Joe Stark of Brasserie 19 Gives Us a Veteran's View from Behind the Bar

Finding a bartender for this week's article proved far harder than usual. After visiting three bars in a row manned by -- in this order -- a bar back, a first-day waitress and, finally, no one at all, I began to wonder if I had finally succeeded in my goal to drink Houston dry. In a last-ditch effort, I wandered down Montrose headed to nowhere in particular, when I remembered a Tweet from Brasserie 19 chef Amanda McGraw earlier this week touting a plate of foie gras-topped fries.

I decided that if no one was going to make me a drink, I was at least determined to damage my cholesterol. I swung a right onto West Gray and headed to the polished, white marble bar of the River Oaks eatery.

What I found -- aside from McGraw's awesome plate of fries -- was a hidden gem in longtime bartender Joe Stark. While happy to talk shop, he insisted I not let my snack grow cold while talking to him -- so he politely poured me a drink and waited while I inhaled the plate with abandon.

Once I had cemented my status as the most out-of-place diner of the evening, literally shoveling gravy fries into my mouth by the handful, Stark presented me with his twist on the Sazerac and we got down to business.

First of all, what am I drinking?

A variation on the Sazerac. Toby Maloney in Chicago made this for me at The Violet Hour. He switched out the sugar for an apricot liqueur. So it's two ounces of High West Rendezvous Rye, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot, Peychaud's and Absinthe.

And how long have you been at Brasserie 19?

Since it opened, so a year and a half ago. I was recruited by the opening chef, Michael Gaspard, when he came over from Pappas. I was with Pappas for 11 years. A bunch of different concepts: seafood, steakhouse, all of it. I traveled and opened restaurants and trained bar staff. He felt I was passionate about the craft, so he wanted me over here.

And you started off waiting tables?

Yes. Started off waiting tables at Pappas Seafood for two years. I transferred to the Pappadeaux at Bush Intercontinental, and I told them I was a bartender, and they believed me. From there, I just went with it and never looked back. After about two years, one of my managers said, "You know, you're really, really good at bartending. You should look at maybe making a career of it." I just decided to throw myself into it, reading books, blogs, learning drinks and everything else. It's not just when I'm here. When I go home, it's still bartending. I go to Tales of the Cocktail every year. I'm wholehearted into it.

Give me your best story from behind the bar.

The time that a guy mooned the entire restaurant. Because it wasn't just something small. It was the entire restaurant. They were sitting at one of these tables out here (on the sidewalk patio just outside the large storefront windows). And he just got up, knocked on the window and dropped his pants, then just went right back to sitting down. Everybody got the show.

The company that owns Brasserie 19, Coppa and Ibiza has a reputation for its servers having nicknames. What's yours?

Clue. When I started, I was wearing a plaid shirt so I was Mr. Plaid. Then that changed to Mr. Plaid In The Observatory With The Candlestick, which is a reference to Clue. So now it's just Clue.

So where do you like to drink right now?

I live in Sugar Land, so I frequent the Flying Saucer out there...a couple times a week. The expanded food menu is a big help, and they have really good beer. Hopefully their cellar program, where they will start having aged stuff, will get going soon.

What's one piece of advice for someone looking to be a career bartender?

Go barback. Pick a style of bartending. Do you want to be a sports bar bartender, a restaurant bartender, a cocktail bartender? Go pick the style of bar you want to work at and go get on as a barback. Apprenticeship-type deals are the best way to learn. Pick up a book and get the basics. You've got to walk before you can run.

To fully take in the stellar service and well-appointed bar, we recommend swinging in for a quiet drink at Brasserie 19 before weekdays 6 p.m. If you crave the back-and-forth that only comes with a crush of patrons up against a well-oiled machine, check back on Friday nights, when Brasserie's serene daylight glow gives way to the buzzing, packed house of the see-and-be-seen River Oaks crowd. There is no wrong answer here.

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Joshua Justice
Contact: Joshua Justice