Craft cocktails in Orange County just got a lot more fun now that L.A.'s Jason Eisner is in town. The man who created everything from the absinthe-iced sparkling margarita to the world's first hoppy hemp cocktail smoked in a bong as bar director at West Hollywood vegan Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre brings that same playfulness to sister restaurant Gratitude, the first fine-fining concept from plant-based casual-dining chain Cafe Gratitude, opening today in Newport Beach.
Sure, the food menu can seem a little new-agey, with dishes named after affirmations like “I am Fulfilled” and “I am Elated” (which are repeated back to you when food is delivered). But thankfully, its cocktail menu – which follows company protocol with organic spirits and vegan ingredients – doesn't take itself so seriously.
Instead of an affirmation, a carbonated cold-pressed beet-juice drink (made with carrot bitters, balsamic reduction and vermouth) gets called “Beets By J,” while a crisp dry gin and absinthe cocktail cut with a snap-pea cordial, lets you order an “Oh Snap!” With Drake lyrics serving as its description, the grated-chocolate-topped Hotline Sling is a sloe-berry and gin sling that gets its creamy texture and salty foam from aqua faba, aka chickpea brine, which Eisner (who is not vegan) says he discovered after watching vegan bakers use it as an egg white replacement.
“Orange County is sophisticated and its cocktail scene is not less than L.A.'s, but I did see a hole for the kind of cocktails I make,” Eisner says. “I can bring some whimsy and have some fun with seriously good drinks.”
There are also Eisner-ified takes on familiar cocktails. Want a gin and tonic? Gratitude's puts botanical gin, wild chamomile tonic and aromatic tea smoke in a fancy glass globe. Craving a Brazilian capirinha? Eisner pre-batches his extra-dry version 48 hours in advance to extract all that bitter lime oil, and it comes with a house-grown rock candy so you can swizzle until you hit your sweetness preference.
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Other cocktail menu highlights include nine infused vodkas – from blueberry lavender to mango and chili – eight distinctive absinthe drips and a $20 cherry wood-smoked old fashioned, crafted tableside in a decanter with house cola (from a friend's family recipe) and aromatic bitters.
“I'm trying to take us away from the idea that being organic and vegan is hippie stuff full of bad design and tasteless drinks,” Eisner says. “I'm not a mixologist where I want to just mix together spirits and bitters and things that already exist. I want to make my own falernum. I want to infuse my own spirits. And I want to put it all together into something interesting.”
Newport Beach's Gratitude is not only the first fine-dining concept version of Cafe Gratitude, it's also the first to feature a full bar, and they've gone all out, buying gilded cocktail shakers and gold-rimmed glassware. The drinks themselves offset the fancy schmanciness of the place with clever concoctions that are more than just gimmick. Welcome to OC's new great craft cocktail bar.
Gratitude, 1617 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach; (949) 386-8103; cafegratitude.com. Open daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.