Carina Salvi
At Rouge Tomate (NYC), a cinnamon/cumin rim crowns the Yam Sake Martini, a medley of seasonally spiced baked yam puree; carrot, orange, yuzu, and lemon juices; and Junmai Ginjo Sake.
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To Your Health!

January 23rd, 2013

Is a healthful happy hour possible? Three diverse restaurants are showing how to mix nutrition into a bar program.

While red wine receives perpetual praise for benefiting heart health and beer is credited with deterring everything from cancer to the common cold, the cocktail’s last great nutritional calling involved sailors tossing limes in their rum ration to combat scurvy. Even today’s fresh market cocktails typically include an abundance of added sugar and an embarrassment of empty calories, courtesy of vodka, gin, or sweet liqueurs. This presents a conundrum for restaurants like Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Rouge Tomate, dedicated to serving “nutritionally optimal cuisine”—whether guests demand it or not.

Rouge Tomate cocktails reflect the same dictum of sanitas per escam—health through food—embraced by executive chef Jeremy Bearman and enforced by culinary nutritionist Kristy Lambrou, MS, RD, CDN. Rather than a towering back bar of super premium spirits, guests at the 15 seat curved walnut bar, designed by architectural firm Bentel & Bentel, are greeted by Santos and Sunkist citrus juicers. “We built the bar program around the juice bar,” says Pascaline Lepeltier, wine director. “We wanted the emphasis to be on the fresh juices and this to be the first thing you see, not just a lot of bottles.”

By exploiting the availability of fresh juice, extracted by the full-time efforts of Stephen Lesce, Lepeltier and head bartender Cristian Molina offer a selection of about 15 classic and creative cocktails to augment the list of 200 wines, heavy on biodynamic, natural, and organic selections. The strategy begins with choosing traditional cocktails that lend themselves to a healthful makeover, like a Moscow Mule made with house-made ginger beer or Queen’s Cup, a take on the moderately alcoholic Pimm’s Cup made with cucumber puree and fresh mint. The seasonal drink selection, however, represents the pinnacle of their creativity, with drinks that eschew added sugar and artificial ingredients, while layering as many as 20 naturally sweet and savory flavors. “I see creating nutritious cocktails not as a challenge but as a chance,” says Lepeltier. “It opens up possibilities that we may not have thought of before.”

With spirits taking a back seat, the team often finds inspiration elsewhere, like chocolate malt borrowed from James Distefano, Rouge Tomate’s executive pastry chef. “He had four or five different malts and was making ice cream that was just delicious. I knew I wanted to do a dessert-style drink, which is really difficult without a lot of added sugar, and I asked if he could spare a little chocolate malt,” explains Lepeltier. After tinkering with Port, the team ultimately chose Tintilla de Rota, a rich Sherry from the town of Rota, as a companion flavor. Playing off the Sherry’s black olive notes, they stir it with house-made chocolate malt and black olive syrup, Michter’s rye whiskey, and a dash of bitters to create the Black Pearl, served on the rocks and garnished with a chocolate-covered olive.

Seaside inspirations converged when Molina conceived a cocktail using seaweed juice, while Lepeltier was fondly recalling the freshly grated horseradish that topped a plate of oysters she enjoyed in Maine. “I asked the juicers if they could create a horseradish granité and then said, ‘Wow, this is the stuff,’” says Lepeltier. The Seahorse cocktail begins by muddling nori in a cocktail shaker with Plymouth gin. The infused gin is stirred with ice and strained into a Martini glass over a small scoop of horseradish granité, with additional granité served on the side. Finally, The Seahorse is topped with a pickled ramp, a garnish that had been seeking a home since they preserved it in-house last spring.

Even with a bounty of fresh and seasonal juices and culinary inspirations, there is the occasional nutritional misstep from behind the bar. Lambrou is both collaborator and gatekeeper. “We once tried some drinks with sweetened condensed milk that she was not real happy with,” says Lepeltier. “And I know one of my guys is working with bacon, so we’ll see how that goes. We don’t permit smoked meats in the kitchen, so smoked sea salt or burning some rosemary is a more likely outcome.”

