The fact that Coco and the Cellar Bar’s best-selling cocktail is their ginger margarita is a testament to why people pack this place: simple delights. This tasty cocktail is exactly what you’d expect it to be. Spicy fresh ginger is added to the classic margarita trio — tequila, cointreau, and lime. No more; no less.
When married chefs Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor opened Coco in November of 2011, veteran bartender Moira Taylor hopped behind the bar to do her part to help her brother and sister-in-law. Taylor designed the bar menu in line with the Coco philosophy — make the menu small, keep the ingredients fresh, and allow the resulting flavors to speak for themselves.
Though most of Taylor’s bartending years were spent in Los Angeles, the Valley native knew she wanted to create a compelling cocktail menu that wasn’t overly complicated and didn’t scare people away.
“I knew it had to be accessible to all sorts of people,” says Taylor, 34. “There’s something for everyone here — we keep it so that nothing’s intimidating to anyone.”
The menu consists of seven staple cocktails that remain mostly unchanged throughout the year, and an eighth “cocktail of the week.” Their gin and tonic — farmer’s organic gin, house-made tonic, and lime — tops off their core cocktail list. To this gin and tonic lover’s excitement, they even make their own tonic water. They use Brazilian cinchona [chin-cho-nuh] bark and fresh lime to make a syrup in the traditional tonic-making fashion, then they add club soda. With all the prepping, zesting, and steeping, a batch of the homemade tonic takes about three days to make. Taylor refers to secret ingredients in the tonic — don’t worry about that, though (if she told you, she’d have to kill you). To me, the tonic tastes as if a few drops of aromatic bitters were added.
“It’s a labor of love,” Taylor says. “We do a lot of stuff ourselves because it’s better quality. It has more flavor.”
The Coco Blossom, the restaurant’s signature drink, is enough to send you swirling around a Maypole. Made with house-infused tarragon white rum, elderflower liqueur, house-made red apple syrup, and fresh lemon, it’s a delectably delicate blend that works all year round. The Bee’s Elbows — a twist on an old favorite with bourbon, pink grapefruit, mint, and honey — also makes the list.
Taylor says that when it comes to creating a good cocktail, it’s all about that balance. A bartender has be sure to carefully blend the spirit, acidity, and sweetness of the drink.
“If it’s well balanced it doesn’t matter what you put in it, it’s going to taste good,” she says.
A French 75 also graces the menu — made with gin, sugar, prosecco, and lemon. And for the cosmo drinkers, Taylor has a yummy take on the classic: house-infused grapefruit vodka, cointreau, white cranberry juice, and lime.
When I was at Coco’s, the week’s featured cocktail was the Spring Palmer, which is made with Earl Grey-infused bourbon, lemon, honey, and peach bitters. Taylor says she and the other bartenders get a little more crafty with the weekly cocktails. Having a small list, she says, ensures consistency among bartenders making the drinks, as well as movement of the ingredients.
“If you have too many things, it’s going to sit around and not be as fresh,” Taylor says.
Another cocktail, the Corn and Oil, is mixed up with blackstrap rum, lime, and housemade falernum — a spicy, sweet traditional Caribbean syrup made with almond, ginger, and lime. The key to continuously making good falernum, Taylor says, is sticking with smaller batches, even though it’s more time intensive that way.
“We’ve tried making larger batches, but it doesn’t taste as good,” she says.
Not every concoction has been an automatic success, though. Taylor recalls experimenting with a radish-infused gin. It tasted good, she says, but it stunk.
“It was so good, but it smelled so awful,” she says, recalling how she cracked the lid and the entire restaurant filled with the smell of bitter radish.
“There’s my little Coco bean,” Taylor squeals as her six-year-old niece bounds into the Cellar Bar. She scoops her up and gives her a twirl. With Coco in her arms, Taylor turns her head back towards me: “They named the restaurant after her.”
The basement bar and the upstairs restaurant have gotten busier and busier over the past three years. Reservations are needed even on weeknights.
“Now when we get a slow night, it’s like ‘Oh, thank God,’ ” Taylor jokes while busily training a new bartender. “We’re always hustling, trying to keep up with the growth.”•
Contact Amanda Drane at firstname.lastname@example.org.