Last Thursday, K&L Hollywood was graced with the presence of, in my humble opinion, one of Los Angeles’ culinary stars. We challenged Matt to show us his wares under the constraints our lame on-sale license. Wine Only! Not an easy task. Needless to say, he hit it out of the park. We enjoyed four cocktails each utilizing a wine base, farmer market produce and freshly foraged ingredients from the Santa Monica Mountains. Dolin Blanc infused with pomelo skins, guava macerated in Cocchi Americano, candy-cap mushrooms in the Bryrrh. Matt was able to highlight these wonderful ingredients while maintaining his stylistic individuality. Individuality indeed!
Roughly four years ago, Matt Biancaniello took over the reins of Hollywood’s Library Bar at the infamous Roosevelt Hotel. He had literally no training and was thrust suddenly into one of the most hardcore power drinking scenes in America. The Roosevelt at the time was not known for serving excellent cocktails, it was known for hosting Hollywood’s most exclusive guests for a new holds barred attack on their bodies (i.e. tons of Red Bull and Vodka/cocaine). But, Matt is not a standard Hollywood jamoke -trying to make max tips on crappy drinks. Matt had a vision of a new way to serve drinks. Of course, working for a large corporate hotel does not afford you the freedom to buy the type of booze you necessarily want or even the type of produce you need, so Matt took the matters into his own hands. He began investing in the bar out of his own pocket. I’m sure there is a more inspirational story behind Matt finding his style and the unique perspective, but let’s just say that he started doing stuff that almost no one else in the COUNTRY was doing. Constantly scouring farmer’s markets, he brought the regions finest produce to his bar and incorporated it into the cocktails in ways that most classically trained bartenders would scoff at.
I’m not saying Matt created the culinary cocktail trend, but he’s certainly brought it to a level that we’ve not previously seen on the West Coast, SF included (sorry Portland and Seattle, you were probably way out ahead of us, but I haven’t made it up there to find out). As his reputation grew, so did his selection of produce, use of interesting spirits and unique technique. Matt’s real aha moment was relayed to me at last week’s tasting. The bar manager of one of LA’s most acclaimed Cocktail Bars entered the room and examined the cornucopia of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. He exclaimed, “Hey man. You’re gonna have to edit this,” gesturing to the overflowing bowls of aromatic ingredients. Matt knew he was making people uncomfortable. He was onto something that challenged the status quo, something special. After that moment, his obsession exploded and he began stocking an even grander plethora of fresh provisions and challenging himself and his customers to more unusual and complicated mixtures.
It’s always hard to grasp Matt’s precise motivation. I mean this guy has spent thousands of dollars out of his own pocket, gets up at the crack of dawn to travel across the city to multiple open air markets, and then busts his ass until 3 am, for basically no reward save the satisfied faces across the bar. Obviously he’s ambitious, but more than that I believe he wants to change how people interact with their drink. Plus, he’s a genuinely good guy. One of the most telling statements I’ve ever heard regarding Matt’s motivation occurred in the space that he made famous, “I don’t really care what other bartenders think of what I’m doing. I mean I hope they like it, but what really makes me nervous are when chefs come in.” When the world’s top chefs come to your spot you have a right to be nervous, but this story gives you an idea of how he envisions his own style and contribution the community. Cocktails should indeed be treated as a culinary art -at least in the right context, I’m not saying every drink needs to be a masterpiece. I do believe, however, that we need to start treating alcohol more like food and Matt’s work forces us to reexamine our perspective toward the craft.
Indeed, no one has done more in Hollywood to elevate the cocktail than Mr. Biancaniello. After four years of critical acclaim, winning hearts and palates from across the world, Matt stepped down as head bartender of the Library Bar. He’s moving toward securing his own space, but in the mean time you can catch him around town working shifts at Bar+Kitchen, Cliff’s Edge, and other fine establishments. Or come see him at K&L! We plan to have him conduct as seminar every couple of months. They’ll sell out quickly so heads up, next time we’re doing fortified wine cocktails. Sherry, Madeira, Shochu, Port, Rasteau, Rivesalt, Pineau, Pommeau etc. are all fair game. Look out!