationship with farmers and vendors. He visits Union Square Market three to four times per week, and everyone there knows who chef Dan is. What he's preparing on the menu is a true reflection of the relationships that he has. His philosophy revolves around locavore-forward food, organics and sustainability. To see that come to play on the plate really affected me, and I am very respectful of it. But I've always been very driven to wine and beverage. There's such a buzz about eating local and fresh, and that focus is just starting to come about in the beverage world. That was what I really wanted ABC Cocina's beverage program to reflect. Drinking local. Drinking fresh. Knowing what you're drinking. I really sought out local distilleries in the area, whether they're in Brooklyn or Hudson Valley or New Jersey. And when I couldn't find local (I obviously can't have a local tequila, for instance), I aimed for artisanal or organic. On the margarita section of the cocktail list, all the tequilas are organic.
We noticed a lot of niche producers on your back bar. Yes. Farmers all have these stories, chef Dan has all these stories, and you hear that and it comes out in the food. I really wanted to have that come out in the beverage. One of the tequila producers is this woman who makes Calle 23. That is super cool in this industry, because it's an industry that's just men. Then this woman comes out of nowhere and says, "I love tequila." She tried to make it in South Africa, but couldn't do it, so she moved to Mexico and started producing. I'm so proud to have it on the list. It's in the ABC Cocina classic margarita. How does this philosophy play out in your wine program? All of our wine has some kind of connection to Spain, and we have wine from Chile, Argentina and Portugal. 90 percent are definitely practicing organic, though that designation gets a little tricky because Spain and Portugal are so dry, you don't need all the pesticides, so you don't need all the guidelines. So you have to really search for them. I hadn't heard of a lot of these producers when I started. Our reds and whites are broken down into traditional and modern, goes from lightest to heaviest. In the traditional section, we have Riojas, Tempranillos and Malbecs, of course. In the modern section, we have some really cool producers that are really practicing biodynamics. We also have a Portuguese varietal being made in California. That wine is fruit-forward, has this crazy spice to it and has a long finish; it's really cool. We have a sparkling rose from Long Island that's made by a Spanish winemaker. It's fun to be able to do things like that -- I'm really proud of the list.
What about beer? We have bottled beers like Presidente and Negra Modelo, because I feel like if you're going to open a Latin tapas restaurant, you should have those types of beers available. I got to play a bit with the draft, and I went for local beers that would really match well with chef Ian [Coogan, chef de cuisine] and Dan's food. I picked things like Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, which is a saison that goes really well with Asian food. Asian and Spanish food really compares -- chilies and spice in both cuisines goes well with Sorachi Ace.
Let's round it out -- tell us about the cocktails, too. We have a section for sangria, a section for margaritas and a section for other cocktails. In the cocktail section, we're doing things like the rhubarb banana daiquiries and the mojito using local, artisanal and organic ingredients. I wanted to make sure that seasonality was a focus of the cocktail list. Right now, you'll see rhubarb throughout the menu. Later this spring and summer, we'll have cucumber, watermelon and figs, which I'm really excited about. We'll also introduce herbs. At the same time, mangos and bananas are items that are reflected on the food menu, so I wanted to make sure they came across on the cocktail list. And given the restaurant's theme, I have to have coconut and pineapple on there, too.
What's your favorite thing on the list? I love it all. I never know which cocktail is going to be the most popular; it's like a fun game to try and guess. I suppose my favorite thing right now is the sherry and cider because people aren't quite as familiar with those. We have four sherries and three ciders on the list, and people are becoming more comfortable with drinking these, so it's fun to be with guests who are inquiring. I'll do a nice flight. It's also fun to teach the staff about it and take a couple of hours to learn them so they can guide their guests through that part of the list. Cider and sherry have such a wonderful background.
Your bar has been packed -- what about the most popular item? Margaritas are very popular. Everyone gravitates toward that section of the menu, and people are excited because every drink is so different. They like the grapefruit, the basil-jalapeno with the basil spice rim -- you could come in for dinner and have one of each.
Where do you drink when you're not at work? I live in Brooklyn, so I tend to gravitate toward spots over there. I like bubbles and rose and sweet dessert wines, and I like to try different things. I usually don't venture back to the same place, though.
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