Craft cocktails…in Federal Hill. It’s happening. Bookmakers comin’.
Federal Hill is about to get a serious biz option for cocktails and food in the soon-to-be-open Bookmakers Cocktail Club. Bookmaker’s is co-owned by Ryan Perlberg of Rye and Chris Janian and they say they are excited about crossing the harbor into a new ‘hood. To many, Federal Hill is a neighborhood filled with bars and youngsters, to others, it’s where they live or work. To Perlberg, it’s a great opportunity to introduce something. Janian said, “We love the Federal Hill neighborhood and are excited to be a part of it. We’re both Baltimore natives, love our city and see significant opportunity in many neighborhoods; Federal Hill in particular.”
The interior of the old Nevins’ (did you sing Sister Christian there?) has been completely redone. It’s rich and dark with accents of white and silver. A long bar runs the entire right side of the restaurant, so getting a seat at the bar seems like it won’t be a huge hassle. I’m big on eating dinner at the bar (you tend to get the best service and it’s less formal), so I’m glad to see plenty of seats there – and comfortable bar stools, key. As you enter the place, there is a staircase that leads upstairs to private event space with another bar. The brand new kitchen is upstairs, too.
Heading up the bar is Ryan Sparks, formerly of Jack’s Bistro, Of Love & Regret and Brewer’s Art. He’s known around town as an incredibly talented technician. He is also creative, thinks outside the box and just wants to pour a delicious drink that customers will enjoy. Some of the cocktails on the Bookmakers opening menu that are calling my name? Blood & Sand, Pimm’s Cup and the Last Word made with Barr Hill raw honey gin. Yum.
Last fall, Sparks had one of my favorite cocktails at Rye’s Up for Cystic Fibrosis, an annual fundraiser held at B&O American Brasserie. He’s also involved with Baltimore Bartenders Guild, a group of local bar professionals working to bring a new level of classic and contemporary cocktails to the city of Baltimore. (Now, that’s one reason #ilovethiscity.) They go on field trips to breweries, wineries and distilleries, attend tastings, share ideas and opportunities with one another, and more. Raising the cocktail game in Baltimore – that is their mission. On a recent sneak peek, Sparks made me a perfect old fashioned. I mean perfect.
Here’s a little bit from Ryan about the new place:
What’s your approach to your work? What do you want your guests to get out of the experience of having you make them a drink?
RS: I try to achieve balance over anything. I try to combine flavors people aren’t used to having together and I really enjoy making cocktails with spirits people are generally put off by.
You’re involved with the Baltimore Bartenders Guild. How does that group work?
RS: The guild is a group of like-minded professionals with the goal of raising the way people view beverage in Baltimore. We meet once a month and do many events throughout the year.
What are some of your favorite bars in Baltimore?
RS: Rye, WC Harlan, Max’s on Broadway
You created some amazing cocktails (and quite a following) at Jack’s. How did you and Chef Amendola collaborate on the cocktail menu at Bookmakers?
RS: We really want to bridge the gap with food and beverage. There are a lot of great cocktails and dishes in the city, but no one is doing a direct correlation. Chef is using spirits and my house made ingredients in his dishes, and I’m using the same approach he uses to create drinks. The menu will be local seasonal house made ingredients.
You recently became a dad. How did that change your work life? How do you find balance?
RS: It definitely has a huge impact – first, I have to be up earlier every day. I also now have to be more of a provider, so it makes me take my job that much more seriously. It has also taught me a lot about patience.
Bookmakers’ executive chef is Chris Amendola, most recently with Fleet Street Kitchen. An avid forager, Amendola plans to bring locally foraged ingredients into the mix. I recently had the chance to go into the woods (I will not tell you where…) with Chef Amendola and his sous chef Brian Cieslak and we found a huge patch of amazing chanterelles and tons of berries along the way. It helps to forage with someone who knows what he’s doing – he’s done it hundreds of times and carries along a great reference book to be sure you aren’t going to get horribly sick from eating something you should never have picked in the first place. Hiking through the trails with two enthusiastic chefs was so much fun and to come home and prepare the mushrooms we’d found, amazing. I am a nerd.
I also interviewed Amendola. Here’s a part of our conversation:
You’re 29 – that’s pretty young. But you’ve worked in some impressive kitchens, like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Hudson Valley, NY for example. What was it like, working for Chef Dan Barber? Sustainability is certainly forefront, right? What did you get out of that experience? You must have learned a ton.
CA: Working for Dan Barber was a great experience, very demanding day-to-day but worth it at the end. I definitely learned some great techniques and different views on cooking from Chef Barber. One of the things I enjoyed most about Blue Hill was that the restaurant was located on its own farm. I really liked how the farm and restaurant worked together as a whole. I’d love to one day own my own farm with a small restaurant on the property and Blue Hill was just that, but on a larger scale. I think I would have to credit Sean Brock of McCrady’s in Charleston for really changing my view on cooking in general, especially for vegetables and meat. I learned so much from Sean about farming and cooking. Working for him was really an eye-opening experience.
At Fleet Street Kitchen, you offered a pig’s face tasting menu at the bar. Do you see anything like that happening at Bookmakers? Maybe just a few offal choices?
CA: I love cooking all offal, especially pig’s face, so it will definitely be something that will be on the menu. For our opening menu, we might have a couple offal offerings but it’s going to be something that we will work more toward down the line.
You’re a big forager. What do you think you’ll bring to your menu from foraging trips?
CA: Yes, I love foraging. It’s something that really inspires me. There will definitely be foraged things on the menu from time to time when I get a chance to go into the woods. I’m hoping to find some good wild mushrooms as well as plants – we’ll have to see what this season brings us.
Thanks for the preview of the menu! I see some things I’m definitely going to try — fried chicken, spinach and ricotta ravioli, prawns and pork belly — how did you approach creating a menu at a brand new bar and restaurant? Was the freedom scary or daunting at all?
CA: I don’t think the freedom was the daunting part. Fleet gave me a lot of freedom in writing menus, so that kind of warmed me up for this. I think the more daunting (as well as super exciting) part was creating a menu for a new concept in a different part of Baltimore. I’ve come to learn that each neighborhood in Baltimore is very different from the next. Plus there are a lot of things that you have to consider when writing a menu for a new restaurant. Is it approachable enough? Is it too progressive? Is it confusing? I really want to gain the trust of our guests before putting anything too crazy on the menu, i.e., pigs face, blood sausage, whipped pork liver.
What about Baltimore appeals to you?
CA: Everything! I really do love Baltimore. The food scene is up-and-coming, the farms are amazing, the people I have met are awesome, the list could go on. There are lots of exciting things going on here and Baltimore seems to have adopted me as one of its own.
I also asked Chris Janian: Obviously you guys are involved with Rye, a place with a great following. How will Bookmakers differ from Rye?
CJ: Bookmakers is an extension and expansion of the cocktail program at Rye but with more of a focused food program. We wanted to make sure that both our food and beverage program were of the highest quality. Doug Atwell of Rye is our corporate Beverage Director but Ryan Sparks has made this concept and menu his own. We asked both Sparks and Amendola to be creative and to have fun. They’ve spent an enormous amount of time creating and tweaking their respective menus and cannot wait to share them with the neighborhood and city as a whole.
Many see the location as both an opportunity and a challenge. Attracting a slightly older crowd to Federal Hill for one. And, parking can be tough, but there is a garage right behind the bar on West Street – and an even better option is using a car service like Uber. It’s affordable, reliable (ugh, taxis in Baltimore…) and safe, especially after a few cocktails by Sparks.
Bookmakers Cocktail Club is slated to open within the month. Follow them on Instagram to stay in the loop.