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The Art of Crafting Cocktails at Philly's Best Vegan Bars

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While it may be their way with vegetables that's put them in the national spotlight, the team at Vedge (and new V Street) are also behind some of the best cocktails in Philadelphia. Leading the way behind the sibling bars are Daniel Miller and Ross Maloof, who talked to us about crafting a drink, maintaining a fully vegan bar, and their frustrated passion for cocktail parasols.

THE CHALLENGE TAKEN ON by chef-owners Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau when they opened Vedge in 2011 was to place vegetables front and center in a larger fine-dining conversation that had long since shunted them off to the side. And while their cooking positioned them nicely to meet that goal, it was their restaurant's polish — classically stylish space, capable service, and excellent beverage program — that would truly drive home the point: Vegan food has potential way beyond the stereotypical contexts (crunchy co-ops in Berkeley, contract riders of trend-chasing celebrities) in which it's often placed. In the right hands, it can reach any level.

Somewhat quietly, Vedge has built a reputation for having one of the city's best restaurant bars. Jacoby has trained to take on the role of sommelier herself, while bar manager Daniel Miller has worked with the couple since before Vedge existed, both learning their aesthetic and helping to shape it. When Jacoby and Landau finally decided to expand, it made sense that they would branch out with a cocktail bar.

With the opening of "global street food bar" V Street earlier this month, Miller took the lead as manager of the new project. Now, Ross Maloof heads up the bar at Vedge, though the two collaborate extensively. Maloof is a veteran of the Grainery Restaurant Group — the group that ran Farmers' Cabinet and Sutton's Parlor, a family of excellent bars that unfortunately shuttered this year after being notoriously mismanaged at the ownership level. He brings a very different background and sensibility into the mix.

Though Vedge and V Street share some of their aesthetic sense and high level of execution, the bars have immediately differentiated themselves in a number of ways. At Vedge, working behind the bar is not just about serving happy-hour revelers and diners who've chosen to forego the reservations process (for prime time slots, at this point, they're sometimes booked months in advance; Maloof estimates they might serve 30 to 50 full dinners at the bar on a given night). It's also the service bar for the entire restaurant, which seats an additional 70 to 80 diners per turn.

It's definitely a beast of a bar to work behind.


"Part of the challenge is in designing drinks that, from start to finish, can be made in three minutes or less," Miller says. As many diners order a cocktail to start their meal, and increasing numbers of people look to pair cocktails with their food throughout the evening, the bar needs to handle a lot of orders, and quickly.

"It's definitely a beast of a bar to work behind," says Maloof, who's grateful to have bartenders who can handle it. At a cocktail bar, he contrasts, "people expect to wait a little longer for their drink." At V Street, the space is much smaller. There are only about 30-odd seats away from the bar, which gives bartenders more of an opportunity to socialize with guests perched in front of them. And so far, Miller says, more people are dropping by V Street specifically to grab a drink or two. (At Vedge, it's rare for people to come in for a single drink at the bar without dining.)

The drinks themselves differ, as well. Some of that is because of Miller and Maloof's divergent backgrounds: Miller's experience is with restaurant bars, so he tends toward lighter cocktails, always with an eye toward what goes with the food. Maloof came up in cocktail bars and appreciates boozier drinks — but he suggests that in working together, they've so far found success in rounding each other out.

There's also the matter of the style of food served in each space. The plates coming out of the kitchen at V Street are bolder, spicier, and all over the map as far as influences go. Overall, the drinks are not so apparently alcoholic; there's lots of whimsy and snackish embellishments: popcorn garnishes, mustard syrups, horchata and coffee and fruit.

We need Kate to come in and say, 'You two are idiots.'


Much of Miller's inspiration came from a list of interesting street food items compiled and passed along to him by Jacoby. Many of them were things he'd never even had a chance to try in their authentic version, so he had to research,play around, and put his own twists on the source material. "Here, I was just trying to keep it fun," he concludes. "Fun, but not kitschy."

Again, Jacoby plays a crucial role, by keeping the potential kitsch in line. They're putting out thoughtful, well-balanced, and often restrained drinks — but given any chance, both of these guys will enthusiastically wax on about cocktail parasols, at length. (Truth be told, given their obvious passion for umbrellas, it was almost disappointing not to see a single one come across the bar.)

