Bartender Chat: Gratifi Gets a Restaurant Impossible Makover

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Craig Mickle pours a drink in the new and improved Gratifi.
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but now we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

This time last year, Gratifi Kitchen + Bar wasn't doing too well, and owner Kevin Strickland will be the first to tell you.

"A year ago, I changed the name," Strickland explains. "I was done with Ziggy's Healthy Grill. We changed the name and the menu, and it just wasn't happening. Making change here was so difficult."

Trying to keep the flailing restaurant running put Strickland in debt -- majorly, as he admits on the latest episode of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible, which aired this past Wednesday. If you missed it, it's airing again Monday at 1 p.m. and the following Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Sad, tired and frustrated, Strickland applied to be on the restaurant makeover show, which ended up coming to Houston to give Gratifi a hand back in January.

"It was more than I expected," Strickland admits. "I expected it to be intense, and it was more so. The part I didn't take into account was that they literally threw me out. I couldn't come into the restaurant. It was very disorienting. So I hovered."

Strickland says even his hovering was an issue, as he was constantly being yelled at by producers for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He expected the show's zero-tolerance host, Robert Irvine, to be difficult, but he hadn't anticipated so much yelling from the producers.

"You do feel exploited," Strickland says. "Here's the kicker, though: When you watch TV shows like the Real Housewives, you always think, why do those people do it? Why would you always want to be caught saying such stupid things? And now I understand it. You get used to the attention. For three days, I was the center of the universe. After they left, I was like, what about me? Now I understand. You get sucked into that."

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Bartender Chat: Alex Gilbert of Grand Prize and The Honeymoon (Coming Soon)

Categories: Bartender Chat

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Don't ask him to mix up something crazy and creative. He's all about the classics.
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

Alex Gilbert is really excited about his new job. Later this spring, he'll be moving from his post as a bartender at Grand Prize to a new cafe/bar called The Honeymoon, located on the rapidly evolving block of 300 Main downtown.

It's a partnership between Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse (of Bad News Bar, Grand Prize and Goro & Gun) and the folks behind Boomtown Coffee, Matt Toomey and Charlotte Mitchell. The idea is to create a New Orleans vibe by combining a coffee shop with a bistro/cafe and a bar. The space will be NOLA-inspired, and judging by the awesome look of Goro & Gun and Bad News Bar (you're okay, too, Grand Prize), it should be a pretty cool space in which to eat and drink the day away.

Gilbert has been brushing up on his classic New Orleans cocktails in preparation for the move. He's been working on perfecting his Sazerac, often thought of as the oldest cocktail in America. As of 2008, it's also the official cocktail of Louisiana.

In case you're wondering, Texas doesn't have an official cocktail. We don't even have an official beverage. But that's neither here nor there.

Part-time musician Gilbert is looking forward to the move downtown and the opportunity to flex his classic cocktail skills. Though if you ask him what he wants to drink, he'll probably just order a beer.

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Bartender Chat: Christa "Monster" Havican of Boheme

Categories: Bartender Chat

Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Christa Monster mixes drinks for a living, but she also paints and bakes a mean pie.
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

Boheme is gearing up for a Chinese Lantern Festival, traditionally the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations. The official end of the Lunar New Year fell on February 15, but Boheme is drawing the party out just a little longer with the Lantern Festival, which will take place on February 21, beginning at 4 p.m.

For the celebration, bartender Christa Havican has invented two cocktails that use baijiu, a Chinese spirit imported and marketed by a Houston company under the name Byejoe. The spirit, made from red sorghum, is the most widely consumed liquor in the world, and Byejoe was the first company to bring it to the United States. So it's pretty special.

During the Chinese Lantern Festival at Boheme, there will be entertainment, food and two special cocktails featuring Byejoe Red, an 80-proof highly refined baijiu, and Byejoe Dragonfire, which features lychee and chile flavors.

Check out our interview with Havican, as well as her recipe for a Lucky Little Star cocktail featuring Byejoe Red.

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Bartender Chat: Tommy Samson of Lowbrow

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Tommy Samson loves you that much.
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

When Lowbrow opened in October, people touted it as a new Montrose neighborhood bar, and that's essentially what it is, though I've heard the intent was to create more of an eatery than a drinkery. The food is quite wonderful, but the ample porch and great cocktail menu has led most to consider it a bar first and a restaurant second.

Adding to the bar reputation are the creative and chill bartenders who hold down the fort every evening, mixing drinks and cracking open many a Lone Star for the hipster clientele. Tommy Samson ("Samson like you like to keep your swimming pool...no P in there.") is one of those relaxed guys behind the bar who's just as comfortable making unique cocktails as he is serving up a shot and a beer.

Here, Samson makes us an Unusual Mule cocktail and chats with us about art, classic cocktails and falling in love with Houston.

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Bartender Chat: Dale Ellington of Kata Robata

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
"Can I look into the light thoughtfully?" "Sure, Dale."
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

Kata Robata does so much more than sushi. The ramen is some of the best in a town still searching for ideal ramen. The lobster mac and cheese makes any other mac and cheese seem subpar. And the beverage program includes sake cocktails that will knock your socks off.

