Bartender Chat: Dale Ellington of Kata Robata

"Can I look into the light thoughtfully?" "Sure, Dale."
"Can I look into the light thoughtfully?" "Sure, Dale."
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg

Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

Kata Robata does so much more than sushi. The ramen is some of the best in a town still searching for ideal ramen. The lobster mac and cheese makes any other mac and cheese seem subpar. And the beverage program includes sake cocktails that will knock your socks off.

Steven Salazar is the beverage director for Kata Robata, and he's turned the bar into a well-oiled machine that pumps out delightfully unique cocktails to pair with the restaurant's alternately traditional and cutting-edge Japanese food. Dale Ellington is his protégé and partner in crime, and together the two are mixing up playful and innovative drinks, sure to keep people who think they know Kata Robata guessing.

Here, Dale talks to us about his role at Kata Robata, wine versus sake and why he hates White Russians.

How long have you been bartending? I took some time off from working in restaurants, but maybe a total of six years or so?

What were you doing before that? I was managing Book People in Austin for a while, and then I decided to throw my hat into the catering business while I was there. I found out that cooking, for me, is better as an evocation than a vocation. It started killing my passion. Oddly enough, I got back into front-of-the-house restaurant stuff working at Uchi here in Houston when they first opened. Two years later, I ended up over here, and it's been a bit of a revelation.

How long have you been at Kata Robata? Since June of 2013. Steven [Salazar, the beverage director] and I hit it off immediately, and he was really eager to get me behind the bar. I had bartended before, but it was mainly tapping kegs and popping caps. The most creative thing was coming up with yet another permutation on a margarita.

The Nanban Trade, a cold-weather drink invented by Ellington and Salazar.
The Nanban Trade, a cold-weather drink invented by Ellington and Salazar.

What do you like to drink? My favorite thing to drink is wine. I have a ton of wine at home. I never have to go out after work, but sometimes you just don't want to go home.

When you're not here, where do you go to drink? I go to Camerata. I drink whatever they foist on me there, because it's always good. In the warm months, I'm drinking lighter-bodied wines, typically white wines and rosés. Right now, I'm on a Shiraz/Syrah kick.

A person walks into a bar and orders _______. He/she has your instant respect. I wish more of our clientele would indulge in wine. Our beverage program is amazing, and our mixed drinks have a place in it. What I try to do in the most sensitive way possible is say, "Think of this wine as a condiment for your meal." You can have an after-dinner drink, but this is what I wish people would order.

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Gather these four ingredients for the simple and soothing Nanban Trade cocktail.
Gather these four ingredients for the simple and soothing Nanban Trade cocktail.

What's your least favorite thing to make? I was bartending back when "The Big Lebowski" came out, and people kept coming in and asking for White Russians. I got so sick of White Russians. If I never have to make another one in my life, I'll be happy. But here, my least favorite things to make are margaritas, because they just don't go with anything. But the good thing is, we just don't have any crappy tequila. It's all good.

What's your favorite thing about bartending? They've given me the shifts Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays here, when it doesn't get three deep behind the bar, so I get to engage my guests. I love to taste all night long with the people who sit at the bar. I'll say, "Try this Reisling with that. It'll blow your mind." It opens a lot of my guests' eyes to how drinks can pair with this food.

What's it like serving so much sake here? People are often more into doing sake bombs when, in fact, sake has these amazing, beautiful nuances, much like wine has. I started learning about sake at this sushi restaurant in Austin off of Congress. And then, of course, when I got hired at Uchi, I learned almost everything there is to learn about sake, and my appreciation for it deepened. I became sort of a sake samurai while I was there.

If you could share a drink with anyone -- living, dead or fictional -- who would it be, and why? Ernest Hemingway. One, because he was a writer, and two, because he was a drunk, and drunks are fun to drink with. Perhaps if this required a time machine, this would be even better. We could go to the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. A lot of writers have made their way over there.

What's one of the craziest things that's happened here? Well, we have this drink called the Pimm's Cup, and it uses habañero-infused vodka. Part of the garnish is a whole habañero chile on top. Most people have enough sense not to eat it, but not all. One day we had this dainty, cute lady sitting at the bar, and she said she likes spicy stuff. Without saying another word, she picked up the habañero and just takes a big ol' bite out of it. We were like, "Oh my God, no!" and she said, "No, it's fine." And then, her eyes got wide. I thought she was going to lose her mind. I think she was holding back tears. We had to run to the back to get her a glass of milk.

What's one of the coolest things you've seen while working here? I've seen a couple of proposals go down. It hasn't happened at the bar yet. But I'm a bit of a romantic at heart, so it never gets tiring. Also, cutting people off is always kind of exciting, but in a totally different way.

Tell me about the Nanban Trade. You're hitting a lot of different flavor centers. Maybe not the sour notes so much, but the bitterness will pick that up. It's a cold-weather drink, so we have a limited amount of time to do it. It's not the easiest drink to make in the middle of service because we have to take the sake to the back to heat up. I think the most important ingredient in the whole thing is the salt, though. Three quick grinds will do it.

Here's how it's made:

3 oz. Hawk in the Heavens sake (from Japan) 1.5 oz. Fonseca 20 year old tawny port (from Portugal) Chocolate Mole bitters Salt

Heat the sake in a sake warmer or double boiler (or a microwave, if you're not a sake snob). Pour into a cup that will retain warmth. Add 2 ounces of Fonseca 20 year port and about six drops of chocolate mole bitters or other chocolate bitters. Add three grinds of salt (about a teaspoon). Stir and serve.

Both Hawk in the Heavens and Fonseca port are available at Spec's, as are chocolate bitters.

The name, Nanban Trade, refers to a period of trade in Japanese history during which Portuguese merchants and explorers came to Japan for the first time.

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