In discussing glassware choices for V Street, Maloof's eyes lit up recalling some cactus-stem glasses they considered. "If we didn't have Kate as someone to come in and say 'no,' our bars would be so ridiculous," Maloof concedes. "We need her to come in and say, 'You two are idiots.'"

They also get good guidance from their main bartenders — Shane McNulty and Nichole Szarka at Vedge, and Matt Wolfe at V Street — who, they note, are all knowledgeable and willing to improvise anything you want on the fly, if nothing on the set menu appeals. Just as they bounce ideas off of each other, Miller says, they get some of the best feedback from their teams. "I'll come in all excited, like, I'm going to put together the most ridiculous garnish you've ever seen. And they know to say, 'No, that's stupid, you're not doing that. Just put the popcorn on it and move on.'"

Ross Maloof (L) and Dan Miller behind the bar at V Street.


Q: What are some of the unique challenges of running a fully vegan bar?

Before walking us through some of their favorite drinks currently on the menu at both bars, Miller and Maloof gave us a general idea of what it means to operate a bar that's 100% vegan.

For them, thoroughly vetting their products means a lot of one-on-one discussions with their reps and with the companies producing everything they use. For your own reference at home, though, they recommend Barnivore as a solid and thorough source.

Generally speaking, spirits are easier to navigate than wine or beer, says Miller. There are some obvious things that are out, like cream liqueurs such as Bailey's. Otherwise, the main thing that disqualifies liqueurs from use is honey. That's the case with Benedictine, for example, and probably with green Chartreuse.

Why "probably"? Because no one knows the recipe for the ancient liqueur — not even the Carthusian monks that produce it. Only two monks are given access to the recipes at a time, and as Maloof understands it, they collaborate in such a way that neither of them even gets the full recipe. In discussions about the suitability of the product for the bar at Vedge, Miller was assured that — without getting into specifics — they would be fine to use yellow Chartreuse, but not green.

There are a few other obvious no-gos: egg whites (which froth up many cocktails including pisco sours), isinglass, a product made from fish bladders that's used in filtering processes, or ambergris, a whale secretion that became an unlikely star of some craft cocktail dens.

Then, there are some grey areas. Controversy may be stirred up by a seemingly innocuous product like Macallan scotch, which has been said to use seashells in its filtering process. "Those shells could otherwise be used as habitats for hermit crabs, I guess," posits Maloof.

According to Barnivore, this claim has since been revised — the filtering process apparently uses diatomaceous earth, which is classified as vegan. Still, the fact remains: Not everyone agrees on what classifies something as vegan. Miller, who is vegan, seems dubious that filtering something through seashells is a pressing concern. Meanwhile, he says, there are some people whose main criterion is the presence of a central nervous system, meaning that oysters would count as vegan. (Again, Miller seems to disagree. "I've been trying to get him to eat an oyster forever, but he just won't do it," jokes Maloof.)

One technically unrelated caveat is that, Maloof says, Vedge receives a high percentage of guests with other dietary restrictions or allergies. In particular, they get many requests for gluten-free items, which has led them to work on diversifying their options. One happy result is the recent addition of a number of interesting ciders — one on tap, and several others available by the bottle or glass — focusing on traditional French styles. The benefit and challenge, as with seemingly everything here, is to seek out those products that aren't a compromise: They're good, they're worth exploring, and they still check the necessary boxes.


MALOOF AND MILLER BOTH took to their respective bars to show off a few of their favorite drinks from their current menus, and elaborate on the work that goes into each. At both bars, you can expect a partial overhaul of the menu by early December. (Expect a few drinks to be completely swapped out with new options, and possible seasonal tweaks throughout.) For reference, you can pull the current menus up here:

Vedge bar menu, Fall 2014
V Street bar menu, Fall 2014

Fall sangria

Currently the most popular cocktail at Vedge, Maloof says this sangria, surprisingly, also took the most time and work from the point of conceptualization to when it finally hit the menu. "What we wanted to do was get fall into a glass, into something wine-based, approachable, and really drinkable," he says. So he was thinking of fall fruits like apples and pears, as well as one of his favorite flavors for fall: rosemary.

