If you're a frequent patron of Chinatown restaurants, you probably don't think of great cocktails when you think of Asian food. At Lillo & Ella, bar manager Aaron Lara is trying to change that.
Lillo & Ella opened in the Heights in May, making it one of the few Asian restaurants in that neighborhood. Owner Kevin Naderi describes it as pan-Asian, offering small dishes from across the continent and a curated cocktail list of classic drinks and new inventions.
After working with Lara at Haven, Naderi approached him about being the beverage director at Lillo & Ella. Lara is a laid-back guy, though. He doesn't want to be called beverage director or any other frou-frou name like "spirits supervisor."
"I'm not directing anything," he says modestly. "I'm the bar manager."
One of Lara's favorite drinks on the menu is the Zatoichi's Revenge. It's a funky name for a very smooth cocktail, and Lara explains that it's named for a Japanese mini-series. The central character is Zatoichi the blind Samurai. At first he seems harmless, but he's actually a deadly assassin. Like the blind swordsman, the drink goes down easy, but packs quite a punch and demonstrates Lara's mastery of obscure alcohol.
How long have you been bartending? This year will be 12 years behind the bar.
How did you start? Kind of by accident. I was working in restaurants waiting tables. That was just the avenue I took at 16 or 17 years old. Other kids were lifeguards or pursing more traditional summer jobs for kids that age. I just always felt at home in restaurants. I always had an appreciation for the service industry. I was at A&M Galveston, and I applied for a job as a valet, and they asked me if I wanted to bartend.
Why is bartending something you enjoyed then, and something you continue to enjoy? The creative outlet is nice...just the sense of being a host is something I really like about the work. And frankly, that's something I feel like a lot of the more contemporary mixologist types have gotten away from, unfortunately. One of the primary job descriptions of a good bartender is to first be a host. I can teach a trained chimp how to make a proper Manhattan in a couple of hours. That's a good idea...I'm gonna make a note of that. But it's something I've always been drawn back to. Though if all goes as planned, my bartending career will be ending in the next few months.
What? Why? I'm moving to San Diego to go to fire school to be a firefighter. That's the plan. I'm moving out there at the end of September. To surf, mostly. And I really love southern California.
Why did you want to be involved with Lillo & Ella when it opened? It's something that Kevin [Naderi] asked me about more than a year ago. I worked with Kevin over at Haven when he was the sous chef there, and we had a really good working relationship. We did a couple of cocktail dinners when I was there that went over really, really well. I talked to him about doing his beer and wine buying over at Roost at one point, but he realized he could kind of do that in-house, so I didn't really work with him there. But when he pulled the trigger on this space and started to conceptualize everything, he asked me first if I'd be willing to take on a simple consultation role. Then that evolved into a bar management position.
A person walks into a bar and orders _______. He/she has just earned your undying admiration. What was my answer to that when I did a bartender chat a couple of years ago? I think a Manhattan.
Has it changed? For me, what would really get my attention the most would be if someone actually called for an Americano. It's a really popular drink once people have had it and are familiar with it, but it's not something that gets called for as often as I would like. It's my death row drink, my beer in the shower drink, as it were. It's my comfort drink.
What's your least favorite thing to make? A cucumber martini. No, I don't know. There's really nothing. The way I see it is if I have the ingredients to make something, I'll make it. I want to be more of a yes-man than anything. If I want to influence the bar in a way with my personal taste, then I'll just choose not to carry certain things.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to use? Salt. In the drink. Using a tincture. Sometimes even a nice sea salt directly into a punch, for the same reason that it's used in food. It enhances flavors and accentuates and brightens--all that jazz.
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When you're not here, where do you drink? When I'm not here, I drink in my living room. I drink at Poison Girl.
What's your drink? A beer and a shot. At this point, I don't even call for anything. A hoppy beer and some sort of whiskey.
What's one thing people might not understand about bartending that you wish they did? The work itself is not at glamorous as a lot of folks perceive it to be--at least not for a really dedicated professional bartender. The dudes bartending in a night club on Washington probably have a lot more glamorous of a social life than a lot of us do. But I think the payoff that we enjoy is the creative outlet that we're provided and the chance to be a genuine host instead of just pumping out drinks. It's hard to discuss that topic without sounding like you're looking for sympathy, though. There's a lot of prep we do on a daily basis, and in order to keep a clean, well-organized bar, there's a lot of work that goes into closing every night.
If you could have a drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would it be and why? Wow...Jesus...
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Jesus? No! Hmm. Do people typically have an answer to that question right away? How 'bout Stanley Kubrick, because the guy was such a perfectionist in so many regards and so mysterious. He was such an introvert, but at the same time is regarded as maybe the best filmmaker of all time.
What would you drink to impress him? Or what would you make him? Just a really, really nice glass of whiskey.
Here's Lara's recipe for a Zatoichi's Revenge, which uses a house-made green tea-infused Cocchi Americano, an aperitif wine.