A Library of Fresh Produce & Booze
Matt Biancaniello is the perfect bartender for the food-oriented Northern California lifestyle. He makes spectacular drinks, combining exotic combinations of seasonal fruits and vegetables, specially-infused house liqueurs, and tweaked modifications of branded spirits. Adorning his countertop are pint glasses filled with fresh herbs, jars brimming with peppers and spices, and containers of liquids macerating with rhubarb and coffee beans. The moment we arrived I was handed a champagne flute of bubbly topped off with his clear gazpacho (made by letting his homemade tomato recipe steep through a sieve for four hours) and a handful of local cherry tomatoes. My first actual drink was a hot chile-infused Campari with fresh grapefruit juice and blended papaya. The fruits were vibrant, the spices sharp and fragrant. For Alice Waters devotees, Matt Biancaniello is a dream come true - he's not a mixologist as much as he is a chef dedicated to the finest seasonal produce. For every foodie in Northern California, the ones who scour the farmers' markets in search of the choicest selections, these drinks created by an enthusiastic culinary force are exceptional and represent everything that the food-conscious San Francisco lifestyle has come to embody. There's only one issue - Matt lives and works in Los Angeles.
For much of our time at Hollywood's Library Bar, my wife and David OG sat next to me asking if I was alright. My normal, boisterous personality was subdued, pensive, and silent. I sat and watched him muddle, listened to him talk, and eyed his concoctions with a combination of both shock and awe. I'd seen plenty of cocktails made with fresh produce, but never to this level and never with this much dedication. "This type of operation isn't possible in Northern California because they don't have year-round farmers' markets," Matt explained as he worked. "I go to the market four or five times a week, so what would I do when winter came around?" A normal bartender would make due, but Matt's dedication to finding new ingredients is incredibly intense. He would fly to Afghanistan to rummage for wild herbs if he could be back in time work his night shift. For him, that's half the fun.
One of the night's main topics for discussion was the divide between San Francisco's classic cocktail scene and the more loosely regulated drinks of LA. Matt is correct in his assumption that his drinks would likely be frowned upon by many a NorCal bartender, mainly because they do not adhere to the pre-Prohibition revival philosophy. They don't break down neatly into aromatic or citrus-based, they are not tailored forms of established classic recipes, and they don't seek to take tame various alcohols by mixing them into a subtle harmony. Take his Umami Milkshake for example, a thick and milky combo of mushroom cap-infused whiskey with eggs, milk, and sugar topped with spices, which tastes closer to a savory dessert than an old-fashioned brandy nog. The foundation for the drink pictured above (that we snapped with David OG's iPhone) escapes my mind now, but it had horseradish in it as well as edible flowers on top! I can just picture some SF bartenders having a heartattack at the thought of such a beverage, such spice and garnish getting in the way of the pure alcohol flavors.
However, where SF bartenders say things like "We don't have vodka," or "Long Island Ice Tea? Fat chance," Matt sees an opportunity to expand the minds of unassuming patrons. "I'll make them a Bloody Mary, but I'll make it with fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, mezcal, olive juice, chile-infused gin, and other ingredients I have around the bar." Because of the Library's placement on one of the most touristy spots of the Hollywood Strip, the walk-in clientele aren't always ready for what he has in store. Matt has made plenty of Long Island Ice Teas, but they've been his version and his vision rather than the standard booze party with a Coke floater. He's taken vodka tonics to an almost unrecognizable creation that serves both his needs as well as the customers, and in doing so, he's revitalized an important part of the bartender's role - customer service. Too many times have I watched "mixologists" revel in their own splendor while a customer cowers in sheer intimidation, so to watch Matt in action was quite refreshing. He would holler to the back of the bar all night, "Everything all right back there?" making sure that every patron was satisfied - and they were. They had asked for five pisco sours, so Matt made them five - five different ones.
Current cocktail culture revolves around the philosophy that bartenders should use the flavors in booze to their advantage, rather than attempt to mask them with sugar and fruit. While it would be easy for some to assume that Matt's drinks fall into the latter, they don't. However, current foodie culture embraces the idea that cuisine should source the freshest ingredients possible from local resources and that menus should be seasonal in order to serve what's currently peaking - this is exactly what Matt is doing. "I'm not really concerned with what other bartenders are saying about my drinks. I care more about what other chefs think," Matt explained. "Not that I don't want other bartenders to like them," he clarified. With all the celebrity chefs landing TV deals on the Food Network, we told Matt that he should get his own reality show because he has such a likeable personality to boot. "It's in the works," he said coyly.
While Northern California tends to favor the pre-Prohibition style, any animosity that other, more classically-trained bartenders could feel towards Matt's drinks would be based more on jealousy, I would think. Matt told us that he does hear things every now and then, but he shakes it off. One other well-known personality apparently did say in reference to him, "I'm not going to spend my free time clmbing a mountain just to find some special herb to put in a drink for one night!" However, it's in that desire to find something new where we found solidarity with the man. David OG and I are willing to fly all over the world if it means bringing back interesting booze for our customers, and if other people find that frustrating because it takes time and effort, then so be it. Like us, Matt uses his days off to learn everything he can about his craft. Half of Matt's ability is his energy and his desire, which is written all over his face right when you meet him. He has no formal training as either a chef or a bartender, but he has the confidence and drive that make the best stand out.
Go to the Library in Los Angeles on a Sunday and sit at the bar. Watch this man in action and see what you think. If you have a love for fresh food and you're interested in booze, it may just an epiphany for you. There's no one else combining food and cuisine into fresh cocktails like this, and if there is, they're definitely not doing it this well.