Steven Salazar is the beverage director for Kata Robata, and he's turned the bar into a well-oiled machine that pumps out delightfully unique cocktails to pair with the restaurant's alternately traditional and cutting-edge Japanese food. Dale Ellington is his protégé and partner in crime, and together the two are mixing up playful and innovative drinks, sure to keep people who think they know Kata Robata guessing.

Here, Dale talks to us about his role at Kata Robata, wine versus sake and why he hates White Russians.

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Bartender Chat: Eileen Aguirre of Goro & Gun

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Photo courtesy Goro & Gun
The bar at Goro & Gun is always well stocked.
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.

"Oh my God, no!"

I'd just sat down at the dark wooden bar at Goro & Gun and explained to the bartender, Eileen Aguirre, that I was going to take a video for the Houston Press.

"I thought it was just going to be a photo! Oh my God. OK. Hang on, I'm nervous."

It's funny how cool and collected bartenders are when talking to customers about their loves over a shot of tequila, but ask a bartender to tell you about herself, and she's suddenly shy.

"Let's just talk first," I said, as if easing into a weird first date.

Aguirre fussed with her bangs and giggled uncomfortably. Then she took a deep breath.

"OK," she said. "I'm ready."

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Cheers! Camerata at Paulie's Is Named One of the Hottest Wine Bars in the Country

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Photo by Camerata at Paulie's
With an ever-changing wine list, Camerata keeps customers coming back for more.
It's only been open since July of this year, but already Camerata is on the map.

Eater National's map, that is.

It's already received a glowing review from our wine writer, Jeremy Parzen, who also put it on his list of the best destinations for wine in Houston. Prior to that, we named it our favorite wine bar in Houston in a separate list of the best wine bars (not to be confused with restaurants that happen to have great wine lists).

And now, Eater is recognizing Camerata's greatness as well. On Thursday, Eater editor Paula Forbes put it on her list of "The 19 Hottest Wine Bars Across the Country Right Now," along with a number of fine, new-ish wine bars from New York, Chicago, L.A. and other locales that have been getting a lot of press.


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Houston Bartenders Have Some Great Drinks Lined Up for Your Fall and Winter...Cheers!

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Photo by ErgsArt
Screw pumpkin spice lattes. Bring us the booze!
For much of the country, fall begins with the first cold front of the season, usually in September. There's a chill in the air, the leaves begin to change color and everyone starts looking forward to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In Houston, we know it's fall when Starbucks rolls out the pumpkin spice lattes. Well into October (and, this year, November) it's still hot and sticky outside, and the live oak leaves stay as green as ever, so we have to rely on other means to denote the changing season. But who wants a hot pumpkin drink when it's 85 degrees outside? Not me.

I want a cool, refreshing cocktail. But, you know, maybe with some pumpkin in it.

I asked bartenders around town to suggest their favorite fall cocktails so we no longer have to be stuck in this PSL/caramel apple cider cycle, and they came up with some great ones. Henceforth, you shall know it's fall when the Screamin' Banshees or the Junmai Cobblers return to menus.

You heard it here first.

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Bartender Robby Cook of J. Black's Prepares to Compete in National Bombay Sapphire Event

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Robby Cook will tell you he is first and foremost a musician. He just bartends to pay the bills.

It would seem Cook, a bartender at J. Black's Feel Good Kitchen and Louge, is pretty darn good at his hobby though. He was recently named the regional winner in the United States Bartenders' Guild's "Most Imaginative Bartender" competition, sponsored by Bombay Sapphire Gin. Cook and his winning cocktail, which he calls the Liguria Lemon Sour, will be traveling to Las Vegas this weekend to compete for the national title on September 8. The winner will be featured on the cover of GQ magazine's "Men of the Year" issue and will go on to compete in the global finals in Paris.

Cook isn't yet thinking that far ahead though. For now, he's just happy to show off his drink and talk about finding a happy medium between craft cocktails and shots.

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Nas Mirizadeh of Triniti on Growing Up in Azerbaijan and the Interesting People You Meet Student Teaching

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Quite often for this column, I will wander into a bar and simply strike up a conversation with a bartender -- a process which has led to some great stories. But every now and then, it's all laid out for me and I have a bartender suggested by a reader or someone in the industry. This week's bartender was recommended not by one but by two separate sources within days of each other, so I knew I had to make time to sit down and talk with Nas Mirizadeh at Triniti.

Good thing, too, because Triniti always seemed a little out of my wheelhouse. Beautiful places with tasting menus aren't typically where I go to hang out at the bar. But Nas and the awesome bar menu at Triniti have since shown me the error of my ways.

I sat down and ordered the classic Martinez, which Nas was quick to inform me may have very well been the precursor to the Martini.

Where did you get your start?

I was a bar back at Yelapa. I had done other things in the restaurant industry and I was pretty tired of it. Just kind of, you know...I don't want to be in the food industry anymore. But they needed a bar back and I thought, well that sounds cool. I remember my first day -- we were cutting limes, and I didn't know how to cut limes. I cut my finger open. It was the first day of soft opening and I had my finger bleeding everywhere and I'm running around. Once I got through that day, I knew I was gonna be okay. Bartenders started leaving and I said, "I know how to do that!" The other bartenders and the chefs there were good and I learned a lot.


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