Phil Han of Kinjo
Now that summer's on the horizon, most venues are welcoming the long awaited change of seasons with a new cocktail menu. And while the best of cocktail lists always piques interest, what's a diner to do when eyeing it alongside a dinner menu? Pairing cocktails with food often yields obstacles like imbalanced flavors, cloying sweetness or uninvited inebriation. However, with every appointed mixologist, comes a host of cocktails that've never been imagined before, including alcoholic drinks that pair well with food.
"Cocktails these days are like cooking," said Phil Han, of Kinjo in Fort Greene, "at Employees Only they wear chef coats because they regard themselves as chefs of the imbibe world." Donning civilian ware with sleeves of tatts, Phil is no less of a chef than Jeffrey Moon, who works the kitchen at Kinjo.
"I collaborate with Chef a lot," he added. "I use his ingredients. My [Umami] martini has Shiro Dashi (with shaved dried bonito). When you put it in water, it becomes a soup base. That mixed with daikon pickle makes a cool dirty martini."
Ninniku Tonic & Lychee Grapefruit Sangria
"When you pair cocktails with food," he continued, "it's hard if they're too citrusy or sweet. Cocktails aren't a meal, per se, but in order to want to eat food [with them], you need a drying effect, a savory quality." And at Kinjo, we found just that. Opened just two months ago, at the corner of Greene and Fulton, Kinjo features a menu that's driven by Japanese fusion (but not by way of the 1990's fusion fad), a perfect marriage of the Old World and New, both on the plate and in the glass. "I get inspiration from all over," said Phil, "At Orient Express in the West Village, Sam, my manager, taught me the golden ratio [3:2:1]. If I stick with the ratio, I stay balanced."
After tending bar at Orient Express, Phil served as Bar Manager of the Pierre Loti wine bars, where he developed a style that he coined "approachable innovation". Using fresh ingredients to draw the guests in, he then fortified his cocktails with the liqueurs that he knew the drinks needed. "When I started using fresh ingredients, I started to see the potential for food pairings. I cook a lot at home and have cooked at a restaurant, so I know what ingredients go well together…[bartenders] use gastronomy now more than ever. We make juice bubbles out of calcium chloride and sodium alginate. We use foams and smoke and hot irons. Jamie Boudreau is a constant inspiration to me and I think he's more of a chef than a bartender."
A couple of weeks ago, we dropped by Kinjo for a Ninniku Tonic, which included Roundhouse Barrel Aged Gin, tonic, lemongrass, garlic and lime, a gift from the gods of savory cocktails. This week, we were the first to sample Phil's Lychee Grapefruit Sangria, which he launched this past weekend. Made with Pigoudet Rosé, Soho Lychee Liquor, Grapefruit Nigori Sake, Cognac and a fresh mint sprig, it's a lovely revision of Sangria, with subtle floral notes that compliment the Pigoudet. "I like your dry rosé," said Phil, "and thought it'd make a good base for a cocktail. Since it's pink, grapefruit was a natural addition. And then I added an Asian element," he added and chuckled, "lychee."
In speaking to the designs of his cocktails, Phil said, "There's always an aesthetic value. My dad taught me to eat with my eyes first." Trained as a French/Japanese chef, Phil's father worked at Maxim's de Paris, and it's from his father that Phil learned to taste. "It was flavor training," he said of growing up with his dad. "I'd sneak in [to the kitchen] and he'd stop [preparations] until I left the room. He was a jokester, but I saw him do some amazing things. He could taste something and make it. He'd make me taste things and see what I could pick up." As an homage to his father (pictured above) Phil has continued the craft. From studying design at Pratt, Phil has transitioned to a flavor-inspired career that was largely formed by his childhood.
When he first started seriously tasting sake, Phil said of his start, "I thought there was something wrong with my tastebuds. There were things I couldn't pick up. I quit smoking, whiskey and everything, but I realized that it wasn't the whiskey or cigarettes. It was that I didn't drink enough sake! It's the same thing with wine…Now, I can appreciate a great vermouth or gin, like your [Roundhouse] Barrel Aged Gin. And the [Roundhouse] Pumpkin Liquor is great," he added. "It's like a raw, fresh pumpkin. Everything else tastes cooked or canned."
Barrel-Aged Shochu White Negroni with Broiled Sea Bass
Aged for two months in the barrel, the Barrel-Aged Shochu White Negroni is made with Axta Vino Vermouth Blanco. "It's really complex," he said of the vermouth. "I normally don't like white vermouth, but I can substitute Lillet or Cochi Vermouth with it." We found that the cocktail's citrus/savory notes pair well with Chef's Skate with Yuzu Caper Brown Butter Sauce, as does the complexity gained with barrel-aging. It also worked really well with the Broiled Sea Bass with Miso Glaze, the citrus being a nice compliment to the tender white flesh of the fish and to the umami notes of the miso.
A couple of generations in the making, Phil's palate has lent itself to some pretty fresh pairings. We love the plates from Chef's kitchen, and the many ways that Phil's creations prep our appetites for the sips and bites that keep on giving. Cheers!