Note: First Looks gives previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with bars and restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Montmartre is Gabe Stulman's sixth restaurant. It's the only one outside the boundaries of the West Village, but it follows the same formula that's come to define his quickly growing Little Wisco Empire. On 18th and Eighth, you'll find another shoebox-size room with hip photos, a focused menu, and whimsical cocktails. Brian Bartels is responsible for the latter. He runs the cocktail program at each of Stulman's restaurants, and he once again aims to coax big flavors from the confines of a small bar.
Montmartre chef Tien Ho, who learned French technique from Daniel Boulud and cooked his way through an Asian pantry as the executive chef of Ma Peche, is a new source of ingredient inspiration. Ho's menu at Montmartre has given Bartels an entirely new stock of ingredients to experiment with. So the cocktails are flavored with a number of new infusions, syrups, and bitters. "I try to incorporate [these ingredients] all the time because I feel like it's wasting your proximity and the tools and ingredients that you have at your disposal. That's the best part about running a cocktail program that's connected to a restaurant. You get to use all these fresh ingredients that are right under your fingertips."
But Bartels wants each drink to be more than the sum of its ingredients. "I'm a big fan of drinks telling stories," he says. "I think it's important that cocktails and names of cocktails have a certain kind of biography behind them. As a bartender, you're engaging with people and you want to make it more meaningful or sentimental." Certain sentiments blossomed 15 years ago in Wisconsin, when Bartels and Stulman met in college. At Montmartre, Bartels tells that story with the Mifflin Street Moonlight. "The drink ties into Montmartre by the name and the place it was inspired by. Gabe's first job as a bartender, and where we met, was at a wine bar called Café Montmartre on Mifflin Street."
Bartels has a brother Tim who lives on the West Coast. They don't see each other often. That's why there's a gin-based cocktail at Montmartre called T. Model Train Dreams. The Train Dreams part is a Dennis Johnson reference, but T. Model is what Bartels has been calling Tim for years. The cocktail is fortified with Timmy Bitters, homemade bitters made from rye whiskey, brandy, and tea. "Tim's never had coffee in his life, ever, he only drinks tea, so I put coconut tea in the bitters to give him a little brotherly love."
Bartels says he always develops drinks with someone in mind. "I like [names and drinks] that force a story, that invite conversation. Whether that's something playful, or something tender like missing a brother, it's celebrating the people we know and the people we're inspired by. That's what drinking is all about."