When she started work on the cocktail list for Embeya, which will open in a couple of weeks at 564 W. Randolph, Danielle Pizzutillo and the rest of the Embeya team went on a tasting mission throughout southeast Asia. What she discovered was "There is no cocktail scene" in countries like Thailand, she laughs— the drinking is straightforward, whiskey, beer or sake with everything. So she has had to invent for herself the kind of cocktails that draw on the ingredients used in the region, and complement the food of Embeya chef Thai Dang (with whom she worked at RIA in the Elysian Hotel, now the Waldorf-Astoria). We talked with her about how you devise, in effect, the hypothetical cocktail scene for a cuisine, and she shared with us her initial cocktail list when the restaurant opens later this month.
So tell us about this trip you took and how you devised cocktails for Embeya.
Well, you know that Thai and some of the other people and I all came from the Elysian. And there we had both a menu and a list built on old classics, and a library of wonderful spirits.
Embeya is a total break with that. And I knew for the most part we wanted it built on the ingredients Thai would be using. So we all went on this trip and toured all of Thailand, Malaysia, southeast Asia, Japan, looking for inspiration. And the first thing we do is ask, what's the cocktail scene in Thailand? How do they pair these ingredients?
And the answer is, there is no cocktail scene. They drink beer with everything, or whiskey or sake. We went to one restaurant, a Michelin star chef, and the drink menu says they have a Matcha [tea] Sour. They bring it out and it's straight-up green tea with sake. So no, there's not a real developed scene there. But we knew we'd need a killer beer and sake list.
So then what did you do? Besides have a good time on the trip, obviously.
Well, we had this array of amazing ingredients, so I had to evolve my own style using new ingredients with classic techniques. One thing I got into was cordials— I did a jackfruit cordial, and I did some with a custard apple, which is this fruit— it's kind of like an apple, though what it really looks like is a globe artichoke, and it's the creamiest, most delicious thing you ever heard of.
I also really wanted to utilize kitchen techniques that I've learned from Thai— to elevate the craft of cocktails. I use a lot of gelatins and jellies— anything I can recreate that you can pull out of the cocktail and showcase it being edible. I'm trying to bridge the gap between ingredients and spirit techniques.
One drink that's on the menu right now, it's called The Death of Reposado. I did an infusion of blanco tequila spiced with Thai chiles. I pair it with yuzu and sake— yuzu is so bright, it adds a quality you can't get with any other citrus. Then I do a foam top— you bloom gelatin, mix it with simple syrup and charge it in an ISI canister. I used a shiso simple syrup to add that Asian flavor. It takes the place of egg white in a drink with a foamy top.
How drinks look structurally is important to me. I'm actually trained as an architect but I grew up in the food world, so it's important to me that drinks have structure. I can't help treating cocktails as little architectural projects, I make a gelee and it has to sit in the cup a certain way.
EMBEYA OPENING COCKTAIL LIST
TENDRON & LIME
vodka, young coconut water, citrus, with caramelized coconut skewer
gin/vermouth, & smoky heirloom tomato water with basil
cachaca, all spice, jackfruit cordial, lemon
gin, house ginger beer, & lime with candied ginger
wheat beer, gin, lemon, tarragon
rum, grenadine, orgeat, with dehydrated pineapple and cherry dust
DEATH OF REPOSADO
aged tequila, thai chili, and yuzu with shiso foam
THE FIRE OF ZEUS
bourbon, orange, lemon, with persimmons