Bayless’ basement bar
BEHIND THE SCENES AT BAR SOTANO BENEATH FRONTERA GRILL
“Don’t feel,” announces Rick Bayless to the group, “that you have to eat everything.”
“Everything,” in this case, is the entire menu at Bar Sotano (pronounced SOtunno), the cocktail-focused concept that debuted Nov. 15 in the basement space beneath Frontera Grill.
I’m the only civilian in a group of 20odd industry types — chefs, cooks, frontof-house staff — invited to eat and drink their way through 16 cocktails and 22 plates a few weeks before the bar opens.
Rishi Manoj Kumar, until now Frontera’s private-dining chef, will be Bar Sotano’s chef. Lanie Bayless, daughter of Rick and Deann Bayless and the restaurant group’s spirits director, is in charge of the cocktail program (assisted by bar manager Roger Landes); indeed, Bar Sotano was created to let Lanie Bayless spread her wings.
The Bayless family, Kumar and Landes are all present, observing intently.
“It’s really the only way to do it,” Rick Bayless says of the all-inclusive tasting. “That’s how you really see which dishes work in relation to the others.”
There are rules. As we taste, we’re to keep in mind Sotano’s “Modern Mexican bar food” definition, and consider not just whether we like the dish/drink (“do the flavors satisfy?” Bayless asks), but also whether it fits conceptually. We’re to keep value in mind as well; prices are included for every drink and dish. We’re to take notes, which will be turned in at the end.
The mussels with garlic, lemongrass, serrano and cilantro are a hit, but the broth was deemed too thin.
Several dishes are deemed insufficiently spicy.
Certain items require no verbal feedback, their popularity measured in time. Chile-dusted Oaxacan peanuts and hotsauce-accented popcorn disappear by the fistful, as does the potted carnitas spread, the highlight of the charcuteria plate. Slices of A5 wagyu with Frontera accents — smoky-spicy chintextle aioli and crumbled pasilla peppers — are gone in a flash.
Lanie Bayless’ cocktails are grouped conceptually. There are the juice-driven Fruit Stand cocktails, including a tequila, mango and spicy-tangy chamoy concoction served in a plastic bag with a straw (“the way you’d get it on the streets of Oaxaca,” she says).
Spice is king among the Chile Stall cocktails, but the drinks aren’t as picante as one might suppose; ordinarily, I’d approach a cocktail with serrano and ancho chiles with oven mitts, but this drink, its fire muted by cucumber and egg white, is wonderfully balanced.
Fonda cocktails are “provocative inspirations”; Lanie Bayless’ drinks in this category are meant to recall savory dishes.
Three hours and change later, and we’re done. Areas of need have been identified.
A lot can happen between a late-October tasting and a mid-November opening, so I’m confident about exactly one thing.
The Mexican paella. It will astound you.
Mexican paella has large fresh Gulf shrimp, Gunthrop chicken, red Chile adobo, roasted poblano, tomato, peas and chicken chicharron.