To get the rosemary flavor to come through and to sweeten the drink, Maloof chose a process called oleo saccharum. Popular in the 19th century, especially as a punch base, the process simply muddles together citrus peels and sugar. As they sit together for an extended period of time, the sugar soaks up the oils from the rinds, resulting in what Maloof describes as "a sort of sludge of sugary, oily citrus stuff."

To prep, he peels a large number of Meyer lemons — chosen for their more delicately flavored zest and slightly sweeter juice than regular lemons — and mixes it with "a whole lot" of fresh rosemary. The mix sits overnight, agitated occasionally.

Once strained, the resultant "sludge" meets fresh asian pear juice, some of the juice from the Meyer lemons, more sugar, and vinegar — all of which cooks down and is steeped with yet more rosemary to yield the base of the cocktail.

That base is mixed to order with chardonnay, as well as small amounts of Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao and plum eau de vie. (Maloof describes the Ferrand liqueur as a unique sort of triple sec that's like "a really hot and bright, citrusy cognac" that "almost tastes like a creamsicle.") The final product is a crisp, light cocktail that evokes fall without any of the heaviness or spice that often serves as shorthand for the season.


ANYONE FOR TENNIS?

Given the theme of the restaurant, which spotlights and demonstrates the versatility of vegetables first and foremost, Miller says they always have at least one vegetable drink on the menu at Vedge. The most prominent on the current menu is this savory mix built on a winter squash shrub, infused with hot and numbing Sichuan peppercorn.


After sampling a number of squashes, they settled on a red kuri squash. Now, that squash gets whizzed in a blender with some water (with Sichuan peppercorns steeped in), then strained through a fine mesh strainer. But there were some casualties along the way to landing on that process: "This drink killed so many juicers," Miller interjected. "It was like a juicer graveyard in here."

(At this point, anything fibrous stays out of the juicers. Even before the squash-induced juicer massacre, Miller recalls an incident when he was juicing a lot of ginger and the machine "just snapped," sending ginger paste and juice all over the back bar, windows, and walls. Be careful out there, juice fanatics.)

Safely blended and strained, the squash juice is cooked with white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and more Sichuan peppercorn to make a flavorful shrub. Now something of a buzzword, a shrubs is just a sweet-tart fruit concoction — the addition of sugar and acid to fresh fruits was originally intended as one method of preservation — that can flavor a cocktail or be diluted and enjoyed on its own.

Here, the shrub is shaken with Bombay dry gin, lemon juice, and Peychaud's bitters. It's garnished with more ground Sichuan peppercorn — if you like your drink spicier, you should skip the straw and sip right from the top — and a spicy zucchini pickle, made in house. "We always have to make more of those than we end up using," Maloof adds, "because my bartenders and I just keep snacking on them."


HATS OFF TO HARPER

"This one is more the style I gravitate towards, personally — the more boozy, Prohibition-era kind of thing," says Maloof of this drink inspired by the classic Negroni. Traditionally, that's equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, but there are seemingly infinite variations on the standard build.

Here, he swaps Bols genever in for gin. The predecessor to gin, genever is similarly flavored with a mix of botanicals including juniper, but it's made with malted wine that Maloof says contributes a "funky sweetness."

Instead of using a fortified wine like vermouth, fall-appropriate warming spices are introduced to the drink via mulled wine. To a base of tempranillo, Maloof adds rosemary, zests of grapefruit, lemon, lime, and clementines, vanilla bean, cloves, star anise, bay leaf, dried orange peels... "It's a lot of stuff," he trails off. These ingredients are cooked in a small amount of the wine to extract the flavors, then the liquid is strained and introduced to a larger amount of tempranillo at a much lower heat. Typically, mulled wine is served warm, but this mix is cooled and kept on hand to flavor a cold drink.

Finally, in place of Campari, Maloof brings in some more vegetal influence with Cynar, a type of amaro that is predominantly flavored with artichoke. The drink is finished with a drop or two of orange cream bitters, and served with the added drama of a flamed orange zest. The puff of flame through the orange oil is showy, but the garnish is there for a simple reason — to balance the flavors with a final bit of necessary bitterness.


