One of our most favorite cocktailiers in Dallas can be found behind the stick at Central 214 in the Palomar Hotel. Amber West draws much of her inspiration from what is growing around her. Be it in a few solitary pots she has hidden across the hotel campus, or those found in her secret garden at home. What is fresh, what is now, is what the young bartender finds most exciting.
After reading Andrew Chalk’s write up on a recent dinner he experienced at the hotel restaurant, we set out to have a taste of our own. Graham Dodds is up to his usual shenanigans in the kitchen, and we have even more to report about his new menu, but we also had a chance to usher Ms. West away from her confines to the Palomar patio for a brief visit.
We discussed her new cocktail menu, shrubs and that secret garden of hers. Shrubs are not new to the cocktail scene, but they have been exciting bartenders as of late who are looking for new vehicles to show off fresh flavors. Consider these drinking vinegars concocted and originally popular in America during colonial times. These vinegars would be infused with fresh fruits or herbs and combined with spirits and water. The health benefits are obvious, and the flavors are unmatchable as they make for a better-rounded cocktail for those who shy away from cloyingly sweet drinks.
Here is a bit of our conversation which reminded me of a certain shrubber:
You are playing with shrubs. Tell us all about the shrub.
I am playing with shrubs. These are kind of like shrubs on steroids because it is minus some of the sugar. I am playing with drinking vinegars, but I like to call them sipping vinegars because I like to be a little different. But for me when I make a shrub I use an acid and a sweet for balance. I have this amazing lavender honey that you need to try.
What are some of the shrubs you have been working on?
One of the favorites we have been working on is made from cinnamon, figs, cloves, honey with a little turbinado, and that is rested in unrefined red wine vinegar. Another is made from Texas balsamic with pecans. We haven’t even dipped into that one because it needs to rest a little bit longer. And we have this Texas blackberry vinegar with Texas blackberries rested in that.
I also have this random stuff where I just toss things into mason jars to see what I can come up with. We’ll see how they turn out.
How do the guests respond to these vinegars?
Well, you have to read the guest. If they are not willing to taste Fernet, if they are not liking things bitter, they may not take to something as tart as vinegar. A lot of people do like the sweet drinks. But I have to tell you, being able to show people that balance between flavors in cocktails and in foods is a really big deal. But it’s fun. Most people coming in here are ready for that.
You want to find that beautiful umami in everything that you do. In life, in cocktails, in food. It’s about that balance.
What are you making for us in the way of summer cocktails?
I think my favorite is the Fig and Fennel Fiasco. It was actually originally named the Fig and Fennel Flower Fiasco, but Graham said it was too much. But we get these amazing figs in here, and this beautiful fennel. When you taste these fennel flowers and the flavorful anise attributes they give; it is just so powerful. Super cool. What a cool plant.
We are bringing in these super fresh Crenshaw melons every day. It’s one reason I like working days. I can make sure everything coming in is fresh.
That’s right, you are leaving the bar around 5 each day. How can our readers see you unless they have a three martini lunch?
Just give them my email and we will make it work. But the guys working the bar are making it happen each night.
So I am looking around for your handiwork outside and I can only find a few pots.
Just a couple here now, but I have madness at my house. My first watermelon is growing, every pepper you can think of. I finally put all the stuff I had in pots here and planted them at home. I am seeing flowers if things that I didn’t even know flowered. The roots are just spreading their wings. But I am looking at taking that wall by the TV in the bar and making it an herb wall. I have seen some really cool things on Pinterest that go on a wall. I will be able to take some rosemary and just clip it when I need it. That will be the next thing.
You won a cocktail contest recently, didn’t you?
Yes! I won this contest with Bols Genever and they are sending me to Amsterdam. They told me to get my passport ready, but I still can’t believe it. You can find that award winning cocktail on our menu.
One last question before you go back to work, where is your brother these days?
My brother, Adam West, is the executive chef at the Porch on Henderson now. So go by and say hello.