With Mike Yen behind the bar at Ave 5, strange and wonderful things are happening. In addition to cranking out killer cocktails, he has created a collection of intriguing molecular interpretations of classic drinks like the bloody mary, mojito, and bellini.
The bulk of Yen's bartending experience is in upscale La Jolla bars and restaurants, including a stint at Nine-Ten, where he learned from Chris Bleidorn, formerly of Alinea in Chicago. Over the past six years, Yen has expanded his technical repertoire and perfected his techniques—which include reverse spherification and working with liquid nitrogen.
I dropped by the Banker's Hill bar to watch him make a most unusual bloody mary. Yen uses sodium alginate to make a sphere: the chemical reaction between the sodium alginate and calcium lactate in the cocktail forms a thin shell of gelatin around the outside of the shot, making it look solid, but once your teeth make contact with it, the thin, gelatinous "skin" breaks, releasing a flood of spicy, boozy, heirloom tomato juice.
And Yen has more than just the bloody mary up his sleeve.
The shot above may look a bit like a jiggly eyeball, but it's actually a blueberry mojito, made with the traditional ingredients—lime juice, muddled mint, simple syrup, and white rum. Like the bloody mary, the calcium lactate and xanthan gum in the drink reacts with the sodium alginate in the water bath, forming a thin, gelatinous "skin" around the outside of the sphere of liquid, which allows the blueberry to be suspended in the middle.
Mike's tastiest creation was the Peach Bellini, a clever invention designed to look like an egg. The shot has three components: the "egg white", a reduced champagne and white brandy gel (with tapioca powder to thicken); the "yolk", a sphere of pureed peaches, peach schnapps, lemon juice, and calcium lactate; and a delightful secret ingredient...
Poprocks! Underneath the champagne gel and peach sphere, a sprinkling of unflavored fizzing candy gave the shot the effect of carbonation, making it taste a lot like a traditional Bellini.
Mike Yen's modernist creations aren't officially on the menu at Ave 5, but if you stop by when he's tending bar (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), be sure to ask for a demonstration of these unusual cocktails.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a freelance food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best cheap and tasty eats in San Diego, including all things sweet and sugary, for her dessert blog San Diego Sugar.