COLONEL MUSTARD IN THE LIBRARY WITH A DAGGER*

[*Ed. note: as a self-described "Clue-thusiast," Maloof couldn't hold back from vocally taking issue with the name Miller gave this drink. "It's the dagger. There's only one. There aren't many different types of daggers to choose from in the game of Clue." In our professional opinion, the man has a point.]

I don't know if he meant to, but Dan successfully recreated those Snyder's honey mustard pretzel bites in liquid form.

"The inspiration for this drink was just that I was thinking of Philadelphia street food things, and obviously, soft pretzels are the signature thing — especially if you work late, because soft pretzels are available at 2 in the morning," Miller explains. He also had in mind the Hungarian langos on the menu, and mustard felt like a common thread between the local staple and Eastern European food. The base of the drink is a Corpse Reviver #2, which Miller felt would be refreshing as well as a good vehicle to handle the mustard flavor. So he cut out the absinthe, and swapped in a good dose of mustard.

That mustard syrup gets a surprising start: onions. Onions are cooked down to pull out as much sweetness as possible, with dijon mustard, caraway, fennel, dill seed, mustard water, and a tiny bit of agave. There's also turmeric, largely for color, because Miller figured something that looked like orange juice would be more appetizing than something murky and brown. The syrup is paired with gin and Cocchi, an Italian aperitif wine fortified with citrus, spices, and a natural source of quinine (the same bitter, anti-malarial compound found in tonic water).

Topped with a pickle for more acid and salt, the drink is undoubtedly savory and substantial. But as weird as it may sound, it's also got a decent hit of sweetness and is almost alarmingly drinkable. "I am blown away that Dan — I don't know if he meant to — but he successfully recreated those Snyder's honey mustard pretzel bites in liquid form, and it's the most amazing thing," says Maloof.


LIMA MIST

Chicha morada is a Peruvian corn beverage, made by cooking down purple-black corn with cinnamon, cloves, and usually pineapple juice. Miller makes his with yellow corn, so the drink lacks the vivid purple color of a traditional chicha morada.

This was one of the items on Jacoby's list that Miller had never tried, but he took the inspiration and went with what made the most sense for his purpose. "When I made my chicha morada, I blended the corn in, which I don't think you're supposed to," he explains. But that way, it has a thick consistency — not entirely unlike egg whites, which would be used to froth a pisco sour. So for this pisco-based drink, the modified chicha morada felt right.


Topped with popcorn — to mirror the flavor of the corn in the mix, and also just because it's fun — and served in an opaque vessel, you almost wouldn't know you were being served a drink if not for the straw sticking out of it. (See an alternate view here.)


LOKUM AT THE BAZAAR

Jelab (also spelled jallab) is a Middle Eastern fruit syrup. "Think of, like, sangria — it's got pomegranate or grape molasses, rosewater, carob," lists Miller. "The syrup gets mixed with crushed ice, topped with pine nuts and raisins, and you drink it on the beach."

Early on, Miller experimented with smoked dates, and the mix ended up tasting "almost like barbecue sauce, like Sweet Baby Ray's, and that's delicious." The thought process that followed was to choose ingredients that would go with barbecue sauce. Bourbon was a no-brainer, while Turkish coffee both meshed with the barbecue flavor inspiration and fit the Middle-Eastern origins of the jelab syrup.

Served in a non-disposable replica of iconic NYC Anthora coffee cups, the Lokum is set off with a curl of lemon zest, but no straw. Even in fun, it turns out, there are a few matter-of-fact rules, which we'll leave you with in the guys' own words:

Dan: You can't drink coffee with a straw. Just like you can't drink a cappuccino in the afternoon, because it's a breakfast drink.
Ross: I don't like straws in general. If I had it my way, no drink would ever come with a straw.
Dan: Umbrellas, no straws.
Ross: Yeah, umbrellas in everything. Parasols, no straws. Honestly, I don't even like stirrers. Why do people need a stirrer?
Dan: So people can stir their drink, I guess.
Ross: I already stirred it. I assure you that drink is stirred properly.


V Street

124-126 South 19th Street, , PA 19103 (215) 278-7943 Visit Website

Vedge

1221 Locust Street, , PA 19107 (215) 320-7500 Visit Website
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