Each week bartender Matt Biancaniello visits at least five local farmers' markets to source fresh ingredients for the cocktails he makes at the Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar. His passion for developing drinks with homemade components and unique flavor combinations has earned him devoted fans. On any given night, regulars fill the zebra-striped bar, and all eyes are on Biancaniello as he serves up a combination of the recipes he has developed over the last few years and new cocktails made from his latest market finds.
Biancaniello asks customers which spirit they prefer or what ingredient laid out on the bar intrigues them. Then he slices, muddles, stirs, shakes, and tastes until the drink lives up to his standards - then presents it with a big smile. Biancaniello's enthusiasm shines through in every cocktail.
Biancaniello looks for new flavors to infuse into spirits or to combine in an original way. After discovering a particularly smooth walnut oil, Biancaniello paired it with Benedictine, lemon and cocoa nibs, and named it the Nutty Monk. Though the list of ingredient may sound challenging to the palate, the combination works. It's a cocktail recipe that would not have happened without regular trips to the farmers' market.
We accompanied Biancaniello to a recent Wednesday morning Santa Monica Farmers' Market to see him in action, gathering produce for the bar and searching for new ingredients. As he walks through the stalls on any given week, it's clear that he has developed relationships with several farmers, all eager to show him the fruits, vegetables and herbs they have available.
We stop at the Shanley Farms booth to pick up some finger limes. Every Wednesday the farm brings their finger limes to the Santa Monica market from Morro Bay. As Biancaniello picks out a few boxes, he explains, "They grow them for at least 5 months a year. I make a finger lime amuse by cutting them in half, and fill a syringe with three parts Novo Fogo cachaca and one part agave syrup that I drizzle over the finger lime. Then to taste them, you squeeze the lime with your finger to release the fruit that looks like little lime caviar spheres."
We then head over to Harry's Berries for a fruit that Biancaniello is very serious about. "I love Harry's Berries strawberries. The thing about strawberries is that it is very important to buy organic. The pores in strawberries are large and dangerous pesticides seep in. Harry's are true organic and sustainable and the flavor is so good.
"These berries are an important ingredient in the cocktail I make called the Last Tango in Modena. I muddle the strawberries with aged balsamic and Hendrick's gin, strain into a rocks glass over a large cube of Neve Ice and top with St. Germain foam and garnish with fraise de boise."
After several other purchases we arrive at another Biancaniello favorite, Coleman Family Farm. He sources many of his herbs here, including the relatively hard to find Peruvian black mint, huacatay.
"I buy huacatay from them for the cocktail I call the Sol Survivor, that I created for a customer who had recently traveled to Peru. In the drink I combine gin, watermelon, cucumber, lime, agave and the huacatay and serve it over a large cube of Névé Ice."
Biancaniello then asks for the rest of the ingredients he is looking for. "I also buy my favorite herb in the world here, shiso, which is available only one month a year. Romeo Coleman also saves boxes of borage flowers for me. They must have a lot of land because their farmers' market booth shows the abundance of their crops. I can depend of them to have the ingredients I need for at least two to three months. Once I create a cocktail, I love being able to count on them for the ingredients for as long as it is possible to grow them."
Just across the aisle from Coleman is Windrose Farms; approaching the stall, Biancaniello's excitement is palpable. "You have to see this! Windrose Farms is run by incredible people that keep surprising me with their unusual organic products. I buy large curly cayenne peppers to garnish my 17-step Bloody Mary. I also buy these smaller Italian cayennes that I dice up to make spiced Campari for my Italian Greyhound cocktail."
When asked how he found Windrose, Biancaniello smiles. "One day a friend and I noticed Windrose here at the northern end of the market. When we went over to check it out, they showed me their rose geraniums. I made a water with them that was incredible. Then one week they showed me their mint geranium and lime geranium. In that moment I realized this farm was doing things way beyond everyone else."
We walk to the back of the booth where the back door of the truck is open and filled with produce and herbs. Like a scene in a mafia movie, we peek into the back of the truck, filled with secret exotic ingredients saved for special customers. "I get so many ideas for cocktails based on what Windrose has for me."
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