Matt Biancaniello is a veteran of the Los Angeles bar scene. Cocktail connossieurs visited him for bespoke concoctions at the Library Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. Eater crowned him Best Bartender in LA in 2010, and in 2013, LA Weekly declared his drinks the best cocktails in the city. These days, he does occasional pop-up appearances, bringing emu egg cocktails to Cheetah's, a Los Feliz strip club, and he's currently working on the cocktail menu at Pot, a hot pot restaurant inside The Line Hotel in Koreatown by Roy Choi.
But his role directing the bar program at the new Plan Check location on Fairfax is something of a different challenge. Complicated drinks don't lend well to the notion of high volume bars or 4,000 square foot burger-focused restaurants like Plan Check. Biancaniello has tried to streamline the cocktails so they require less varied barware and fewer garnishes, but he still aims to make each drink as personal to each customer as possible. "I wanted to be able to bring the best of what I know to a broader audience at Plan Check."
That could mean going off-menu, should it suit the customer's fancy; it could also mean making food and cocktail pairing recommendations. I caught up with Biancaniello on one of his Thursday shifts to get the skinny on how the pairing process works at Plan Check.
His basic approach, he says, was to tailor all the drinks to the food's intensity: "The flavors of this food are very bold and the food is a little bit on the heavier side, so I focused on doing lighter, refreshing drinks with a little more citrus to pair with the food."
Different drinks are appropriate for different parts of the evening. Biancaniello suggests starting with the aromatic Fish Out of Water ($12), made with bonito-infused Famous Grouse, agave syrup, lemon, and shiso. It's almost a liquid appetizer: "The savory notes of the bonito-infused Scotch really whet your appetite," Biancaniello says.
Many folks at Plan Check order a platter of oysters on the halfshell. Biancaniello recommends pairing the Breeder's Cup ($12) with the raw shellfish. He designed the drink with Tito's Vodka, lime, agave, and cucumber, to be refreshing, but the savory addition of applewood smoked salt and beet horseradish works, he says, "as an accent on the oysters."
Can even burgers be paired with cocktails? Biancaniello is convinced. He's pushing the Splendor in the Grass($14), made with Chareau aloe liqueur, agave syrup, arugula, lime juice, and white truffle salt. "The bitterness from the arugula is a great way to cut through the grease" of a burger and fries, he says. Another option works in a similar way, he notes: "You can also do that with the hops in Cascading Hophead." In this $14 drink, Hophead Vodka (which is a bit like a gin, flavored with hops instead of juniper) and resiny Sculpin IPA are mixed with rosemary, lemon, tart grapefruit, herbal Yellow Chartreuse, and agave syrup.
What makes a pairing work, in Biancaniello's eyes? "Sometimes, I'll make a drink that will taste opposite of the food, providing a contrast, and the next time I'll pair that dish with a drink that's complementary." He's been experimenting with taking an ingredient in a given dish and putting it in the cocktail to make a resonant match. "In a multi-course setting, I'll maybe put one mocktail in the middle to slow [the buzz] down," Biancaniello says. "But as long as it surprises the diner in a positive way, it's a good pairing."
About the Author: Esther Tseng is a Los Angeles based food and cocktail writer. Her best finds are chronicled on e*starLA while her day-to-day ponderings and poisons can be found on Twitter and Instagram @estarLA.