Frank Cisneros of Prime Meats Talks Punch, Beer Panic, and Steak-and-Martini Dinners


Prime Meats just earned itself a pretty enviable review. But the kitchen staff aren’t the only ones psyched about it. Benefits are being reaped behind the bar, too, according to bartender Frank Cisneros. After all, he says, a restaurant is a team effort.

Tell me about pairing food and cocktails. Does it work?

Having been a sommelier, I’ve always been interested in food and beverage pairings, but I can tell you that cocktails have always been a challenge. Maybe not all of my colleagues agree, but I find the sheer proof of spirit a challenge. Even once you’ve diluted it and added all the other ingredients, you are still going to have a higher amount of alcohol than you would with almost any wine.

So, when you do pair a cocktail with food, do you pick a drink to go with the meal or tailor a new drink to the dish?

If you were to do dessert, for instance, we just recently brought out a cocktail list — not necessarily of dessert cocktails, but cocktails that go well with our dessert list. So, they tend to be richer or sweeter. One puts port wine in perspective … and would be a good match for the chocolate cake. Crème brûlée and sparkling wine work well. For the main courses, everything at Prime Meats is pretty much steak and meat heavy. Typically if you’re having a burger or steak, an Old Fashioned or Manhattan is going to be your go-to. If you’re having something like fish — we have a couple of really great fish dishes — then something like the Aviation, which is light, tart, and aromatic.

What about a classic steak-and-martini dinner? Is that popular?

Not really. I think steaks — especially our dry-aged steaks — lend themselves better to brown spirits. Most people are eating steaks with wine, but if not, they are going to go more on the Manhattan route. We use really good vermouth and rye whiskey for it. The whiskey’s oaky vanilla notes pair well with the steak and the spicy notes in rye pair well with chimichurri sauce, if you’re having that. And more and more, we’ll do a bartender’s choice thing where it’s possible to open up a dialogue about what flavor profile you’re going for and make something up on the spot for you.

How did you get started behind the bar?

That’s a long and funny story. It starts when I’m around 19 or 20 and living in rural Washington State. I just kind of always had an affinity for old-timey things. I was vintage shopping and I came across an original copy of [William] Boothby [author of 1908’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them]. I had no idea what I had on my hands when I found it. I just picked it up based on its age and the novelty that it had old cocktails in it. So I went home and started making every drink I could. It took me about a year to get through the book. When I finally turned 21 and moved to Portland, I remember being totally shocked the first time I saw a Tom Collins or whiskey sour come out of a gun. Every bar I went to, they’d be like, “What are you talking about ‘superfine sugar’ and ‘shaking with fresh lemon juice?’ Sounds ridiculous.”

Do you still collect vintage cocktail books?

Yeah, I don’t have as many as I would like, but I have a copy of Charles Baker [author of The Gentleman’s Companion]. I was a European history major, which I think was a part of it. Wine and then cocktails have always spoken to me historically.

Who’s more fun: wine drinkers or cocktail drinkers?
Oh, jeez, that’s a no brainer. Cocktail drinkers, by far. In 2006, I was splitting my time between wine and cocktail events and it was pretty obvious who was having more fun, who’s more punk rock in this equation. I love wine, but I can’t deal with the stuffiness of it. It’s not my style.

Do you think bartenders’ palates are sometimes underestimated?

Yeah, absolutely. They might not be as comfortable with the vocabulary, but even that is going away because there are so many classes and workshops teaching people how to describe spirits in ways that are both communicative and easy to grasp. Now they’re able to talk about aromatic properties and acidity and finish, like sommeliers.

What are some of your favorite ingredients that you’re using right now?

Apparently, I’m in love with Benedictine and I didn’t even know it until now. In terms of seasonal stuff, we’re getting into berry season. I freak out over the Tristar strawberries, which are totally amazing. At Prime Meats, we’re really lucky to have a whole procurement department. We have one person whose main job is sourcing really great ingredients for us. I’m a big red berry guy, so summer is my time.

The restaurant got a great review recently, which must have really pleased the kitchen. Did the bar get excited about it, too?

We work together a lot. We’re a farm-to-table restaurant, so sourcing stuff that we need behind the bar is really important and they work with us on that. And then just in terms of preparing syrups or purées, they’re really good about that. We have this really amazing 200- or 300-square-foot kitchen to work with. We can go back there to make our pineapple purée or cinnamon bark syrups. I also work at Dram, where tiki has really been the thing. So we’ve been making a lot of toasted orgeat.

You take plastic now at Prime Meats. Is there any other news?

It’s a big operation and I’m not totally authorized to give details, but there are big plans for expansion and not just in the city. The Frankies just came out with a cookbook and that came out to great reviews. So I’d say expect to see a lot from the group in the future.

And what about Dram?

Dram is amazing because it’s completely a bartender-driven place. We change the menu constantly. Our food program should be up and running in four to six weeks. We’ll be working with a lot of chefs for a guest-chef program. Other than that, all of us are going to Tales of the Cocktail.

What is your favorite thing to drink at home?

I live with Nick Jarrett, who’s an incredible bartender at Clover Club. He’ll tell you that I get what’s called “beer panic.” If there’s anything less than a six-pack of beer at my house, I’ll start to panic. I drink a lot of pilsner and, when we’ve got it, white wine and champagne.

Where do you like to drink when you’re not at your own bars?

I live in Williamsburg and I have a love-hate relationship with it. But it’s been really fun living there over the past four years and seeing the neighborhood change. Alll the cocktail bars in my ‘hood are just amazing. Mainly, the Counting Room and Huckleberry’s are two of my favorite bars. You can catch me there half the week. If I’m not behind the bar, I’m on the other side of it. On the drinking side.

You also have a blog, is that right?

I started a punch blog called A Punch in the Mouth. I’m just obsessed with punch.

Do you have a favorite punch?

I drink a punch I call the Endless Summer punch. It uses raspberries — I’m excited raspberries are back in season.

Anything you’re sick of seeing in bars these days?

Anything that’s overly precious. Whatever that may be. I just want people to remember that bars are about having fun. The less rules the better. As long as everyone is safe and happy. Not getting wasted, but getting tipsy and having a good time.