Lambrou does not dictate lower calorie drinks, so the Rouge Tomate cocktails typically offer a full serving of alcohol: The Citrus Climate Change consists of an ice cube of fresh clementine juice and ground pink peppercorns, flavors selected to complement a stiff four-ounce pour of Farmer’s Organic Gin. Rather, Lambrou evaluates the origin and necessity of the added calories. “We aren’t focused on the amount of total calories, but on the quality of the calories. I make sure if there is sugar in the nutritional analysis, it comes from the right place,” says Lambrou. While maple syrup and honey are occasionally added for sweetness, agave nectar remains her preference since recipes require less of it to give the same perception of sweetness. Lambrou also offers insight on ingredient synergy, suggesting that a little Vitamin C will really boost the antioxidant power of a green tea cocktail.

In addition to the juices and cocktails for the drinks list, the team develops pairings specifically for the tasting menu, with a cocktail supplement priced at $45 and a juice supplement priced at $35. A bread crumb-coated fillet of arctic char finds its match in a custom-designed drink of muddled celery, crabapple and lime juices, biodynamic elderflower syrup, and Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry Gin from Brooklyn.

Out on the West Coast at Matthew Kenney’s M.A.K.E., inside The Market at Santa Monica Place, cocktails embrace the same living foods and raw restaurant edict of the kitchen, where no ingredient is heated over about 150˚F. “We made a conscious commitment to stay clear of distilled spirits. We know they can be organic, but one of the big selling points of raw food is that you can still drink wine, so that’s what we drink in our cocktails,” says Meredith Baird, creative director of Matthew Kenney Cuisine. In addition to focusing on wine and sake, keeping “raw” means avoiding commercial mixes and even homemade simple syrup, while also banning egg whites and milk (not vegan).

Swiping a page from the M.A.K.E. juice bar, the Kale Cooler marries a house blend of kale, cucumber, and pear juices with white wine and lime. “Green juice is so popular with raw cuisine and is really healthy. It’s balanced and mixes surprisingly well,” says Baird. And while the health-conscious crowd in Santa Monica rarely demands a Cosmopolitan, things are slightly different in Oklahoma City, at Matthew Kenney OKC, where organic spirits and Stirrings mixers dot the drinks list. “We’ve had to make some concessions, and that’s OK. If someone is keeping raw, we can make any of the drinks with sake instead,” says Baird.

Hotel, resorts, and spa operator Canyon Ranch also adapts its position on cocktails by location, relying on intuition and experience with guest intentions. The “destination” retreats in Lenox, Massachusetts, and Tucson, Arizona, have no alcohol, while those in Las Vegas and Miami Beach offer highly curated cocktails, with organic ingredients and careful portion control that mimic the kitchen. “We felt that in Tucson and Lenox alcohol would be a distraction for people who want to break their routine. In Miami, we have 450 residences, so people are living there, and they want a real restaurant experience,” says Scott Uehlein, corporate chef.

In addition to stocking a full range of organic spirits, Canyon Ranch keeps careful track of calories in its cocktails, without flaunting figures or “skinny” claims on the list. Cocktails are limited to two ounces of spirits, with no more than 16 percent of calories from alcohol, and no more than one tablespoon of added sugar, derived from natural fruit and juices or organic sugar. (Given new nutritional evidence on the dietary impact of processed fructose, which may constitute as much as 90 percent of agave syrup, the team has steered clear of the sweetener.) “As with the food, you don’t have to cherry-pick the menu. You know you’re getting the right portion and nutrition. Guests trust that we wouldn’t serve them a 500 calorie Piña Colada, because we believe they should be having those calories in a nutritious meal,” says Uehlein. Among the most popular drinks in Miami are the “Blond” Cuba Libre, combining Crusoe white rum and a house-made cola, layered with herbs and spices. The house-made ginger ale comes as soda with a sidecar of syrup, so guests can mix to taste.

Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach has recently conceded to adding some popular super premium spirits to its organic selections. “In many ways, we all walk the line. We really don’t recommend that you drink your calories, and would almost prefer that you enjoy wine. But at the end of the day, we provide services, and a cocktail menu is part of that, so we do it the best we know how,” says Uehlein. Low in calories, bursting with antioxidants, or raw and vegan, these healthful destination restaurants are serving up cocktails that are both tasty and consistent with their mission, giving guests every reason to toast Salut!—To health!

Find recipes for some of the drinks mentioned in this story as well as a few extras, below:
Yam Sake Martini
East Indies Collins
The Black Pearl
The Seahorse
The Citrus Climate Change